Archive for October, 2009

Ganga.

Monday, October 19th, 2009

You’d be hard pressed to find a river more revered than Holy Ganga, known abroad as The Ganges. While not as long as the Nile or as mighty as the Amazon, Ganga possesses a spirituality and character unmatched by the other great rivers of the world. Honestly. Name another river that is actually a goddess descended to earth to cleanse humanity of its sins and illnesses. See?

River worship is quite a practical phenomenon. Rivers are life givers, supporting permanent communities through droughts and dry seasons. A standard monsoon in northeast India lasts only four months, so the river is the sole source of drinking water and irrigation for eight months a year. In such a climate, it’s only natural that the biggest river around would develop into something worthy of  religious devotion (there are many holy rivers in Hinduism, Ganga being the most important).

It begins on the roof of the world, under a glacier high on the India-Tibet border. Sapphire blue and ice cold at first, it mixes with white foam as it crashes over rocks and boulders. Picking up green as it descends, it becomes a brilliant turquoise, slowing as the valleys widen and the altitude softens (hydro dams do their part, as well). Soon it finds the frying pan mud of the Indian plains, turning a warm soupy brown and, having lost its urgency, slowly wanders its way east. Eventually it forms the massive delta in Bangladesh – where it floods often as it meets the rising sea.

Ganga is central to the life of Hindus. Bathing in the river cleanses sins, and many families return home from pilgrimages to her banks with vials and bottles of the holy water. Perhaps more famously, however, Ganga is central to Hindus at the time of death. The greatest pilgrimage in the life of a devout Hindu is to make it to the shores of the holy river in time to die and be cremated on the banks. The body, once burned to cinders, is dumped into the river to be carried away. This is extremely beneficial for future lives, helping to cleanse the soul of sins and aid in its quest for reincarnation on a higher level. Varanasi is perhaps the holiest city in Hinduism, and has developed into the premiere death tourism centre. I’ll be there in a few weeks.

But for now, I’m still in the mountains. The holy city of Rishikesh, where the Beatles lived and got high and wrote the White Album, is low in the foothills. Here the river is quick and cold and wonderful. It probably isn’t as clean as we’d like to think, but compared to its condition down on the plains it is positively pure. So we swim in it. The locals bathe in the holy waters to receive the blessings of the goddess, but we swim to cool off from the heat. I’m not Hindu, but there is a sense of renewal from these waters. The undeniable spirituality of India rears its head again.

But it isn’t enough for us. With Naomi from Sydney and Alon from the Tel Aviv suburbs, I spend twelve hours on buses and jeep taxis and make my way back into the Himalaya. At over 3000m and in freezing temperatures, we spend the night in the small town of Gangotri, which owes almost all of its economic success to religious tourism. Nearly as important as the death pilgrimage to Varanasi is the personal mission to the glacier from which Ganga springs forth.

Called Gamukh, or the Head of the Cow, the mass of ice is known to Hindus as the place where Ganga first descended to earth. The blessings bestowed upon a Hindu for bathing in the river are multiplied greatly if done at the river’s birthplace. I still haven’t quite figured out what draws so many foreign, non-Hindus to the spot, but we nevertheless felt the need to go.

After a night in Gangotri, we walk fourteen slightly inclined kilometers to Bhojbasa, a mountain camp of low stone buildings with corrugated tin roofs. We spend the cold, dark night in an ashram, a combination Hindu temple/guesthouse, eating simple dhal and rice on the floor with the pilgrims. Our room, shared between the three of us, is a stone box with blankets on the floor and a single naked (energy saving) light bulb dangling on a wire. All around us are jagged snowy peaks towering over barren, rocky scrub. The chai is excellent. So are the stars.

At seven the next morning we clamber over boulders and rocky streams toward the glacier. Four kilometers later, a 15m tall jagged wall of dripping ice looms over us. From a dark cave rushes forth the holy water. I had expected, thanks in part to the Lonely Planet’s use of the word embryonic, for it to be an icy creek or brook. Not a trickle, surely, but at most a fast stream. Wrong. A full fledged river courses out of the ice with a flow of surprising intensity. It is at least five or six meters wide, not deep but moving quickly. And it is icy, icy cold.

