It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
-- A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Well, it was also a summer in England. What Dickens wrote over 150 years ago applies too aptly to our current time.
Judging from the headlines, the past month was certainly among "the worst of times" for England. Multiple terrorist attacks, horrific high-rise fire, ugly election… There were no shortage of "foolishness, incredulity, darkness and despair".
However, when we tune out of the internet and tune into the inner-net, there is a totally different story unfolding in ordinary living rooms and in many open hearts. I feel fortunate to join in half a dozen ServiceSpace circles around London, delving into themes like "songs, stories, and stillness", "self-trust in an uncertain world", "Compassion Quotient", "power of prayer", "systems transformation", and "reconnection".
Twelve days of cycling has also taken me to sacred places like Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Glastonbury Tor, and Schumacher College -- "acupuncture points" on the collective body of human consciousness.
I departed the UK on Summer Solstice, heart filled with much "wisdom, belief, light, and hope". It was a "best of times", no doubt. Would like to share some impressions from one month in England.
Between London and Totnes
England is the new starting point for Year Two of the pilgrimage. I spent a full three weeks in London, and 12 days cycling from London to Totnes on the new, gifted folding bike.
Upon arrival in London, I knew only two people in the whole of UK as a first-time visitor to this country. And I couldn't have known a better two :) Trishna and Ani have been the ladders for the ServiceSpace community of London. It is not just whom I knew, but how I knew them. I had the blessing of spending a weekend with Trishna and Ani at the 2015 ServiceSpace retreat in California. Little did we knew that, almost two years later, I would stay for three full weeks in their city/home.
Although I only had 12 days of cycle-traveling in the UK, the journey has taken me through almost all the places on the pilgrim's wish list: Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Avebury stone circle, Glastonbury Tor, Transition Town Totnes, and Schumacher College -- including meeting Satish Kumar, one of the key inspiration for my pilgrimage.
Riding southwest from London toward Totnes, I knocked on about 50 doors of "strangers", and stayed with six different families, in addition to the dorms at the monastery and at the college. My lodging included a green house, a tree house, a garden shed, a hay barn, and guest beds.
Whether it is in the US, the UK, China, or India, I have met exactly zero "bad people". No malicious intent anywhere, in contrast to the media paranoia. Another strikingly consistent data point: farmers are the most welcoming and helpful to strangers. There were often days that I knocked on about a dozen doors, and was finally "saved" by the farmer, as I knocked my way out of small towns.
Some English stereotypes are not unfounded :) The English are, on average, more reserved and aloof than the exuberant Americans or the festive Indians or the in-your-face Chinese. The English hospitality and kindness have to work through extra layers of social conditioning to reach their recipients. It might have something to do with the temperamental weather :) Or the overly-civilized landscape. For 200 miles between London and Totnes (in Devon County), I have not seen any proper "wilderness". Every piece of land has been touched by "human intervention". The English landscape is beautiful like a manicured garden, but lacks the untamed intensity and awe-inspiring openness of the American wildness. Like what they say about architecture, "First, we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."
I guess "serendipity" is one way the Universe likes to remind us that we are not alone, and that reality is not what it seems. Here are a few "incidents".
While at Amaravati Monastery, and on the Nirvana anniversary of Master Hua, I met a visiting nun from Malaysia who is from one of the branch monasteries founded by Master Hua. She told me that if we truly follow the six principles at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas ("do not fight, do not be greedy, do not seek, do not be selfish, do not pursue personal advantage, and do not lie"), then we are not far from Buddhahood.
While at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, I knocked on a random door to leave my bike as I hike uphill to the top of the Tor. A kind lady open the door, welcome me to park my bike at her house, and told me some legends of this special place. As the conversation went on, she mentioned that she has a Teacher. As soon as she said that, I had the feeling that I might know of "the Teacher". It was no other than Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the Sufi master and a key inspiration behind Spiritual Ecology! We soon discovered that we have many mutual friends in California and London :) I don't know why I came straight to this particularly door -- perhaps it is the spacious and welcoming feeling of their living room. In fact, Jackie and her husband Mario hold weekly meditation circle in that very living room. I felt blessed to meditate in there for an hour.
While at Schumacher College, I ran into a group of 20 Japanese students there to spend a week with Satish Kumar. The two Japanese organizers of the group, Eri and Kai, turn out to be good friends I knew from California, and fellow practitioners of Vipassana meditation and Non-violent Communication. They kindly allowed me to tag along their group for two days to hear Satish-ji share his eighty-year-young radiance.
New (and ancient) affinities with Japan
Speaking of affinities with Japan, I did not know that I would receive so much from our Japanese family while I am in the UK. We were blessed to interact with the Saionji mother-daughter over the span of four days in London. Although not too many words were exchanged, my soul felt so nourished in their prayerful and loving presence.
I can't help but recall that, merely three months ago, upon reflecting on the transformative power of "receiving", I made a note to self, "I have realized that I must visit Japan -- to receive from that land and people -- so that I may dissolve my deeply-ingrained bitterness over China's suffering at the hand of Japan's militaristic/imperialist ghost." Which meant, after arriving in China, the pilgrimage will extend toward Japan.
Now, even before I have visited Japan, I has received so deeply from its people. My father (a fellow history buff) later reminded me that one of the Saionjis have brought his whole family to live for 13 years in Beijing after World War II, and have played a key role in nurturing Sino-Japanese friendship and re-establishing diplomatic ties in face of great difficulties. I feel ever so indebted to this family's dedication to peace, and wish that I may be of service to reconciliation and friendship between the East Asian neighbors.
