No place to go and Nothing to do

This has been my mantra as of late. Of course there are many things to do and places to go, but what I’m after is the state of mind that accompanies such a phrase. If you examine your thoughts, you’ll find that your mind generally is wanting to do something (eat, sleep, talk, etc.) or go some place.  When you are unemployed and wondering where your life is headed, this tends to happen even more.

Where have I been and what have I been doing?

First, the usual apology – why haven’t I been writing? Some of you know I spent six weeks this fall at the monastery, undergoing a rigorous spiritual practice. Wasn’t this full of juicy, bloggable insight?? Well yes, and no. A feeling has developed for me around sharing my spiritual progress (Is there such a thing?) that feels somewhat counterintuitive.  Zen is often described as a practice of meeting and speaking, and I have found outlets here at home that I never had while traveling – my sangha, my teachers, and my very close relationships. Its through these relationships, these meeting and speaking’s that I can explore the teachings, practice the radial views that the Buddha provided as a hypothesis to meet the world and free oneself from discontent.  I however still feel a strong need to express myself creatively, specifically through writing. I’ve gone through a goal-setting process for 2011 and have selected writer as one of my major focuses. I’m enrolled in a couple of writing classes and seminars this winter and I hope to become much more regular on the blog scene. I’m aware that all blog posts do not have to be deeply personal and profoundly insightful, but rather interesting and contain something that appeals to people. Longer-term, I am hoping to expand into a wider field of writing that includes yoga, wellness, meditation, simple living,  stress reduction, responsible investing, etc. As I re-read the above excuse about why I haven’t been writing, I find myself feeling this is not completely true, that there is another element at play beyond just being usurped by a community. There is also the shear fact that my life in America, in Colorado, is filled with baggage (good and bad), that seems to fill my day. Or more clearly, misdirects my energy from a place where I can get quiet enough to write. An example of this is my addiction to technology which will require a future blog post to decipher… Yes its clear that the world here runs on a much different wave-length than the holy cities of India or the mountain villages of Laos, but what is still needed, and this is something I’ve spoken of in the past, is the development of my own posture to maintain my own wavelength despite external circumstances. Its not as though I don’t have idle time – I have loads of it! Its more the undercurrent of motion or pressure that persists in my environment, as if it has some form of life or energetic pull of its own. I’ve discovered this is especially true of material objects( I will address these thoughts later on my technology addiction…). These energetic pulls do not allow for as much pure space with ones Self.  I am fully aware that this is my own minds perception of the circumstances, not an actual fact, yet I must slowly work on these habits, impulses and perceptions to be free of them.

What exactly has an unemployed vagabond been doing the past half a year? Often I wonder this myself, wavering between feeling that I’ve done nothing at all and a feeling of having done quite a lot.  First, the big changes. No, not a job! Since I’ve last written, the ever-amazing and beautiful Autumn, has reentered my life in a major way, as we’ve deepened a partnership begun two years ago, this time under new light and circumstances.  Last weekend we moved into a house (its yellow!) together in Denver, providing a significant shift for me (and us). First, leaving the town where I spent the last 8 years (and most of my adult life), and second, living with a woman. “Taking the plunge” as several people have called it recently. 🙂 We’ve moved into a neighborhood called Berkeley, an up and coming (aren’t they all?), neighborhood in NW Denver that is only a 25 minute drive from Boulder: at least at 5 in the morning when I’m often making it (more on this later).  The decision to move to Denver was not a light one. Upon examination of my priorities and values, which include spending more time with Autumn, having a comfortable, affordable space, and simply being open to the current circumstances in life, such as being unemployed and with a partner with a full-time job in Denver, the timing felt right. My heart is still in that yuppie mountain town and if we can ever figure out how to earn enough money to live there comfortably, we will definitely consider it.

And how does one afford living anywhere when they’ve been approaching two full years of unemployment? I am very grateful for the fortune and generosity the world has provided me.  I’ve been funding my mini-retirement or consciousness sabbatical through a generous severance from IBM, unemployment insurance, intelligent investing and a simplistic lifestyle. Due to the market improvements since early 2009, I actually have more net worth than I did the moment I was laid off. While this has been providing me a nice level of security, it has done little for stoking the fire under my ass to get me back into a career. I find myself seeking more engagement with my world, yet still balancing this with the fact that I don’t want a simple exchange of money for my time, which is the traditional method of working. One major step I’ve taken recently towards this end is to create a set of goals.  Based on a book recommendation called My Best Year Yet, originally published in 1994, I worked through a set of worksheets to cross-reference the roles, values, and priorities in my life to create a summary sheet of goals for the year. I highly recommend this book – ultimately it is 5 to 10 hours of work which will provide you clear and simple way to prioritize your year into a one sheet summary. I’m debating sharing my summary as a way to remain accountable, but for now it’s a little too personal. One of the main purposes of the exercise is to really examine which aspects of spending your time actually move you forward towards your goals. Its sort of like a quick gut-check for your day… (Does this activity move me towards or away from what I’ve set out to do in 2011?) that has been useful (albeit frustrating at times) in keeping me on task.