But we wash in it. Alon strips down to his skivvies and goes in fully, while Naomi and I just wash our face, neck and hair. Some of the pilgrims go in all the way as well, though not all of them. The sun is bright and strong but the air is cold at almost 4000m in mid October. We drink our fill, as well. I’ve never tasted such clean, cold, delicious water. Bottle that stuff and you’d make a fortune. But the negative karma would be astronomical, I’m sure. Still, we fill a plastic water bottle so we can ship home a little glacial Ganga water. I hear drinking it can cure serious diseases. Get your own.

We watch a BBC documentary team film some footage of the glacier. They interview a local glaciologist who explains how much the wall of ice has receded even in the last six months. A very up close look at climate change. During the filming, a local guide arrives and grows angry with all the tourists standing too close. Apparently two foreigners died last year when a chunk of the wall broke free and crushed them. The BBC crew calms him enough to get their footage, but he manages to get everyone else to move a safe distance away.

We sit and enjoy the energy of the place. Alon and Naomi write in their journals. I join a few pilgrims and meditate next to the river for a few minutes. The sun is getting hotter as it climbs, the thin atmosphere doing little to calm its blaze. We walk the four kilometers back to the ashram for more dhal and rice before packing up and walking the rest of the way back to Gangotri. Early the next morning, we’re in a jeep taxi for the nine hour ride back to Rishikesh with two ladies from Pune (near Bombay) who now live in San Francisco.

Now it’s Diwali, the biggest festival in the Hindu calendar. I’m still in Rishikesh for it. Will post on it soon, in all it’s fire and noise and madness.

Sikhism and local conversation.

Friday, October 9th, 2009

I know I’ve spent the last two posts bigging up Buddhism, but I now feel the need to give a shout out to my other crew, the righteous Sikh massive. I defy you to name another religion that encourages its followers to change their names to Lion, will feed anyone and everyone for free, and blasts musical prayer from its temples for fourteen hours a day. Please wash your feet and slip on an orange bandana before entering.

I left Mcleod Ganj, finally, the other day. I’d spent almost a month there, which is a long time considering I’ve been in India for two months all in. Granted, the month includes my ten days at the meditation centre, but still it was a long time to spend in a single town even if the Dalai Lama is a host who boasts a mean (mostly vegetarian) roast.

I headed south and east, down into the plains of north central India. The heat rose as I descended, and soon I was back in a state of perma-sweat. It’s like when Homer shaves on The Simpson’s: as soon as he walks out of the bathroom his five o’clock shadow pops back onto his face. In India, you can shower all you like, but as soon as you’ve dried off you’re instantly covered in a sheen of grease that will last until the next bath. Indian air is saturated with dust and dirt and soot, and the perma-sweat is like fly paper. You don’t really notice how dirty you’re getting until you see the colour of the water when you take that next shower. Ewww.

At any rate, I had a long road ahead of me. As my bike’s engine had recently been repaired (new piston, new valves, new carb, new head, etc etc) I had some breaking in to do. I could only run her at around 40 or 50 km/h, and would need to take breaks every couple of hours to let her cool. So I planned on three days to Rishikesh, instead of the standard two. I just needed to figure out where to stop for my two nights.

After consulting maps and the Lonely Planet, I decided on Anandpur Sahib, a Sikh holy town. It’s the second holiest place for Sikhs in India, so it’s well on the domestic tourist map. But, like many domestic tourism hotspots, it’s an unknown for foreign tourists (unless they’re Sikh). I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner in the whole town. I didn’t mind.

I rolled in and headed straight for the massive, gleaming white gurdwara (Sikh temple) that dominated the town. The sound of tabla, some sort of organ and Punjabi singing emanated from huge loudspeakers mounted on the walls of the complex. Old men with huge turbans and ancient beards strode about, and hundreds of Dalit beggars (the lowest caste, the untouchables) and their kids milled about aimlessly.

