I guess it’s a good thing that I’ve been pretty steadily busy in 2023, not having too much time to reflect and write about it. To be frank, it’s a daunting task to reflect on all that has transpired in a year, given all the various ‘projects’ that I am committed to. As it relates to this project, I intentionally didn’t interview as many people as in the years past, as the backlog of raw material was becoming unmanageable. Even though I have ‘processed’ many of the interviews, the real work of digesting the content and building a narrative around it hadn’t really begun. One of my intentions this past year was to find a writer to help with the project and luckily, one of the people I interviewed was up for the task.

Previously, I attempted to get participants to write about their experiences by answering a set of common questions, but this proved challenging in terms of consistency. However, I still needed something written for everyone’s profile, so I used AI-powered transcriptions as placeholders. Unfortunately, these transcriptions weren’t very readable and required cleaning up, but I still used them to extract quotes and for planning purposes.

The advent of AI, such as ChatGPT, became a crutch as I threw all the raw transcriptions into it and asked it to write summaries. I was actually quite impressed by the output, but it was just another stepping stone in digesting the material. Although the summaries are usable for public consumption, there seems to be an excessive use of hyperboles and grand adjectives. While I sometimes appreciate this, it can become repetitive when reading many of the summaries. In the future, a human editor will go through these summaries to give them more of a human touch.

So, one of the topics that came up in my review process with the writer was giving context to how these subjects were selected. Since this isn’t an academic study, we floated the idea of incorporating my journey into the narrative as a way to give context. I have certainly been internally framing this project as a pilgrimage of sorts and no doubt, there is an outer, inner, and a secret part to this pilgrimage. After some consideration, I think it will be necessary to include my own narrative in some way to frame the project and things I experienced as part of this journey. I think the follow-up question to why these subjects is why should listen to them? There are countless experts from teachers and academics that can shed a more articulate view of the Buddhist path and view. With that question in mind, I am reminded by Buddha’s teaching that one should not just take his words for it. Accordingly, just as my own journey has been about discovering and practicing these teachings in the context of my own life, the subjects I have interviewed have also earned their confidence in the teachings through investigation and integration. It’s clear that I need to spend more time on this aspect of the project as there are a lot of potential ideas that need to be nailed down and fleshed out. Naturally, I am tempted to go find something similar and use it as a reference to frame my own project but it also requires more time that I don’t know if I want to allocate to. I suspect that at some point in this project, professional editors and publishers will provide their two cents on how to frame and structure the narrative and for now, I just need to use my intuition to get an initial draft. Over the last few days, I did explore the idea of framing the overarching theme of ‘for the people, by the people’. I am sure there is some technical term for it but sometimes so much of people’s perception of a group segment is constructed by mass media. I think this is why I felt it was important to be a practicing Buddhist in order to do justice to the voices that I am highlighting. Even so, in the back of my mind, I am reminded that no matter what my intention is, how others perceive these stories will be their own karmic perception. I guess the moral of the story is just follow my own intuition but with the motivation of being of benefit for all beings to guide me. I don’t particularly consider myself to be an ‘artist’ so the construct of this project is mostly motivated by my own struggle on the Buddhist path in the modern landscape.

On the personal practice front, this year was quite significant as well. Although I have been making progress on my Ngondro, I felt like the quality of the actual practice increased ever so slightly. Since my interaction with intimate relationships is pretty limited these days, I don’t have a regular context to witness the fruits of the practice as it relates to relationships. Still, the significant factor this past year was having a formally trained Khenpo be part of my life. The Khenpo arrived from India in September and being on the board as well as the steering committee, I’ve had the privilege of developing a bond with him beyond the formal teaching setting. It has been amazing how much he has influenced my practice in such a short time as I can finally feel like I can start to build that critical student-teacher relationship. Since his arrival, I feel like my practice has taken on a new sense of urgency and determination. Certainly, after interviewing people that have wonderful relationships with their teachers, I had felt that was something sorely missing in my practice. Alas, I actually wasn’t sure if it was possible in this small town as I couldn’t quite make the connection with the teacher at the other big Buddhist center in Ann Arbor. Since the Khenpo’s arrival, my time has also been significantly drawn into supporting the Sangha’s growth and that took a bit of steam from working on the project as well. Alas, since both of these activities are in support of the practice, I didn’t have too much issue with juggling more Dharma activities. Still, the weight of trying to finish the project is definitely in the back of my mind.

Looking ahead to this year, I have decided to put my best effort into writing the first few chapters of the book. Although writing isn’t my forte, I feel compelled to do so as I believe the thinking process around writing the book will help guide how I will be interviewing the rest of the subjects in the following year. I think the idea of a personal narrative in conjunction with other people’s experiences around their journey is a worthwhile point of view. Certainly, given that I feel there are many stories of teachers and great practitioners on the path, highlighting stories from ordinary lay practitioners can benefit other lay practitioners on the path.

on a lighter note, i formally started a sub project around my travels and it’s been meaningful to bring the dharma to my outdoor adventures. eventually, i would like to produce some fine art prints and posters/postcards with dharma quotes from these types of imagery. for now, i am enjoying the exercise of practicing on my hikes and bringing the intention to as many of my activities. also, if you’re interested in seeing my landscape images from my tour of the northwest last april/may, I have blog entries on my personal blog for Badlands NP, Yosemite NP, Grand Teton NP and Glacier NP