Bodhgaya: Crossing the River

I just spent ten days silently learning the philosophy of Buddha. Over the years, I’ve read many suttras, stories, and texts which explain the path to enlightenment, but sitting in a gompa listening to a nun tell me how to put Buddha’s teachings into practice was a like listening to a whole new story. It was a Tibetan monastery, so the teaching focused on compassion, loving-kindness, and wisdom. Practices and exercises abound in how to cultivate a mind that can spontaneously exude these principles. The Venerable American nun who gave the lessons has been working for many years to translate the many stories of Buddha’s life that are written in Sanskrit. Stories of beautiful prostitutes who left their work to follow the Buddha and subsequently went on to excel in meditation and inspire bandits to give their loot in offering. Other women who lost their entire families one by one in separate incidents in the same day, only to find solace in the wisdom of Buddha.

But this is only one tradition of Buddhism. I’ve always been more attracted to the other tradition that ignores the stories and suttras that are written in Sanskrit. Theravada Buddhism looks only to the teachings of Buddha; those which are passed down in Pali. Theravada Buddhism also doesn’t focus so much on compassion for others as it does on cultivating ones own mind; on learning to be full present at every moment. Perhaps it’s my western sense of individualism that leads me down this path, but personally, I believe that if happiness comes from within, if suffering can only be brought to an end by expelling the attachments that I form in my own mind, then it’s only by focusing on m own mind that I will find enlightenment.

And just as a brief aside. Wouldn’t becoming a Buddhist only add to ones attachments. Buddha did teach that though his philosophy could act as a raft to get one across the river of suffering, it’s still necessary to abandon the raft and tread ones own path once the river has been crossed.

Varanasi: First Impression 2008

I just spent five days inhaling the smoke from the fires of dead people. Less than 100 paces from where I was staying is the burning ghat along the Ganges river. Over three hundred people a day are turned to ash there. I saw as many as 12 fires going at once. I rented a boat for an hour and the boatman explained that babies, pregnant women, and holy men are never burnt, their bodies are tied to a rock and they’re dumped in the river. It’s not uncommon for then to break free of their rock and find their way back to shore where, as I soon found out, the dogs and the birds have a feast until the next morning when a dalit (an untouchable) comes along and dumps them back in the middle of the river. The alleyways of the old city that hug the ghats which hug the river are narrow and filled with market stalls, cows, goats, many people, and processions of chanting funeral goers with bodies on their shoulders.

Varanasi is the holiest city in India. It’s also most likely the drug capital of India. Everything is available here: opium, hashish, and bhang (pot) are the most popular, though I was told that the man I nearly punched-out was most likely high on heroin.

Varanasi is like a resort town. Tourists everywhere, merchants happily trying to sell their wares, and helpful english speaking locals everywhere to ensure us tourists don’t get too lost in the alleyways of the old city. You can lie under an unbrella and get an aruvedic massage for Rs400, sit on the steps and enjoy a “special lassi” (keeping in mind that I said it was the drug capital), or just stroll around enjoying the many mini-festivals and the beautiful, unpretentious women.

Varanasi was indeed a lovely resort town of death.

Philosophy is foolish

Philosophy makes a wise person foolish. Beware to those who pursue it for wisdom, beware to those who love knowledge, beware. Truth, for those who desire it, should be pursued in life, and not in study. Only through ignorance is truth possible, for all knowledge reveals is untruth. By parting the drapes of the mind and stepping into the light of the universe, truth’s imperfections become obvious, the paradoxes become impossible, and the impossible becomes the only possibility. A philosopher might think she has gained a new insight and reached new ground and figured out the point or meaning or essence of life when all she has done is amuse her self with mind games and lay the foundation for more questions. Upon commencing the undertaking of philosophy, knowledge appears to be not only possible, but as a nugget of truth and beauty enveloped in mystery. With continued study, there comes more mystery. Before long, a philosopher will look back on her life and studies and realize that all that is left is the mystery. Truth, beauty, knowledge: all of it will be gone and she will realize that foolish people also make philosophy.

Knut Hamsun: Hunger for Existence

At the end of the nineteenth century, a new literary tradition began to emerge that we now popularly call existential fiction. Authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Knut Hamsun began portraying absurd, vile, or illegal acts to highlight man’s free will, and highly unreasonable approach to life. They no longer created their heroes out of the traditional mold; their protagonists were no longer passive agents being carried through the story by plot lines, they became active agents of their own making. Insidious thoughts freely pass though the narrative, and interpretations and choices carry them through the story. These new heroes, though not always liked by the reader, appealed to readers because of their humanity.

Hunger was published in 1890, and is set in the port town of Kristiania, Norway in the 1880’s. This slim, four part book opens with the image of Kristiania as “a city that sets its mark on anyone who visits.” Written in the first person and autobiographical in nature (though not quite in fact), Hunger invites the reader to look upon the thoughts and actions of the narrator as he wanders the streets broke, hungry, often destitute, and always trying to come up with something to write in order to earn enough Krone to buy himself some food – though he just as often gives it away in order to satisfy ethical demands that are entirely his own. If Hegel is right that one must risk ones life in order to conserve freedom, then Hamsun’s character need not worry about his own freedom as he clings to life on the streets. He lies incessantly, he curses god, he plays the fool, he mocks cops, and in his mind, everything becomes a melodrama. Regardless of how many times we hear him blame God for his downtrodden fate, the reader recognizes that – for at least the life of the story – Hamsun’s character is the only one who is responsible for his lot in life. His God abandoned him in the same way that society has: indifferent to his existence. His utter solitude in the world causes him to frolic amongst the manic states of anguish and exaltation. The universe to which he responds is almost entirely his own creation, with villains and heroes born on a turn of thought.
This Nobel Prize winning book explores the depths of the individual psyche as hunger and solitude consume the narrator’s reason. Hunger is one man’s struggle against god and the human condition.

