A Small Adventure
A Tibetan novice from the Tergar Monastery and a Theravadin monk chanting under the Bodhi tree.
This has been a busy week. Besides Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche coming this week, the Karmapa, a teacher on the same level of importance as the Dalai Lama but from a different school, was also in town. I had the opportunity to have small group meetings as well as large group teachings with both of these men. Rinpoche has a quality of compassion that is very outward and goofy. He gave some brilliant talks on finding wisdom and compassion in your life. He hugged people and made playful of people in a way that seemed like he was very much in touch with what individuals and groups needed to hear to make progression. The fundamental tenants of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism are the doctrine that the nature of reality is empty, there is no self in the way people generally consider self, and compassion and the personal path towards enlightenment go hand in hand.
The Karmapa was a younger man at 26. He was chosen at the age of two to be the new leader of his school. He has a dreamy quality to him, a less focused personality, but with a depth that is hard to describe. Guru worship is an important part of Tibetan Buddhism too, as well as humbleness which works to destroy the conception of the ego. Both of these men had many students that followed them to Bodhgaya.
October 27 was also the Hindu festival of Diwali, the festival of lights and one of the two largest festivals. The town in covered with Christmas lights and people have been lighting fireworks for days. The night of the festival was like a war zone. Drunken and sober men and boys roamed the streets lighting fireworks and bombs and dancing. Like other Indian festivals, gender distinctions were apparent: no women were out for the celebration in the streets.
During a small group meeting, the Rinpoche asked me what I studied and why. I told him anthropology because it can most clearly, specifically and generally, what it means to be a human being. He thought this was very funny and began calling me a chimpanzee. I merrily defended myself by saying that chimpanzees and humans share fundamentally similar social organization systems, as outlined for popular culture by the primatologist DeWaal. I continued to make fun of me as a chimp. My friend Caroline did some research and it turns out that a chimp was the mythological father of all Tibetans, an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, and an eloquent speaker of nonsense. Well played Rinpoche, but I still think you look just like Yoda.
There was also a refuge vow ceremony at the main temple complex performed by the Rinpoche. I took the refuge vows, which is an acknowledgment of the power that Buddhism has on people's lives, not because I believe that Buddhism contains an ultimate truth, but because Buddhist philosophies helped me in a mundane and practical way deal with my mom's death.
Below are picture of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche at his brother's temple, the Tergar Monastery.
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.