Looking through the paper diary, it is hard to believe that it was only a month ago that I had entered "the Incredible India". The richness of each day in India could very well fill a chapter.
I have been waiting for a moment of peace and quiet to do some writing. Well, that moment never came for a whole month :) If anything, India teaches one that "peace and quiet" have got to come from within -- no use waiting for the outside dust to settle.
The writer is faced with a dilemma: on one hand, there is yet the unpreparedness -- or unwillingness -- to unpack the most precious experiences; on the other hand, there is the fear that more waiting would further reduce the high-resolution of the treasured memory.
As a compromise, here is a harvest of whatever feels right in this moment, trusting that the rest would continue to work its way through my being -- perhaps for lifetimes :)
Traveling in India
On Sept 14, Day 199 of this pilgrimage, I departed from the Chinese Monastery in Lumbini (where Buddha was born), Nepal, and head for the Indian border. Through the unforgiving monsoon heat, I traveled by bicycle and buses via Kushinagar (where Buddha entered Nirvana) to Bodhgaya (where Buddha realized Enlightenment).
From Bodhgaya, I took an overnight train to New Delhi, where I met up with the Spiritual Ecology Youth Fellowship. Together, we travelled for two weeks in Northern India, to Dharamsala and Dehradun, conducted environmental workshop, and learned from various inspiring epicenters of reconnecting with the inner and outer sacred. My last month in India (mid-Oct to mid-Nov) will be spread between the Gandhian ecosystem in Ahmedabad and the global headquarter of Vipassana meditation near Mumbai.
They say, India is the ultimate test of a traveler. Having only traveled in a small section in this vast country, my sample size is very limited and Bihar-tainted -- a state of not the highest reputation. But so far, traveling in India -- especially if by bicycle -- has been a big test of equanimity, if not sanity :)
On one level, there is nothing unique about India -- people are people. Anything I love or complain about India could have been said about China. But at the same time, everything in India seems more intensified -- both the heavenly and the earthly, perhaps due to the pressure-cooking of such high population density (many times over China) and thousand years of epic history.
After a day of traveling in India, the evening meditation becomes absolutely essential. The mental circuit board is pretty fried from a day's sensory overload, and is in need of a deep "nervous system repair and maintenance".
"Root of all evil"
Along the way, I am daily witnessing why some call "money" the "root of all evil". For all my daily interactions with ordinary Indians, I am always moved by their warmth and joy. But interactions with merchants often leave me feeling hurt and indignant. In their eyes, I am just another opportunity to exploit. From bus drivers to orange juice sellers, they would so blatantly raise the price to foreigners, and deploy all their trickeries during the grueling haggling process. (The record is held by an auto-rickshaw driver, trying to charge me Rs.500 for a Rs.20 ride.)
Intellectually, I could understand that the street merchants are just trying to "do good business" by extracting as much profit as they can. But, emotionally, as a traveler in a foreign land, already vulnerable and fatigued from the heat, stench, noise, language barrier, I find it quite draining to deal with the unending manipulations. On some days, I just don't have the energy to venture out of the monastery onto the street, knowing that I will be bombarded by persistent solicitations.
Whenever I can, I take refuge in monasteries and meditation centers along the path. The contrasts between the two sides of the monastic walls gives me even more appreciation for the Bodhisattvas who choose to enter Samsara for the benefit of others.
Changing mode of transportation: ego check
In Bodhgaya, I decided not to travel by bicycle any more in India. Instead, I would use motorized transportation for the rest of my time in the country. The reasons were practical (short visa duration, itinerary covering long distances, monsoon season, road safety, etc), but the decision process was sobering and humbling.
On one hand, I sigh with a deep relief at not having to brave the Indian traffic. On my cycling days in Bihar, I felt lucky to be alive at the end of each day. The road safety equals swift suicide; the air and noise pollution is slow suicide. It is not just uncomfortable -- it is unsafe. There are other (physically safer) ways to practice equanimity -- cycling in India is not one of them :)
On the other hand, my ego feel embarrassed that I am not "tough enough" to continue bicycling in India. In fact, during the past two months in Asia, (China, Nepal, and India), I have not been able to do more than a week's worth of full-day cycling, due to health, weather, road condition and other reasons. I have loathed to explain that my supposed "bicycling pilgrimage" has been mostly riding on buses and trains in Asia.
