Here are the combined posts from the past three weeks: one week in LA, two weeks from LA to Mexico and back :)
Day 38-44, Apr 6-12, Arcadia, Los Angeles, CA
One week in Los Angeles. Rest. Write. Read. Plan ahead -- yes, some planning is still unavoidable :)
Visited Dr. John B. Cobb Jr. in a magical elderly community, Pilgrim Place. Dr. Cobb is a leading theologian of the 20th Century, a key scholar of Process Philosophy, and a champion of ecological civilization -- as a natural extension of the Process worldview and his understanding of the Christian teachings.
The 91-year-old Dr. Cobb is convinced that China will be a leading force the global transition toward an ecological civilization, because 1) China has not yet been as thoroughly brainwashed in the Cartesian view of nature, 2) the country has historical and cultural heritages that are in deep harmony with nature, and 3) the ecological crisis in China is so appalling and unbearable that the pressure to change is enormous.
I have gotten to know some very genuine journalists from a major official Chinese news agency here in LA. One friend in particular has experienced her own ecological awakening over the past three years. She said the awakening has brought about the "Three Good" in her life: good health, good family relationships, and good work. "Good health" because she is growing some of her own food in the backyard in the LA suburbs, and is finding more inner balance. "Good family relationships", because she is no longer bothered by the small things that used to have the ability to upset her. "Good work", because she now finds much meaning in using her media platform to discover and promote an ecological awareness.
"Good work" does not, however, mean "good career" -- on the contrary, her enthusiasm for reporting on environmental issues are often met with cold shoulder or ridicule from colleagues or higher-up editors, because these reports are not as sensational or profitable for the news agency. Ironically, what has come to her aid is the fact that doing environmental reporting brings neither fame nor money to her. Colleagues are intrigued why someone would joyfully go about doing extra work that does not bring worldly gains or promotions.
Visited the Gold Wheel Monastery, where Rev. Heng Sure and Heng Chau's three-step-one-bow pilgrimage started. I arrived at the temple a bit early, and saw that the Baptist church across the street was just about to start their Sunday service. So I went and joined the service. The old church had barely over a dozen people in attendance, with an average age of perhaps 70. The 81-year-old pastor was telling 60-year-old jokes, and praying for the country's politicians to follow God's guidance. The group consistently sang out of tune, and the air was thick with the smell of Twinkies from the back kitchen. The whole scene borderlined on an historical reenactment. Alternatingly, I felt comical and sympathetic for a bygone era and an ailing generation that is struggling to make sense of a changing world around them.
A dear friend made an hour-long trip through LA traffic to bless me with a stirring benediction -- one of her favorite poem, "Ithaca" by Cavafy. Such is the love and friendship that enables a pilgrimage :)
Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so that you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would have not set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.
Day 45, 4/13, Irvine, 48 mi
Biked the whole day through the unending suburban sprawl outside of LA. Bad air quality from the car exhaust. In the evening, stayed with a new friend through my LA friends, and chatted with the mother of a high school senior. The kind mother has been thinking over her son's decisions around college and gap year.
Day 46 -47, 4/14-15, Encinitas, 25 miles of bicycling + 37 miles of train
In the morning, I went in a bike shop to tighten some parts. Upon hearing about the journey I am on, the staff at Pure Ride Cycles waived the $15 labor costs, and helped me to adjust the seat height for a more comfortable ride -- all for free.
In mid-day, a man on his bike commute joined me for about 15 minutes, as we traveled on the same bike path. He is a jazz musician and special-ed teacher, living off the grid in a mountain community. He said that ever since the community got internet and cell phone services, some wealthy people have moved in in pursuit of the life in the woods. But they are often too busy to really enjoy it.
Yesterday, perhaps I pushed my body too hard, biking 48 miles after a whole week of not much physical activities. Today, after 20 miles, I experience sharp pain in left knee and right ankle. I tried to rest, stretch, and keep going, but the body said it should not be pushed even further. So I decided to take the train from San Clemente to Encinitas, 37 miles, to meet the friends with whom I am staying for the evening. And decided to take the next day off to let the joints fully recover.
