Thursday, July 31, 2008

Me at the Golden Temple, head covered in respectful piety. Sikhs doing the walk around the temple, check out those turbans! It's enough to make Aladin jealous. And a shot of the temple itself, yes, it really is that pretty!

Buddha's favorite hang out, Bodhgaya.

Buddha, Tibentan style. Every wall of this temple is covered in painted carvings about his life. And the bodhi tree under which buddha was enlightened, complete with Burmese monk deep in meditation on his way to enlightenment. Om baby om.
The bodhi tree

Varanasi, photographic evidence that I survived it.

a group of bathers fresh from mother Ganga, and a view of the holy river from my hotel balcony. the burning ghat is on the other side of that tower.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Where God Is, and Where God Isn't

A few thousand years ago there lived a prince named Siddhartha who sat down under a bodhy tree to meditate. Sometime later, under that same tree, he attained enlightenment and people started calling him Buddha. Maybe you've heard of him?

Anyway, a decendent of that bodhy tree still stands in the same plot of ground today, behind a temple dedicated to Buddha. And even though Buddhism is pretty much dead in India, it is still alive and well almost everywhere else in Asia. So there are monasteries from all those other countries here in this tiny town dedicated to Buddha's enlightement. That, I suppose, is why I am here: to learn something about Buddhism and meditation, about life and its purpose. About myself.

Someone once asked Michael where God is. His answer was “I dunno...everywhere?”. No. Wrong. God is not “everywhere”. God is in YOU. Or, at least that is what the Tibetan master told him. And when the master told him that, Michael had a flash back to when he was a five year old boy in the suburbs of LA and he fell down in the street. There was a moment, very short, when he was neither standing nor falling but just hanging in the air. And now Michael realized “Oh my gosh, nothing has changed.” He saw, in that strange experience, that there is some part of him that is unchanging, some small bit of awareness in him that is not just a reaction to the world around him. Something constant, something more real than the street onto which he fell. Something Divine.

And so, a few decades later, he is in India trying to understand that divine something that, even now, is unchanged within him. He has been searching in ashrams and meditation retreats in Nepal, India, and Tibet for about eighteen years now. He looks like it, too. He has one of those long, scraggly, mostly gray beards hanging off his face. His long hair is coiled into a bun at the point of his head (which, if we are honest, kind of makes him look like a small animal pooped up there). He wears all white, very simple, with a strand of wooden prayer beads around his neck. When I met him he was sitting next to the afore mentioned bodhy tree, legs crossed in 'lotus position', smiling at the universe in general.

Nearly twenty years in India is a long time. Four months in India is a long time, so I can hardly blame him for being a little “spacey” after eighteen years here. But I thought I would share a few of the things he told me as we sat together in the shade of that ancient temple and sacred tree, contemplating the meaning of life and who exactly was this Buddha figure

There is no “you” there is no “me”. Seeing a definition between self and other is the root of all suffering. We must eliminate suffering by eliminating the self.

When meditating, let your mind lose all distraction until you reach the center of awareness. The mind is like a monkey, continually jumping from branch to branch. The purpose of meditation is to let that all go and reach to real awareness, beyond self and time.

Let your heart shine within you. Let it radiate compassion until everyone around you can feel it and see it in you. Sometimes at night, you wake up and you can't sleep. Let your heart radiate compassion in those moments. Compassion is the expression of wisdom.

Some try to live their lives in avoidance, renouncing the world by not taking part in it. Others live through the world and renounce it by not becoming attached to it. The former will ultimately spend too much time dreaming of the world they have renounced. The later plays with fire, but at least they know what the fire is and what the fire isn't. They do not dream of fire.

Michael told me a lot of other things in the hour and a half we spent together. But these are the things which I liked or disliked the most. So, having given you his ideas, let me explain my ideas about them.

I am me, you are you. We are not the same consciousness, awareness, soul, brahma, call it what you will. And because I am not you, I cannot control you. Sometimes I cannot even control myself. And there is suffering. But there is also joy. I take the suffering with the joy. I take you with me. I take it all. And it hurts, but it's worth it. I cannot be empty, so I will be full.

