Simple Man in a Book Store

The simple man walked in to a bookstore with an old friend he saw on the street. This old friend was friend of many problems (usually resulting from money or women). Today, his problem was women (the plural is intentional). As they walked into the shop, their conversation ceased as they both focused on finding their respective sections.

The simple man, after making sure no one was really paying attention, browsed his way to Spirituality. The old friend of many problems went straight to the best sellers.

While the simple man was looking for a good book on eastern philosophy, he didn’t notice the colourfully clad older women burst into the self help section with loose clothing and shawl material fluttering everywhere until it was too late.

She had no respect for the silence of a bookstore. The colourfully clad older woman immediately started talking to the simple man about auras and spirits and cosmic energies. She showed him the crystal she wore around her neck and warned him about theoretical religions and motioned to the Bibles and Korans and Upanishads that rested on the shelf in front of him.

Before the simple man could ask her what the hell she was talking about, the friend with many problems came over with a few books in his hand to ask the simple man if he’d read any of them. The simple man had not.

The colourfully clad older women, who already considered the simple man to be one of her dearest friends, warmly introduced herself to the friend with many problems.

As the three of them fell into conversation – the colourfully clad older woman spoke and the two men responded appropriately when necessary, — a man, not too old, but with an air of distinction about him, was standing on the other side of the book shelf looking at the history books.

When the colourfully clad older woman started talking about active knowledge and passive knowledge, the simple man and the not too old of man on the other side of the shelf started listening more closely. The friend with many problems was beginning to see this woman as a problem to be overcome. She was talking in a fast, loud, cheerful manner like a schoolgirl who had fallen in love and wanted to declare it to the world.

She said that all the books in the room represented passive knowledge. Most of what we learn in school is also passive knowledge; facts and theories and even ideas that read about or are told. Active knowledge is, of course, the knowledge we gain from actively doing something. We learn how to play hockey by playing it, fix a car by fixing one, we learn how to walk by doing so. We can, she said, be actively spiritual or passively spiritual, adding, as though obvious to all, that the masses who are following the dominant religions are passive spiritualists.

The not too old of man, who had been listening with interest, and had already been implicitly included in the conversation was becoming offended. He was a Christian who sometimes went to church on special occasions, but had a good friend in the theology department at the university. He routinely ready the bible with his family, and followed the catechisms – except, of course, where they were obviously outdated. And, he believed himself to be actively spiritual: he helped strangers in need and gave to several charities.

The friend with many problems, who didn’t want to be having the conversation, had grown up in the Catholic school system even though his parents never had anything to do with religion. One school he went to for a few years was particularly disciplinarian with emphasis on “fire and brimstone.” The friend with many problems didn’t care for any of it. He preferred Darwin.

The simple man admitted that he was, perhaps, “if I understand correctly,” passively spiritual with a preference for nature and his own thoughts about things that come to him from experience and the ideas of great minds. He didn’t necessarily believe in god, just in existence and the universe.

The colourfully clad older woman, was thinking about her time in India when she followed a ritual of setting out flowers and incense upon an alter before sitting to chanting in the temple with large groups. Her days were filled with meditation and messages of love from the guru.

The simple man listened quietly as the colourfully clad woman told her story, but the not too old of man had begun to smile like he’d just thought of a great joke. He asked the colourfully clad older woman about the incense and flowers and temple and alter –things he called “window dressing.” The colourfully clad older woman said that these things were to purify the area and call upon the power of specific gods or energies.

The not too old of man thought it was ridiculous that smoke or flowers or music or idols could make a person more spiritual. This stuff is all nice, creating a nice atmosphere will help you relax and think more clearly, but he, himself had the comforts of home and the warmth of his children to create a relaxing atmosphere. The simple man had his mountains and lakes; which, the not too old of man thought, was the ideal place for spirituality. Nothing surpasses nature for making a person feel awe and beauty and wonder, except, perhaps, his children’s smiles, but these too were so beautiful because they were so natural, so sincere. He thought these things while the colourfully clad woman plead her case.

The simple man hadn’t been listening, his friend with many problems had snuck off at some point, and the simple man was scanning the room for him without luck. The colourfully clad older woman was still talking but could see that no one was listening. Pausing in her speech she turned to the shelf, forgot what she’d been saying, snatched a book of the shelf, and, as if suddenly out of breath, bid the men farewell and hurried off to the counter to pay.

The simple man and the not too old of man watched her walk away in silence. She was gone from them so suddenly that they had no time to accustom themselves to each others company, and without saying anything just looked at each other and continued browsing the books.

