English version below :)
After almost a whole week of stay at the Tergar Monastery in Kathmandu, I bid farewell to the wonderful Tibetan monks community here. Their daily puja anchors a sliver of the Himalayan coolness in this hot, lively and dusty Kathmandu. While staying here, I have met pilgrims/meditators/volunteers from Turkey, England, Mexico, and nearby towns. All have somehow found there ways to this hidden-away, peaceful haven, across from the buzzing "Monkey Temple".
Cycling in Nepal: shocks and contrasts
The day of departure was also my first day of full-day cycling after over two months of break from the saddle. The whole body and spirit rejoices at being back on the road again. However, the muddy/smoggy reality soon squashed any excitement, and tested the equanimity and sanity of the pilgrim. The roads were filled with armies of zipping motorcycles, aggressive big trucks and suicidal buses; my whole body was soon covered in dust; the nerves were fully fried by the honking vehicles and out of control traffic (Nepali ambulances have a siren as loud as ice-cream carts, while the trucks have horns of supertankers); all senses were overloaded by the chaotic mass of humanity. I bought a white, heavy-duty mask in the morning; it had turned dark grey by afternoon. Two hours into the ride, I was side-swiped by a truck on a rocky, muddy, uphill road. I jumped off the bike at the impact; the truck realized it had hit me, but kept on without stopping. The hit broke a piece of the pannier bag. The carelessness of the driver was much harder to stomach than the shock of being hit by a truck. Then the monsoon rain moved in…
By the end of the day, I felt my resilience reservoir quite drained :) I approached a military camp to seeking lodging, and was firmly denied. I approached a local family, but the language barrier was insurmountable, even after much body gestures. Finally, I settled for a guest house room for $5 a night, and went to bed with rats running around the floor, and ants crawling on the smelly bed.
This road reality remained more or less the same for the next two days between Kathmandu and Lumbini. I wore the commercial-grade mask the whole time, creating a little sauna chamber on my face. The whole mind was absorbed in trying to stay alive, leaving little bandwidth to enjoy the ride. I frequently caught my mind complaining, turning physical discomfort into mental afflictions. For the glimpses when I was able to regain mindfulness, I tried to pray for the land and people -- and to chant Guan Yin Bodhisattva's name to keep me alive :)
At some points, it became very clear that all my agony were indeed mind-made. The pains came from comparison and expectation, from my attachment to comfort. There are millions on Earth who live this reality (or worse) daily, quite happily. Truly, "there's nothing out there." But soon, the awareness was drowned in the dust and exhaust, as the "world out there" unabashedly pressed against my skin, and wedged into my nostrils.
If I look up at the mountains and clouds, it is pristine and calming. But if I lower my eyes to meet the mass of humanity, the chaos and dirt is heart-breaking. As I looked at the beautiful valleys and mountains, now filled with trash and plastic waste, I wonder: what's the difference between Nepal (or similar parts of China) and Switzerland? They have similar natural beauty, and were perhaps on equal footing 150 years ago. But in the short period of time, people have turned it into two different worlds. What’s the different "source codes" that have manifested in these diverging destinies?
However, if you meet the Nepali people (not the merchants preying on tourists), then their warmth and joy will win your heart, and redeem the country's physical poverty. At some of my most desperate moments, kind-hearted locals appeared out of nowhere and lent me a helping hand. One of them waved down a van to get me across a stretch that was unpassable by bicycle. A chef at the guesthouse was so kind and helpful to me that I suspected that my parents must be secretly acting through him.
I do regret that the language barrier has greatly reduced my ability to connected with the locals. Speaking no Nepali, I have put the burden upon them to speak English with me.
These days, Chinese travelers are all over Nepal -- or, for that matter, all over the world. In the more touristy spots in Nepal, I feel like I am in China, surrounded by Chinese-speaking, selfie-stick-waving travelers.
There are two main age groups of Chinese travelers. One group is the retirees, often in larger teams of organized tours. The other group is the twenty-something, adventurous and rebellious explorers. This latter group is growing very rapidly: many of them still in college, some have worked for a few years and now wanting a change. This group is also getting younger and younger, traveling farther from home, and digging deeper into their souls.
Most of this younger group travel alone, with one backpack, or on a bicycle -- and on a budget. This group is not satisfied with the life and career options traditionally provided by the society. They are all, on varying degrees, seeking the meaning of life, a different way to be, and who they truly are. Many of them have set off simply to escape the status quo or to experience the thrill of life and foreign adventures; but the Journey unfailingly does its magic on the unsuspecting wanderers, irreversibly changing their worldviews.
They very much make me think of the hippies in the US, in the sixties. The hippie rebellion and explorations have laid the foundation for a new American -- and world -- culture. Many former hippies have gone on to create iconic companies, movements, or institutions. I have all the reasons to believe that the emerging generation of "Chinese hippies" will make similar contribution to the Chinese culture -- and to the world at large.
Lumbini: birthplace of the Enlightened One
For a few days, before entering India, I am taking refuge -- quite literally, from the monsoon heat and Nepali roads -- here in the birthplace of the Buddha.
I don’t know if there are other places like Lumbini -- a Buddhist World Expo with "pavilions" sponsored by many countries and traditions. I am surprised by the global influence of Tibetan Buddhism -- other than the Chinese, Korean and Japanese monasteries, all other Mahayana Buddhist temples belong to various Tibetan traditions -- paid for by countries as far away as Germany, Austria, France, and Singapore.
I stayed at the Chinese Monastery, certainly the most grandiose structure in town. The Forbidden-City-like monastery is directly managed by the state-controlled Chinese Buddhist Association. Its physical scale makes the Nepali-built Maya Devi Temple (at Buddha's exact birthplace) look like a make-shift bungalow.
However, the holiness of a temple lies not just in its footprint. The Korean Temple across the road has only one monk, but his chanting is no less serene and awe-inspiring than the team of 7 Chinese monks (some of whom seemed to be falling sleeping on the gong, having been woken up quite reluctantly at 4:30am). The whole of Japanese Temple appeared as modest as a side hall of the Chinese Monastery, but its tranquil and sincere atmosphere feels more palpable to me. A microcosm in Lumbini :)
Coincidentally, I got to spend my 25th birthday in Lumbini, and spent the first three days of my second 25-year in a Vipassana meditation retreat.
As I contemplate this precious human life, I am deeply humbled by the depths of our parents' love for bringing us into the world. Especially for us only children, what merits do we have to exclusively enjoy a love this vast? We can only pay our gratitude, and pay forward the love.
It also struck me, perhaps for the first time in life, that I am no longer young. Even auto insurance companies stop charging their high-risk premium on those over 25, so how could I continue to pretend that I am still entitled to be careless and responsibility-free? One third of my productive life have already gone by, in a blink of an eye. And I have barely started "producing" in meaningful ways. Along this journey, I have met too many young (or not so young) people squandering their best years on just "traveling around and checking things out", riding on their youth dividend. Granted, there is great benefit in the agenda-less wandering, but I am slowly realizing that I have used up my "aimlessness quota" in life :)
Buddha didn't go into the forest (or Jesus into the dessert) without a purpose -- he left home with perhaps the strongest intentionality one could summon -- to know the truth, to gain ultimate liberation. Such is the purpose required of a pilgrim.
Bowing to the Enlightened One for choosing to be born for the benefit of all! May his birthplace continue to inspire pilgrims, hippies, and aimless wanderers alike!
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.