To arrive where we started
This Spring, I found myself back at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas for four weeks. Interestingly, I was here exactly a year ago for an overnight visit, at the very beginning of the bicycling pilgrimage around the world.
Back then, I was simply pulled by a strong intuition to make CTTB the first stop of the pilgrimage -- not really knowing why, nor having any clue that this place will be such an important part of my journey.
As they say,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Certainly, I am not anywhere near "the end of all my exploring", but I am grateful to occasionally "arrive where we started", and to begin to "know the place for the first time" -- both inner and outer -- as the pilgrim returns the light inward, again and again.
It has been over a year on the Journey to the East, since the bicycle wheels began to turn on Feb 29th, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.
It is perhaps only proper that I reflect upon the past year on the Journey as I sit here at CTTB "where we started".
Too early to say, but keep trying
A diplomatic folklore goes: when Nixon asked Zhou Enlai in 1970s about his view on the significance of the French Revolution, the beloved former Chinese premier responded, "Too early to say." Similarly, it feels too early to review what one has learned so far, because I constantly feel like I am just getting started, that the journey thus far has just been the warm-up -- the real journey is only about to begin.
However, as a few recent dreams (see below) have warned me, it is time to "answer the question", even if I don't "understand all the words".
When people ask Rev. Heng Sure why he meditates, he responds, "I meditate so that I know what is on my mind." Similarly, I write so that I know what I have actually learned and experienced :)
So, below is a harvest of some not-fully-ripened fruits from along the road.
Everyone a pilgrim
Yes, it could be a cliché to say that everyone is a pilgrim. But, it is most humbling to realize how true it actually is. Perhaps more than anything else, the year on the pilgrimage has allowed me to bear witness to (and develop the utmost respect for) everyone's path -- however mundane or chaotic it might seem.
The nature of my travel has afforded me to good fortune to take a brief yet intimate dip into many people's lives in drastically different environments. From the 20-million-dollar mansions in Malibu, California, to rats-infested guest houses in Nepal, from the tranquil silence of Benedictine monks to the bubbly hustle of soccer moms.
After having stayed in so many homes and listened to so many life stories, two things have become clear. First, nobody has it easy. Second, everyone is trying their best, consciously or unconsciously, even though at times it might not look or feel like it, to others -- or to themselves.
In many ways, I feel like I have the easy life compared to the householders who have welcomed and hosted me all around the world. I have no family to feed, no diapers to change, no schedules to follow, no mortgage to pay, no leaky pipes to fix, no boss to satisfy, no spouse to consider… The householders don’t even get the consolation prize (and spiritual snobbery) of calling themselves a pilgrim.
There was one memorable moment when it hit home. I was sitting in the back of the car of a young mother. She was braving the rush-hour Indian traffic, deftly driving the stick-shift -- all four limbs engaged. Her energetic six-year-old was yelling for her attention. She was practicing patience and compassion with the child. Her phone rang. She picked up the phone in between the frequent shifting of car gears. The phone call added more to her shopping list for an upcoming gathering she was volunteering for. The night before she was hosting a meditation circle in her home (which she has done every week for almost a decade), after which she stayed up late to do her "day job" on the computer…
As I sat in the comfort of the back seat looking through the suffocating smog on the other side of the car window, my heart was filled with awe, respect and tenderness for this dear sister, and all mothers like her, and all people simply "living life" to the best of their ability. No glory, no fanfare, just good-old-fashioned hard work, day in and day out. Life is the real cultivation -- that is where the rubber meets the road.
I guess, the only thing that differentiates a pilgrimage from the "day-to-day" is the mere awareness that you are on a pilgrimage called Life. It is the volition to use the "ordinary life" to cultivate the sublime truth -- an "examined life", to paraphrase Socrates.
I realize that I have gone on a well-contained pilgrimage so that I could learn to "live life as a pilgrim" later on. A pilgrimage is the rehearsal for real life.
Cultivating within the day-to-day is like changing the airplane engine while flying mid-air. Cultivating on a defined pilgrimage (or in the monastery) is like changing the engine in the airplane hangar -- much easier and safer. But you never know how well the new engine runs unless you start flying.
At the start of two monks' 800-mile bowing pilgrimage, their teacher Master Hua said to them, "Be the same on the highway as you were in the monastery." May all pilgrims be the same in "real life" as they are on the pilgrimage.
