A Small Adventure
I spent part of the weekend in the wild and wonderful West Bengali city of Kolkata. Due to an error on the part of our travel agent, Alex, Alyssa, Amalia and I only had 31 hours in the 8-hour-away-by-train city. We ended up missing many of the events we wanted to attend due to bad timing, bad taxi drivers and indecision. We missed the planetarium, dance show, laughing meditation, cooking class, and theater performance. The trip was not a loss though. We saw the Victoria Memorial and museum, cruised around the city in retro cabs, ate really good food, and put on our sharpest clothes for the fanciest restaurant (Japanese) I have been to yet in India. A meal for eight was $100.
I spent one night in the city and had to catch a train at noon the next day. I arrived at the train station with no problems, but when trying to find our track number, I realized we were at the wrong station. We had 45 minutes to cross town to get to the other station in midday traffic. We rushed to the cabs, negotiated the price and were on our way. Our cab was hit twice; once by a street trolley and once by another car. We made it with ten minutes to spare.
On Sunday we started Tibetan meditation with a famous and highly realized Tibetan monk named Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. He talked for almost three hours at our first lecture and seems to be an incredible human being. He is full of wisdom and compassion in a way that I have not experienced in anyone else. I struggle with rejecting what I see as arbitrary and ritualistic aspects of Buddhism, but then I meet a man like this and it refreshes my perception of the positivity that is possible within the institution. He very much reminds me of one of my idols: Yoda.
The photos below are of me and our Zen teacher Ekai Korematsu Sensei, the auto-rickshaw ride to the Gaya station, and and Indian boy who wanted his photo taken while waiting for the train. I began showing a man I met some pictures of the US on my phone and a few minutes later I was surrounded by two dozen Indian men and boys jostling to see the photos.
These are pictures of Balwa-Devi, our washer lady, Frankie in a traditional sari, Noah studying, the only thing we do, and Alyssa, my partner for our independent study in Sikkim.
We finished Zen meditation this week. We start Tibetan meditation on Sunday under a very famous Rinpoche, or master. Tibetan is a less formal meditation practice and our master apparently likes to lecture for three hours in the evening.
We moved rooms last weekend. I am in a quieter part of the monastery, facing inwards towards the garden. There is less street noise and less Burmese pilgrim noise, who are now flooding in by the dozen. Since coming to India, I have mainly wearing an outfit called a kurta pajama. This consists of a pair of pajama pants, white or tan, and a knee length loose cotton shirt. It is a good outfit for hot weather. Now that it is getting cooler, I have had some Western clothing made cheaply that I am excited to wear, including a merino blend suit.
Everyday for the last two weeks I have doing Zen meditation practice twice a day, an hour at 5:30AM and an hour at 5PM at the Japanese Temple across town from the Burmese Monastery. Zen is a form of Buddhism imported to Japan from China by a man named Dogen. Zen is a shift away from what is called mainstream Buddhism and is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, along with Chan, which is Chinese Zen, Tibetan and Korean forms of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists believe that the path a Buddhist should follow is reaching a state where you are compassionate towards all beings in suffering. Zen specifically believes that you are already existing in an enlightened state in moment to moment reality if you allow yourself to be. Zen also focuses on the non verbal transmission of the knowledge of enlightenment because language lacks the mechanisms necessary to communicate the experience, much like Foucault's "limit-experiences," or experiences that cannot be conceptualized into words in ones brain because they exist outside normal mundane consciousness, like intense experiences with drugs or sex. In Zen practice, you sit and walk in accordance with strict rules, and let your mind be focused on the three points of your practice; your hands, held in the shape of the cosmic mudra in your lap, your eyes, facing 45 degrees towards the floor, and your back, as straight as possible. Our Sensei is a man from Japan who learned under one of the most influential Zen teachers in the 20th century, a man Suzuki, in San Francisco. If you wish, he hits you on the back with a stick during meditation to keep your mind sharp.
Varanasi was quite the adventure. My train was cancelled so me and my group hired a car and drove for 6 hours to get there without the hassle of finding another train. This might seem like a costly venture, but it came out to being about $12 a person. In Varanasi, we stayed in a hotel with AC with a nice restaurant. On Friday I explored the alleys and the ghats (staircases into the water) and stumbled onto a burning ghat, where they burn the dead and dump the ashes into the river. We met an elderly gentleman there who explain the ceremony to use. People buy just enough wood to fully burn the body, sandalwood if they can afford it, and if they cannot afford wood, they use electric cremation. The man turned out to be the owner of a silk making factory, and a subtle salesman of silk to westerners. We toured his looms, he took use to his house, and of course, we bought silk scarves, fabric, and pillow cases, which were unbelievably inexpensive.