One of my focuses this year is on Zen practice. As many of you know I spent the greater part of October and much of November on retreat in Crestone for something called the study month. This was a powerful time for me to deepen my meditation practice, re-center, and forge a deep connection with the practice and our lineage (the focus of our month). There is a lot to say about this month that I may return to, but the point today is that when I finished and returned to Boulder, there was absolutely no question that this practice, this way of life is paramount to everything else I do. I began sitting 3-4 mornings a week, spending more and more time at the Boulder Zen Center (which operates the Briar Rose B&B – a fabulous place to stay or just stop by for tea next time you’re in Boulder). Someone found out I had an MBA and was good with math and next thing I knew I was elected to the board as treasurer. I often call my mornings at the Zen Center my “old man retired time”.  After meditation and service, those of us that can, usually stick around for tea, shooting the dharma or just catching up on life.  Despite the fact that we aren’t all old, retired or men, I see what the lives of old retired men are all about. I love it!

January came around and two of our pillars at the Zen Center headed to Crestone for Practice Period (90 day intensive practice) and suddenly several mediation periods needed a Doan (person who holds the space, rings the bells and runs service). Despite the upcoming move to Denver, I decided to formally commit to being here on Thursday mornings, Thursday evenings and Friday mornings.  Its sort of like having a mini-retreat every week. As I type this I’m sitting in the Briar Rose living room after tea, enjoying my weekly vagabond day in Boulder.  It has also been a nice way to ‘break-up’ with Boulder, still getting to the gym, my favorite coffee shops and spending time with my friends.

In addition to Zen, there is skiing, working out, reading, and a growing commitment to writing. I’m taking a series of writing courses this winter to get me kick-started on writing more effectively, hopefully at some point this year creating a new blog and website directed towards future income. One of my goals this year is two blog entries a week so watch out!

I hope everyone is off to a great 2011, and I look forward to being much more communicative this year!

Shaking my Buddha in Bodhgaya

Despite having to spend my final night in Delhi, I will always remember Bodhgaya as the place where I ended my journey. How to describe Bodhgaya? Peaceful, spiritual, colorful, chanting, monks, bowing, nuns, temples, prayer wheels, koras, friendly and connecting come to mind.

IMG_4285The details of Bodhgaya are easy – it is a small village in a poor province, with very little to offer for amenities outside of those built to house the pilgrims that visit year-round. Bodhgaya is located in the poorest province in India, Bihar, and signs of just how poor it is are  everywhere.  I traveled with friends Al & Nicole by train from Varanasi, arriving late but fortunately to a waiting driver who safely transported us the final 10 miles to Bodhgaya at 3am. An old guidebook we had said to be weary of bandits late at night, but luckily we didn’t encounter any! We checked into the simple but clean Shanti Guesthouse. The next 5 days blur together as they were all quite similar, based around spending time at the main temple, Mahabodhi. The Mahabodhi temple is a world heritage sight and the spiritual heart of Bodhgaya. Its here where the Buddha attained enlightenment and formulated his philosophy on life known as the Middle Way, over 2600 years ago. The story of Buddha in less than 220 words is:

Guatama Siddhartha, age 29, after living a protected and sheltered life as the son of a ruler, whose father went so far as preventing him from seeing old and sick people, one day ventured out into the world and was confronted with the reality of the inevitable suffering of life. The next day, he left his kingdom to lead an ascetic life and determine a way to relieve universal suffering.

For six years, Siddhartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices, studying and following different methods of meditation with various religious teachers. But he was never fully satisfied.

One day, however, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl and he accepted it. In that moment, he realized that physical austerities were not the means to achieve liberation. From then on, he encouraged people to follow a path of balance rather than extremism. He called this The Middle Way.

That night Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, and meditated until dawn. He purified his mind of all defilements and attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, thus earning the title Buddha, or "Enlightened One". For the remainder of his eighty years, the Buddha preached the Dharma in an effort to help other sentient beings release themselves from the endless cycle of suffering.

