Rocked in the Many Arms of Mama India
As the sagacious space swami Bonzai Baba taught (in the Garland of Pop-Culture Pith Sutra, IIRC), “Wherever you go, there you are.” Well, one thing about India is, somehow, wherever you go, there’s even more of you. More than any other place i’ve been, India has the mysterious power of reflecting whatever one brings to it, holding it right up in one’s face, and sometimes none too gently. Nice to be reminded i can always count on her for that. 🙂
After living here for seven years and then spending the last five years in a semi-accidental stateside hiatus, it is both so very normal and so very strange to be back. The smells and sights and sounds are fresh as yesterday (though some of the smells one would guess to be considerably older…). But my whole world has changed several times since 2001 and it’s in some ways very much a new m that is here this time (though i’ve spotted a few old-m habits that i’d be happy to leave by the roadside). Feels a bit like making a pilgrimage back to my elementary school to visit my favorite teachers after years out in the world…
We used to refer to the aromatic nation’s capital as “Smelly Delhi,” and the airport air reinforced the illusion that some things never change. Driving into town in my natural gas-powered taxi, however, i was amazed to discover i could actually breathe once we left the outskirts and entered the city proper, where the clean air ordinances passed in 2001 have made a dramatic impact on the respiration situation. (Wish the US had the sense to follow suit: Must world’s worst and richest polluter lag so far behind one of the most cash-poor and least industrialized countries?) Walking to find a bite in Connaught Place the next morning, i did a double take on a fancy sign saying “Metro”… could it be? I rode the glass-doored elevator down to discover a (relatively) swish new city-wide subway system, freshly flowing in full effect, replete with shopping bag-toting teens and mobile-gaming commuters, all basking in that inimitable Indian glow of swadeshi spirit (a beaming home-team pride) that clued me in that the subway is the place to be seen. You go, Delhi!
A restful overnight train ride later, i said good morning to the Gangaji (a.k.a. Ganges) on my way to Sarnath. A dustpan of a town just north of Varanasi, Sarnath’s claim to fame is the fact that it was the site of the first teachings given the Buddha Shakyamuni after he got the Ultimate Download under the Bodhi tree in nearby Bodhgaya. As such, it’s a place of pilgrimage for countless waves of Buddhists and other folks from every corner of the globe, come to soak up the magic vibes and take pix of what remains of a 2200 year-old stupa (a cylindrical structure sharing common ancestry with the pyramids; this particular one looks like a 34-meter tall kiln) built in his honor. It was, in fact, pilgrimage that first brought me here back in 1994, with Scarth and Amy, when we shepherded an international group of 30 pilgrims through the ruins of the centuries-old monastery and tried to figure out how to play along while our monk friends performed the customary Sarnath puja (prayer and offering ceremony) at the stupa, as a part of a month-long Buddhist pilgrimage we organized – a gig that somehow went rather splendidly despite our total and utter lack of experience or qualification – a great adventure at the time… Oh, if i had only known where it would lead me (it was on that pilgrimage that we got the inspiration to make our next stop Dharamshala, to catch H.H. the Dalai Lama‘s teachings and stay “maybe a few weeks” checking out the Tibetan scene…)
Well, fast-forward twelve years, and here i am again, wandering aimlessly through the rice paddies of the surrounding villages, reconnecting with the village vibe (a push-cart apple vendor cocked his head at me curiously and flipped his hands at the wrist, meaning “What’s the deal, gringo, what brings you to my village?” I told him, “Ghoomraha hu,” meaning “just wandering,” which satisfied him plenty – he clearly approved of aimlessness, but i thought to myself, “i really wish i could tell you…”). And here i am walking mindfully through town (mindful not only of the walking itself, but of what one might step in), feeling the feeling of being here… and feeling my feelingness of it… noticing what i’d missed (e.g. the light in so many people’s smiling eyes, the way i look at and see myself when everyone is staring at me, and the ubiquitous and never-ending, universally-embracing CELEBRATION of all things supramundane that one only finds in such dense abundance in India – and in greatest concentration at India’s places of pilgrimage) and what i could continue to do without (e.g. exhaust, horns, never-ending concrete construction and commercialization of all things accoutering and accessorizing spirituality, overcooked vegetables, and, well, the things one might step in [the province of Uttar Pradesh has to be the roadside deposit capital of the world…]).
More than anything else, though, i was feeling how much i miss being near HH. After living a half a block down the street from him in Dharamshala for nearly seven years, and then seeing him only through the narrow-band prism of the media for the last five, i felt a quietly aching longing for the unique support that i found in the rhythm periodic connections with him that i was blessed to have there — the viscerally brilliant reminders of what is possible for a human to become… inspiring me inward and outward and onward…
So imagine my delight (really, i dare you!) when Artyom and i set off to find the Karmapa (one of the four top lamas in the Tibetan tradition, who happens to be in town for a spell) and we got wind that someone else thought it would be a good day to come to Sarnath and say “wassup” to the Karmapa: HH’s caravan was en route to the Tibetan University down the road, so off we went in the rickshaw…
Only got to see him for a few seconds, but…….. ah….. sigh………….
My batteries are recharged! 🙂
Speaking of old friends in crimson robes, i also bumped into our activist buddy Bagdro, a spirited monk who used to speak regularly at our “Sunday@Sunset” series at KhanaNirvana/DEVI (our center in Dharamshala, where we had former Tibetan political prisoners as guest speakers almost every week – and still do, much of the time). We met him not long after he first arrived in Dharamshala, after spending interminable aeons in Chinese prisons for speaking out for Tibetan freedom. He was tortured unimaginably brutally in prison and was scarred in every sense of the word.
Today, however, i got to have lunch with him and i saw a brighter Bagdro than i’d ever seen before. He continues to travel the world speaking about his experiences in prison and his activism since then, and he took advantage of a trip to Germany to spend 20 days in a hospital finally getting some good care for his internal wounds… so for the first time in over a decade, he isn’t living with physical pain compounding his suffering. In his animated way, he gleefully reported that he has finished collecting 400,000 signatures from people of 60 countries for his petition to the UN to reconsider its decision not to allow HH the DL to speak at the UN on the subject of world peace, as he was first invited to do and then barred from doing a few years back. “China is very angry,” boasted the smiling monk. He will hand-deliver the petition to the UN when he is next in New York, and if the UN doesn’t meet his deadline, he plans to hunger strike in front of the UN until they respond. The energetic monastic also has a CD coming out – chanting Dalai Lama bass notes with a German hip-hop band (it was just a matter of time, right?). I remember him rockin’ the overtones with us at our open-mic jams at KhanaNirvana…
Starting tomorrow morning, i’ll be joining friends old and new for a two-week meditation/integration retreat – one of the two main purposes of my visit. I’m feeling ever so ripe for it. I’ll write again when i emerge… unless i get the Ultimate Download, in which case maybe i’ll send you all a pretty picture post card in the clouds. Just to show off, ya know… 😉