On Day 47, I spent the entire day around the Self Realization Fellowship campus -- the famous meditation garden, the book store, the church and chapel. I read Yogananda's book "Autobiography of a Yogi" about two years ago, and it had a major impact on me. It opened me to another dimension, another possibility. A spiritual turning point.
As I tried to meditate throughout the day, an incurable sense of tiredness weighed me down, as if lodged in the core of my skull. At least four times, I sat down to meditate, and ended up almost falling asleep. Much self-criticism and guilt came up: what are you doing with your life? Other people are working hard, doing good things, and you are sitting around, and falling sleep while trying to meditate? How is this any service to anybody?
In the afternoon, as I went into the grocery store, I saw two young man tabling all day for some cause outside, without much success. On my way out, I bought two fresh cookies to gift them. They were delightfully surprised. The joy on their face was ten times sweeter than if I had eaten the cookies myself.
In the evening, joined the study group reading Yogananda's "The Second Coming of Christ" -- an "revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus". After an hour of chanting and meditation, we read out a paragraph at a time, followed by nothing but long silence and contemplation. No discussion. I found it to be a wonderful way to absorb such deeper teachings, only accessible through intuitive knowing, rather than mental gymnastics.
The experience here in Encinitas reminded me of my visit to the American home of the other "spiritual giant" of the 20th century, Krishnamurti in Ojai.
Yogananda (1893-1953) and Krishnamurti (1895-1986) were born two years apart in India. Both men brought timeless and universal wisdom from the East to the US in the 20th century, and sowed the seeds for the 1960s "cultural revolutions" in the US. They are not known to the general public, but their influence on the course of human history has been nothing short of profound. Steve Jobs was deeply influenced by Yogananda's teaching, so much so that everyone attending Jobs' funeral was gifted a copy of the "Autobiography". Krishnamurti engaged in extensive dialogues with leading minds of the West, such as the theoretical physicist David Bohm, and changed our perception of reality. Both men emphasized the universal and nonsectarian nature of true wisdom, and encouraged people to find their own truth.
These two are only the "visible hands" of god (divine will and consciousness), helping the maturation of humanity. And here are the words from another spiritual giant of India, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), "about work and impurity, tracelessness and purity from Vivekananda, in Karma Yoga:"
"The greatest men in the world have passed away unknown. The Buddhas and the Christs that we know are but second-rate heroes in comparison with the greatest men of whom the world knows nothing. Hundreds of these unknown heroes have lived in every country working silently. Silently they live and silently they pass away; and in time their thoughts find expression in Buddhas or Christs, and it is these latter that become known to us. The highest men do not seek to get any name or fame from their knowledge. They leave their ideas to the world; they put forth no claims for themselves and establish no schools or systems in their name. Their whole nature shrinks from such a thing. They are the pure Sattvikas, who can never make any stir, but only melt down in love. ...
"Next in order come the men with more ... activity, combative natures, who take up the ideas of the perfect ones and preach them to the world. The highest kind of men silently collect true and noble ideas, and others--the Buddhas and Christs--go from place to place preaching them and working for them. In the life of Gautama Buddha we notice him constantly saying that he is the twenty-fifth Buddha. The twenty-four before him are unknown to history, although the Buddha known to history must have built upon foundations laid by them. The highest men are calm, silent, and unknown. . . . They will enter deep into human hearts and brains and raise up men and women who will give them practical expression in the workings of human life. These Sattvika men are too near the Lord to be active and to fight, to be working, struggling, preaching, and doing good, as they say, here on earth to humanity. The active workers, however good, have still a little remnant of ignorance left in them.
"When our nature has yet some impurities left in it, then alone can we work. It is in the nature of work to be impelled ordinarily by motive and by attachment. . . . The highest men cannot work, for in them there is no attachment. Those whose whole soul is gone into the Self, those whose desires are confined in the Self, who have become ever associated with the Self, for them there is no work. Such are indeed the highest of mankind; but apart from them every one else has to work. In so working we should never think that we can help on even the least thing in this universe. We cannot. We only help ourselves in this gymnasium of the world. This is the proper attitude of work. If we work in this way, if we always remember that our present opportunity to work thus is a privilege which has been given to us, we shall never be attached to anything."
