The People We Met

 

 

I’m not a professional photographer.  I’m barely a hobbyist. When I arrived in India, I didn’t even have a camera with me.  I was there not as a tourist, I thought, but as a pilgrim, visiting the Buddhist holy land with Zen Master Bon Haeng and two other practitioners from the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.  We joined nearly two hundred other members of the Kwan Um School of Zen as part of the international school’s triennial Whole World is a Single Flower conference.  Our itinerary included visits to Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he gave his first discourse, and Kushinagar, where he died after nearly half a century of teaching.  Other points of interest included Rajgir, site of the ruins of Nalanda University and Vulture Peak, where the Buddha famously held a single flower aloft to wordlessly transmit his teaching to his disciple, Mahakasyapa.

Before we had left Delhi, I knew that I needed a camera, so I bought one from this guy:

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Around every corner, I was met by incredible juxtapositions of antiquity and modernity, affluence and poverty, the sacred and the profane, all rich in the varied textures of human experience and awash in every color of the spectrum beneath the hazy, unrelenting sun.  It was clear that one needn’t be a professional photographer in order to return home from India with an array of stunning, haunting images of a land that defies conventional Western understanding.

Shortly after coming home, I decided that it would be cool to display some of my photos at the local library, so I got on a waiting list for gallery space.  It’s been a long wait.  My intention in assembling this gallery display had originally been to showcase the various sacred sites we visited, but as I was perusing the couple of hundred pictures I ended up taking, I was reminded of something Zen Master Bon Haeng had said: “We go on trips thinking that we’re going to go to new places and see all kinds of incredible things, what ends up being most important is the people we met while we were there.”  As it turns out, most of the pictures I chose for the gallery, many of which are displayed above and in other blog entries, are of people.  I feel that this is somehow in keeping with the experience of the Buddha.  I don’t think that he spent a lot of time in temples; he just walked around and talked to people.  Among those pictured here are Hindu devotees, Buddhist pilgrims from around the globe, citizens of the ancient holy city of Varanasi in the process of living their daily lives on the banks of the Ganges River, and a surly camera salesman.

 

 

 

To the Other Shore

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I love this photograph.  It’s a mistake, a simple and predictable result of my boundless tech un-savvy.  It was supposed to be a picture of Carlos, a travelling companion and dharma friend, diving off the bow of a boat into the Ganges at dawn.  He’d insisted on performing this inadvisable feat because a couple of us had submerged ourselves in the waters on the far shore a few nights before, and he didn’t want to be outdone.  He wasn’t.  Where we’d timidly dipped ourselves into waist-deep water, he dove out of the boat in the middle of the river, swam to the far shore, then swam back through the increasingly filthy water to the ghats of Varanasi.  He’d asked to be photographed for posterity.  I snapped the picture just as he was suspended in the air between the boat and the surface of the water, oblivious to the fact that there’s a split second delay between the pressing of the button and the digital capturing of the image.  What I was left with is a picture of the scene immediately after Carlos disappeared below the surface of the water, a not-too-useful memento of his unsurpassed act of bravery and devotion.

The picture has remained disregarded in my photo gallery for four years owing, again, to my behind-the-curve tech skills; I don’t know how to delete pictures from the file, and I’m too lazy to figure it out.  I ran across it recently as I perused my photo gallery in search of India pictures for an upcoming showing at the local library.  It caught my eye immediately.  I’d never realized that, although Carlos isn’t visible in the photo, the splash he created as he dove into the water is.  Here, then, is one of those delicious cases where two wrongs make a right: a picture that shouldn’t have been snapped to begin with and should have been deleted years ago will be one of the coolest photographs on the wall, a strikingly simple, beautiful image of absence and emptiness worthy of a Pink Floyd album cover.

This photograph is noteworthy not for what it shows, but for what it doesn’t show; there’s no one in it.  Not Carlos.  Not  me.  Not the boatman or either of our other two travelling companions.  Not a single one of the four million people in Varanasi.  It’s an interesting reminder of what’s going on just beneath the veneer of drama that we unconsciously lay over reality on a moment to moment basis; namely, not much.  Universal energy manifests as various forms and shifts from action to reaction, but it’s all the same energy.  All that happened in the moment that this photo was snapped was that God jumped off of God into God while God took a picture.  In other words, nothing happened.

In the classic analogy explaining the necessity of leaving behind teachings and practices that no longer serve us, we’re reminded that when we reach the other shore, we leave the boat behind rather than carry it with us.  Looking at this picture, I wonder if it’s sometimes necessary to leave the boat behind before the other shore is reached…

Death and Life on the Ghats

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Boatman pointing out his craft on the pre-dawn Ganges, Varanasi.

