Thanks to the hospitality of dear friends, I am now writing from a balcony on the Asian side of Istanbul, looking across the Bosphorus Strait toward Europe. It's so close that one could swim over. Some say, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". Here, the twins are not only meeting, but have also been learning to live together for centuries, through low and high, in grief and praise. It is quite a fitting and striking setting to reflect upon the past three months of journeying through continental Europe.
Between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox, the pilgrimage has led me across Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. I spent about 3 to 4 weeks in each of these countries, knocking on strangers' doors, listening to their life stories, trying to wash their dishes, picking up the languages and cultures, cycling on well-paved roads, avoiding the grasshoppers under my wheels, sensing the social and economic "state of the union", visiting monasteries and communities, saluting the mountains and lakes, and learning to commune in the sacred space of the heart.
All together, I have stayed with over 20 families whom I didn't know, lived for 37 days in 6 different monasteries and communities, including a Theravada monastery in Germany (Muttodaya), a Christian monastery in France (Taize), a Mahayana monastery in France (Plum Village), a Tibetan monastery in Spain (Samye Dechi Ling), an eco-spiritual community in Italy (Damanhur), and a Vipassana meditation center in Italy (Dhamma Atala). Every day on the pilgrimage leaves me ever more hopeful, through the kindness of strangers and the familiarity in the eyes of each passer-by.
I will start with the light-hearted: some stereotypes have a trace of truth :) Having lived most of my life in huge continental nations like China and the US, I still find it surreal that you could cross a river or mountain in Europe and end up with a totally different culture and language.
I especially recall the transition from Germany to France. Trains in Germany are famously punctual. You can even find out which exact platform a train will depart from months in advance. On the French side, although their TGV (high speed train) holds the highest speed record, you cannot find out which platform the train will leave from until 20 minutes before departure! It could make life stressful when you have to schlepp your gears up and down the stairs across the whole train station.
On the German side of Rhine, hard work is their religion. Many world-class Mittelstand companies (small and medium enterprises) dot the scenic Black Forrest -- an economic envy of the world. A saying in Baden-Württemberg goes, "Work, work, and build a house". No wonder it is home to Mercedes, Bosch, and Porsche. As soon as I crossed into the French side of the Rhine, my hosts protested, "Work? No, work is not good for life. We like good food and wine. Here, have some cheese." :)
Here is how fellow cyclists would greet me on the road in different countries.
In USA: "Hi! How are you? Bye!"
In UK: (they ignore you…)
In Germany: They stare at you with a serious face, but would burst into a big, surprised smile when you keep smiling at them.
In France: almost every cyclists I met will greet me with "Bonjour" and a smile. All the good wine and cheese have an effect, I guess.
When I tell people about the journey that I am on, here are the typical responses.
In USA: "Are you doing it for charity? Which religion are you?"
In UK: (they ignore you…)
In Germany: "What kind of health insurance do you have? How do you finance your travels?"
In France: "Do you like our cheese? Which one is your favorite?" (De Gaulle once remarked, "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?")
In Catalonia: "Welcome to Catalonia! No, not Spain, but Catalonia!"
I have been collecting informal count of the "yes-rate" as I knock on doors of strangers in different countries. This might be a proxy for the level of hospitality of that region. My sample size is small and non-controlled, but here is the initial survey results:
In USA: 1 in 5 families I approach would say Yes to my request for staying overnight
In UK: 1 in 8
In Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy): 1 in 4
In Germany: 1 in 3
Zeitgeist of Europe today: migration, terrorism, separation
The world is in a time of intensifying transition, the Great Unraveling. The four elements of Gaia -- Earth, Water, Fire, Wind -- are sending unequivocal ultimatums all around the globe this summer, through historic earthquakes, floods, wild fires, and hurricanes, all at the same time. However, mass media and political interests continue to distract us from the root causes, and instead, blame the "others" and build higher walls. There seems to be three dominant and inter-connected themes that dominate European headlines: migration/refugee crises, terrorism, and isolationism.
Especially in Germany, the migrant situation is on everyone's mind, and is deeply affecting people's psychology, if not (yet) their material life. In the little Thuringian town where I spent one year during high school, there are 1,500 refugees for a local population of 30,000, or 5%. Some locals have made admirable efforts to take in the refugees as Jesus taught them to love their neighbors. My high school teachers have adopted young men from the Middle East as their sons; these young men have learned fluent German within two years. Theirs is truly a parable of communion, with migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Eritrea celebrating Muslim holidays and Christmas at the same table with their Germany hosts.
But most others live in suspicion and fear -- real or perceived. The migrant and refugee situation in Europe is so complex -- and its karmic roots go so far back -- that I am not at all qualified to comment. But I get the visceral sense that this issue is lurking as a huge shadow upon the collective psyche of the region, and will be a major societal challenge for at least two to three generations -- if handled well.
The second theme is terrorism. I have never felt so close to terrorism as I traveled in Europe. While in England, there were multiple high-profile terrorist attacks, from Manchester to London Bridge. The night before I took the Eurostar train to Brussels, there was a bombing at the Brussels train station. The day before I arrived in Barcelona, there was the tragic van attack at the Catalonian capital. It seems that there is no where to hide for safety, and that the state of perpetual terror will be the new normal.
Some have made a logical leap to connect migration with terrorism (along with economic woes), and believe that the best solution is to keep the "others" out by leaving the EU or build a border wall. But how far can we further divide among ourselves until we reach the indivisible ground of togetherness? Perhaps, one day, our right hand would have a referendum to leave the rest of the body. Or the heart would decide not to give blood to the lungs?
