Category Archives: Travel

You can take the boy out of the skepticism…

“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?

Pic:  Theoi Greek Mythologygreat site, btw

Pic: Theoi Greek Mythology
great site, btw

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. 

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Disaster’s Residuals

Five months and a few days ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New York.


My fiancée is from the South Shore of Long Island, out in Suffolk County, and her sister’s house is still unlivable. Mom’s staying at Grandma’s, her sister husband nieces in Mom’s, and Dad is staying in the top floor of the flooded house to work on it while they wait for the contractor to come lift the house and the FEMA money to pay for it.

Yeah, that’s right, lift the house.


Erin’s dad is also staying at the house “just so there’s someone there.” This phrase is repeated and accepted with a nonchalance that is both common and unsettling. Because what it really means is that even though the updates about looters have long since disappeared from the nightly news, there are still plenty of people who are looking for abandoned houses to rob and even inhabit, and Erin’s dad wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to them. 

This strikes me as incredibly “real,” or at least much, how should I say, grittier than I’m used to. I imagine it’s because I was in the protective bubble of Ventura County for the last three years, and in the oddly surreal bubble of South Orange County for a couple before that, that I’ve forgotten how close so many people – and so many people so close to me – live to the edge of things, and how good we are at accommodating those near-edges. You stay in peaceful suburbia too long and you begin to think of “real life” as something that happens to other people – or even worse, only to people in movies or books – and you begin to think that real-life things must be overtly dramatic, as if you’re waiting for the score to kick in any second.

I know because I grew up in that, untouched by disaster, unscathed by any real danger. I have fond memories of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

I mean that seriously – my memories of that deadly and dramatic disaster are fond.

I thought it was fun to sway around the house at midnight and during the multiple severe aftershocks, to be without power, to miss a couple days of school.

Then I lived in New York, and lifeguarded at Jones Beach with firemen who responded to 9/11, with teachers cooks cops who volunteered so many consistent hours down there that they lost 60% of their lung capacity, with women my age who lost their parents in the attack. They got misty-eyed when they talked too long about it or when I asked the kind of insensitive questions I’m wont to ask, but for the most part they were just going on about their lives, unaccompanied by any sweeping, epic score.

Botero Birds bombed and new

Bombed-out bird and its replacement.
Parque San Antonio, Medellín, Colombia

Then I lived in Medellín, Colombia, and made friends with people whose entire childhoods were overshadowed by a criminal presence and an outright war in their city’s streets. I saw the remains of bombed sculptures they’ve left in place as reminders and homage to the violence of not-so-long-ago, and heard the stories of curfews and disappearances and fear. But they, too, were just going about their lives again.


Two things these two groups of people taught me:

people are incredibly resilient, and tragedy breeds humility.

When people have sustained a major loss – of their house, of their loved ones, of their way of life – they interact with the world a little differently. It puts their little grievances in perspective and opens them up to the good things in their lives the rest of us so often and so easily overlook.

This was on display in full force last weekend, at a wedding out in Montauk. Some of those lifeguards were there, as were a bunch of Navy guys, a number of whom are SEALS, all of whom have seen action and a few of whom came back wounded and incomplete.

Several of those lifeguards live – or rather, used to live – down the shore in Long Island, and lost their houses in Sandy. One in particular, a guy who’s been a Seabee for twenty years, is living for the time being with his mom in the house he grew up in, with his wife and their kids, in Queens, and taking his kids an hour each way to school every day. Many aren’t getting any FEMA money because for one reason or another they don’t qualify, so they’re out a house and own little more than a patch of sand with some sticks, and are getting second or third jobs to start clawing their ways out.

Not that I heard any of this from them. What I heard from them was, “Life is great, the kids are great – how are you?! Been too long, we miss you.”

“Isn’t this awesome? What a nice weekend, what a great party.”

“Look at that ocean – beautiful, idnit? Hard to believe it can do so much damage on a day like this.”

These are the people that teach me how to live.

I feel honored and grateful to have them in my life, to have them as examples and advisors and friends.

But, just like they weren’t overly worried the sacrifices they’ve made and been forced to make in their lives, last weekend I wasn’t overly focused on gratitude and appreciation.

It was a party. And sometimes you just gotta put all that heavy stuff to the side, let it go for a few minutes, and just, well, party.

Who  are your heroes? 

How do you get through your disasters?

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Elephants! Elephants! Elephants!

If you like elephants, you’ll be happy to know that the Thai government has

officially pledged to end the ivory trade within its borders.

Manah, being coy outside Huay Pakoot

This is great news (provided this legislative process gets carried out and leads to effective laws), because Thailand has been for quite some time one of the largest world markets for ivory, including African ivory, for which, because their tusks are larger, many more African elephants are slaughtered (and their babies culled and sold) than Asian elephants. Under current laws, limited ivory trading is not illegal, but it is, at least in spirit, heavily regulated to small quantities at a time. There is no regulation, however, on the trade of ivory for religious or traditional purposes, meaning that in practice, you can ship however many tons of ivory you want so long as you slap a label on it that says, for instance, “For Monastery.” This is known as the “Thai Loophole,” and it aids and abets the poaching of elephants all over central and southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

But while this latest decree may be cause for cautious optimism, it hardly spells the end of the trials facing the world’s biggest pachyderm.

