Uncle Tantra sits alone at the airport bar, hunched over his leather-bound Journal, writing. That is, he is pretending to write, because the redhead beside him is lonely and talkative and he is not feeling either right now, so he is trying to look busy. The redhead is well dressed, chic. Uncle Tantra is a mess. He's dressed in hiking boots and torn, dirty jeans and a sweater he bought in Paris for an obscene amount of money, which is covered with dust. He is to the concept of 'fashion statement' what Madonna is to the concept of 'Carmelite nun.'
But the redhead is not deterred either by his apparent busyness or by the fact that he is clearly sartorially disabled. She is more than a little drunk, and keeps leaning over to talk with him. Uncle Tantra tries to be polite, anchoring his gaze on her jade-green eyes to avoid looking down her low-cut blouse, as she clearly wants him to do. Normally, he would not act this cool, gazing soulfully into her eyes, pretending to be blissfully unaware of the most perfect pair of store-bought breasts it has ever been his pleasure to view from this particular angle.
Uncle Tantra is not usually averse to such phenomena. It's just that he spent the morning hiking at a fairly hot power place, is still burning from the experience, and is hoping to put a little of it down on paper before his flight. And he knows that the redhead is not really interested in him, per se. She just recognizes, on some level, the energy of an ancient Anasazi site, and even though she can't identify it, she can feel its power and wants some of it.
But Uncle Tantra is a little out there right now, and the designer breasts, as nice as they are, just aren't enough to capture his deep-fried attention. The redhead is babbling on about her husband back home and his inadequacies. Uncle Tantra can feel the poor guy's dick getting shorter with each passing tirade. During a momentary lapse in the one-sided conversation, he affects a look of inspiration, as if he has just been struck by some glorious idea for a story, and turns away from the redhead, really writing this.
It works for a few minutes. The redhead scans the rest of the bar, looking for another potential victim, and finds only a not-terribly-attractive cowboy, well into his fifth beer. She looks back at Uncle Tantra, but he is still busy scribbling in his Journal, clearly Somewhere Else. Suddenly, the sensation of Bad Frozen Margarita in my lap wakes me up, and brings me back to the here and now. And here and now, the redhead is apologizing profusely for spilling her drink on me accidentally. Yeah, right. She is drunk enough to have lost all inhibition, and is in the process of dabbing at my crotch with her napkin, trying to soak up the icy attempt at flirtation.
"No harm done," I say, taking the napkin from her and wiping up the mess, concentrating on the areas of my anatomy that had had even their momentary enthusiasm...uh...dampened. "It happens. Sometimes these glasses just try to make a break for it."
The redhead seems pleased. She opens her mouth to speak again, but I am past the point of Buddhist etiquette and revert to Buddhist ethics. Before she can say anything, I hold up a finger and touch it to her lips. She looks shocked and excited. I can almost feel the humidity in the room rise. "It's Ok. I'm all better now." She waits expectantly for my next line, fully expecting it to be a come-on.
Perversely, I pause for about four beats before I finally say, "I'm sorry, but you have caught me at an inopportune time. I awoke this morning and promised myself one more spiritual experience before I flew off to the city where I am consulting. I spent the morning hiking at a power place I know of, hoping to find such an experience there, but to no avail. It was cool and all, and I had some great meditations, but nothing extraordinary. But a promise is a promise, so if you'll excuse me, I have to perform a bizarre cult ritual right now."
The word cult has its intended effect. The redhead sits bolt upright on her barstool, her breasts shrinking by at least two cup sizes. "Cult ritual?" she squeaks. "Yes," I breathe confidentially. "I am feeling the call of my sangha. This is the traditional Day of the Big Cosmic Deal, and all over the planet, at this very moment, spiritual seekers such as I are sitting down to their annual game of Spiritual Solitaire. Because I am here in this airport and can't be with my holy brethren, for the next few minutes before my plane leaves I must join them psychically, so that I can tune in to the holy etheric energy being broadcast to humanity by the collective tribe." Then I smiled, all-knowingly.
The redhead said nothing. For the first time in almost an hour, she was rendered speechless. Intent is really a cool thing sometimes.