Actually, to travel by bicycle has never been an end in itself for this pilgrimage. Cycling is just the mode of transportation most appropriate for my current stage of spiritual readiness. (The more spiritually prepared I am, the slower I would travel. I know I am not yet ready for a walking pilgrimage, or a bowing pilgrimage.) However, fueled by the ego-gratification and the heroism of globe cycling, the "narrative" of "bicycling around the world" has taken on a life of its own, and firmly lodged itself in my self-image, as well as in how I wish to be perceived by others.
Being shaken out of the self-image has helped to surface how much ego I have invested into something that "sounds cool but is not true", and what heavy spiritual costs it carries. A much needed and timely lesson :)
OK to feel lost
What has been taken away was not just the bragging rights of a "global cycle tour", but also my familiar routine. Cycling in the US, I have figured out a reliable system of how to "do the pilgrimage": knocking on families' doors, camping on strangers' lawn, etc. I know from experience that I will always find a hot shower at the end of the day. I have grown very comfortable with the "predictable discomforts" of traveling in the US, which I have not been able to replicate in Asia. Instead, I have been staying mostly in monasteries along the way, and in hostels when monasteries are not in sight. Which means, I have also lost my main channel of connecting with ordinary locals by staying in their homes.
When it became clear that I would put the "bicycling" part of a "bicycling pilgrimage" on hold, when the heroism factor is removed from the pilgrimage, I felt lost: "who am I (if not a cycling pilgrim)? What am I really doing (when I am not knocking on doors and sleeping in strangers' yard)?"
It seems that a real pilgrimage always has the uncunny ability to shake one out of his cocoon of mental comforts, and plunge him into the next round of "dying to the old self".
In fact, being in India, I felt like I am regressing spiritually. The equanimity seems weaker; the compassion was non-existent when haggling with tuk-tuk drivers; the love for humanity was put in serious doubt as I bike past piles of human trash fermenting in monsoon heat. Alas, I am much less "enlightened" as I thought :) Or, perhaps, I am not spiritually regressing -- only that the illusion of spiritual evolved-ness has been stripped away.
In these days of feeling uncertain and lost, I hold on to the life-straw of "stillness and service". While feeling sticky and agitated on a long, crowded Indian bus ride (with my bicycle bouncing on the bus roof), I try to catch momentary awareness, and look around the cabin to see the many faces of the future Buddhas. I would play the "reverse musical chair" game by giving my coveted seat to mothers holding small children, or grandma carrying heavy bag of rice. Another seat would open up in a few stops, and I would hold that seat until the next person in need comes onboard. In those moments, I could feel the ripples of coolness spreading through the steaming bus, and inside my boiled-over mind.
If a pilgrim could not "progress", at least, I shall not "regress", trusting that "progress" is happening nonlinearly on a pilgrimage, and that only patience could accelerating the alchemy of evolution.
Below are some snapshots along the path in India.
Seva at Dhamma Bodhi
The best way to pay homage to the Buddha at his place of enlightenment might be to serve at places where living Dhamma is being taught. So I spent two days at Dhamma Bodhi, the Vipassana center in Bodhgaya, to help with the preparation for an upcoming 30-day long course.
After a day of wiping windows and scrubbing floors, I headed to the 5pm chai :) A kindly white-haired man asked me, "Have you enjoyed the day of seva?" and invited me to sit down by him.
The elder gentleman turned out to be the resident teacher at the Vipassana center. He did his first 10-day with Goenka-ji in early 1971 (within two years of Goenka-ji's start of teaching Vipassana), and have been practicing continuously for the 45+ years since.
Q: I find it hard to maintain daily sitting, especially while traveling.
