Tag Archives: India

Adventure Time!!!

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I feel somewhat dishonest using ‘Adventure Time’ as the title for this post since I don’t really know if what I’m posting about qualifies as an adventure. However, considering that I spend 95% of my time circling between the same 3 small towns scattered across the mountains, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that going anyplace else is a pretty substantial adventure these days. It’s also another one of those posts where I don’t actually really have anything to say, but took a handful of pretty cool pictures so I thought a bit of text would be nice to balance it out.

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Yesterday I went to Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, which is about 2 hours outside of Dharamsala. It was beautifully sunny on the drive out, which consisted almost entirely of cruising through the countryside. After having spent so much time up in the mountains constantly shrouded in the clouds, getting out into Kangra Valley was wonderful. So much green, and everything smelled like earth, growth, and sunshine. Hands down 3 of the greatest smells ever.

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When we got to the nunnery it was a complete ghost town. There were a handful of Indian laborers around doing some construction work since the whole facility is relatively new, but I didn’t see a single nun. All of the buildings, including the gompa (meditation hall) were locked, which was a bummer considering that we’d come so far to take a peek inside. I’d heard that Tenzin Palmo was supposed to be in residence at the moment, but apparently she’s currently in Taiwan. Before coming to Dharamsala this summer I had never heard of Tenzin Palmo, but she has a pretty remarkable story, which is told in the biography of her life Cave in the Snow (which I’m planning on picking up soon.) She was one of the first Western women to become ordained as a member of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic order and made a strong commitment to achieving enlightenment in the female form regardless of how long/how many lifetimes that might take. She spent 12 years living in a cave pursuing freedom from cyclical existence, practicing incredibly arduous forms of self-discipline, growing her own food and sitting in a meditative pose while she slept (for only 3 hours a night!) After she came off retreat she took up the cause of securing equal rights for nuns and, in 2000, took substantial steps towards achieving this goal by founding the Dongu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. I’d heard some pretty incredible things about it so making the trip felt necessary, especially considering how comfortable I’ve become with my routine here. The idea of breaking up my ordinary schedule was pretty enticing.

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It was a bit concerning that nobody was around, but we ventured into the ‘no entry’ area where all the nuns live so we could beg someone to open the gompa for us. I was incredibly thankful to have made the trip with a woman since it was pretty clear that none of the nuns were interested in talking to me. We were lucky enough to make it inside the gompa and….wow. It was relatively small and only one room, but it was certainly one of the most remarkable temples I’ve ever seen.

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The gompa had only been finished in 2012 so all of the paintings were in as perfect condition as possible. Although the art was very clearly in the style of every other Tibetan Buddhist temple, there was somewhat of a different flair to it, especially in the way the backgrounds were done. There are fairly strict guidelines for how bodhisattvas and arhats (the equivalent of saints) should be depicted iconographically, so artists don’t have much leeway in that regard. However, the backgrounds are where the artists can really let their creativity shine and it was definitely clear that the painters of this gompa were remarkably talented.

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However, the most remarkable thing about the gompa was that nearly every figure painted on the walls was a female. There were images of Shakyamuni (“the Buddha”), Padmasambhava (the great teacher/mystic that brought Buddhism to Tibet), Milarepa (a legendary figure that achieved enlightenment in a single lifetime), and Marpa (Milarepa’s guru and a great master in his own right), but aside from those 4 figures, every single other image was female. Dozens of female arhats, bodhisattvas, yoginis, and protector deities lined the walls. There were also two astoundingly beautiful stained glass windows, which I’d never seen in a Buddhist temple or monastery before.

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I was explicitly told not to take photos, and I usually abide by that protocol since I think it’s disrespectful to take photos inside of a space that’s considered to be sacred. Additionally, there’s definitely something to be said for needing to capture an experience as fully as possible in a single moment without photos as a future aid to recollection. However, desire got the better of me and I had to get a few quick snaps. I undoubtedly picked up some bad karma by directly going against a nun’s wishes (even if she didn’t see me) and taking photos inside the gompa, but maybe someone will see one of these photos and be sparked to enlightenment, which theoretically balances the whole thing out.

Thoughts on Siddhartha

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It ended up being quite a wonderful day. I went back to my room and did some yoga, which helped circulate my blood a bit more and ease the tingling in my legs.
I have a recording of all the guided meditations from retreat so I’ve been going through one each day. Today’s happened to be on subtle impermanence, which was wonderful because it really brought me into my body and ended up completely getting rid of the nettles sensation. Remarkable really. It went away after only 6 or so hours.

I brought a book over to a rooftop restaurant from where I could see out into the valley. Even as early as 4 o’clock I could see the moon crystal clear in the sky. It rained almost constantly for the first 10 days that I was in Dharamsala and since then it’s been beautiful. Clouds and haze blow in frequently but it’s generally remarkably clear, especially higher up in the sky above the valley. The shadows on the moon are looking far more distinct than they usually are. A couple nights ago I had a dream that I was looking at the moon but after a long time I realized that I was actually looking at the Earth. The way the lines on the moon are standing out they look like continents and I had a strongly odd déjà vu back to my dream.

