It has been half a months since I returned to the US. It had been two months in India, and four months in Asia in total. And, it has been nine months since the start of the pilgrimage. Almost enough time for a baby to be fully formed in a womb. Yet I remain curious as to what is to be born :)
Now the pilgrim is back at "where it all started" -- the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California -- for 6 weeks, to be part of the Dharma study and Chan session here.
Before it is too late to salvage the precious memories, here are some fond recollections and honest reflections from a deeply inspiring and nourishing second month in India.
Second month in India: lost and found
Jayesh bhai, a "chief ladder" of Gandhi Ashram shared an analogy when I first landed in Ahmedabad: the pilgrim is like a bird. It flies, and then lands on a branch to take rest, and then flies again.
In terms of "lost and found", the first month in India felt "lost", and the second, "found". The first month was unsettling because "the pilgrim's ego" had to die. Being stripped of my familiar ways of "doing the pilgrimage", I had to re-examine myself: Who exactly are you? What exactly are you doing?
Carrying these questions, this migrating bird sought a resting branch, a refuge, among kindred spirits in India. And I landed on perhaps the best branch the country has to offer :) Owing to the incredible generosity of many noble friends, I had the good fortune to spend half a month around the Gandhi Ashram and Moved By Love family in Ahmedabad, and another half a month serving at the global headquarter of Vipassana meditation (as taught by Goenka) near Mumbai.
The Gandhian ecosystem inherits the Mahatma's value of "truth and nonviolence", amplified through kindness and service; the Vipassana meditation centers embody living Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha for ultimate liberation. Together, Gandhi and Buddha are perhaps India's greatest gifts to humanity. Having basked in their enduring light and living communities, I departed the country thoroughly rejuvenated and hopeful.
In fact, during the first few days of entering India and bicycling in Bihar, I half-seriously swore to myself in exhaustion: if I ever get out of this place alive, I'm never coming back :) By the time I was leaving India, my heart knew that I would for sure be coming back and again to my new-found family for life -- inshaallah :)
Moved by Love in Ahmedabad
Initially, I felt hesitant going into that vortex of unconditional love around the Gandhi Ashram, because I felt "unworthy" of their unreserved embrace and affection. My ego also feared that I would not live up to what was perhaps an overly-generous introduction by a dear sister :) Nonetheless, I was either too fatigued to resist, or felt called to surrender -- to accept and receive, and to go with the flow.
And did I receive! From an avalanche of mind-blowing inspiration of so many local heroes, to intimate connections of hearts with new friends who felt like long-lost siblings, to understanding true "cleanliness" at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, to being part of two Moved By Love retreats, to being spoiled at the home that hosts the local Awakin circle -- and not to mention the endless Gujarati deliciousness (and severe overdose of chai and jaggery). My little cup was so overflowing with their gifts that I knew I was on the hook for life. It is eye-opening and deeply humbling to take a quick peek into the years of labor of love of so many people, quietly tilling the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating a field of Maitri.
On cleanliness, I would always see Jayesh bhai bending down to adjust the placement of cushions, chairs, and shoes, as he walks about. Jayesh bhai said that he learned from his father to "put the right thing in the right place" -- that’s the definition of cleanliness, and beauty. And he added, "to put the right thoughts in the right place is the cleanliness of the mind".
Bowing down to Jayesh bhai
It was my first time meeting Jayesh bhai, a true Gandhian, and a teacher of my teachers. His humble life of service have transformed so many, and rippled around the world. Being able to meet him was like paying homage to a saintly person.
However, when I met him for the first time, I did not bend all the way down to touch his feet (as per the Indian custom of paying respect and seek blessing from an elder). Jayesh bhai stopped me half way in my bow, and gave me a long, full hug.
That one-second interaction weighed on my heart for days, and taught me a lot about humility. The truth is: when I bowed down to Jayesh bhai and reached to touch his feet, I knew he would stop me, so I did not even make the effort to fully bow. The vanity and arrogance was so strong that I only made the gesture to touch his feet, and waited for him to stop me. The doubting-mind was so strong that I did not have faith in the elder until I have "checked it out" for myself.
Indeed, Jayesh bhai had faith in me before I had faith in him. He had accepted and welcomed me whole-heartedly and unconditionally even before we met, while I went in with an subconscious "observe and then judge" attitude.
In Buddha's teaching, two additional poisons following the Three Poisons of "greed, hatred, ignorance" are "arrogance" and "doubt". Well, I have committed both arrogance and doubt within the first second of meeting Jayesh bhai. I have felt remorse ever since.
