East Meets West

 

Earlier this month, I attended a meditation and teaching weekend at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in downtown Montreal. When I arrived, it struck me as incongruous that the event was taking place in the Salle Jean Béliveau, named after a hockey star who played for the Montreal Canadiens. But on second thought, it occurred to me that Montreal’s multicultural environment actually lent itself to the mix of Canadian popular culture and Tibetan Buddhism. As it turned out, the teachings of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master, merge aspects of Western and Eastern philosophyan.

As described on his website, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

is a widely celebrated Buddhist teacher and the author of Emotional Rescue, Rebel Buddha, and other books. A lover of music, art and urban culture, Rinpoche is a poet, photographer, accomplished calligrapher and visual artist, as well as a prolific author. Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist centers.

The title and theme of Rinpoche’s talk was “Seizing Every Opportunity.” First of all, he clarified that opportunity and opportunism are not the same: opportunity is something that can benefit ourselves and others. In order to seize opportunity, one must be prepared — the key is preparation. Once prepared, the moment to seize opportunity has arrived. If you find there is no opportunity, create one. However, you may be the block.

Inner development is required. It’s not all out there in the external world. We must develop our minds, our inner world. We need to tame our minds, and this requires discipline. By way of example, Rinpoche commented on how much time we spend on our cell phones and checking our email. (According to a recent New York Times Wellness section, on average we check our cells 47 times a day!) Instead, we should spend more time cultivating and connecting with our minds. In order to do this, we need to learn to meditate so that we can become mindful. Then we can create opportunity. So you see, Rinpoche presented a blend of western material culture pep talk and Buddhism teaching.

 

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

The next day, Rinpoche continued to discuss and define opportunity. He began by stating that we have the power to create opportunity, that we are actually the seed that must be cultivated. Unfortunately, more people are interested in crisis, pain and death than in life — in how to live or to transform our consciousness. He reminded us that every form of crisis is actually a chance for us to create an opportunity. This kind of thinking harks backs to the Greeks, the originators of western culture. According to the Greeks, a disaster, or crisis, presents a turning-point, a chance to do things differently and, thereby, offers an opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to learn something but a space is opened up that provides an opportunity to create something new. Crisis is productive; it’s an opportunity for awakening, to encourage positivity, to help and be kind to others. Rinpoche urges us to use every moment in the best way you can. As he likes to say, “GoKind!”

Here is where meditation becomes important. It is a means of getting to know one’s mind. “Know thyself!”  Meditation leads to mindfulness, an awareness that the individual is connected to the collective. It is the path of the Bodhicitta. Being kind means becoming vulnerable, so one must also be fearless because the path will be difficult. One doesn’t know in advance what an opportunity will become; it requires a kind of blind faith.

So we must prepare and practice, developing not only our skills, but our mindfulness. Then we can seize the opportunity to make the world a better place.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chaluma, and Palenque

The last time I went to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas was about ten years ago. I went there for the Christmas holidays.

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The first time I visited San Cristóbal was also at Christmas, and my husband and I also went to see the nearby town of San Juan Chamula with a guide. This is an extremely poor indigenous community that still speaks it’s own language. It is not recommended to go there alone, as “gringos” are not really welcome.

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However, the description from visitmexico.com sounds rather friendly. Perhaps things have changed.

Get ready to connect with the mysticism of San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil community that grew independent from the Catholic Church and performs its own rituals in a unique religious syncretism.


The atrium will welcome you to the novohispanic style temple. Begin your immersion in the community as you carry offerings, wishes, pleas and gratitude to the temple.


Feel the pine twigs that blanket the floor under your feet. You will see that there are no benches to sit on. The inhabitants pray on their knees and perform rituals that mix the sixteenth-century evangelical customs with pre-Columbian religious beliefs.

Discover that the church is decorated with candles of many different colors, sizes and significance. You will notice that the saints’ images have mirrors hanging from them. According to local beliefs, they reflect the souls of the faithful.

