Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gurus in India

Another trip to India - and what a trip it was! Why India? The land of dirt and chaos, the Delhi belly, relentless touting, noise, pollution, and whatever else you may have heard or seen?

Because in India, nothing is as it seems.

On the surface, it looks one way, but look again, even a split second later, and the scene has changed. Look deeper, and you begin to see beneath the fa├žade, to what India really is. India cannot be put into words, but it is the unspeakable which we are after. Those experiences that are indescribable, so deep, or so transcendent, that no words can do them justice. Just to begin to describe them takes away their luster. These experiences are what you find when you meditate, climb a mountain, do a fast, be with a guru, or, when you go to India.

Travel in India requires patience, fortitude, a sense of adventure and street smarts. I have been there numerous times, and I will catch my self daydreaming that I have it figured out(as if we ever could figure it all out) It is then that India throws you the best curveballs. Its not just having a train cancelled, or the bank teller close his window (after you stood in line for 2 hours) for his 11 am chai break. We are talking about the real India, the spiritual fabric underneath all the chaos - the lotus flower in the mud. When you look deeper and tap into this layer of India, you really start to have some wild experiences. You ask yourself: did I just see that 5 year old holding a cobra. Did the boy sweeping the train compartment just stop, look deep into your eyes, and tell you: "your life is a mistake." Did that quote painted above the bus driver's compartment,"To live is to serve, to serve is to live", just answer all your questions? Where do find these hidden gurus and messages? All over, and where you least expect it - that is India. When you order a chai, pay attention, when you give a beggar 50 rupees, pay attention, when you strike up an unassuming conversation with a shop owner, pay attention, when you ride a bus, pay attention. Pay attention to the flower girls, the street cleaners, the jeep drivers, the sadhus, the scholars, and the bakers. Pay attention to the pan wallahs, and the rickshaw wallahs. You can sense where this energy is, and catch a glimpse of it too. It is everywhere and nowhere.
Maybe we need a concrete example. Take the Ganges river in Varanasi for example. On one hand, science has written it off as the most polluted septic river on Earth, complete with low oxygen counts and dying fish. And it is true that raw sewage spills into it every day. On the other hand, millions swim and bathe and renew their spirit in those waters everyday. They worship it, they sing about it, they bury their loved ones in its waters. They even drink it. And there are fish in it, and birds and frogs, and all sorts of life thriving. And when you stand there on the ghats, and look into that gray green water, you realize that its just water like anywhere else, and you wash and swim in it like anywhere else, and it makes you feel good on a hot summer day. And then you may even read that some other scientists have tested the waters, and that the Ganges processes biological waste 30 times faster than other rivers, and that its not septic, but carries a good amount of oxygen. The waters of the Ganges have indeed been touted as magical, they can cleanse a lifetimes of karma, and even release you from this samsara.

So which do you believe? What do you believe? India is full of these paradoxes and India is like a guru, she will tell you anything and everything you need to hear, if that is, you are ready to hear it or believe it. The more time you spend in the world, you begin to see how everything is in the eye of the beholder. You can choose what to believe, there are so many options. And yet, as we see in quantum physics, its not at all random, its all connected. An electron a million miles from its partner, "knows" which way to spin to conserve the laws of energy - how does it know? How does the taxi driver "know" what you most needed to hear about your life right at that perfect moment that you could hear it, and take it to heart? That is the mystique of India - the guru pops up everywhere, when you least expect it, and when you surrender. If you go searching up in the caves, out in the mountains, or deep in the temples, there is no telling what you may find. It doesn't seem to work that way. When we are in control, we are not in control. When we give up control, we gain the ultimate.

So, listen to the universe, it will tell you. You never need to beg and you never have to fear that you are lost, because the answers are all around us all the time. If you need some reassurance, make a pilgrimage to India.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Crossing The Border Into Freedom

I was tossing in bed, trying to find sleep before my trip. Thoughts racing, did I forget anything? Where was my passport? Did I have enough cash? As soon as the boarding door closes, or you step through the immigration line, the unknown replaces the comfortable world of home, and typically that can be an unnerving process. Humans are creatures of habit, and we designed our society to enforce that. We strive to make a home, get a job, have a life, and EARN a living. We like the routine, we are addicted to it, and somehow, it allows us to forget our SELVES. Sometimes we live in the same town for our entire lifetime, sometimes even the same house with the same job. Sometimes we move around, resettle, but we tend to try to define ourselves through our external life.