It was not even about the ritual of touching an elder's feet. Nor would Jayesh bhai really care about -- or perhaps even notice -- my half-hearted attempt. However, the way he so readily trusted and loved me had held up a mirror for me to see clearly the defilements in my heart. As Jesus said, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Truly, the silent teaching from the elders starts from very the first moment!
Master Hua (the first Dharma master to establish ordained sangha in the US) said that anyone who wants to become his disciple must first make ten thousand bows (to all beings) as a method to uproot the hubris that's so deeply embedded in today's individuals. I shall not miss any future opportunity to bow -- and to bow all the way down :)
Being true on "where I am" and "where I am going"
Rev. Heng Sure (whose name literally means "forever true") took a vow of silence during his three year bowing pilgrimage along the Californian coast. He extended the silence for another few years after the pilgrimage, in order to battle his tendency to make false speech -- even seemingly innocent ones. I asked him how the years of silence had helped him to be true. He said, he would still have untruth coming up/out, but the silence has helped him build "a better alarm system" for when they do arise.
During a gathering of local volunteers in Ahmedabad, a seed question was posed, "What is one core shift that you've been living into, in the last year, and how has it affected your service journey?" I realized that the shift that has been "hammered into me" by the pilgrimage -- without me consciously choosing it -- is to try to "be true": true to the original heart (i.e. "where I am going"), and true to one's stage of spiritual evolution (i.e. "where I am").
An example of not being true: when I explain the pilgrimage to other people, I would overstep the "expedient means" by perhaps twisting the truth too much for the sake of brevity, dramatic effects or ego gratification. I would say that, on the physical level, this journey is a "bicycling pilgrimage around the world". This untrue soundbite eventually led to me to develop an ego/attachment around "bicycling", which then begged frequent back-pedaling when I was not able to stick with cycling all the way in Asia. My false speech might have also provoked the gods to test my words by throwing me some serious difficulties while cycling in Asia, from altitude sickness to Nepali road condition to oblivious Indian truck drivers.
And, at some point, after giving so many versions of "why I am on the pilgrimage", I ended up forgetting what my own, original calling was. That's the risk of bending the truth, because you might end up forgetting the original yourself :)
Also, they say, "Don't pretend yourself beyond your own evolution". For example, I was not yet ready for China, spiritually and karma-wise. So when I over-eagerly attempted to cycle in China (Tibet), the universe promptly laid me flat on my back, lying around sick for a whole week. I had to acknowledge that I was getting ahead of myself.
An edge: "do nothing" vs "not doing anything"
But, it is not always easy to choose between two "conflicting truths". For example, on "being true to my spiritual evolution": am I doing good self-care, or am I justifying being lazy? Should I push myself to the limit and conquer the mind-made limitations, or should I pace myself and take it gently?
Here lies an edge between the Daoist notion of "Wu Wei" (Do Nothing, No Action) versus the lazy tendency to just "not doing anything" and ride on past conditions.
This pilgrimage is very much an endeavor to "undo" and "unlearn". But on some days, I was frankly "not doing anything". On some other days, I feel a strong urge to "at least do something". One reason is, much like a monk, I am being materially supported by others' charity. So, I am more aware of whether or not I am "earning the keep": do I have the merits to receive these gifts? Additionally, when I hear of other people's "cool doings", the ego would pressure me to get busy.
On one hand, one needs to restrain the restlessness to just "do something -- anything" so as to relieve the sense of inadequacy and indebtedness. On the other hand, one must not hide behind "Wu Wei" and justify sloth. "Do nothing" is hard work. Any meditator would testify how hard it is to simply sit still -- a practice of utmost vigilance and constant awareness.
We live in a time when the sense of urgency is closing in on us by the minute. The news from Standing Rock or the aftermath of the US election seem to demand that every one of us to spring into emergency mode and take drastic actions. But, more important now than ever, we need to cultivate the "do nothing" mind. But that takes actually cultivating :)
Another lesson on "being true" is about "truly listen". When I first started to attend Awakin circles three years ago, I was amazed at how the hosts and long-time attendees could sit through an hour of listening to others, without looking at their watch every other minute, or become agitated when a speaker is going on for "too long" or is "not interesting" or "not making sense".
Slowly, I started to realize how violent it is for me to boil myself in the heat of impatience, and to hurl energetic daggers of judgements across the room, while appearing to "listen" to others. In fact, the reason I get nervous to speak is exactly because I know how harshly I judge others, and thus, I fear that the same harsh judgement would fall upon me when it is my turn.