You see, Sikhs are incredibly inclusive and generous. Even if you are not Sikh, there are pilgrim’s rooms and free meals available at nearly every gurdwara. They had non-a/c rooms for 50 rupees (a buck) and a/c rooms for 200 (four bucks). I considered going cheap, but it was hot and I figured most real pilgrims will probably appreciate the cheaper rooms being available, so I took a beautiful room with vaulted ceilings and an air conditioner. In a temple. For four dollars.

I went across the courtyard to a huge building devoted entirely to the feeding of anyone who wishes to eat. Beggars, holy men, even politicians and businessmen sit cross legged on mats and get a simple meal of dhal and chapati. As the building is holy, you have to remove your shoes and don one of the communal orange head scarves. I ate in silence. I got a lot of looks as I walked in, grabbed a metal tray and spoon, and sat down. I told myself they weren’t looking because I shouldn’t be there, but because they never see foreigners. The looks stopped, however, when I started eating Indian style. Tearing the chapati into smaller chunks, I folded it over into a cone and pinched one end to stop the soupy dhal from spilling out the back. Then I scooped it into my mouth. Once they saw me eating this way, I belonged.

After dinner, I washed the dhal from my hands (I’m still learning) and went up and into the gurdwara. Before entering, you step down into a pool with water running through it to wash your feet. Again, on went an orange head scarf. I followed some older men up and into the central chamber, where the musicians were playing and praying. The music never stops all day, beginning around 8 am and running until 10 pm. At the very heart of the temple was a table with some of Sikhism’s holiest objects placed upon it. I watched the men prostrate themselves before the items. I peered over their shoulders for a glance at the relics. Weapons. All weapons.

Central to Sikhism is the idea of Khalsa, a belief in a race of soldier saints who abide by certain moral codes. While they believe in equality for all beings (hence the free meals for everyone) like Buddhists, they do not so strongly believe in non-violence. Just as the uncut hair and beard are important symbols for a devout Sikh man, holy swords or sabres are also essential. The name Singh, taken by many Sikhs, translates literally to “Lion.” The weapons in the temple were indeed holy, as they were used by one or more of the gurus who founded Sikhism and defended its existence from Islam and Hinduism in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The next morning I continued on. After a great day on mostly smooth roads I stopped in a mountain town called Nahan. Here I was again out of place, as this town is infrequently visited by your average backpacker. I was mobbed by cricket playing kids in a park, kicked a soccer ball around with some youngsters near an artificial pond, and generally attracted lots of looks and smiles no matter where I went.

The conversation, when a local worked up the guts to approach me, generally went something like this:

“Hello sir.”

“Hello, brother, how are you?”

“Yes, fine. How do you do?”

I love the bookish, British English that most of the older men here use. The proper, old school vocabulary mixed with the poor grammar and syntax make for some excellent menus, signage and general conversation.

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Which country is your origin?” This is a standard question, sometimes the only one I’m asked. It comes in many forms. Sometimes simply “Where are you from?” or “Which country?” but many men like tossing in words such as “origin” or “nationality” or “citizen.” Younger guys tend to use more American, Hollywood-ized language, but it’s no less entertaining.

“I’m from Canada.”

“Ah, yes. Which region?”

“Toronto.”

“Indeed. Many Indian people living in Toronto, isn’t it?”

Ahh, the infamous Indian “isn’t it?” It’s used much in the same way we Canadians use “eh.” Essentially, it turns a statement into a question. It’s quite genius. In fact, I’m a big defender of the use of “eh” by Canadians, because it’s way easier to say “Cold out eh?” than something like “Don’t you think it’s cold out?”

“Yes, many Indians.”

“And you are enjoying your stay in India?” This is the next most popular question.

“Of course, brother, India is beautiful.”

“Excellent. I hope you enjoy your holiday.”

“Thank you, my friend, good luck to you.”

“And to you.”

