If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.
- Ram Dass
Affliction is Bodhi (wisdom).
- Zen saying
It has been seven weeks since I've returned "home" to China, after two years on the global pilgrimage, and ten years of living abroad.
"Being home" is to share the same space with my parents every day, as we drove through China. "Being home" is to live for a month with my maternal grandparents during the Chinese New Year, caring for them as they are advanced in age. "Being home" is to see our hometown in Inner Mongolia, a place I've only occasionally visited since leaving before the age of two. "Being home" is to get to know China again, a familiar and foreign place, full of possibilities and paradoxes. "Being home" is to continue the heart connections with my global family, and to deepen in daily cultivation.
Before two American monks embarked on their 800-mile bowing pilgrimage in May 1977, their teacher saw them off, saying, “Be the same on the highway as you were in the monastery.” I've been holding onto this same advice as I "return home".
In my case, the global bicycling pilgrimage is my "monastery", where things are sacred, simple, solitary, and structured. And coming back to China is my "highway", where things appear to be complicated and chaotic. The challenge now is to maintain a pilgrim's mind back in the "real world". In some sense, it is much easier for me to be out there on the "highway", but that's the whole point of a pilgrimage -- a rehearsal for life.
Below are some reflections from 7 weeks "back home".
Gratitude to Ancestors
During the past two years, I've stayed overnight with over two hundred different families or "strangers" throughout America and Eurasia. One thing that has struck me repeatedly is how few "normal" families there actually are, much less "happy" ones. By "normal", I mean families that have stayed more of less intact: no divorce, no premature death or terminal illness, no disability, no domestic violence, no physical or emotional abuse, no addiction, no law suits, no open animosity between members.
Seeing the pervasive suffering and brokenness has given me renewed gratitude for my own "normal" family, especially our elders and ancestors.
By worldly standards, our family is quite ordinary -- nothing newsworthy or history-making. But that's perhaps exactly the extraordinary part, that the generations have been able to remain "normal" during a most abnormal time in Chinese/world history.
As I listened to my grandparents' stories, I have come to realize that the good fortune of our family comes from the simple virtues lived through the generations.
For example, my maternal grandma's family was the largest landlord in their town in early 20th century. The family was well-known in the region for their kindness. When there were villagers who had died and could not afford the funeral, my grandma's family will pay for all costs. When they found out some servants were stealing food and clothes to take back to their own family, they would put out more for the servant to take, and would do so discreetly so as not to embarrass the thieves.
By the time the Communist revolution overtook China, landlords across the country were arrested, paraded through town, and executed in public. But thanks to their kindness, my grandma's family were spared their lives.
As I cycled for over 10,000 kilometers through dozen plus countries, I have never experienced any physical harm or ill will -- not even a single flat tire! I know it is the merits of the ancestors and the prayers of friends that has keep a pilgrim safe. One could only wish to cultivate the same simple virtues within to pay forward the priceless gift.
(Here is my 90-year-young grandma reciting 三字经, the "Three-Character Classic", an ancient Confucian text for children -- often the first text they learn and memorize, even till today. Grandma was born in 1929, when few girls had the opportunity to go to school. Luckily, she did, and still remembers it like yesterday. She might not recall what she had for breakfast today, but her soul has internalized the teaching of the saints, "Humans at their birth are inherently good. Their nature is similar, but their habits differ. If not properly guided, their character will deteriorate." So goes the opening lines.)
Death is Impermanent
Yet even the most virtuous elders could not escape the tyranny of mortality.
My four grandparents are all living and relatively healthy in their eighties and nineties, but the suffering of "old age" and "sickness" is a daily reminder that "death" could summon at any time.