I ended up staying on the roof for a couple hours and getting dinner there, as well as finishing Siddhartha, which I’d just picked up yesterday. I remember reading it when I was a junior in high school. I actually have a very distinct memory of sitting on a bus on the way to a tennis match. Sam Clark was sitting in front of me signing Hotel California. Cam Roberts threw his racket over 3 courts after dropping a set. I played 6th singles. However, despite remembering those details, I had entirely forgotten what the book was about. I had it in my mind that it roughly followed the Buddha’s life story, which I suppose it does but not how I had believed. It’s a beautiful interpretation, drawing elements from a a bunch of Indian religious philosophies rather than just Buddhism. In order to finish it Hesse actually entered a life of seclusion in order to study Indian and Buddhist scriptures in reach a deeper understanding of the state that his novel’s protagonist strives to achieve.

I also don’t recall the writing to be so captivating. It’s not the same translation as the one I’d initially read, which certainly makes a difference. There are a handful of typos, the font varies from page to page, and some of the passages are actually skewed to the side. It was published by an Indian company so I assume it was translated from German into English by an Indian, in which case they would likely have a more solid cultural foundation for many of the concepts expressed by Hesse. It’s also written with British spelling for a lot of words, so that strengthens the case.

Additionally, I also think I have a lot more awareness of and appreciation for the ideas that the book conveys. Clearly it hadn’t made much of an impact when I read it 4 years ago since I couldn’t even correctly recall what it was about.
I really enjoyed the thread of Siddhartha constantly comparing himself to the childlike people, the one’s who are trapped in samsara unaware of their condition, seemingly arbitrarily placing value and meaning on their mundane activities. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that he was separated from them by the inability to lose himself in love to another person. He becomes childlike in many other ways when he enters the world of materiality, but he still never finds himself able to devote himself to love until he meets his son. He decides that, in the end, love, and the simultaneously suffering and bliss that it creates, is a part of samsara too, keeping one forever bound in the suffering in the world. He finally releases his love and looks into his wound, waiting it “to become a blossom and it had to shine.” In his last throes of samsaric suffering, he is able to see himself most fully in the childlike people around him, filled with understanding and compassion.

“Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realization, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness. Slowly this blossomed in him, was shining back at him from Vasudeva’s old, childlike face: harmony, knowledge of the eternal perfection of the world, smiling, oneness…The image of his father, his own image, the image of his son merged, Kamala’s image also appeared and was dispersed, and the image of Govinda, and other images, and they merged with each other, turned all into the river, headed all, being the river, for the goal, longing, desiring, suffering, and the river’s voice sounded full of yearning, full of burning woe, full of unsatisfiable desire. For the goal, the river was heading, Siddhartha saw it hurrying, the river, which consisted of him and his loved ones and of all people he had ever seen, towards goals, many goals, the waterfall, the lake, the rapids, the sea, and all goals were reached, and every goal was followed by a new one, and the water turned into vapor, and rose to the sky, turned into a source, a stream, a river, headed forward once again, flowed on once again…When Siddhartha was listening attentively to this river, this song of a thousand voices, when he neither listened to the suffering nor the laughter, when he did not tie his soul to any particular voice and submerged his self into it, but when he heard them all, perceived the whole, the oneness, then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was Om: the perfection.”

“When someone is searching, then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
The idea of teachers is also very common in Siddhartha’s reflections. I’ve recently been thinking quite a bit about the idea of messengers, which is similar though carries a bit more apparent of a lesson. In the end, though, the apparentness of the lesson of a teacher or a messenger is really related to how willing you are to learn it.It’s truly a blessing to be fully aware when a messenger comes into your life and you’re ready to receive it.
There’s a saying that the enemy is more precious than a jewel that can grant any wish. Although the jewel may satisfy any worldly need, it is only from the enemy that you can learn to practice patience and to look for teachings in every obstacle that you encounter. Nothing is in the way. Nobody is in the way. They are the way.

“The opposite of every truth is just as true! It’s like this: any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything is one-sided which can be thought wit thoughts and said with words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness, roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of the world, he had to divide it into Samsara and Nirvana, into deception and truth, into suffering and salvation. IT cannot be done differently, there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself, what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. Let the things be illusion or not, after all I would then also be an illusion, and thus they are always like me. This is what makes them so dear and worthy of veneration for me: they are like me. Therefore, I can love them And this is now a teaching you will laugh about: love, O Govinda, seems to me to be the most important thing of all. To thoroughly understand the world, to explain it, t despise it, may be the thing great thinkers do. But I’m only interested in being able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it and me, to be able to look upon it and me, and all beings with love and admiration and great respect.”
It all resonates strongly with the beauty of the Heart Sutra.

So for $1.50 I’d say it wasn’t a bad read.

Having so much time to myself has been wonderful. So has going to sleep at 10 and waking up at 7. I’m gradually working to shift everything earlier because it’s so wonderful here in the daylight and I like the idea of going to yoga before getting breakfast. I have so much time and there are so many interesting things to read and meditations to practice. I’m becoming increasingly less inclined towards going out and interacting with people beyond the ones I see at meditation group in the morning. I like the idea of continuing in a more free form silent retreat, having some forms of contact with people but going about things at my discretion and with as much purpose as I can muster.

Settling In

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This post is all over the place, kinda just pulling together bits and pieces of my experience over the past couple days as I attempt to reorient myself in the world beyond retreat.

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I’m living in the red roofed building

After my 3rd move in 3 days, I think I’ve finally found a good spot to hole up for the next month and a half. It’s got about the same specs as the last place: California king, overhead shower with hot water, Western toilet. However, this time I have a sink in my bathroom AND a mirror, so I might actually decide to shave once or twice while I’m here. Though if I do shave I’ll probably just go into town since it’s only $2 for a shave with a face/head/neck massage thrown in. I’ve also run into the odd difficulty that I have more issues with bugs after I shower since my body wash smells so sweet. While I could easily go out and buy some new soap, the more logical conclusion seems to be to cut back on showering. It’ll save water and I figure it couldn’t hurt to do the Sadhu thing for a minute if there’s no one around I’m trying to impress.