Distilled Version

The reader is invited to look upon the thoughts and actions of the narrator as he wanders the streets of Kristiania broke, hungry, often destitute, and always trying to come up with something to write in order to survive. Hunger is about one man’s struggle against god and the human condition. This Nobel Prize winning book explores the depths of the individual psyche as hunger and solitude consume the narrator’s reason. Hamsun’s lively description of madness will keep you reading.

And Revised

Written in the first person, and autobiographical in nature, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is a story about a poverty stricken, hungry, and frequently destitute writer’s engagement with the city of Kritiania during the 1880’s. It traces the thoughts of the central character as he lies incessantly, curses god, plays the fool, mocks cops, and finds mostly failure in trying to write an article for the local paper that will earn him enough just to feed himself for a couple of days—though he just as often gives the money away. This is a struggle of a man against himself.

India 2010-2011

Every year I get a little deeper into the country and come to understand the culture even more. This year I made huge strides in learning Hindi: reading, writing, grammar. My pronunciation still causes a great deal of confusion, but at least I can communicate with the locals a little bit beyond getting my necessities met.

Other than my requisite stay in Varanasi, this trip was all about Madhya Pradesh, the middle province where the Narmada river begins on the eastern border in the town of Amarkantak and gathers momentum as it heads west through the marble canyons near Jabalpur, before settling into a lazier pace as it goes through the Holy towns of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar. About 100km before it finds the Arabian Sea it enters the province of Gugarat.

From Varanasi I went straight south by bus to get to Amarkantak. There were a few small water falls nearby Varanasi, but as the bus climbed the mountains, natural beauty gave way to coal mining and power generation. In one particularly polluted town that tasted lie coal dust, I was told that there were ten coal power plants within 40km. My morning chai even had the undrinkable taste of coal. Several of the people I met here or on the buses near here were engineers enjoying the prosperous employment provided by all the smoldering black diamonds.

As the I continued south, the air began to clear and the people began to look healthier. Prosperity gave way to poverty. This is mostly tribal lands: jungle and farm. Huge, ranch-style mud houses with simple line work and dots painted on the outsides (tell-tale indications of tribal people); beautifully simple. I made my way thru Ambikapur, from the bus stand to the train station, surprising all the locals in this quiet city. I suspect that stopping for a night or two would have rewarded me richly, but Shiva Ratri was approaching quickly and I wanted to be in a suitable Shiva town (I was thinking I would get to Puri after a brief stop in Amarkantak). The driver of the shared auto who took me to the train station after I’d walked a few km refused my money and sped away singing what I think was a Bollywood love song.

Waiting for the train I encountered some rare racism: teasing and jokes that I could not understand but made me uncomfortable enough to move to the end of the platform. A couple boys who witnessed it cautiously approached me for conversation and quickly became close friends and guides for the next 14 hours. One boy was shy and from a low cast, and the other had just graduated from collage and was working as a pharmaceutical rep. Both were very cool. I got off the train one stop before they did and found myself a cozy place on the floor of the train station to sleep until morning and slept through until almost ten before catching one more bus to Amarkantak.

In Amarkantak I quickly learned the difference between asking for a “Sasta Hotel” (a cheap hotel) and a “sasta Kamra” (cheap room). Sasta Hotel is about Rs600/night ($15.00), and a sasta kamra is about Rs100/night ($2.50). The cheap room was a dung floor thoroughfare for rats with spiders in every corner and a thin mat on the floor for sleeping; perfect. The Phalhari Ashram was up the hill and had a beautiful view of the Ancient temples across the river (Sri Shankyacharyia, 1100AD) and the white spires of the new temples in the forground. All around me were huge Mango trees that were just starting to consider offering us (and the monkeys) fresh mangos.

The ashram in Amarkantak was nice and simple: a thin mat on a dirt floor, two meals a day and chai in the morning. The rooms all had rats passing through, but for Shivarthri someone apparently supplied them with poison and they began falling from the ceiling as if to beg for mercy. They were offered none. The foreign presence was small here, just myself; Mark, the Bhakti German fellow; and a hippy Alaskan guy with his daughter. Taj, the international gangster came later.

Taj had stories to tell, many stories about his upbringing in Kashmir, his immigration to Canada, his adventures around the world. He was in his early fifties and in the process of assessing his life. He was a doubter and a cynic when it came to religion and spirituality. He had no use for either and he enjoyed spouting his opinion in the ashram, to devotees and even to Babas. The Phalhari baba who ran the ashram wasn’t much different so the two of them became quick friends. Baba was a great manager and had completed 12 years of intense tapas eating only fruit while practicing yoga and tantra. He certainly didn’t recommend such a lifestyle, it was very hard on his body.

I stayed here for a few weeks listening to Taj’s stories and practicing intense yoga and meditation in my room. Baba spoke no (or very little English) so there was no instruction and he led no practices. As an ashram, it was merely a place to stay.

For Shivarathri I was given access to a private Puja in the main temple that went on for over three hours. It was he most intense puja I’ve ever witnessed. I’m certain that they recited an entire Purana with the speed of an auctioneer. When I left, my mind was swimming; I was high from the intensity of it all and I’d felt as though only a few minutes had passed. I wondered if I’d been lulled into some kind of trance. It was beautiful.

Taj and I left together catching buses and trains to haphazardly make our way to Maheshwar.

Yoga Astrology Travel Pilgrimage

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