My mind is a monkey, or an FM radio without an off switch. I spent an hour doing “zazen” meditation at the Japanese monastery here the other day, and never did achieve real quietness of mind despite the gongs, drums, and mystical chanting going on around me. I did manage to redecorate my hotel room in my mind, though. And I had a good long chat with the gold plated statue of Buddha in front of me about inflation in the US. But as far as real meditation goes, it was not a success. But then there was that time in Coimbatore:
Once about a month ago, I was just at the bus stop in Coimbatore, the city near the village we lived in for two months. Busy people all around me, buses coming and going with horns blaring the whole time. The ubiquitous smell of over ripe fruit and urine mingling in my nostrils. Women in sarees, college aged girls in salwars, and men in doties and western slacks passing in rapid blurry succession. I was alone, going home after a long day in the city. I sat on the corner of a tiled waiting bench, knowing it would be about half an hour until bus 96 came blaring into the fray, oozing people like a fresh wound and taking them in again just as fluidly. So I sat, and for no particular reason closed my eyes. I think I intended to say some kind of prayer about getting home safely or something, but before I had even formed the prayer in my head it happened. As soon as my lids closed on the scene around me I was surrounded by the Spirit. As though God had been waiting for me to pay just enough attention to Him, just enough peace in my mind and WHOOSH there He was. Not shouting, not warning, nothing urgent or mind blowing. Just quiet knowledge that He exists, that He is there, and that He is intimately aware of my every thought and feeling.
It happened again by the bodhy tree with Michael yesterday. He started talking about meditation and, trying to be obliging, I closed my eyes. And that was all it took for something to open up inside of me, like a direct line to Heavenly Father. Again it was not a warning, it was not a spiritual confirmation of anything Michael had said. It was just there, like God just couldn't resist talking to me now that I was in a quiet moment. Not because He had anything particularly pressing to tell me at that moment, but just because He could. That's all. I was quiet and still and listening and He was just...there. Like this weird wordless conversation “Hello Jenny. I'm here. I see you. I love you more than your mind can possibly understand and want you to be happier than your imagination can possibly comprehend right now. Just thought I'd say Hi.” and my response “uhhhhhhhh, Hi?”
So if that's meditation, sign me up.

Yes, let your heart shine within you. Compassion is lovely. But, rather than “shining your heart” when you can't sleep at night, DO SOMETHING COMPASSIONATE. You know, love someone, see something divine not just in yourself but in others as well, give something, see a need and fill it. Our capacity to love, and love deeply on a personal level is not an attachment that draws us further from God. Our capacity to love comes directly from God, and embracing that makes us more like Him, not less.

I neither play with fire, nor dream of fire. So...I'm neither a closet pyromaniac nor covered in third degree burns. Where does that put me?

Overall, I like Buddhism for its emphasis on finding out who you really are outside of your reactions to the world around you. I like the idea that I am more than the sum total of my fears and wants, my likes and dislikes. I also like meditation, on a strange level, and I fully intend to work on that skill. I don't want Heavenly Father to have to raise His voice at all to get my attention, so I figure I'll give Him more quiet time. You know, I'll just shut up for an hour or two everyday and see if He has anything to fill the silence with. What I don't like about Buddhism has mostly to do with its view of relationships between people. And that's okay. I don't have to like every aspect of it. Which is another thing I've learned here: I don't have to like it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