As I’ve been moving around it’s become increasingly apparent to me how much stuff I brought with me that I just don’t need. I have 3 pairs of pants, 3 pairs of shorts, and 6 shirts. I only need a fraction of that. I also have a small day bag in addition to my backpacking bag, which is completely unnecessary as well. I was considering giving a bunch of my stuff away but decided that’s something that I’ll probably regret once I go home so I’m just going to fill my extra bag up with all of the things I don’t need, wrap it up in a big cloth and ship it home. Even if I’m not currently moving around much I like the idea of being light when I do move. There’s something very special about having all of your possessions on your back but I currently have far too many of them to make the experience as enjoyable as it could be.

My new digs

My new digs

My current room is also about as ideally located as possible. It’s a 15-minute walk uphill from Bhagsu, so I have relatively easy access to a small collection of shops and restaurants. There’s a guy just a few doors down that does dreadlocks so I can get mine touched up by him for exponentially cheaper than I could back home. The school of poi is only 15 minutes away, as is the place where I intend on starting to attend yoga classes. Tushita, where I’ll be doing daily group meditations and conducing a lot of my research, is a 25-minute walk and McLeod Ganj, the biggest town nearby and where location of the only post office in the area, is about 45 minutes down hill. Perhaps the best part is that there’s a café just around the corner that has jam sessions every night so I’ll be able to listen to a lot of really amazing sitar, tabla and flute players over the next couple weeks. I met some guy who wants to give me flute lessons but I can’t imagine continuing that back in the States so I’m thinking I’ll pick up a different skill.

I’ll be doing a lot of walking while I’m here, but I’m pretty excited about that. It’ll kick my ass a bit, keep me in good shape, and start preparing my lungs for Machu Picchu. Today I strolled around for 4 hours or so today to get the lay of the land and check out all the flyers in the area so I could figure out which type of classes I’d be interested in taking while I’m here. So many travelers come through the area so there are dozens of 5-10 day courses being offered in Tai Qi, various types of yoga and meditation, Reiki, massage, etc.

I’m having a tough time throwing myself immediately into doing work but today actually felt like a productive day anyways. The past 2 days I’ve basically spent all my time relocating and then lounging around cafes playing chess and backgammon and sharing stories with other travelers. It’s all fine and well but hanging out in cafes all day is hardly the best use of my time.

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I’ve also started to get sick (just a cold, not India sick), which is almost certainly because I’ve been taking far worse care of myself than I was on retreat. I’ve only been sitting for 45ish minutes a day and haven’t been getting as much sleep as I should be. Last night there was a rave on the roof of the place I was staying so there was trance music playing until 4 am. I’m glad the place I’m at now is much more quiet so hopefully I can adjust my sleep cycle to coincide with the coming and going of the sun.

During my wandering today I went to a small wooded area that overlooks McLeod Ganj. There are two stupas there, as well as 40 or so small clay retreat houses where monks go to spend extended periods of time. I met one monk who couldn’t have been more than 35 (though it’s hard to tell with monks) who told me he’d been on retreat since 1993 (so almost the entire time I’ve been alive.) During especially harsh winters he returns to his village in the south, but the rest of the time he’s around his hut, meditating for a couple hours in the morning, reading a bit around lunch, and then meditating for a few more hours every evening. It definitely provides an interesting counterpart to all of the people sitting around Bhagsu that are smoked out of their minds all day.

I was experiencing minor waves of anxiety this morning over the fact that I hadn’t started my research in any sort of meaningful way since I’ve been here. Then I realized that I literally have nothing scheduled for the next month and a half so there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Now that I have a place that I can comfortably and quietly live I’m already feeling far more motivated. Since I’m by myself here I’m ultimately really the only thing that gets in the way of me doing work. That’s always the case but it’s especially apparent when there’s no one else around that I’m trying to coordinate things with. I’ve already met a bunch of fascinating people but I’m not really looking to establish any serious friendships in which we’re actively making plans to do things. With the exception of the guy I met that I’m planning to go do some cave meditations with in the near future I like the idea of keeping myself as free as possible and not getting tied down by anything. I’ve been constantly running into a couple Israelis that I’ve become friendly with and I like spending time with them. It’s very common for Israelis to wrap up their mandatory military service and have a nice sum of money so they come to Dharamsala to relax and recalibrate after life in the military. I’d never spent much time around people in the military so it’s been an interesting experience. The general consensus is that the war is nonsense but being in the military is quite fun so long as the job doesn’t actually involve any conflict. They all agreed that none of them ever wanted to hurt anyone and were tremendously lucky to not have had to kill anyone, but there are a handful of “sadistic fuckers” that are always looking for an opportunity to gun someone down. I’ve also been learning a lot about guns so hopefully I don’t forget it all by the time I get home since I’ve got a friend who I know would be more than happy to talk about it.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m still not feeling tremendously motivated to start doing my research but I constantly think about what else I can write for this blog. My mind is as fresh and clear on a lot of topics as it has ever been so I’m trying to capitalize on that and communicate my thoughts to people at a time when they’ll be most easily apprehended. It’s also easier for me to type up my thoughts than write them by hand since I can let things flow much faster. I’m keeping one draft entirely unedited on a document on my computer to keep the experience as pure as possible and then putting the slightly more polished versions of each post up on the blog.

