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Seeing My Sister into Retreat
by Daniel Talsky

I feel this kind of transitory loneliness here, like it's a sort of halfway house between two universes. It's just upstate New York, technically though, right on the Hudson River, in the town of Wappingers Falls.

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The nearby Franciscan Monastery where my mom stayed.

My mom really loves the fact that there's another Monastery, a Franciscan one, up the street. When there's overflow, the two monasteries house each other's guests. For the occasion of my sister entering the traditional three-year three-month retreat of the Kagyu Lineage, my mom is happy to be part of the overflow with the Franciscans.

Years ago, when my sister first moved to Seattle, I was so excited about the buddhadharma I remember sitting in my sister's living room, saying to her, "You have to let me read you this amazing prayer!" She let me, but rolled her eyes a little. Now her head has been shaven by the Lama, and it looks like he nicked her a little on the right side.

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My sister with my mom in the stupa's shrine room.

Last night, before our parents showed up, it was like a little party. Lama Norlha, a friendly old bull of a Tibetan refugee, said he wanted to hear people sing. So we sang: dharma songs, Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Bojangles and Christmas carols. I sang, and looked across the table at my pretty, bald sister…a little in awe of her spiritual commitment.

You'd think that a group of people going into three-year retreat would be enough excitement for one monastery. However, in a bit of timing that could was surely planned by Lama Norlha, a three-story structure called a stupa had just been finished after years of construction. All the residents and retreatants-to-be had been called into service; they did heavy labor for the last few days on end, getting the structure ready for the ceremonies today and tomorrow.

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The stupa on the banks of the hudson river.

A stupa is an iconic representation of the mind of the Buddha. Thousands of them have been built in Nepal, India and Tibet, and hundreds more in Europe and the states. A stupa looks like a cross between a Mayan pyramid, a tower, and the minarets atop the Taj Mahal. Some are only a few feet high, and some are many stories high. This one is about three stories high, with a golden spire and parasol at the top. It looks quite magnificent against the Hudson.

There is quite a science to building stupas, and their proportions are precise. They have a certain number of steps, and their geometric relationships are often considered to have a psycho-cosmic significance. It would be difficult to describe all of the precise preparations that go into the construction and consecration of a stupa. Many holy objects are placed inside, the central one being the Tsokshing, or life-force tree. The Tsokshing is a large beam constructed from a single pole of wood, and elaborately prepared and painted. The final ceremony of a stupa is to place the Tsokshing into the center-top of the stupa. The Tsokshing represents the very spirit and vitality of the stupa itself.

So on the day before the retreatants were to enter retreat, there was a ceremony to bring the Tsokshing down from it's storage place and lay it in the stupa for the actual consecration and placing the following day. Lama Norlha follows no schedule, and we all hung around after lunch while preparations took place. All the residents suited up in their monastic robes, and Tibetan instruments were palmed nervously.

Tibetan ritual music is basically chanting, punctuated by bursts of utter cacophony. Tibetan instruments are: drums, big brass cymbals, and long horns…and several variations of each. First, the low, rhythmic intonation of the chants in Tibetan, a few clangs, and then a bright explosion of sound. The cymbals clatter in rapid staccato, the drums clack and boom, and the horns burst with a looming drone around it all.

There we all are, feet shifting in the cold, the procession beginning. Eight men are holding the ten-foot Tsokshing, wrapped in fabric and supported by wooden struts. It's so precious, Lama Norlha enlisted two of the strapping New York construction workers to carry it. They looked so sweet and out of place among the costumery.

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The procession...my sister is in the middle.

Lama Norlha apparently chose a different route to the stupa than everyone was expecting, and as we are in motion, ladders and pieces of construction equipment are hastily moved out of the way as everyone shuffles carefully towards the Hudson, and towards the stupa.

There is a narrow cement path around the stupa, but just past it, outside of the entrance, are huge muddy holes many feet deep and wide. Getting this large beam turned around and in the door of the stupa with eight people carrying it is no easy task. Carefully though, they manage it, and hoist it up, with it's top poking through the entryway in the ceiling to the upper floors.

