Friday, May 2, 2008


Just now, I had written a few short paragraphs of what I believed to be the completion of my correspondence.  My problems now seem moot compared to all that has been presented to me over the past few weeks.  How can I truly represent my experience, from the comfort of my home?  Although much more difficult to bear, it was exceedingly easier to channel my experiences from the physical and mental crucible of the Indian sub-continent.  I'm finding myself, at a loss, perhaps too comfortable, perhaps too full of vegan cookies.

Several years ago, I spent a few short hours in Rome.  The circumstances of that situation are unimportant here, however I often joked afterward that I would write a travel book titled: Rome in Three Hours.  I remember spending time at the Coliseum, gazing down from the tiered ancient walls, wondering what it must have been like to look up from the floor of the arena.  What would I notice? Would I be terrified? I couldn't answer those questions then, I'm not sure I can answer them now.  However, when I closed my eyes and tried to picture a description of my time in India, I was standing in the center of the Roman Coliseum, with a breast plate and helmet, shield and sword.  Hoards of Indian men and women staring down at me screaming, waving white scarves, much like those seen at a Spanish bullfight.  Its true, most of the time I was afraid, I was angry, anxious, coarse, distrustful.  These were my assailants, they welled up from within me and presented themselves like beasts from the bowls of the Coliseum.  I took off my armor, laid down my sword, and one by one, I struck them down.  This is Buddhism, this is meditation.  Spiritual War.  Perhaps, the only battle worth fighting, because it is all that can bring peace to yourself, and the world.  

So it ends, just as it had began.  I sit, typing away, at my desk in the corner of the living room, at a fairly unreasonable hour.  There is something comforting about bringing things to a full circle though.  As not to deceive, I must admit, my journey ended a handful of days ago, earlier than I had expected.  The reflection of a decision that I had made in the small town battle ground of Sarnath.  Although, at times I felt as if I could press on further, I was completely content with my decision to leave.  I needed to prove to myself, that there was nothing to prove to myself, or to anyone else for that matter.  What I mean is that, all I had set out to do, spiritually and temporally, I had completed, there was no reason to meet the arbitrary time unit of one month, that I had set up.  At first leaving felt very invalidating, which was something that made me realize, that view must be let go of.  How could my experience be completely invaluable because I returned five days early?  These are the petty goals set up by a western mind and ego, based on numerals, measured with addition and subtraction.  There is no room for feelings, moments, emotions, triumphs.  As I sit here and type, I'm happy to have traded this grading system for a more fulfilling one.  One that doesn't grade at all, it watches and notices, and just is.  Something that nurtures a life of freedom from delusion, a fluctuation around the breath, an easeful existence always being where you are.  

"Get the shit off your face."  Thats what my friend, the Tibetan Lama, had to say about my beard.  It seems funny now, but I understood what he meant.  He knew what I was feeling; that I've been hiding behind the hair on my face, like it was some protection from something unseen.  My Indian battles now over, I rest in Brooklyn, recovering from the austerities of a third world country.  The victories I've won have only scratched the surface of the work that lies ahead, but already I feel a deeper awareness of the universe, and a greater ease in my life, a great shift toward a knowledge of the absolute.  Lurking deep below the surface, behind the walls of the Coliseum are beasts and monsters that now, I cannot fathom, but I must face them all.  This is my life journey, this is my purpose.  I have shaved my beard, my armor is laid down, I am fully exposed.  Daily, I sit down upon the floor, coaxing the beasts from their lairs, and one by one, I will overcome them all.  Come at me, do your worst.  I am not afraid.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Perfect Teacher

"Don't you know that you're the only one sitting here?" The Tibetan Lama readjusted after speaking, then glared at me across the dinner table. We had met two days earlier, on the train platform in Varanasi. Since then I had been spending nearly all of my time in Bodhgaya, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, with him and his student, Bodhi, who is my same age. I had been benefiting from his conversational teachings, which at first seemed esoteric, but later felt very poignant; and have been enduring his purposeful attempts at pushing my buttons.

