From December 2017 to Jan 2018, the pilgrimage led me on a whirlwind tour in India through five spiritual meccas that are important not only for India, but also for the world: one week in Puttaparthi, the alternative universe of Sathya Sai Baba; 10 days in Auroville, the 50-year-young experiment in human unity; one week in Tiruvannamalai, home to the sacred Arunachala Hill and Ramana Ashram; 10 days at Dhamma Giri, the global headquarter of Vipassana meditation; and three weeks at the Gandhi Ashram ecosystem in Ahmedabad, where the experiment of the Law of Love continues today.
In each of these places, I was hosted by the extended ServiceSpace family, a global volunteer community. So, in a sense, despite all the moving around, I had never left the service space and Dharma realm :)
Each of these five places were founded by, or made known to the modern world, by a 20th Century saint: Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011), considered an avatar of Lord Shiva; Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), predecessor to Gandhi and creator of Integral Yoga; Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), gentle and silent exemplar of Self-awareness through Self-inquiry; S. N. Goenka (1924-2013), the lay teacher who spread Vipassana technique around the world; and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who led India to independence through nonviolence. These five Indian men were giants of the 20th Century, and shaped the course of the spiritual and material evolution of humanity.
Sai Ram! Sai Ram!
I have never heard of Sai Baba until a year ago. Then, I start to see him everywhere -- on key chains in Dubai, and on posters all over India -- he truly is omnipresent :) The entire town of Puttaparthi felt like a Sai Baba theme park. From hospital to school, from museum to ashram, the whole place grew and revolved around Sai Baba. The color scheme of the buildings (pink, light blue and light yellow) reminded me of my childhood favorite three-flavor ice-cream (strawberry, blueberry and vanilla). The devotional fervor and otherworldly architecture made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, after a few days of spiritual overload, my hosts and I decided to spend a night at home watching the 1951Disney cartoon "Alice in Wonderland" and Charlie Chaplin clips to balance things out a bit.
Sai-Baba-Land is a great example of "inter-subjective reality", a fancy way of saying that if a group of people all believe in something intangible (or imaginary), it becomes their shared reality, and affects the "objective" world.
Sai Baba teaches his disciples to "love all, serve all", and to carry out "service to humanity as service to God". He is famous for his magical powers, including manifesting objects like rings, watches, and holy ash. I heard people quoting him as saying, "I give people what they want so that they would want what I give."
For me personally, supernatural powers are neither necessary nor sufficient condition for someone's divinity or virtue. However, the Divine is generous and creative in manifesting in all shapes and forms to teach people with similar tendencies. For each seeker, there is a teacher; for each illness, there is a cure. In Sai Baba's own words,
I have a "Task": To foster all mankind and ensure for all of them lives full of ananda (bliss). I have a "Vow": To lead all who stray away from the straight path again into goodness and save them. I am attached to a "work" that I love: To remove the sufferings of the poor and grant them what they lack. I have a "reason to be proud", for I rescue all who worship and adore me, aright. I have my definition of the "devotion" I expect: Those devoted to me have to treat joy and grief, gain and loss, with equal fortitude. This means that I will never give up those who attach themselves to me.
Sai Baba V2.5
The Sathya Sai Baba who passed away in 2011 is the second incarnation in a three-part series. He predicted that he will be reborn a few years after his passing. These days, before Sai Baba V3.0 is identified, a division seems to be tearing through the devotees.
Soon after Sai Baba passed, one of his young devotees, Madhusudan, started to "perceive the presence" of Sai Baba, and communicate on his behalf. The devotees -- and the incoming donations -- are now divided: some believe Madhusudan to be "the one chosen by the divine to perpetuate the message of the Master". Some consider him a hoax.
A few hours' drive away from Puttaparthi is a brand new campus built by Madhusudan's supporters, where Madhusudan also gives darshan, and even materialize holy ash himself, just like Sai Baba did.
The division happened even under the condition that Sai Baba would soon reincarnate, and set an end to the debate. We can only sympathize with the institutions whose founder have not mastered reincarnation to keep their followers united after the founder's demise.
In contrast to Puttaparthi's devotion around Sai Baba, Auroville is devoted to a project -- human unity, and the evolution of human consciousness on Earth. Auroville is intensely spiritual yet nonreligious. Auroville's founders, Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual equal and collaborator, The Mother, play a much less visible -- but no less active -- role in the daily life of Auroville.
Auroville is perhaps the largest (with nearly 3 thousand "Aurovillians"), the most holistic, and the oldest (50 years) global intentional community. It continues to attracts seekers and families from all over the world to join in the ongoing experiment. In recent years, even a few families from mainland China have relocated here with their children.
Perhaps due to the high percentage of kids among Aurovillians, the place feels ever youthful. As the Auroville Charter says, "Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages."
Auroville is a microcosm, a lab, an incubator, an inspiration, and a forecast for the world. The place is so multifaceted and fascinating that its stories could fill -- and has already filled -- many shelves. I will leave the telling to some impressions from two events I participated in Auroville -- Karma Kitchen and Startup Service, and a thoughtful reflection from brother Joserra, who brought a group of friends from his homeland Spain to visit the City of Dawn.