Not anymore

Not anymore

It struck me this morning that by the time I leave here I will have spent more than half of the past year outside of the country. Between Tibet, China, Thailand, Bhutan, and India, about 7 out of 12 months will have been spent in Asia. Just thinking about it makes me extremely happy. Once I go home I’ll (presumably) be back in the States for at least 8 months, a thought that vaguely terrifies me. The idea of going back to the States at all kind of scares me (don’t worry mom and dad, I am 100% coming home.) I definitely find that a lot of what I do when I’m at school is pretty meaningless. I’m really good at school but that doesn’t actually amount to much or produce anything positive in the world unless I actively make something of it. I guess that’s what it comes down to though: my time is as meaningful as I choose to make it. There’s nothing inherently more meaningful about taking a walk to go circumambulate a stupa than going to get breakfast burritos at Lily’s tacos or getting down at Table Manners, even if I’m inclined to place value judgments on my activates. This is one of those scenarios in which contemplating emptiness would prove highly beneficial to me. There’s meaning where I choose to make it. And while I’m finding a lot of meaning here in Dharamsala, I can just as easily create that same amount of meaning back in Claremont if I make a conscious effort to do so. Thankfully I’ve got another 2+ months to contemplate how to best do that.

To Bhagsu and Beyond

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In the interest of maintaining some semblance of still keeping travel blog I thought I would write some brief updates from my time on the outside. I woke up at about 8 this morning, which is quite late for me considering I was waking up with a gong at 5:45 for the past week and a half. I headed down to the main square in McLeod Ganj but not much was open since most Tibetans don’t work on Monday. I made a quick trip to the post office and then headed up to the daily group meditation they hold at the retreat center.

We were in a room about half the size of the one the retreat had been held in and there were about the same number of people so we were all pressed knee to knee while sitting. I recognized a handful of people from the retreat and couple faces from around McLeod and Bhagsu but hadn’t seen most of the people before. It was a tough session. There was a very strong sense of dullness in the room and, despite having had a very solid meditation session right when I first woke up, I could barely keep my head together during the group sit.

My room the first night off retreat

My room the first night off retreat

After meditation I went back down to McLeod to check out of my hotel and trek on up to Bhagsu, which is about 20 minutes further up the mountain. It’s quieter, cheaper, and most of the non-locals that are there still spend a couple weeks in the area so its easy to find some social circles to run in. Plus, I found a school of poi that rented out rooms so it sounded like a pretty ideal situation. It turns out that the place isn’t actually as quiet as I thought it would be (and one of the walls is completely water stained and leaking all over the place, but that’s less of an issue) so I plan on moving further up into the mountains tomorrow to get some isolation while I work. It’s a shame since I had a California kingsize bed, a Western toilet, AND an overhead shower with hot water. Best part was that it was only $4.50 a night. Living with low expectations for standard of living makes life so much easier. Unfortunately, I can’t really ignore the sound factor, especially when I have so many quieter options just a short hike away.

After figuring out my (temporary) room situation I went to get some food. I ran into some guy that I’d met a couple nights ago so we played some chess and ate together. He strikes me as a pretty perfect example of the type of fascinating people you meet traveling in India. I’ve already met a lot of interesting and interested people from around the world but this guy particularly jumps out at me. His name is Krishnababa. He has dreads about the same length as mine and facial hair exactly like I had going into retreat, which gave me the effect of looking at some sort of funhouse mirror from an alternative timeline 10 years in the future. He’s originally from Romania but has been living in India from the past 3 years, sustaining himself by giving tattoos with a portable kit. He’s also a semi-pro MMA fighter and used to play in international chess championships before coming to India, so he absolutely wiped the floor with me in our game.

Chilling at a cafe

Chilling at a cafe

I also found it equally interesting to get his assessment of me. He told me that he would have taken me at 26, though that my eyes gave me away after I corrected him. Also, like most people here, he guessed that I was Israeli. And as far as my accent he said it sounds like “slight New Yorker but with the touch of someone that grew up in the Tibetan countryside.” So, needless to say it was quite an interesting lunch.

I’ve basically just spent the remainder of the day lounging in a café reading. It’s been raining pretty steadily since it looks like monsoon season came early so not much to do when the storms come in. There was a brief 45 minute period when I was sitting in complete darkness since the power to the whole town of Bhagsu went out but thankfully it came back.

My room at the poi school, leaky wall and all

My room at the poi school, leaky wall and all

Moving further up the mountain tomorrow and I don’t think there’s Internet so I’ll probably be posting blog posts in flurries like today. It makes so much more sense for me to write them someplace pretty when it’s nice out and then just dip into a café for 5 minutes to post them and send my pre-written emails.

I personally find the straight-up travel writing to be far less interesting than the philosophical reflection pieces, though that’s really just because I don’t feel like I’m actually doing anything special with my time. Then again, that might just be because I’m currently living it.

Retreating Into Reality

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In yet another act of me falling ass backwards into one of the best things in my life, I just completed a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Dharamsala. I initially signed up for the retreat because I thought it would be beneficial to my grant research, but at the time I just assumed that I would be in class for a few hours in the afternoon and be spending the rest of my time out and about in the Dharamsala area.

The experience turned out to be essentially the opposite of what I expected. Rather than using the time to springboard myself into research, it instead gave me the opportunity to go on an intense exploration of myself, bringing me to a level of clear headedness and purpose beyond any that I have ever achieved before. I could not have imagined a better way to launch off my first true adventure in the subcontinent.