One day recently, my mom jokingly observed that I am a true proletariat: no job, no title, no money, no house, no car, no wife, no kids. I laughed in hearty recognition, and only wish to add to the list of my have-not's -- the true richness of life.
I have no doubt. No doubt that my life is in good hands -- not in my hands, for sure. And perhaps it is not even my life to begin with. No doubt that I am doing what I need to do now -- even though the progress is slow and nonlinear. I don't know what I am preparing for, but I know this is the right preparation.
I have no loneliness. Never for a split-second have I felt lonely on this solitary journey. I feel constantly surrounded by the blessings and prayers of so many noble friends -- I feel their metta. And when I truly be quiet and pay attention, I experience the tender and playful companionship of Mother Nature and all her children. Listen, the peacocks are calling again!
I have no regret. Although I am often filled with remorse and repentance for
"all the harm that I've done,
with my body, speech, and mind,
from beginningless greed, anger and stupidity,
through lifetimes without number, to this very day",
I realize how blessed this life have been. I have been given more than I could ever ask for: the parents that I was born to, the teachers and friends that I have met… When I think of the dear friends in my life, it is clear that meeting even one of them is enough to constitute a good life -- but I have met a whole group of them! And it keeps growing! If this life ends right in this moment, I can say with full contentment and gratitude that I have no regret. Life owes me none. It is enough.
I have no fear. Not even fear of death. I do not say this to be pompous. I still have strong aversion to physical pain and discomforts, but it is different from fear. Fear stems from the unknown and from not accepting. Things might be unpleasant or "inexplicable", but never "unknown". I know that whatever I experience from the outside is just the result of past karma and the reflection of what I put out to the universe. I accept it. I know that my friends and teachers will not forsake me, in this life or next.
I have no boredom. I do not remember when was the last time that I felt bored. Meditation has revealed the endless richness of our "Self Nature". The wilderness has helped heal my connection with "Mother Nature". Tuning into these two "Natures", the inner and outer ecologies, is infinitely more rewarding than any social media feed. Every moment is so precious to purify the mind, to commune with all beings, and to pray.
At a more material level, I have no financial debt. So many young people I have met felt enslaved by their college debt. It limits their life options in their most precious years.
Recognizing all these have-not's I've been blessed with, truly, then, I have no excuse. "To whom much is given, much is expected." I have no excuse not to step it up and pay it forward. Having little baggage to weigh me down, I have no excuse to not offer the whole self.
Don’t regress (too much)
In a recent phone call, my dad casually asked, "So, what is your goal in this life?" A spontaneous answer arose: "To not regress". Then I quickly added the qualifier: to not regress too much. That's the bottom line for this lifetime -- the rest is bonus point.
There are two parts to not regressing in this life. First, do not break vows or precepts. Second, do not exhaust merits. ("Merit" is a common concept in Eastern cultures, referring to the fruits of our past good deeds. Like a stock of "good karma".)
These sounds like very conservative goals, but upon closer reflection, they are a pretty high bar (for my current level of evolution). Take "do not exhaust merits" for example. When I consider how generously I am constantly being given, it becomes obvious that I need to work very hard to even keep up with back-earning the abundance. Every moment of laziness is a moment of not honoring the gifts of life -- thus exhausting merits. And I am already quite a bit behind to start with :)
This realization does not bring a sense of heavy indebtedness, nor a self-important "Manifest Destiny", but a sweet recognition that it's too late to be selfish or lazy. My ego feels rather helpless in face of this "cosmic trick". Life have "pre-empted" my idleness by filling my cup with Grace. I have no choice but to flow with it.
Yet, the poet reminds us,
And you receivers -- and you are all receivers -- assume no weight of gratitude,
lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
For to be over-mindful of your debt,
Is to doubt his generosity who has the freehearted earth for mother, and God for father.
Regression is always a possibility. But I shall strive to not regress too much, so that at least I could come back as a human being, and encounter the noble friends and wholesome teachings -- and continue with the Work.
Vow of no lustfulness
The past year has brought to fruit the lives-long vow to uproot lustfulness from body, speech and mind. (Here I use the word "vow" and "precept" interchangeably.) It happened most naturally, and has been immensely liberating.
So much of our deepest affliction stems from the "grand mating game" and sexual desires. Because of lust, I get jealous of men, and get awkward with women. Because of lust, I dissipate vital life energy that could otherwise be channeled toward cultivation and service.
