You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,
But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.
And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?
In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.
Verily all things move within your being in constant half embrace, the desire and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.
These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.
And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.
And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.
~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet~
after the lobster release in Maine, it was as if my heart had exploded open and all the unbound particles of my being were dancing off somewhere without me. i suspected that i might tango with them again when i returned back to Pema Ösel the following weekend for the Modern Day Bodhisattva Seminar.
on the very same day, Dan was to attend the 40th birthday party of his cousin in a place sort-of-not-so-far-away from Pema Ösel, so he generously offered to drive me to my dance with destiny. Dan was working on Friday so we left very late, thinking it was better to make some of the travel right away and conquer the rest in the morning. we found an amazing little Vermont cottage on Airbnb to stay in along the way, which was basically a tiny house.
before embarking on this great adventure, i was obsessing over my own plans to build tiny. i was staying with my parents and searching for a way to create a sustainable life doing the things i love. for various reasons, this could not happen in its entirety if i stayed where i was. writing and making art are activities that require a certain kind of space. for the well-being of both myself and my parents, that meant finding a better solution.
approximately four or five years ago, i was at my parents’ during Thanksgiving. we were on the back porch and it was an unseasonably warm autumn day. since childhood, i had a recurring dream that involved building a tree house in the backyard and living in it. around this Thanksgiving, the dream returned. however this time, i visualized a log cabin in my mind’s eye. i decided to go out on a limb and share this dream with my father.
i had just begun my confession when my Uncle Butch chimed in about legality, zoning permits, and a generally impractical slant to my vision. so i dropped the subject. but before my dad went inside, he said, “Let me know if you are really serious about this and we can talk about it.”
i said, “Oh, I’m serious about this.” then i dropped it for another few years.
when i completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage (四国巡礼, shikokujunrei) in June 2014, i spent a few glorious days on Naoshima (直島), Teshima (豊島), and Inujima (犬島). these islands have gained popularity in recent years for being transformed into “art islands.” the history behind these islands is fascinating and moving, as they were primarily sites for industry (of particular note, stone quarries and metal refineries). over the years, the industrial landscape changed dramatically, and Japan failed to compete with other world powers. the decline of these industries left behind human devastation—depopulation as well as an aging population—as well as architectural and environmental ruins. in the late 1980s, the Benesse Corporation began to develop these islands, to nurture them with art, architecture, education, and environmental awareness. now they are thriving due to the magic and power of these elements.
the most powerful exhibit i experienced was Inujima Seirensho Art Museum (犬島精錬所美術館), in which artist Yukinori Yanagi preserves and reuses a copper refinery to reveal a political and breathtaking view of the effects of Japan’s drive for modernization. he uses the writings of Yukio Mishima as a motif to drive the political commentary. the visual elements are something that can only be experienced; words would not do them justice. much like a James Turrell exhibit, it is a visceral experience rather that a static work of art. architect Hiroshi Sambuichi has also employed various natural energies such as solar, geothermal, and more, as well as a water purification system that uses the power of plants. this exhibit is not only a poignant reflection on the human drive for power, but also a model for ways we can collaborate with nature, its cycles, and the environment that supports us.
while i explored the islands, i stayed in the Mongolian Yurts on 直島. i woke up in the morning to gentle breezes from the Seto Inland Sea, rode my rental bike to various art exhibits and museums, and expressed gratitude and appreciation for life, art, and yurts. the call to live simply resounded throughout my soul and the yurt became a symbol of possibility. my sister, Alicia, is always my biggest champion and my oracle in life. when she saw photos of the Naoshima yurt, she fueled the fire for my dreams to become a reality.
Alicia started sending me a plethora of internet links about the “tiny house movement,” which was something i had never heard of. weekly inspiration to my inbox became my obsession and inevitably turned into plans to build a “room of one’s own.”
my plans to build tiny consumed a large part of my energy in the months leading up to the Omega retreat that brought me to Maine and Vermont. i was so excited to build a home for myself. aesthetically designing the space for a lobster and a bird to live together tickled me with joy; incorporating modular design elements that would culminate in a functionality tailored specifically to my wacky life felt sensible and liberating; imagining being part of a community with an interest in energy efficiency and environmental awareness felt profound; i was even dreaming of the ways that this project could potentially inspire others to facilitate doing what they love. i thought i had found a new purpose.
then i had to let go of that to go on this journey.
so when Dan and i found this tiny cottage nestled in the lush Vermont woods, i was over the moon. Dan played the guitar, i used a composting toilet for the first time ever, and we fell asleep to a rain-tapping storm symphony on the rooftop over the loft. dreams came full of magic and spirits; i couldn’t quite tell if i was asleep or awake.