As I sift through photographs of my trip to India in preparation for an upcoming gallery display, I’ve dug out my travel journal in order to check my memories against my perceptions of the experience at the time.  I’m not sure if this particular photograph will make the cut, although there’s something about the composition that I like.  My impressions of the night it was taken, however, are worth sharing.  This excerpt is from October 20, 2011.

Several nights ago I bathed in the Ganges, an adventure that few embark on for the obvious reason that it is filthy and polluted, but I didn’t fly half way around the world just to look at the most holy river.  It began as a lark with me, Max, and James on  our last night in Varanasi as we wandered closer and closer to the river, eventually buying flip-flops and loogis and a guide along with them.  We decided to hire a boat to “the other shore,” something every boatman seemed reluctant to do; police frown on it so late at night, and this upped the fee to 2000 rupees to get three of us across.

We were led down ancient alleys in the oldest section of the oldest city, going places and seeing things that none of us had any business seeing.  The beggars were gone, as the tourists stopped flowing hours earlier and blocks away.  Scenes of depraved filth and poverty met us around every corner – dark, putrid, unpredictable; the type of situation where I knew I was way too close to the edge and wondered how much farther I could push it, since there was obviously no turning back.

Finally, we emerged at the ghats near where we’d taken a boat ride that morning… it all looked familiar, yet sinister.  The ghats of the Ganges look far different than they do in National Geographic.

The entry ends there, preempted no doubt by the deep sleep that was my only respite from the chaos and sensory overload that is Varanasi.  The boatman had taken the three of us very quickly to the far shore, fearful of being spotted and fined by the police.  We’d all agreed that the best course of action was to cross the river in order immerse ourselves, the better to avoid contact with trash, the odd dead goat, and detritus from the funeral pyres upstream.  The boatman urged us to “make haste” as we disembarked on a steep sand bar to wash away our sins.  My newly acquired flip flops sank deep into the muddy sand as I held my breath, shut my eyes tight, held my nose even tighter, and crouched down into the opaque grey liquid until the top of my head was completely covered in dubious holiness.  I never knew that water could actually be thick, but Max later concurred that that’s exactly what it was.  James opted to pass on absolving a lifetime of sins rather than risk debilitating, gut-violating infection.  Fortunately, Max and I were unaffected by full contact with the 5th most polluted river in the world, and James, as far as I know, has not been destroyed by his karma.

We climbed back into the boat, unaware that our night’s journey would take us even closer to the edge of the Void.  As we returned to the ghats, our guide offered to lead us to the funeral pyres, which it turns out, are basically large campfires fueled by wood typically purchased with the life savings of the departed soul whose earthly remains are placed on top.  Although each corpse is wrapped in white cloth and dipped into the sacred river before being cremated, the entire procedure is best described as “unceremonious,” as there is a colossal waiting line.  These fires have burned around the clock for over two hundred years in order to keep up with the demand, and not all those waiting in line are dead; there is a sort of hospice house above the ghat where the terminally ill await the good fortune of dying in this most holy city.

I was surprised by my lack of revulsion or emotionality at seeing a pair of human legs sticking out of the flames like two oversized sticks of cordwood, so close to my own bare legs that the hair on my calves was singed by the heat.  The unsentimental thought arose that the only difference between the two pairs of legs was a handful of years.  The sweet, earthy odor of the smoke reached me along with the realization that there’s more to us than these hunks of meat that we insist on calling “me.”  It’s humbling to consider that I’m not as limited as I’ve always assumed myself to be.

This glimpse of true nature, of the immensity of human potential is illuminated daily with the performance of devotional rituals as the sun rises over the Ganges.  After touring the Buddhist holy sites of Sarnath, Bodh Ghaya, Kushinagar, and Lumbini, we returned to Varanasi for another sunrise boat ride.  Struck again by how different, how alive, the ghats look by daylight, I recalled the night that my travelling companions and I had our foreheads anointed with ashes from the fire of Shiva, which has burned for three thousand years.  It occurred to me as I watched devotees doing morning ablutions that these same rites have been performed every single morning for at least that long.  The actors have changed, but the ritual has endured the millennia day after day after day in the same way the leaves are renewed yearly on a tree that lives for centuries.  Whether a leaf, a tree, a human being, or a river, we all have our part to play in the cosmos.  As I watched the faithful bathe, I thought how comforting, how humbling, and how extraordinary, to be nothing more or less than another leaf on a tree…SAM_0432

Morning rituals on the ghats at Varanasi

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a leaf on a tree

Return to the Mother

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Author posing with a street cow, Varanasi

It’s been just over three years since I travelled to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land with a couple of hundred members of the International Kwan Um School of Zen sangha.  It doesn’t seem like that long; I think of the trip often, and most of the pictures on this blog, with the exception of the recent Thailand photos, are from India.  My brief time spent in that vast, strange, and beautiful land got pretty deeply into my bones.  I had the privilege of spending  a night under the Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and the courage to bathe by darkness in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  Both of these experiences can only be described as “life changing.”  After I’d returned home, an anonymous friend commented that such profound experiences take a long time to sink in; the psychological effects take a while to manifest.