And slowly, I started to train my mind to be less obsessed with time-keeping or judging others, and to instead make some space for relaxed listening. I tell myself: there is nowhere else you could be right now, so you might as well listen. Whatever the person is saying is exactly what I need to hear in that moment -- God is speaking through this person, and all I need to do it to pay attention.
As I try (and fail), I start to enjoy listening much more than speaking. Afterall, I already know what I am going to say, so I’d much rather listen to something new. Another surprising side benefit is that my need to speak -- to hear my own voice and to be heard by others -- has been slowly diminishing. On one hand, when I truly listen, I feel that the other person is speaking my heart, too. There is only "one story" -- the human story. Both the speaker and the listener are witnessing its unfolding -- it is irrelevant whose vocal chord is doing the vibrating, or who is taking up more "air time". On the other hand, I started to realized how most of us are not really listening :) Even when we appear to be silent and looking at the speaker, our minds are too busy to bother with paying attention -- not to mention connecting at the heart/vibrational level. So, what's the point of talking, when there's really nobody listening? :)
When I do feel the need to be heard, I have found no better listener than Mother Nature, or a blank page in the diary. They are ever attentive, ever patient, and full of insights.
India and China: ancient and new friendship of the Elephant and the Dragon
Even though I feel like a half-Gujarati by the standard of "I am what I eat", still, my identity as a Chinese person has occasionally come up in conversation in India. Here are some thoughts "from a Chinese perspective".
1. I was amazed at how deeply religions and spirituality run in every heart, street, and moment in India. There is a ritual for every activity, a festival (or two) on every day, an altar in every house, a temple on every street, a god for every function -- and a dozen manifestations of every god. There is a also song for every occasion, and a prayer for every moment of the day.
Everyone in India seems to know a few prayer songs and chants that are thousands of years old. In comparison, I could not think of a single ancient song/prayer that I have learned growing up in China. My grandparents, of course, knew many, and could sing hours of traditional operas. My parents have inherited some, but most of their repertoire was filled with "red songs" -- revolutionary songs in praise of Chairman Mao or the Red Army, etc. My generation is totally alien to the prayerful melodies and mantras from the past. Perhaps it is because India has not went through a violent cultural revolution, her traditions seem much more alive in this modern era.
2. India and China share a rich and ancient heritage of mutual learning and friendship. The karmic affinity between the Elephant and the Dragon -- despite the Himalayas and the deserts that lie between -- is beyond our imagination.
China owes an eternal debt of gratitude to India for the gift of Dharma. Bodhidharma brought the lineage of Chan (Zen) teaching to China around the 5th century, and forever changed Chinese culture, and by extension, other East Asian countries. Generations of Chinese Buddhists have walked the Silk Road in pursuit of true wisdom and the original teachings. The most notable pilgrim is Xuan Zang, the 7th century Chinese monk who walked for 17 years from China to India and back, and brought back and translated a rich collection of Sanskrit sutras. In return, Xuan Zang's detailed account of India was indispensable in the modern reconstruction of Indian history and rediscovery of lost sites, such as the famous Nalanda monastery. (Ancient India did not seem to bother with written historical records, whereas ancient China had an obsession with writing everything down.)
India and China did not develop a nation-state identity until the last century, largely in response to foreign invasions and colonization, and in order to survive in a Westphalian world system they woke up to. Before that, India and China, respectively, has a much more permeable, fluid cultural affinity and a text-based lingua-franca (with many mutually unintelligible regional dialects) that glued the "country" together. So, when the civilization-state "reincarnated" into the modern "nation-state", there were lots of glitches in the DNA-transcription process, leading to all the amnesia -- and skirmishes -- between the two countries.
Considering the depth of historical and cultural ties between the two major civilizations, today's politicians in both countries seem quite petty and short-sighted to fuel the nationalist flames (not to mention Pakistan). The media in both countries -- although short of open hostility -- are generally quite negative or ignorant about each other.
But, I find great hope in people-to-people connections between India and China. Many Indian friends remarked to me how similar the cultures of the two countries are -- not in form or rituals, but in spirit and essence. Particularly, I found that the family emphasis and dynamics are often humorously similar.
Thus, I would put my bets -- and efforts -- into heart-to-heart ties between the people, to build on our rich heritage of friendship.
One day, as I was cycling toward Kushinagar, two young local men slowed down their motorcycle and chatted and laughed with me for a good half an hour, as we were riding our respective "bikes". In the end, one of them said eagerly, "I believe India and China should be best friends. Together, we have half of the world's population; there is nothing we can not achieve in the world." I could not agree more :)
At another occasion, I shared with a group of Indian friends that the political fights between the two countries are nothing but a proxy war of our personal egos -- my ego is dependent on China's collective ego, hence I get all worked up in a nationalistic way when China's ego is offended. Afterward, an Indian brother of my age came up, gave me a big hug, and said with a big smile, "You are the first Chinese I've ever hugged. I pray that in our hug, we dissolve a little bit of both of our egos." May it be, may it be!
