Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Haunted Bells and Bowls

In the center is the spooky bell about which I have written. To the left is a statue of Manjushri. To the rear is my personal singing bowl. I have never met a person who could not play this bowl. Far right is something for my writer friends. It is an old Nepalese ink well. My kid's crystals and rocks are also lying about. (click to enlarge)

Top of the Bell

I have a new treasure in my collection. It is a creepy looking bell from a temple in India. One of my customers brought it and left it with me at a trade show. It seems odd to me that people would give ritual objects to me as I am selling so many of these things myself. But there are occasionally people who would like to get rid of a statue or some object that bothers them. They believe that I would either appreciate the beauty of the item, or that I can handle the malevolent energy that they associate with it. I tend to believe that objects only have the power that a person gives them. Fear magnifies and makes real the ghosts that would haunt a person.

Shortly after I received the temple bell, an Indian couple came to my table. The man said, "I know what that is. How much do you want for it?" Since I paid nothing for the bell. I said, "How much you pay?" Which is exactly what I hear so often while I am shopping in Nepal. It is a great way to get a commitment out of your buyer. While he was considering his offer carefully, a woman came to look at my singing bowls and I shifted into story telling mode.

"These bowls are used by the Buddhist monks in Nepal. They chant prayers for peace into them and the harmony of the bowl gives a tone to the prayer and helps to amplify the energy. The prayers are for peace and the enlightenment of all sentient beings. I find that people who do Reiki can often feel a great deal of energy when they encounter the bowls. Their arms float up and down as they feel the perimeters of the energy coming from a singing bowl." I said, in my well rehearsed way.

"I do Reiki," the woman said. " I know." I told her. Her eyes widened and she looked impressed by my psychic abilities. She and her friends had been hovering around my table earlier and talking about Reiki. I guess she didn't know that I was listening.

I picked up a bowl with a deep smooth resonance and told her to think of global peace while I played the bowl for her. She put her hands above the bowl. "Oh yeah! Oh wow, I can really feel that," she said.

The Indian man was still looking at the temple bell, turning it over and over and considering his offer. His wife was carefully selecting rudraksha beads, 'literally the tears of Rudra,' (a seed, which supposedly cures you of all kinds of sins). She asked me if they were real and where I got them. I described a shop near Freak Street in Kathmandu, Nepal, and that seemed to convince her of their authenticity.

I turned back to the woman admiring the singing bowls. "Can you tell me more about them?" She queried.

"I deal in mostly used bowls and often you will find the names of the bowls' former owners scratched into the edge of the bowls. Once, there was a woman who returned to thank me for a bowl saying that the bowl she bought from me came with three spectral monks. Presumably, these were the former owners," I said. "And then, when I lived in Maryland, I had a wall in my basement that was devoted to hundreds of singing bowls. One day, a friend of mine was in our house alone and she said that she heard some of the bowls singing by themselves downstairs."

"Have you seen ghosts and heard the bowls singing on their own?" she asked.

"No, but one day I played the bowls at a shop in Columbus, Ohio, for hours and hours. It was a festival and people would press their faces to the glass of the store and kept coming in to shop as long as I played the bowls. That night after I went to sleep, a large singing bowl appeared at the bottom of my bed and it began to chant a deep "OM." Three gnarled women's hands reached up out of the bowl and I could feel their claws dig into my calf muscle as they started to drag me off of my bed and into the bowl. I awoke, startled by the dream." I said. "But the bowl dealers in Nepal assured me that my vision was an auspicious event."

Everyone at my table was quiet and looking at me now.

"Sometimes people bring me interesting things at these shows." I filled the silence. "Like this bell here." I don't know much about it. I do know that it doesn't look like anything that I have seen in Nepal and there is an I-Ching coin tied to it, which is kind of strange. Maybe the woman who gave it to me thought it was haunted or something, so she gave it to me."

The Indian woman looked at her husband and said, "You are not bringing that bell into our house!"

Perhaps I said too much. I didn't sell the bell or the bowl, only a few rudraksha, but I had a great time telling the stories!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Living Without Electricity

Making prayer wheels by the window light

Hand carved ring; You can see many more rings on our website http://aworldofgood.com.