When I arrived in Gaya train station, Nikesh, the founder of the Ao Zora school, picked me up in an auto rickshaw. Ao Zora, is a school that my friend Vic! had started a small charity to support, it lies across a dried up river, in the old town of Uruvlea, where in the time of the Buddha, a young girl Sujata lived; she gave the Buddha a meal of milk and rice which revived his strength after a period of asceticism, giving him the energy needed to awaken. During my time in Bodhgaya, I had planned on spending a bit of time at the school to try and help their effort. They house ten orphans, who live there at all times; as well as, educating about thirty other students from neighboring villages. I arrived to find that the school was in the back of a convenience store, in a decrepit brick building, crawling with mice. Despite all of this the children are all happy and pleasant and I've found that they're intelligence surpasses their age level in problem solving. After all, they astutely observed that soccer must not be my favorite sport, when we played for a while out back. I taught a science lesson after the recesses period ended, where, to my surprise, while eliciting a response of 1 day, I got and answer of 24 hours, and from the same student came 365 days rather than 1 year. I was happy to be able to help, as well as to listen to the hopes and dreams of the young students.

"I want to go to the Sun"
"You know, its very hot there, something like 12,000 degrees C"
The student's eyes opened wide.
"Well, I don't care if I die, as long as the world knows it was I who went there."

Sitting beneath a sister tree at the Mahabodhi temple I sat staring at the Lama. "These ants have no conception of our world, Bryan. Their life is getting food, and building tunnels, and protecting the Queen, she is everything. They coat their mine shafts with phosphorus for light, amazing little creatures. We have no knowledge of their experience." As I became frustrated last night, not being able to capture the Taj Mahal "correctly"with my camera, I began to fully realize these teachings. My camera is a machine and can only grasp light that has bounced off of objects, what I see is processed by my mind and effectively is colored by the whole of my experience. What each one of us sees is also affected in the same way. If you stood before the Taj last night at dusk, you may not have seen the bright white marble turn to pink in a foggy luminous haze, as the cool evening breeze passed, that was my experience, and mine alone.

"I think Rambo here needs to calm down" Bodhi mentioned, referring to a rather coarse waiter who slammed plates and bottles of soda down on the table. "You have no idea of the burden he's carrying" the Lama said. He then slipped into a state of meditation, the waiter passed, "He is in so much pain, physical pain, in his lower back, I could feel it." The judgement that we have for one another is based on the fallacy that we all experience the exact same thing, that reality lies outside of ourselves, all of this is an illusion. When we understand that everyone acts based on their experience of life, how could we ever judge or be angry at someone again? If someone is behaving poorly, we should see that this is a result of some inner pain, some toxic waste that clouds their judgement and pervades their existence. With this world view all we can have is compassion.

Since my interaction with my friends in Bodhgaya, I've realized that mindfulness of feelings is important to have at all times. Its been helping me with deal with con-artists in Delhi, the family of 5 who inconsiderately talked for the first 10 hours of our 17 hour train ride, and most recently, the Indian anchorman who put me on TV and wanted me to lie, by saying that it was too hot to enjoy the Taj. When we practice mindfulness at all times there is nothing you can be but gentle, because you realize to hurt others is to hurt yourself. Getting to the point where we can be present at all times is quite another issue an takes much time an effort, but I suppose there is no time to lose, so its best to start now.

As my trip draws to a close I'm thankful for all that I've learned, and all who have taught me. From the teachers and students, to the cab drivers and con-men, to the rocks and the trees. This moment is my perfect teacher.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Test of the Heart

Sometimes I can see trees for what they really are. I can't say much more about it than that. I just look at them, and I know. There are two trees at the North West corner of Central Park that have revealed themselves to me; there is a tree in Sarnath, who has done the same, covered in dead vines. Stopped dead in my tracks on the rooftop of the Jain Guest House, I stared at the aging bark, bright leaves, and shrivelling vines that protruded.

