(English version below.)
化缘 vs. 讨要
我此行每天敲陌生人家的门，请求借宿，也是一种“化缘”。以前，我抱着“有所求”之心，去敲陌生人家的门，不免心中忐忑，“以物喜，以己悲”。别人要是拒绝我（绝大多数时候是被拒绝的），我会心中难过，觉得自己是不是做错了什么。现在，渐渐学会以“无所求 ”之心，敲陌生人的门时，心中默默祝福对方，不管他们的反应如何。即使他们不同意我借宿的请求，我也真心感谢他们，然后去敲下一家。这样以来 ，原本硬着头皮、担心被拒的每日苦差，变成了为更多的人祈福的难得机会，不怕多费周折。
The 50-hour train from Shanghai to Lhasa is abuzz with chatters in mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects and universally recognizable ringtones of smartphones. The air is filled with smell of seasoned chicken feet (once a favorite of mine…), faint second-hand smoke, and steaming instant noodles. The air outside cycles between dense smog and blue sky, depending on how near we are to large cities.
It has been almost two months since I got off the bicycle seat in the Bay Area, to transition from the US portion of the trip to the next chapter in Asia. It has been a little over two weeks since I came back to China. For the next four plus months, I intend to bike from Tibet to Nepal to India to Sri Lanka, before flying back to the Bay Area by early 2017.
The actual cycling distance thus far has been about 2,000 miles -- another milestone for reflection and recalibration :)
Alms bowl vs. begging bowl
I heard Rev. Heng Sure describe the difference between a monk's alms bowl and a beggar's begging bowl. When a monk goes on alms rounds, he is making himself available to be on the receiving end, should anyone care to practice generosity. There is no attachment to the outcome of each knocking of the door, as the monk offers the same silent prayer of well wishes regardless of the hosts' response.
It appears my knocking on strangers door is also an alms round -- not for food, but for lodging and genuine human connections.
For each family I approach, I would try my best to silently wish them well, no matter how they respond to my (unusual) request to sleep in their yard. Many of the families who hosted me would later say things like, "We feel so blessed that you have chosen to come to our house." It is not me who make them feel special; what has blessed them is the very opportunity for them to practice generosity and kindness to strangers -- to be their highest self. And they have chosen to say Yes.
People are hungry for an opportunity to be generous and kind. In our hyper-digital, individual, and guarded age, it has become a rare treat to interact with flesh-and-bone strangers in a meaningful way. We don't know it consciously, but we are all thirsty for the ancient ritual of welcoming strangers into our home and break bread together. It is the inexhaustible wealth of a pilgrim to offer these gifts to people he meets along the way. He is there, fully open, vulnerable, and trusting.
Once we've gotten more familiar with each other, many of my hosts would also share their inner debate when I first showed up at their door. They would always hear two voices: one of suspicion and separation (thanks to mass media), and another of trust and belonging. Then, "the good dog would win", as they remember how someone have extended a helping hand to them many years ago, or someone have been kind to their son during his long voyage in a foreign land. It is a daily testament of the powerful ripple of love. People never forget a genuinely kind act, even decades later. And that kind act continues to gift forward.
On the receiving end of the "alms rounds", I am nudged to step up and honor my share of the work in this holy exchange. For my hosts, it is a good thing to help a young traveler; but it is of even more joy to support a pilgrim. As the pre-meal contemplation goes, "This offering is the work of love and care. I reflect upon my conduct: have I truly earned my share?"
Transformation of my dad
Over the past few months, one of my greatest amazement and inspiration is the radical transformation in my dad. I tell this story everywhere I go, because it is a real and intimate example of how change is possible, and sometimes, least expected.
My parents and I have been very close. They’ve always understood and supported me deeply. But two years ago, when I started to practice meditation and spend more time volunteering, my parents -- especially my dad -- felt that I might have gone off the rails in the hippie land. In all possible ways, he expressed to me, "You are right in the heart of the tech capital. You should learn about the most cutting edge development concerning the future, like artificial intelligence or biotech. Instead, you are wasting time learning about spirituality and meditation. You could have stayed in China if you wanted to learn about that kind of stuff!"
I wished to explain to my dad that Dharma is the "true wisdom" beyond the reach of "artificial intelligence", and that "meditation" is the most advanced "biotech" one could ever come across. But, there was no shared context for such explanation…
Over a year ago, on a Skype call, when I announce to my parents -- without much forewarning -- that I have decided to quit my job to go on a pilgrimage, my dad raised his voice and scolded me. I had to hang up the call and cry for 10 minutes straight before I could call back. I felt heartbroken that our values might never be the same again, and that I might never enjoy the true understanding and support of my parents from this point on.
To my surprise, within a week, my parents had accepted my decision, and let go of over two decades of expectation of their only son becoming a certain type of person in the society. They say, "If it makes you happy, then do what you want when you are still young." But, underneath their compromise, I know they don't really understand what I am "up to". They accepted my decision out of love for their child, but not an understanding of the mission.
Last November, during my visit home, my parents were intrigued enough by the change in me to try a 20-minute session of meditation, at a Vipassana meditation center in our hometown in Inner Mongolia. As I sat with my parents in the meditation hall and felt the familiar vibration of metta (compassion) in the atmosphere, tears of gratitude streamed down my face. Coming out of that session, my dad said something that totally shocked me: "Life is impermanent; Dharma is rare to encounter. I want to sign up for a 10-day meditation course as soon as possible."