Universal is the human heart: compassion and understanding
The themes of separation and fear might be dominating the airwave. But when we tune into the heart of people, I find compassion and understanding everywhere. To date, I have yet to meet any single "bad person".
Throughout Europe, every night on the road, I was welcomed into strangers' home, be it rich or poor, Christian or atheist. Often, we do not speak the same language, but we manage to laugh the whole dinner through, and share the deliciousness of being human together. Many families even went out of their way to cook vegetarian food for me separately, and lay out comfortable beds to let me rest inside the house.
In places like Plum Village or Taize, routinely, thousands of people from 50+ countries come together to pray, play and practice. Founder of Plum Village, Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I’ve been a monk for 65 years, and what I have found is that there is no religion, no philosophy, no ideology higher than brotherhood and sisterhood.” That is what I am finding, too.
Dharma in the West
Perhaps one of the most important gift from East to West is the Buddha Dharma. The practice of mindfulness and the path of liberation is truly one thing that has been keeping the West sane. The British historian Toynbee remarked, "The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century."
In the past four months, I have spent about one week of time in Buddhist monastery/meditation center in each of the countries I visited. I got to experience Dharma talks with British humor (or the lack thereof), Pali chanting in Bavarian accent, mindful songs in French, Tibetan puja with Catalonian flavor, and Vipassana instructions in Italian. It turned out to be a fruitful and eye-opening survey of Dharma in the West.
Wherever it goes, Dharma has been a consistent and overwhelmingly positive influence on practitioners and local communities. The meditation centers have often been a melting pot of different cultures and religious background, attracting participants from all over the world, walking the non-sectarian path of kindness and awakening. I am deeply grateful to the two generations of Buddhist sangha and the lay supporters in the West for their hard work, skillful means, and lived example.
However, to teach Dharma in the West faces an extra set of challenges on top of the normal difficulty of establishing new institutions. The Western mind is often mono-theist, scientistic (in contrast to "scientific"), materialist and individualist. Culturally, there is no tradition of offering alms to the sangha, of separation of genders, or of a master-disciple relationship. Much could go wrong, and in some cases, it has indeed gone wrong.
One prominent Tibetan teacher observed, "If Buddhadharma in general and Vajrayana in particular are to be passed on and taught to non-Tibetans, it is so important that there is a proper cultural understanding between teacher and student that allows the genuine Dharma to be transmitted properly and accurately. This is really difficult, but absolutely necessary… Clear distinctions between Dharma and culture must be made if we are ever to sort out the current confusions—which, as I’ve said, will probably continue for a while longer. Looking at the next generation of lamas and how they are currently manifesting, I must say, I can’t see a glimmer of awareness of this issue amongst any of them."
In addition to Westernize Buddhism, half a century of exploration has been carried out to "secularize" Buddha Dharma for the non-Buddhist audience. For that discussion, I recommend the insightful essay from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn (creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR), "Too Early to Tell: The Potential Impact and Challenges—Ethical and Otherwise—Inherent in the Mainstreaming of Dharma in an Increasingly Dystopian World".
It has been over one and a half years since the pilgrimage began. Up until a months ago, it was very clear in my heart that the question of "what's next" was not at all relevant. A pilgrim is on the road; that is his sole concern. Deepen the practice in the here and now. Even invoking the question of "what would I do after the journey" will shift things energetically.
But, in recent weeks, I got the inkling that the question of "what's next" has once again been opened. The main focus in the next few months would still be the pilgrimage itself. But the antenna is once again up for signals from the near future :)
A few signs have prompted the shift. On the surface, I have reached Asia, getting close to home. I turned 26, getting old :) No longer eligible for museum discounts. More subtly, I began to notice a renewed interest in my homeland. Journeying through foreign lands has made me aware of the richness of my own culture, and of how little I know about it. I realized that I have never treated my own culture/country with the same curiosity I am giving to the foreign places. I know I am starting to grow the eyes that see the familiar as a stranger. "The further one travels, the less one knows."
What's more, it is much more difficult to have deeper exchange with people when I do not speak the local language. It is much harder to appreciate the beauty and wisdom of the Quran when I don't understand Arabic, whereas I could find the same depth of wisdom from within the Chinese culture. It is much more "cost effective" to dig the well in your own village for water, rather than travel far and dig in unfamiliar land. Truly, as the Dao De Jing says,
"I develop insight
into other people by examining myself
into other families by examining my family
into other villages/states/empires by examining mine.
How do I know the nature of the world? By thus."
But had I not traveled far looking for Truth, I would not have the patience -- or the humility -- to look for it nearby, or from within. In the youthful adventurousness, I had to "get it out of my system", and rid my mind of the illusion that "grass is greener on the other side".
After all, this journey is not just about learning novel things. The journey is a practice in and of itself, a practice to be aware, and to serve from wherever I am. As a foreign pilgrim, much of my bandwidth is consumed with adapting to new cultures and languages (a.k.a. survival), leaving limited capacity for attentiveness and output. Back home, more of my energy would be available for in-depth service and long-term projects. Perhaps, the intuition is suggesting that I am ready to road-test my practice in a different kind of pilgrimage -- in the pressure cooker that is contemporary China. In a sense, the journey away is to earn the right to return.
On the road, there is opportunity for breadth. At home, there is opportunity for depth. The journey so far has affirmed that one shall continue to "leave home" and "return home", again and again, until there is no coming or going, no "one" or "home" :)
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.
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