There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
In May and June, the Journey has led me through Bhutan, Thailand, China, and Japan, spending from 1 to 3 weeks in each country.
None of it was my "plan". I had not intended to travel abroad since returning to China in February. But as karma ripens, the journey continues, even if not on a bicycle :)
The cycling part of the pilgrimage might be complete, because now the pilgrim feels ready to walk. Here are some reflections from the past two months.
Bhutan: Gross National Happiness
Dear friends connected me to a team of Chinese and international change-makers trying to apply the principles of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness to China, especially in the field of education and business. In May, I joined them for a three-week study trip through Bhutan, serving as translator.
Visiting the mystical Bhutan is many people's dream. Now I know why :) The last Himalayan kingdom is a source of wisdom and blessing for humanity. It is a reminder, and a refuge.
True to its reputation, Bhutan is a relatively happy country. For three weeks, I have never seen a Bhutanese get angry. However, the happiness of the Bhutanese society is like the happiness of a child -- innocent and untested. It is made possible by the centuries of blessings from enlightened masters, and by the beneficence of their saintly 4th king, whom many believe is a reincarnation of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the 16th-century founder of Bhutan. The 4th king coined the term "Gross National Happiness" (GNH) in early 1970s. Happily retired, the 62-year-old king had pass the throne onto his son a few years ago, and retreated into the mountains for meditation. He lives in a simple cabin away from his four wives and palace, and could often be spotted riding his bicycle in the hills.
Today, as the adolescence of "economic development" sweeps across the land of thunder dragon, the 700,000-people-nation is experiencing similar growing pains as its Asian neighbors. Crime rate has shot up multifold since the introduction of TV and internet in 1999. Drug addition -- an unheard of phenomenon until recently -- is now a national concern. Youth unemployment is high. Most university graduates want a stable job in the government, earning about $300 per month. When I asked two young Bhutanese (both of whom have studied at prestigious colleges in the US) about their views on GNH, they rolled their eyes and said, "You just opened a can of worms."
So, despite of its natural and spiritual endowment, Bhutan is not immune to the virus of modernity. However, we are not here to judge Bhutan, but to humbly receive its gift of Happiness as an aspiration, and try to apply it in our own context. This might be the best way to honor the enlightened ones who have kept the seeds of liberation alive among the peaks of Himalaya.
Back in Thailand: Vesak Conference
When I said goodbye to the nunnery in Bangkok in February, I knew that this would be a place -- a second home -- that I'd love to return to again and again. Little did I know that I would be back so soon. Our GNH study group have made Sathira Dhammasathan one of our pilgrimage stops. Although we only had half a day's time to visit, everyone left teary-eyed, deeply moved by the gentle joy, simple beauty, quiet strength, and boundless compassion of this Dhamma oasis.
Thanks to friends' invitation, I had the honor of speaking at the United Nations Day of Vesak Conference, the largest annual celebration (in Theravada tradition) of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and nirvana. Over two thousands monks and practitioners from over 80 countries participated in the 3-day gathering in Bangkok. The overall theme was "Buddhist Contribution for Human Development", and our panel was on "Buddhist Education for Youth Empowerment". Here is my 10-minute talk, "Dharma on Wheels". Feeling very grateful to thank the teachers who have taught me how to bow, wash dishes, knock on doors, and purify the heart.
China: A Tale of Two Countries
Whatever is happening in the world at large seems to be more acutely felt in China. Perhaps it is due to the pressure-cooking of a large population, or compressed decades of growth, or piled-up karma. Depending on who you ask, China today is "the best of times, and the worst of times".
Pessimists rightly observe that the country is rolling back on the freedom of speech and rule of law like nobody is watching. Ideological control and "public safety" grip are tighter than ever. Those within the system jeer in private that we are returning to the old dynasty. They ask me, "Why would you ever want to come back?"
However, if you plug into the "inner net" of awakening, there is no doubt that China is undergoing a spiritual revolution -- and it is nearing a tipping point. This land will be an epicenter of the evolution of human consciousness on Earth. Which "tale" will come true? It is up to each and every one of us. That's why I am back.
Japan: First Impressions
It was my first time visiting Japan. Almost all Chinese who visit Japan report that their impression of the country has changed completely -- toward the positive. It was especially endearing because, throughout my two weeks in Japan, I felt I was in a Miyazaki film, about to run into Totoro at any time :)
Japan is indeed an exemplar of a "post-modern" society. Highly developed, well organized, fully automated. I rarely had the need to open a door with my human hand -- it is all automatic. Although I enjoyed the "washlet", it does beg the question of how far -- or down -- we want our technology to go. Like Germany, Japan is very successful materially, but does not seem to be very happy. (The "happier" countries, on the other hand, usually owe Germany and Japan a lot of money.) Due to its many natural disasters and resources constraints, the perpetual sense of crisis looms large in the national psyche.
The people are very kind and polite. Historical places are well maintained. I later learned that I was not alone in feeling quite at home in Japan as a Chinese. Thanks to the shared cultural and language heritage, I can mostly make out what the Japanese signs say. Even the pronunciation of many words are similar to Mandarin. Sometimes, Japan feels more "Chinese" than China, in the sense that it has done a better job at preserving the shared Confucian/Buddhist heritage than the Mainland, where these lineages originated. (In another word, there is nothing "Chinese" about "Chinese culture". The wisdom heritages belong to humanity, and to whomever practices it.)
Peace and Permaculture Dojo
I was brought to Japan by the invitation of a global network of young sustainability leaders. I offered a talk along the question: What are we truly sustaining? How can we cultivate inner sustainability of happiness and peace? (Here is a raw audio of the 20-min talk.) It gave me lots of faith to see how these questions resonate so naturally with the young generation in Japan.
