This Memorial Day: The Milk of Impermanence and a Soldier’s Tattoo

I spent this Memorial Day the best way I ever have: with a motley crew of people, walking from one branch of the Housatonic River to another, blessing it and ending with a blessing of the dead at the local war memorial.

Ours was a ragtag group, some holding flags – one of the planet earth, one an American flag, one was colorful and had tiny Tibetan script all over it. Some knew the Tibetan mantras and others did not (I’m in the latter category). Among us was a smattering of veterans. Some folks were Buddhists primarily, and some were Buddhists on the side, and some just were.

by Pedro Rocha
Phakchok Rinpoche by Pedro Rocha

Not only was there walking, there were prayers, chanting, and blessings. These were led by Phakchok Rinpoche, who is a Tibetan Buddhist monk and among other things, abbot of monasteries in Nepal. Good-humored, he is also approachable and down-to-earth. This was my first encounter with this teacher, though he conducts teachings widely throughout North America.

At the first branch of the river, as we stood on a bridge, I stood next to him, not more than four inches away. At one point, he asked us to chant, Om mani padme hum.

Though many familiar even just a little with Buddhism may know this chant, is not a part of my practice. I hold nothing against it; I am just not comfortable chanting it. Regardless I felt enveloped by the energy of the ritual, quite content to send my intentions of compassion to the river and all that it touches:

Water is life.

Water is healing.

No separation.

Of water are we made.

May we be cleansed.

May we keep clean these and all waters.

My eyes were closed as I took part, so I was caught by surprise when Rinpoche touched my open palm having noticed my lips not moving as the others were, and asked me, “Do you not know Om mani padme hum?” Without thought, I not only shook my head, I grasped his finger. Just for the slightest moment, I held on, then I let go.

Rinpoche led us in a cleansing of the river that centered on pouring milk (local, organic) from the bridge into the water. I cannot convey how powerful this ritual was. The milk jug was tipped so that milk poured into the river, dash by dash. To watch the opaque solution enter, distinct, then elongate as the river pulled it onward, then dissolve, next cloudy, then not distinguishable at all, I was in awe. The lesson of impermanence never so forceful as in the moments of beholding this process.

(I have attempted to learn more about this ritual and its origins online, but without success. If you know more about this, please contact me through the blog.)


Yesterday, I attended Sunday worship services at my home congregation.  During the service, with its focus honoring war dead by speaking of peace, we sang

And into plowshares turn their swords,
Nations shall learn war no more
And into plowshares turn their swords, 
Nations shall learn war no more

included with permission
included with permission

This morning, as we gathered before the march, I saw a man with a tattoo of the Buddha on his upper right arm. I admired it from far away. Its hues were blue; it had depth I found it appealing.

After a time, I found the moxy to approach him and express my appreciation for it. To my surprise, for it was not at all evident, he told me that underneath the Buddha was a gun, pointing directly at me. I learned that he is a veteran from the Viet Nam era. Since that time, he had become a monk, having been given the name: Tsultrim. (Update 5-27-14: Tsultrim commented on this post below and I have made changes in this text to reflect his story more accurately.)

(Tsultrim, I learned from a friend, is one of the Tibetan Buddhist paramitas, or virtues. It translates to discipline.)

While at a monastery, the gun tattoo scared people. So his teacher asked him to be rid of it. Rather than having it removed, he covered it.

included with permission
Tsultrim. Included with permission

And into plowshares turn their swords:

And into Buddhas turn their guns,

into monks turn their soldiers.

0 thoughts on “This Memorial Day: The Milk of Impermanence and a Soldier’s Tattoo

  1. I voluntered for vietnam and with the orders in my hand the army took them back and sent me to germany. I married when I got home and had 3 girls. I became a addiction specialist. I was ceo of new jersey treatment center and than open private practice. When the trade center went down my ptsd from chilhood woke back up. I became a renuncient and lived homeless in phily for 8 years. It ended when I went northhampten va hospital 2009. I left in a year and took monastic vows. My name Tsultrim means disapline 1 of the paramitas. I start my 4th year as monk next week. If this of use to help anyone than you have my blessings. May all sentient beings be free and well. Love Tsultrim

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