Much of my time in Sarnath, the holy place of the Buddha's first sermon, was spent racked with undeniable fear. The small dusty roads of the town converge on a circle where a small statue of a British soldier still stands. The streets are lined with various whallas, selling juice, souvenirs, vegetables, and Ice Cream. They depend on tourism, on Pilgrims coming to this holy site, and in the off season they are relentless toward the few westerners who pass through. This only added to my already shaken condition which I procured in Varanasi. My evenings were spent in my sweltering room with no electricity for fans or lights, i stared into the blackness of night wide awake, while unbelievably exhausted. In the prison cell of Sarnath, I felt every second tick by.

My resistance was in my own heart. Fears which were easily deniable at home were thrust into plain view and I was made to experience them in all of their fury. So I wandered the hot midday streets of Sarnath in a daze caused by my own fear and anxiety, waiting for the loneliness of night where a small candle would cast a dim light on my existence.

I was fortunate to be staying with such a lovely family though. The food I ate there nursed my body back to health, and made me feel comfortable about eating again. While the flatulence of the old grandfather provided for some comical entertainment, although it came at all hours of the day, including meal time. I spoke at length with the head of the family about a free school he was running for children in neighboring villages, to provide basic Hindi, English, and mathematics education. So that they may have the knowledge necessary to succeed in life while still preserving the North Indian culture. I was honored to have met them, their hugs when I left were warm and tender.

Seeing reality through a tree, even for a second, can do wonderful things. Afterward comes a moment of clarity, a simple reminder of how to nurture the heart. I called home, several times. I think that before the tree, I felt that my trip was a way for me to rip myself from my family ties, to experience things on my own, for a while. This, I know now, was a form of asceticism, the antithesis of the middle-way path which the Buddha expounded upon this very spot 2,500 years ago, in the Dhamma Chakka Pavattanna sutta*. How can we be separate if we are all interconnected? My healing had begun.

Dear mother
If you were dead and gone
would I call upon you any less?
I am a process
As are you
there is no division between our breath

Last night, my final evening in Sarnath, began as many others had. I ate dinner, speaking with the family and the two other guests staying there, waiting with fearful anticipation to be locked away in my room, in the darkness. When the time came I walked up the old concrete stairs, who's ceiling was made up of the stars and the moon, unlocked my door and slid the bolt behind me. I showered by candlelight, and dried myself lightly hoping that some remaining water would evaporate in to the arid climate. Fully prepared for battle, I sat down upon the floor, with a small lit candle in front of me. I brought my attention to my breath, at the rising and falling of my abdomen, the location of the hara, the energy center of the body. Suddenly it happened. In my directed attention I saw the systematic nature of existence, that I had nothing to fear because I was one with everything. At that moment every emotion; fear, pain, anxiety, anger, hatred, melted from my body and I became as impermeable as stone to the attempts my mind made to falter my solace. I had found a state of peace in my pain. Afterward as I chanted the Four Great Vows of a Bodhisattva, my voice boomed throughout the universe.

Special Thanks To: Mom & Dad, Uncony & Aunt Dana, Meagan Rory, and Timmy for talking and providing support, sometimes at unmentionable hours.
*If you really wan't to know, the translation from Pali to English is: Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion. If you don't want to know, please disregard

Saturday, April 12, 2008

City of Death

Four men with a bamboo stretcher on their shoulders lightly trot through the old city of Varanasi. Through its narrow canyon-like alleyways who's rock faces are made up of buildings that may be thousands of years old, dotted with small shrines that passerbys remove their shoes and pray to before continuing on their way to work. The men are carrying a body on their shoulders, wrapped in white cloth, bound for the burning ghat. I watch the activities from an old balcony atop ruins, the process is described to me by someone who insists he doesn't want money. The men bring the stretcher down to the Ganga river and submerge the corpse, to wash it of its sins. Then it is placed on a meticulously stacked pile of wood, where the family covers the body in sandalwood powder. A holy man circles the body three times saying a Mantra and then sets the body on fire. This is Varanasi.

