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Bliss, Space and Kujo, the Flying Black Lord of Death

September 19, 2010

I treated patients in Dolpo for a total of three weeks.  The end of three weeks marked the moment that I finished all the needles I had brought with me as well as the start of yarsa gumbu (tib) cordyceps (lat) picking season.

The Dho-Tarap Valley went from the hustle and bustle of plowing, planting and repairing houses and rock walls from the winter, to that of a ghost town in a matter of a few hours.

The Dolpopas, in addition to subsistence farming and pastoralism, make money collecting yarsa gumbu, an important medicinal in Tibetan and Chinese medicine.

Yaks were loaded to maximum carrying weight with tents and supplies to last a month as the locals headed higher up into the mountains to look for the medicinal on the steep slopes.

This was my opportunity to do an extended retreat, something I’d never in my life had the opportunity to do.  I made my way to the next village over to the satellite telephone to call my mom and a close friend back in Kathmandu to let them know what I was doing and to see how they were.

I hadn’t an idea of how this would work out as far as how open or closed I would keep the retreat, how long I would stay in, or how much practice I would do per day.  I figured it best to enter with a relaxed approach and pace and see what level was comfortable as I wasn’t trying to run a sprint, but a marathon.

Along with me during my retreat was Lhakpa’s brother, Lama Urgyen Rinpoche, a retreat master, Lama Ngawang and Lama Karma.

The four of us would be together for what would be the following 16 days.

Jampa Gonpa

Lhakpa had spoken to his brother beforehand and he agreed to oversee my retreat and look after me.

None of the three spoke English and my Tibetan only goes so far, but we were able to communicate and joke with each other in the evenings or at meal times just fine.  In the evenings we shared warm chang with sugar, something the three of them seemed to look forward to very much.  A glass or two helped to fall asleep at night when it was cold outside.

The three lamas were attending to the construction of 8 Sangye Menla (Medicine Buddha) chortens outside Jampa Gonpa.  Some days they would be making preparations for the stupas such as rolling mantra rolls and other days would be filled with pujas (ceremonies and meditations) to prepare the chortens.

Lama Urgyen Rinpoche and Lama Karma prepare mantra scrolls for 8 Sangye Menla, Medicine Buddha chortens

The four of us all slept in the Gonpa in the evenings.  The two monks, Lama Urgyen Rinpoche and Lama Ngawang slept in the front of the temple and Lama Karma, a yogi Nakpa lama, and I took to the back of the temple.

In the mornings we would wake at 5:30, sit straight up, still on our sleeping mats and begin our personal practices.  I admired them for being able to do this every day.  It was like brushing their teeth every morning.  Meditation always came first before any other activity of the day.

At first I started with 1 hour sessions, 4 per day which gradually increased in length throughout the retreat as I got more used to sitting for longer amounts of time and eventually increased the number of sessions to 6 per day.  My place in the gonpa was seated below a wall painting of a male and female Buddha sitting in union.  Over my left shoulder was a painting of Karmapa.  In front of me was the 1-story statue of Maitreya Buddha and Guru Rinpoche.

I felt very fortunate to have a window of time between projects where everything happened to line up just right so that I was able to really dig in.  No patients to treat – everyone had left, no traffic – in fact no motorable roads for six days walk, no deadlines, no drama.. nothing but my mind, a few key friends and my text.

It is said that whatever happens in the confines of a retreat is good.  The things that we consider to be good, like pleasant or auspicious dreams are a good sign and to be appreciated but not held onto.  Conversely, things we generally consider to be ‘bad’ are to be seen with the same non-discerning eye.  Anything unpleasant or painful that is happening, inner or outer, mental or physical, can be seen as a purification of one’s subconscious.  Going deep has the tendancy to knock the rust off a few parts, which isn’t always comfortable.

On the third day I had finished three sessions of my practice just after lunch time.  Feeling pretty good, I decided to take a walk from the temple to stretch my legs a bit and to enjoy the fleeting warmth and sun that was showing itself that day.

I began walking north, rounded the chorten between Jampa Gonpa and the next cluster of houses and remembered thinking to myself that there couldn’t be anything better than this.  Some meditation under my belt, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, I was surrounded by snow mountains… who could ask for more?

Following the path in front of me I approached a rock wall on my left hand side.  With these good feelings in my mind, about a quarter-mile from the temple, I managed to see out of the corner of my left eye, a large, black object coming over the rock wall.  I quickly found myself on the ground with a Tibetan mastiff attempting to make short work of me.  The only thing I really remember was being upright and then horizontal and on the ground experiencing the pain that comes with a large canine trying to tear the meat off your bones.