Enter travel. When you pack a bag, jump on a plane, and “leave” your life, you are traveling. It is the great unknown, whether you are in Calcutta or Des Moines. You may be sitting in a hotel room, watching CNN, or trying to buy samosas, but your stuff and your life are conspicuously absent. When you have obtained food and shelter, your basic needs, you find yourself laying there with yourself – just yourself. All your external baggage has disappeared to some degree, depending on how you pack. You can’t get lost right away in the basement, or in the yard, or in the kitchen, or at work. For a little while you are forced to be with yourself, and for a lot of us that is a scary unknown.

Crossing physical borders provides us with a window into ourselves, maybe brief, maybe longer, but infinitely valuable. Our work on earth is not about creating a life, or earning a living, we already have that taken care of simply by being here. More our work is to uncover our true self, and to live here accordingly. Our houses do not make us humble, our work does not make us compassionate, our cars do not make us lovers, our lives do not define us - we define our lives.

Travel forces us across mental borders, freeing us from the daily grind. If you are nervous before a trip, it is a good sign that you are in need of a trip. A vacation from your life, your routine, and a foray into the lesser explored region of self. Those dark places, where the real work lies waiting for us when we are ready. When we explore here, we change our whole being, and begin to address our karma. This is the work we are here for. This is how we remember compassion, truth, love, and honor. Do we want to live for this? Or for something else?

When I look out over the mountains, and take a deep breath of fresh air, and actually feel the earth under my feet, and feel the air enter my lungs, I am more aware of my life than when I am “busy”. Every so often we need this vacation, to get a new perspective on how we are doing and being. Travel allows us this chance to lift the veil of ego and remove the distraction of stuff so that we can catch a glimpse of who we really are.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ancient Buddhas

This is a cool visual metaphor that can be experienced in the meditation caves in the ruins at Guge, Tibet. The erosion in the mountains inspires the 1000 buddhas in the monestary art.

See my post here for more details on that trip.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunset on Shangri-la

With all the hype around China these days, I wanted to write a bit about Tibet. Eastern Tibet is a jewel on this planet, and due to government restrictions, remote location, and no real transport options, it remains a gem, fortunately and unfortunately, tucked away from most. Western Tibet is raw power and open space, a place that humbles you immediately. The east is the true Shangri-la, white energy, peace, and a heaven on earth. It is mountains and rivers, hidden forests and glades, yellow aspens, blue rivers, serene lakes, and undisturbed monasteries. The sun is warm, and the wildflowers sway in the delicious breeze. It is quiet, unraveled, and unknown. There is more untouched wilderness there than almost anywhere on the planet, with gorges so deep and inaccessible, no one even knows where they are or what lives there.

We scored a land rover from Lhasa that a travel company had to return to China proper at the end of the season. We spent a week getting back to the border, stopping along the way at some sites, some random villages, and it was like a dream. There are many country villages, farmers, herders, and nomads, living in the old way, and the whole place exudes serenity. Of course you have to get there, from Lhasa, you have to cross a big mountain range and some heavy plateau, but then you drop into the valleys, and through the time warp. The air is filled with juniper smoke, the thukpa is savory, and most locals are
smiling. The hamlets are set in jaw dropping scenery, with some of the most beautiful light I have ever seen. The air is quiet and remote, just standing outside and breathing makes you slow way down and tune in. If you want true adventure, there is endless exploring to do if you can swing it, but there is very little network or support. You could walk into those forests for months on end.