After a few days in the fancy facilities of Tokyo and Karuizawa (where Japan's rich and famous spend their summers), I got the refreshing gift of staying at the Peace and Permaculture Dojo in rural Japan, founded by brother Kai, a ServiceSpace friend and Laddership alum. Last time we met was exactly a year ago, when we ran into each other at Schumacher College in UK. The time before that was two years ago at the Awakin Circle in Santa Clara. The tight loops of affinity.
The Dojo is an example, an acupuncture point, in Japan's ecological and spiritual awakening. Nine young people -- including a family of five with three kids (and two goats) -- are drawn to live here, with compost toilet, wood-fire stove, and lots of singing and laughter. They learn and practice mindfulness, gift ecology, nonviolent communications, and sing Plum Village songs to the tune of ukulele played by a fearless eight year old girl. Indeed, "Happiness is here and now"!
One resident is a rapper who made this tribute to brown rice. Another 21-year-old girl dropped out of university to self-educate in the university of life. Many young people from the area come to the dojo for community connections. Although our meals are almost always brown rice plus miso soup, those were the most delicious and nourishing meals I have had, compared to the month of expensive hotel food I have been having earlier. It makes all the difference when you chop wood, make fire, and slowly cook the food with people who care.
What touched me the most are the many details. I often find my scattered shoes neatly arranged, facing outward from the house so that I could easily slip them on. When there is an extra small dish of vegetables, everyone took just a little, leaving enough for others, and even for the guests who might just come. It feels like home, and family.
Prayer at Yasukuni Shrine
While waiting for a friend in Tokyo, my wandering steps took me into the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead are honored. In Chinese media, the Shrine is equivalent to "Auschwitz", and has been a stubborn sore point between the two countries. I wanted to offer some prayers for peace in that place.
Inside the museum, I read many letters -- final letters -- written by young Japanese soldiers to their families. So many fine characters, swept up in collective delusion and karma, in one of history's ruthless tragedies. I stopped in front of a wall filled with thousands of small, black-and-white photos of soldiers who died in the Second World War. I tried to look beyond the fact that these very men might have been the ones who invaded my homeland and killed my relatives. I tried to look into their eyes and meet their gaze -- so young, so innocent, so eager for life. A prayer arose in the heart: "Dear brothers, I don't know where you are, but I know you are suffering. It is not your fault. I could be you, you could be me. May you heal, find peace, and move on. May peace prevail on Earth".
Reconnecting with Japanese Family
Behind the prayer, "May Peace Prevail on Earth", is a family from Japan that has become my role model and spiritual kin. For generations, this family has been devoted to world peace through prayer and service. I first met them last year in London, and again at the Gandhi Ashram in India a few months ago. When we met again this time in Tokyo, we realized that it has been exactly one year, to the day, since our first meeting.
During the past few months, the 77-year-young Masami-san have been practicing intense and constant prayers for world peace, as she sensed that the fate of the world was hanging by a precarious thread. Now, as the imminent threat of nuclear war decreases, Masami-san can finally have an ice-cream :) . We never know what forces of goodness and dedication of merits are keeping the teetering humanity from falling off the edge.
During dinner, Masami-san said to me with her unmistakable enthusiasm and conviction: "A major shift of human consciousness on Earth will come very soon, within two to three years." I told her about the good work at the Peace and Permaculture Dojo two hours away from Tokyo. She said, "You go back to China and build a dojo, too. When you are ready, I will come visit."
It has been a (secret) dream of mine to create a community of practice (Dojo, or Way Place) in China, where we can live the awakening together. It would be another node to strengthen the global web of consciousness evolution. But I know that I do not have the wisdom or the merits to gather in the affinities required for realizing such a dream. A Chinese proverb goes, "A Bodhisattva made of clay crosses the river -- he can't even save himself."
However, just last week, upon returning to China, I met a teacher and a group who might just as well be able to pull it off. I am planning on moving to that community soon. I dare not speculate too much at this early stage, lest words outrun deeds, but I will be sure to keep posted :)
Parents on Pilgrimage
As my journey continues in Asia, my parents have also embarked on their own pilgrimage, starting with five months in the US.
After meeting Rev. Heng Sure in China in late March, my parents were so inspired that they immediately decided to go volunteer at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas for a few months, even though my mom barely speaks English.
The first thing my parents did, after arriving at San Francisco airport, was to drive straight to Awakin Circle in Santa Clara. The next day, they headed to a 3-day Vipassana course. Today, they just completed an auspicious Shurangama Retreat, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Master Hua's historic summer lecture series on the Shurangama Sutra.
While helping them prepare for the US trip, it was almost funny to observe how our roles have reversed: in this case, I was the "parent" worrying for them, helping them arrange visa applications, finding rental cars, setting up mobile phones… My heart ached when I saw my dad lowering his eyeglasses and squinting his eyes to read the tiny texts on the smartphone apps. My heart ached when I saw my mom's white hair, and wondered how she will manage with tent camping. I had to hold myself back from "wanting to do everything for them". My parents repeatedly protest with laughter, "Come on, we are grown-ups. We can manage." How they must have worried for me for all these years!
So far, their time in the US has been filled with joy, friendship, and daily miracles of love. When we speak on the phone, they are like excited kids discovering a new world, with many tales of strangers' kindness. Friends in California are treating my parents like their own family. They are in good hands :)
Memories goes back to the summer ten years ago, when they lovingly helped me pack a large suitcase and sent me off to Germany. We didn't see each other much in the ensuing decade, but our heart connection has only deepened, growing into a Dharma friendship beyond family roles. Now, life has come full circle. It is their turn to go on the Journey to the West in search of the ultimate truth.
May all be happy, peaceful and free! Let us walk together on the way of happiness!
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.