Thursday, January 17, 2008

Notes from the Rails . . .

It’s 8:45pm on January 16th and I’m riding the Mahabodhi Express heading west from the Biharian town of Gaya to Delhi. We left Gaya, a nasty town, at 2:30 this afternoon and are due to arrive into the New Delhi station at around 5:30 am.

This is a high-speed train, as opposed to the many local and “mail" trains that ply the tracks of the Indian railway system, the world’s largest both in terms of track mileage and daily passengers. Like most things in India, the train system is chaotic, confusing, always delayed, over crowded and patience-trying . . . and it works perfectly.

The train is packed, we just picked up a bunch of passengers at a place called Allamabad Junction. I am riding in 3AC class, in which I have a sleeping pad (number 15 in car 1A-B) and the “AC” part of the ticket classification is a misnomer – there is no air conditioning.

The pads are narrow and short and are stacked three-high, they fold out from the compartment walls, so it’s pretty tight, there’s not a lot of room, perhaps three feet from your pad to the one above. (Claustrophobics stay away!) Everyone gets a bed sheet, pillow and little hand towel.

My friend Maya is asleep on the pad above mine, we are the only westerners riding in car 1A-B tonight.

I am fortunate, I have a “corridor” pad which means I have absolutely no privacy, but I do have a little fold-down table on which I am writing this. Privacy is something one learns not to grasp too tightly in India.

Traveling along with us is a large colony -- family? tribe? army? -- of cockroaches. I’ve never been in an Indian train without them, but this car is completely infested. They are everywhere; almond-shaped, brown and gold, brazen and confident and they give me the creeps, but they’re quiet, don’t bite, and no one else seems to take notice of them, so what the heck. (Nonetheless, it takes courage to close one’s eyes and try to sleep.)

Every 30 minutes or so the chai vendor comes through, it’s hot and passable and costs just five rupees (about 12 cents) for a cup. We also brought fruit (oranges, bananas, pomegranates, apples) and have a friend in the next car who brought biscuits. As the phrase goes, a moveable feast.

All told, for 600 rupees (about $16), a night on the train isn’t so bad: I get to Delhi and don’t have to pay for a hotel room, tonight Pad 15 is home-sweet-home. In fact, it’s better than “not so bad” -- it’s fun, another in a string of experiences in this country of intense conditions in which attitude is the knife-edge on which the mind is thrown into either misery or joy.

So, tomorrow’ll be a day in Delhi, we’re going to throw our bags into a cheap hotel in the Parahganj, the “grand bazaar” area near the train station and then head over to the Tibetan settlement north of town where a travel agent is holding our bus tickets for the 4:00pm “deluxe” bus to Dharamsala, tickets arranged by Fred, Maya’s husband. (I’ve ridden these busses before, I think deluxe means there’s seats.)

Fred is in Dharamsala, he and Maya have been living there for the past year. In February they’ll be leaving India (visa problems) to move to a small town northeast of Amsterdam. (Fred is Dutch, Maya is Israeli.)

So tomorrow night will again be spent traveling, this time in a bus heading north from Delhi, through the Sikh-dominated Punjab (the Golden Temple of Armritsar is a magnificent sight at any time of day or night) and into the Himalayas.

When we arrive in Dharamsala early in the morning it will be cold and wet, likely snowy. The town will be empty; after I leave in ten days it will begin filling to overflow for the Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebration, immediately after which the Dalai Lama will conduct his traditional public teaching.

I expect to be happy to be back in Tibetan-culture-rich Dharamsala after an almost two-year absence. As many know, it was there that sitting at a candlelit table during a week of late nights with a refuge named Singhi (Sing-geee) and a Tibetan-English dictionary that my “dharma” experience sprouted wings and took off. And so much has happened in the time since.

While in Dhasa (as the locals call it) I’ll certainly enjoy time together with dear friends Fred and Maya, and of course I’m excited to see Singhi, who doesn’t know I’m coming.

I’ll visit the school where I taught conversational English to Tibetan refugees, and if Jigme, my friend who is the school’s director wants, I’ll be happy to do a special “What’s Happening Today in America” talk. Tibetans are very curious about how we live in the west.

I’ll visit the Namgyal monastery and the temples that are part of the Dalai Lama’s “complex” – having taken refuge as a Buddhist since I was last there I believe doing practice in that beautiful and auspicious place will be quite meaningful.

I’ll hike up to Bhagsu Falls, a splendid waterfall at the end of a steep canyon that bears very special emotional significance for me.

If it’s open, I hope to visit the Tibetan Archives library, and also spend some time at the terrific library at Tushita, the meditation center in the thick forest above Dharamsala.

I look forward to eating the delicious pizza at my friend Lobsang’s restaurant, perched on a ridge-top overlooking the Dalai Lama’s residence and the valley far below. And speaking of food, bring on the Tibetan momos (vegetable- and potato-filled dumplings)!!!

I think Fred, Maya and I will leave town for a day to visit the nunnery that Ven.Tenzin Palmo, a wonderfully inspiring English-born Tibetan Buddhist nun founded and is resident at. We’ll also likely take teachings from HH the Karmapa, a very special and radiant being, at his monastery.

There’ll be a lot to do, but here’s what’s most exciting to me: this all comes after almost four weeks in Bodhgaya, the last 10 days of which were spent in intense and wonderful Lam-rim meditation retreat.

In retreat we covered a remarkable amount of ground, both in scope and depth. We sat for more than 80 meditations and performed a diverse range of Tibetan Buddhist practices. We learned and reflected and contemplated, did circumambulations, motivations, dedications and purifications. And even though the retreat was conducted in silence, through shared experience many became friends.

Physically, it was demanding. We woke at 5:15 each morning and finished at around 9:30pm. There were prostrations. The food was good at times, usually just OK. Some days we took Mahayana precepts, which includes a fast from noon until the next morning. Hours of sitting in the gompa brought on stiff necks, sore backs and burning knees. Nights and mornings were cold and hot water was scare. The beds were hard and uncomfortable, especially for those of us with older bodies. The wool blankets were scratchy. The mosquitoes unending. Obstacles galore.

It was also emotionally difficult. Lam-rim meditations leave few stones unturned.

I, and I know I’m not alone, had realizations of mind arise that caused deep despair, sadness and regret. We became familiar with suffering, at times feeling trapped in it. But there were also moments of equanimity and compassion, and bliss, and the understanding from which strength and determination emerge.

It wasn’t easy, but it was precious, this path of the Lam-rim, and we knew it.


Not easy and precious. That seems to be the theme for this trip, through the arduous traveling and sickness and long hours and dusty air and sore body and beggars and mosquitos and cockroaches and the mind-melting energy of the Mahabodhi Stupa.

Buddha taught the middle path, experiencing such intensities it is hard to keep on it.

Tonight it’s the express to Delhi and then tomorrow into the mountains. And then, less than two weeks from now, home to work, family and friends. All of this with many new and beneficial imprints on/in my mind. I know they’re there, I can sense their presence. A dharma “toolbox” of insights just waiting for proper conditions to manifest.

And here’s what’s so exciting. There will be no end to the opportunities in which to engage mindfulness and proper intention. To be aware. To use wisdom. To generate merit. To develop bodhicitta. And to act accordingly. Starting right now.

All of this played out on the field of “disturbing and obscuring mind” as Rinpoche says.

Like I said, it’s not easy, but it’s so very precious.

I will try to do my best.