The next morning I took a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. Boatmen have seemingly ancient wooden watercraft that they ferry tourists in up and down the river, usually narrowly avoiding other boats, floating bodies, and submerged temples. If it is clear already, Varanasi is very in your face about death. Later in the afternoon, a small group of us went to Sarnath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site for the last 2500 years and the spot of the Buddha's first sermon. We also toured a Tibetan university made by the Indian government for Tibetan refugees. Then we took a 5am sleeper train back to Gaya and a auto-rickshaw to Bodhgaya. It all seems like a blur.
Now it's back to the grindstone of reading and classes. We started Zen meditation practice on Monday, which is...interesting. It seems to be full or arbitrary motions and bowing, and so far I do not quite understand it. I'll keep you posted.
The City of the Ganges
This weekend I am going to Varanasi, the holy city of the Ganges River, where people come to bathe and be cleansed and to die and be burned. Hindus believe if you die in the city your soul is free from suffering. Bodies are burned on the banks then dumped into the river, and the government pumps raw sewage into the water. This is our first opportunity to travel more or less on our own. It is a four hour train ride from Gaya, and most trains were full so my group is riding in a "less organized" class of train car. I am going with my roommate Alex, my half Hindi friend Sarah, and my friends Alyssa and Caroline. This will be a grand adventure.
Today I gave back my robes after a week of being a Theravadin Buddhist monk of the Burmese tradition. I had to abide by a handful of monk precepts: no killing, no lying, no eating after noon, no being alone with women, no touching women, no handling money, among others. I ate traditional Burmese lunch at 11 with the other monks and then had tea every night with my meditation teacher and the ten other monks who ordained. Five women ordained as nuns too. Our hair is just starting to grow back. The precepts forced more mindfulness into my life but I found them restrictive and unnecessary. I did find that it presented new opportunities in town here though. People are respectful to monks and many pilgrims are impressed by the sight of a Western monk. Yesterday, for example, thirty Hindu pilgrims surrounded me, touching me feet and legs and then touching their heads, much like they do to statues of gods they venerate.
Next weekend I am going to Varanasi, the primary city of worship on the Ganges. The two hours a day of meditation is getting easier but is still challenging. Other class work occupies a lot of my time, but I have still been making room for fun adventures, like today where I went to the Malakala caves 45 minutes away by auto rickshaw with a monk I met at a partially constructed Thai temple a few weeks ago.
First update from India! I've been in Bodhgaya for a week now and New Delhi for three days before that. In Delhi I stayed in a YMCA hostel in a newer part of town. It is hard to describe the city, but a few things struck me. First, the amount of people was staggering. Everywhere people sleeping, selling, walking, buying, and begging. Traffic laws weren't enforced so the streets chaos. Along with the beggars were "friendly guides" or street touts, who wanted to take you shopping for commission. I visited a few Hindu temples, a Baha'i Lotus temple, a Sikh temple and an ancient Muslim minarette tower. The Hindu temples were exciting places of worship; bright colored statues of gods, like Hanuman, a monkey, or Ganesh, an elephant, each representing a distinct aspect of Brahma, or God. Shoes were removed before entering all temples; the streets filthy. The city itself was a mix of old, new and partially constructed buildings. Almost all building scaffolding was made from bamboo.
After three days of orientation in Delhi, we took a 16 hour train ride to Gaya, in the northeast of India. We took AC class 2 trains, the second best, meaning we got AC, bunks, and meals. Since our orientation in London, the head of our program, Robert, has conceptualized our trip as a pilgrimage, as Buddhist pilgrims have done for 2500 years. Something about the train ride solidified this feeling. I was leaving everything familiar and western. In the evening the train sped past hours of fields, hovels, and half built towns. In the morning, it was hours of fields.
There is considerable diversity within the group. There are students of religion, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, creative writing, history, contemplative studies and film. One student is 40 years old and a recently fired union contractor. One student has seriously considered becoming a monk since he was in high school. One student is a Christian farm hand from the South. Despite the differences we all have the interest in an unusual program like this in common and have been getting along well.
In Bodhgaya, I have settled into what is to be our schedule for the rest of the semester, which I outlined in an earlier post. The Burmese monastery I am living in is probably one or two acres enclosed by a cement fence with barbed wire. There is a main temple with a large statue of Buddha in it, four four-story residential buildings for pilgrims, and two story building for the monks, a partially completed residential building and a garden, which is more like jungle, complete with cobras.
My days are filled with meditating, yoga, reading for anthropology and philosophy and taking cold showers. I am living on the first floor of a concrete building in a white high ceilinged room with a fan and a light. During the middle of the day, the temperature gets into the 90's with 80% humidity, and the power shuts off about a fourth of the time, making for very hot afternoons. There is no air conditioning. Everyone in our program eats three meals and two teas a day together. Our meals are prepared in a kitchen by five Indian ladies. Everything has to be carefully prepared because the water is tainted with diseases, but they do a good job and we have access to purified water. They make mostly Indian food for us, with some western dishes like spaghetti or pancakes.