As I rode into town on a cycle rickshaw from the train station, the air was filled with the smell and smoke of burning garbage, street vendors stoking coal fires, and the dust churned up from morning cleaning. None of it, however, could prepare me for the smoke exuding from the cremation ghats. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the bodies burn, something that was masked by the sweat pouring from my forehead. Many people in India save their money to come to Varanasi before they die, because they believe to die here is to immediately receive enlightenment. So when an old man or woman feel that the end is near, they gather their belongings, and come here, to enter death along the banks of the Ganga River. Many times, if not an overwhelming majority of the time, they don't die when they expect to, and run out of money. Thus, along the ghats and in small crevices of the old city lye the frail and hopeless elderly of India, waiting to pass on.

I came here via 13 hour bus ride from Dharamsala to Delhi, followed by a 16 hour train ride from Delhi to Varanasi. Something that weakened me quite a bit, due to the lack of sleep I got over two nights. In the lobby of the Yogi Lodge, where I'm staying, I met a Buddhist Nun and an Anigerika who were traveling together. I joined them for lunch, however, by the time my club soda and banana came, it became apparent that I could no longer deny the fact that I was very sick. The two of them took very good care of me, dropping me back at the hotel and going to the pharmacy and market to get the necessary medicine and food I needed to regain my strength. Under their care I was only in bed for one full day. Back on my feet yesterday, and 100% by today.

Finally able to walk about freely today, I went down to the bathing ghats of the Ganga river and hired a boatman for a ride. The river is one of the holiest symbols of the Hindu religion, people throw flowers into it and submerge themselves to wash away bad karma. A perplexing contradiction that exists in Indian society, or at least Hindu culture is that people shower, wash their clothes, and throw garbage in this holy place. A majority of the old city lies along the banks of the river with great stone steps breaking its surface leading to the river bed. Raising up from the river are ancient buildings and temples that make one feel as if they had found Atlantis, some of them so old and heavy that they are literally sinking into the river, some of them are already partly submerged. This city is as old as time, and so is its culture, businessmen in button down shirts living beside renunciate holy men in robes, as well as, goats, water buffalo, and cows, who roam the streets and alleyways freely.

Everyday life carries on here amidst the shadow of death that lurks over the city. Something that makes me exceedingly uncomfortable as time here wears on. I believe its due to the different mindset we have in the west, our whole lives are spent denying the fact that we will one day die, we watch television, buy cars, and go to the mall. My experience here has thrown to the forefront two of the most horrifying realities. Firstly, the fragility of life, and secondly, the certainty of death. I am eager to leave this place. I depart for Sarnath tomorrow.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tibet In Exile

Dharamsala has been the capital of the Tibetan government in exile since the Dalai Lama escaped Chinese forces in 1959. Three kilometers up a steep incline is the hill station of McLeod Ganj, a place that the Dalai Lama calls home, and by no coincidence is the Tibetan cultural center of exiled Tibetans. The trip from Delhi encompassed 16 hours, through the pitch black desolation of rural India where many were keeping warm by small fires of garbage by the side of the road. The drivers stopped frequently to carry out their own business, tying sacks of potatoes and crates of strawberries to the roof of the sleeper bus. After about 12 hours, the snowy peaks of the Himalayas reared up from the horizon, as if guarding the famed hill station which holds safe the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people.

Upon arrival I was met with the cold damp air which is characteristic of the region. It seems that there always a slight drizzle on, something which feels like a metaphor for the tears in the hearts of the exiled community here, from the old women who will never see their home again to the orphans at the Tibetan Children's Village who's parents were slaughtered by Chinese insurrection. The town itself is very small, with only five roads radiating from the town's center, which makes it much more manageable than the Delhi; however the narrow roads do not allow for much mobility and the honking is on par with the nations capital.

I secured lodging in a dorm at the Ladies Venture Hotel, at the bottom of the hill on Jogiwara Road which leads to Dharamsala. The dark wood furniture and shrine to the Dalai Lama on the wall next to my bed bring up images of ancient times and cold nights on the Plateau of Tibet. The cold nights in the heat less room have forced me to buy a shawl to wrap around my body while I sleep under the blankets, fully clothed.