I was in silence for the entire duration of my time at Tushita (the meditation center), with the exception of 1-hour discussion groups for the first 2 days of the course. Even as far as these retreat courses at the center go, this one was highly irregular in that Lama Zopa Rinpoche, an incredible high lama and one of the founder of the center’s umbrella organization, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, was present on site for a retreat. The third night of the course he joined us to watch the movie Mystical Tibet, in which he’s actually the star. After that night, he decided to push his retreat back in order to teach on emptiness every night until the rest of the program, which was concluded with him giving the oral transmission of the Vajra Cutter Sutra.

I have a hard time immediately articulating the significance of the whole experience and will likely work it into my writings over the next few weeks. Nearly all of it is deeply personal and I’m still debating how much is worth sharing, though I’m inclined towards bearing more rather than less in the hopes that it might help things resonate with people. If I could even begin to wake just one person up, I’ll feel as if I’m accomplishing something truly remarkable with this blog.

One thing that did seem worth bringing up in its own post, though, is the whole idea of going on a retreat. Coming into the experience (once I’d actually realized what I was doing) I was having a difficult time accepting the validity of the retreat experience. To me, it seemed quite easy to cultivate all of these virtuous Buddhist (but really just human) ideals when placed in an environment so totally cut off from the outside world. No phone, no computer, not even speaking to the people around me. Put simply, it seemed like an escape from reality. After all, what’s there to be stressed about when you don’t need to deal with school, work, or interpersonal relationships? If anything, it sounds like a vacation.

Very early on, however, it became clear that this was absolutely not the case. Far from offering me an escape from reality, my time on retreat brought me as close to it as I’d ever been. Back at home when I’m in school I become so unduly concerned with things like school, life after college, staying in shape, navigating social situations etc. I treat all these things as the end all be all of existence.

But that is a complete and total illusion. It’s just a case of me getting caught up in my small world, 1 world that exists among 6 billion (not even including all of the animals that also live in their own small worlds.)

Furthermore, when I have inner problems stemming from my skewed view of my existence, there are an infinite number of distractions that I can throw myself into: exercise, TV, music, the Internet, drinking, spending time with friends, and so on. There’s literally no limit to the number of ways that I can us to avoid the reality of my situation.

Yet even with all of these possible distractions at my disposal, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes I can fall into such a state of existential despair (this happens far less these days than it did in the past) and there’s just no way to get out of it. No matter what distraction I seek out, nothing can calm the storms in my mind. The problem just continues to arise and pervade my entire reality, yet I refuse to just sit with it and embrace the discomfort, instead continuing to find a way to use the external world to run away from it. I’m afraid this is a thing that many people do, especially in a society in which many of us have such incredible material means with which we can distract ourselves from our self.

In the end, my solution always seemed to be to just wait it out, knowing that sooner or later external ‘causes’ (this is putting aside the question of how much an external event can and should effect your inner world) would shift and things would settle back to my happy equilibrium of comfortable fantasy existence.

On retreat, I can’t do that. Over the past 10 days, I have spent so much time alone with my own mind and have had absolutely zero distractions to draw myself away from my problems. I simply needed to look each of my delusions in the face as it arose, facing the reality of the situation in a way that I had never done before. Sitting in a meditation hall with nothing but my own thoughts, I couldn’t possibly keep reality out. I was forced to struggle with my demons and, even if it hurts sometimes, fuck, it feels good because I know it’s really and truly bringing me to a better understanding of my sense of personhood.

I also initially struggled with the idea that a high level of discipline brings about greater freedom. At first glance, this idea seemed to be completely paradoxical. However, with a strict code of conduct and a rigid schedule, the mind doesn’t need to concern itself with basic day to day functioning and contemplating how to spend leisure time. It opens up this vast store of mental energy that can be directed towards anything it wants. It isn’t about physical freedom but mental freedom, which is ultimately far more valuable. If you can be mentally free, physically conditions almost become trivial. This tremendous degree of spare mental energy and clarity proved immensely helpful in helping me achieve some of the ego penetrating work I mention above.

It also provided an extraordinarily necessary opportunity to sit and reflect. In many ways, my life has been moving non-stop since the last time I got back from India just over a year ago. From taking classes and working part time over the summer, to traveling to Tibet and China, and then returning to the States to begin plotting out ‘my future’ and relearn how to navigate college, I feel as if I’ve been mentally engaged in something or other for a very long time. During this time I’ve been exploring a lot of religious and spiritual philosophies, yet with little time to sit down and truly reflect on what they meant and how they might apply to my own experiences of the world.

The retreat environment provided me with that opportunity in such an incredible way. I was finally able to spend substantial amounts of time in meditation, as well as receiving Dharma talks on Buddhist topics, to turn my intellectual knowledge into an experiential understanding that comes from my gut. Not to say that I have successfully reached that point, but things are penetrating me far deeper than they were when I walked onto the retreat grounds a week and a half ago. I walk away from the experience with a far more intuitive sense of all of the philosophical systems I’ve been burying myself in for the past year and a half, even finding words flowing out of myself in conversation that I find to be so shockingly on point I don’t see how I could possibly be saying them. Forgive me for the humble brag, but it’s merely to communicate the point that we all have much of this knowledge lying within us, but it becomes covered up through years of habituation to worldly existence.