A: The purpose of meditation is not to have a "good session". In busy daily lives, the focus should be on "sitting", instead of the depth of the spiritual operation. Just sit.
Q: If I feel I can’t do two hours a day, and only have one hour, is it better to do a one-hour sit, or two half-hour sits?
A: It is better to have a longer sit in the morning, for an hour and fifteen minutes. The last fifteen minutes allows you to go much deeper. Then, in the evening, if you sit for only 30 minutes prior to sleep, you would be able to continue being aware of sensations -- to some extent -- in your sleep. The daily practice allows you to have a net-zero accumulation of sankharas (habitual reactive patterns). The key is to stay in the "positive cycle" (of inner cleansing), and not go into the "negative cycle" (deepening the pattern of craving and aversion). Then, when you have time, it is good to create some "credit balance" by meditating more than 2 hours a day.
Q: In these holy places (Bodhgaya, Lumbini, etc), I am quite agitated by the persistent merchants, peddlers and beggars, and find it hard to find the "holiness" at these touristy places.
A: Have compassion for these people. It is out of deep ignorance that they are the way they are.
Q: How is the state of the Dhamma here in India?
A: Very good. Many young people, well-educated, are coming to Vipassana meditation.
Dwarko-ji at Samanvay Ashram
Many thanks to suggestions from brother Deven, I made sure to visit the Samanvay Ashram in Bodhgaya, tucked away near the famed Bodhi tree.
The ashram today is both an enduring testament of Gandhian principles and of Dwarko-ji's living service, as well as a reflection of the sad realities.
I got to meet Dwarko-ji almost as soon as I entered the ashram, without appointment. His love and wisdom is palpable in the air. He drew me close, put his hand on my shoulder, and grandfatherly tap on my arm as he spoke, giving me a solid and joyous pad as he spoke of Gandhi's life.
"Gandhi taught truth and non-violence. This is the gift India has to offer: truth and non-violence. If you come to India, then learn about Gandhi. Come to the ashram whenever you want." I don't remember the details of all what Dwarko-ji said, but my bones recall the feeling of being enveloped in his 94-year-young love.
In contrast to Dwarko-ji's personal commitment is the slow decay of the ashram. Much trash could be seen around the campus. The only visiting volunteer is a young man from abroad who just sits around all day. He said there's nothing for him to do, and the ashram has been generously hosting him like a guest.
A middle-aged fellow, M, was sitting by the ashram, and stroke up a conversation with me. He grew up his whole life next to the ashram. He has great respect for Dwarko-ji, but thinks poorly of how the ashram has become now, when Dwarko-ji's engagement is limited by his advanced age. M said, "I have tried to start NGOs and service organizations, but they went nowhere, because there was no money to support it. Without a budget, you can’t do anything." "Dwarko-ji speaks of truth, and he is a man of truth and compassion. But others -- most people -- are not truthful." These comments -- and the reality on the ground -- illustrates the upstream swim that is selfless service and faith. The entropic law of the world around us is exerting a constant pull in the other direction.
On a dear friend's birthday a few days later, I went to the ashram again to make offerings and pick up trash. Praying for the longevity of the values that are still so alive in Dwarko-ji's heart
Dada Vaswani: develop your relationship with God
Riding on the merits of noble friends in Delhi (whom I was meeting for the first time), I got to attend an evening lecture by the 98-year-young Dada Vaswani.
A casual line from him summed up the endearing saint, "The staff keep telling me that I am … how old? Oh, 98 years old. But I don't believe them. I know I am eight years old."
"When we have problems, we go to doctors, lawyers, healers, but we do not go to God -- the ultimate source. My advice is to spend at least 30 minutes every day in silent communion with God. Develop a relationship with God."
"No need to 'find your guru'. The teacher will find you. I am not a guru. I am a fellow disciple with you all. The guru knows."
Tenzin Palmo: to serve all sentient beings -- including women
The Spiritual Ecology Fellowship was blessed with an opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, at the nunnery she help found. She is one of the most senior Western female Buddhists, and have dedicated her life to bring equality for women practitioners.
