An offering in flames

Writing reminds us of who we are, where we have been, and why it matters. Since it’s been a few weeks since I’ve returned to Canada, I can now look back and think about the parts in relation to the whole. It’s a good opportunity to remind myself of where I am now, and a few of the important events that shaped the experience. It was full of twists and turns, and while these were not entirely positive, each provided new opportunities and left me (perhaps) a little bit wiser.

The first big twist was that I ended up spending my internship in India, not Bhutan, due to visa problems. At first this was a hard knock, but there was nothing to do but laugh at the situation, and make alternate arrangements. This led me to working closely with the Tibetan exile community in Mcleod Ganj in Northern India. There I saw a people who had been uprooted from their country and transplanted to a new place. In the face of extreme adversity, the Tibetan community is working hard to preserve their language and culture while sharing their experiences with the world. The dynamism and positivity I saw there was inspiring. It was a blessing to share experiences with Tibetan monks and refugees over butter tea and momos. My friends there helped bring home the lesson that while it may be difficult to live in the present, it is pointless to live in the future, and impossible to live in the past.

After my time in Mcleod Ganj I worked at the Deer Park Institute. My closest colleague was Trilock, Deer Park’s incredibly warm and kind Ecology Coordinator. He was an invaluable friend, who opened up his home and his heart to the people around him. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he fully embodied the quotation from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, that says “Enthusiasm has great strength. There is no greater strength than enthusiasm. There is nothing which is not attainable in this world for the enthusiastic.” Confronting what’s ahead of you with enthusiasm allows you to remain positive and gather the right people in the right place.

These lessons were particularly important when, shortly before leaving India, my aunt passed away unexpectedly. I wasn’t able to return to Canada. This is one of the disadvantages of living and working abroad. You can’t always be there for important rituals that provide closure, or celebrate new beginnings. While I could speak with my family on Skype, I wasn’t processing my grief. A friend recommended I make a traditional Tibetan butter lamp offering, as is often done in times of transition.

Fire used to light the darkness is an ancient ritual common to many cultures. In Tibetan Buddhism, butter lamps are lit as a dedication to the dead that guides them to the next stage of existence. Butter lamps are also a means of dispelling the darkness of our own ignorance, giving rise to clarity and wisdom.

On my last day in India, I made an offering in flames to honour my aunt’s life. As twilight arrived, I lit lamp after lamp –  one for each year of her life – in silent reflection. A storm, unlike any I’d yet seen in India, swept over the Himalayas. Thunder rolled through the hills and lightning illuminated the mountains. As lightning flashed and lamps flickered in the wind, I understood that this was not just a ceremony for my aunt, but also an offering to my time and friends in India. My grief was transformed into gratitude for all I had been given.

-Eric Smith