Along the highway, Chinese influence is spreading, but the valleys are deep and vast. Until you cross the Mekong and pass 6700m Meili mountain, you are in a forgotten world. Slowly, as the pavement improves, you are pulled out of the daydream and slapped back into reality. The border of modern China advances daily with the road, and military and construction vehicles plow the way. It is like a giant mechanized steamroller, overlaying the bucolic country with asphalt and steel. Entire towns are plowed under, and retrofitted with the “modern” look. To see the Tibetans, true nomads in woolens and beads, faces weathered by altitude, sun, and wide open space, standing lost in front of a mini-mart is a cruel juxtaposition that is hard to get your mind around.

Change is inevitable in the world, that is how life goes, but when it is un-natural and ahead of schedule, we lose things that we don’t understand. Evolution and growth are natural processes, with steps to be taken along the way, and we see what happens when we skip steps and rush ahead. Whenever we cheat to get to the finish line faster, we always have to go back, because, after all, finishing is not the ultimate goal. We are where we are, and if we don’t fully understand why we need something “better”, maybe we should slow down, and put one foot in front of the other. To walk and progress and actually feel each step, feel the ground under you, and be fully aware, that is the process. Tibet is a land steeped in the mystery and as it changes in the name of modernization, we obscure a major path in our spiritual evolution. Yet, mystery can only ever be
obscured and hidden, never lost or destroyed - that is what you understand when you look, listen and feel the depth in the nomad’s eyes.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Indian Vibrations

I have traveled all over the world but I keep going back to India, aka the sub-continent, or the Motherland. I have a ten-year visa, I love mango lassi, and between Ladakh and Kanyakumari, you can find anything that you are looking for. Despite all this, I never have a good answer for the one thing everyone always wants to know when I get back: “Why India?” What makes it so special? I have tried hard to answer that question for the ten years since my first visit. All of the obvious reasons easily come to mind, and that’s why they are obvious – the colors, smells, and sounds – India provides an unlimited tapestry for the senses. The hues of rajasthani saris, the cacophony of the streets in Delhi or Mumbai, the tingling complexity of a Trichur thali, the stupendous views from a Himalayan monastery, the endless markets, food vendors, and people from all walks of life, you can see it all in India. Fresh fried pakora and samosa, a steaming cup of sweet chai... But those are the obvious reasons, and everyplace has its fans, and its own unique food, culture, and people. I had to look deeper.

India is rich with culture, religion and wisdom. From the early Indus civilizations the history is full with babas, moguls, spice wars, and spirituality of all kinds. This rich tradition is interwoven into the fabric of the country maybe more than anywhere else. It is daily life. Whether at a mosque or temple, on the plane or rickshaw, people have a ritual, a practice. It may be a flower puja floating in the river, or incense wafting from a window. It may be the hours put into making the dhal. You will see it in the eyes of a street cleaner, bus driver, or beggar. India’s culture exudes from every aspect of its daily life, and this makes for a wonderful experience.

As my brain worked this riddle over and over, I realized that maybe I kept going back because I was searching for something too. India has a long tradition of people looking for answers, looking for gurus, reading the stars, and wondering where the wisdom of the Vedas came from. Yes, I had been many times - sitting in the cool silence of the monastery at Tabo, filing through the inner passages past Tirupathi’s devas, dipping in the Ganges at Varanasi’s ghats, and I was seeking my own answers.

What is the incredible draw of India? There is sitar music and tabla rhythm, prayer call and chanting, and temples, mosques and monasteries everywhere you look. Even the rivers are sacred, full of holy water that carries way your sins, and transports you to the other worlds. Not many places can claim that. So I sat by the river, it may have been the Sutlej, or the Indus, or the Ganga. I searched up on the flanks of Kinnaur and in the halls of Ki Gompa. I looked for it in the auto rickshaw and the night train. Was it in the chai wallah’s eyes, or in the myriad of childern’s smiles – yes, it was in all of those places. What I was looking for was always there, and I only “found” it when I stopped looking.

India is a place where 99 percent of the population believes in God, in something sacred, in some power bigger than ourselves that guides us on, and of which we are all a part. Everything is done with spirit in mind, from baking roti to driving a bus. You feel the energy in a child’s smile, a head nod, and the twinkle of an eye. Even at first if you don’t notice, a second look shows its there. Doing your task totally unselfishly, and devoting it to the universe results in some delicious bread, and gets most of the buses through the mountain passes unscathed. Doing your work from joy and with joy, because there is no other reason. It is karma yoga, it is devotional service, and no matter how it is labeled by religion, it transcends denomination. The veil between is very thin in India, and things are not so hidden. You can feel that energy everywhere if you take pause. It is that energy, that feeling, that connection that draws me back.