My husband and I were able to visit the inside of the church, a truly unique experience but somewhat unsettling. I felt like an intruder, so did not take my own pictures once inside. This one is from abakab.com. If you’re wondering about the soft drink bottles, it’s an indication of how much these two corporations have succeeded in colonizing indigenous cultures.

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We also visited the Casa Na Bolom or House of the Jaguar. This is a museum, hotel and restaurant located outside San Cristóbal’s historic center. According to Wikipedia,

The structure was built as part of a seminary in 1891, but it became the home of Frans Blom and Gertrude Duby Blom in the 20th century. Franz was an explorer and archeologist and Gertrude was a journalist and photographer. The couple spent over fifty years in Chiapas collecting tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing, especially related to the Lacandon Jungle and people. The museum is dedicated to this collection along with keeping some of the old household rooms intact, such as Franz’s study. It also contains a library with more than 10,000 volumes dedicated to the history, culture and anthropology of the region. There are magazine and sound libraries as well as the old chapel which contains colonial era religious art. The back of the structure contains a botanical garden.

Here is a photo of the sign on the Casa Na Bolom taken by AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

While there, I purchased a small jaguar pin made of silver. The jaguar is a symbol of the spiritual quest, so I enjoy wearing it to remind myself of my purpose in life.

Although I’d been there before, the last time I visited San Cristóbal, I decided to go on a tour to Palenque, which can be a truly magical place.

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This photograph shows the main palace, which is unusual for a Mayan site, as they usually have a temple as their central focus.

My tour left very early in the morning, so I hoped there would not be too many visitors, as a crowd tends to destroy the ambiance of the site. agua azul, waterfalls, chiapas, mexicoWhile Aqua Azul is beautiful and certainly worth visiting, we stopped there for an extended lunch break and a swim, so by the time we got to Palenque, it was teaming with tourists, most of whom were Mexicans enjoying their spectacular heritage. Nonetheless, I did manage to find a few peaceful spots so I could absorb the magic.

According to Wikipedia, “it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.” The mind boggles.

The Temple of Inscriptions

The online Ancient History Enclyclopedia is particularly helpful. The following is an excerpt on the temple taken from the article on Palenque written by Mark Cartwright:

Set into a hillside and completed c. 682 CE, the pyramid has nine different levels, corresponding, no doubt, to the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Carrying out an archaeological survey at the top of the pyramid in 1952 CE, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz famously discovered that a single curiously holed slab in the flooring of one chamber could be removed, and beneath it he revealed a staircase which descended into the heart of the building. At the base of the twisting 65-step staircase, after clearing away the deliberately left rubble and now deep inside the pyramid, Ruz reached a single corbel-roofed chamber, outside of which were five or six human skeletons, almost certainly sacrificial victims. Clearly someone important had been buried here. Inside the richly decorated crypt were nine stucco attendants on the sloping walls and two more in jade standing by the room’s most remarkable artefact. This was a sarcophagus topped with a magnificently carved 3.8 metre long slab depicting a Maya ruler falling into the jaws of the Maya underworld Xibalba. On finally opening the sarcophagus, Ruz discovered the jade and cinnabar-covered remains of that greatest of all Palenque rulers, King Pakal the Great. The king had been given a life-like jade mosaic death mask and a great deal of matching jewellery to accompany him into the next life. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, and it finally proved that the great Maya pyramids had not simply been built as temples but also as tombs for great rulers, just as in ancient Egypt.

Jade Death Mask of Kinich Janaab Pacal

The death mask can be seen in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which is one of the top anthropological museum’s in the world, in other words, a must see.

When I visited the Temple of Inscriptions, a plaque inside stated that the other jewels were in the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge, MA.

Later that year, I attended a conference in Boston, so I used the opportunity to visit the Peabody Museum. They had a special section which displayed the Mesoamerican plaster casts that had been made in the 19th century. While these were fascinating and worthy of another blog, the jewels were not on display. I wonder what has become of them.