The pouring rain that woke me from my sleep yesterday morning was bitterly cold. I walked up the street and met the Tibetan refugee who I'm sharing my dorm with, to have a lunch of hot Tibetan soup and Tibetan dumplings called MoMos, which I may eat my body weight in by the time I depart. My roommate Dowl, is a painter who speaks very little and sleeps most of the day, I inferred that this may be out of some depression from being displaced. Although he doesn't talk much, he is always asking to go to meals with me, which I believe is out of sheer loneliness. He also likes American music, which he gets in the off chance that a westerner leaves something behind at an Internet cafe. In the early afternoon while on a walk to a town called Bhagsu, the weather broke. The clouds lifted from the mountains and the sun appeared illuminating the smokey peaks. This gave me the energy required to continue on to the town where I was looking for the only Hindu temple in India devoted to the god Shiva.

The old temple is centered around a sacred spring where people bathe in a cleansing ritual, although I only saw people washing their mouths and face with the water. The source of the spring was another Hike up a steep incline to a waterfall which spews from a cleave in the hills. The waterfall originates from the river Ganga, a sacred river in the Hindu faith. The group of Indians I met on the climb were friendly and devout, but were also a bunch of jokesters, trying to set me up with western women they saw on the way down. "You want special friend, yes yes." The bought me tea back in town to make up for it.

Every night at dusk the town square slowly begins to fill with people. Maroon robed monks, school children in uniform, old men and women, and western tourists. One by one each palm illuminates with the fire of a candle. The Tibetans begin to chant verses of a prayer over and over, and the crowd becomes a procession down Jogiwara Road. Led by the monks the march winds across to a road that leads past a cage like structure of monks on hunger strike to the Dalai Lama's residence and the main temple in McLeod. The crowd gathers in an outdoor area within the compound and monks light small candles in brass containers for each Tibetan murdered in the recent struggle with China. All the while the chanting has continued, until a head monk stops the crowd to begin a slow and sad melody that conjures up images of ancient times and the suffering of a people. Although I don't understand the lyrics the song makes the hair stand on the back of my neck and goosebumps appear on my body.

oh, ancient hymn
from far beyond the hills and mountains
soothe every sore throat
with a sip from that which cannot be destroyed

I woke early this morning to bright rays of sunshine which burned the smoke from the distant mountains and allowed the peaks of the Himalayas to appear behind the hills. The weather only improved as I made my way to the temple. The high security gave away that the Dalai Lama would appear from behind the guards and gates of his residence. I sat waiting with a man named Gerry whom I met on the bus ride up, watching the sun glisten on the mountains through the Himalayan Cedar trees that cover the landscape. I was very grateful that my Karma had brought me here. Gerry nudged my back and pointed upward, there were birds circling overhead, I like to believe that they were drawn by the good energy. After much waiting the Dalai Lama emerged from his quarters and passed by the group into the temple. We watched him give a public prayer in Tibetan from television monitors. When it was over I ended up, through some chaotic reorganization, in front of the crowd. As the Dalai Lama passed right in front of me, I got on my knees, placed my hands in Anjali and bowed my head.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The First Steps

My arrival in India was met with the smell many warned me of. I was expecting something of an olfactory nightmare, but on the contrary, I found it rather pleasant. Something like a mix of potting soil and plants, which brought back memories of spring time at the garden shop, picking out geraniums and planting them in small clay pots to line the walkway. I wondered in retrospect if it might be the smell of a country not completely covered in asphalt.

The first experience I've had with Indian driving was my ride from the airport. On this trip I found that the driving is more like flowing water, small tributaries slamming into major rivers with a certain dare deviling grace. It is however a mystery to me how there seem to be no accidents; I learned that signs, traffic lights, and the dividing lines are only mere suggestions, and that the constant sound of horns are more like a ships passing signals rather than an aggravated assault like back home.