Monday, May 5, 2008

It's All Over But The Krayan


The jungle pulsates to the sound of millions of five-inch long cicadas, satiny black, with fire orange wing stripes. The air is moist and pleasantly fresh, 16,000 square kilometers of breathing trees, some of the newest oxygen on the planet. Everything is green - the ground, the sky, the canopy, so much biomass. Once your ears are attuned to the frequency of the jungle, the intervening silence is unbelievable. We are standing maybe 50 kilometers from the Malaysian-Indonesian border, a place known as the “heart” of Borneo.

Maybe 200 kilometers as the MAF prop plane flies from Tarakan, it might as well be 2000 kilometers. We landed on a grass football field carved out of “virgin” rainforest after about an hour flight over a carpet of trees, undulating like oversized broccoli. The silence was deafening. Welcome to Long Layu, administrative headquarters of the Krayan. Since the mid 70’s, Krayan Dayaks have moved villages out of the jungle and built around these missionary airstrips, their only viable connection to the outside world. Long Layu is home to maybe one thousand Dayak, living in stilt houses around their rice fields, the Sunghai Kuyur and the airstrip. The people are self-sufficient, they have to be. They grow excellent organic rice in reds, blacks and whites. They fish and hunt from the surrounding jungles, and they grow fruits and vegetables like cassava and banana. The life is simple and very much in tune with the surrounding nature. The villages function as a unit, and we get a glimpse into how humans can live together in harmony.

As I sit on the front porch of my home stay, I marvel at the passage of time here. Schedules are set on the activities of the day and with the light of the sun. There is mealtime and work time. There is rainy season and dry season. There are fruit and honey seasons. You commute on the river or through walking to the jungle or fields. Days and weeks flow by. No one needs a timepiece. It’s the kind of tranquility that seeps into your soul.

The cicadas are interrupted occasionally by the hum of the plane. Everyone can hear it coming from minutes away, and most of the village turns out to watch the bouncy landing. Boxes of sugar and coffee, noodles and rice are offloaded, and other goods and people get on. The plane is out of sight and sound in ten minutes more, and once again the aura of the jungle settles over the village. You can hear your heartbeat, and then the insects rev up again, and you try to adjust your own frequency.

Beyond the borders of the village lie acres of jungle, laced with hunting and commuter trails to neighboring villages. We hiked south from Long Layu, in a loop to Long Rungan, and Binawang, staying in the villages overnight. The locals were great hosts, and with the help of our guide Phillip from Long Layu, we entertained conversations on world politics, philosophy, and just the common plight of humans in general. The cool evenings would begin with a bowl of rice and jungle fern, or palm heart, and maybe some cassava leaves. Then we would drink coffee and eat cassava or rice krupuk and get deep into conversation. Before bed, I would gaze at the canopy of stars, so brilliant in this light free zone of the world.

The most lush and energetic jungle surrounded the Batu Sichen, Honey Rock. This is a forty-meter high limestone outcrop, where the locals gather honey in season. The beauty and energy of this place cannot be put into words, but if you want to know if the Earth is alive, you can know it here.

We went in search of the last remaining vast tracts of rainforest in Indonesia and found it alive and pulsating in the hinterlands of the Krayan Hulu. If you want to see virgin rainforest with massive trees, go here. If you want to meet people untainted by societies present pollution, go here. If you want to see hornbills as you drift down a jungle river, go here. If you want time to stop, go here. If you want a glimpse into the meaning of life, go here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lose Yourself

Did you ever notice how travelling is an expansive process? How many times have you heard: “A whole world of possibilities, “Find yourself”, even, “Lose yourself”. Travel provides new experiences and new opportunities to do things you normally don’t, see things you normally don’t, eat things you normally don’t, maybe that’s why its called a “foreign” experience. All of this novelty leads to an evolving, expansive, creative, space; and all of that room feels very big and lets you grow, relax, find yourself, and lose yourself. This is the cycle; new to old and old to new that is mirrored in all things.