My arrival coincided with an international chanting festival for world peace. The Mahabodhi temple complex was filled with thousands of monks and nuns from almost every Buddhist country and sect. My memory of Bodhgaya will always first turn to the sea of different colored robes surrounding the temple. The Tibetans were the largest group, but I saw and met monks from India, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, China, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and more.

My typical day was quite simple – awake, stroll over to Mohammed’s restaurant, have a nice coffee and breakfast and then take a short walk to the temple through a lively side street, filled with beggars, shopkeepers and pilgrims. The constant sound of CDs playing chanting monks was ALWAYS on… as you passed by the speaker system and got closer to the temple itself, recorded chanting gave way to REAL chanting and I always felt enveloped in a sense of peace as I walked through the gates. I would take a short walk around the temple, meditate under the bodhi tree and then make my way to a small plot of grass on a hillside near the temple where I could watch and listen to the daily temple activities.

IMG_4281 All around the temple, Tibetan pilgrims were doing their full-body prostrations. I learned from a monk that most pilgrims attempt to do 108,000! This will take anywhere from a month to three months depending on one’s fitness level. Every day they arrive, have tea, and spend the day prostrating, sometimes until late in the evening. Its unfathomable to me what that must feel like and understand the discipline required for such perseverance.

At some point I would get hungry again and would wander into the market for oranges and bananas, potentially go to the small Hari Om Cafe next to the guesthouse for its free Wifi and tasty chai.  Then it was back to the garden for the late afternoon and sunset. It was then that the chanting became very intense, and despite multiple languages being chanted simultaneously, there was a sense of connection and flow. Thousands of birds would descend into the trees and sing as if propelled by the chanting monks. As darkness descended, monks and laymen alike would begin their kora around the temple, doing clock-wise circles around the temple. Some would prostrate, some would recite mantras, some walk quietly with their prayer beads. The complex was lit with beautiful lights that illuminated the main temple. I would use this as an opportunity to reflect on the day, pull the powerful presence of Buddha into myself and take joy in sharing this amongst these thousands of pilgrims. Eventually I would stroll back home, join Al & Nicole for dinner at the Hari Om Cafe and relax into the evening.

My time in the garden was unforgettable – I befriended a couple of young Indian monks who would often come over to talk with me. They could practice their English and I would learn about their practice and the day to day activities of this temple. Several times Tibetan monks offered me an orange or some cookies and I was taken back by this generosity. It should have been the other way around! In addition to my friends, I had numerous conversations with various monks who would take a break in my garden, and the old man who appeared to be doing readings or healings for people one time grabbed me by the shoulders and said “very good, very healthy, you will live a long time!” Nice!

I took a couple of excursions, the first with Al & Nicole out to the Mahakala (Dungeswari) caves. We hired a auto-rickshaw driver for a few dollars and he did an impressive job navigating the traffic and dirt road with his 3 wheeler. IMG_4303After inhaling more dust than I care to remember and hitting my head on the roof four times, I was happy to step out when we arrived. It was in these caves where Buddha spent his six years as an ascetic and did severe penance that resulted in the image of him as a skeletal, emaciated figure.  After years of extreme self-denial at Mahakala, he realized its futility and walked down to Bodhgaya, where he eventually achieved nirvana under the Bodhi Tree. Inside the cave I met a Thai Monk who was planning on spending a few nights sleeping here. He took us through a guided meditation, trying to help us tap into the incredible energy emanating from this place. Its there, and you just need to be quiet and will feel it.

To this point I’ve spoken little of the poverty and destitution that I witnessed in India. The walk to the caves was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I’ve ever had. The walk was about 20 minutes uphill and the road was lined with beggars, cripples, young and old. They were just lying on asphalt in the burning sun, hoping to gain a few rupees from the occasional tourist that comes up here (not many by my calculations). Vendors sell cookies and 1 rupee coins and some tourists buy these and pass them out to the beggars – we unfortunately had to witness this scene where the people were reduced to animals, begging and fighting for anything they could get their hands on. I felt very helpless – giving them anything perpetuates the process but you know there is no one else helping them. Not the government, not NGOs, not even fellow citizens who barely have enough to survive themselves. In Bodhgaya itself, there was a large Dalit population (untouchable caste), seen sleeping on the streets and begging during the day. There were groups of children that would always approach you, the best English speaker of the group recruited to ask “where are you from, what’s your name, how long have you been in Bodhgaya, do you like India?” in order to gain a few rupees or some food. Many of the temples in Bodhgaya would have a resident cripple- for those who saw Slumdog Millionaire, you will remember the scene where an orphan boy is intentionally blinded to become a beggar. This is real, and I saw blind people, cripples who had their knees bashed in as a child, often accompanied by their ‘pimp’ who manages the money these poor souls bring in.  Watching someone pull themselves across an asphalt or dirt road with only their hands is not a pleasant experience. I found myself giving whatever food and small change I had to these people, who are enduring some of the most unimaginable suffering a human being can. Travel to India is all about heart and compassion work. You do have to find a balance however, as being fully open can just be overwhelming. An interesting thing I read while in Bodhgaya was about doing 4th chakra work by focusing on a person, sending them compassion and love and then moving on. Moving on is the hard part, and the mind gets involved and starts wondering why the world is this way or that way and how human beings can allow other human beings to suffer in this manner.