There was no fear, only the half thought of understanding that I was in big trouble and that there was no one around to stop him and that I needed to protect my face and neck and stand up to face him.

In the amount of time it took me to do that, he made quite the impression on my left leg and low back.  As I stood up I turned towards him and yelled something of my own that was some kind of guttural animal scream into his face.  Apparently that’s what you should do to a pissed off mastiff as he then took off, leaving me alone with my wounds.  I don’t know what saved me from him trying to take it all the way, really, as he weighed more than I and came at me from the start with a vengeance to cause harm and not just to scare me away.


One week later

Tibetan mastiffs are not kept at high altitudes as lapdogs.  They are brought up into the mountain passes and pastures to protect the sheep and young yaks from predators such as snow leopards and wolves.  This is their main role in Dolpo.  They are not designed to have fear or to back down from anything, so that he did that, makes me wonder.

I believe that I had some extra protection that day from the Dharma protectors.  I wondered why he didn’t finish the job he started as he clearly had the advantage of size and sharp teeth and assured attention to take out a skinny white kid without a weapon.

I dragged myself back to the gonpa and the lamas cleaned my wounds.  I was worried I’d have to be helicoptered out as infection was very likely.  They looked very concerned and were saying mantras around me.  Eventually they laid me down outside the temple on a mat to lay in the sun and calm down.

There I attempted to make sense of the event.

In Buddhism, the individual is ultimately responsible for whatever happens to him.  The impressions we put into our mind, we someday get out in the form of events, feelings or thoughts.  Ultimately, we are driving the car.  If we put good impressions into our minds, we steer ourselves in a positive direction.  If we do, think or say negative things, we steer the car in a different direction.  Karma is translated as ‘action’ or ‘cause and effect’ and essentially describes this process.  Of course, the impressions in our subconscious are essentially a mixed bag, sometimes we experience good things, sometimes not.  The point is, it doesn’t matter at all because we never know what the next impression that comes up might be.  One moment I was enjoying the sunshine and the mountains, the next I’m on the ground writhing in pain.

The second thing I thought about was impermanence.  How analogous was this situation to the human condition?  We all know we’re going to die someday.. we think its somewhere far off in the future, but maybe not.  It will happen to everyone at some point, maybe expectedly, maybe unexpectedly, but the important thing to remember is that this is why we shouldn’t waste our lives, because we never know when that last moment will be.  We could be enjoying the sunshine, blue sky and mountains, unaware that our next breath will welcome Kujo, the flying black lord of death.

Finally, I remember laying face-up on the mat, staring up at the same sun and the same blue sky I was enjoying moments before while walking and I asked myself, “Ok, what has changed?”  Yes it’s true that some things changed.. what was once inside my body was laying outside my body, I couldn’t walk and perhaps some other things, but the sky and the sun were still there.  I understood this as, no matter what is happening in the outer world, Mind itself remains, open and clear like space, shining in all directions, indestructible and untainted by conditioned events and transient situations such as what happened earlier in the day.

I spent the rest of the afternoon lying there (didn’t have much choice) and when the lamas went into the gonpa for their evening pujas, I got myself back to my spot where I resumed my practice for the evening.

Needless to say, the rest of the time spent in retreat, I had no desire, nor the ability, to leave my seat in the gonpa.  I took it that I really needed to get some work done and the mastiff just helped to nail me to my seat in the back of the temple for the remaining 13 days.





4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nicole permalink
    September 19, 2010 2:05 pm

    I love retreat stories, and this one’s a doozy! I do hope that you’re okay and that you’ve survived this with all internal organs, as well as legs, back, intact (and no sepsis!). You’ll have quite some scars to show to the grandchildren!

    • September 19, 2010 2:09 pm

      Haha, yes, I’m ok now.. a few hundred dollars to fix it all when I got back to KTM and the States. Still some pain and nerve damage on the leg, but yes, some interesting scars for the grandkiddos.

  2. Dee Hawa permalink
    September 20, 2010 7:54 am

    I love retreat stories too! interesting how
    the mastiff backed off.. you must have made
    yourself very scary!
    Hope your healing well now!
    The photos are lovly as usual…

  3. Rakesh Khanna permalink
    June 24, 2011 12:25 pm


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