Currently, the power situation in Nepal is very serious. People in Kathmandu are getting by on only 8 hours of electricity a day. Rural electrification is much less predictable. The craftsmen that I work with usually sit near an open window so that they will have enough light to do their work. They use old fashioned treadle sewing machines not only for sewing but for jigsawing and grinding or polishing tasks. These are often set up outside on the street so that they will have enough light to work. I would like to bring them machinery to make their lives easier, but without a reliable energy source, it seems pointless.

Take a look at the ring above. Each ring is completely hand built without the use of machinery. I have watched as the craftsmen stand with a cutting tool and carve the designs into the silver, one piece at a time without even a pattern to go by. It is amazing to see how uniformly the pieces are created. If the lights are out, sometimes it is impossible for me to make my purchases and they have to close their shops. A kerosene lamp does not caste enough light to select jewelry.

Please, take a moment to observe VOTE EARTH by simply switching off your lights for one hour, and join the world for Earth Hour, Saturday, March 28, 8:30-9:30pm. Light a candle and give thanks.

What would you miss most if there were no electricity? I would miss: laundry machines, reading at night, computer, radio, TV, water (we have an electric pump), heat (electric starter), cooked food (electric range).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Pieces of old Tibetan amber set in silver with old Tibetan coral. Broken bits of Roman Glass with antique carnelian and turquoise beads. Try clicking on the image to see it larger.

This past weekend I was in Richmond, VA selling at a gem and jewelry show. I'm still recovering. The shows are long and difficult and I usually return sick.

Next door to our building there was an antique show. At this particular venue, I always get a lot of people wandering over from next door, asking me to identify Asian items for them. They also want me to show them my antiques. However, most of the items that I buy in Nepal are not old. The reason that I prefer to buy new items is that creating something new provides a craftsman with a job. The selling of antiquities breeds a negative market. In effect, it creates a market for stolen goods. If the item is not stolen from a temple then it may be a forgery which, to my mind, is creating an object that from its inception is meant to deceive. There are real Himalayan antiques out there from legitimate sources, but they are very expensive and one really needs to know what one is looking at. (I would not recommend buying antiquities on line.)

A few of my jewelry suppliers are very good at recycling though. They buy up old beads in bits and pieces and then create something new with them. This helps the poor to make some money from their broken bits of jewelry. My customers can receive a new piece of jewelry that may have at least a couple of beads in it that are hundreds or even a thousand years old. Often they have no idea what they are looking at unless I tell them. They simply like the look of the pieces.

In the pictures above, only the larger coral beads at the bottom of each piece are old. In the image on the right, the black beads with white and yellow stripes are the Roman glass that may be a thousand years old or more. Sometimes these things were in older pieces of jewelry that fell apart, sometimes they are broken bits of bracelets or other things that people grind down and drill for use as beads. When you live on the silk road, there are always treasures to be found in the dirt. All of our items are inspected by the archeology office in Nepal before shipping to make sure that we are not removing anything that we should not.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Whom to Blame?

Durbar Square

Krishna was a real hustler. He knew all the craftsmen, and had taught himself English in the streets of Kathmandu. If you needed something, he could figure out where to get it and then negotiate the price for you. He was a wonderfully enthusiastic kid with a contagious smile. It didn't matter what the task was, he was ready to take it on. When I met him he was a 16 year old boy working for an importer from California. Because of his charm and usefulness. We, the importers, would treat him to evenings out at restaurants where the bill for the evening might be more than his family made in a month. Or we would allow him to join us on sightseeing trips and pay his way for everything. In return, he offered translation skills and cultural information.

His family lived in a crumbling 'house of a goddess' right on Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Nobody could remember when his family moved into the temple, generations had passed, so it was sort of 'their' temple, as he explained it to me. According to Krishna, the family had very little money and his father was an alcoholic who beat his mother.