For now, I shall not talk too much about it, because this vow is still young and untested. Prematurely speaking about a vow might also stoke ego and provoke the "ghosts" to test my sincerity. Better keep developing the resolve :)
Receive, so that we may give
Much of our culture has been obsessed with "getting". Fortunately, more and more people have been returning to our "giving" nature. I am slowly discovering that to receive is just as important as it is to give.
On a bicycling pilgrimage around the world, I am always receiving. My physical survival depends on receiving the care and generosity of so many "strangers".
To receive is to empty out the ego and be filled with gratitude and humility. More than "giving", "receiving" makes us part of another person's reality -- we enter their worlds.
To receive is to be vaccinated against prejudice. One does not bite the hand that feeds. While traveling in the US, I've been hosted by quite a few Trump supporters. Once I've eaten at their dinners table and slept on their floors and couches, I could no longer dismiss them as "xenophobic crazies". Not that I would blindly agree with them in order to gloss over the differences, but it forces me to ask harder questions, such as "What am I missing?"
Similarly, after I have received so much love from India, I could no longer go along with the Western stereotypes or the Chinese indifference of India. My heart could never bear to let down the trust of my new-found/long-lost Indian families, or do things that would undermine their country's wellbeing.
By extension of the same logic, I have realized that I must visit Japan -- to receive from that land and people -- so that I may dissolve my deeply-ingrained bitterness over China's suffering at the hand of Japan's militaristic/imperialist ghost.
(I remember watching the film Spirited Away by the great Japanese animation filmmaker Miyazaki. Our whole class watched it together at our middle school in Shanghai. I was so deeply touched by the humanity of the film that I thought to myself: a country capable of telling a story like this could not really be as evil as the Chinese media says it is! The nourishment I received from that one good Japanese film had cracked years of government propaganda.)
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas make themselves available to receive offerings -- even though they don't really need anything -- so that living beings could have a chance to develop the virtue of giving and generosity.
Perhaps, we struggling mortals should also make a conscious practice of receiving --
Go and receive, humbly and freely, from everyone
So that you could not bear to ever break their hearts
Who would poison the well that has filled your cup
When you were dying of thirst?
Receive without expectations or seeking
Receive from the poorest, lowest,
From the farthest, the most unlikely of places
Receive from your enemies and from those you fear
So that you rid yourself of "us vs. them"
Risk yourself to be in the position
Of having no choice but to receive
Because only then
Do you start to understand others on their terms
In fact, we have already received from all
Each living being has been our mother in a past life
But sometimes, it takes actual receiving in this life
To be reminded of "who is my mother, and who are my brethren?"
We never really give from our own wealth
We only repay our parents' kindness
And pay forward the Grace of Life
Therefore, receive, so that we may give!
A marked difference between the Arahant path and the Bodhisattva path is their orientation around "creating affinities" with living beings. In Buddhism and in traditional Chinese culture, "affinity" refers to the karmic connection between people (and non-humans) due to their past relationships. For example, some people might feel like old friends to you even if you are meeting them for the first time. That's affinity.
As my rudimentary understanding goes, those on the Arahant paths wants to end suffering for themselves and get out of the cycles of life and death. So they try to reduce their affinities (karmic entanglement) with living beings. On the other hand, those on the Bodhisattva path have the vow to liberate all beings, so they intentionally create more affinities with people.
I am coming to understand that my pilgrimage around the world is a journey of creating affinities. Affinities give us a reason to care. For example, before visiting India, I had no personal affinities with the subcontinent. I never paid attention to that region in the news. But, after having spent only two months there, I now take a personal interest in any news related to India, because I know it affects the people I care about.
Writing is another way of creating affinities. It goes both ways: only those who have affinities with my journey would care to read these long-winded reports; and through writing and sharing, I keep encountering more people with whom I have affinities.
Another example. There are so many Dharma teachings and sutras that I could not possibly read all of them. But, through my affinity with Master Hua, I will read all the sutras that he has expounded on. Master Hua's affinity with living beings opens up a pathway into the infinite wisdom treasury.
May we continue to create wholesome affinities for our collective liberation!
A new marching order
Year One of the pilgrimage has completed, and Year Two has begun.
Year One has the distinct flavor of an inward journey -- a project of "undoing". I have sought solitude, introspection, and have intentionally avoided outer engagements. All together, I have spent 5 months of the year in various forms of retreats or stays in monasteries.
However, the first days of Year Two have sent me a clear message: it is time to come out of the cave and step up the effort. Three significant dreams delivered the new marching order.
