Bad Moon Rising

30
Jul
2007

I had another great meditation course at Tushita this morning. Then we were informed that because it was the full moon, there would be a special reading of the Sanghata Sutra. Interested in hearing the reading of the sutra (upon discovering it would be read in English), Juliette and I decided to stay for it. When we got to the gompa, they had laid out copies of the sutra on several low tables in front of the meditation mats, and Hedwig (yes, again Hedwig) explained to us how the reading would commence and how being a full moon day this was more auspicious than other days in which to read or chant, and that it would disperse more “positive energy”(her words) than on a normal day. We were told that we would each read the sutra aloud simultaneously but at our own pace.

A couple of months ago I was in Bhutan and on a few occasions was in a monastery in the presence of many monks who appeared to be mumbling, chanting, reading — the composite sound was quite nice and unique to the environment, but I remember having no real idea what they were doing. As we began to read, that particular mystery was solved and although the composite sound was still quite nice to my ear, it no longer contained the question I had posed. I knew now that we were doing the same thing, only in English.

As I got several pages into the text however, I was not so happy. The sutra is full of hellfire and brimstone, reward for good behavior and punishment for bad in a way very similar the Hebrew Torah and Christian Bible. In other words, just in the ways that religion likes to motivate people, by threat and promise. I certainly didn’t come all this way in life just to pick up that old bag. I put down the sutra after skimming the rest, mildly off put.

It was interesting how at odds this sutra was from the lovely odes to universal compassion for all beings that are at the center of our meditations. And to me, how at odds with the core of Buddhist ideas involving awareness and release from craving or aversion. Oh well. The meditations are still great, and compassion is still great. As always for me, the imagery and ritual get in the way of the big ideas.

Meandering in Mcleodganj

29
Jul
2007

How can a day be so chock full and so leisurely at the same time? I woke up this morning and made my meditative walk up the hill to Tushita, where I was pretty much alone in the gompa. After a pleasant meditation, Juliette and I had breakfast at our favorite cafe, followed by a walk to Tsechokling Monastery, a walk in the rain to the cafe at OM Guesthouse, and then over to Tsuglagkhang complex where the Dalai Lama lives and presides (alas, he is in Hamburg at the moment). While at the complex we went to the small but interesting Tibet Museum that relates the horrible tragedy that befell Tibet at the hands of the Chinese.

Uncertain English

28
Jul
2007

Note: I’ve had another piece published in the New Straits Times. This one is a photo essay. Here is the link to the edited piece, and below you will find my original with a link to an online album with more pics.

In my travels throughout Asia, I have gotten a big kick out of how non-native speakers of English will translate things into English. The reasons for this are varied, from the need to connect with monied tourists to simply adding some sense of international “cache” to any endeavor.

Whatever the provenance, the results often grab my attention. They may be funny or thought provoking because they give off an unintended meaning. They may give me a clue to the structure of the original language. Sometimes they are funny due to the juxtaposition of words. Sometimes they are using the wrong word. Sometimes, I have misunderstood a local colloquialism. And sometimes, they may not make any sense at all.

For example, what is one to make of the sign I found above a phone in a hotel lobby in Mumbai that read “Lift receiver for self service”? If I have to make a call, is it really self service? Then there was the sign in Melaka that read “Hair Saloon”. If this is a saloon and not a salon, shouldn’t I be ordering a drink?

I am of course open to the possibility that my (American) sense of English is flawed in its own ways and distinct from the British, Australian, and (even) Canadian versions of the same. But I can’t help noticing the signs.

Over the past 10 months (camera in hand), I have documented many cases of signage that caught my eye. Here are a few examples, collected in a series I call “Uncertain English”. Enjoy.

Morning Bliss

28
Jul
2007

I’m not kidding. I took the 25 minute walk uphill towards the Tushita center for their drop-in meditation at 8:30 this morning. The walk there was lovely, a meditation in itself. We were fortunate to have Hedwig leading the group in meditation again.

