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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?”

DoubtStrip

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.

IndiaStrip

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.

SiteStrip

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.

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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.

House-Raising

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.

http://www.standeyo.com/NEWS/09_Earth_Changes/090125.SoCal.EQ.pattern.html http://jalcornphoto.photoshelter.com/image/I0000C8MwkmNWmrI http://www.worldofstock.com/stock-photos/a-santa-monica-apartment-building-destroyed-by/PSO1911

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.

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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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LIKE A VIRGIN

I’m traveling, naked, in a place I know nothing about.

Well, if I figured out the scheduling deal on WordPress, I am. Otherwise I’m back and it’s two weeks later and it’s 2013 and I’m probably feeling like I’m pulling these things around with me everywhere thanks to what promises to be some gnarly jetlag:

Photo: We're going to Thailand in 2 days boyfriend! These two are waiting for us as we speak...(Elephants being an apt metaphor for this particular imminent jetlag hell, because after hanging out in Bangkok and chilling at the beach, I’ll be at an elephant sanctuary in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. Boom.)

Anyway, I’m assuming this scheduling deal is going to work, and that I’ll be en route to these ponderous pachyderms when this sucker goes live. So let me talk about that.

I say “naked” because I don’t have a keyboard within reach (I’m planning on a two-week tech vacation, too), and I don’t have any fiction-knowledge of the places I’ll be seeing. We’ve been planning this trip for months – hotels, travel in Thailand all lined up, money changed before we left, and I even packed my bag several days in advance – but I didn’t read a thing from Thailand.

I bought one Oxford World History Series book, but it was so dull I only got through about 40 pages, which covered about 1500 years of Thai history, so it was real in-depth. My traveling partner girlfriend and I rented a few Thai movies, a couple of which were good but most of which were mostly confusing. I’ve read Buddhist stuff here and there from Thai monks, and Brits and gringos who trained in forest monasteries there, but that’s what it is.

But no fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a Thai author. And this makes me feel naked as newborn babe. Even last year when I went to northern India and Nepal to visit the Big Four Holy Sites of Buddhism (more on that anon, perhaps) – a purpose both so foreign to me that they were almost unimaginable a year before – I felt relatively comfortable before I went. I’ve read dozens of stories and novels of, about, and from India over the years, and I know a fair number of Indians and Pakistanis, and I thought I knew what I was in for. Of course, what I found was a bit different and definitely MORE than what I’d expected to encounter, but that’s a different story that not having a clue. Reflecting on the various places I’ve been over the last decade, I find that I’m constantly comparing them to one another, even before I get there. Still hours outside Delhi last November (2011), I remember thinking, “It’ll definitely be flatter than Medellin, maybe more like the Chaco in western Paraguay, but of course with Mexico City amounts of buildings. Probably even more than that. But still with that third-world wood-smoke smell. I’ll probably see some Arundhati Roy courtyards and some Salman Rushdie paters familia and some Vikram Chandra bad guys.” I landed and it was a little like all those places and all the books I’ve read, but nothing like anywhere else I’d ever been in way, WAY more ways. But, because of what I’d thought about going into the country, it took a few days for India to sink in past all those crap assumptions I’d built up for years through novels and movies and travel to different places.

So it isn’t a bad naked that I feel without my clothing of expectations and assumptions and pre-formed ideas. It’s actually rather exciting. It’s new and different, and I’m hoping that Thailand will start to sink in immediately. I’ve been trying to stay away from comparing what I expect my arrival Sunday to look like, and I hope by the time you read this and I’ve been there a week that I’ve let it all go and let it all in.

I’ll let you know what kind of success I’ve had when I get back.

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