I always end my conversations with that line: “good luck to you.” I’m not sure why, but there it is.

At any rate, part of the genius of the bike is stopping in these smaller towns where foreigners are a rarity. I end up meeting tons of people who have absolutely no interest in my money, but lots and lots of interest in me. They like to briefly practice their English and learn a few things about the kinds of people who visit India. Questions about my marriage status, schooling, and job back home are not taboo. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask after how much I made at my job, how much I paid for my motorbike, and other things that one would approach gingerly in the West.

But now I am in another tourist stalwart in Rishikesh. This is where the Beatles came and got high and wrote the White Album. It’s on the banks of the Ganges in the lower foothills of the Himalaya, so the river is reasonably clean (for India). I’m looking into some eight dollar white water rafting trips and I’ll probably spend a day just lying on some riverside beaches and swimming in the holy river. Any blessings will be purely accidental.

Mahayana and Meditations.

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Expanding on Buddhism could be dangerous, as I know I’d be tempted to write eleven or twenty one posts on the topic without break. Eleven and twenty one are two auspicious numbers, by the way, so mantra recitals or clockwise circulations of a stupa (a conical structure representative of the Buddha’s mind) are often done three, seven, eleven, twenty-one or 108 times. I should mention that my lessons have been exclusively in Mahayana Buddhism, specifically Tibetan, though the same tradition is prominent in Northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There are many forms. Theravadan Buddhism for example is the familiar Thai tradition which is also dominant in Burma, Laos, and Sri Lanka.

It’s difficult to call it a religion, because it lacks classic western features such as a creator god. Even when Buddhists prostrate themselves before an image or statue of a Buddha they are bowing to the qualities of an enlightened being: universal compassion, unending generosity, omniscience, etc. Buddhas, or “awakened ones,” come in countless forms. THE BUDDHA, as he is known, is the familiar Siddhartha – the pampered Nepali prince who fled for a life of asceticism and eventually attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree in 600 B.C. There were countless enlightened beings before him, it’s just that he was the first to use his awakening from slavery to teach others the path to freedom.

Ahh, freedom. You must understand that we are all in samsara, the prison of worldly pleasures and sufferings. As I mentioned in the previous post, Buddhism contends that the world is actually made up solely of emptiness, and that the things we experience are simply objects that exist only in relativity to us and our senses. I cannot describe the taste of a mango, nor can I know that when you eat one you are tasting what I taste. We all see green, and can name it green, but how do we know that what you see is the same as what I see? I actually covered topics very similar to this in some of my philosophy courses back at university. In terms of understanding reality, all we have to work with are “sense data” which may or may not be indicative of the outside world. We need to use them to survive, sure, but never assume that you have any clue what’s actually going on around you.

Samsara, then, is this mysterious world of sensual experiences. Even when we think we feel pleasure – through food or sex or entertainment, whatever – all we are doing is creating cravings for future pleasures. We’re never satisfied. We get bored with our sexual partners or need to keep buying more video games. Even our favourite foods would make us sick if we had to eat them all the time. In pleasure there is suffering. We are also prone to damaging emotional reactions to our daily lives, getting angry or violent or depressed. This is samsara, and it took an enlightened being to fully appreciate it and tell it to the world.

It’s like in The Matrix: we are all in a prison in our minds, and only those already free from the prison know the route out of it. The Path, as the route is known, has many stages of realization. One can come to truly understand and appreciate equanimity, the view that all beings (right down to the mosquito) is equally deserving of compassion and love. But eventually one reaches nirvana, or liberation. In some traditions, this is the end of the road – you are free from samsara and no longer trapped in the endless cycles of uncontrolled reincarnations. You could, if you wanted, never reincarnate again and your consciousness (the soul-like continuum that carries on from life to life) would dwell in blissful peace forever. But, of course, you’ve developed boundless compassion and wisdom and so will choose the form and place of your rebirth in order to help others achieve nirvana.