You know how when you think of India, only a part of you wants to go there? Well, imagine all the worst ideas you have about India. Think of all the reasons that, when you think of me here, you breath a sigh of relief and think "better her than me!". Okay, now times it by five.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Varanasi.
Ironically, Varanasi (or Benares, as it used to be called) is the holiest city in Hinduism. The city of Shiva with dozens of holy ghats descending into the magical, mystical, mythical River Ganga. Unfortunately, that river is also the dumping ground for 30 or more sewers, so basically it has a content of 1.5 million faecal bacteria for every 100ml of water. Oh, and did I mention the smell?
We all know that cows are holy creatures in India, and no where is that more apparent than in Varanasi where in the middle of a busy intersection with traffic whizzing in all directions a single mournful cow stands unmolested, calmly defecating as traffic swerves around it. Heidi has been clipped by rickshaws twice in two days now. But do the cows get hit? No, oh no. Not the cows. They don't even get honked at.
Getting to our hotel is like walking into a Tim Burton set, except there is no way out. This city is supposedly the oldest living city on earth, so it is not surprising that the roads closest to the river are narrow, winding, and utterly filthy. Vehicles are not allowed in this part of the city, and even if they were how they would fit down these alleys I don't know. But our little Hotel boasts riverside views, so we wander the darkened, pooh lined alleys to get here and back everyday. Since there are no maps which show all the winding alleys of old Varanasi we are left to our own navigational devices every time we step out the door. One moment you think you are walking away from the river, you feel sure that the next turn will bring you to a main road, and the next thing you know you are staring at yet another curving, smelly, dangerous alley that is just as likely to lead you back where you started as to get you out of here.
The sky is always overcast here. It lends this sort of eerie feeling to an already freaky city. It also means that the humidity is almost more than humanly bearable. The ground is wet, muddy, slick where old cobblestones have not been covered in mud, cowdung, or...other things. And because I know the statistics of the river, I'm terrified of all water here, imagining everything is covered in the same 1.5 million faecal bacteria.
To be fair, our hotel is the nicest one we've yet stayed in. Clean, well run, and with those famed "riverside views". I took advantage of the view the first day, and that was enough for me. Little boys swimming naked in the river, old men with shaved heads waist deep in devotion, monks chanting as they washed in the holy waters. Then I saw some of them gargle it. And even now, I wretch just to think of it.
Scindhia Ghat, where our hotel is located, is right next to one of the burning ghats. There are two such ghats where devout Hindus who were lucky enough to die in the city of Shiva are cremated and flung into the waiting arms of their "Great Mother" the Ganga. This means that continually, day and night, if I open my door I can smell the bonfires of human flesh.
If you die in Varanasi, according to Hindu belief, you will be released from the cycle of rebirth immediately. A shop owner with whom I spoke yesterday explained it to me like this: "As you live you have good things and bad things. These things stay with you and when you die God will ask you about it and punish you with a new birth. But if you die here, you go to heaven and God will not ask you any questions." And I guess I can see that. I mean, living in this city is probably more than enough punishment itself without any new births.
I wish I could tell you I've learned something deep and transcendent here, something about the relationship between life and death or human potential and frailty. The truth is, thus far, I have learned one thing.
When in Varanasi, try not to look down.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sravanabelagola, Jainism

These are all from Sravanabelagola, an ancient Jain pilgrimage site. Elephants walking around the base of a temple. Me walking the hall of a 2000+ year old temple, a Thirtankara statue in naked meditation, and me in slightly more modest meditation at the top of "big hill" where we climbed barefoot to see the temples. See the next post for what I learned here.

Where is your soul?

We sit on the cool stone steps of the Bhandara Temple, in the shade of that two-thousand year old holy shrine. Eyes closed, body relaxed, I can hear the birds on the roof stir. Jwala's keeps her voice low, a practiced meditator and Jain devotee. Feel your feet. Now your ankles. Now your thighs. Now your hands. Your fingers. Now feel your hair. It is blowing in the breeze, can you feel it? Can you feel the color of your skin?
Yes. Yes I can. Wow, I can actually feel the color of my skin.
How is that possible? she asks as I open my eyes. I don't know. How is that possible? Where is your soul? she asks now. I touch my chest, over my heart. Yes, it is there, but it is not limited to your heart. Your soul, your athma, the divine spark that makes you who you are is everywhere. It is in your feet and your fingers, it is even in your hair and the color of your skin. And when you attain knowledge it is not in your mind. Knowledge is a part of your soul. And your pappa and punya, the good and bad that you do in your life, are carried with you on that soul. That athma is all throughout your body. It is chayathanyanaya: filled with light and energy.
India and I have a love hate relationship, our good and bad moments coming in rapid succession everyday. But one of the things I love about India is what it is teaching me about my body and its relationship to my soul. Up until this point I have spent my life taking my body for granted unless forced up against its limits. This means that for twenty four years my body has been either a non-entity or an enemy in my life. But India in all its heat and smells and overwhelming visions (good and bad) has taught me that my body is not a prison in which I am trapped or against which I fight. My body is the medium which I experience everything in my world. Before now my body has been the limitation and modern technology has supplied me with the tools, like air-conditioning, with which to fight it. But here, where my body is left to its own defenses, my body is my only tool. Today I hiked a sacred mountain in bare feet. My body and I are forced to live with each other here, and we have decided to join forces.
Bhahubali achieved enlightenment after meditating for a solid year. He stood still, focused entirely on the inner soul for so long that creeping vines mistook his limbs for trees. Now, thousands of years later this superhuman act of detachment from all things material is memorialized in a 58 foot nude statue. Nudity, in fact, is sort of a theme in Jainism, the religion we have come to this pilgrimage site to study. Everywhere you go another nude statue representing an enlightened and liberated soul stands meditating in eternal detachment. The result is that the human body itself has come to represent all that is most sacred in Jainism. The most important statues and idols in Jainism have no ornaments, no jewels or silks headdresses, nothing more than the simple perfection of the human body.
So much of my life has been spent fighting against my own body image, loathing it for its imperfections and flaws. Seeing my body only in terms of aesthetics, and that always negatively. Comparing it to what it is not, loathing it for what it cannot do. Maybe that is why, today as my chubby, wrinkled, beautiful friend tells me about my true soul, I can feel her words even in the color of my skin.
"No camera has ever matched the wonder of the human eye. No pump was ever built that could run so long and carry such heavy duty as the human heart. The ear and the brain constitute a miracle...These, with others of our parts and organs, represent the divine, omnipotent genius of God." Gordon B. Hinkley