One thing that did slightly undermine this process of transforming the intellectual into experiential understanding was, perhaps ironically, the constant feed of Buddhist philosophy flowing into me from my meditation instructor and Dharma teacher. There were often times that I would be contemplating emptiness or the law of karma or anything really and before I reached a conclusion, a voice would announce the answer that Buddhism had arrived at. In many ways, this makes perfect sense because it gives as pure a view of Buddhist philosophy and contemplation practices as possible. Yet at the same time I believe it also compromises the experience of retreat in that it often interrupts the stream of thought before it reaches its logical conclusion, keeping knowledge in a strictly intellectual realm.

Curiously enough, this wasn’t something I noticed at all until leaving the retreat center. The first night I was off retreat I went out with a bunch of the people from my program, figuring it would be nice to get to know the people I’d been sitting in silence with for the past 10 days. The early end of the evening consisted mostly of discussing our backgrounds and future travel plans but as things moved deeper into the night, the conversation inevitably shifted to questioning of our existential condition. Speaking with a self-taught guru named Sai that I met in a bar shortly after leaving the center, it became quite clear that many of the people around me resorted to merely packaged answers in responses to his question “who is the I?” and other related queries. At one point he actually said, “Stop with all the Tushita bullshit and tell me what you think. Who are you?” Although I didn’t find myself using generic Buddhist philosophy 101 answers, I did notice how deeply the courses get into my head without even realizing it.

I’ve ultimately decided not to go back on retreat for another 2 weeks tomorrow. While I don’t believe it would be unbearably difficult as I actually had a shockingly easy time committing to the retreat environment, I don’t think it would be productive. I still have so much to digest and I need to return to worldly activities in order to integrate the teachings into my life and avoid having them sit in a mental vacuum.

As usual, this piece has dragged on substantially longer than I planned so I’ll cut it off here and leave further discussion of my retreat experience for future posts. However, I don’t want to leave this piece on a negative note, since I can honestly say that the past 10 days have proved to be the most valuable 10-day chunk of time I have ever experienced. I would seriously recommend embarking on a similar experience to everyone that I know that can afford to spare the time. In a way, I don’t think anyone can truly afford not to.

Learning to Live in the Hand of God

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无为而无不为 (Do nothing and everything will be done.)

Each affects the other and the other affects the next. The world is full of stories but the stories are all One.

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Apologies on the overly dramatic title. I figure to get anybody scrolling by this on their newsfeed to pause and take a look I need a header that packs a punch There’s definitely an easy opening for a Dr. Strangelove reference there but I figure I should just let it be. Throughout the rest of the piece I refer to It as the Universe, though as far as I’m concerned the term is interchangeable with God, Logos, Dao, Nature, etc.  Take your pick depending on whatever jives with your personal philosophy.

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Note: I put a lot of pictures in here because I know what a pain it can be to read chunks on chunks of text. Though the photos don’t necessarily pertain to what’s written immediately above or below them, they’re roughly in chronological order, moving from my time in high school living in Vishakhapatnam/Vizag to last summer in Dharamsala. Photos from this summer are soon to come.

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I’m currently writing this on the (physical) road to Dharamsala. Woke up early this morning to get to the airport by 6:30 to catch a flight to Amritsar. I was planning on visiting the Golden Temple for a few hours before heading south to Dharamsala but ended up having my flight delayed by over 4 hours so I opted to cut out the Golden Temple in order to get into Dharamsala before the middle of the night. At least I got about 20 minutes in the car with the tour guide that was going to show me around Amritsar, which proved to be highly informative and amusing.

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After asking my name to confirm that I was the person that he supposed to be picking up, he immediately questioned whether or not I was an Israeli, which is actually a question I hear fairly frequently when I’m outside of the States. He told me that since I was going to Dharamsala he was curious if I was going to be running drugs (for more information on why this is actually a completely reasonable question check out this piece I wrote last summer when in Manali.) When I responded that I wasn’t Israeli (or planning on running drugs) but that I was Jewish he remained equally enthused. He let me know that Indians love Jews and that they are very admiring of the Jewish work ethic that has led them to so much success. He then told me that he was sorry about the Holocaust and that Hitler was surely just jealous of the Jews’ business acumen. I didn’t really have much to say on the matter so I just accepted his condolences.

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Beside my brief little history lesson on the true cause behind the Holocaust, I also learned that, although Punjabi’s make up only 2% of the population in India, they constitute 70% of Indians living abroad in developed countries (which my guide described as the US, Canada, Australia, and most European nations.) I don’t actually have any way of verifying this fact so I really just have to take my guide at his word. Not much more to say on that but I thought it was a nice little fun fact to know and tell.

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Even though essentially all of my time back in India up to this point has been spent in and out of airports, the experience has still been enough to provoke a remarkable amount of déjà vu. Even in Boston I was having flashbacks of walking through security in Terminal E at Logan with all the other kids on my SYA program back in high school. Once I arrived in Delhi, I was continually hit with images of myself walking through customs and standing at baggage claim with the people on my Emory program almost exactly a year ago. I can only imagine what it will be like to return to various places in Dharamsala that I visited last June, though I’ll be finding out soon enough.

With such an extended layover and an 8-hour car ride, I’ve have a nice chunk of time to look back on exactly how I’ve ended up here. I generally find that constructing retrospective narratives often lends a sense of coherency to one’s journey that’s falsely superimposed on a series of essentially random (or incomprehensibly causally linked) events, but even with the benefit of hindsight I’m having a hard time finding a common thread in my evolving relationship with India. In a lot of ways, I really fell as if I fell ass backwards into the whole thing.