Karma Yoga: dropping the false duality between "job" and "service"
Around the time when I set off for Asia in July, two of my dearest friends/teachers both went from full-time volunteer work to taking full-time jobs. Their decision to return to the "system" really shook me up, and made me review my assumptions around work and service.
Until then, I was not even aware that I have been holding the following assumptions: "to serve fully, one has to quit his job"; "to be the change, one has to disconnect from the dominant system"; "the more distant and opposed to the dominant system, the more virtuous one is." In my mind, I had created an unnecessary duality between "holding a job" and "living to serve".
Perhaps by being around some hard-core activists, I have been influenced by some sort of "service fundamentalism": in order to truly grow in service, you must quit your job, lose your visa, burn your passport, give away all your money and possessions, move to an impoverished and violent neighborhood, become a strict organic vegan localvore -- and maybe grow a beard; anything short of that would be pointless.
Little did I noticed the subtle ego and the "arms race of purism" embedded in these assumptions; nor was I aware of the violence in my monopolizing "what service should look like".
In the past nine months of the pilgrimage, almost everywhere I go, I am supported by the charity of householders to provide for my worldly needs. Who am I to say that my way is more virtuous and pure? Am I outsourcing my "dirty work" to others, while wearing my "detachment" as a badge of honor?
As I open my eyes to the "thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground", the following has become clear.
First, it is impossible to sever all ties with the dominant system, unless we withdraw entirely from society. It would be hypocritical to measure one's virtue by one's degree of disconnection with the System.
Second, it requires more humility and skillfulness to serve from within the system. Humility, because there is no instant moral high ground to claim, no subtle affirmation derived from austerity. Skillfulness, because one is forced to learn to hold paradoxes, to listen to the different voices, to develop expedient means, and find the nooks and crannies to "sneak in" seeds of change.
I used to flatter myself by thinking that I quit my job because the industry was not addressing the root cause -- "how righteous of me!", said the ego. But now, I am realizing that it was me who was not capable to "serve from wherever I am". If it is possible for a butcher to abide by the Dao as he carves up oxen, then we might be expected to at least make an attempt to cultivate in nice offices :)
Third, there are great benefits to "have a foot in both worlds". The conventional work (paid work in public/private/NGO sectors) helps to keep us grounded in reality, and develop "efficiency tools". The service/volunteer work helps us remember the ultimate purpose of life, and develop "heart tools". They complement each other.
Ultimately, the practice is to serve from wherever we are. No one form of service is superior and holier than another. We are all placed in the grand scheme for a reason.
After Trump: just another day in the USA
By now, most of us perhaps have felt fatigued from reading Trump-related analysis. Having deliberately not read the news since the pilgrimage started 9 months ago, I have not much to reflect upon in a rigorous, well-researched way. But here are some notes to self, mostly based on intuition and on some second-hand news filtered through my social bubble :)
First, Trump is a symptom, not the cause. Ultimately, the cause is the three poison of "greed, hatred, ignorance" -- present within all minds and hearts, regardless of Left or Right. When institutionalized, the three poisons manifest as financial capitalism, global corporate control, police- and surveillance-state, ongoing colonialism, various forms of discrimination, etc.
Trump has only dramatized the symptoms, bringing some shadow sides of the American psyche undeniably to the forefront. On the up side, just as the body's immune system activates in response to an acute infection, American society's notable "immune system" might kick into high gear in response to Trump. Whereas if Clinton were elected, the false sense of progress might pacify the pressure for fundamental change (and continue to suppressed the conservative discontents), and turn us into frogs being cooked in warm water.
Indeed, the choice between Trump and Clinton is like a choice between Pepsi and Coke: neither of which is good for your health; nor are they really different in essence, although most people have a strong and loyal preference for one or the other.
Second, some perspectives. Historically, during the 300-year American history, the country has gone through more challenging eras than the current one: the Civil War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, etc. One has reason to hope that America's ability to self-reflect and self-correct will serve it well one more time. Comparatively, not many major political systems in the world could absorb a shock as dramatic as Trump. Only a mature democracy and a robust civil society could withstand such a Black Swan. Imagine something like Trump were to happen to Russia, China, or Turkey -- massive chaos or even bloodshed might have ensued. So, even in his current torment, Uncle Sam still has it pretty good.