Freedom can happen swiftly. One moment, we’re bound by something, the sum total of our life—our concepts about who we are, our position in the world, the force and weight of our relationships to people and places; we’re caught in the fabric of all that. Then, at another moment, it’s gone. There is nothing obstructing us. We’re free to walk out the door. In fact, our prison dissolves around us, and there’s nothing to escape from. What has changed is our mind. The self that was caught, trapped, is freed the minute that the mind changes and perceives space instead of a prison. If there is no prison, then there can be no prisoner. In fact, there never was a prison except in our mind, in the concepts that became the brick and mortar of our confinement.
“Rebel Buddha On the Road to Freedom” by Dzogchen Ponlop
in the morning, Dan and i set off for Pema Ösel.
as we arrived, i saw a man walking down the hill. for a moment, i thought it was Rowen and i joked, “How nice of him to greet us!”
it wasn’t Rowen, however, and we pulled up to the retreat center so i could unload my baggage. as Dan turned off the ignition, another person emerged from the woods right, zipping up his pants right in front of the truck. “That’s JOEY?!” i sort of screamed and laughed simultaneously. we all laughed and hugged and laughed some more about the fact that Joey decided to use the bathroom mere feet away from the actual Porta Potties, opting to go in nature’s bathroom instead. it was, indeed, a strange and glorious greeting.
i looked out at Pema Ösel, changed quite a bit from when i was there only four days before. besides the newly erected Porta Potties, many people were milling about and there was a big tent set up with many new decorations of flags and flowers. the sun shone so brightly—if it were a scene in a play or movie, it would have been the moment of awakening for the protagonist. i felt like i was attending my family reunion, full of love, sunshine, and an intention to be connected.
Joey sends the best emails. here is an excerpt from one he sent me shortly before the MDB weekend: “Rinpoche has arrived. He talked to us for a while in the little shrine room. At the end he was talking about people with karmic connections to this place from past lives. He said ‘They can’t help coming here.’ It made me think of you. We’ll see.”
i get the sense that Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche has this uncanny knack for tuning into exactly what is happening and saying things that speak very personally to those in need of wisdom.
from Janine Kotre’s 5/17/15 LINK talk (#270) titled, Mother Nature:
It was January of 2005, I came to my first program which was “Words of My Perfect Teacher” and that’s where I met Rinpoche for the first time. So you know, we all sort of have ideas about meeting our teacher for the first time and I’ve heard a lot of people say that the minute they see him or her, they know that that is their teacher.
I can honestly say that wasn’t exactly my experience. The first night I was there, it was dark, it was cold, it was winter, I was tired, I think, so I didn’t really feel an immediate connection. But the next day, something else, something different happened. Rinpoche began by talking about how Buddhists are viewed in the world. But within a couple of minutes of talking, the whole thing sort of transformed into a talk that I’ll call “Mother Nature.”
He went into this elaborate detail about the power of a mother’s love, about how deep that love is, how much our mothers give us, how much our mothers give up for us, selflessly, day after day, year after year, and how it really never stops. He talked about how many emotions mothers have on your behalf and said, “Who else would go through that for you other than your mother?” And Rinpoche said that this mother’s love is what the Buddha called “Mother Nature.”
So he went on to talk at great length about how important it is for all of us to connect with this Mother Nature, to appreciate it, and how it should provoke a response in us. He said, “This love, this Mother Nature, is the ground and the basis of bodhicitta.”
So within about a minute, I found myself completely in tears. I was sitting in the back of the shrine room. It wasn’t just a tear or two, I mean, tears were streaming down my face as he went on in great detail for almost a half hour, really, about the power of a mother’s love. And that’s really where I was at the time.
I remember thinking to myself, How could he know this??? Like, he’s a man, ya know, he’s not a mother. How could he know all of this?
But that was it. That was my connection. And I really, I definitely felt a connection to Rinpoche at this point. In fact, it felt like the talk that day was really specifically meant for me and I think we’ve all had that feeling where we have questions in our mind or things that come up and we’ll come in and go to a teaching and Rinpoche will answer that question. So it really felt like a hook. It felt like I was hooked at that point.
in many ways, Janine’s experience is a mirror for my own. only the lighting was a little different.
the MDB weekend was full of well-articulated and meaningful transmissions. here are a few things that Rinpoche talked about that really struck chords with me:
- Rinpoche talked about universal love as the beginning of the enlightened path.
- how we become what we believe we can be.
- he spoke on compassion, bringing up the lobster being boiled alive. he also used an actor training to go onstage as a metaphor for training to go into a state where we can practice compassion.
