by Amy Dickinson
Cobain was first brought to Ithaca in the summer by his widow, Courtney Love, and packed with her wedding dress in a small knapsack shaped like a teddy bear. He'd been dead for three months, and Courtney, the bear, the dress, and the ashes had traveled cross-country twice before landing at this little monastery in the middle of nowhere.
The Namgyal Monastery is in an old house on a tree-lined street just off Ithaca's small business district. Walk past the First Unitarian Church and then St. Paul's Methodist Church, venture into the staid row of turn-of-the-century houses, and you can't miss it: In a neighborhood of gray, green and beige, Namgyal is painted orange, yellow, and maroon. Across the street is the E.C. Wagner funeral parlor.
The monastery was opened in 1992 as the Western branch of the Dalai Lama's personal monastery--the Eastern branch being in Dharamsala, India, next to His Holiness home in exile. Namgyal houses four monks who live there in three-year shifts; they lead meditations and chants and travel with the Dalai Lama when he's in the States.
A member of the monastery comes down the old oak staircase, carrying a small brown cardboard box filled with tsatsas--cone- shaped sculptures three inches tall and painted gold. A subtle design circles them; they're like tiny golden hills topped with miniature melting snowcaps--pretty, like something you might see stacked in a holiday display at Crate & Barrel. Cobain's ashes have been made into tsatsas like these, and they are ready to go.
Courtney Love laid low for several weeks after her husband killed himself. She had his body cremated and reported that she'd placed some of his ashes in an urn and some in a Buddhist shrine at the couple's Seattle home. She also said she had buried some in the back garden. Love mentioned setting up a public memorial to Cobain, but so far nothing has come of it. "Sometimes, I'll go over to the park that's right next door, where all these kids come to hang out gawk and try to jump my fence," she told a magazine. "And if they don't have a place to go, you know where they'll end up? My house." Love contacted two Seattle cemeteries about burying another portion of the ashes and setting up a memorial to Cobain. One cemetery refused because of concerns about security. The other wanted to charge $100,000 a year.
Buddhists believe that we suffer through a near-endless chain of lives and that these lives are our burdens. The nature of reality is cause and effect, and the nature of life is suffering, because everything is temporary. Our essential desperation is to escape. In Tibetan Buddhism, the intermediate state between death and rebirth is known as the bardo of becoming. What happens during this period can influence the spiritual status of our next birth.
Both Love and Cobain were intermittent Buddhists. (As she told Spin: "We prayed every night. We had some fucking dignity.") So the shotgun violence of Cobain's suicide laid down some *very* bad karma. Love decided to do something about it.
She knew of the Namgyal through her interest in Tibetan Buddhism. She contacted the monks, and they referred her to Losang Chogyen (a.k.a. Pema), a founding member of the monastery who was living in New York City. On a trip east in the weeks after her husband's death, Love met with Pema, a diminutive young man with a wide face and a smile jammed with white teeth. He is too thin, frail from a tracheal disorder, his speech halting as he coughs and catches his breath. In a fuzzy snapshot of the two of them, Pema is dwarfed by Love, she with her arm through his as if she were leading him to the dance floor at the prom. Pema is wearing his robes in the picture, and his smile travels inward, as if he'd just figured out what was going to happen next.
He went to see Love at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I didn't really know what I should be doing," he says. "Kurt Cobain I had heard of because of Nirvana, the name of the band, but I had never heard the music. I didn't know about the existence of Courtney Love even. But I found out Courtney Love is a singer in her own right and has her own band."
"She was smoking constantly. She said she really tried to quit smoking, but she'd stop and start again. And so she was smoking and smoking, and the first thing I did right after we met was to light her cigarette."
Love later told Pema that at the airport, while she was going through security, an officer had opened the teddy-bear knapsack. "What's this?" he asks as puffs of dusty ash flew up out of the knapsack, toward the airport's ventilation system. "That's my husband."
Pema liked her. She was very distressed and clearly in great pain, but funny, too, and smart. "What I did was I just stayed there and listened to her," he says. "I didn't speak much. I ended up staying there almost three hours. And I listened to her." Love wanted to chant with Pema, so he cut a deal with her. "Stop smoking," he said, "at least while I'm here. Then we can chant." She told him she really wanted to go up to the monastery, but Pema put her off. "She was not in good shape. I think she was dozing off, but she was trying to stay as clean as possible." People at the monastery worried that she wasn't ready. Pema went to see her again the next day. "She talked about the ashes. She wanted to know the proper Buddhist ritual to honor them. She was so sweet. She was saying how much she cared for the teenagers. And she was saying most people think she's doing terrible things to the kids but she was saying 'I really want to help them.' She was really interested in what happens when people die."