Third, just like a Big Mac, the temperament of the United States is fast, big, and dramatic. Fast: the rise and fall of empires happens at an accelerated pace. Big: everything seems larger-than-life, and have global implications. Dramatic: the forces of human nature clash on the stage of history in epic style. Therefore, America's storyline consumes more emotions and energy than it actually warrants. May I develop the eyes to discern what's real and relevant, and preserve my energy for constructive work.
Inner pilgrimage for the next half year
For the next half year, I will be in the US, mostly staying put, around the Bay Area. This is not a break from the pilgrimage, but a change in method. With the slowing-down of outer activities, and with the conducive inward movement of Qi during the winter season, I will focus the attention on the pilgrimage within: meditating, studying, writing, researching. Next Spring, I will be back on the road in Eurasia. That is the current plan.
There is at least one similarity between now and before: my knees hurts :) While bicycling, the knees hurt from too much moving. During 10-hour a day meditation sits, the knee hurts even more from not moving! Frailty, thy name is body (and mind)!
Affinities with the Dharma: three lineages and their similarities
During the past few years, consciously or unconsciously, I have been uncovering and nourishing my affinities with Dharma -- teaching of the Buddha on the universal law of nature. In particular, I feel strong affinity with three lineages, one from each of the three major schools of Buddhism. The contact with each lineage has at some point led me to burst into tears for more than a few minutes straight. (Like most boys in East Asia, I was brought up to "never cry".) I gather the facts here to help surface the common qualities between these lineages, so as to better understand where one's karmic disposition, and also to share more about the teachings that feed my soul, in case anyone find them resonant.
The affinity with Vajrayana tradition (mainly in Tibet) started the earliest, during my college years when I "accidentally" ended up living with three Tibetan monks for three years. Before that, I had neither interests nor contact with Buddha's teaching. The affinity is especially apparent with the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and especially with the teachings of Mingyur Rinpoche. (It was Rinpoche's book and meditation teachings, passed along to me by my monk housemates, that saved me from the depressing dead-end of Intellect and Logic.)
One day during my second-year college summer break, I was watching a documentary on the Karmapa. For no particular reason, I burst into tears of joy and resonance for quite a few minutes, which surprised even myself.
Historically, the Kagyu lineage is noted for its connection with Nature -- many of its enlightened masters achieved their realizations while practicing in the wilderness. Today, the lineage, led by HH the 17th Karmapa, is at the forefront of progressive causes such as environmental protection and gender justice. Mingyur Rinpoche makes a special emphasis on practicing meditation.
The affinity with the Theravada tradition (mainly in Southeast Asia) came through Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka. Although secularized for a contemporary and science-oriented audience, the meditation technique and underlying teaching came through the Burmese lineage and Pali Canon.
After my first 10-day Vipassana course, I burst into tears for half an hour straight -- tears of repentance and gratitude.
The Vipassana centers are noted for their non-sectarian, non-religious spreading of the universal path of liberation. I also admire them for their strong emphasis on Sila (moral conduct) and adherence to gift economy.
The affinity with Mahayana tradition (mainly in China and other countries that use chopsticks) started more recently, but also the most strongly. It started with reading about two monks' three-year bowing pilgrimage. And then a dream where I met the monks' teacher, a Chinese monk named Master Hua, who passed away 21 years ago -- and I have never met him in real life. I woke up from that dream sobbing uncontrollably out of gratitude -- the dream-world encounter was Grace. Now, I am studying for 7 weeks at Master Hua's main campus, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, which was also the destination of the two monks' bowing pilgrimage.
There are so many praiseworthy qualities of Master Hua's life and his sangha. I especially admire their strict precepts, diligent cultivation, selfless service and active participation in the world (such as through young people's education), adherence to gift economy, and promotion of inter-lineage and inter-religion harmony.
Collectively, these three lineages exemplifies the Buddha's teaching: boundless compassion for all living beings, emphasis on actual practice to realize the truth within through direct experience, being a bridge between cultures and barriers. And as a bonus, the leaders of the three lineages are all very humorous -- making their teachings alive with laughter.
I owe a profound gratitude to each of these lineages. So far, I have been squarely on the receiving end from these traditions, teachers and sangha. They are planting seeds in me. I pray that I be worthy of their gifts, and that I would have many opportunities to serve their mission.
Bowing to all -- bowing in repentence, bowing in gratitude, bowing in noble friendship!
P.S. Here is a beautiful video produced by Spiritual Ecology on our Fellowship's 5-day environmental workshop at a Tibetan nunnery in Northern India.
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.