In many traditions of Buddhism, the buck stops at liberation. In Mahayana, however, there is another stage of full realization above nirvana. This full enlightenment adds to freedom a state of omniscience, or all-knowingness. A full fledged Buddha is aware of all things in the universe, even what is happening in other universes (Buddhism is tight with quantum, believing in multiple dimensions and such. There are several books on the eerie parallels between a 2600 year old spiritual practice and the absolutely newest ideas in metaphysics). A Buddha could deliver a teaching to people from all over the world and they would hear it in their own language. A Buddha knows your mind, so even before you ask your question he (sorry, no female Buddhas yet) has his answer ready. Still, not a creator god. Even though a  Buddha is ostensibly aware of how this universe began, there is not really much covering the topic. When one is trying to escape from prison, one isn’t too interested in the name of the architect who designed the place.

Indeed, living in the moment is key. We are obsessed with the past and future. Have you ever stopped and considered how much time you spend running over memories like watching old films? I sometimes find myself thinking about embarrassing moments from ten years ago, seeing again the reactions of people and feeling anew the guilt or remorse. Why do we do this to ourselves? Or we’re always in the future: I’m nervous about this or stressed about that, even though it’s days or weeks or months away. If your mind dwells on the past and future even half as much as mine does, you know what I’m talking about.

And so we meditate. Meditation isn’t necessarily the mystical mantra-reciting, past-life-viewing Eastern tradition it can seem. Usually it’s just about mindfulness, about staying in the moment and learning to calm and control our hyperactive minds. As Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (the English nun who spent 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalaya) puts it: “We spend so much time cleaning and arranging our homes, but we really live in our minds. When was the last time you went into your mind and threw out all the junk in there?” Think about all the experiences – every conversation, every TV show, every book, every stubbed toe – that are piling up in your mind. Have you ever tried to just close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath entering and exiting your nostrils? Try it right now. Close your eyes and just focus on the breath. How long does it take for some random thought to pop up and lead your mind down the garden path? Two seconds? One?

Meditation helps control this “monkey mind” from hopping from thought to thought. It allows us to calm our emotional reactions and relax when the world is stressing us. In fact many of you have been meditating without even knowing it. I’ve now realized that the reason I enjoy working out in the gym so much is not necessarily what it does for my body but what it does for my mind. Timing my breathing with the contractions and relaxations of my muscles. Counting the repetitions slowly, with each lift of the weights. My mind is focused entirely on the moment, on what I am doing right now. After the gym I feel mentally relaxed yet energized, prepared for my day. I always assumed that by burning energy I was calming myself, but now I understand that really I was meditating; I was shutting off the endless internal monologue, living in the here and now.

Perhaps for you it’s running, counting breaths. Or maybe gardening, pruning and weeding require concentration. Perhaps it’s driving. While sitting in rush hour traffic isn’t relaxing, driving a winding road demands focus on the moment, calming the mind. It could be anything, provided it forces you to stay mindful of what you are doing. Cleaning, painting, knitting, whatever.

At any rate, that’s all for now. Perhaps more later on more types of meditation, and I’ll try to go deeper into some of the philosophical issues. For now, though, know that some of our meditation sessions left me in tears. One involved drawing the suffering out of someone close to us and using it to shatter our selfish tendencies. It was powerful, moving stuff. Your eyes rolling yet?

Compassion, Slavery and Silence (sort of).

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

As per usual, I’m late to the latest fashion. Buddhism, as a Western fad, has already passed through its honeymoon period. While intriguing to the liberally minded types who find themselves bumming around India for month after month, mentioning a meditation retreat back home could just as easily be met with eyes rolled as eyes widened. But, as you may have noticed, I’m in India.

So I registered myself for this ten day residential course. We learned a lot about Buddhist philosophy in lectures from a nun, and also had three guided meditation sessions daily. Both the lectures and the meditations were in a gompa, or Tibetan Buddhist temple, sitting on the floor on cushions. A massive, golden Buddha statue loomed over us at all times. Ostensibly, absolute silence was required for the entire time, except for the daily hour-long discussion groups and question periods during lectures. Three meals a day were served, in silence, and we were all assigned certain chores around the grounds of the monastery cum school. Some did dishes, others cleaned toilets or showers, I had to sweep the dining hall and wipe down tables after the evening meal. The chores were affectionately referred to as Karma Yoga.

