“What happens when a hesitant Buddhist of little faith and great doubt joins an eminent guru and a group of devotees on a pilgrimage to the holiest sites in Buddhism?”
Such was the first line of a pitch letter I wrote to an American Buddhist magazine about a month before leaving for India and Nepal. I got a cautiously encouraging reply – “Send it along,” an editor said, “but I should tell you that we don’t usually publish unsolicited personal accounts.”
That was two years ago. I never did send anything along, because I could never finish any of the now several versions that are scattered about my desk and hard drive in various stages of assembly and disrepair. There was no shortage of things to say about the pilgrimage, but I could never find a satisfying ending to any of the tracks I started down.
Reason being, I had no idea what happened over there in northern India. I still don’t.
In fact, I’m not sure anything happened at all.
Which I thought for a while could be a story in and of itself, though I didn’t know for whom. Probably not the magazine I’d originally queried, for while many of their stories describe staggering, radical shifts in perspective, they still want things to land back on a certain affirmation that “Buddhism” – an established lineage is best, but even some New Age/”spiritual” derivative thereof will work – is the ultimate destination of existential wanderings and crises of faith.
I didn’t spell it out in the original pitch letter (I knew better than to sound too earnest-gee-willikers), but it was just this kind of internal alignment that I was hoping for. Multiple moments of transcendence culminating in a fundamental shift in consciousness that answered my questions, resolved my doubts and banished my hesitancy.
I know, I know – expectations schmeckschmeckschmations. But I felt too green and too unsure to approach the pilgrimage as an “aimless” devotional exercise, as pure homage.
I went hoping to bolster my faith, and that didn’t happen.
Instead, it was simply a great trip. A fascinating trip. A beautiful, educational, laughter-filled trip.
The endless Gangetic Plain, with its patchwork of agriculture fields and hardwood forests and fruit trees, was as moving a sight as I saw. Houses built to Stone Age specs with a pit latrine out back, no running water and buffalo patties drying on their sides sported satellite dishes and wi-fi antennae. I watched funeral pyres consume corpse after corpse one night down the ghats in Varanasi, and then, five hours later, rowed past men going for their morning swim as I headed out to see the sunrise from the river. I rode along a precariously-cliffed and pencil-thin highway into the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains (in what was apparently a gravity-defying omnibus). I sat in caves where men have lived, been enlightened (and not), and died meditating for five millennia. I could fill a week’s worth of blog posts raving about the food I ate – the momos, the thukpa, the curries, the samosas, the fruit, the fruit, the fruit.
But as for the holy sites themselves, I was underwhelmed. And not just by the juxtaposition of the largest assemblage of the most pathetic, pitiful examples of malnutrition, poverty and sickness you have ever seen with silk-robed monks and camera-wielding tourists, myself included, seeking Serenity and Inner Peace at a cost that could radically transform the lives of a good portion of the former. (That, like the food, is another few posts altogether.) And I don’t mean the ordinariness of the ruins, either – I can find ghosts in a parking lot, and these sites, with their overgrown decay and exotic surroundings, are certainly conducive to summoning specters. Don’t get me wrong – it was nice enough to be in Deer Park where Siddhartha first “turned the wheel of the Dharma,” to see a descendant of the Bodhi tree under which he realized all that Dharma, to take in the views from Vulture Peak where he talked about the emptiness of all that Dharma. But I did not feel anything approaching the kind of inspiration I was hoping for – and that some on our trip were quite obviously and vocally experiencing.
Above all, it was my traveling companions that interested me the most. The Estonian developers who recalled Soviet food shortages and the long lines for bread, the Peruvian’s last ditch effort to find love before getting her to a nunnery, the surveilled Chinese who slipped his “documentarian” minders for a night on the town in Western gear (pearl snaps and cowboy boots, no shit), the Salinger-worthy German…triad?…family?, the Russian merchant marine, the Swedish ex-con. I was equally fascinated by the life stories of our Tibetan monk guides – the humble meditation master, the vainglorious steward, the reluctant tulku, the gregarious, obsequious, aloof, worldly, kind, naive, austere and elfin others. What brought them to Buddhism was interesting (what it did for them less so – and, surprisingly at first, we rarely talked about it), but more than anything I wanted to know about their lives, about their routines and their foibles and their loved ones and what they were reading and where they liked to go in the fall, on winter mornings, on the first day of spring.
This should have been a clue, right, that I’m still more interested in people than in imagined states of mind. But it didn’t sink in right away.
The thing is, I’m a Western, post-Christian secular humanist (that’s less a label than a string of adjectives), and while some of the time I want to give into the magical thinking that dominates our cultural ethos – because hey, who doesn’t love a good fairy tale, and it’s the easy way out of a lot of tricky situations – I’m consciously against the kind of fantasticality that has precipitated both the endless cycles of fad New Age spirituality and 2,000+ years of self-serving interpretations of our mythical Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage.