But then, warrior that she was, she decided to try one last time. She parted her plumped-up, collagen-filled lips and started to speak. I cut her short by holding up my hand and shifting my gaze from being focused on her to being focused through her, as if I were fixated on the Beyond. I turned my gaze from her slowly and gazed raptly at the surface of the bar in front of me.
Her lips snapped shut with a resounding phffft. Slowly, with zombielike purposefulness, I reached into my coat pocket and took out the pack of cards. I squared them up on the bar and began to shuffle them noisily. Finally, setting the deck ceremoniously on the bar, I cut the cards — always cut the cards — and began to lay them out on the green marble surface in a classic solitaire pattern. I dealt the cards in neat, precise rows of seven, pausing stoically each time I got to the top card of each stack, savoring the moment of turning it over and seeing its image. Then I leaned back on my barstool and smiled ecstatically at the pattern, as if it met all of my mystical expectations.
The redhead looks at my smile, then looks at the bartop in front of me. She looks at my eyes, and then at the bartop again. The bartop is completely empty. She watches my hands as I compulsively straighten the stacks of cards that only I can see. She looks at my face again and I turn, giving her the best Buddha-like smile I can manage. She gets up and moves down to the other end of the bar and starts talking to the cowboy.
I graciously allow her attention to move on and, just to be sure, continue with my game of virtual solitaire. She and the cowboy turn, every so often, to glare at me across the length of the bar. The bartender too has noticed me sitting there playing solitaire with cards that only I can see. The three of them are staring at me as if they think I'm crazy. How crazy would they think I was if they knew that I really can see the cards?
I have been able to see them ever since my visit to an Asian art gallery in Santa Fe a couple of weeks ago. It's an amazing gallery, full of museum-quality Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese pieces. I go there often, to inspire myself and see if they have anything new. Well, on this recent visit, they did. They had some excellent examples of an artform that is purely Tibetan, and seems to have no counterpart anywhere else in Asia, possibly in the world.
In the gallery, they had a collection of tsakli. Tsakli, or initiation cards, are Tibetan, but examples of them can be found in many places in Asia — China, Mongolia, Manchuria...even Siberia. They are a remnant of the attempt, by traveling Tibetan monks, to spread the dharma.
Tsakli are hand-painted images on stiffened canvas, and are about the size of modern playing cards. The images on the initiation cards vary. Some are literally commemorations of an initiation into one of the esoteric practices of Tibetan Buddhism. These cards have a painting of the lama who gave the initiation, usually in a symbolic pose associated with the particular practice or siddhi. Some show lamas levitating, or sitting naked in the snow, or hurling thunderbolts at demons. The true initiation cards are signed on the back in Tibetan script, indicating the place and time of the initiation, and the lineage from which the lama descended.
Other tsakli have paintings of the protective deities, and are used for visualization practices. Traditionally, a lama would hold the card up at arm's length in front of the student for a few minutes, and then send the student away to visualize it, until he could recreate the image perfectly in his mind.
Still other tsakli are detailed paintings of ritual objects used in pujas, traditional ceremonies in which symbolic offerings are made to one's lineage or to protective deities. Traveling monks, on a Road Trip trying to spread the dharma and not being blessed with the modern convenience of carry-on luggage with wheels, couldn't always bring along the necessary ceremonial objects and offerings themselves, so they would carry tsakli paintings of them, and set the cards up on makeshift altars along the road. There, they would perform their own private pujas, again using visualization to re-create the real objects and offerings in their minds.
Having spent a little time on the road myself trying to spread the dharma, I fell deeply in love with the concept of tsakli. To me they are the ultimate personal spiritual art form. Tsakli are portable power objects, carried close to one's heart. You take them out and gaze at them from time to time to reestablish your connection to your path, to reinspire you and remind you of the cool moments that path has revealed to you.
Of course, being the weird old fart I am, I couldn't leave well enough alone. My first reaction to seeing them was, "Cool! Spiritual baseball trading cards!"