When he visited her the next day, Pema brought Love some books and incense and a picture of Green Tara, a Buddhist of accomplishment. Green Tara is shown with one foot on the throne, as if she were racing off to an appointment. After a third visit from Pema, Love repacked her husband's ashes and went to L.A. "By the time she left New York, she seemed much better," he says. "Maybe she was taking some medications; maybe she was detoxing. I don't know. But she was in better shape."
Courtney and the bear and the dress and the ashes went back to Seattle from Los Angeles. She called the monastery from both places, made plans to come visit, then canceled.
The following month, Love came east again. She phoned the monastery. Plans were made, then unmade. Flights were booked, then canceled. Three times, representatives of the monastery went to the tiny airport in Ithaca to wait for her, and three times she didn't show. Then, on July 2, Love booked a limousine and had herself driven from New York City five hours north and west to Ithaca.
She arrived late at night and sent her driver out to troll for cigarettes. The monastery had arranged for her to rent a house on the outskirts of town. It also fixed her up with a local driver, a masseuse, and a macrobiotic cook.
Ithaca sits on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, in the Finger Lakes area of New York. The landscape is Scottish, the place lousy with crags, gorges, waterfalls, and glacial pools. The climate is impossibly rugged, and the natives pay for all that beauty by putting snow tires on their cars in October and sometimes wearing down vests in August. The hills surrounding the town are dotted with John Birchers, llama-raising Birkenstockers, yurts, log cabins, and harmonic-conversion sites. On Saturdays, the yurt dwellers come down from their Peruvian woolens and baby slings and mingle with the townies and the professors, the Nobel laureates and the radical clog-dancing lesbians at the farmers' market, where they munch on organic fruit and finger hand-whittled panpipes. It's a tolerant place, a college town where PH.D.'s from Cornell bag your groceries and stage poetry slams, a place with one trouser leg caught in a charming time warp, where it's always 1970.
Courtney Love spent almost two weeks in Ithaca, tending to her late husband's passage into the next life. When the natives remember her visit, and they all seem to, they collectively scratch their heads, gaze toward the low cloud ceiling, and describe a kind of riot grrrl Colossus of Rhodes astride their town. Stories abound. In the low-key way of the place, she has entered the local lore, and the townspeople didn't seem to know whether to take up torches or join up with her and learn a thing or two.
The few people outside the monastery who knew about Cobain's ashes developed their own theories about their whereabouts: They'd been tossed into the lake. They were sitting in Baggies on a coffee table. They'd been mixed with butter and used in a butter sculpture at the monastery.
While in Ithaca, Love stayed up all night, talking on the phone and chain-smoking. Butts upon butts piled up in the ashtrays and spilled over onto the tables. Most days, she made it out of the house by 11:00, when Franck Vidal, a video producer with close ties to the monastery, would arrive in the red Miata convertible he had borrowed from his father-in-law and drive her down through the hills to Namgyal. He attended to her shopping sprees and waited around while she tried on bras and checked out antiques. He grew to like her. "She's a strong lady. She's very tough and smart," he says.
Every morning, Love had sessions with the monks during which they chanted and prayed and conducted ceremonies as part of the ritual consecration of the ashes. The teddy bear was opened, and the monks emptied the ashes and the wedding dress onto a table. No Ziploc bag, no yellow-and-blue-makes-green seal. As they shook out the dress, some of the ashes drifted up into the air. "We inhaled a little bit of Kurt that day," says someone who was there. The ashes were brushed into a container and put onto the altar at the monastery.
Every morning, Love wandered through Ithaca. In a place where there isn't all that much to buy, she did some prodigious shopping. She forgot to use the dressing room when she was trying on lingerie at the Isadora lingerie shop. She was looking for push-up bras. "This was before the surgery," the owner of the shop says. "She was very childlike in her behavior. She wanted a ton of attention and was throwing things around, the way people do when they have a lot of money and do a lot of shopping." A clerk noticed track marks and bruises on her arms. She spent $2,000 in the shop.
Sometimes, Love forgot her manners. Some people thought she was drunk. Others described her as world-weary. She pitched fits. She used the phrases "Don't you know who I am?" and "I'm not yelling at you, I'm just talking really loud!" on more than one occasion. She pointed out to strangers that she had been more famous than her famous late husband when they married.