In Nepal, if the family doesn't have money, children receive the bare minimum public education, and they only receive this education if they live in a city where there is a school. Krishna, as bright as he was, had only a 3rd grade education. I remember sitting at a roof top restaurant looking down on the square where women were winnowing the wheat and his brothers were selling masks and statues to tourists. Krishna and I were trying to have a discussion about the environmental trouble the world was in. He postulated that the rapid increase in the number of people on the earth had made the world too heavy and had slowed down the rotation of the earth. I had a hard time convincing him that there was problem with his theory.

When he was 17, Krishna's father passed away. There was anger in Krishna's eyes when he talked about his father. Although he wore the traditional 'white for a year,' he was glad that his father would no longer be around to torment his mother. Shortly after his father's death, Krishna began to talk about bringing a wife home to be a help to his mother. Her life was very hard. Laundry took his mother a whole day to finish. There was no washing machine or running water in the home. So she would carry the clothes to the public tap. Cooking was also a full time task. She had to collect wood or dung to fuel a fire before she could cook. Not only was there no pre-packaged food to buy, she was not able to store anything perishable without a refrigerator so she went shopping everyday. Because she was caring for a house of four unmarried boys, finding help for her was always on Krishna's mind.

At 18 Krishna fell in love. The girl was only 15 years old. He avoided traditional marriage arrangements by taking her to a temple and asking the god of the temple to witness and bless their marriage. Typically, marriages are arranged by the families and involve bands that parade from the groom's house to the bride's, but this wedding was not typical. It was my impression that the girl's family did not approve of the marriage. All I heard about it was that his mother was happy with the girl and that they had moved into Krishna's room together.

A few days after his marriage, Krishna came to visit me at my hotel. He had a big problem. He didn't know how to make babies and neither did his wife. This was not a question that either one of them felt they could ask their family about so he came to me. I took him to a quiet corner of the lobby and explained the details and sketched an instructional book for him with a lot of emphasis on hygiene and birth control and told him to promise not to tell anyone where he got the information. Within a year, Krishna had his first child.

The following year, Krishna lost his job working for the Californian importer. Sadly, while Krishna understood the English very well, he did not understand the expectations of those he worked for. He lost his relationship with the California importer because he was accepting payment from the importer as well as from the craftsmen, even when Krishna was not present for the transaction. He had negotiated kickbacks-for-life to himself, for every foreigner that he brought to any craftsman. That eventually made everyone mad at him. It made me more sad than mad. I had often tried to tell him to take a commission up front so that there would not be any misunderstanding. For some reason, he loathed the idea of being a 'commission guy.' I still don't know which of us misunderstood what a 'commission guy' was.

When his son was about 7, he came and asked me if I could get his son into a private school. Krishna's son was not doing well in school and was having trouble with bullies because he was a lower caste to them. Although I thought it was hopeless, I spent a day at St. Xavier's school with him trying to see what could be done. Nothing came of it. As I tried to explain to Krishna, his son needed to be doing well in school already to get into St. Xavier.

A few years later there was an effort to restore the deteriorating central square of Bhaktapur. Because Krishna's family was living in an historic building, they were given some money to build a new house, which they did. Perhaps it was because of the money that Krishna began to lose his way or maybe it had started long before I knew. He was drinking, and then using drugs. The tourist business was not going well, the importers didn't seek him out any longer, and most of the money was gone by the next year.

There is no happy ending to this story. Krishna's wife left, without their child. Krishna became an alcoholic much like his father, and his son is being raised by Krishna's mother. I stopped communicating with Krishna when he asked if I could supply him with Viagra to sell in Kathmandu. He didn't believe me when I told him that would not be legal. His son is now 14, and just as unprepared for the world as Krishna was at that age.

I wish that I could have made more of a difference in Krishna's life. I blame myself for treating him to expensive restaurant meals that included alcohol, trips, and luxuries of a lifestyle that he was not prepared for. I blame the caste system for not treating children equally. I blame the government for not providing adequate education. I blame Krishna's father for not parenting. And I blame Krishna for allowing himself to follow in his father's footsteps.

Note: Krishna's name and name of his home square have been changed to protect his identity.
Erica Jong - Take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.