The first dream came on Day 8 of a 10-day Vipassana meditation course.
I have a 3pm appointment with Mr. Xiao, the head Vipassana teacher in China. (I've never met or seen him in real life, but it was very clear in the dream that it was him.) The time is 2:50pm. I know that if I hurry up and get out the door now, I could make the appointment. But, I am doing some pointless thing like watching a show, and let the time slip by. I feel very conflicted and guilty. On one hand, I want to be on time for this important meeting. On the other hand, I feel helpless in pulling myself from the meaningless distraction, lacking self-control.
Now the time is after 3pm. I decide to send Mr. Xiao a text message, saying that I will be running late. He immediately responds. In a compassionate yet disciplined tone, he writes, "I understand. But when we meet, we should still meditate together for an hour first. That's the tradition." I feel both grateful and ashamed.
The second dream came two days later, on Day 10 (metta day) of the meditation course, also a full moon night.
I am sitting with a small group of students and Master Hua. We are looking at a couplet (two lines of Chinese poems). Master Hua turns his head and looks at me smilingly, gesturing for me to share my thoughts on the couplet. Out of laziness, or a false humility, or fear of making mistake, I dodge his request, and let another student answer the question. Master Hua shows that he is displeased and disappointed by my behavior.
I feel quite ashamed. So, after class, I go up to Master Hua, and apologize, "It’s not that I don't want to speak up. There were just a few words in the couplet that I don’t recognize. It's not that I don't want to cultivate; I just don't want to leave home and become a monk." (Somehow the difficult words in the couplet has to do with me becoming a monk.)
In the next scene, Master Hua and I go to buy train tickets in the afternoon. In order to wait for me to get ready, Master Hua missed his train in the morning, and had to buy a new ticket. I feel very sorry to have cause Master Hua to miss his train, so I offer to buy his ticket. He makes it clear that he does not need me to do it. He shows me his train ticket for that morning, demonstrating that he already had a ticket, and also has the money for a new ticket. I feel very grateful that Master Hua let go of his earlier train in order to wait for me to get on the same train. I also feel very guilty that my delay has caused him all the trouble. Tears swell up my eyes.
The third dream came three days later, when I got back to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas from the Vipassana center.
The president of my alma mater (also my thesis advisor and mentor) gives me the task of advising younger classmen. I can choose whom I would work with. I choose two easy ones. The president comes over, puts a hand on my shoulder, and says kindly but firmly, "You need to pick something more challenging."
The three teachers who came to my dream world are all important role models for me. The predominant emotions in the dreams are my sense of guilt from knowingly choosing the easier path, and my gratitude for the teachers' compassion, strictness, and encouragement.
These three dreams, happening within the span of one week, at the very beginning of Year Two, have collectively sent a clear and consistent message: it is time to step it up, choose the harder path, and answer the question -- even if I don't understand all of it. Otherwise I would be "late for appointment", and delay my teacher's "train".
I can't help but recall one of Master Hua's vows:
I vow that as long as there is a single god, immortal, human, asura, air-bound or water-bound creature, animate or inanimate object, or a single dragon, beast, ghost, spirit, or the like of the spiritual realm that has taken refuge with me and has not accomplished Buddhahood, I too will not attain the right enlightenment.
So, my dillydallying is not just a waste of my own human life, but also delaying my teacher's attainment of full enlightenment! What a crime!
Over the last weeks, I've been letting these dreams work their way through my systems, to internalize the message. I don't know what "the question" is, or what "the appointment" is about, but I know I must step up the vigor.
It is now in the middle of a 3-week bowing repentance session at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Hundreds of people from around the world gathers here every year to bow for 23 days straight, every day from 7am to 5pm, to repent for the wrongs we have done, and to dedicate the merits for peace.
So, in the same spirit, I bow to all, in repentance, gratitude, and a renewed resolve for Year Two on the Journey to the East!
P.S. Recently, had the honor to welcome from noble friends and teachers to visit City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Brother Nimo brought the Empty Hands music to the girls' school; Gaian elder Joanna Macy offered spontaneous prayer and blessing for the new monastic campus to be built at the foot of the Wonderful Enlightenment Mountain :)
P.P.S. Year Two of the pilgrimage is already underway. Here's the overall itinerary: I will be back in China for the next 4 weeks, and then fly to UK, then bicycle from London back to Shanghai for the rest of 2017 -- generally speaking :) Planning on passing through UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar -- and ultimately, open to emergence :)
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.