For the first time in a while I was really able to get deep into the meditation and see blue light in my head. That is usually how I know (along with the feeling of course) that I have gotten to the zone or head space that is deeply meditative for me.

Afterwards, I posed a few questions to Hedwig about Tibetan Buddhism. Did the Dali Lama and or his followers believe him to be enlightened, a Buddha? If Tibetan Buddhists believe in not killing anything (even mosquitoes) where did that reverence for life end? Everyday we kill bacteria by brushing our teeth, so to what point do they take this reverence for life? And finally, I asked her if most Tibetan Buddhists believe in their deities as real beings or as representations of qualities (like compassion)?

Her answer to my first question was satisfying to me. Of course no enlightened being would ever refer to himself as enlightened (and the Dalai Lama does not say that he is) as this would represent a lack of enlightenment and manifestation of human vanity or pride. Ultimately, whether his followers believe he is or is not is irrelevant if it helps them in their journey. Essentially, does the tree really fall in the forest if no one is there to witness it?

The second and third answers were a little vague, but life can be a little vague that way, with no clear cut answers to some things. One good point that did come out however was about our intention. If we are careful to never wantonly kill, even though we accidentally kill just by being alive and walking (think of the bacteria and bugs), we are not suffering unnecessary bad karma. But we must constantly weigh the good and the bad when making choices that will affect other lives, even the smallest ones.

As for the deities bit, how important are they to the Tibetan tradition? Very, according to Hedwig. But how one sees them (as real or representations) is again a matter of use and meaning to the individual.

Interesting stuff.

to Mcleodganj (Dharamsala)

27
Jul
2007

I’m still not feeling 100%, but I am feeling way better than yesterday. The events of the past couple of days have prevented me from really blogging (just a few notes posted from my mobile). Roughly though, here is what happened:

I decided to take the scenic Kangra Valley “toy train” from Pathankot to get to Dharamsala (and Mcleodganj, a few km up the road). It was fairly scenic, but quite crowded and pretty uncomfortable after 6 hours on wooden slats. I did meet a lovely woman named Juliette, and we decided to share accommodation in Mcleodganj. I am glad I took the train but wouldn’t bother with it again, it wasn’t all that.

Once we arrived in Kangra, it was a mad scramble to make it to the local bus stand to take us to Dharamsala. In fact, we had to take a local bus, change to a bus to take us to Dharamsala, then take a shared taxi from Dharamsala to Mcleodganj, where all the action is (so to speak).

Upon arrival in Mcleodganj, my jaw dropped. Although this was out of season, I haven’t seen so many western backpacker type tourists anywhere else in India (even more than Varkala). They were all appropriately dressed in shawls, sandals with socks and Tibetan hippie wear, so that people would know that they were serious spirit seekers and friends of His Holiness.

Juliette and I took about an hour to finally land some decent accommodation. We were lucky that a guy grabbed us to show us his new guesthouse. New hotels and guesthouses (those not yet in Lonely Planet) are a terrific deal if you can find them. The prices are well below market as they are unknown and trying to make a name for themselves. Our place was the first we saw that was clean and didn’t reek of mildew (it is pretty wet up here after all). We have a nice, quiet room and a great view. And the entire place is 200 rupees a night (about 5 bucks).

Then yesterday I went with Juliette to attend a 2 day meditation course at the Tushita Meditation Center. The course was terrific, taught by a wonderful Dutch woman named Hedwig (I swear. Or something close to that. She pronounced it Heedweeccchhh.) Unfortunately, I started to feel the horrible effects of food poisoning around 3 in the afternoon, and by 6pm I was almost dead. I headed back to my room and this morning (at 6am) just wasn’t feeling up to attending day 2. But I highly recommend the course for anyone interested.

Food poisoning, Dharamsala edition

26
Jul
2007

Juliette (my new pal and roommate that I met on the way here) thinks it was the cheese on the pizza last night, as she is not feeling so hot either. But I think it may have been the yak butter at breakfast. …in any event I am sick as a dog and in my room at the guest house. Ugh.