Edmund Hillary - It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ignorance into Mirror-Like Wisdom

A picture shows us part of the world that the photographer wants us to see. A story tells us what the writer wants us to know. A mirror reflects the truth, everything that there is, both good and bad. One of the teachings of Buddha, is that wisdom is the mirror. Wisdom is the answer to the poison of hatred and anger which stems from ignorance.

Below is a link that gives different perspectives on wisdom from several famous people. Please take a look.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Because You're Wonderful!

Thank you so much for taking time to read my stories and make comments! Your praise is always well received. Your thoughts are considered carefully. Your questions are the nourishment that feeds the next story. Thank you!

I have been gifted a couple of awards recently, Best Blog Thinker award from Oasis Writing Link, and the Lemonade award from Khaled KEM. Below are only 15 blogs that I would like to extend these awards to, but I think you all deserve them. Many of you already have them, but if you don't, please feel free to take one from me. (If you have the time and inclination, please link back to me and pass the awards on to others.)

Take a moment to see what some of these brilliant people are doing.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Classical Art of Being

Guests for Tea Ceremony
In the front, are my friend, my Sensei (teacher), and me in my kimono.

One of the most wonderful parts of learning traditional Japanese arts is the ritual 'Zen' of the practice. Every movement is done with a purpose and in the most economical way possible. Every detail of the tea ceremony is performed in such a way as to do the job in the least possible steps and with exactly the same movements every time. The result is that you become completely absorbed in the task at hand. There is no concern for past or future, and therefore, you are completely in the moment. What one should be able to take from the experience is 'harmony' with nature, 'respect' for those you serve, 'purity' of body and thought through the cleansing ritual, and 'tranquility' of the mind.

Each time I went to the tea house, which was also my teacher's home, there would be an entry ritual. I would arrive at the little tea house hidden from the city behind a curtain of living bamboo trees. From the path, I would call through the sliding paper door, "I am so sorry, please." My teacher inside would reply, "Please, rise up."

We would begin by dressing me in a kimono, then go to the back room where I would clean the utensils that I was about to use in the ceremony. I would come out of the preparation room with my fan in front of me and my head bowed to the sweet smelling tatami mat floor. I would humble myself and pull myself on my knees slowly across the floor until I reached the point where I would make the tea. Every action, how I held my sleeve out of the way, the care with which I measured the tea, and the exact placement of the coals was ritual. Even the conversation was a ritual. The appointed guest would always ask the same questions, and I would always give the same answers. First I would apologize for my tea, to which the guest would always reply how good it was. Then they would admire the tools and I would tell them who made them, and they would ask about the sweets, and I would say who made those and where they came from. That was about the extent of it. I would bow my head to the ground again and drag my body on my knees backwards bowing again before I disappeared into the preparation room. It sounds simple, but in reality, every turn of my wrist was completed very precisely, so that I might resemble a classic Japanese print. People spend their entire lives mastering the tea ceremony. Even my 80 year old teacher still had a teacher. The whole ceremony took about an hour though I know that some ceremonies last as many as 5 hours.

More lovely than the Zen of the tea ceremony for me was the ritual after my practice was over. My teacher would often make rice for me in an old wooden rice steamer and give me some salty fish and Japanese pickles. Then she would say, "Would you sing, Comin' thro' the Rye." And I would try, "Gin a body meet a body Comin thro' the rye, Gin a body kiss a body, Need a body cry?" Every time, she would tell me that when she was a very little girl, she was taken to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to sing for the King of England. That was about it. We didn't need to fill all of the silence with conversation. We just enjoyed being with one another.

When it was time to go, my sensei would come out of the tea house in her kimono and little wooden getta (shoes) and wave good-bye to me. She would always walk into the street and wave until I was down the lane and around the corner and almost to the train platform. As long as there was a glimpse of me, she would wave.

The last time that I saw my sensei, she was a few weeks from her death from cancer. I visited her in the hospital, and I sang, 'Comin' thro' the rye.' She got out of her hospital bed when it was time for me to go and went into the hallway and waved good-bye to me until I was down the hall and the elevator door shut.

A little girl sings, 'Comin' Thro' the Rye'