Pity Doug, a salesman at the Ithaca Guitar Works. He had to tell Courtney Love that her Visa card hadn't gone through. They had a 1932 Martin C1 in the store, and Love really wanted it. She grabbed the phone and called her bank in New York. She stretched the cord across the entrance to the store so she could lie down on some speaker cabinets. "She was dressed in a way that one of my schoolteachers described as 'just barely enough to cover the subject,'" Doug says. Love yelled. She cursed. She stomped off in a huff. The store kept one of the many cigarette butts she left behind. It's on a shelf there behind the banjos, next to the harmonica that Bob Dylan once threw away and a guitar pick from Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult. The butt has a ring of purple lipstick smudged around it. "Oh, it's kind of faded now," Doug says, "but you shoulda seen it. I'll never forget that lipstick. Ever." He later called Love's representative in New York and managed to get the guitar to her. "Every time I see her waving it around on MTV, I think about her screamimg, 'I want my money' to her banker."
Evenings, Love attended the public meditation sessions at the monastery. She had trouble sitting in the cross-legged posture of meditation and twice nodded off during the half-hour silent portion, falling over on the person next to her.
Palden Choedak is the English-language translator for the monks at Namgyal. He is twenty-eight and had just come to the monastery from India when Love was visiting. Palden sits on a meditation pillow and sets his coffee mug on the floor in front of him. The furnace at the monastery is broken, and people are keeping their coats on.
"In the way she walks and her physical behavior, she seems very young, like a child," Padden says. "She would fall asleep in the dining room, on the floor, she would sleep really soundly. And even though it's not necessarily appropriate, it's okay. When she was sitting with the monks, she was like a baby. She was open. She was really there. But when she was taking a telephone call, she was like a different person. She had a chaotic thing going on, and it is so powerful, it keeps coming back."
Halfway through her visit, Love was driven down to New York to celebrate her birthday. A memento from that visit: a shot of Courtney kissing Evan Dando of the Lemonheads in a hotel room. It showed up in the tabloids within the week. No one knows how it got out, but Courtney was kept busy denying a romance between the two. The photo ran in the New York Post with a shot of Dando hugging the teddy bear with Kurt's ashes in it. Dando later told a magazine, "I had such respect for Kurt and I was giving him a hug because I thought we could have gotten to be good friends."
Love left Ithaca in mid-July. About two handfuls of Kurt's ashes had been left with the monks, who would continue during the next several months to finish the complicated process of consecrating them, mixing them with clay, and molding them to make the tsatsas.
In August, Love was down in Atlanta, having what someone who was there described as "um . . . surgery." She set up her altar at the hotel where she was recovering. "Watch it," she said to the cleaning staff. "My husband's ashes are in there." The following month, Courtney and Cobain's remaining ashes went on tour with her band, Hole. They played forty gigs.
People at the monastery take great pains to explain that they feel Courtney has been very respectful of the consecration process and has gotten something out of it. She flew Pema out to Seattle to offer the monks property and a house outside the city for their use. They had to turn it down, Pema said, because they don't have the personnel to staff it. "She offered everything. But I had to tell her it's beyond reality, and when I told her this was not happening, she actually cried."
Presumably, Kurt Cobain made it through the bardo of becoming and is by now well into the pain and suffering of his next life, and Courtney Love, punk's avenging widow, is slamming around the Country with her shrine and her knapsack and her dwindling supply of ashes. In December, Barbara Walters proclaimed her one of the country's ten most fascinating people. Love sobbed when Walters asked her about Cobain. "I'm not a clown," she said, wiping her cheeks with Kleenex. "I would never do anything to dishonor my husband. And I don't think I have." Later, Walters asked her "Are you all right?" and Love smiled big. "No," she said and chuckled. "No, not at all. I'm not all right."
Kurt's Ithaca ashes have now been fully consecrated and formed
into roughly a dozen tsatsas. A small shrine, called a nirvana
stupa, is being made by a Tibetan Buddhist artisan to house them.
The monastery has called a couple of times to tell Love that the
ashes are ready but she hasn't made plans to return to Ithaca
to retrieve them. The Namgyal Monastery has decided to box up
Cobain's tangible remains and have them delivered to an
undisclosed location. "I see this as a process, because we're
not a cemetary," says a monastery administrator. "We're not the
final stop. We're no Graceland."