Let us work, then :)
Day 48, 4/16, San Ysidro, 41 miles
"This too will change." The sensations of the body provide a great lesson on how mind and body affect each other, and on the importance of equanimity.
The day before, I experienced sharp pain in the right ankle tendon and left knee. I was worried that it would be like this forever, which would mean an end to my bicycling. The thought put me in a heavy mood, and I day-dreamed of being back home living under the care of my mom. Today, the body feels great, and the mind is overjoyed, ready to bike till time's end. What a wide fluctuation of mood based on how two pieces of muscle feel!
In the afternoon, as I was resting and eating at a supermarket, a man walked up to me, smiled and said, "I have a question for you: are you having a good day?" I was a bit surprised by such a question, but answered truthfully in the affirmative. He asked me again, as if to make sure that I really was having a good day, and then looked very satisfied, wished me well, and bid me goodbye. I was speechless. I don’t know who send the angel to bless me, but I am for sure grateful :)
In the evening, the third door I knocked on allowed me to camp there. It was a Mexican family, in an 80% Mexican neighborhood. Sherry, a retiree, half-jokingly asked me whether I was a serial killer, before letting me using a hot shower. Her husband, Joe, told me that if someone in Mexico calls me "Chino", it is not racist, because anyone with curly hair or slanted eyes could be called "Chino". Joe warned me about this because he had a Chinese neighbor who thought "Chino" was a racial slur, and ended up accidentally killing the person who called him "Chino" in Mexico, and spent years in jail there. I surely do not wish to repeat the mistake…
Sherry and Joe have been retired for nearly a decade. These days, they look after grandchildren, garden a bit, and then watch TV and play board games to "kill time". I tried to bring up questions like what they enjoy doing in life, what gives them fulfillment, whether there are community service opportunities nearby, etc, but they seemed set in their ways.
It pains me to hear about "killing time", because that is slow suicide. So many elderly people are just trying to "kill time" -- what a waste of human potential and their years of wisdom. Part of me says "who am I to judge, maybe they are happy this way". But part of me know this is not true -- I can feel their sense of emptiness and purposelessness. I am reminded of what Peace Pilgrim said of "retirement": "Retirement should mean, not a cessation of activity, but a change of activity with a more complete giving of your life to service. It should therefore be the most wonderful time of your life - the time when you are happily and meaningfully busy."
May it be. May it be.
Day 49, 4/17, San Ysidro to Rosarito, 28 miles
First border crossing on the Journey to the East. And perhaps the easiest. Made easy, of course, by the American Empire's dominance of its southern tributary state, and by Mexico's eagerness to welcome tourists into its border. (With a US visa stamp in my Chinese passport, I can travel to Mexico without any paperwork for up to 180 days. No entry fee, if the stay is shorter than a week.)
Got up early in San Ysidro -- a few miles from the border, said goodbye to the Mexican family I was staying with (whose door I knocked on the night before), and biked through a continuous stretch of McDonald's, Starbucks, In-and-Outs, 50-cent-public-toilets, and other Americana icons.
The border crossing was rather uneventful: stopped at the kiosk to fill out a form, and walked straight through the security check points with White Dragon Horse. Nobody was really watching, so I saved myself the hassle of unloading the panniers and putting them through the scanner.
And wow, what a different world awaits on the other side. The vibration in the air, the scents, sounds, street foods -- I had to bite my teeth in order not to scream out loud in excitement: I am in Mexico!
The air was rather polluted from either lower quality of gasoline or lower emission standards for cars. The cars passed mercilessly close by me. It felt like only a matter of time before one of them would hit me.
Given that my phone no longer had service in MX, I went to a fire station to ask for directions. I followed their advice, and ended up on a highway clearly marked "no bicycles allowed". Three miles into the highway, a few guards stopped me, and with a smile, told me that bikes are not allowed on the highway, that I should turn around, bike against the traffic on the highway for 3 miles, and get off… That sounded even worse. I remembered people's advice about bribing the officials, but was not quite ready to start bribing within my first hour in the country :)
So, I got off the side of the highway, walked around the checkpoint, and climbed back up, hauling the bike over the fence back onto the highway, and kept biking forward.
