David Brown and the Stupa…

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David Brown is an artist, a farmer and a teacher living in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  He lives in what is known locally as the “Hay House”.  Made entirely of straw bales, the house is the oldest structure of its kind east of the Mississippi River.  David has no electricity or running water.  Oil lamps have been replaced by headlamps to see these days.  He collects rain water from the eaves of his barn for washing.  He has a gas powered pump running from the nearby bogs to water his garden.  He visits the local restaurants and the health food store for scraps to feed his chickens.  He uses their taps to fill gallon jugs for drinking water.   David lives off of what he grows and preserves, supplementing what he needs with the occasional trip to the grocery store.  Besides selling his artwork, David sells his produce and flowers at local farmer’s markets throughout the New England growing season.

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As for the rest of the year,  he spends as much time as possible by the warmth of a wood burning stove and an easel in his studio.  He is surrounded by his paints and brushes as well as his beloved pack of shitzus at his feet.  David lives as harmoniously as he can with his surroundings.  His artwork reflects this philosophy.  His life is his work, his work is his life.  David finds inspiration right where he is.  In his own words, “this is more than enough…I live better that 90% of the world’s population. My artwork is about appreciating what I have”.

David spent an entire year painting two different views of his land each and every day: a morning view of his gardens and an afternoon view of his fields.  He was interested in capturing the light and the way it moved through the year.  As the seasons changed, his gardens came and went, his life and work were constantly reflecting one another to complete another yearly cycle.  David’s morning and afternoon series can be seen as part of a documentary about his life and work, entitled “David Brown and the Hay House”.

“Monet said that a perfect life is half gardening and half painting. That sounds about right”. -David Brown

The morning series…

The afternoon series…

During the 1970’s and 80’s, David spent several years living in Nepal, high in the Himalayas, amongst the Tibetan refugees.

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With no official affiliation, but a desire to help, he began teaching English and art to the displaced Tibetans.   At one time, they had had a Peace Corps volunteer doing the same thing.  When the Peace Corps left and David appeared, they said, “you must be from the Peace Corps”.  After several attempts of telling them  “no”, he finally just said,  “yes, yes, the Peace Corps, my own personal Peace Corps”.

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Children outside

Woman cooking

The connections he made in Tibet would last him a lifetime. The Refugee Act of 1980 allowed refugee admission of “persons for whom the United States expressed humanitarian concerns”.  Then again as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, 1,000 displaced Tibetans were given special immigrant visas and have since resettled throughout the United States.  Several of the Tibetans David had met in Nepal came to Old Saybrook and the surrounding towns as part of that immigrant wave.

Years ago, David had put up a Tibetan prayer flag pole in the middle of his large hay field.  Having lived around them for years in Nepal, he had decided that he needed one too.

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He began planting daffodil bulbs around the prayer flags every Fall.  With each passing year friends began to join the ritual.  Then he began to think about building a stupa, “one day”.  On one of those occasions, a Tibetan friend announced to the group that David wanted to build a stupa at the site of the prayer flags and flowers.  It was at that moment, after years of wanting to do it that he decided, “I can talk about it, or just do it”.  So he did.

A stupa, known in Tibetan as a “choten”, very simply put is a spiritual monument, symbolizing the enlightened mind.  They are said to promote harmony, prosperity, longevity, good health and peace.  It is also believed that they bring blessings and alleviation of suffering to the environment in which they are built, to those who build them, and to those who visit them.

Traditionally, stupas are built under the direction of a Buddhist teacher.  David has been studying under Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche for many years.

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The Rinpoche is the abbott of Madro Tashi Choling, one of the last remaining monestaries in Tibet.

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The Rinpoche also created the Katog Choling Retreat Center, in Parthenon, Arkansas, a retreat and learning center devoted to spreading the Dharma in North America.

The Rinpoche came to David’s farm to undertake the first step in the building of a stupa, the traditional blessing of the land.  From the documentary “David Brown and the Stupa”, currently in post production, the Rinpoche explains the first important steps.  David then begins construction on the summer solstice, June 21st, 2006, and soon thereafter, lays the foundation.

The stupa was completed in the Spring of 2007.  The official dedication was held on April 22, 2007.   The day was declared Connecticut Stupa Day by then Governor Jodi Rell.  The dedication was attended by over 1,000 people, including many Tibetans,  religious leaders of many different faiths, as well as now United States Senator,  Richard Blumenthal.

Not even two weeks later, in the early morning hours of May 1st, 2007, David lost his barn and studio to a massive fire.  Gone in the flames were many family heirlooms, a beloved cat, photographs from his many travels, countless canvasses and all of his tools and machinery for the farm.  David looked at it as a lesson in impermanence.  But he soon rebuilt the barn and studio with the generous support of his many friends and family.

