Our Pilgrim is on the Move

Two years ago I built this website for the purpose of documenting my travels abroad and here I am again, on the cusp of leaving home and seeking something unknown abroad. In one week, I depart for Koh Phangan, Thailand, where Agama Yoga awaits.

My initial pilgrimage sought to explore the world, to uncover hidden corners of the planet, to create new experiences and memories.  My trip in 2009 allowed me to exhaust a long-held myth I had about discovering some form of realization through the accumulation of experience.

Today I have a much different aspiration: Unwinding all of this experience, the false identification of self and my delusion about the actual nature of reality. I realized over time that my journey was much more an inward one than anything external or material. My search has narrowed significantly from the entire world, to the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, Tantra and Vajrayana. I’ve discovered that this unwinding process is best accomplished through a life not filled with experience, activities and commitments, rather through self-enquiry and meditation. As Yuan Wu so eloquently stated in my last post:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

If all one needs to do is sit upright and investigate reality, why am I traveling half-way around the globe?  Fair question that I will attempt to answer. Let me back up a bit. 

Almost one year ago, on May 16th 2010, I returned home from India, completing a year (mostly) abroad. The journey brought me back to the same place I began, yet things had shifted significantly within me. I vigorously began practicing Zen, both at a monastery in Crestone and at the Boulder Zen Center, developing strong relationships with the Sangha (group of practitioners), and the teachers. After spending a month in a rigorous monastic setting in the fall, I considered a longer-term stay, considered joining the annual 90-day practice period in the winter. Yet, worldly entanglements and my own fear of such a practice prevented me from moving forward. I was involved in a romantic relationship that has since dissolved, a relationship that I believe represented many of the aspects of worldliness that I refused to let go of.  Once again ignoring intuition, I was drawn towards societal ideas of what it means to live in this world, to relate to another person and basically all of the shoulds that are based on nothing but one’s own projections of society and ego.

Part of me wants to say that I’ve been idling the past 3 or 4 months, drifting in this sort of purposeless manner. This is true when examined from the lens of normal that society and we produce for ourselves. I have to step back and remind myself that this is all part of a greater process of renunciation for me, detaching from ideas of self and the world that do not benefit anyone, that only seek to perpetuate a process and mode of existence that perpetuates a world of suffering and discontent.  I meditate a lot, I sit upright and examine my experience. I am constantly trying to step back from worldly entanglements and perceptions.  I examine all the presumptions and ideas of how the world works, what is reality and why I am here.  I attempt to infuse intentions of compassion and wisdom into my body, speech and mind.  Despite on paper being a 31 year old unemployed guy from Boulder with nothing going for him, I feel this tremendous sense of change within, of a new world unfolding before me, filled with Possibility, Beauty and Love.

This still has nothing to do with answering my initial question of why go anywhere? My teacher has told me that practicing in a single stream provides the best results- why swim in another? My answer to this is that my exploration of Agama is, while primarily spiritual in nature, also an opportunity for me to pursue a vocation in the world that has meaning for me. I am considering a meditation teachers training in 2012.  My idea involves bringing meditation and self-enquiry to more people, via any channel possible: Yoga, Corporate Training, workshops, seminars, private consulting, blogging, etc.  It is very loose and evolving at this point, but there is a sense of momentum and purpose for me right now. My intention this summer is to explore the school, evaluate the teachers and the programs, to ensure this is the type of commitment I want to make in early 2012.  This summer I plan to take a number of courses, including Vira Training, Hridaya Meditation Retreat, Kashmiri Shaivism and Naturopathic and Yogic Healing, in addition to continuing my second and third month of studies in the Agama curriculum.

There you have it.  I have a one-way ticket to Thailand, a new Yoga mat and a big heart.

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.

Flow and Reflection @ 4 months

During the past week, I really began to feel the ‘flow’ of traveling, with an exceptional amount of time to stare out the window, examine my trip and my thoughts in order to see where I am at on the ole pilgrimage.

I have found myself once again looking ahead a lot – plotting ideas on getting to Mongolia, back from Mongolia, eventually traversing China into Kathmandu to get there before the snows start. I’m racing the onset of winter rather than embracing it. I am not finding time to meditate, often busy traveling or surrounded by other travelers in small spaces. My trip was getting away from me, becoming a logistical effort in planning and movement. As I write this, this is still happening but hopefully this acknowledgement will enable me to take the power back.

Today was fantastic practice in this. I will write about Beijing later, but essentially due to the 60th anniversary celebrations and beginning of a weeklong holiday, I wasn’t able to freely move about the city and today I literally circumnavigated Beijing, going to three bus stations before finally ending up with the magical ticket to the Mongolian border. I was as close to losing it as I have been in a long time. Instead of my original plan of my guesthouse booking my bus ticket and spending the morning seeing sights in Beijing, I discovered that today pre-bookings were not being done due to the holiday and I would have to go to the station myself. I can only compare the feeling of being in a busy Chinese bus station to that of being on psychedelics. Everything is so vastly different: language, body language, emotions are simply not transferrable. As I raced for a ticket on one of the busiest travel days in China I felt completely helpless. Angels did appear and helped me to my goal. But during the process I was being very irrational – what was the worse thing that could have happened? Another night in Beijing? A slight delay to my plans? I don’t need to be ANYWHERE at ANYTIME. It was a sign that I do need to re-evaluate aspects of my approach and mindset in travel. Wanting something for tomorrow is no excuse to ignore today.

