Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jerry Sternin's Final Return to An Eternal Kathmandu

Jerry has come home, once again...

A year and a half after his maha-departure from this world in which we live, eat, write and love, Jerry's mortal ashes, the quiet remains of his wry, charming, effervescent, insouciant, clever, aesthetic, humorous, lovable material substance was brought back to the spirit of Nepal he adored by his adoring wife, Monique.

I picked Monique up at Tribhuvan airport on Thursday about 3:30 pm, leaving work early to meet her after ten years away from Kathmandu. She and Jerry were here last just when we'd finished our new home in Budhanilkantha, a decade past by now...

I'd planned to take Monique straight home, but Shakun had remembered in the morning that I was bringing Jerry's ashes home that day and her Hindu-Buddhist upbringing recoiled at the thought of transporting these spiritually endowed ashes into our compound before they were adequately blessed and ritually 'cleansed' by the deities that be.

I didn't have a problem with that need (though I'm a bit more of a Western 'materialistic' in my spiritual thinking about such earthly remains...). It's just that my dear wife knew for a month that M was bringing J's ashes and hadn't said anything about it until the morning I was going to meet M at the airport, of course...

Husbands and wives... Chapter 108... ;-)

Yet, as life and marriage will have it, everything worked out more beautifully due to Shakun's insistence. Both Shakun and I made a few phone calls in the morning to align our plans with spiritual requirements or recommendations. Shakun reached out through her indigenous Nepali Buddhist associations about protocols while I went to dear Reena at Save the Children to see if she could contact Balaram, our previous chowkidar (guard) who had always doubled as our Tamang Buddhist lama, to see if Balaram could help with the ritual blessings at home.

Thus, before even reaching the airport in the afternoon, I knew that I would take Monique with Jerry's ashes to Choki Nima's Seto Gompa at Boudha on the way home. There was already a major Amitabha puja for long life being conducted there (as Carrie Sengleman had advised me).

We went up into the magnificent prayer chamber, where the monks were chanting and intoning while the drums were being beaten and the horns blowing and the Buddhas looking down from their glass cases and the walls shimmering with paintings of mandala and scenes of saints and rishis and rimpoches and devotees while we mere mortals made our way around the sitted monks to the front of the sanctuary where Choki Nima was perched on his sacred throne cross-legged holding his bell and vajra swaying gently to the sound of the prayers and Tibetan sutra.

Choki Nima smiled in knowledge and self-knowledge seeing me again so recently after the major Buddhist monlam that Shakun had organized a few weeks before. I don't know if he remembers that I had taken refuge with him decades before in his gompa, under the wise shadow of the great sages and teachers of his long lineage. But although profoundly attracted and deeply affected by that wisdom literature and psychological insights, I had hewn closer back to my Jewish faith over the years -- always seeking my own balance among the Hebraic truths of my family, the Buddhist insights into impermanence and, as I grew older, my natural attraction to the softly swaying Taoist bamboo groves of this world.

Thus, we stood, bowed our heads in respect and handed over our kata (silken ritual shawls) to Choki Nima for his meditative words and incantations over our all-so-human souls and the tender earthly remains of one so dear, so near and yet so far from us. We looked at each other, surrounded by the sanctity of the setting and the moment, then smiled peacefully knowing we had Jerry's ashes fully and thoroughly blessed before bringing them home.

Of course, Monique was incredibly moved to have had that sacred moment w/ all of the beauty, transcendence and peacefulness of a profoundly traditional Mahayana Tibetan Buddhist ceremony within an hour of her first stop in Kathmandu on this deeply personal and vulnerable mission to bring Jerry 'home' to Nepal.

Not everyone knows how far back goes Jerry's love of Nepal, as he was the Deputy Peace Corps Director here in the late 60s. You can imagine how innocent, serene and ancient the country must have been at that time! All of the modernization, traffic, congestion, construction, environmental decay, population explosion, sewage rivers, high rises, shopping malls and international influence was still decades in the future.

For those westerners fortunate enough to have come here at that time, it must have been a dream, an ein-believable dream...

Jerry offered me a remarkable insight into his life one of the last times I saw him at his beautiful home in Concord, MA, on a late August day, when his illness, yet to be diagnosed as cancer, was eating him from the inside and Monique had gone out to buy him some antibiotics. He said that there had only been three days in his life when he didn't think of food all day -- as those of us who knew him knew he was first a gourmand, second a chef and third everything else... First, he said, when he graduated from college, second when he left Nepal after Peace Corps in tears on his flight out of Kathmandu and third, that day, when he could hardly breathe due to the illness ravaging him from the inside.

That illness, the cancer in his lungs, eventually killed him three months later, after two strokes, more than a month in the hospital and through his supreme effort to beat the sickness back to restore his health and to plan his next meal. But the cancer, as so often is the case, was too strong, too malevolent, too aggressive, too unrelenting, uncaring of our human loves and concerns to push away. Fortunately, Jerry went quickly that autumn, watching the leaves fall one by one on his yard and pond, creating a pyre of color around him. For Jerry was not the type of person who would have wanted to linger weakened, dependent, unable to live the full, adventurous, creative and culinary life that he always enjoyed.

So, this w/end, with Monique and Sam we were able to bring Jerry's essence back to the country he so loved and which had given him such early inspiration in his remarkable and geographically radiant life.

Then that evening at home, through the kindness of beloved simple-hearted Reens, we had a household puja under our tea house by the pond in the front yard on the pathway to our home. Balaram and Ambar conducted a three hour puja in the tea house with four of their monastic Tamang brothers. It was so illusively beautiful in the quiet of the night under the powerful protection of Shivapuri w/ the frogs croaking in our pond. There was an old photo of a younger Jerry with flowers in his hair at his Buddhist wedding with Monique on the table in the candle light surrounded by sacred iconography, the monks in maroon and yellow robes, chanting, praying, blowing their horns, hitting their cymbals and effortlessly bringing a sacred spiritual quiet to our private landscapes, internal, external and communal.

Monique was at peace, at last, after her long travels from Boston to Kathmandu. She felt and knew that she'd brought her beloved husband, friend and partner's holy remains back where he always wanted to be, below the Himalaya.

She had completed one more of her profoundly personal commitments to him.

And, in doing so, brought herself a bit more acceptance of this necessary, if painful, transition in her earthly life.

For me, too, as you know, this puja offering was a gift for Jerry who had given me so much in my life, not the least many years ago, convincing my then boss, Joy Carol, in 1987 that I was the right person to be the next director of Save in Nepal after Gary Shaye. Jerry helped me in so many ways on the path that I've followed for the past 30 years. In so many ways he was the inspiration, the professional and personal guide/guru that every young man can benefit from in their 20s when they are trying to figure out the adult world around them with its games, opportunities, requirements and joys.

Jerry had that unique gift of joy and generosity. He touched people in a certain special way. He made them feel more alive, more appreciative, more awake, more aware, more important. He was one of my dearest friends and companions during that early middle of my life. We knew that we were different in certain ways of love and family, but we knew even more how much we were connected from the source in a way that mirrored our lives and our natures...

In this and in so many, many ways, Jerry was a second father and big brother to me -- as he will remain for the rest of my life...

Om Shanti. Om Shalom.

You are loved...


tongchen@seattle said...

Greetings from USA! Your blog is really cool.
Are you living in Nepal?
You are welcomed to visit me at:

bronwyn said...

Dear Keith, Thank you so very much for your beautiful writing about Jerry's last resting place. We all miss him terribly and it is so good to know that he received such blessings. (I wrote an appreciation for Jerry shortly after his death, posted here: )

Thank you, too, for taking such good care of Monique.