In particular, one thing really struck me when I was reading about Sri Aurobindo's life. Before his spiritual awakening, Sri Aurobindo was a leader of India's independence movement, even before Gandhi. Yet as he turned from the visible to the invisible realms, Sri Aurobindo discovered higher forces at work. He wrote the following, referring to himself in the third person,
But this did not mean, as most people supposed, that he (Sri Aurobindo) had retired into some height of spiritual experience devoid of any further interest in the world or in life. It could not mean that, for the very principle of his yoga is not only to realize the Divine and attain to a complete spiritual consciousness, but also to take all life and all world-activity into the scope of this Spiritual Consciousness and action and to base life on the Spirit and give it a spiritual meaning. In his retirement Sri Aurobindo kept a close watch on all that was happening in the world and in India and actively intervened, whenever necessary, but solely with a spiritual Force and silent spiritual action; for it is part of the experience of those who have advanced in yoga that, besides the ordinary forces and activities of the mind and life and body in Matter, there are other forces and powers that can and do act from behind and from above; there is also a spiritual dynamic power which can be possessed by those who are advanced in spiritual consciousness, — though all do not care to possess, or possessing, to use it, and this Power is greater than any other and more effective. It was this force which Sri Aurobindo used at first only in a limited field of personal work, but afterwards, in a constant action upon the world forces.
Truly, we never really know who is doing what :)
A few hours away from Auroville lies the holy town Tiruvannamalai. The town is full of sadhus, statues, and sacred sites. It is almost hard to find an unholy person.
The holy town is also full of plastic waste and other man-made garbage. As we walk down the Arunachala Hill ("the spiritual heart of the world"), the human pollution increase proportionally: noise, fume, trash, chaos, poverty… It does make one wonder: there is certainly value in striving toward nirvana and Self-realization, but perhaps it also doesn't hurt to clean up the garbage in the meantime.
Each nation has its unique gift to offer to the world. The archetype in India might be the transcendental yogi, opening the human consciousness to much more expansive dimensions. In China, the architype is the scholar-saint, or Bodhisattva, exemplified by Confucius, the tireless teacher. In US, it is the Western cowboy, whose modern day counterpart is the space-bound Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
Each ashram also carries the distinct vibration and personality of its founder. Ramana Ashram has a gentle and playful feeling, simple yet profound. The rooms are minimalist yet comfortable. Everything runs entirely on donation basis.
Over the new year, a group of 30+ ServiceSpace friends came together to sit a 10-day Vipassana course. In our English-language meditation hall, five of us from five different countries (India, US, Spain, Germany, China) are sitting just a few steps away from each other, sharing silence and metta for 10 days. What a joy.
Ever since my first Vipassana course four years ago, I have been struggling (failing and trying again) to establish a two hours per day sitting practice -- the minimum requirement of this technique. Yet my perseverance half-life has been a few months at the longest, with an annual average of about one hour a day.
There might be two ways of arriving at the "strong determination" of daily meditation: induction or deduction. Those few who have strong affinities with the Vipassana technique and lots of paramis (good seeds from the past) tend to naturally keep to the daily schedule without much arm-twisting. As soon as they come into contact with Vipassana, they find it so joyful and beneficial that they would never give it up for anything. That's the "induction" method, a leap of faith without needing all the evidences and convincing.
For most of us, we might resort to "logical deduction" to coax ourselves into the daily practice. My reasoning goes as follows. To meet the two hours daily goal, one hour could come out of sleep. Another hour could come from a 10% efficiency increase during the waking hours, which should be a result of daily meditation anyway. Not a high bar. Stop reading news or using social media, we easily have another hour to spare. Looking at everything else I am doing in any given 24 hours, there really is nothing as important as purifying the mind.
However, the "deduction" method just doesn't offer as much horsepower as "induction", or faith. By the time we are bargaining with ourselves, we are already losing steam. Still hoping that it will one day "click" and become effortless :) Open to any advice!
I had heard so much wonders about Gandhi 3.0 retreats, so was surprised and grateful to receive an invitation to participate in the one in January 2018. I offered to help out in whatever way I may. Little did I know what I was signing up for :) Less than 10 days before the retreat started, the organizers casually told me that I may play "an MC role". I thought it meant hosting a music night or something. It was something else :)
The experience -- especially as a half-participant, half-volunteer -- gave me more than I could have ever imagined. One volunteer this year was a participant from the previous year. She said, "I came back to volunteer with the hope to repay in a small way what I had received last year. However, the volunteering experience have given me much more -- more than as a participant." Here are some more stories from the retreat. For me, the whole experience was a grand rehearsal of unconditional love, so that we may practice it more naturally in daily life.
In the past several months, the topic of "self-care" has been on my mind a lot. It is partly because I got a strange cold during winter solstice, and never fully recovered, even till now, 9 months later. It was also partly because I see many service-oriented friends around me also struggling with how to balance self care and care for others.