I have been looking recently at what it means to travel, why one (me really) would choose to leave everything behind to sail into uncharted waters. A nagging insecurity that has been with me the entire time is the fear that I am walking a path of escapism rather than growth. My life drastically changed in the few months before leaving home. New paths were opening for me, I was walking towards something that would have required enormous discipline and commitment- and yes I am talking about a spiritual path. I sometimes wonder if I chose to extend my freedom once again, seeking new places, people and experiences rather than moving within the world that I worked so hard to manifest over many years.

That world primarily contains a home, people, and activities that I have slowly discovered over many years bring me contentment. I’m not sure abandoning them for an indefinite period of time is necessarily best for me. Travel will always be ONE of those activities, but with the risk of sounding too definitive, one thing I have learned is that I will never be a long-term vagabond, sorry to disappoint those of you who were hoping to live vicariously forever! I am even considering coming home for a couple of months over the holidays, to have myself a little mid-year review, examine the next steps in life in earnest. My intent would be to return to India and continue the journey, but the truth is it will depend on many circumstances. What’s different for me than for many travelers I meet is that my life is this. Right now. I am not returning to school or to a job or to something else and this trip is not a break or vacation from a different lifestyle. Every moment I am working with huge questions around who I am and how I want to be in this world. Listening to myself, I believe a reflection and rest from home (or my friends and families couches) is needed soon. I overestimated my ability to critically look at options for the future, to network with those at home and try things out (even mentally), while traveling. It could be done if chose I single place to live and exist, but I am constantly moving, seeing, doing. This lifestyle does not provide a great environment for really intellectual inspection of various options. To my point about long-term travel, I do envision a future for myself where my career enables me to take pointed, 3 maybe 4 month trips, but return to a place and an existence that I have built and am building. I too easily discarded aspects of my life that are simply not replaceable in a matter of months in the far reaches of the world. I also see the potential of a future trip to a single city or region, where I can develop roots, volunteer in the community and live a more normal existence.

One thing I miss tremendously is meaningful conversations with my friends, ones that allow me to see that hyperbolic mirror, to help me look into these big questions and decisions. I do meet some incredible people on the road – but how well can you get to know someone in a few days – are you going to share your deepest insecurities and desires with these people? Likely not. That creates a vacuum in my own head – and if there is ONE thing I have learned in the past few years, it is that I am not successful in processing my emotions and problems within my own head. I used to THINK I was successful, but really just sublimated and stored them away. Its those close to you that allow you grow as an individual. Life is relationship, I trust in this as I trust that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

Another thought I have been sitting with has to do with fate versus freedom. I have been discussing it with a few close friends over e-mail and generally pondering it as I travel. I hinted at this above, when I discussed extending my freedom. I realize now that as I wake each day with no commitments and endless choices before me, that this is some sort of pinnacle of the concept of total freedom– total freedom being a western, material view on what freedom entails. Freedom of choice and location and speech. Total freedom is not this however, as I have learned from Krisnamurti’s teachings – Total freedom is freedom from the known, choiceless awareness through cessation of the fears that bind our daily lives. It is psychological and spiritual freedom, not necessarily the aspired-to physical freedom of the west. Anyway, I feel that I had to reach this point in life, this apex, to see if this was truly the freedom I was looking for and the one would bring me joy. You have to be something before you can not be it. I use the word apex, or sometimes think of a ‘top of the bell-curve’ metaphor to describe how I feel, because I see my life moving in another direction in the future. Not one where I make all decisions based on the level of freedom they allow my life, but making decisions that are correct in that moment, sometimes accepting signs from the universe and the commitment that comes with this acceptance. Now, there is a fine line here between accepting ones fate, and living in accordance with the moment. I don’t like the word fate, because it does imply pre-determination. I don’t believe in this at all. BUT, I do believe as one becomes wiser and more self-aware in their existence, they can more clearly wade through he waters of what the universe presents to them on a daily basis, choicelessly choosing the correct path based on the principle of listening to themselves.

Much of this thought process follows from my own reflection, but I have clearly been influenced by close friends – many of whom are now getting married, having children, solidifying careers, generally moving into new phases of life that limits there physical freedom. Almost without fail however, each of these friends accepts the new challenges of this path and doesn’t fight the ‘loss of freedom’. In many cases I believe they are gaining something through these commitments. While I don’t want to imply I’m looking to buy a house, get married and have a few children, I am considering what it means to move into a life of acceptance of my path rather than a constant disregard to things that require commitment and limit physical freedom.

OK, I think that is enough for today. I’m killing time in a Chinese Border town – if I thought my hassles in Beijing were rough, I just found out that the Chinese border is closed due to a holiday and that I’m faced with waiting in this nondescript town with nothing to do for 36 hours instead of 12 and then taking the overnight train for 16 hours to UB (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). See you on the other side.