For David, the stupa stands today for the benefit of all sentient beings.   In the Rinpoche’s words, “…it becomes the heart essence of the area”.  Regardless of your belief system, David hopes the stupa will be a place of respite and reflection.  The Tibetans believe that a stupa can relieve pain and suffering for all who gaze upon it.  The world could use a bit of that right now.

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Giving Thanks in the Back Country…

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It was the Fall of 1999.  The plans with Freddy had been madeThe bags were packed.  The list of gear had been checked, twice.   Tent, check, water purifier, check, whistle to scare away bears, check.  Frank Richo was about to head into the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Yosemite National Park for five days of back country camping.

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After making the four-hour drive from San Francisco, and renting a bear canister from the Park Rangers, Frank and Freddy made it to The O’ Shaughnessy Dam on the Hetch-Hetchy Resevoir.   That would be their starting point.

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With their car safely tucked away in a parking lot, as well as most modern comforts, the adventurers headed into the wilderness.

Once they made it across the dam, and past the daytime tourists, they started on an intense switchback.  After zig zagging back and forth for most of the afternoon, they decided to set up camp.  End of day one.

The next morning was Thanksgiving.  They started the day with fresh fruit and pumpkin bread.  Something to be thankful for.  It was the last of the fresh food.  It would be mostly dehydrated meals and the occasional handful of trail mix after that.

They were back out on the trail, getting further and further away from civilization.  Frank recalls, “…at this point I’m thinking, we’re really in it.  We’re out there.”

Thanksgiving is typically a time when family and friends gather to do just as the name implies, and give thanks for each other, their food, their blessings.  Maybe watch some football or head out to the stores for holiday deals.  Frank was having a different sort of experience that day.

“It’s Thanksgiving Day, we are virtually the only people out there, everyone else is home watching football on TV, and we’re looking out at this vista that goes on and on and on.  This beautiful vista.  It was one of the richest natural experiences of my life.”

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is a vast and unspoiled land.  150 years ago on October 7, 1864 then president Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which created the nation’s first state park.  It became the blueprint for the National Park System.  In May of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt camped with naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir in Yosemite near Glacier Point for three days.  It was on that trip that Muir convinced Roosevelt to return the state park to the federal government.  In 1906, Roosevelt signed a bill that did exactly that, and preserved the natural beauty for future generations to enjoy, including Frank Richo that Thanksgiving Day.

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Roosevelt and Muir, Glacier Point, May of 1903

What does Frank remember most, besides the natural beauty?  “Bears mostly.”  He followed the park rules: keep your food 50-100 feet away from your tent, hoist your bear canister in a tree, make noise, whistle, sing (especially over a blind hill!).

Around the campfire at night was when they heard them the most.  There would be more than one bear near the campsite.  “We could hear them snorting, grunting…it was a weird feeling, it was pitch black…I remember looking away from the fire and yelling at the bears…looking at the fire again, yelling again.”

As they made their way back to the Hetch-Hetchy Resevoir, their would be more switchbacks, meadows, waterfalls, a river to finally wash in.  They would walk through two feet of snow with their gators on, then back into summer like weather, then back into snow in the same afternoon.

Finally making their way back to the car, Frank remembers, “It felt good, and the pizza and six-pack of beer definitely felt good too!”  But it was a real accomplishment.  All of the planning had paid off.  Frank had set out to do some back country camping and hiking in one of the world’s outdoor temples. He had always thought of Yosemite as a mecca for the outdoor adventurer.  So he packed his bags (and bear whistle), and went to see for himself.  It happened to be a time of Thanksgiving, in more ways than one.

 

 

 

 

Wanderlust…

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It’s always been one of my favorite words.  All that it implies.  All of the possibilities.  Is it because I grew up in a small town, where even a ride to the next town over felt exciting and new to me?  I remember family trips to New York City, rattling along the battered Cross Bronx Parkway, feeling that I was on an epic adventure.  The pull of the city, palpable from miles away, even to my young self.   The city imprinted on me.  The sounds, the waves of humanity, the smells…

I had trouble falling asleep as a kid, so I used to lay in bed and dream of airplane rides and cruise ships to faraway places.  I’d even have my bags packed in my mind, committed to memory.   Always ready to hit the road, even if it was just a trip to the grocery store.  I would imagine my adult self, with children named after places like Sydney, Paris and India.

To travel, to wander, is to feel free.  You have no choice but to live in the moment, it’s all we have.  I don’t need to go far,  the desire is always in my heart and in my dreams.   I strive to create good memories, so when I sit back and reflect upon my journey, it will be of a life well lived.

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