- on Tonglen practice: wanting to do something on behalf of the suffering of the world while protecting oneself like wearing a lobster shell or armor going into battle.
- finally, after the vow ceremonies, he made a dedication of merit, saying:
I would like to dedicate the merit of this weekend’s teachings from my part sharing the teachings with you and from your part hearing the teachings and taking the vows, all of the positive deeds and merit for the benefit of all mother sentient beings’ enlightenment as the main thing. and also i would like to dedicate the merit for peace in this world to various ways that there could be more peace in this world with the increasing of natural, sustainable resources and therefore no need of the disputes over the resources and wars over the resources, resources being abundant and sustainable ones, such as solar energy and fuel cells, etc., being abundant here in this world. and with the technology also improving so there is not any war, as well as any environmental damage to the container by the one who is in the container, the content.
Also scientists and artists who bring the tremendous delight and pleasure to the world and others by their creativity and expressing their creativity. So as anyone who is actually being of benefit to others and brings the joy and comfort and delight for them to have longevity and prosper in their lives.
cue: streaming tears (as if they weren’t there already).
prior to the final clincher, i had spontaneously taken my refuge and bodhisattva vows. it was so spontaneous, i can’t really even explain how or why it happened except that i felt like taking those vows was inevitable. i had total freedom to choose, and yet, no choice needed to be made. there was no question in my mind. so like a lobster being released to begin its trek home, i opened my arms and dove right in.
there is one more tail to tell before i return to sea.
the day that i took my refuge and bodhisattva vows was another sparkling, sunny Vermont day. when i went out for lunch, i was thinking: i want to sit in the sun but all the seats at the tables are under the tent in the shade. the ground is kind of wet and i am wearing white pants. what to do, what to do…
as i got closer to the tent, i saw Rowen and a small group of people moving a table and chairs out into the sunlight. i carried a chair and joked, “You’re likely to start a trend and soon everyone will be moving tables around.” no one else did, but they invited me to sit with them.
after standing in the lunch line, the table moving party had already gotten into a groove of conversation. the seating also shifted so that there was a space between the woman who was next to me earlier. there was a black jacket on the chair that seemed like a spatial separation. no one sat in that chair for awhile, so i decided to be present with the two lovely-looking ladies seated to my right. turns out, they were both named Sarah. i listened to them talk about all manners of interesting things, such as how Sarah (across from me) is an attorney and how Buddhist principles could potentially have an influence on the field resulting in more mediation, less litigation. we also bonded over Rutgers University and Hurricane Sandy experiences.
then the Sarah directly to my right looked at me with her crystal blue, curious eyes and asked, “So how did you end up here?”
“Well, that’s quite a story,” i told her.
i had been telling this story a lot over the weekend. i take it most people there knew each other and i stuck out, the lone wanderer with the crazy hair. so i was working on getting the story down to the few basic, concise story points. but for some reason unbeknownst to me at that point, i went into great detail about the end of Pema Chödrön’s workshop when time stopped and i suddenly felt like i needed to work on the temple that was being built in Colorado. then i told the Sarahs about Joey and the lobsters. “So that’s how I ended up here.”
Sarah responds, “You have to meet my son Nick. He lives in Crestone and works on the temple.”
it was as if i had just stumbled upon another lobster t-shirt.
: images by Tatjana Krizmanic, to support Mangala Shri Bhuti’s life release practice. high quality items available for purchase at: MSB Store
after lunch, i met Judith, a photographer who was also taking vows with Rinpoche. we talked for a long while, Judith lent me a khata to use during the ceremony, and we shared a wonderful connection that seemed destined to grow. then, Sarah introduced me to Nick.
Nick had actually been sitting next to me during the lecture on Saturday. during the prayers, it was clear that i was lost. a hand appeared from around my left side and gently took my prayer book and pointed me to the right place. that was Nick. when we officially met, i thanked him for that. then he asked me, “So, you’re interested in working on the temple?” i could be wrong, but i thought i sensed a playful glimmer in his eye as we both wondered what kind of help i might actually be able to be.
Nick asks, “Do you have any skills?”
i laugh. “I can do a lot of things questionably well. But I learn fast and like to do a lot of things like making art and building things.”
“Yeah, I guess you don’t really need any skills, just a willingness.”
“I have a lot of willingness,” I say. “And time.”
Nick nods. “Have you ever stained wood?”
“I sanded and stained my friend’s deck before…does that count?” i forgot that i had also helped Dan stain the counters in his sandwich shop, Blue Rooster, only two days earlier in Portland. staining wood is, like, my thing.
Nick said that counted and that the exterior of the temple has some blemishes that need…
“Purification?” i added with a smile.