The hardest of spiritual paths: family life, especially motherhood
Living with different families around the world has shown me that family life -- especially being a mother -- is indeed the hardest spiritual cultivation. So challenging is this path that they should display a warning sign "Don't Try This At Home" next to images of cute kids :)
Each individual has already enough problems of their own. Once you marry, we have also married another set of problems, not to mention all the in-laws. Once you have a family, you also need more stuff. And stuff breaks, a.k.a. entropy. A car mechanic likes to say, "If you have a car, then you have a car problem." Same goes for a house, or a family. The more we have, the more problems there are.
But, without families, there would not be "me", and a pilgrim would often have no place to stay for the night. I bow down deeply to all parents, especially mothers, for their sacrifice. I pray that our individual cultivation would give us the wisdom to turn the worldly "problems" into boundless Bodhi (insights) -- until there is no difference between the family life and the saintly life.
Labor of love is a LOT of labor
Similar to the family life, a life of service is also not for the faint of heart. A life of service is to take the whole world as your family. It was a blessing to live for three weeks in Trishna's home -- the London HQ of ServiceSpace -- and to witness the wholehearted devotion of lifer volunteers like Nipun and Trishna. These unpaid volunteers are the most hardworking people I've known. I am in constant awe, to say the least.
These volunteers pay attention to the smallest details, and value beauty. As they set up their living room to host events, it is as if they are painting a sacred sand mandala. So much heart goes into the ambiance that we automatically feel loved and worthy as we step into those spaces -- without knowing why, or even noticing half the details.
These volunteers go above and beyond to support others' journeys, without any extrinsic rewards. They never rest in "good enough", or stop after having done just enough for themselves to feel good. Instead, "step it up" is almost an insider meme. Nipun promised to take a nap when he arrived in London, but ended up postponing it until his flight back to California. Even that, we could only infer from a momentary pause from his endless streams of emails … One afternoon, with tired eyes, Nipun chose instead to spend two hours creating a presentation deck for someone else, knowing that it might help them to share their stories with a wider audience in the future.
At the end of our 15-hour-day at a retreat, as Trishna, Nipun and I drove back at 11pm, I sank comfortably into the backseat and merrily looked forward to the hot shower and soft bed, but Nipun and Trishna were already discussing how to follow up and support the labor of love project people brought up during the day. At some point into their animated brainstorming, I burst out laughing from the back of the car, to the amusement of Nipun and Trishna. I don't know exactly why I laughed. :) Perhaps I found these guys totally "insane" in their "giving with reckless abandon". Or perhaps I was laughing at the ridiculousness of my own obsession with "self care" and comfort, when my comrades are working orders-of-magnitude harder than me.
"Self care" seems to hold a different meaning for them. Last year in India, I asked Nipun about his thoughts on "self care". He laughed and said, "As we cultivate, our notion of 'self' and of 'care' both changes."
Working alongside them, I often have the eerie feeling of "who exactly are these people?" Are they Bodhisattvas in disguise? :) One day, Nipun said with a big smile, "I tell you, Bodhisattvas are totally like volunteers. They stay anonymous, ladder others behind the scenes, don't get paid, and are unstoppable." Grateful that the Bodhisattvas have made themselves so available to hang out with us laggers, and let us rub off a little of their joyful and generous spirit!
Meditation and prayer
One major difference between Year Two and Year One of the pilgrimage, is the clarity around adhering to the daily hour of meditation. Trishna said to me, "What a gift it would be if you offer these hours of silence to the families that host you along the way." The thought that I am not just doing it for myself has sustained the daily practice.
During the 12 days of cycle-touring, I was able to keep to two hours of daily meditation on most days, and at least one hour if not. It has made all the difference in reminding me "what this is really all about". It is about transforming the deepest patterns of the mind. It is about learning to dwell in awareness and prayer. The hour of stillness and loving-kindness in the morning spills over to the rest of the day. My mind was able to more frequently catch itself from negative loops, and to turn instead toward prayer and connection.
Meeting the women behind the world peace prayer has also deepened my appreciation for prayer. Sister Maki shared what she learned from a young age about prayers: "I cannot truly be happy when the world is suffering. My prayer for personal well-being would only be realized if the prayer for world peace is realized. So, no matter what you pray for, we should add a prayer for world peace at the end."
Indeed! "May Peace Prevail on Earth"!
Here are the write-ups from a few of the circles in London.
"Self Trust in an Uncertain World", by Liam Chai
On Saturday afternoon we had our second Youth Circle hosted in the chic living room of Izzy Annan. As we discussed the theme over whatsapp, she offered, "Let's make it a circle about youth who are struggling with how to cope in such a messed up world and unsure future, and want to change the world for good." And so the theme was born.
"Awakin London: One Day of Reconnection", by Zilong Wang
As we sit in these many-to-many circles -- the oldest of our spiritual technology, we are witnessing the emergence of myriad generosity experiments to reconnect the human hearts. To borrow Darwin's metaphor, "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." May our one-day retreat on this ordinary Sunday be another of these "so simple a beginning"!
Here are more links and photos from the ServiceSpace events in London.
And here are more photos from the road, and map with pins (and further links) tracing the pilgrim's footprint.
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.