And the problem is, Buddhism is built on the same thing. Exceedingly ritualistic Tibetan Buddhism especially, but every lineage to some extent relies on a dogmatic origin story replete with mystical and magical beings, goings-on, reincarnations and transmissions. (Don’t let’s get started on karma this week…)
When it’s first explained to you – really, until you go looking into it for yourself – it’s easy to believe the American dismissal that Buddhism is “more a philosophy than a religion.” I thought so for many years, and I thought it was a philosophy with benefits – the kind I was getting from/supporting with the metaphysics and pseudo-philosophy of Tim Leary and Terence McKenna.
That is, I was looking for a trip.
I was seeking out a mystical experience without, as a teenager, the perspective to know that a) it was along the same spectrum of what I found so objectionable in the J-C-M model, and b) mysticism is not an end in and of itself.
I chased that Truth-Through-Altered-States model for about a decade, until there was only alteration, and decidedly little insight. In the wake of all that, I’ve redoubled my commitment to a kind of applied humanism. Rediscovered it, would perhaps be a better way to say it, for it’s the one idea that makes sense to me, that, to borrow a phrase, arises spontaneously both during meditation and throughout the day.
My ability to relate to other people is the sole metric by which I measure the state of my soul.
It’s easy to get seduced by magical thinking, and it happens to me all the time. I mean, it spurred a trip halfway across the globe. I wouldn’t trade having taken that trip for any exotic luxurious tropical vacation in the world (though I might trade a second trip to northern India for any of those), but nonetheless, that’s a big spur. But when push comes to shove, I don’t have the stomach for it. No matter how I try, or what I try, when it comes to the ritual and the theogony and the cosmology of dogmatic Buddhist lineages, and the process of advancing along their (Middle, yes, but also strict and narrow) Path, I can never seem to shake the wariness, to suspend that last ounce of disbelief necessary to really believe in, say, the Pure Land. Some say I’m simply unwilling to give up my “intellectualism,” that my “skeptical pride” stands between me and truth/true freedom, that my refusal to accept magical interpretations of the universe is simply another regrettable, nefarious manifestation of ego.
Perhaps it is, I don’t know. And I never will – and “there,” as sayeth the Dane, “is the rub.”
However, I do know that I no longer believe in the intrinsic value of mystical experiences. I know people have them, and I think they can be useful, but they’re simply phenomena and it’s what we do in their wake that imbues them with meaning.
In the same way, I don’t eschew ritual, or even prayer. I think they’re important aspects of any discipline. I just have a different idea of how they function than the standard “religious” line. That I try to look at Buddhism – the practice of a set of meditative techniques and the application of a certain philosophy of life and mind described by a man called Siddhartha – through a distinctly humanistic lens strikes many people as an arrogant and convenient adaptation of something far wiser and greater than I, that really I have no business monkeying with. And hey, maybe – but that’s the privilege and prerogative of the convert, now isn’t it?
What I get out of meditating and lopping off the various Hydra heads of my ego is an increased ability to communicate, to interact, to participate in The Web of Life. That’s part of the reason I can’t go in for a seven-hour meditation session of tantric commingling with a wrathful yidam. I mean, if that’s important to you, go ahead. But what happens when I do it, is I disappear into myself. It’s wholly narcissistic. My teachers would say I’m doing it wrong, or more likely that I still have too much karmic baggage and am yet mired in too much confusion to engage in such involved practices. Whatever the explanation, I get wrapped up in how cool it is that I’m able to transport myself to some other mind-dimension, and I lose sight of the goal, the reason, the purpose of the practice.
Which is training this deluded mind and opening up this hard hard heart. Or UN-training the mind, if you believe that the essence of mind is pure and that it is the experiences we blindly carry out before living intentionally and in a state of awareness that do the initial, decades-long, lifelong training, which is in confusion.
And to do that, I need to make sorties into the enemy territory of my ego. Quick, precision strikes that get me back into the real world before my ego catches on to what I’m up to and sends in the quicksand. Twenty minutes a day on the cushion is just right these days – give me too much more than half an hour inside my own mind, and I’ll start redecorating the place. With DayGlo paint.
Amongst the living and the real, I can see whether or not what I’m doing has any effect on or in reality. Because ultimately, that’s my aim – to affect reality. To contribute positively to the lived experience of others. Some days – most days – that may mean not affecting things very much at all. Which laissez-faire-itude, if you’re an egomaniac like I am, can require serious amounts of self-control. The honing of which in turn demands a disciplined practice. Which brings us back to sitting. Purposefully. And living intentionally.
Neither of which necessitates magic.
A lot of the conviction that’s on display here comes, I wouldn’t say directly out of the pilgrimage I made two years ago, but certainly by way of it. Which is the ironic thing about it, right? I went to the holiest sites in the Buddhist religion under the assumption that doing so would strengthen my faith, deepen my appreciation for a certain ontology and clear away some of the obstacles I was facing to a better understanding of myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It turns out that’s exactly what happened, just not at all in the way I wanted or expected. Which goes to show that what I think I want, or what I want at a certain point, isn’t always what I need.
Which makes it sound like the answer to that question way back there at the top is a line from a Stones song.
Which I’m perfectly okay with.