It was a tough experience, but an awakening one. The silence, even for me, was not nearly as difficult as I had assumed. It was nice living within myself for such a long period of time. Although, as you might imagine, I managed to silently communicate with people when the urge struck. The meditations were difficult, however, for both physical and mental reasons. I’m not the most flexible cat in the alley, so sitting for even 30 minutes in a half lotus position was trying on my leg muscles and joints. My back still aches. Additionally, my high energy demeanour extends to my brain, which was endlessly leaping from thought to though like a lemur, rather than simply focusing on my breath.

The philosophical lectures were eye-opening, especially for me. We learned about the classically Buddhist topics of non-harm, reincarnation and karma. Compassion is a biggie, specifically pertaining to the concept of equanimity. In essence, the argument is that all sentient beings (from worms and grasshoppers to dolphins and humans) are equal in wanting to be happy and avoid suffering, even if they lack an internal monologue on the topic. We should treat all beings with the same respect we’d treat our own mothers – especially considering that we’ve all lived countless previous lives in countless previous forms (you were very likely something badass like a T-Rex or wooly mammoth), so even that annoying little mosquito was actually your mother at some point in history. Cool, yeah?

But the most intense and practical topic was HOW TO CONTROL YOUR MIND. You see, we are slaves to our mind. Didn’t you know? Your mind probably forgot to send you the memo. I’ll explain briefly here, but I’ll also try to write a more fleshed out post later.

Basically, everything exists within our mind. There is no reality outside of the experience of our senses as interpreted by our minds, so we have no idea what “reality” is really like. A dog can hear a dog whistle but we can’t; it’s outside the range of our ears. What else is happening that we’re not aware of? Makes sense, right? As far as we’re concerned, the world is a figment of our imagination. It follows, then, that emotions like anger, sadness, and joy are all created and exist solely within the mind. If all of our positive/negative emotional reactions to external events and people are just in our heads, why can’t we control them? Oh, right. We’re slaves.

Consider this: if you were in control of your mind, you could just wake up every morning and decide how you were going to feel that day. “Today I’m going to be happy and generous and generally relaxed with the people I encounter, even people who give me a hard time!” So why can’t we do this? Because we aren’t in control. We get impatient and snappy and frustrated and depressed and fed up and tired and so on. Buddhism, in a very real sense, is about understanding how your mind works. Once you can understand the mind, you can begin to control it. You can allow negative emotions to pass, and you can stop positive emotions from creating addictive cravings – the junkie mind that results in lustful drooling, constant seeking of new experiences, vast chasms of boredom and disillusionment, and a propensity to lean on drugs and alcohol to alter perspectives. Yes, I am guilty of all of the above.

So, while the course was simply scratching the surface, it was a healthy introduction to observing and analyzing the behaviour of my own mind. It’s like I’m an anthropologist sitting in the jungle watching the monkeys interact, only I’m watching emotions arise as my mind reacts to the events and people I’m confronted with all day. It’s fucking fascinating. Why did I feel the need to use “fucking” there? I don’t know, okay? I’m just getting started with this shit.

At any rate, I had a wonderful time. I met some incredible people. The school was up on a mountain top removed from the town below, so the normal sounds of dogs and  truck horns that permeate India were faint or nonexistent. We were basically inside the clouds all afternoon and evening, so you could watch the mist come floating up through the trees. It would even slip silently into the dining hall and obscure everyone’s view of whatever vegetarian meal was on offer. There was definitely an energy about the place, especially on those misty evenings.

For those who are interested, the course was the 10-day residential Introduction to Buddhism at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamkot, which is north of Mcleod Ganj, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. That’s a lot of capitalized words.

More soon on the meditation and philosophy. Love you like you were my mother (mom, I still love you more).