Outside the walls is beautiful chaos. The streets are full of cows, dogs, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tractor trailers, buses, vans, donkey carts, and people. There are beautifully dressed women in bright colors and feces everywhere. The town smells like incense, baked goods, wet dog, fruit and outhouses. Small shops and street venders line the two lane streets south of the monastery towards the Mahabodhi Temple. To the north and west of us are fields and residential buildings. To the east is a large river, and across the river is Sujata village.
A short history lesson of Buddhism and Bodhgaya: 2500 years ago, the area of the Ganges river basin was undergoing change as the area urbanized under agricultural surplus, population density increased, and kingships overturned agrarian republics. The religion of the area, the Vedic tradition, brought there 1000 years earlier by an Indo-Aryan exodus from the north, was brought under scrutiny as unsanitary conditions in cities made suffering a forefront issue. Gautama, Buddhas birthname, was born during this time. According to the story, he was raised as a prince inside a palace and had an easy life. Eventually, he left his palace, saw a sick man, an old man, a dying man and a religious hermit on the streets. This lead him to question how to overcome suffering, and following the tradition of many before him in India, he renounced his life to search for a way to end suffering. Important also was the assumption of rebirth that almost all of India's religion operate under. After spending years meditating and starving himself, he found a way to end suffering for himself (in this life as well as removing himself from te process of rebirth entirely) and taught it to his followers. Buddhism spread throughout India, Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. The city where he stopped suffering and became enlightened was Bodhgaya, which became a pilgrimage destination for about 1000 years, before the Muslim Moghal empire invaded India and stopped people from coming. After, that the Brahmanic tradition pushed Buddhism out of India almost entirely, minus pilgrimage sites, which people have continued to visit. The main temple in Bodhgaya was built 1600 years ago. Since the fall of the British Raj in India, Buddhist tradition from all over the world have been building monasteries in the town, including Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Bengali, all with architecture traditional to the country.
I am getting over a nasty case of bacterial dysentery and a 105 fever which knocked me out for a couple days. Almost half the group is sick right now. Next week Bodhgaya's usual population of 30,000 grows by 250,000 for a Hindu festival. Something else exciting is happening next week but I will save that for later. Peace and love
Second Day In london
Ireland already feels like months away it all went by so fast. I was very lucky and met a backpacker from Seattle on my flight and some fun people from France and Germany in my room. I greatly enjoyed Dublin's beautiful old buildings, castles and cathedrals. The National Museum had an excellent exhibit on Irish archaeology, with things like Viking gold jewelry, Celtic weapons, and Egyptian art. I toured Trinity and visited the books of Kells, a beautiful Bible made over 1000 years ago. The Germans and I toured the area outside of Galway and the Cliffs of Mohen, the largest cliffs in Europe and facing west with a drop of 200m. They were fantastic travel companions; they spoke English well, were funny, laid back and practical. It's funny how stereotypes like this seem to be self fulfilling. The American I met on the plane turned out to be one of the loudest people I've ever met, but he had no shame and was hilarious.
More people in my travel group are arriving today, and I am still trying to find a way to upload pictures.
It is a rainy day here in Soldotna. Today marks my last week in the US. With the exhaustive fishing season over, I have been able to gather the things I need for a successful journey. Acquiring a Visa without a real permanent address proved to be a difficult dance through red tape and bureaucracy.
I am leaving on August 22 for Dublin, Ireland, where I will spend 5 days on the island of ancestors exploring as much as I can. From there, I will travel to London and meet up with my future companions for our great adventure. After a week in London and a 3 day orientation, we will all fly to New Delhi, where we will stay September 6. Then we will cross 1000km of northern India by train to our final destination of Bodh Gaya, in the state of Bihar. I will be staying there in a Burmese style Buddhist monastery, called a "vihar," for the next three months. I am signed up for classes on contemporary Buddhist culture, Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist religious practice, and an independent study. The program approaches Buddhist studies from what seems to be an immersive cultural anthropology stand point. During the last month of the program, I will have the opportunity to do an independent study project and travel anywhere I want in India. Everyday, my schedule will be as follows:
5:30 AM Meditation
6:30 AM Breakfast
8:30 AM Class Period
10:00 AM Tea
10:30 AM Class period
1:00 PM Lunch
4:00 PM Tea
5:00 PM Meditation
6:30 PM Dinner
I will be living in the Pilgrim Guest House at the the vihar. We will mainly eat vegetarian food cooked in the kitchens. We will all take part in the work to keep the facility running smoothly, and try to stay cool in 80 and 90 degree heat. Bodh Gaya one of the most important Buddhist cities, as it was there that Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and became enlightened. My address from Sept 3 until Dec 16 is as follows:
c/o Burmese Vihar
Bodh Gaya, Bihar
It will be hard but I am very excited. Talk to everyone soon!
Fishing is over, the summer is winding down. Here are some pictures!