 

 

City of Refuge

The sheer number of people suffering forced displacement today is staggering – the greatest flow of refugees since World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Of those, 21.3 million are designated as refugees, and almost half of those people hail from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Five million have fled Syria alone, and more than 6 million are internally displaced there. Estimates put the death toll in Syria’s five-year civil war at more than 400,000. The destructive war in Yemen, meanwhile, has forced more than 3 million to flee their homes. The UNHCR predicts that 2016 will be the deadliest year for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Daniel, a young French-Vietnamese man, lies dying in a Montreal hospital. Spurned by his family for contracting AIDS in Provincetown, Daniel spends his last months in despair. Only his cousin Mai stays by his side to record the darkest of family secrets. From French Indochina to present day North America, this novel follows three generations of a Vietnamese family as they endure their own folly and the whims of history.

 

 

 

 

The Promise of New Life

Three weeks ago, I flew home from Mexico at the end of a three month stay. It was a night flight, and because I fell asleep soon after take off, when I woke up six hours later to land in Montreal, I found myself entering a completely different world.

Although it was officially spring, the trees were still bare and patches of snow could be seen on the frozen ground. It is only now that the bluebells and apple blossoms are beginning to come out and the trees are finally budding.  If you allow yourself to feel attuned to the promise of new life after a long cold winter, there is something soft and soothing about the spring. Everyone loves a fresh start.

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In contrast, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Southern Mexico, the heat and the sunlight are intense, even during the winter months. The heat actually penetrates the body, so one becomes much more aware of one’s body and, consequently, feels that much more alive. In that particular part of the world, it’s as if the earth has an entirely different vibration and emits a kind of primal energy that can be empowering and intoxicating. Mexico does have its magic.

Image result for view from villa sol beach puerto escondido oaxaca coast mexicoAside from the beautiful beaches and the fresh food, in the early mornings, I enjoyed practicing yoga inside a palata. It’s the next best thing to being outdoors. Staring up at the thatched roof made from dried palm leaves and listening to the birds happily greeting the day became a source of inspiration. I felt I was in paradise.

One evening I attended a meditation session with live music, mostly bells and drums as well as chanting. After about an hour, the chanting became much deeper and the drumming intensified. I imagined these were the voices of the ancestors, lamenting what was happening to the earth. There was a sense of urgency in their cries, even anger, urging us to do something and soon. But what is to be done?

Shortly after getting home, I read a strange and fascinating book by the Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Alchemy of Light: Working with the Primal Energies of LifeAlchemy of Light Book CoverVaughn-Lee fears that we and our beautiful planet may lose our soul. He urges us to awaken to the spiritual dimension of life and to recognize that we are all one. For those of you who prefer a more scientific approach, the neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel, MD, has the very same message. He  is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.

It seems that more and more people are opening up to the scared dimension of life, the realization that we and every living being on the planet are connected. Yesterday I listened to a talk by Eckhart Tolle on the power of presence, by which he means learning to be present in our bodies. He mentioned that he had 150,000 people who had signed up to hear his talk. As far as he was concerned, this was good news and he suggested we pay less attention to the mainstream media, as it focuses almost entirely on those who remain unconscious. It is hard to imagine CNN announcing a new consciousness is emerging, isn’t it? But let’s not give up hope.

Well, I’ve resumed my yoga and am now taking a course in Yoga Qi Gong. It incorporates aspects of Tai Chi and much of the practice involves working with energies. The room where we practice is quite different from the palapa I came to love in Mexico; it’s the meeting room of a large and modern condominium. One side of the room consists of glass doors that stretch from the floor to the ceiling and provide a view of the grounds. I noticed yesterday that the grass has grown quite long and swayed in the wind. Perhaps when it gets warmer, we’ll be able to open the doors.