Just then the friend with many problems walked up with a book he was going to buy: “Know your Horoscope.”

Simple Man goes for breakfast

It was 8:57 when the young waitress held the door open for the simple man to enter. They said very little to each other as she showed him to his seat and brought him a coffee. Outside, the sun was still rising in a clear sky. Inside, the simple man was reading a book and the diner was steadily filling with people.

The simple man knew it was Sunday, and he knew what Sundays meant in the diner business, but he thought of none of this as he read his book. The place was full by the time he looked up again. Families and couples and church groups had filled the place with their presence, and the lobby was full of more waiting to take their place.

When the waitress came by again, the simple man spoke to her for a moment before she led a young, unshowered couple to his table. They were shy as they sat; shy with him and shy with each other. They’d just met the night before.

The simple man put his book down and greeted the couple warmly. They were relieved for the distraction. After their coffees arrived and introductions were made and a comfortable atmosphere established at the table, the young girl asked the simple man if he’d been to church that morning. He hadn’t, but thought it might be a good idea. He hadn’t been to more than a dozen church services in his life.

The young girl had stopped going to church about a year ago; towards the end of her first year of Uni. The young man had never been inside one, never thought much about it and didn’t really (with a shrug) care whether there was a god or not.

Although she was not fully conscious of it, the young girl felt deep pity for his spiritual ignorance. Not the sort of pity that would draw her closer to him and allow him to possibly “score” again, but the sort of pity that drew her away from him in the way a leader must stand apart from the led. From that moment of pity they knew where they stood and the possibility of becoming friends opened up.

The simple man and the young girl talked about God for a while. They had very different but satisfactory views on the matter. She saw god as a creator, he saw god as the created. Her church was a small town church and her family was friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, with the pastor – “he was nice man.”

The trio at the table all agreed that the church establishment and many of the parishers were hypocrites, but they reminded themselves that you can’t blame the teachings for the institution that disseminates them, nor for the way people choose to interpret and live by them. The teachings themselves, they agreed, are sound – if somewhat outdated.

The young man, who had been quietly listening, began to bristle. He didn’t understand very much of any of it. It’s not as if you need a book to tell you that killing is bad.

But once again, he betrayed his ignorance, for although we all know killing is bad, we don’t all agree on what killing is. We can’t even decide outright when killing another person is bad, but then we have to consider everything else we kill for food or pleasure or inattention.

The Jains cover their mouths and sweep before the walk to avoid the accidental death of even the tiniest insect. Most Christians freely eat meat without the slightest thought given to the animal that has been killed for them. So even though we might all know that killing is bad, the books and the teachings will hopefully help each of us to weigh, in our own conscience, what the meaning is of, “Thou shall not kill.”

The young man thought that this was going to far and did not understand what killing a cow had to do with morality. But this brought on a whole new conversation about the meaning of morality.

The young girl brought up the golden rule about doing unto others as you’d have done to yourself, and again mentioned the Ten Commandments. The young man added things like loyalty and honour. They all agreed that morals had to do with relationships, and, they added, the reward for a moral life was contentment and peace of mind.

But if it’s our relationships that determine our morality, what about out relationship with the cow, it can’t be very good if we’re killing and eating it without thought. Would this poor relationship not then cause us some disquiet? Many tribal societies that eat meat quell this disquiet by honoring the animal in sacrifice. The hallal meat that the Muslims eat is also duly honored upon slaughter. But considering we no longer allow humans to be honored and sacrificed to the gods, we have to further question whether honoring something is enough to quell the disquiet in our hearts and minds.

For a holy man, even the potatoes he digs from the ground feed him in sacrifice. But, he believes, the earth feeds him this bounty the way a mother feeds milk to a child. For the mother, as for the earth there is much to be gained in giving.

A deep silence overtook the table as the three of them thought about the paradox of gaining by giving. The young girl, thinking of herself as the child, wondered how much her own mother might be sacrificing for her, and how much pain she might be causing her. The young man thought of himself as the mother and wondered how he might gain by giving away, but the thought soon passed as he could thing of nothing to give. The simple man wished he was more like the mother and capable of freely and lovingly giving his all, but knew he was just a child, ignorant of the world he was in but reassuringly guided by the hand of his mother.

These thoughts faded away as the young couple collected their bill and left. The simple man, feeling the young couple now needed some space waited a few minutes before he too walked blindly into a world where anything can happen.