Consider this – I recently returned from a sojourn to East Kalimantan. I didn’t know why I was going except to try and visit some of the last “virgin” Rainforest left in Indonesia. Naturally I had a little planning to do since this was not an area I could just walk out of the airport and jump a taxi to arrive. This is the part of travel where the expansion begins. I had this kernel of an idea, a thought for a trip, and suddenly I am on the playing field of the imagination, because it is all new to me. The opportunities become endless once you begin to look. This can be overwhelming and stressful because you realize you can’t control all of the variables no matter how much you invest. You might miss the MAF missionary fight into the jungle because they only fly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There might not even be a flight because they are out of fuel, or the plane may be grounded due to towering rainy season thunderheads. And these are just the things that cross your mind. What about all the other options that you don’t even think of because you are not even aware of them as possibilities. That is travel expanding. The relaxing part comes when you realize that you have no control, and you just start to go with the flow. That is also travel expanding, and the completion of the cycle, new to old to new again that your body and mind spin through on your trip. It feels like we already took a ten-hour bus ride and we haven’t even left the station. So, let’s GO!

I walk off the plane or boat, and it’s a totally “new” world, even if I have seen the video already. New sights, smells, sounds, and languages - just the pure physical reality id different than anything I have ever seen. Yes, cities are cities, and jungles are jungles, but only on the surface. Dive in, and the world expands exponentially. You can take a taxi, or and angkot, or walk. You can stay in a 5-star or a loseman. You can eat from a street cart or a warung. And you can go anywhere from there. By boat, plane, walk, bike, hike, to jungle, ocean, gunung, city, sunghai. And the people are all new - Dayak, Tarakanian, Paupauin, Indonesian, ex-pat Bule, every single one of them a new face in the sea of six billion plus that I never even dreamed of before. Travel obeys fractal laws where you enter an endless maze that only gets deeper and wider the more you explore. But on the surface, a Hyatt is a Hyatt, and a warung is a warung, and a becak driver is a becak driver. Its funny like that – it is all the same, but it’s all different, and that cycle just keeps spinning. Travel is an experience in this paradox, to be experienced, not figured out. Wet and dry, new and old, big and small, city and jungle, 5 star and stilt house, ferry and ces, the examples are everywhere, and travel transports us back and forth between the ends of the spectrum. Travel reveals its fractal nature right here – from one angle it feels like pure motion and movement, but from another its just running in place. Travel is both movement and stillness, so beautifully wrapped together that the perception changes only as the perspective changes – like viewing a prism or hologram. Step to the left, it looks like Indonesia, step right and it looks like someplace else, and no matter how many times we go back and forth, we always find ourselves, or lose ourselves, somewhere in the center.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Same Same but Different

“Same same, but different.” How many times have you heard it? How many times does it make us laugh? You are standing in the morning fog at the government bus stand in Manali at 4am. Its cold, and you haven’t found chai yet. All you want to know is if there is still a bus, is the pass snowed in? Is this bus going to Leh? “Yes” is the answer you get, maybe even a “no problem” suffixed. What you don’t learn that you need to make four changes, stay overnight at 5000m in a tent, and that there is no food available because the herder’s hut on the pass is already closed for the season. But alas, that was not the information that you asked for with your simple question. The ticket wallah is not clairvoyant, or is he? You do catch strange twinkle in his eye.

Can I rent a jeep in town? “No” is what you hear, but you really can if you get 3 forms signed by three different officials in three different buildings 3 kilometers apart as long as you don’t’ catch one of them on a tea break. Is the pass open? “Not possible”…..but surely only locals would want to use that dangerous snow covered pass. So your frustration grows as you try to decipher the riddle; is the answer “Yes”, or No? You are sure they mean different things, but somehow they seem to be the same.