After spending 12 years in a Himalayan meditation cave, Jetsunma was called out of her individual bliss, into the messy world to serve the Dharma in a different way -- raise money to create a nunnery for the Tibetan nuns. Jetsunma shared stories of applying Upaya (skillful means) in "getting things done" in the mundane world while maintaining integrity. She recalled a parable: "We are like rough pieces of wood. If we only brush ourselves with fine silk, we will never get smooth. We need sand papers. So for me, raising funds to create this nunnery was my sand paper." "Retreat and action are like inhaling and exhaling; there needs to be a balance."
Our hour-long conversation enjoyed the background "music" of dozens of nuns engaged in animated debate -- for the first time in the thousand-year Tibetan traditions. Up until a few years ago, nuns are not taught the iconic Tibetan Buddhist debate; nor could they take advanced vows (which determines a monastic' status) or receive higher learnings and responsibility-holding.
Change is certainly possible, and it surely does not come easily :)
Cherish the Earth: Spiritual Ecology Workshop at the Tilokpur Nunnery
"The science, the data, they are good and important. But don't worry about all of that. You all should just connect with the nuns, make friends, and share your personal stories." His Holiness the 17th Karmapa thus advised our group of 11 anxious and excited young people from the US, before we headed into a 5-day workshop at the Tibetan nunnery near Dharamsala.
Our workshop was part of the larger Khoryug ecological trainings for Tibetan monastic communities, under the leadership of HH the 17th Karmapa. For five days and six nights, the Spiritual Ecology Fellows lived, learned, laughed, cried, and sang with the 50+ nuns at the Tilokpur nunnery. The American youth environmental activists shared our passion and thinking on five issues: forest, wild life, water, wastes and climate change. But more importantly, as HH the Karmapa suggested, we brought our hearts, and truly become friends with the nuns, as we played volleyball, composed songs and poetry for nature, shared our life stories together.
We were so deeply moved by the sincerity, kindness and intuitive wisdom of these young women of our age who have chosen to devote their life to prayers and cultivation. We were so privileged to meet them in their sacredness and humanness alike :)
A friend observed, "It is so easy to introduce ecological science to people with a deep spiritual understanding. It is much harder the other way around." Indeed, I feel we have received so much more wisdom from the presence of these nuns than whatever knowledge we were able to offer. They are truly being the change, as they tame the inner craving and hungry ghosts -- the root causes of all outer crises.
The six nuns in our "climate change" breakout group spontaneously co-wrote a poem overnight, and arranged it to a prayer melody the next day. Here is an English translation.
Cherish the Earth
The horned and holy, roaming the high northern mountains -- hunted by bullets.
The hooved and gentle, grazing the middle plains -- enslaved by chain.
The finned and mysterious, swimming the southern seas -- caught in nets.
Who on Earth is promising to save all living beings?
Ancient treasures beneath the soil, plundered for greed.
Pure streams of life blood, mixed with poisons of speed.
Magnificent grassland, grazed down to sand with no seeds.
Who on Earth is dreaming nightmares into careless deeds?
We wish to serve our teachers' noble visions.
Protecting nature is now our humble mission.
Our blood families most dear to the heart,
All sentient beings on Earth, never apart.
As we walked around the nunnery with the nuns, practicing the song, singing it to the buffalos, trees, and burning trash piles in the nearby village, I felt -- and knew -- that the Earth has heard our prayers.
Chinese guilt: remember, repent, and redeem
Within the past 2 months, I have spent all together a full month of time living in various Tibetan communities, from a Tibetan family in Lhasa, to Tergar monasteries in Kathmandu and Bodhgaya, and culminating in the Dharamsala nunnery.
In each and every of these places, I have found the most generous hospitality, endless joy, timeless wisdom, and heartfelt devotion to their living heritage. Despite many difficulties in Tibet and in their new homes in the subcontinent, the Tibetan community have preserved their traditions, for the benefit of the world.