I’m not sure if the psychological effects of my trip to India have manifested yet, but the opportunity to process the experience has.  Not long after I got back, I submitted an application to display some of my photographs in a gallery at the local library.  I was told there’s a long waiting list.  Last week, the library contacted me to inform me that one of the galleries is reserved for me for the month of November, 2015.  A year may seem like a long time to prepare for a gallery showing, but I tend not to move very quickly.  As I sift through my photo archives, I look forward to distilling my India experience through writing as part of the selection process.  I’ll be interested to see what insight the light of three years’ time shines on an adventure that was at once overwhelming and exciting.

What I find most unbelievable looking back is that I went there without a camera.  I didn’t own one at the time, committed as I was to the “full experience of the moment.”  I’d long been convinced that carrying a camera was an unnecessary distraction, that concern with setting up the perfect frame to capture a great photograph detracted from the enjoyment of the experience.  There may be truth in this, but thank God I relaxed my stance.  By the day after we arrived, I knew I couldn’t not have a camera.  The photo ops were way too good.  India is relentlessly colorful, with unignorable juxtapositions of modern and ancient, poor and affluent, sacred and profane around every corner. My photo exhibit will be titled “Walking In The Footprints of The Buddha.” I hope you enjoy the images, and, as they say in the trade, may they be of benefit to all beings.

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Footprints of The Buddha, Maha Bhodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

That Doesn’t Sound Like Much Fun

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Hindus performing morning ablutions on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India

A guy named Swami Magalananda once invited me to attend a day-long retreat he was leading. He’s a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, or the Hindu path of devotion. The colorful, love-filled gatherings of devotees tend to have very high energy, with lots of music, ecstatic chanting, and dancing in the spirit. Unfortunately, my spiritual dance card was full that weekend, as I’d already registered for a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I told Swami Magalananda a little about our practice; completely silent save for the monotone chanting that’s markedly different from what goes on in the kirtans that he’s used to, a zen retreat consists of numerous sitting sessions punctuated by walking meditation, ritual-style meals, and a work period.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Swami Magalananda remarked.

“No, it kind of isn’t,” I replied after brief reflection. But then again, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spiritual practice that isn’t about me having a good time. It actually has nothing to do with me and my personal preferences, unless I choose to make it about me and my personal preferences. That’s when it gets difficult, because that’s when my ego is threatened.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same. Zen practice has the power to cut through the delusion of “self” and “other” by uniting the sangha in the “together action” of chanting, walking and sitting. When I choose to let my ego get involved, however, I have the power to do exactly the opposite. It’s a strict practice, and although most Temple Rules are outlined our manual of practice guidelines, it’s pretty much a big game of follow the leader. Just show up, watch what senior sangha members are doing, and try to follow suit. This affords tremendous opportunity for mistakes.

I don’t like to be corrected. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t, so there’s nothing special or unique there. The important question is: how do I respond when my practice form is corrected? Do I resent the person who is trying to help me? Do I feel ashamed at having made a mistake? I could spend post after post psychoanalyzing myself, researching my past to locate the root of those feelings, but that’s not entirely useful. As Pema Chodron says, while it can be helpful to look at our lives to see how mental and emotional patterns may have developed, if we consider the possibility of reincarnation, these are likely “ancient wounds.” Lacking the backstory of all those past lives, all we’re left with is moment to moment awareness of those feelings as they arise, and a recognition that we have a choice of how to respond. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to change our karma. As they say in 12 Step Recovery, “if you want what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done.” If you want something else, do something different.

The upshot of all this is that after several years of practicing both Korean Zen and 12 Step Recovery, I’ve come to notice that the work I need to do is always somewhere in between me and the work I think I need to do. My problem is always as immediate as my own mind in this moment. In other words, the problem isn’t that I sounded the wrong number of beats on the moktak at the beginning of a chant; the problem arises as I feed into resentment or shame when someone brings it to my attention. I’m essentially creating division at a point of choice where I could create unity by simply saying “Thank you.” Every human interaction is like that.