Namaste

 

Flying Down to Puerto

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Yesterday I took the 7 am Aerotucán flight from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido for the first time. The flight lasts all of 35 minutes and cost 160 CDN. Aerotucán uses a small 16 seater plane which doesn’t fly all that high, so the lovely view of the Sierra del Sul mountains on the way to the coast made the flight worthwhile.

The other alternatives are a collectivo, or crowded van, that travels across the mountains in seven hours over a bumpy potholed road involving many hairpin turns, or a regular bus that takes eleven hours by the roundabout highway. I’ve taken the van a number of times, and most passengers get sick. One time the van was cancelled due to roadblocks, so my husband and I opted for the larger bus which seemed to take forever so we vowed never to take it again. Of course, you can always rent a car and drive, but we met a crane operator from Calgary who found the experience terrifying.

There is a much anticipated highway under construction that was supposed to be finished in 2014 and then by the end of 2015, but the government ran out of money. It will probably be completed sometime within the next five or ten years, but who knows?

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However, for some people like myself, the fact that “progress” has stalled is a good thing. As soon as news of the new highway hit the press, there was a sharp increase in interest in real estate on the Pacific coast, and luxury resorts and condos began sprouting up like mushrooms, as did the price of accommodation.

As the name suggests, Puerto Escondido means hidden port. According to the history of the town on Wikipedia,

Prior to the 1930s, there was no town. The bay had been used as a port intermittently to ship coffee, but there was no permanent settlement due to the lack of potable water. The name “Puerto Escondido” had roots in the legend of a woman who escaped her captors and hid here. The Nahuatl word for this area was Zicatela, meaning “place of large thorns”. Today, it refers to the area’s most famous beach.

In the 1960s, Zicatela Beach became popular with surfers and the town began to develop as a tourist site.

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So a sleepy little fishing village that morphed into a surfers’ paradise is now transitioning into an exclusive resort town. There are a few other ways to get here, but I’m not going to mention them.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

From Puebla, my husband and I took a bus to Oaxaca. The trip usually takes about four hours, but 100 kilometres outside of Oaxaca, we encountered a roadblock. Since the new year, Mexicans have been protesting the 20% increase in the cost of gasoline when President Peña Nieto removed government subsidies and privatized the oil industry. Roadblocks are part of the protests. We were delayed for almost two hours, so the traffic piled up. Then, when the blockade was removed, the situation became chaotic. Fortunately we were at the head of the line and had an excellent bus driver; in addition, one of the passengers actually helped direct traffic so we were finally able to cross a dirt patch and take an alternate route. Because frustrated drivers became unruly, the situation was potentially dangerous, but all the people on the bus remained calm and waited patiently until we were back on the road.

Oaxaca is a very beautiful city and much smaller than Puebla. Its historic centre was also declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987. Here you will find one of the  most magnificent churches in Mexico, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.

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Inside, the stunning altarpiece and Rosario chapel are examples of Spanish Baroque style.    2b91074f0381918be47d7e7c65b89531All the goldleaf made me wonder how many Mexicans went hungry while money was poured into the construction of this church over a period of 200 years, from the 16th to 18th century. I don’t think Pope Francis would have approved.

Beside the Templo there is a fascinating museum worth visiting, the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre. As reported by Wikipedia, “This museum includes an important collection of pre-Columban artefacts, among them the contents of Tomb 7 from the nearby Zapotec site of Monte Albán. The former monastery garden is now an ethnobotanical garden, containing a large collection of plants native to the region.” I especially enjoyed a peaceful walk through the garden which features a wonderful variety of cacti. oaxaca_entorno_07_v_800

There are a number of worthwhile side trips from Oaxaca, including the Zapotec pyramids at Monte Albán and Mitla, but I’ve been there before. I’m afraid you can actually become jaded when it comes to visiting pyramids in Mexico; there are just so many! Every time digging commences on a new development, yet another archeological site is discovered.

In the historic centre there are numerous shops and restaurants selling Oaxaca handicrafts and their vibrantly coloured handmade rugs. zapotec-native-art_sidewalk-art-fair1You will also find very pretty embroidered tops and hand-painted figurines.