OK, back to Bodhgaya  – the last thing I want to talk about is a half-day trip I took around the outskirts of town, visiting the many monasteries representing countries and forms of Buddhism. I enjoyed the Japanese temple the most, as here the monks practiced Soto Zen Buddhism, as do I, and I sat with them one evening for service. I also caught a talk by Karmapa, head of one of the major branches of Tibetan Buddhism. It felt great to just get out of town and wander in the farmlands, something I hadn’t done for some time. Eventually tiring, I hired a bicycle rickshaw for 30 cents and had enjoyed the slow ride back into town.

As I said goodbye to my friends and prepared for an overnight train to Delhi, I sensed that this would not be my only last visit to Bodhgaya.

Pilgrimage within the Pilgrimage

I spent the final week of my trip in a small Indian town called Bodhgaya (described in above post), sitting under a Bodhi tree trying to find enlightenment. Well, not exactly, but I am soaking in the vibe from this place, where 2600 years ago a 35 year old Siddhartha Gautam, soon to be known as the Buddha, found enlightenment after sitting for 49 days straight under a Bodhi tree. Today, a large Buddhist community has been built around a descendent of the original Bodhi tree and this small town has become the major pilgrimage site in the world for Buddhists.

I set off from Nepal with hopes of reaching all four of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, starting with Lumbini in Nepal (Birth), Sarnath (First teaching), Bodhgaya(Enlightenment), and Kushinagar (Death). I began the pilgrimage with a lot of suffering (perfect practice for one aspiring Buddhist), enduring a 24 hour bus journey from Kathmandu to Lumbini after an epic, all-day saga to get my Indian Visa. Eventually with a transit-visa in hand, I meandered to the bus station and hopped on a night bus headed towards Lumbini. Despite not being able to fit in my seat, I managed to finally fall asleep, expecting to wake up in Lumbini. I woke up groggily to hear that we were less than half way, due to a broken bridge. In great Nepali form, it took hours to figure out what to do and eventually a path was created through the small creek for buses and trucks to pass. I confirmed that I have in fact developed a sense of patience, as a trip of about the distance from Boulder to Vail took 24 hours and I felt quite content. I made some new friends, and despite being in the absolute middle of nowhere, there were people selling things from roadside carts and bicycles like water, fruit, peanuts and other snacks to pass the time. I met a great guy who was getting a masters in English literature and hoped to travel to America some day. Seizing the opportunity to speak with one of the first educated Nepalese I’d met, we talked politics and policy and he helped me discern some of the nonsense occurring in Nepal by the Maoist separatists.  I lost a day (or did I gain one?), diving into a new book and catching up on Simpson episodes and podcasts on my iPod. Ironically, my friends Al and Nicole left Kathmandu about 15 hours after I did and we both arrived at the same hotel within a half hour of each other in Lumbini.

IMG_4205 After a great night’s sleep, we toured Lumbini the next day. I was expecting mayhem and an over-touristic feel to the place, but ultimately found it to be extremely peaceful and relaxing. Despite plans from the Chinese to build the largest Buddha statue in the world and a mega-resort in Lumbini, today a small building surrounds the exact location where Buddha was born. This building surrounds the ruins of an ancient monument and itself is surrounded by a peaceful garden colored by thousands of prayer flags. We had a nice meditation and then jumped on our 60 year old rented bicycles to explore IMG_4208the Lumbini Development Zone, a large area where each sect of Buddhism has built a temple for their pilgrims. Most were quite unimpressive compared to the real thing in their home countries, but I did enjoy the Japanese World Peace Pagoda, where we sat with two monks for 20 minutes and chanted for world peace, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” as we played  drums and the sun set quietly behind us. I finished the evening with some yummy street vendor samosas and retired early before the town shut down completely at 8pm.

