Tag Archives: Tibetan Buddhism

March 25, 2015

I’m writing this blog from a hospital bed. I had another scary episode this morning, so am now spending a day or so in hospital being looked after, observed and treated for my maddening, exhausting and often frightening cough. Although I hate being away from home and family tonight, I am pleased that my doctor is taking my condition (“hyper-reactive airways’) seriously and is committed to making me feel better by tomorrow. Maybe I’ll even get a good night’s sleep.

This morning, after I dropped Theo off at school, I stopped to have a coffee with friends, including Jane (who had looked after me yesterday morning) and her husband Max, who like Jane is an animator and one of the gentlest men I know. Originally from Austria, Max met Jane in England, and the two of them moved out to Los Angeles to work as animators together some 20 years ago. I spend more time chatting with Jane (see March 13), but I also enjoy conversations with Max, who is one of those people who will often sit back and let others speak in a larger group, but when he talks, it’s clear that he’s one of the most interesting and entertaining people in the room. A few months back, I noticed a beautiful strong of Buddhist prayer beads around his left wrist and asked him about it. Rather shyly at first, he explained that he had become interested in Buddhism as a young man and was now practicing with a Tibetan Buddhist group based in Santa Monica. As an Asian art historian, I am very interested in Buddhism and its related arts, so I was keen to hear his story. This morning I was lucky enough to learn some more about it. This week, the leader of his particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism was in Southern California, and he had not only gone to hear him lecture this week but had had a private audience with him and took Jane and their two kids along. Though I was fuzzy headed and anxious this morning, I savored our conversation about the various lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, the global roles of Tibet’s different main spiritual and political leaders and issues of language in learning Buddhism from Tibetan teachers in the US.

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Moments after we got up to leave the coffee shop, one of my scary coughs started up. Jane and Max were close by and as soon as they realized I was in trouble they came over to make sure I was getting air. Both of them very calmly encouraged me to find my breath, without revealing any of the panic they were actually feeling. One I was stable again, they walked me home and we decided quickly that I should go back to the ER. Jane kindly offered to drive me there and Max reassured me in his soft, caring German voice that I was going to be ok. We stopped at my house and I packed a bag, but before leaving I decided I wanted my blog to be for him today to commemorate the lovely conversation before the cough. I gave him my copy of Richard Bernstein’s The Ultimate Journey, the story of the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who traveled across Asia to study and then spread the teachings of the Buddha in his home country. Like Xuanzang, Max has also crossed half of the world on his professional, personal and spiritual journey, spreading his gentleness, creativity, wisdom and compassion among those he meets. Today I was grateful to be a recipient, particularly because it has allowed me some moments reflecting upon more than just my physical self.

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January 18, 2015

The prayer wheel is used by Buddhists in the Himalayan region, where it provides a simple way for devotees to symbolically recite sacred texts, or sutras, or call upon certain deities without actually reading the texts. Inside the cylinder of the wheel is a sacred text or secret formula, or mantra, written or printed on paper or animal skin. The most common mantra is “Om mani padme hum”, or “Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus” addressed to Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva, or compassionate being who has vowed to postpone his own enlightenment or nirvana in order to save others first. Suspended from the cylinder is a chain with a weight on its end, which helps the wheel to turn as the user rotates his or her wrist. I have had two prayer wheels for many years, neither of which is particularly valuable, but to me they are fascinating objects, ingenious in design and beautiful in the hope they offer to the illiterate who cannot read the prayers themselves, but can spin them instead.

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Today, I gave one of them to a friend who I rarely see but whom I associate closely with some of the most meaningful moments I had working as a curator at Pacific Asia Museum. Veronica is a Japanese print dealer with a remarkable knowledge of her material. On several occasions she has patiently explained to me certain artists’ techniques and how to tell the age of a print, and she shared her knowledge of Japanese prints with others at a few programs I organized at the museum. But although we met through Japanese art, it was through her Tibetan Buddhist practice that we really became friends. She has long been passionately active in a local Buddhist community, or sangha, that was once led by Lama Chodak Gyatso, a dynamic and warm teacher in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. An inspiration to many Buddhist followers, Lama Gyatso launched a project to build a large, three-dimensional mandala for peace. Veronica approached me about displaying the mandala at the museum, and despite some difficulties with scheduling and a particularly fierce political battle in which I was embroiled at the museum, Veronica was a strong and supportive ally, and ultimately we were able to include it at the center of an exhibition and share it with thousands of people. The effect the mandala had on a wide range of museum visitors was wonderful to witness, and it ushered in a more peaceful phase at the museum. It has been nearly 14 years since we worked together on the mandala project and since then, our lives have only intersected occasionally, like today at the LA Art Show, but we still have a bond of mutual respect and affection. I felt it again today. Before I had a chance to give her the prayer wheel, she handed me a beautiful book on Japanese prints – a gift to me. To me, Veronica, with her deep knowledge and her kind, generous nature, embodies the Buddhist principles of wisdom and compassion, the qualities necessary to attain the spiritual enlightenment that so many Buddhists pray for using prayer wheels.