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dumbo's Bigger, More Spiritual Cousin

There are plenty of reasons to visit the Perur temple I suppose. One would be dovotion to Shiva, for whom the temple was built. Or maybe the age of the temple itself draws you, it is, after all, over 1300 years old. Or maybe its the stone work here where hundreds of pillars reaching up to 30 foot ceilings spiral down with intricate hand carved figures of animals, humans, and everything in between. And these are all legitimate reasons to visit the oldest, biggest, most important temple in Coimbatore. My own motivation, however, in making the trip is perhaps not so intellectual or spiritual or artistic. My own motivation is quite simple: the elephant.

But even it that weren't my reason for coming, I am pretty sure I would have reacted the same way as I did when I stepped into the long, cool, hall of the temple surrounded by 1300 year old sculptures and the sound of a Sanskrit chant echoing back to me from all directions. Because as impressive as all that was, He was better. there is something dignified in the movements of a creature so big, even from a distance. And move he does. He dances, really, to the beat of his own drum which has nothing to do with the recorded chant he must hear everyday as he stands in his post, taking donations and giving blessings. He sways smoothly from side to side, lifting his trunk first, then a back leg, then a front leg. Never still and yet his constant movement is more peaceful than the stillness of the rest of the temple. He is marked of course, three white lines on forehead, ears, legs, and trunk. the fact that this white powder is meant to represent the ashes of a cremated cow (which would have died of natural causes, obviously) strikes me as kind of ironic. Decorating one holy animal with the remains of another.

But as we walk past him all that magic dissipates as quickly as it came, because then I can see the chains. These huge, thick chains around both of his front legs and suddenly I'm not charmed anymore. I'm terrified. yeah sure, I'm a little afraid of the animal that would fit into such huge chains, but mostly I'm afraid of the man who put them there.

And I can't help feeling responsible, somehow, for the atrocities inflicted on that beautiful, graceful, and utterly melancholy animal. Because I came here to see him. I came here to put a rupee in his trunk, bow to him, and feel him rest his enormous trunk on my head for a few brief seconds. I came here so I could write to my friends and family about the day I saw an elephant up close and personal. And here I am, just as I wanted, watching the one of the most amazing creatures I've ever seen reduced to doing carnival tricks. And I step up for my turn, of course. I shakingly hold out my coin to him as he lifts his massive trunk and holds it, curving slightly, a few inches from my hand. I give him my ruppee, my measly two cents, and before I even think to incline my head I feel the weight of his trunk on the side of my head. Thump. Something between a gentle tap from him and what to me felt like a blow that knocked me a little sideways. There you go, transaction complete.

I step back a few paces and stand watching him as he follows the same routine for the family behind me. A ten year old girl held out a ruppee twice, having enjoyed the first thump enough to want a second. I try to catch his eye as he works, because I have this crazy idea that I'll find something there, some wisdom perhaps, some knowledge that, as an elephant, he never forgot. He doesn't look at me, though. He doesn't look anyone in the eye. He just goes on dancing his slow, sad dance and passing the rupees he collects to the skinny man at his side. And after a few minutes I give up. Whatever he remembers from his long holy life, he's not telling me. And why would he? After all, I came to the oldest temple in Coimbatore to see a trapped animal dance.

Om Shanti Om.