On the shadow side of this moving experience lurks my growing "Chinese guilt". I feel the weight of the collective karma of China's recent past. As I walked around the hilly Dharamsala, imagining what the place looked like when the refugees first arrived in this desolate, mountainous area, I almost could not look straight into the eyes of the Tibetan people around me, overwhelmed by a sense of shame and remorse.
For the first time in my life, I was squarely in the oppressors' shoe, while being so kindly and unconditionally welcomed by "the oppressed" in their homes. I used to laugh at my white American friends for exhibiting "white fragility" whenever they talk about race. Now, it is my turn to go through the whole inner rollercoaster. In one instance, I am in denial of what had happened, hoping that "the history is not true." In the next instance, I am so absorbed in my own horror and remorse, that I risk making my fractured ego the center of attention. Next moment, I could be overly apologetic, and want to over-compensate.
Whenever people ask me where I am from, I rush to declare "Inner Mongolia in China" as my hometown, hoping that the "Mongolia" part would lessen the sting of the "China" association. When I "come out" as being Chinese, I feel hesitant, and "wonder if they would hate me". To my humble surprise, the Tibetans have been most gracious, not at all treating me any differently for being Chinese.
This must be what it's like for the Germans to face the Kollektivschuld (Collective Guilt). This must be what white people in America experience when/if they come to term with their own racist culture and settlers' history. None of us is exempt. I am grateful and humbled to experience both sides of the oppression.
As I stood inside the Tibetan temple in Dharamsala, I prostrate again and again, with the intention and prayer to remember, repent, and redeem.
12-hour with Jayesh-bhai
During our two week whirlwind trip in India with the Fellowship, it is so easy to be absorbed by the main action in the center, and ignore the needs and opportunities to be present/serve on the edges. So it came as a much-needed reminder from the Fellowship's creator Emmanuel, "It is always the things on the edges that matter." Is anyone offering to carry the heavy camera bags as we climb out of an exhausting all-day car ride? Am I being aware of how my needs/preferences are impacting those who are hosting us? It is a humbling lesson on service. Just as meditation develops our awareness to the edges of our consciousness and sensation, cultivation in service reaches to the overlooked edges of our interactions.
This quality is quietly exemplified by Jayesh-bhai, an anchor of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad.
Thanks to many invisible hands, I was blessed with an opportunity to shadow Jayesh-bhai for a full 12 hours -- from 10am to 10pm -- on my first day in Ahmedabad. I am still slowing realizing the depth of this gift, and the soul-impact of being in the presence of the "walking love" of Gandhi Ashram.
This fourth-generation Gandhian radiates love from the core of his being. All the slum children and school students blossom in bright smiles when they see him, and rush over for hugs and blessings. (He said at one point, "Do you see their beautiful smiles? When I feel even a bit tired, I always go to visit the children.") The adults who cross path with him always leave happier and lighter, and stands up taller.
Jayesh-bhai is 100% attentive to the person(s) in front of him, despite having to interact with groups after groups of visitors with very different topics -- from developing NGO partnerships to a personal confession. In our 12 hours together, Jayesh-bhai welcomed a dozen waves of visitors, and visited another dozen classrooms and dorms -- literally interacting with a thousand people. By any measure, his schedule is busy. But being in his presence, one does not feel the slightest sense of hurriedness. Instead, he always walks and talks very slowly and mindfully, stopping to catch up with neighbors or sing a song with his now 94-year-old primary school teacher. When I speak with him, I feel like we had all the time in the world.
Jayesh-bhai effortlessly notices the smallest details, and responds with loving action. He saw that the pile of shoes outside of the hall is randomly laid out, so he bent down, and arranged all the slippers by hand in a neat row. He noticed that the tabletops in the dining hall are not perfectly wiped, so he found specialized sponges to make all the tabletops shine like mirror. He picked up small pieces of candy wrappers on the ground as he walked around the schools for slum children. When a group of 40 of us stands in a big circle, he chose a position facing the hot sun, so that others could be under the shade.