At the base of the stupa is a small cement room filled with some of the many relics, statues and holy objects. The Tsokshing is the final core object, and the following day it will be lifted up and installed into the heart of the stupa. For now, metal chairs are dragged in and forty people stuff themselves inside. They begin to chant the Mahakhala puja. Mahakhala is a wrathful deity, and provides a kind of protection from obstacles.

Midway through, my butt getting frosty on the hard, cold metal chair, I look back at the doorway and see my stepfather there, looking a little bewildered. There was no one to greet him at the main building, and it looks like he wandered down to the stupa to see such a strange sight. I'm glad to see him; I haven't for years.

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Bob and I.

Finally the ceremony is over, and I walk back with my sister and step dad briskly back towards the monastery. Elisabeth goes upstairs to do the regular evening meditation and my dad and I sit and chat and wait for dinner. While we are talking, my mom's face appears at the doorway. I stiffen just a little because my mom hasn't seen him in many years and told me she was a little concerned about it.

I pray that they won't say anything to push each other's buttons, but my mom sits right down and they get along quite well. In fact, I can hardly get a word in edgewise. They've read the same books and find plenty to talk about and are quite congenial.

The meditation upstairs ends and my sister looks a little surprised to see the three of us chatting normally when she comes down. She (and many others that day) are doing a special practice and can eat only yogurt while we eat meatloaf and rice.

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Bob and Elisabeth.

Then, when the meal is over, Lama Norlha announces to everyone (in a dialect that can only be described as English words and Tibetan Grammar) that he is taking us all out to his favorite place for Masala Chai and Mango Lassis.

There is much hullabaloo. Lama Norlha comes over and introduces himself warmly and unintelligibly to my parents. The commotion of deciding how to get 50 people a few miles away ensues and I find it hilarious when we pull up to this tiny Indian grocery store in Wappingers Falls.

He stands against the counter in the middle of the store and tells people as they come in, "Mango lassi this side, chai tea this side," pointing alternately to the right and left. We pack the joint. Lama Norhla cannot begin to hide his delight as the chai and mago lassi are served. He takes each one from the young Indian man and holds it out to the person nearest him. "Mango lassi, mango lassi," he cries, as he holds out each one.

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Lama Norlha tells the story of this stupa.

The next day is a big deal for lunch. There are many Chinese visitors for the ceremony for raising the Tsokshing. Lama Norlha gives a big speech. He tells us about how he wasn't really interested in coming to the west, but his Lama's asked him to come so he came. He said he didn't mind, but he didn't have any particular interest in the west. He also tells us about the nine other stupas he has built; one of them is in Virginia. Then he talks about how much benefit this one will be for everyone who is involved with it in any way. This has been his big project for a few years and he gives his speech with grace and import.

We all walk around, trying to stay out of each other's way and trying not to drink as many cups of tea as we did the day before. We think that the day is going to take forever, but it actually passes quickly enough. Everyone makes it down to the stupa after lunch as the workers get everything rigged and try not to swear too loudly. They're all up there, brought up on the outside by a big cherry-picker and tying straps and ropes to the Tsokshing and making sure they get it right the first time.

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The two disks, and part of the fabric-wrapped tsokshing.

They have it about ready when the Lama realizes that the copper mandala plate on which the Tsokshing eventually gets set is still downstairs. It's a big copper plate, about a foot in diameter, with an elaborate etching of a mandala pattern. It would have been a really good idea to have some walkie-talkies or something, and this isn't the first time. Shouting up through the hole doesn't work too well.

"The disk has to go up!"

"What?"

"We said, 'the disk…'"

"We heard, we said Joe has to come down in the bucket and get it!"

"Is he coming?"

"Yes, he's coming!"

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The Lama explains which side is supposed to point towards the river.

"The Lama says the mandala has three sides that are the same and one that's different. The one that's different has to face the river!"

"Joe has to come down and get it!"

The cherry-picker comes down and the Lama decides he wants to come up with it. Some of the other resident Lamas are up there and it's obvious he wanted to go up anyway. Up he goes, grinning and holding the mandala disk in his hands.

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Lama Norlha gets up in the cherry picker and the other Lama hams it up. (Too bad I didn't get a picture of him with the wheel and deer!)