We hired a private car for the ride to the border the next morning in order to circumvent the major Maoists strikes going on in Nepal that kept most taxis and buses off the road for a few days. Before I knew it, I was in India.  She was in full glory first thing in the morning – the smells, the guys trying to rip us off and the delay in getting our jeep driver to leave (he refused to budge before the full quota of 15 people in a jeep was reached!). I had some ridiculous idea of side-tracking to Kushinagar and catching a night train to Varanasi, not fully comprehending the speed of travel, the sometimes overbooked Indian trains and short days of December! Ultimately after a series of trials, we decided to skip Kushinagar (probably the least interesting of the 4 sights) and move onto Varanasi via bus.

Varanasi, where to begin? Lonely Planet describes it with: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all".

IMG_4226 Varanasi is a very raw and visceral place – a sacred place for Hindus on their most sacred river – the Ganges. This is were many people go to die, to be cremated on the riverbanks (ghats) and ultimately have their ashes deposited into the river. Throughout my four day stay in Varanasi, the sky was constantly filled with ash and smoke, as hundreds of bodies are cremated a day. As you walked the alleyways of town, you would often need to quickly slide to the side of an alley as families carrying their deceased loved-ones wrapped in an orange sari down to the ghats to be cremated. At times I was quite overwhelmed watching this scene – so much death and sadness all concentrated in one place. The buildings right behind the ghats are eerie places where the sick and old wait to die – preferably you die near the Ganges to save your family the trouble and cost of transporting your body many miles after death. The entire funeral happens in the public eye – depending on how much money you have you might be able to afford nicer wood for the cremation, and your caste determines where exactly the burning occurs. I learned a lot about the actual process in Kathmandu, but needless to say seeing it up close and personal was a very heavy experience. After viewing the burning ghats once or twice, I found myself wanting to avoid the areas, not only to respect the privacy of the dead and their families, but to avoid my own feelings that death brings into awareness.

Life and death are intermingled however. As body after body is burned (~ 3 hour process) and its ashes floated into the Ganges, the mighty river is also acting as a transportation hub, bath tub, IMG_4238washing machine and sewage plant. Despite carcinogenic levels being hundreds of times the deemed safe level, every morning countless thousands of Varanasi residents – men, women, sadhus, cows and water buffalos descend to the river to bath and wash. In the same holy water that their ancestors were cremated into and that the raw sewage of their village empties into. Its almost incomprehensible to us in the West, with our safety standards, clean drinking water and microbe killing soaps. Sometimes when traveling you have to put these standards firmly behind you, as the people of this land have been undergoing such rituals for hundreds or thousands of years and seem to get along just fine. You will too for a few days.

Wandering and driving the streets and Ghats in Varanasi was one of the most intense sensory experiences of my entire journey. First, December is wedding season in India, and in carnival, parade-like fashion, I witnessed many couples  and families celebrating their union, complete with fireworks, drums, light shows and generally week-long festivities. This was an incredible contrast to the scene occurring just a few blocks away on the river, as many individuals were passing IMG_4259away and leaving their bodies to be united with nature. One will never forget the smells of Varanasi either. Ashes, burning bodies, chai tea, sewage, spices, restaurants and on and on were intermingled as you wander around. One afternoon after a leisurely morning in the Aum Cafe,  I traveled to Sarnath with Al and Nicole on a pimped out auto rickshaw (picture a 3 wheeled go-cart with a hand break and pimped out stereo system). Getting out of Varanasi was yet another Varanasi sensory delight – the road was PACKED with pedestrians, bicycles, auto rickshaws, cars, buses, cows, delivery trucks, motorcycles, on and on.  There are no traffic lights, no rules and IMG_4220no police. Somehow everything just works and we interweave within inches of so many other vehicles and people. Our drivers friend appears and disappears three times in the midst of the traffic (all Indian rickshaw drivers seem to have buddies who like to tag along, especially when there is a foreign woman in the back to stare at through the rearview…). Eventually we break out onto open road and I relax in amazement at how anyone gets anywhere in India.

Sarnath turned out to be very cool and I wish we had gone earlier to enjoy the day at the park where Buddha gave his first sermon. There are ruins of an Asoka temple, the garden where Buddha gave his first enlightened teaching and a small temple where monks chant Buddha’s first sermon each evening at sundown. The garden is one of those rare places in India where you can relax, sit, read, meditate or otherwise without pesky Indian touts bothering you. The energy of the place was great and again we watched the sunset as various pilgrimage groups paid their respects to this holy place.

I feel like there is so much more to say about Varanasi, but it it is really a place one just has to experience on their own. The cell block hotel, the mighty river, the hashish salesmen, stampeding holy cows, dark and winding avenues and the amazing world of life on the Ghats. Words just can not do justice to sensory experience you will have there. We will leave it at that.

Next stop: Bodhgaya, the final stop on the Pilgrimage.