In each of these cases, Jayesh-bhai never suggested that others should do anything about it; instead, he quietly went ahead to do the dirty work by himself. He pays great attention the fine, "aesthetic imperfections" that I often brush off as "good enough". But upon reflection, only this level of attention to details could create a physical environment that uplifts the people in it with grace and dignity.
Jayesh-bhai truly practices "Laddership". During a talk to a group of 40 scavengers (of the formerly "untouchable" caste), Jayesh-bhai invited the elders among the group to come on stage, and bent down to touch their feet and asked for their blessings. His talk of inspiration is about other people's every-day-hero stories, while skillfully removing himself from the center of attention. As we toured the Gandhi Ashram after dark, Jayesh-bhai held the flashlight and stood by the stairs so that other visitors could see the stairs. More than once, he even carried my sandals as we walked.
Jayesh-bhai described how various projects around the Gandhi Ashram have developed organically, without any "strategic planning". He also believes that there is no coincidence -- everything is unfolding according to the divine plan. "Everything here is organic. Everything up there is organized."
His shared his principle on engaging volunteers from around the world: "We would not tell any volunteers what they should do. We help build heart-to-heart connections. After that, people will find their own ways to serve. If we assign tasks to volunteers, then we are using them. An NGO then becomes an EGO."
Gifting The Blue Marble to another pilgrim
When three noble friends in New Delhi circled around my bicycle -- the Blue Marble -- to offer a prayer for this pilgrim's vehicle, I knew I could no longer sell the bicycle.
I bought the Blue Marble knowing that I could do some maintenance on the bike, and sell it for a few hundred dollars more than I had paid. However, when an object is blessed by pure intention, it is taken out of the realm of "transaction", and placed in the never-ending circle of sacred giving.
So, I had been waiting for signs of where the Blue Marble wants to go next. (I would find a folding bicycle for the rest of my pilgrimage.) And the signs came in a most auspicious way.
On the first morning of the three-day Moved By Love retreat in Ahmedabad, I met brother Nitin, who is about to embark on a 3-year bicycling pilgrimage around the world for peace and friendship. Nitin will start his pilgrimage from the Gandhi Ashram in Pune on Nov 15th, the day I leave India. Jayesh-bhai personally connected the two of us upon hearing Nitin's upcoming journey.
As we chatted more, I was very moved by brother Nitin's sincere heart and passion for peace and justice. I also learned that he was about to place an order for a bicycle the next day. The bicycle represents a significant cost for this brother who has devoted his time to social work. So, that night, at Seva Café (the gift-economy restaurant in Ahmedabad), I offered the Blue Marble as a gift to brother Nitin. It was a happiest and most natural thing for both of us.
Apparently, when you are "Moved By Love", magic happens :)
Open the pores, let the soul soak it in
One months in India is a very short time, compared to what this land has to offer; it is also a very long time, compared to the spiritual significance of the meaningful days.
More often than not, my brain could not absorb or process the rich learnings -- partly because the brain is often in sensory overload, or in self-preservation mode due to the physical discomforts, but more importantly, because the lessons are not for the head, but for the soul. So, I try to remind myself to open up all the pores on the body, to let the "muscle memory" record these precious interactions and blessings, so that the soul could soak it in, and ruminate on it for a long time to come.
So many invisible hands have made possible my journey in India -- I could not fathom the depth of their love and care. I have stopped using the word "karmic debt", because the violent language of indebtedness could not honor the selfless gifts from these noble friends. However, my small cup is for sure overflowing with their love, and I only wish to never let the holy water stand still :)
Bowing to all the friends and teachers,
Bowing to all the trials and challenges,
Bowing to our true nature and Mother Nature!
P.S. Here are two recent recorded conversations with kindred spirits, reflecting on the pilgrimage thus far. One at the beautiful Awakin Ahmedabad (transcript), and another with my former colleague at Blu Skye (audio + transcript). And two interviews from early 2016 before the departure: one with the gift-ecology magazine Works and Conversations (transcript), and another with SHE Living TV (video).
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.