After returning to China, I got a full physical check up, including blood test. All indicators showed exceptional health. Recently, an expert traditional Chinese doctor diagnosed and told me that the past two years of traveling around the world has greatly undermined my Qi, and depleted the Yang energy in certain organs. The doctor said that I could recover quickly as a young man if I take immediate care, but if I continue to ignore it, it could become serious chronical illness. That was a wake-up call.
For the past two years, the bicycling pilgrimage has been quite taxing for the body: eight hours of cycling every day, often in hot sun or cold rain. At night, the body often could not get proper rest due to sleeping on hard floor or outside. On top of that, I have been keeping a strict vegetarian diet. For many days in the meat-dominated Middle East, my only options were bread, cheese and dates. A falafel would be a major upgrade -- if I can find it.
Being vegetarian or cycling around the world, in and of themselves, are not harmful to the body. It is only the lack of awareness and skillfulness that make them so. Being young and healthy, I had never thought much about the body's needs. Yet, after two years of pushing the limits, the cumulative effects are showing. Thankfully, it is not too late or irreversible.
A few important learnings.
First, physical wellbeing is an indispensable part of spiritual cultivation. Mind and matter are not separate. We are already "embodied" beings, and we have to achieve the formless through this very form. Without a healthy body, our spiritual growth would be greatly hampered. When I was coughing and sneezing through the 10-day meditation course, it was all the harder to remain aware and equanimous, not to mention the disturbance to others nearby. This is not to say that we should strive for eternal youth rather than liberation from life and death. It is only to recognize that we have to work with what we have. Disregard of physical health is not a sign of spiritual achievement.
There are notable examples of enlightened masters using their own sickness and even death as a teaching point, but those belong to a different category. For example, Master Hua vows to "fully take upon myself all sufferings and hardships of all living beings", and to "fully dedicate all blessings and bliss which I myself ought to receive to all living beings". Or for Thich Nhat Hanh, his recovery from a severe stroke was not only a medical miracle that shows the power of mindfulness, but also an opportunity for his sangha to step up in his "present absence". The Buddha, in one of his past lives perfecting the virtue of giving, offered his body to feed a hungry tigress so that she and the cubs would survive. These masters sacrificed their bodies out of awareness and compassion, not out of ignorance. It is very different from compulsively eating too much ice-cream and getting a stomachache.
Second, there is great benefit in developing the skillful means of health and healing. Not only can we accelerate our own spiritual growth through physical exercises, we can also help so many around us who are suffering from bodily pains. Good health is also one way to convince people of the benefit of spiritual practice. During the Buddha's time, many people were inspired to learn Dharma simply by seeing the radiant appearance of the Buddha. A sickly teacher would hardly inspire confidence in his students. Throughout the ages, many enlightened masters are also healers, alleviating people's suffering, so that the people would have the bandwidth to even care about spiritual matters. Plus, within my own body dwells countless living beings. Taking care of their health and harmony is an act of great compassion.
Care for others
The topic of "self care" becomes all the more complicated when it involved a balance between "care for oneself" and "care for the others".
I remember when I came to know about ServiceSpace, I asked for a coffee meeting with Nipun, who barely knew me. He readily agreed and gave me a generous hour on a weekend afternoon. It was only much later that I realized that *everybody* wants to have coffee with him, and that there is a high premium on this time, even though he made it feel like we had all the time in the world :) When he "give of himself with reckless abandon" for everybody, I am sure it eats into the "self care" quota of the day (such as going for a run or making a salad, lol).
Knowingly or unknowing, I have benefited from the self-sacrifice of countless people. Without the untiring dedication of people like Nipun and Audrey, ServiceSpace would not be touching and changing the lives of so many, including mine. These volunteers are my role models for untiring mind and selfless service.
However, when I am sleep-deprived during my "service work", I could get grumpy and start to generate negative thoughts, which spoils the work, too. So long as I have not yet developed the awareness to transform these moments, I thought I'd better pace myself. As the old Chinese saying goes, "too much" is worse than "not enough".
I once asked Nipun what he thinks about "self care". He said, "As the cultivation deepens, the meaning of 'self' also changes." Go figure :) He also shared, "I want to give everything at my disposal. But what exactly is at my disposal?"
Another time, I quoted a research that sleep deprivation greatly increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Nipun said gleefully, as if he just found a cheap bargain, "If Alzheimer's is the price to pay for doing the work we are doing, then I will take it!" I was quite taken aback, and inwardly asked myself if I were willing to accept such a "bargain". (No. At least not yet.)
These days, I am slowly coming to recognize that there is no right or wrong on the spectrum of giving. Nor can we compare ourselves with anyone else. I should know myself, and evolve at my own pace. In other word, if I am not the Buddha, then I'd better not feed myself to the tigress. If I do not have the equanimity to accept Alzheimer's, then I'd better go to sleep. It would be better for both myself and the others. Plus, "giving" is just one among many virtues. We also need people to model the virtue of moderation and self-care, as worthy in-between stages. Eventually, we will fill all the jars of paramis (virtues).
We are on a long journey. I hope to continue to expand the "meaning of self", yet also have the humility to stop before the mind turns negative. Perhaps then, there would be more and more "at our disposal" to pay forward :)
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.