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However, my favourite shop remains the wonderful bookstore Amate, which has an enticing collection of English language books on Mexican culture and history.

Having visited Oaxaca on several occasions, this time my husband and I opted to stay in Colonia Reforma, a modern middle-class neighbourhood north of the historic centre. We were able to rent a small bungalow in a complex on a quiet side street and are enjoying our stay here even if the ambiance isn’t Spanish colonial. Actually, it’s more fun to mix with the locals than the other tourists. This area also has many restaurants and shops and there is even a bus that goes directly to the centre that costs all of 7 pesos.

Usually I walk to the centre, which takes about half an hour. I enjoy taking in the colonial architecture and the various shops along the way. Perhaps it is symptomatic of how things have changed because the house where D.H. Lawrence stayed when he lived in Oaxaca is now an outlet for Yves Rocher, a highly successful line of French cosmetics produced in Mexico.

Next week we leave for the Pacific coast, and I look forward to it. Although the temperature is perfect in Oaxaca, ranging from 27 C during the day to 9 C at night, the city is 5,000 feet above sea level and I find myself experiencing a mild form of altitude sickness. The effects include strange dreams, lack of appetite, occasional headaches and fatigue. It’s the feeling of lethargy that annoys me the most as I would like to feel more energetic. But I can still read and write.

 

 

At Home in Puebla

When my husband and I visit Mexico, rather than stay in the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, we usually go to Puebla, which is only two and half hours away by bus and relatively peaceful, but it too has expanded considerably since we first visited it some twenty years ago. You can easily get there by bus, and if you sit on the righthand side, you can see the famous volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl that figure in Malcolm Lowry’s modernist masterpiece, Under the Volcano.

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The city of Puebla has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1531 to encourage Spanish settlers in the New World, but it is also where the Mexican army defeated the French in 1862 and the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20. Due to its colonial history and architecture, the area around the Zócalo, or main square, was declared a world heritage site in 1987. I first visited Puebla in the late 1990s when I attended a conference at La Universidad de las Américas. I immediately fell in love with this charming city and have returned almost every year for a short visit. I always stay in the historic centre at the Hotel Colonial, my home in Puebla.

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The Hotel Colonial was originally a Jesuit monastery built at the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the building was used to accommodate travellers from Veracruz on their way to Mexico City. In the middle of the 19th century, it became the Hotel Jardín; then in 1930 it underwent a restoration and became the Hotel Colonial.

The hotel is also known for its restaurant where they serve Mole Poblano, a traditional Mexican dish consisting of chicken smothered in chocolate sauce. mole Many people don’t know that chocolate is indigenous to Mesoamerica. Mole is not sweet; rather it is delicately spiced with chili peppers. Puebla itself is known as a culinary centre, so you will find many excellent restaurants to choose from. My favourite is El Mural, which is on the other side of the Cathedral pictured below.

8142344765_c7df076d5a_bThere are a number of interesting museums in Puebla, but the top one is undoubtedly the recently renovated Amparo Museum, which features a stunning collection of pre-Columbian art and a roof-top café with an excellent view of Puebla and the surrounding mountains. 2612699844_ac05ec8650_bBesides the Amparo, I would recommend the Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution, a converted house where the first shot of the revolution was fired. You can still see the bullet holes in the wall.

Another fantastic site not to be missed is the Palafoxian Library. Founded in 1646, it was the first public library in Mexico and may be the oldest in the Americas. Not only is the collection intact, all the shelves and furniture are original. 245px-biblioteca_palafoxiana_de_puebla

 

 
Puebla is also famous for Talavera, a type of ceramic that has been produced for over four hundred years.

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Many years ago my husband and I bought a genuine Talavera urn to decorate our living room. We also have hand-painted dishes, but these are copies that we purchased in Dolores.

Last but not least there is a bustling antique market and many fine shops to wander through if you should visit Puebla. These are just the highlights.