“Same same, but different.” You see it on t-shirts in Banglamphu, you hear it on the train to Goa, and then you laugh about that silly phrase as you tell your friends of your travels back home. It’s the classic mix of language barrier, culture barrier, and information barrier that is so common to traveling, and it is translated universally as: “same same, but different.” Which curry is not spicy? Which is vegetarian? Is that parantha stuffed with potatoes or onions? You may hear the answer “same, same” to any of these, but surely they are different, unless you cannot even trust your senses anymore.

The more you travel, the more you begin to hear this phrase’s nuances. You may even begin to see that it actually is a koan, a nugget of philosophy so powerful, yet so simple, that it remains well disguised. And, since it is usually attributed to originating in India, what better place to provide a hidden guru.

“Same same, but different.” Are we all the same? Not really the same personality, not the same skin color, not the same job, not the same tastes or desires. But we do all share some commonality as humans, and as souls. Are we really that different? We all want a warm meal, a nice house, and someone to care about us. We are all wandering this world, in a common human plight, fighting our fears, and revealing our happiness. So no matter who you are, you are here, and you are human. That is same same, not so different different.

Does it really matter what you did on vacation, or at work, or in this lifetime – well, of course on one level it does – our actions have cause and effect, and we can hurt and love, and lie and be true. We can go to medical school, or live in a cave, or farm the land, or become a monk. And yes, these are very different lives on a certain level. But if we step back, and look at this through our time compression goggles, it all gets a little fuzzy, at the same time getting clearer. (Those are magic goggles) If we are all really the SAME, which ultimately most traditions agree on, then all theses differences are merely illusions, distracting us from our enlightenment. Karma is going on as we are all going on, like a yoyo, up and down and up and down, like breathing. If we look at it from duality, it all appears different – night and day, right and wrong, good and evil, you and me. If we look from unity, it all becomes the same.

Same same, but different – Different different, but same.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Road To Hana

It is little wonder that the road to Hana is touted as a must “do” trip on the island of Maui. Fifty miles of single lane blacktop wind along the northeast coast, dipping in and out of valleys, skirting waterfalls, blue water vistas, and black sand beaches. The number of tourists, rented mustangs, and first worldness, decrease exponentially as you approach the tiny hamlet of Hana. You are wise to drive slowly on the twisting roads and let the local pick-ups rumble by. This part of Maui gets a lot of rain, and the most of the way the rainforest is dripping. There are plenty of diversions along the way: beaches, hikes, waterfalls, fruit stands, museums, and such. But as usual, the experience is in the journey. As you head east, the modern world fades behind you, and you enter the lost world of aloha, the rural island spirit that is both seductive and mysterious. Near Hana begins a world where people are people, living off the land, looking out for each other, waving hi with a smile, picking sweet liliko'i in the jungle. Its not the world you came from, its different there – and after a few days, if you are lucky enough to spend the time, you will notice the pulse of life slowing down so you can hear its beat. The air is rich with scents, orchids drip off the trees, tasty guava and coconuts abound, and rainbows touch the sea. In season, the whales even come to visit, and play in the azure waters just offshore. Luscious waterfalls pour off the mountains into beautiful jungle pools that trip down to the beaches. Sound like paradise – it’s a place that time forgot, no Wal-Mart, no McDonalds, No Starbucks, no malls, no cell phones – just the quiet spirit of land staring you in the face. Its quite a feeling, and not one that comes lightly, you need to slow down and spend some time here to tune into it. Pass through Hana, and the Hasegawa general store, your one stop shop for everything from spam musubi to plumbing supplies, and keep going past the celebrity mansions, well hidden off the road, and you enter the heart of the place. Open ranches roll to the sea, fresh breezes move the palms gently, and yes, the rainbows keep coming. Swim in the pools of Oheo Gulch, and hike up the river to the beautiful falls, while you hunt for yellow guavas. You can even camp for free at the coastal campground of Haleakala National Park, and watch sunrise over Mauna Kea. If you realize you want to go back to the hustle and bustle of life, pinch yourself a couple of times, and jump in the cool river, then start the journey back to civilization. As you travel back, and your senses are flooded with the over stimulation of our modern world, you will realize that you occupied a different time and space out there, and that it was indeed beautiful