Elephants in Thailand are still tortured and sold on the open market every day.

And nowadays, it’s primarily done for the edification of Western tourists. Babies are brought in from Burma/Myanmar and other points north, and sold to private collectors and zoos all over the world, and to tourist camps all over Southeast Asia.

A brief history lesson.

“People,” or some approximation thereof, have been in the area of the world that is now called Thailand for roughly 40,000 years. When in course of hominid events homo sapiens first teamed up with the Elephantidae family (as opposed to strictly hunting them, as our various homo relatives did) is unknown, but guesses range from 10,000 to as far back as 30,000 years, i.e., ever since humans figured out how to develop tools (stone, back then) that would allow them to employ such massive animals for transportation, construction and agricultural uses.

See? Super mythical.

Which is what elephants were always used for, and have always been, to the present day. There’s a saying in Thai (or so I’m told, as I don’t speak it) that “Thailand was built on the back of the elephant,” and indeed Thai culture and the elephant seem inextricably linked. Thai in general are extremely proud of their history and they believe that the elephant was instrumental in creating and sustaining that history, and they pay the image of the elephant due homage in their historical and spiritual myths.

The actual elephant, however, has always just been treated like a big ole ox. 

In fact, under the law, they might as well be. They’re officially categorized as livestock, meaning the same regulations apply to them as to cattle and pigs and chickens. And oxen.

But they’re not run-of-the-mill livestock. They’re incredibly intelligent and emotionally advanced, and probably because of this, they suffer greatly the vagaries of captivity. Those are probably also the reasons people like them so much and feel, after even the briefest interaction with them, a close bond.

And what “captivity” entails these days can be misleading. 

By 1986, Asian elephants were on the IUCN’s red or “endangered” list, meaning 5% or less of their “original” population (since when people started counting them) is left. After the Thai logging industry was dissolved and outlawed in 1989, what was left of them – which still amounted to tens of thousands of elephants – were suddenly out of work. Over the previous century, their natural habitat had been destroyed by about 90%, so it wasn’t as if they could just be turned out to pasture. Many owners, unsure what to do with their elephants and unable to support their voracious appetites, either killed their elephants or let them become strays.

At the same time, Western tourism to Thailand was really starting to pick up (which was likely one of the reasons the country both felt pressure and could afford to “do the right thing” and outlaw logging). Thai elephant owners saw an opportunity to give Westerners that up-close-and-personal experience that so many of them were willing to pay quite handsomely for, so they built camps, taught their intelligent and quick-study elephants some tricks, and elephant tourism was born.

Nowadays, the vast majority of elephants in Thailand live and work in tourist camps all over the country, many of which, in response to market demands, have done away with their hoops of fire and soccer balls and claim to be “sanctuaries” or “eco-tourism” spots that offer “natural elephant experiences.” These places run the gamut from horrible-horrible conditions to pretty darn nice ones, and while they’re probably better off here than wandering the streets, the fundamental conditions that comprise their captivity are extraordinarily unnatural.

Elephants are nomadic and prefer to have hundreds of miles in which to roam around, and instead are kept in corrals and stalls and enclosures ranging from a few feet to a few acres. Elephants have complex nutritional needs and will eat and self-medicate from a variety of more than 100 different plants, whereas they usually get grain and, if they’re lucky, fruit in the camps.

Worst of all, though, they all go through what is known as phajaan, or “The Crush.”

The Crush is a process of breaking an elephant that goes back thousands of years. In short, a baby elephant is taken from its mother, crammed into a tight shoot that inhibits movement, and tortured until its spirit is completely broken.

And when I say “tortured,” I mean poked, prodded, cut, burned, beaten. I mean red-hot pokers inserted into the flesh, into the soles of the foot, into the ears and nostrils and mouth. I mean beating and starvation and dehydration that lasts for days on end, that takes a baby elephant to the brink of death.

I mean this:

Phajaan – The Crush – in all its glory.
(Not my pic)

And this:

Nat Geo video.
(Not my pic)

And this: video and links to more.
(Not my pic)

It ain’t pretty, and every single elephant in captivity has gone through it. Even those at the lushest, nicest, most beautiful and clean and relaxing and pleasing-to-look-and-be-at elephant eco-sanctuaries.

It’s a practice that’s complicated by culture. It offends our (or at least my) sensitive modern Western sensibilities, but it’s considered a necessary and not by any means evil practice in Thailand that goes back probably to the very inception of our domestication of elephants – ten thousand plus years.  How else, the logic goes, are you going to get an animal that will grow to 5,000 pounds to respect you, unless you break it first?