Finding Bhakti

With only a couple of days in between, I went from being the fearless adventurer in the Pakistani border region, to being the child devotee looking around in apparent confusion. For it was while I sat on the stone steps aligning the river that a hand was held out to me and a voice beckoned me to “come.” So, like a lost child I took the hand and allowed it to lead me wherever it went.

What astonished me was the rituals that were going on all around me. Everyone seemed to have some doorway that they had constructed to bring them closer to god. Many washed the lingams, or offered milk or flowers or incense to the heavens. After carrying out prayer rituals (last moments or minutes)many swam or bathed or dunked themselves in the river. Some merely took a sip. But when you take a sip from the Narmada, you not only take a sip from a river, but from the divine. Besides all these acts of devotion, people were also singing and chanting and ringing bells. It was almost too much for me. I saw the beauty of their devotion and quietly, in my heart, I wept. I wept for all of those in whose hearts God resides, and all those who have conception of such purity of action.

But then came the beckoning hand, so I followed. I followed until there were no more steps by the river and we were on a path, I followed through the small village outside of town, and then O followed down a long lane-way to a very small temple. I said nothing for there was nothing I could say (a couple days would pass before I could again find words). When we came to the temple, they were just making chai. When they found out I spoke no Hindi they left me alone in the corner to drink my chai. When the chillums began to be lighted they passed these to me in turn. Four hours I sat there smoking chillum and absorbing the shock of such a powerfully religious town.

After almost two weeks here, I’m slowly coming out of my shock. I’m learning ritual: morning and evening baths in the river, a few incense sticks here and there, maybe a sack of flowers to adorn some idol or other. But ritual does not come easy to me. When I step up to a temple I step forward with thirty years of atheism on my back. I step forward also with the full weight of western society on my shoulders. When I step up to a temple my lightness of being is replaced by great a weight. But each day is better than the last, progress is always being made. Time is forever marching forward and with each step new ideas become easier and ritual becomes less alien.

But I have to go from here and study Hindi for some time before I come back. That is one problem with stepping off the tourist trail: no English. This is a small problem since communication is always possible, but will get much more from these areas if I speak the language.

In 1908, Gandhi wrote a pamphlet called “Home Rule”. In this pamphlet they asked: “And what about the English?” Gandhi replied, “They can stay if they’re willing to live like an India. If not, then they too should go.” So now it’s time for me to learn to live like an India. After studying Hindi, I’ll be doing a pilgrimage down the Narmada river to really begin to learn Hindi and how to live like an Indian.

Kutch: The Wild West of India

I made it to Bhuj in one piece. The bus trip wasn’t so bad: I slept. It was the ten hour train ride to go 250km that took my steam away. I’ve just come back to Bhuj after a week of hitching rides around this restricted border area (with a permit). I’ve walked too many miles down deserted desert roads praying to god that something would drive by to offer me hope of a ride. Motor bikes and buses and jeeps and coal trucks have all picked me up and taken me so far — sometimes depositing me at border intelligence to have my documentation scrutinized. Nikiforuk, it seems, is a Muslim name; I’m sure Indian intelligence is having a closer look at them as well as every other person who’s business card I happened to have on me (sorry y’all).

For lodging I have found Gurudwaras and Dharmassalas most hospitable; sleeping on thin mats laid out on concrete floors, stuffing much needed blankets in the holes of the walls to keep out the rats, and waiting for cows to be milked so I could be served chai. Walking down one particularly deserted road I came across a goat-herder with a great smile who offered me chai and then quickly rounded up his herd for grazing. The boy with him went off to milk a few goats while we collected a few scraps of wood to make a fire in a dry creek bed. He made chai for me while we made small talk as best we could (no one speaks English in these parts) and then I set off back down the road. I walked about 15km that day before I finally got a ride, that bit of chai was my only lunch.

And for two days I had a guide, a self appointed 78 year old Rajput man who sang and danced ever chance he got. He would yell at passing tractors to turn up their music which was already blaring, dance as they passed and then curse them when the music went out of reach. He cost me a small fortune (about 12 dollars) and I’ve cursed him a few times, but the friendship and the colour that he lent to the trip was invaluable.

There’s more, so much more I could say, but for now I have to go. In a few days I should be standing in front of the oldest sign-board that the world knows about (about 5000 years old). No one knows what it says, but why should that be important. Soon after, I’ll be going through caves with paintings that are over 12000 years old. But first I’m going to relax for a few days at the beach.

Routine of Danger

This morning I read that smokers wish to die at least as much as they wish to live.