Standing there in the gallery, gazing at the tsakli, an instant comedy routine formed itself in my mind. Two Tibetan monks are sitting huddled in a small cave in the Himalayas, trapped by a blizzard, amusing themselves by comparing sets of tsakli. "So...Dorjedude...what do you say? I'll trade you two Mahakalas, a Tsongkhapa and a Green Tara for that Levitation Mahasiddha initiation card you've got."
"I dunno, Lobsang. I had to sit in a cave for over two years to get that initiation. You wouldn't want to sweeten the deal by throwing in that sexy Prajnaparamita card you scored in Lhasa, would you?"
I laugh out loud and the gallery owner, himself Nepalese, looks at me funny, wondering about my sanity. This seems to be a recurring theme in my life, one that I will hopefully someday learn something from.
I suppressed my internal comedy routines and lingered on in the gallery for over an hour, gazing at the tsakli and trying to imagine the lives of the monks who had once carried them. I toyed with the idea of buying some of them for myself, of starting my own collection, but then realized that I didn't need to. I already had a set.
My personal set of tsakli is shining in my mind. I have been collecting them for most of my life.
I realized that the most meaningful set of tsakli I could possibly own were the cool moments of the incarnation. They were the epiphanies I have been fortunate enough to have experienced along the way, and they had the additional benefit of already being there, painted permanently on the canvas of my mind. And, since the individual tsakli in the gallery were expensive, this solution also better accommodated my limited budget.
I have never been a terribly good student. I have always done things pretty much backasswards. If one of my teachers said to do A, I would invariably start with Z. So, rather than starting with images and trying to visualize the cool moments they symbolized, when it came to building my own set of tsakli, I started with the cool moments themselves and tried to come up with suitable images. I attempted to recollect each of the moments clearly in my mind, and then worked backwards to come up with an image of the moment that would allow me to access it more readily.
I worked on this virtual artform for several weeks, continually surprising myself with both the number of cool moments there were to capture, and with the vividness of the resulting images. I'm kinda pleased with the results, especially with the balance of them. About half of the images are based on cool moments I experienced in the company of Rama or some other spiritual teacher. The others, however, are almost more satisfying, because they are based on experiences I had by myself, or in the company of other seekers.
All in all, it was a fascinating experience, and I highly recommend it to others. Because, when it all comes down, all of us have our own set of tsakli shining in our minds. We have so many cool moments! And it is so easy sometimes to forget them.
Anyway — back in the airport bar — it is this set of cards I am using to play my solitary game of Spiritual Solitaire. I carry it with me at all times, because you never can tell when you might need a little inspiration. Or a little subtle defense strategy. My game of virtual solitaire has had its intended effect — the redhead has given up on me. I glance down the bar to where she is sitting, just in time to see her accidentally spill a margarita into the cowboy's lap. He seems to be enjoying her attempts to dab at his crotch with her napkin more than I did. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Back at his end of the bar, Uncle Tantra looks up at the clock and realizes that it's almost time for his flight. He pushes a twenty onto the bartop to pay for his drink, and the bartender suspiciously snatches it and almost runs away to make change. Uncle Tantra deals one last card while he is waiting. He slowly turns over the card and lays it face up on the bartop, recognizes the image, and smiles his biggest smile of the day. It's one of his faves. He sits for a few minutes gazing at the image, clearly Somewhere Else.
The bartender returns with the change, and courageously places it on the bartop in front of the person sitting there with a huge grin on his face, staring at nothing. The person leaves the change for the bartender. After all, he deserves it; he's had to put up with a crazy at his bar. Uncle Tantra turns to say good-bye to the redhead, but she is making out enthusiastically with the cowboy. So it goes.
Uncle Tantra gathers up all the cards and squares up the deck on the bartop one last time. Pulling on his leather coat, he puts the deck back in his breast pocket, picks up his carry-on and is about to wheel it away when he notices something on the bar, beside the pile of change. It's a card, a new one.
Surprised, he picks up the card and looks at it. The image on the card is of himself, sitting alone at an airport bar, gazing at a number of cards arrayed there in front of him in a solitaire pattern. The cards are clearly visible in the painting, as is the smile on his face. Uncle Tantra shrugs and tucks the card in his coat pocket, adding it to the deck of tsakli, and walks away.