The answer from animal behaviorists in the West is, “Simple! Positive reinforcement! We’ve been using it for years on animals as big as horses!” To which Thai mahouts – elephant handlers – shake their collective heads and go back to making sure their elephants don’t kill any tourists, using the only tools they know how to use:

This is a bullhook.
(Not mine.)

My girlfriend and I were such tourists just a couple months ago. We spent the week around New Years at the GVI (Global Vision International) Thailand Elephant project in Huay Pakoot, which is between four and ten hours (depending on Thai traffic and the reliability of your particular Thai vehicle) north of Chiang Mai. It was great, you should go, the people are wonderful, it’s gorgeous.

What makes GVI a little different than the vast majority of elephant tourism spots is that their mission is to get elephants out of tourist camps and back into a semi-natural life.

This might sound easy enough, but in practice it is hard to do.

Elephants in tourist camps make their owners money. Huay Pakoot, where we were put up by a family in their spare room, is comprised of about 80 families, mostly all of whom are members of the Karen tribe, one of the six Hill Tribe peoples flung out across northern Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. Between those 80 families, the villagers of Huay Pakoot own 60 elephants. Up until three years ago, when GVI started the program there, all of those elephants were working in tourist camps, making their owners pretty decent money – for some of them, that’s the only income they have, and all the income they really have the opportunity to make. The challenge facing GVI is to make it economically feasible for people to bring their elephants back and not lose much if any money. GVI does this by charging people for the pleasure of staying in the village and participating in the daily routine maintenance of the elephant rehabilitation program.

Huay Pakoot1

View from host family’s house — Erin saying hello — Public school

And what a pleasure it is. Really and truly.

That maintenance includes health checks and behavior observation. Basically, you hike out to wherever the elephants are, watch them for a couple hours and head back. Health checks are the only opportunity you get to get close to them – you check in their ears, look into their (big brown beautiful) eyes, look at their feet and toenails, poke at their poop (with a stick, mind) – and otherwise they’re just trying to live a relatively carefree life. They have several hundred acres to roam around in, and they have access to as many different kinds of forage food they need.

It’s an experiment in alternate, responsible elephant tourism, a totally different kind of sustainability. They’ve managed to bring five elephants back so far, and have started a community-run version/branch that has brought two others back, as well.

And it’s great. And I hope it catches on.

But according to the GVI staff members, there are only six – SIX! – places in all of Thailand that are doing this kind of responsible alternative elephant tourism.

And only one – ONE! – woman who is actually attempting to raise baby elephants from birth in semi-captivity using positive reinforcement. This woman, Sangduen Chailert, called Lek, is the only Thai voice speaking out above a whisper against phajaan and calling for a new paradigm in the treatment and training of elephants. As a woman in a male-dominated industry in a rather conservative culture, she faces a ton of criticism for calling into question a tradition that is centuries, perhaps millenia, old. The only reason this criticism isn’t sharper or more dangerous than it is is because a huge number of her would-be criticizers simply dismiss her – and the idea that these massive animals can be trusted is they’re not broken – out of hand.

Mario (the Italo-Thai baby) and his mom, slacking their thirst.

Elephants grow even slower than humans, their gestation is 22 months (!) and they don’t reach physical maturity until their early twenties. Everything is big about them, including their mood swings, and males especially can be extremely volatile in their periods of musth, even after having gone through phajaan. So the jury on how an elephant reacts to positive reinforcement training will be out for at least a couple decades, even on the small handful of elephants Lek is currently training that way, let alone on a large enough sample of elephants to convince old school, traditional mahouts that it’s an acceptable way to keep an elephant docile enough to interact with humans.

Of course, the obvious answer is inherent in that last sentence – keep humans and elephants separated. Maybe we’ve outgrown our partnership. Or at least the kind of hierarchical partnership we used to have.

But that’s not really realistic. People want their pics with elephants, and want to ride elephants, and want to bathe them and feed them and pet them. I get it.

And not everyone has the time to spend a week or two or four in some remote sanctuary, or the interest or the money to do so. I totally get that, too.

But if you’re thinking about going to Thailand, and thinking about seeing some elephants there, think about doing it in a responsible way. While it may be too late to save any of the elephants you’re likely to see from having gone through phajaan, every dollar or baht you spend at a tourist camp keeps that practice going in the future, and every dollar or baht you spend at a real, legitimate sanctuary helps move the industry – butterfly wingflap by butterfly wingflap – towards responsible sustainability.

Babies frolicking in the wild.
(They do that in Huay Pakoot thanks to GVI)

Plus, it helps spread the word. I had no idea this action went on until I started looking into last summer before we went to Thailand, and not a clue about its gnarly extent until we were there learning about all this action, passing tourist camps on the beach and then living amongst people who were trying to change things.

And you can get the word out even if you never go to Thailand. Read up and share what you learn.

If you have any questions or comments, write ’em down here or email me. 

(cuz he’s rad)