At the toll booth, was stopped by another guard, who spoke to me sternly in Spanish for a few seconds. I understood none of it, so just smilingly responded, "Gracias", and kept on. The guard seems to be satisfied, and did not even charge me the toll. I already love this country :)
After biking 20 miles through many street food stands, a Walmart, a Home Depot, a 7-Eleven, I arrived at the home of my wonderful new friends, Mark and Michaela. They are originally from the US, both work online now as computer programmer and English professor, and have created an ideal life in Mexico, which they have generously shared with me. More on that later :)
Day 49-52, 4/17-20, Rosarito
It has been a most nourishing and engaging four days with dear new friends, Michaela and Mark, in Rosarito, 38km from the US-Mexican border. It is the first time I meet the couple, and they greeted me with bright smiles and big hugs at their front door. Their life, values, and inquiries are a breath of joyous fresh air. Their openness of mind, un-defensiveness of existing/prevailing viewpoints, and willingness to undertake rigorous self-reflection, welcomed us to meet in a soulful depth.
M & M have worked hard and smart in their life to create an "un-American" lifestyle. They both work professionally online, which gives them the freedom to be based in anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. They choose to live in Mexico to avoid the vortex of busy-ness and mass consumerism that plague their northern brethren. For years, they have not woken to the tyrannical sound of an alarm clock. They live with ample free time and exercise, without an over-abundance of stuff, and buy $1 shirts at thrift stores. Instead, they devote time to travel extensively around the world, diving, hiking, and spending as much time outdoors and in nature as possible. They are aware of, and grateful for, the blessings in their life, and strive to use the privilege for common good, be it ecological conservation or dog rescue. Most importantly, they greet the world with smiles and kindness -- and it is only natural that life has smiled back at them.
It reminds me of Buddha's teaching on four types of people (as retold by Goenka). M & M reminds me of the fourth type, those running from brightness towards brightness:
"At present, one’s life is filled with brightness, filled with happiness. One enjoys the happiness of material wealth, all worldly comforts, and prestige in society. But there is wisdom and one keeps on understanding:
“All this success is because of some good kammas of the past. And whatever good kamma I might have done, they are not eternal, their fruit is not eternal, sooner or later it will come to an end. So, I must make best use of all this money, position, power, status that I have now for the good of others. As a householder, it is my duty to use my wealth for the maintenance of my family and those who depend on me. Whatever remains, I must use for the good of others, for the benefit of others. May more and more people get pure Dhamma! May more and more people develop wisdom! May more and more people be liberated from their suffering!
"So one generates love, compassion, and goodwill all the time. All actions—vocal, physical, and mental—are for the good of others. One plants seeds of brightness. From happiness one is running towards happiness; from brightness, one is running towards brightness."
During our four days together, we shared our respective searches on the root causes of our human crises, and ways of opening ourselves up to new solutions. Here are some notes, thoughts that emerged from the collective mind.
- The problem might not be the problem. Our current ecological crises is but a symptom, the latest iteration in the successive crises that have defined human history. The root cause of the problem is much deeper and older than externalities or even capitalism. If we only treat the symptom of the current crises without removing the root cause, it would just create a "void" and make room for the next crisis to manifest. Another way to put it: if we wake up tomorrow and all our "environmental problems" are somehow magically solved, we are still not off the hook (of self destruction); it would be only a matter of time before we create another crisis.
- There is only one fundamental problem. Slavery, imperialism, fundamentalist capitalism, racism, they all share the same root: greed -- the insatiable desire, the incurable craving, the unending cycle of more. Greed, not just the wanting of materials and ego gratification, but the deeper phenomenon of "wanting" itself.
- There is only one teaching or solution. Saints and prophets across the millennia have been saying more of less the same thing, offering the same solution to our only problem. If the problem is Separation and Greed, then the answer has been Oneness and Love. (Words have been so cheapened that they sound cliché.) The ultimate solution is never an engineering or technical fix. After all, what are today's problems but the byproducts of yesterday's "solutions" (e.g. nuclear power, pesticides)?