“Yep, and that’s what I’m working on now.” Nick had just recently mentioned to the current building team that he could use an extra set of hands for the job.
we exchanged information and i felt a little wobbly with joy and synchronicity as i went to take my vows.
afterwards, people kept asking me if i would be attending “NSS.” NSS stands for Nyingma Summer Seminar, an annual 9-day event of teachings, meditation, and celebrations in Colorado in July. it was explained as this community’s “Thanksgiving” or like the kick-off to their new year of activities.
when asked if i was going, i would sheepishly reply, “yes…?” i could not conceive of how that would be possible, but thought maybe there was a connection between NSS and working on the temple. people then started coming up to me and congratulating me on going to Crestone to work on the temple. the whole thing was a little hilarious.
i was leaving that evening to head back up to Maine for a second lobster release with Rinpoche and the sangha, then to NYC and back to my parents and cats in NJ. before departing, i saw Rowen. he embraced me and said, “Welcome to the family.”
nothing could have resonated more in that moment. my heart, and all of the incredible people all around me, were telling me that i had, inadvertently, found my way home.
i went home to my “real family” not long after. i returned to questions about “finding a real job” and what i was going to do about money. i revisited plans to build a tiny house with my father, who i have worked with from time-to-time in his plumbing business and who was on board for our first-ever collaboration of hugely tiny proportions.
i also started to connect via email with my new family that i had met during my time in NY/Maine/Vermont. one by one, this family also started to offer their support. these incredible people offered the means that would enable me to travel to Colorado for NSS, and possibly more. things started to fall into place as if these generous souls of the MSB sangha were conspiring to make this magic happen. of course, they weren’t in actual cahoots, only in the sense that their kind spirits were reaching out to help someone in need.
i’ll be honest, it is hard for me to accept help from others. my mother grew up poor in Korea. she was the kind of poor where she had to walk for miles barefoot with her brother on her back to get water from a well. my father’s family was not without their struggles either. his parents worked hard—on farms, in chicken factories, restaurants, etc.—and my grandfather eventually made his way into the plumbing business. my father followed suit, working day and night for many years to provide for our family. my mother and i used to do jigsaw puzzles as we would wait for him to come home, so that maybe i could say goodnight. oftentimes it was time for bed before that even happened.
so the notion of scarcity runs deep. i was raised to be independent, to work hard and make my own way. i have done so for years, sometimes to the point of injury, so that i never had to ask for help from anyone. in recent years, however, i have been offered support and i am learning how to accept it.
with the MSB community, i found myself in one of those surprising moments that becomes a teacher if you give it your attention. i felt the old familiar resistance in me against accepting resources from others. this time, i actively made the choice to let that go, say “yes,” and keep opening my heart, no matter how raw that made me feel.
my heart feels like it’s bursting again as i write these words to you. NSS starts in less than two days and i am here in Colorado, ready for it and whatever else comes my way. when i stand on the mountaintop of Phuntsok Choling by the wooden staircase—when i look out, all i can see is green trees full of life set against a wild blue sky that feels so close; i am but a cloud in it. i take a breath and i build myself another home inside my heart. and i say “yes.” i am thrilled and humbled to be here. and so here i am. now i can be here now.
my intention was to spend this summer writing and building a home. i am happy to report that it has come true like a magical, unexpected dream. because i am not simply writing to make money or to in any other way promote my self, but because it feels connected to something truly important. and the house that i might be building? it won’t just be for me and my cats to snuggle each other in peace (although, don’t get me wrong, that would be nice.) a lot still remains unclear logistically, but i will be going to Crestone to work on the temple in some sense. through this action, i will be helping build a home for countless others where they can study, practice, and experience a deep feeling of peace.
i will be happily offline for the next eleven days with “my family.” i am filled with gratitude to everyone along the way who has made this possible and a great big thank you to the world—for simply existing.
what exactly are we building?
my new aspiration is that, together, we continue to build our world with our breath, letting the walls be an air of spaciousness and freedom for all beings.
This would I have you remember in remembering me:
That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined.
Is it not your breath that has erected and hardened the structure of your bones?
And is it not a dream which none of you remember having dreamt, that builded your city and fashioned all there is in it?
Could you but see the tides of that breath you would cease to see all else,
And if you could hear the whispering of the dream you would hear no other sound.
But you do not see, nor do you hear, and it is well.
The veil that clouds your eyes shall be lifted by the hands that wove it,
And the clay that fills your ears shall be pierced by those fingers that kneaded it.
And you shall see.
And you shall hear.
Yet you shall not deplore having known blindness, nor regret having been deaf.
For in that day you shall know the hidden purposes in all things,
And you shall bless darkness as you would bless light.
~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet~