The People We Met

 

 

I’m not a professional photographer.  I’m barely a hobbyist. When I arrived in India, I didn’t even have a camera with me.  I was there not as a tourist, I thought, but as a pilgrim, visiting the Buddhist holy land with Zen Master Bon Haeng and two other practitioners from the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.  We joined nearly two hundred other members of the Kwan Um School of Zen as part of the international school’s triennial Whole World is a Single Flower conference.  Our itinerary included visits to Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he gave his first discourse, and Kushinagar, where he died after nearly half a century of teaching.  Other points of interest included Rajgir, site of the ruins of Nalanda University and Vulture Peak, where the Buddha famously held a single flower aloft to wordlessly transmit his teaching to his disciple, Mahakasyapa.

Before we had left Delhi, I knew that I needed a camera, so I bought one from this guy:

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Around every corner, I was met by incredible juxtapositions of antiquity and modernity, affluence and poverty, the sacred and the profane, all rich in the varied textures of human experience and awash in every color of the spectrum beneath the hazy, unrelenting sun.  It was clear that one needn’t be a professional photographer in order to return home from India with an array of stunning, haunting images of a land that defies conventional Western understanding.

Shortly after coming home, I decided that it would be cool to display some of my photos at the local library, so I got on a waiting list for gallery space.  It’s been a long wait.  My intention in assembling this gallery display had originally been to showcase the various sacred sites we visited, but as I was perusing the couple of hundred pictures I ended up taking, I was reminded of something Zen Master Bon Haeng had said: “We go on trips thinking that we’re going to go to new places and see all kinds of incredible things, what ends up being most important is the people we met while we were there.”  As it turns out, most of the pictures I chose for the gallery, many of which are displayed above and in other blog entries, are of people.  I feel that this is somehow in keeping with the experience of the Buddha.  I don’t think that he spent a lot of time in temples; he just walked around and talked to people.  Among those pictured here are Hindu devotees, Buddhist pilgrims from around the globe, citizens of the ancient holy city of Varanasi in the process of living their daily lives on the banks of the Ganges River, and a surly camera salesman.

 

 

 

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To the Other Shore

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I love this photograph.  It’s a mistake, a simple and predictable result of my boundless tech un-savvy.  It was supposed to be a picture of Carlos, a travelling companion and dharma friend, diving off the bow of a boat into the Ganges at dawn.  He’d insisted on performing this inadvisable feat because a couple of us had submerged ourselves in the waters on the far shore a few nights before, and he didn’t want to be outdone.  He wasn’t.  Where we’d timidly dipped ourselves into waist-deep water, he dove out of the boat in the middle of the river, swam to the far shore, then swam back through the increasingly filthy water to the ghats of Varanasi.  He’d asked to be photographed for posterity.  I snapped the picture just as he was suspended in the air between the boat and the surface of the water, oblivious to the fact that there’s a split second delay between the pressing of the button and the digital capturing of the image.  What I was left with is a picture of the scene immediately after Carlos disappeared below the surface of the water, a not-too-useful memento of his unsurpassed act of bravery and devotion.

The picture has remained disregarded in my photo gallery for four years owing, again, to my behind-the-curve tech skills; I don’t know how to delete pictures from the file, and I’m too lazy to figure it out.  I ran across it recently as I perused my photo gallery in search of India pictures for an upcoming showing at the local library.  It caught my eye immediately.  I’d never realized that, although Carlos isn’t visible in the photo, the splash he created as he dove into the water is.  Here, then, is one of those delicious cases where two wrongs make a right: a picture that shouldn’t have been snapped to begin with and should have been deleted years ago will be one of the coolest photographs on the wall, a strikingly simple, beautiful image of absence and emptiness worthy of a Pink Floyd album cover.

This photograph is noteworthy not for what it shows, but for what it doesn’t show; there’s no one in it.  Not Carlos.  Not  me.  Not the boatman or either of our other two travelling companions.  Not a single one of the four million people in Varanasi.  It’s an interesting reminder of what’s going on just beneath the veneer of drama that we unconsciously lay over reality on a moment to moment basis; namely, not much.  Universal energy manifests as various forms and shifts from action to reaction, but it’s all the same energy.  All that happened in the moment that this photo was snapped was that God jumped off of God into God while God took a picture.  In other words, nothing happened.

In the classic analogy explaining the necessity of leaving behind teachings and practices that no longer serve us, we’re reminded that when we reach the other shore, we leave the boat behind rather than carry it with us.  Looking at this picture, I wonder if it’s sometimes necessary to leave the boat behind before the other shore is reached…

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Death and Life on the Ghats

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Boatman pointing out his craft on the pre-dawn Ganges, Varanasi.

As I sift through photographs of my trip to India in preparation for an upcoming gallery display, I’ve dug out my travel journal in order to check my memories against my perceptions of the experience at the time.  I’m not sure if this particular photograph will make the cut, although there’s something about the composition that I like.  My impressions of the night it was taken, however, are worth sharing.  This excerpt is from October 20, 2011.

Several nights ago I bathed in the Ganges, an adventure that few embark on for the obvious reason that it is filthy and polluted, but I didn’t fly half way around the world just to look at the most holy river.  It began as a lark with me, Max, and James on  our last night in Varanasi as we wandered closer and closer to the river, eventually buying flip-flops and loogis and a guide along with them.  We decided to hire a boat to “the other shore,” something every boatman seemed reluctant to do; police frown on it so late at night, and this upped the fee to 2000 rupees to get three of us across.

We were led down ancient alleys in the oldest section of the oldest city, going places and seeing things that none of us had any business seeing.  The beggars were gone, as the tourists stopped flowing hours earlier and blocks away.  Scenes of depraved filth and poverty met us around every corner – dark, putrid, unpredictable; the type of situation where I knew I was way too close to the edge and wondered how much farther I could push it, since there was obviously no turning back.

Finally, we emerged at the ghats near where we’d taken a boat ride that morning… it all looked familiar, yet sinister.  The ghats of the Ganges look far different than they do in National Geographic.

The entry ends there, preempted no doubt by the deep sleep that was my only respite from the chaos and sensory overload that is Varanasi.  The boatman had taken the three of us very quickly to the far shore, fearful of being spotted and fined by the police.  We’d all agreed that the best course of action was to cross the river in order immerse ourselves, the better to avoid contact with trash, the odd dead goat, and detritus from the funeral pyres upstream.  The boatman urged us to “make haste” as we disembarked on a steep sand bar to wash away our sins.  My newly acquired flip flops sank deep into the muddy sand as I held my breath, shut my eyes tight, held my nose even tighter, and crouched down into the opaque grey liquid until the top of my head was completely covered in dubious holiness.  I never knew that water could actually be thick, but Max later concurred that that’s exactly what it was.  James opted to pass on absolving a lifetime of sins rather than risk debilitating, gut-violating infection.  Fortunately, Max and I were unaffected by full contact with the 5th most polluted river in the world, and James, as far as I know, has not been destroyed by his karma.

We climbed back into the boat, unaware that our night’s journey would take us even closer to the edge of the Void.  As we returned to the ghats, our guide offered to lead us to the funeral pyres, which it turns out, are basically large campfires fueled by wood typically purchased with the life savings of the departed soul whose earthly remains are placed on top.  Although each corpse is wrapped in white cloth and dipped into the sacred river before being cremated, the entire procedure is best described as “unceremonious,” as there is a colossal waiting line.  These fires have burned around the clock for over two hundred years in order to keep up with the demand, and not all those waiting in line are dead; there is a sort of hospice house above the ghat where the terminally ill await the good fortune of dying in this most holy city.

I was surprised by my lack of revulsion or emotionality at seeing a pair of human legs sticking out of the flames like two oversized sticks of cordwood, so close to my own bare legs that the hair on my calves was singed by the heat.  The unsentimental thought arose that the only difference between the two pairs of legs was a handful of years.  The sweet, earthy odor of the smoke reached me along with the realization that there’s more to us than these hunks of meat that we insist on calling “me.”  It’s humbling to consider that I’m not as limited as I’ve always assumed myself to be.

This glimpse of true nature, of the immensity of human potential is illuminated daily with the performance of devotional rituals as the sun rises over the Ganges.  After touring the Buddhist holy sites of Sarnath, Bodh Ghaya, Kushinagar, and Lumbini, we returned to Varanasi for another sunrise boat ride.  Struck again by how different, how alive, the ghats look by daylight, I recalled the night that my travelling companions and I had our foreheads anointed with ashes from the fire of Shiva, which has burned for three thousand years.  It occurred to me as I watched devotees doing morning ablutions that these same rites have been performed every single morning for at least that long.  The actors have changed, but the ritual has endured the millennia day after day after day in the same way the leaves are renewed yearly on a tree that lives for centuries.  Whether a leaf, a tree, a human being, or a river, we all have our part to play in the cosmos.  As I watched the faithful bathe, I thought how comforting, how humbling, and how extraordinary, to be nothing more or less than another leaf on a tree…SAM_0432

Morning rituals on the ghats at Varanasi

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a leaf on a tree

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Time’s A Wastin’

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Bell Rock, Sedona, AZ

I’ve recently been reading Dharma Punx, Noah Levine’s edge-of-your-seat memoir chronicling his life’s journey from drug-addicted California street punk to one of the most visible figures in the contemporary Buddhist recovery movement. At one point in his early recovery, he’d committed himself to the life practice outlined in the book A Year to Live, which his father, Stephen, had just finished writing. The practice is to pretend that you have only one year to live, and to approach your daily life accordingly. Noah threw himself wholeheartedly into this experiment, spending several months in Asia, as he’d often dreamed of doing, then travelling across the United States to visit family and friends to express gratitude and to say all of the things that had gone unsaid. I was so intrigued by the notion of living one’s “final” year as a spiritual practice that I went out and picked up a copy of Stephen Levine’s book to get the info straight from the source, from a widely acknowledged “expert” on the apparently elusive subject of death and dying.

Delving into the elder Levine’s book, I thought, “Wow, this seems like a really valuable practice! I should try it someday.” Immediately, I was struck by the irony of this response, as the very essence of the Year to Live practice is the extinction of procrastination, the destruction of the deeply ingrained notion that I have the luxury of postponing living until some hypothetical future point when the conditions are ideal.  Am I really so arrogant as to believe that death will wait patiently until a time that is convenient to my schedule?  As John Lennon so eloquently put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  He knows better than anyone that most of us don’t hear a warning buzzer or get the courtesy of a terminal prognosis along with the gentle admonition that it would be wise to get our affairs in order.  I began the Year to Live practice, however timidly and however vaguely, on February 22.

What would you do if you only had a year to live?  It’s a huge question that means different things to different people. It certainly means something different to me now that I’m in recovery than it would have years ago.  Before, a one year terminal prognosis would have been a clarion call to recklessness and irresponsibility; today, it’s the polar opposite.  Rather than saying, “What the hell, it doesn’t matter because I’ll be dead in a year anyway,” I’m saying, “Oh my God, it totally matters because I’ve only got a year left to do the work I’ve started in this body,” namely, to clear away the obstacles that stand between me and direct perception of reality.  The practice isn’t a “bucket list” proposition, although it may take on an element of doing stuff I’ve always wanted to do.   Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “One day you will lose this body, then what?”  I don’t think he was referring to the loss of our ability to go sky diving in the Grand Canyon; I think he was referring to the imminent loss of this precious human incarnation as a tool for awakening.  All good teachings point us toward the fact that the time for awakening  is Now, not in some imagined future that, by its very definition, never actually arrives.

What’s interesting about this Year to Live practice is that it’s brought me the realization that one day I’m going to wake up and it will be the first day of the last year of my life. What’s even more interesting is that I’m not going to know it when it happens. The most interesting thing of all, of course, is the fact that it may already have happened. It’s a bold assumption that I’m going to live long enough to complete this experiment, and, like most assumptions, it’s completely ungrounded.

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Parinirvana Temple and Stupa in Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died.

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Dependent Origination

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Baby goats by the roadside, Bodh Gaya, India

I went to the bookshelf to pull out a copy of The Compass of Zen, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s magnum opus which basically functions as the central text for the Kwan Um School of Zen. I’ve never actually read it from cover to cover, but I’ve chipped away at it bit by bit over the years, and my intention was to chip away a few more bits when a small Kwan Um pamphlet titled “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines” fell out from between the pages. The year before last, I participated in a precepts ceremony at Providence Zen Center in which I formally vowed to keep the second five Buddhist precepts, namely, to refrain from gossip, to refrain from praising self at the expense of others, to cultivate generosity, to refrain from indulging in anger, and to refrain from slandering the Three Treasures of Buddhism. In the Kwan Um School, the adoption of these precepts marks a member as a Dharma Teacher in Training, meaning that one is taking an active role in leading group practice and moving toward becoming a teacher in the school.

I feel as though I’ve been pretty diligent about pitching in and helping with group practice, but I’ve never been really big on studying the formal tenets of Buddhism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As the school’s guiding teacher Zen Master Soeng Hyang puts it in the “Training Guidelines” introduction, “it is not a coincidence that the sutras and other suggested readings are in the last section.  This rich tradition insists on live speech, direct understanding: ‘a special transmission outside the sutras.” In other words, practice is far more important than study, but there does come a time in a student’s development where study can inform practice, particularly the practice of helping others. It is in this spirit that a list of suggested topics for study is included at the end of “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines.”

“Dependent origination” heads the list of topics, and with good reason. This concept represents the core of the Buddhist understanding of the human dilemma, though I’ve never quite understood it. I’ve never taken the time to really look at it, content as I’ve been to assume that the term “dependent origination” refers simply to the fact that nothing exists as a completely independent entity, but rather is dependent upon everything that it is not for its very existence. A tree, for example, depends upon sunlight, air, water, soil, fungi and insects in order to live. Everything in the universe is like that. This, however is a description of “interdependence,” which isn’t unrelated to dependent origination… it just isn’t the whole picture. The whole picture is a view of phenomena as process of interdependence between subject and object.

Spoiler Alert!!! I’m about to answer the most classically unanswerable koan in pop zendom. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” “No.” It does not. If a tree falls in the forest, it emits waves of energy at a certain frequency. The thing that we call “sound,” however, is the process of those waves striking an eardrum and being interpreted by a brain. No ear, no sound.

You’re welcome.

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The good news here is that I’m a koan-answering genius (oxymoron intended). The bad news is that I’m still just barely scratching the surface of the phenomenon of dependent origination. Reading up on this doctrine a bit led me further down the rabbit hole. Or, more accurately further out of the rabbit hole, as the dharma has a way of guiding us out of the Darkness of Reason and into the Light of Reality…

In his discourse on Dependent Origination, the Buddha shed the Light of Reality on the fact that mind creates the separation between subject and object, and, in doing so, sows the seed of suffering. All phenomena must arise through a process of interdependence between subject and object because it can’t possibly be otherwise; “phenomena,” “subject,” and “object” were never separate to begin with. Before that pesky tree ever fell in the forest (or, more accurately,as it fell), mind created “tree,” “ear,” and “sound.” It is simply a function of our consciousness that we perceive ourselves as individual entities apart from all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This consciousness is born of a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. There’s absolutely nothing linear about reality, yet we insist on believing beyond a reasonable doubt that all that we survey is “real,” that everything begins, persists for a while, then ends. This ignorance, according to the Buddha, is the first link in a chain of bondage that leads through sensory experience, feelings, and desire all the way to death. So strong have we forged the links of this chain that it’s existence is noted as the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism. Suffering. Bad news. The good news? That would be the Third Noble Truth: there’s a way out.

I’m well aware from my own experience that to attempt to read and interpret a text on my own, will avail me little. “A special transmission outside the sutras,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang reminds us, is necessary. As such, I welcome any and all comments regarding the readers’ understanding of Dependent Origination, as the last 900 words or so speak a little louder of my own confusion than perhaps I’d like them to.

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Leaving Lexington

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“Leaving Lexington…” I’ve texted this phrase a hundred times if I’ve texted it once, but on New Year’s Eve, I sent this message for what will likely be the last time. Packing the last of my belongings out of my bachelor pad and into my car, I headed a couple of towns west to move into my wife’s home. It isn’t a far move, but the distance isn’t the point. In a small way that’s significant to no one but me, it’s the end of an era. I am the last member of my family to inhabit the town that my grandfather immigrated to from Ireland in 1915. As he put it in “The Girl From Donegal,” a poem legendary to a dozen or so surviving family members, “I hit the road for Lexington, that place of great renown; no brass band played and no parade did welcome me to town.” I can honestly attest to a similar lack of fanfare upon my humble departure 100 years later. But it isn’t simply family history that makes this move interesting. It’s something more than that… something deeper. Buddhist Stuff. Namely, attachment and impermanence.

I like to think of myself as someone without strong material attachments, but the process of sifting through the detritus of my past sketched a slightly different picture. It’s a curious experience indeed to physically handle every single object that one owns. I was faced with artifacts of life phases gone by that have survived move after move after move. Books. I’m speaking primarily about books here. I’ve tried to travel light, and over the years I’ve instigated periodic purges, donating or selling books to try to lessen the load, but some are more difficult to part with. Spiritual books, mainly, books by teachers who have told me what I’ve needed to hear when I’ve been ready to hear it; Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, Steve Hagen, Joseph Goldstein… the usual suspects, really, for American spiritual seekers of my generation.

I’ve read and reread all these books and would likely read them again, but in contemplating the prospect of moving hundreds of pounds of paper yet another time, I had to consider what I was really clinging to. I had an interesting conversation once with a young person who grew up downloading all his music. He suggested that the reason we oldsters are so into our albums is that we feel a need to somehow “own” the music rather than to simply experience it as it plays. There might be something to this theory. Perhaps I subconsciously want to own the teachings contained in the dozens of books on my shelf, to display them like trophies, or like souvenirs from far off places I’ve visited. Ram Dass reminds us in Grist for the Mill that “the Dharma belongs to no one.” He found this point so important that it’s the first line of the book… before the page with the table of contents… so I sold all his books to a metaphysical bookstore in Cambridge.

Interestingly, however, I hung onto my albums. I’ll probably get rid of them eventually, but not today. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan… the usual suspects for American spiritual seekers of my generation. I haven’t actually owned a turntable in close to twenty years, but these old records fall into a category of belongings that is so common, so legitimate, that it was recognized in print by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous: stuff that I can’t let go of YET. Although Bill Wilson was referring specifically to “defects of character” or mental habits when he wrote that “even the best of us will discover to our dismay that there is always a sticking point, a point at which we say, ‘No, I can’t give this up yet,'” the psychological mechanism of mental attachment is very similar to that of physical clinging.[1] Hence the tremendous power and effectiveness of ritual.

Ram Dass speaks of an Indian fire ceremony in which participants ritualistically place whatever they want to get rid of inside a coconut and toss it into a fire.[2] In 12 Step Recovery parlance, this is known as “letting go of old ideas.”[3] In my case, the process also involved letting go of old relationships, or at least loosening my grip on them to let them slide into their proper place in the past. It occurred to me as I looked over all of my stuff that, just as I’ve clung to books and albums that are physical artifacts of my life, I’ve dragged along physical artifacts of other people’s lives, as well. People who are no longer alive. A father, a brother, a past girlfriend… It occurred to me also that these things are more than just mementos; they, like gravestones and monuments, represent a desperately futile attempt to create permanence. We can fool ourselves for a little while, but eventually, everything must go. Ourselves included. I thanked each one of those departed individuals as I dropped their stuff off at the thrift store, placed it in a donation bin, or simply threw it in the trash.

Attachment involves a lack of acceptance of impermanence. Throughout the process of downsizing my belongings, not only have I come to accept the impermanence of loved ones, I’ve come a little bit closer to accepting my own impermanence. I am not these hundreds of items that I possess, nor am I this body. What am I? Don’t know. I do know, however, that at some point in the not so distant future, someone will be sifting through my stuff after I’ve died. Maybe they’ll grab a memento or two, or pick up a piece of my writing, smile and say, “I’ll probably get rid of this eventually, but not today.”

REFERENCES
[1] Anon., (1952). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 66

[2] Ram Dass, (1976). Grist for the Mill, Harper Collins, p. 53.

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Return to the Mother

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Author posing with a street cow, Varanasi

It’s been just over three years since I travelled to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land with a couple of hundred members of the International Kwan Um School of Zen sangha.  It doesn’t seem like that long; I think of the trip often, and most of the pictures on this blog, with the exception of the recent Thailand photos, are from India.  My brief time spent in that vast, strange, and beautiful land got pretty deeply into my bones.  I had the privilege of spending  a night under the Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and the courage to bathe by darkness in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  Both of these experiences can only be described as “life changing.”  After I’d returned home, an anonymous friend commented that such profound experiences take a long time to sink in; the psychological effects take a while to manifest.

I’m not sure if the psychological effects of my trip to India have manifested yet, but the opportunity to process the experience has.  Not long after I got back, I submitted an application to display some of my photographs in a gallery at the local library.  I was told there’s a long waiting list.  Last week, the library contacted me to inform me that one of the galleries is reserved for me for the month of November, 2015.  A year may seem like a long time to prepare for a gallery showing, but I tend not to move very quickly.  As I sift through my photo archives, I look forward to distilling my India experience through writing as part of the selection process.  I’ll be interested to see what insight the light of three years’ time shines on an adventure that was at once overwhelming and exciting.

What I find most unbelievable looking back is that I went there without a camera.  I didn’t own one at the time, committed as I was to the “full experience of the moment.”  I’d long been convinced that carrying a camera was an unnecessary distraction, that concern with setting up the perfect frame to capture a great photograph detracted from the enjoyment of the experience.  There may be truth in this, but thank God I relaxed my stance.  By the day after we arrived, I knew I couldn’t not have a camera.  The photo ops were way too good.  India is relentlessly colorful, with unignorable juxtapositions of modern and ancient, poor and affluent, sacred and profane around every corner. My photo exhibit will be titled “Walking In The Footprints of The Buddha.” I hope you enjoy the images, and, as they say in the trade, may they be of benefit to all beings.

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Footprints of The Buddha, Maha Bhodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

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