Delhi is a constant scam. Even the man who owns the guest house where I'm staying owns a tour company and was immediately trying to push tour packages on me which included cities where I had not planned on going. After I explained myself he seemed to be more reasonable than I expected, so I booked my bus ride to Dharamsala through him which worked out fine. I resolved to go on my own to the Old City section, so I hopped in an auto rickshaw. I was dropped at Red Fort which is a landmark of the city but, all in all, nothing special. I stopped in a Jain temple where they have a bird hospital. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering the premises, which is true of many places, but when I visited the bird hospital there was a sticky film on the floor which I could just not look past at this point, and that was the end of that visit. I was then followed by a man on a bicycle rickshaw until I finally gave in to take his tour, which was actually very good, however at the end he insisted the price we agreed upon was a rate and not a flat charge. I had to be very firm with him and we agreed on a final price which was 50% of what he asked for and was still a total rip-off. He kept saying "no petrol, no petrol, hard work, exercise." He took me to a spice market, which is apparently famous, its in an old building which looks more like city walls with a huge open center. The market encompasses the center and the alleys along the walls. The driver took me to the roof, which he said was a good view, it turned out that he took me through someones apartment and to their roof area, where the tenant was drying clothes in his underwear. There was a lot of yelling.

More importantly this experience is testing my comfort level. At present I'm very uncomfortable. Which, I suppose is a combination of being alone, the uncertainty of my day to day dealings, and warding off constant scams. My work is therefore to be present with these constant disconcerted feelings that comes from being alone in the third world; it appears that at the moment that is my sacred duty. That being said, I look forward to Dharamsala where it is my understanding that it is much calmer and placid than Delhi.

p.s.- Yes, there are lots of monkeys. They're cool.

Monday, March 31, 2008

"...only in a leap from the lion's head shall he prove his worth"

© 1989 LUCASFILM ltd.
It was 1989 and I was 6 years old.  I can still remember my mother hanging up the phone and shaking her head.  Although I was incredibly stubborn, the logic that seeing any movie rather than no movie at all must have appealed to me.  That is why I picked myself up off the red and blue tiled kitchen floor and agreed to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade rather than a possibly more popular movie among my age bracket, which starred a professional wrestler named Hulk Hogan.  I dried my eyes as my mother picked up the phone again.
I can remember standing in line, having completely forgotten all about the battle from earlier in the day.  The velvet meniscus of the queue ropes passed below my eyes, and I tried to decipher a pictorial representation of the movie rating system; which included a giraffe in the G section and a man with a mustache and sunglasses in the X section.  I asked my Aunt what "Rated X" meant, she asked me if I wanted any popcorn.  I did.
If there is anyway a six year old could be completely enthralled by something that was completely over his head, George Lucas seemed to have found it.  I was so clueless about many of the details of the movie at the time, that now I recall an afternoon in my Grandmother's back yard where I explained to family members how Indiana had to spell Insect in Latin, rather than Jehovah.  Fortunately, all of that is not so important.  The movie struck a spiritual chord within me that has resonated throughout my childhood to the present.  The quest for the holy grail as depicted in the movie represented much more to me than just that, it was a mysterious connection to something supernatural, something that I had not been able to put my finger on until recently.  Looking back I've come to realize that most of my life, whether I've known it or not, has been devoted to finding the answers to the deep spiritual questions that pervade human existence.  In fact most of the time I did not know it, most of the time I tried my hardest to reject it. 
For nearly three years, my study of Buddhism has brought meaning and clarity to my life.  It is time now to make my own quest to a land of antiquity, much like the archaeologist hero from my childhood.  A chance to experience what I deeply try to embody, and to cultivate the motivation for practice known as Pasada which keeps the unsatisfactoriness of life from turning to despair. 
 The final challenge Indiana faces before reaching the holy grail is a "leap from the lion's head," a leap of faith.  My leap will take place with faith in myself; knowing that I'm making the right decisions for the right reasons, a confidence that I don't normally have.  As many of you know this wasn't easy for me, so I would like to thank my family, teachers, friends and all others from George Lucas on down who have supported me and are the reason for where I am today.  I will take you all with me in my travels, which I mean as an endearment and literally; because we are all interconnected and can never be separated, that is the beauty of all things. 
Right now dave the cat is curled up on my raincoat on the floor, I'd like to think it means that he doesn't want me to leave.

A Dedication:  May the merits of this trip be spread to all sentient beings, so that they may be happy, healthy, free from stress and pain, and live with ease.