The Karma Gadri, one of the main schools of Tibetan painting, comes out of a nomadic religious tradition that mostly did not build fixed monasteries. Instead, the Karmapa monastics and their entourage roamed the high plateau, stopping sometimes to put up their yak-hair tents, establishing temporary teaching encampments that had many of the features of big monasteries, but lacked their solid walls and placement in perpetuity. Chögyam Trungpa Rimpoche talks about what this must have been like from the villagers’ perspective. You go to sleep in your bed with your family and your animals all around you. In the night you hear maybe some bells, some hooves and mallet thumps, and when you wake up there is a whole new town in the pasture-land, grouped around a black tent-temple whose red banners snap in the wind. Inside, there is a library of books like bread-loaves wrapped in silk, surrounded by hanging paintings that spell out many-limbed permutations of wisdom and compassion. There’s a shrine with gleaming water-bowls and smoky butter-lamps lighting a golden Buddha that’s very large for easy transport over Himalayan passes. You’re shy of the new people: they seem tall, bald, and fierce, but then someone gives you a bowl of soup. You start sharing stories about the paths that lead to here & now, and a clear connection opens.
I’ve been trying the experiment of living on Karma Gadri terms. For this to work, it helps to leave open the question of who is the village and who is the roaming monastery. Either way, there is a temporary encounter with the potential for some kind of teaching to occur, and there is the importance of food as a connector of people.
Food is a primary connector of people. One mobile pantry day, hundreds of families traveled overnight for their share of the Food Bank’s 17,000 pounds of food, forming a dawn encampment in the parking lot of the School of Theology. An entire tractor-trailer of donated food had also appeared, and so the Sewanee residents who turned up to help were given a completely temporary, very urgent and beautiful scenario to step into. We were not really the hosts, only the matchmakers between the people and the food.
As the lone vegetarian among the volunteers, I somehow wound up distributing entire palette-loads of meat. “Would you like some ribs, ma’am? Maybe a little sausage?” It was the best job ever. People really wanted the meat, and while some part of my mind was thinking, “Really? More cholesterol?” I could also tell that the exchange that was taking place was absolutely essential, and that the role I was stepping into that day was pretty much Many-Armed Bestower of Porky Blessings. The animals were already dead; the people were already alive, and bringing them together at the altar of this folding table was an action imbued with inevitable sense.
I turned up for another pantry day, to discover a gentle encampment of carrot, donut, granola, cubed chicken, fresh tomato, and macaroni tables, and relatively few people arriving to step into the role of food-recipients. A woman told me she was leaving a job she loved, because her husband had not had clean socks or underwear for six months (had he lost the use of his thumbs?) A student told me about living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, doing whale research and wearing ski pants to keep off the misty chill. We broke down boxes, moved tables into the shade, told summer-stories amongst ourselves, and waited.
My turn to carry groceries came in the form of Sheryl, who quickly established several things: she is raising a whole bunch of grandchildren; she knows how to cook and preserve all kinds of food; and she is a talker who weaves her stories on a master-teller’s jacquard loom. Some people spin a single faltering thread. Some people shuttle back and forth between the present and one other line. And Sheryl is someone who has six colors flying back and forth to form her shifting stories, with needles carrying the extra patterns she sews over the surface of her cloth. The VA and how mean they are. The one-room schoolhouse in Jump Off when she was a girl, and the teacher who came an hour before everyone else to cook cornbread lunch for the children. How the children used to come jumping across streams to get to school, and how her mother would substitute in the winter when the teacher couldn’t get there. The Franklin County police and how they like to use their radios to seem big. Her sons and how the military messed them up. How to preserve corn in a simple water bath. How to make cobbler out of canned peaches. How her daughter’s made sure that when her mother dies, she’ll get her fruit jars. How she’s seen trauma, and can deal with it, but she thinks being a teacher would be the hardest job in the world, because you never can tell what other people’s children have been through.
I carry the first box of food. We fill it and come back for more. We each carry one more box to Sheryl’s truck, and then it’s really story-time. Sheryl’s grandmother put her in charge of making sure her older sisters didn’t get pregnant, and since Sheryl believed kissing could do the trick, this required a lot of vigilance. Her sisters’ threats to kill her didn’t seem to stop young Sheryl from breaking up their chicken-coop dates, so they saved money in a jar until they could pay someone to take on the role of Sheryl’s boyfriend and keep her distracted. But she had no interest. “I wanted to out-shoot, out-run, and out-wrestle the boys,” she says, “but I didn’t want a boyfriend.” They went to a drive-in movie and all she wanted to do was see the movie; they went to park & neck at Green’s View, and all she wanted was to see the valley in the moonlight. She started walking home alone in the middle of the night to escape the date, and then her sisters wanted to kill her even more. Now a car pulls up behind us and it’s Sheryl’s sister Belle. “Someone got pregnant on my watch anyway, didn’t she?” asks Sheryl, by way of greeting. Belle laughs, and we all start walking back up to the food tables.
As we part, Sheryl says, “I’ll give you my phone number. Then if you like I’ll teach you, and we can do some canning, standing in the yard like two witches stirring our pots.” The opportunity for teaching. The truth that helping always goes both ways. The women stirring their pots, with the yak-hair tents behind them and the mountains under their feet. Two lives meeting and sharing the truths that arise when the heart opens wide as the clear blue sky.
[Adapted from a series of stories I recorded in 2011, reflecting on my final four months of living and teaching in Sewanee, TN. Recordings are online at: http://www.turtlenosedsnake.com/storysmuggler.htm]
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now