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During the latter part of high school, I developed a strong interest in economics and began to imagine myself going into some econ-related profession. I’d always been incredibly young for my grade so my advisor at the time proposed that I take some time off of school to go abroad. Given my interest in economics, traveling to a country with a rapidly developing economy seemed to be the most practical course of action, placing India and China at the top of my list. I put shockingly little consideration into my decision and somehow ended up on an academic program in the south of India, focusing on sustainable economic development. It still boggles my mind how little time I spent thinking about which foreign country I wanted to move to for 4 months. Without going into any of the details, the experience wasn’t quite what I hoped it to be (though, frankly, I had pretty few hopes or expectations for my experience from the onset since I knew so little about what I was getting myself into) and I left India with a bad taste in my mouth.

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During my first 3 semesters in college I continued down the economics path, though becoming increasingly disillusioned with the whole thing after lackluster experiences both in class and with internships in the finance sector. In the spring of my sophomore year I was feeling especially fed up with my international economics course and decided to drop it so that I could pick up another course to fill a general education requirement. I remember lying in bed at 2 am on a weeknight going through the course catalogue and stumbling across an introduction to Hinduism course. Without any outstanding or even identifiable reason for doing so, I added it to my course catalogue.

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Over the rest of the semester, I found myself becoming increasingly engrossed in the remarkably complex mythological and religious symbolism of India. I’ve always been fascinated by myths, beginning with the tales from Ancient Greece and Egypt that I learned about in elementary school, but a comprehensive college-level overview of the roots of Hinduism opened up a whole new world for me. This was the point at which I really had to question my plans of pursing an economics degree and I soon decided to abandon it in favor of something else, though whatever that something else might be wasn’t yet clear to me.

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At the same time, I was beginning to reevaluate my initial impressions of India and started considering the prospect of returning. Given that I had no plans for the upcoming summer, it seemed like a prime time to make my return. I started looking into academic programs in India so that I would have somewhat of a foothold once I arrived there. I came across a relatively new program being led by Emory University that made heavy use of connections within the Tibetan community and government-in-exile. As with my initial decision to go to India, I put relatively little thought into applying to enroll in this particular program. If nothing else, Dharamsala sounded beautiful, peaceful, and like a nice change of pace from the southern part of the country, which is all that I had previously experienced. Additionally, the program’s premise of exploring how science and spirituality might work together in modern society intrigued me. However, I knew absolutely nothing of the concepts that lay at the heart of the program, those of Tibetan Buddhism. My newly discovered interest in religious studies had been focused almost solely on Hinduism, with brief overviews of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sufism. Up until that point, I’m not even sure if I was aware that Tibetan Buddhism was an identifiable religion in and of itself. I still find this rather shocking given that I would now consider it one of the academic subjects I’m most knowledgeable of.

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The month and a half that I spent in Dharamsala as a part of the Emory program was nothing short of life changing and is chronicled in far more detail throughout the earlier entries in this blog. It proved so transformative that it has ultimately brought me back to Dharamsala this summer to continue research that I began at my time enrolled in the program last year. This time I’m here alone and for a far longer time with a much clearer purpose. As a side note, I essentially picked last summer’s research topic at random. A number of groups had already formed and I had no idea what I was doing so I basically tacked myself onto a group with some of the people that I was most friendly with. We looked into the use of sound in Tibetan Buddhist practice, a topic that I initially had no knowledge of and very little interest in. Only as I got into the research did I realize how deep there was to go and how fascinating the bottom of the rabbit hole might be.

If I could go back and time and speak to myself four and a half years ago when I was first leaving India it would be utterly impossible to convince myself that this is a country that I would ever return to, let alone come back multiple times. I first came here with the goal of learning more about economics (but really just to break the monotony of high school and being at the same school for 12+ years) and now I’m back to dig even deeper into Tibetan Buddhist meditation. I can scarcely think of 2 topics any more distantly related.

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The path that’s brought me here has been fraught with accidents and poorly thought out decisions, generally guided by the desire to figure out what the fuck I want to do with my life without actually having to think about it too hard. This path that continually brings me back to India has undoubtedly made me a happier, more self-possessed person with a greater sense of direction than I ever could have imagined having when I first set foot on it. Hell, I didn’t even realize I was putting myself on a path. At that time, I hardly even knew there was any other viable path to be on besides go to high school, go to college, get a good job, find a wife, have some kids, retire, and die. I am immensely grateful that I’ve come to realize that there are many other ways to live a successful life and that there is not and can not be one single path to happiness.

Over the past 4 months I’ve made a strong commitment to work against my now natural tendency to plan ahead, guided by the Daoist phrase with which I began this post (无为而无不为-Do nothing and everything will be done.) This is certainly still a work in progress. Though I’ve made many strides, I continue to struggle to let go of uncertainty surrounding my future and the sense of insecurity that that often instills in me. However, I’ve found that leaving myself to rest comfortably and passively in the hands of the Universe has brought me levels of both happiness and excitement that were previously completely unknown to me. The past semester has been more enriching and fulfilling than it ever could have been had I attempted to plan it out. I’ve been finding that good things continue to come my way even as I question how it could be possible. Whether it’s the workings of karma, the law of attraction, or some other metaphysical force, I can’t say. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that, like everything else, I’m merely a small part of the Universe and It always provides for Itself.

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I’m sure one of the other lessons here is to not look a gift horse in the mouth, though I admittedly mull over how the hell things could possibly be working out so well for me on a near daily basis. In any case, my tremendous fortune in the recent past (and, honestly, my whole life) is cause for me to feel tremendously blessed and embraced in something far larger than myself. As I head into a 10 week adventure on which I have very little concrete idea of what I’m doing, I find supreme comfort in the fact that things work themselves out in one way or another, often for the better if one remains open to new opportunities.