The rest was history: since then (within 8 months), my dad had quit his job, sat three 10-day silent meditation courses, and served (volunteers as on-site helper/manager) at about half a dozen 10-day courses, all over China. He has quit drinking and smoking, and is mostly vegetarian now. He meditates for over two hours daily, and is a full time cultivator. All his health indicators (blood pressure, blood sugar, etc) are back to excellent range. A few days ago, when we said goodbye at the train station, my dad reminded me, "Don't forget to meditate every day!"
All these changes are beyond my wildest dream.
Ever since my dad's first 10-day meditation course, I no longer need to explain to him what I am "up to", because he understands and supports it deeply. "Dhamma works"!
Along the way, people often ask me: is change possible? Sure, I say, and then point to the example of my dad. I remember learning from a dear brother about "assuming value everywhere". The story of my dad makes me even more open to possibility of radical transformation.
A side note. A teacher asked my dad why he was intrigued about meditation. He responded, "My son came home and started to wash dishes, voluntarily and happily." Well, I guess there is occasional benefit in setting the bar low :) As a spoiled only son, I have hardly done any housework growing up. Perhaps, washing dishes is my Dharma Door. Or, I just have lifetimes of dishes to wash to pay off my karmic debt.
Project of undoing
This journey is very much a project of "undoing": to unlearn false knowledge, to rewire heart and mind, to repent and reform.
In the past, progress is measured by what I "have accomplished". Now, progress is measured by what I have managed to "not do": not react to a situation, not overeat make-your-own tacos, etc.
What I have "not done" is often not known others. Indeed, no one will give you a prize for not doing something. However, I am slowly realizing that the entirety of Creation is aware of -- and rejoices with -- me in each moment of undoing. The wind hears me, and celebrates the "not saying" of that hurtful sentence. The river affirms the quick letting-go of a lustful thought. Nature and the countless deities are ever attentive, not missing a single thought of ours, even when we ourselves are not aware. With the entire creation as my witness and companion, I felt ever so held and encouraged in this silent project of undoing. To top it off, I know -- and feel -- the prayers of so many human friends who are with me. It turns out that the Project of Undoing is a much more sociable enterprise than the Project of Doing.
A friend asked if there are consistent questions I ask to different families along the way. I recognize the enormous value in such horizontal surveys. Right now, my work is to consistently listen -- listen with as little judgement and as much curiosity as possible. It is easy to ask an intelligent question. It is much harder to listen from a space of openness and compassion, to not rehearse my own statement or the next question when the other person is speaking. When I am truly listening, I don't even need to ask any question, because the inviting space of silence allows the speaker to be heard on the issue dearest to their heart.
They say, when you listen deeply, you give the other person the gift of truly hearing themselves, perhaps for the first time.
Frequently asked questions
There are many FAQs along the way. Here are a few.
Q: Do you ever get lonely traveling by yourself?
A: Not for a single moment. Life is so full when you tune in. Some of the most fulfilling and enjoyable moments are when I am in desolate places with no human establishment for tens of miles around. Just as I can put my attention on my fingertip and feel the sensations there, I can also extend the edge of my awareness beyond this skin-bag to embrace the waving trees, the hurrying rodents, the old mountains -- and feel with them, feel through them, and feel them. In the Faustian enterprise we call "civilization", we humans have been losing our birth-right gift of communing with Nature. Thankfully, this ability could be rehabilitated.
Q: Do you ever think of quitting?
A: The thought of quitting has never crossed my mind, once. Perhaps, as a friend pointed out, this journey is not "my" journey. It is not about me or up to me. There is no quitting on a pilgrimage. What's more, a circle of dear friends won’t "let" me quit :) Their prayers and support have made sure, from the very beginning, that there will be no quitting. I am deeply grateful to them.
Q: What do you want to do afterward? Will you go back to work?
A: Often, the sub-text of this question is: what you are doing now is not real work. "What do you want to actually do when you finally grow up?"
Quite the contrary, I feel like I am finally working now. Beforehand, I was holding a job. Now, I am doing my work. I am finally "employed". This employment is a lifelong one -- or perhaps for lifetimes. A teacher said, "Once you work for Mama Earth, you would never get fired." Only fired-up.
Now, it is no longer about what "I" want to do with "my life"; it is about how nature wants this body-mind to be, so that it could be of service. It is about slowing down so that the answers could find me. It is about being still so that I could distinguish between the manipulation of Ego and the voice of God. It is about knowing what is my work to do -- no more (greed), and no less (sloth). "I" am off the hook for the rest of "my life", because it is no longer about him. Of course, relapse into ego is highly possible, and that's duly my work: to not forget, to keep trying.
On the other side, there are also questions less frequently asked these days. Compared to the days when I was a prosperous immigrant in the US, now, my mom seems to be less bothered by nosy Chinese aunties near and far recommending their daughters and nieces. I guess I have successfully disqualified myself as a profitable son-in-law in the cunning eyes of eager aunties :)
Phase Two of the pilgrimage has officially begun. The messy squat toilet on this train drives home the point that the easy part of the journey is over. For the past five months, even in the most remote places in the US, I could still drink water from any official faucet (maybe not in Flint), use a seated flush toilet at any gas station, and expect that there will be free toilet paper provided. No such niceties in China. BYOP. Bring your own toilet paper for the squat toilets. Not sure about Nepal, India, or Sri Lanka, but have a feeling that I am leaving the First World luxuries behind for a while.
More challenging than the material conditions is the new social and cultural landscape. In China, there is no single-family houses with lawns where I could knock on the door and camp out. And, it turns out that traveling in my home country requires more IDs and permits than traveling in US and Mexico. Once on the other side of the Himalayas, language barrier would emerge… But all of these are details, and opportunities to practice. Grateful for the spacious warm-up period granted to me over the past few month :)
Bowing to the friends and teachers of all realms!
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.
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