He gets up there and there's more waiting. People wander in between the stupa and the fire and talk on their cell phones. In the front of the stupa, on a platform you might call the second-floor balcony, there is a traditional golden sculpture of a big eight-spoked wheel that looks like the steering wheel of a ship. On either side of the wheel are two deer resting serenely. One of the resident Lamas, who is always clowning stands behind the wheel and pretends to helm the stupa for the entertainment of the onlookers. He hams it up, pretending to steer the stupa and look off into the horizon with a hand shielding his eyes.

Finally, after all the fussing, the Tsokshing is lifted slowly up into the heart of the stupa. Everyone cheers and prepares to go inside for the final public ceremony of the day - sending the retreatants into retreat and spiritually 'sealing them in'.

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The tsokshing is finally raised into the ceiling.

He originally said the retreatants would go in around 3 p.m., but we are adjusting for Lama time and speculation among my family ranges from 8 to 10 p.m. We daren't hope it will start as early as 6 p.m., but Lama Norlha surprises us all by getting it underway shortly after 5.

Everyone is suited up and standing out in the cold again. They know this is the real thing. I know my sister is going to be good and glad to finally be stowed away in her little retreat room after all this cold air on her bald head, silly questions and photographs. She's there trying to be all concentrated and spiritual and all the relatives are fawning and clucking over her and our step dad is trying to capture her on film in as many different ways as possible.

Soon it will all be over. The procession begins, following exactly the same route as the Tsokshing the day before: winding around the monastery, the stupa, and along the Hudson towards the men's retreat building. My aunt and uncle arrive just in time as the procession approaches the men's retreat area and it begins to get dark outside. I wave them on as they scurry up to us, and the ceremony begins.

TV trays and folding chairs have been set out on the cold ground to hold the ritual implements and texts used in the ceremony. Aluminum clamp lights are attached to 2x4's set in palettes on the ground, and it is all fairly rickety. Lama Norlha, with his characteristic aplomb, sits down in a folding chair as if it were a throne in the Potala and begins.

Tormas are small figure representations made from flour and butter. They are used as a symbolic offering in many different Tibetan ceremonies. The word, in Tibetan, means literally "toss out", and tormas are indeed tossed outside after they are used for animals to eat after the ceremony is over. There is one torma set on a little TV tray for every retreatant.

The Lama says a series of prayers and then one of the tormas is carried away and tossed out among the trees. One by one the chants are said, and another torma is tossed out among the trees. It's Elisabeth who tosses out the men's tormas and she does so with great import. The darkness and cold are starting to seep into me.

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Elisabeth tosses out the torma of one of the male retreatants.

Finally, the concluding prayers are said, and the men file in the gateway. The chöpon, or preceptor, closes the door. More prayers, and then Lama Norlha stands, walks over to the door, opens it. He prays, throws a few grains of rice, and then closes the door with some finality. The woman retreatants now know what they're in for as we all move to a similar setup near the woman's retreat.

Elisabeth looked glowing in her amazing bald head. It so suits her. She looked cold and overwhelmed and a little annoyed and impatient and possibly bodhisattvic. The raw light bulbs surrounded by raw aluminum make everyone look kind of beautiful. My mom kept smiling and crying in the light as the tormas are tossed away one by one. I look at her and she smiles at me so hard it's really more of a grimace.

The final prayers begin. I haven't had a solid meal all day and my mind goes away. I want some meat, I think, maybe that since this is getting over so early we'll have time to drive to Tarrytown and have dinner before I gnaw my arm completely off. My distraction snaps back and there is my sister: my long-time movie watching companion, my confident, my most insightful critic, sharer of my childhood history…walking with intent away from that which is confused and outward facing; walking towards a stringent effort of facing the heaven and hell inside of her.

I am really proud of her and feel really alone for just one tiny moment as she walks in and the door is closed. Opened. Prayers. Rice. Closed again.

Everyone is cold. We walk slowly back towards the monastery. She has to write to me, I think, I'm in charge of sending her toiletries.

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Thank you to:
My mom, who birthed us both.
Bob, who came out to support Elisabeth.
Bob and Sandy Reiser, who put us up for my last night in NY.
My lovely Roseanne for being so patient while I do all this geeky stuff.
And my beautiful sister for doing what she thinks is best.

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