Having grown up in a Communist and atheist worldview, the grandparents are taught to believe that there is no heaven or hell ("opium of the masses"), no afterlife or future rebirths ("superstitions of antiquity"), and no inherent meaning to the individual journey, other than the impersonal, material progression of the collective history ("Proletarians of the world, unite!"). For an atheist, death is permanent. It’s quite a thought to stomach: when you are dead, you are dead forever. One is only alive for a few decades, and then dead for eternity. The scientific principle of mass conservation (that our body's atoms continue to be recycled after our death) does little to appease the existential angst.
It has been heartbreaking to witness my grandparents' struggle with "meaning" in their old age. I can see they would love to believe in something -- anything -- to give a purpose to their existence, especially now that they are no longer economically productive or physically self-dependent. They want to contribute and create value. They would ask me what do Buddhists or Christians believe about rebirth or the final judgement. And they find comfort in knowing that they have lived a virtuous life to pass any such tests. But deep down, they still feel an emptiness and helplessness, fearing that there might indeed be "nothing" after all.
Their condition is not unique among the older generation in China, who have given their all to the revolution. When the comrades turned the whole country atheist, they might have overlooked that even themselves would one day face death. It is now a huge social project to recreate "meaning" for the elderly. After all, even death is impermanent. One won't be dead forever.
Are You a Buddhist?
I am not a Buddhist.
I am not a Buddhist, in the same way that I am not a Christian. If I am a Buddhist, then I am also a Christian, and Muslim, etc. Not that either Buddha or Jesus would care, one way or another :) . I have great respect for people sincerely putting their faiths' teaching into practice, but being "religious" is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for living a virtuous life.
But in the eyes of many relatives and friends in China, I must have become a Buddhist, because I am now vegetarian, meditating, and studying Buddhist texts. There is no other available box to put me in. (However, nobody seem to worry that I might end up a cyborg for using computer and smartphone all day long. Perhaps being a cyborg is more familiar and forgivable to today's techno-masses.)
For some (often Buddhists themselves), my becoming "Buddhist" is an encouraging sign that there is one more lost sheep back in the flock. But for most in the older generations, it causes them confusion and worry. Sometimes, the assumption leads them to give me long lectures on how Buddha has got it wrong. (Great opportunity to practice Khanti parami -- patience! Just listen, no arguing…) Out of goodwill, they implore me to eat some meat for health. Out of goodwill, they remind me that it is about time to get a job and get married. Out of goodwill, they worry that I will become a passive "parasite of society" going around begging.
The impression is not entirely the fault of official brainwashing. For too long, the "fake Buddhists" in China have given Dharma a bad reputation. Before the Buddha entered Nirvana, he forewarned against the Dharma-ending age:
"… when the Dharma is about to perish, during the evil age of the five turbidities, the way of demons will flourish. Demonic beings will become shramanas; they will pervert and destroy my teachings. Monastics will wear the garb of laypersons and will prefer handsome clothes. Their precept sashes will be made of multi-colored cloth. They will use intoxicants, eat meat, kill other beings and they will indulge in their desire for flavorful food. They will lack compassion and they will bear hatred and exhibit jealousy even among themselves…
"Fugitives from the law will seek refuge in my Way, wishing to be shramanas but failing to observe the moral regulations. Monastics will continue to recite the precepts twice a month, but in name alone."
In such time as ours, I am especially grateful for the monastics (and peoples of all religions) who uphold the purity of their faiths by living a moral life. Yet each person has a place in the bigger scheme of things. For my part, at this stage of life, it is perhaps most skillful to not appear "religious" in China, so that I could focus on cultivating the "principle" without getting entangled in the "form". Otherwise, much energy would be expended to just back-paddle myself out of people's (false) perceptions of "Buddhists".
Back into the Matrix
Having been away from the Chinese system for 10 years, the past few weeks has also been a process of "disk formatting" for re-entry: getting a driver's license, residence permit, etc. To get back into the Matrix entails an exhausting list of mindless tasks, forms, and errands to various government offices. Especially for my family's nomadic lifestyle, we have different locations for our "place of origin", "place of birth", "place of residence", "place of work" and "place of living", spread out all across China. It makes for a fun "Easter egg hunt" through the country to secure all the paperwork. And as I apply for a visa, I had to make a dozen phone calls just to find out which jurisdiction I fall under.