- There is no guarantee that humanity can survive our current crises. In fact, the odds are not at all good: all the dominant species on planet Earth preceding homo sapiens have perished; all the glorious human civilizations preceding the Western industrial society have fallen. We have stubbornly ignored the teachings of saints and prophets throughout the ages. (But curiously, our stubbornness have not stopped the saints from coming to help us, generation after generation. What do the saints know that we don't?)
- Life and Earth will be fine in the long run, with or without us. This beautiful, emergent phenomenon we call Life will continue on Earth -- and in the Universe. The collapse of industrial growth society would be great news for the rest of creation. However, there is no guarantee that the next round of higher, self-reflective intelligence on Earth will do better than us homo sapiens. So, for better or for worse, we are our own best hope in becoming a species that lives harmoniously on planet Earth. So, we might as well try our best, because, what else is there to do?
- We don't have the step-by-step solution. Yes, we know the ultimate answer is "Love". But how it manifests in concrete steps in the material world, we do not know. Changes happen in non-linear, even mysterious ways. Too often, we rush into "solving the problem", busying ourselves with what we know how to do, in order to alleviate our deeper sense of guilt and helplessness. By so doing, we often end up creating more problems that we have solved. Instead, maybe try the mantra, "Time is running out; Let's slow down and be still", because we've never really tried that before. When we become still, perhaps, the answers could finally find us. Have faith that we each hold a piece of the puzzle, even though none of us could ever see the whole picture.
- Be the change; practice the change. Nothing is more convincing and inspiring than "being the change" ourselves. "Being the change" also takes a lot of practice (and we are really out of practice), so we should not wait for the "big change" to come to start living differently. We need to build a whole new set of muscles. We can practice the small changes (such as anonymous acts of kindness) as preparation and configuration of the new world. Through such practice, we would recover our much-atrophied moral imagination of what's possible, after having lived our whole life under the lie of "There Is No Alternative".
- Intention is the most important. We live in a world obsessed with "actions" -- better yet, quantifiable results and scalable impact. To help birth the new world, we often don't know what action to take, but must have faith in the power of intentions. Wholesome intentions lead to prayerful actions, which ripple out in powerful and mysterious ways. But it is not easy to anchor in intention, because our minds might be too murky to reflect our true intentions.
I will end this post with some lines that come to mind, inspired by our conversation.
The One Thing
Where is the instructional manual, or better yet,
What is the one thing I can do to "save the world"?
There is no "one thing".
And, the world doesn't need your saving.
And, who are you but a limb of this pulsing universe,
The world you are trying to save?
I sighed, and turned to leave.
You called out,
There actually is one thing you can do.
And, in fact, there has been only one thing to do, all along.
The question is,
How can you prepare yourself
So that everything you do is that one thing?
Day 53-54, 4/21-22, San Diego-Los Angeles
Crossing back into the US from Mexico takes much longer at the border. Two hours of waiting in line, followed by a 3-minute easy interview with immigration officer. Almost everyone else at the pedestrian border crossing are Mexicans. The atmosphere is much more tense than the crossing going the other way. I tried to use the time standing in line to meditate, and send well wishes to everyone in the hall.
I saw an immigration officer curtly telling an elderly Mexican couple, "You are denied!", and walking them toward the metal gate. The couple, perhaps wearing their best clothes, said no word, summoning up the last ounce of dignity in their chest, and, with uncertain pace, silently followed the officer. It pained me deeply to witness one of such frequent occurrences at the border -- at any border.
On this side of the border, I was hosted in San Diego by Diane, mother of my host/friend in Mexico. Diane's calling in life is to give love -- evident in the happy and healthy plants throughout her beautiful home.
On Earth Day, I biked along the deep blue Pacific Ocean, and through the sprawling military base Camp Pendleton. The immensity and beauty of the ocean was so overwhelming, that I could not behold its fullness. I let my awareness drop into the ground beneath me, and extend out to embrace the ocean. For a short moment, I felt one with the Pacific, feeling its rhythms. A pristine cool stream poured through the top of my head. Thank you, mother ocean.
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.