Train blogging

25
Jul
2007

Although its usefulness is somewhat dubious, with my airtel gprs activation yesterday I can now blog from almost anywhere. And it only costs 2 rupees a day! … That said, using the tiny number pad on my phone to blog, as I am now doing, is not exactly conducive to great literature.

New Friends

24
Jul
2007

Last night spent a little time in a couple of areas I hadn’t been to in Delhi before: Okhla and New Friends Colony….which was appropriate, because I was with new friends. My friends referred to Okhla as “Little Pakistan”. It was fascinating and crowded like crazy. I was mesmerized by this guy making round bread in a spherical oven, but too self-conscious to take a pic.

Taking the overnight train to Pathankot tonight. Then I will switch to the (supposedly lovely) narrow-gauge train to Kangra, then on to Dharamsala (Mcleoedganj actually).

I don’t know why I can’t resist the sweets in India (perhaps because they are so damn good!). Below is a pic from a Bengali sweet shop that Meeta took me to the other day.

Buddhism by any other name?

22
Jul
2007

And there are many of them. This morning I went with Meeta to her Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist group. They basically believe that world peace and happiness (and individual success and happiness) will come about from chanting part of the Lotus Sutra with regularity. We chanted “namu myoho renge kyo” a bunch of times and a few other things, and then there were some sermons and readings. Meeta spoke eloquently about the practice as a tool for her, not to get any material thing in particular, but (by focusing on the repetition of the chant) to change her attitude about things (which is more important). Most of the other people there though seem more focused on traditional religious things like conversions, community support, world peace, and praying for stuff (like a new job or health). They were slightly too evangelical for my tastes, although I don’t see them as particularly harmful.

This morning’s meeting had me contemplating a topic I keep returning to on this trip. Where is the (seemingly) oh-so-simple Buddhism that I learned and read about in the West? The Buddhism that is a philosophy, not a religion? The Buddhism that has no gods or demons? The Buddhism that has no particular rites and rituals? The Buddhism whose goal is simply “awakening” or “seeing things as they are”?

I have been exposed over the past months to several examples of Buddhism:

– In Thailand, where the form is (nominally) Theravada.

– To Tibetan Buddhism in several but not dissimilar forms in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet (and soon Dharamsala)

– To a lesser extent Chinese Buddhism.

– Here in Delhi, the above mentioned Nichiren Daishonin.

My problems relating to these are the same problems I have had all along my journey and are not specific to Buddhism. I have written a lot in this blog over the past few months of the spiritual traditions I have encountered and what I have thought of them. While there are many wonderful and wondrous things about these traditions, they fail in practice to help me connect with existence (or the infinite, or atman, or whatever you want to call it.) That is not to say that I don’t have these moments of connection. My experience here has helped me to have a great deal of them. And some of the tools I have learned (meditation, yoga, dealing with travel in India) and places I have been have turned out to be very helpful in this regard.

I came back to the flat and started doing a bit of internet research on Buddhism, looking through several forms until I started reading more about Zen and liking the sound of it, especially (from the Wikipedia article) this part:

Zen is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism notable for its emphasis on practice and experiential wisdom—particularly as realized in the form of meditation known as zazen—in the attainment of awakening. As such, it de-emphasizes both theoretical knowledge and the study of religious texts in favor of direct individual experience of one’s own true nature.

The rationalist and scientist (and what the hell, tiny mystic) in me likes the sound of this. I think I need to learn more about this in the coming months. Stay tuned.

A little different Delhi

21
Jul
2007

Could be the heat. Could be my absence from India for these last 2 months. But I haven’t done a whole lot in Delhi this time. Getting around is a pain from South Delhi and the heat really takes it out of me. I’ve just sort of been hanging out, reading, and eating. Good thing I am leaving on Tuesday to go to Dharamsala. Not really sure what I will do there, since his holiness is on a tour, but at least the weather will me much cooler and the pace of the street less hectic. I am considering doing another Vipassana meditation since there is one there that starts in a few days. We’ll see.