On the other hand, it has been a insightful window into the workings of the system, and a sampler of people's lives and regional differences. For example, as we drove from northern to southern China, we noticed that the further south we go, the more often the highway public toilets are able to spell the word "toilet" correctly in English. The sanitation also improves, and the more elegant restrooms even play the timeless Kenny G hit, "Going Home", on an endless loop in the background to assist with nature's call.
Getting back into the Matrix also gives me a taste of the survival pressure most people feel. For example, to get a tourist visa to Japan, the embassy bases its decision on the applicant' income level and job category. If you are a well-paid doctor, you get a five-year multiple-entry visa. If you have no job or income (like me), you have to freeze 200,000 Yuan of cash (equivalent of over 30,000 US Dollars) in the bank for three months as collateral to get your single-entry 15-day visa. In the Matrix, the game is designed to play by only one metric, money. No wonder everyone wants more of it.
Another feature of the Matrix is the constant pressure to "do something" and "be someone" -- some work or profession that is quickly recognizable and explainable to aunts and uncles, and to potential suitors. "What are you?"
Plus, there are so many good things happening in China, so many worthwhile projects and exciting emergence, that it is very easy to succumb to FOMO, the fear of missing out.
So, I am intentionally giving myself one full year, until next Lunar New Year, to "do nothing" and "be nobody". The intuition is that the pilgrimage needs to continue for one more year, within China and nearby regions, before I could sense into my proper place, and develop enough inner strength. The Earth keeps rotating with or without us :)
Ready for Home
There is clearly a quiet revolution going on in China -- not the sensational kinds favored by media, but a silent yet irreversible awakening of the heart. I hear so many young Chinese (especially those who have studied and lived abroad) sharing the same hopeful observation.
The eco-spiritual awakening in China struck me strongly in 2015 during a short trip home, and beckoned me to return and join in the renaissance.
But I also knew that I was not "ready for home", because there were aspects of the Chinese society that really bothered me, such as the selfishness, dishonesty, distrust, in-fighting… I saw these qualities as problems, as uniquely Chinese, and as separate from me; nor was I willing to accept the collective karma of being Chinese. Deadly air pollution and no access to Gmail or Wikipedia -- any takers?
I knew my aversions mostly stemmed from rejecting the inglorious part of myself, and from an attachment to comfort. So, to a large extend, the bicycling pilgrimage around the world is an inner preparation to return home, to see oneness and wholeness.
Master Hua often recites a verse,
Truly recognize your own faults;
Don't discuss the faults of others;
Others' faults are just my own.
Being one with all is Great Compassion.
After the past seven weeks of trial period, I think I am officially ready for home :) People's bad habits no longer trigger me (or only do so for much shorter duration), as I take them as opportunities to turn the light within and purify my own mind. Challenges outside no longer afflict me, as they may be gifts from the gods for me to develop my paramis. I no longer see China's problems as "problems" or as uniquely Chinese. These are just manifested conditions for us to cultivate our compassion and wisdom. Samsara is not to be fixed; we are here to do what's ours to do, nothing more. "The only yardstick to measure one’s progress on the path is the equanimity that one has developed", as Goenka-ji, the Vipassana teacher, often emphasizes.
As I become ready for home, "home" also becomes ready for "me". In addition to the global family who constantly showers me with their love and blessings, I am especially grateful to my parents. Every day, the three of us meditate together for at least an hour, and have our own "book club" reading and discussing sutras after a vegetarian lunch. I would never have imagined any of this barely two years ago, but slowly have the inkling that my parents and I have been fellow travelers on the spiritual paths for lifetimes, only to come together in this configuration this time around.
Deep bows to all my parents from all lifetimes, which, as they say, include all sentient beings through the entire empty space! May we keep returning home!
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.