I wonder about that as I sit alone in my dingy hotel room inhaling the warm rancid smoke of my cigarette. Several times this week I have woken up and gone into work and looked around at the dangers that surrounded me and thought, “today I think I will be killed, the best and the worst I can hope for is that my body will merely be broken and agonizing pain will be my life.” I see it all happen in my mind. I see myself rejecting peoples sympathies and thinking myself some kind of hero. As I work around high pressure gas lines, I see the news paper headlines announcing that a son was killed by an exploding gas line the same as the father. I see people thinking about this strange coincidence and friends, especially those few who know my father, talking about it with others and holding onto the story and treasuring it as if it were their own.

On Thursday, we were fixing a water leak. It was a wet muddy hell of a hole. The banks were crumbling everywhere. Our feet were most often stuck where we placed them until we could dig them out. I was shoveling that shit with Charlie when out of the blue he very slowly calmly said me name, “Mike.” I didn’t look. I didn’t say anything. I just slowly and calmly stepped to the side just in time for several thousands of pounds of clay to fall into the place where I was standing. I didn’t even look to watch it fall, I merely went back to shoveling as if it was routine. And guess it is.

I wonder sometimes if my embrace of life’s dangers has any connection to Freud’s “death wish”?

Compression of Love

Broken hearts and broken dreams
loves lost and loves caused
Suffering and suffering and suffering in the hearts and minds and bodies of all
The pain we feel and the remedies we find
The guilt of happiness and the heroism we feel for all that we know
for all that ties us, one to the other
Our separate lives…. entwined…..burdened by our bonds

How is it that we cannot see that the joys and sufferings of others are really our own?

The expanse of loneliness vs the compression of love

When you love everyone, there is no place for the love of just one

When you feel the joy and suffering all, there is no distinguishing the suffering of one
When all is lost, everything is there to be found
This is the expanse of loneliness and the compression of love

Kathmandu via Bihar: 2008

Patna, the capital city of the poorest and most dangerous state in India, is also the least hospitable. Last night I walked around for hours with my pack trying to find a place to stay. Most of the hotels clerks said said, “Full. No room.” Many others were more honest and said, “Sorry, no foreigners.” I tried taking a rickshaw at one point, but he spoke no English and just took me where he wanted rather than where I wanted. Another man came up to me on the street and asked, “What country?” I told him “Canada” and he replied, “Patna very dangerous for foreigners. Be very careful. Very, very much so.” And then he went away. Many security guards were kind to me and called for me to follow them to their hotels, often down dark alleys, but inevitably, the clerk would turn me away.

I did eventually find one hospitable place. A restaurant named Khazana e Tandoor (for those of you who don’t know, I used to manage a restaurant named Khazana). Although none of the serving staff spoke english, they were delighted with my ability to communicate in Hindi when I’m in a restaurant. They were very surprised when they tried to further the conversation only to lose me completely. The food was the best I’ve had in India, and everything they brought me was exactly what I expected, which doesn’t happen often. But then I walked out and the door man grumbled something to me in Hindi that I’m sure was not a nicety. I’ll be so happy to get back on the bus and finish my journey to Nepal.

After a refreshing stroll through Patna, we caught the overnight bus to the Nepal border. My seat refused to stay declined; instead what I had was a spring loaded seat that threatened to eject me at every bump which is what the road was made of: bumps and pot-holes. Buy the time I got to Nepal 10 hours later, I wasn’t sure if I got any sleep or not. I might have dozed a time or two, but sleep…..

At the border I was illegally charged Rs100 to have my passport stamped, but shared a good-time chai with my extortionist. My rickshaw driver also took advantage of my dream state by demanding Rs120 for a Rs40 trip. I gave him Rs90 and told him to beat it. On the Nepalese side, I was refused entry to the washroom, but appealed to what good nature the guard did have to get my travel partner (my wife for the brief span of this conversation) into the facilities. He wasn’t happy about it, but finally relented. I, on the other hand, found someone to guide me though someones home and into their back….. yard (of sorts) where where I was told I could “psht” (with a pinky finger arc) on their wall. Unfortunately, with the whole family looking on, I was unable to preform beyond a few drops.

The trip from the border to Katmandu was terrifying. The driver was fearless, the SUV was full beyond capacity, and the co-pilot rode on the roof. The scenery, thankfully, was breath-taking. About halfway here, I realized: “I’m in the Himalaya mountains. Holy shit, I’m actually in the Himalaya mountains.” The terraces and paths I was admiring have been there for thousands of years. This civilization I was driving past had been in place for thousands of years. This was so much bigger of a moment than India ever was. This is the fucking Himalaya mountains.

Vedic Astrology – Yoga Philosophy – Off track Travel and Pilgrimage

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