Given the way the past few years have gone, I’m more aware than ever that it’s impossible to accurately predict where one’s path is leading but in the spite of the uncertainty (and perhaps because of it) I could hardly be more optimistic.

Re-Treading the Road to Dharamsala

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Going back to Dharamsala tomorrow! I’ll be living there for the next 10 weeks conducting research on the use of visual aids (primarily thankas of bodhisattvas and mandalas) in Tibetan Buddhist meditation. My knowledge on the topic is still incredibly shallow so I’ll continue posting about the practice as I discover more about it for myself.

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I’ll be beginning my time in Dharamsala with 2 consecutive meditation retreats, lasting a total of 23 days, with a 1-day hiatus in between the two courses. During this time I’ll be giving up all my possessions besides my clothes and toiletries, so will be fully out of contact during that time. My time will largely be spent in meditation, in class, eating, and sleeping. I’ll be refraining from all intoxicants and sexual activity, as well as spending the majority of my time in silence. In addition to helping to give me a solid grounding in the practice that I’ll be researching, I’m hoping the retreats will also give me an opportunity to reflect on and internalize a lot of the Buddhist principles I’ve been learning about for the past year. Additionally, it’s been a remarkably crazy semester and an even crazier year since I first stepped foot in Dharamsala, so I need to allow myself a substantial chunk of time to examine myself and my position in relation to the rest of the universe. I’ve recently discovered that the intensity of these retreats will severely limit the amount of time I’m able to dedicate to applying to post-grad grants, but I think that’s something I can only take in stride with everything else and do the best I can given the situation I’ve gotten myself into. I was initially incredibly anxious about the fact that I might potentially be limiting my future options due to my poor planning and the timing of the retreat, but then I was struck by the absurdity of becoming the most stressed out I’ve been in months over a meditation retreat. The panic died shortly down after that and, thankfully, I am now sitting in the most balanced place I’ve been in days.

After my retreats, I’ll be living in another monastery in the area, abiding by no particular schedule but my own. I’ll be conducting interviews with resident monks, as well as doing research at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the nearby Norbulingka Arts Institute. It will be a nice transition out of the retreat environment while still giving me enough mental space to work through what I’ve learned and keep practicing it. Also, with no pre-established commitments for 5 weeks, I’ll have time to work on grants with later deadlines, as well as begin plotting my senior thesis out.

I’ve been remarkably anxious about the prospect of heading back to India by myself. This will be the first time I’m going completely independently and have to figure everything alone. However, given that this is my 3rd trip to India and 4th time abroad for a substantial period of time, I’m feeling certain that it’s time to finally take the adventure solely and fully onto my own back (though I still can’t tell if I’m feeling excited tinged with terror or if it’s the other way around.)

Additionally, while setting myself up with an incredible opportunity for self-exploration and inner work, I’m also forced to put some extraordinarily meaningful things aside for a while. It is my hope that each will ultimately feed the other, though only time and intention can really say.

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Over the next month my contact to the rest of the world will be particularly limited, with only a single day of access to my phone/computer/internet/ipod/etcetera. While I anticipate this to be quite trying, I believe the mental isolation will quite my loud mind enough to see deeper into myself and my relationships with others. I expect to begin to clarify active sources of suffering in my life and alter my perception to alleviate their harm. If nothing else, I expect the experience to severely humble me and show me what a long way I still have to go. Given how well versed I’ve become in Buddhism and spiritual topics in general over the past year, I often find myself becoming inflated on my own knowledge. However, I always need to keep in mind that rational and experiential understanding are two vastly different things and one does not necessarily lead to the other. It’s my sincerest hope that the next few months will allow me to embody the principles that I hold highest on a more intimate level, enabling me to more easily project them into the world around me through my thoughts, words, and actions.

I fear that sometimes when I consider my travels to India I take on a somewhat Orientalizing attitude in which I’m lured into the notion that it’s some magical land that naturally instills peace in everyone that travels there. I find this to be a particularly convincing narrative in the beautiful towns in the foothills of the Himalayas, such as Dharamsala. However, I think experience has told me that living in that environment truly does help fill me with a deeper sense of satisfaction than I’ve managed to find any place else in the world. The fact that I feel somewhere is surely a matter of my own expectations and narrow perceptions, but I think I can still take advantage of it so long as I keep that in mind. That sense of peace is undoubtedly attainable anywhere in the world if I can expand my perception of things, but I’m still at a point where the external environment is closely related to my internal states. My goal is to use my time in such a peaceful, low-pressure setting to work on my inner world so that it’s less swayed by externals when I return to ‘real life’ in America. Rather than reacting to the world around me, I aim to find the mental space to enable me to respond with greater consideration and conscientiousness.

As my departure has drawn closer and I’m only left with loose ends to tie up before leaving, I believe I’ve finally crossed the line from anxiety to excitement. Though there was a brief new burst of anxiety upon discovering my grant deadline dilemma, I’m feeling full of energy and purpose, ready to take the next step on a path that I wasn’t even aware I was on until almost exactly 1 year ago. With so much having gone on over the course of that year, I couldn’t think of a better time or a more fitting place to be moving forwards, for the sake of myself and for the sake of those around me.

Being nurtured and protected, mind clear and alert, body fit and strong, heart pure and open, may I dwell always in peace and love.

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