Thursday, December 02, 2010

Finding Peace In India

I am a world traveler and seeker of holy and soul stirring moments. I have been overpowered by unexplainable feelings of ecstasy and peace in the presence of spiritual masters many times during the course of my global jaunts, from Oregon to Nepal with many stops in between.

In January of 2009, I deepened my exploration for inner peace when I attended the teachings of the Karmapa, the supreme leader of one of the major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. The teachings were at the ancient Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India where the Buddha found enlightenment. King Ashoka commissioned the towering stone temple in the 3rd century B.C. in honor of this most auspicious event.

It was a unique and authentic experience with few western tourists about. I spent five days sitting as an observer in wafting clouds of incense while watching thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns from 5 to 80 years old, dressed in fiery orange and saffron robes. They meditated and chanted in Sanskrit all hours of the day.

His holiness the Karmapa led meditations. He spoke about compassion, living in the moment, the real life application of the 4 noble truths, and shared beautiful stories from the life of the Buddha.

Tibetan refugees were everywhere, making prostrations to the Karmapa, often times with turquoise jewels embedded in their hair and sandal wood prayer beads rolling in their hand. As with the pilgrims at Mecca, thousands of them continuously circled the temple in a clockwise circle. They were entranced in mantras like "Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha" and "Om Mani Padmi Hum" meaning the jewel that lies within the heart of the lotus or spiritual transformation.

There was subtle electricity in the air. I could feel it on my skin. The power of this scene moved me to tears and my body felt light. A deep sense of joy penetrated my every cell. Very few thoughts floated in my head during those days, and I don't know why. I guess this is what happens when being surrounded by a sea of people engaged in intense prayer.

I rested in lotus position at the foot of the bodhi tree where the Buddha once sat. I closed my eyes and prayed. When I opened my eyes, a leaf floated into my lap. It was like the silent living tree knew that I would open my eyes just in that moment. I interpreted it as a message of peace and enlightenment.

The scene was a mystic dream and what I hope for Shangri La to be. If peace were a location, it would be Bodh Gaya.

The Journey To Peace

I've read similar accounts of spiritual tourists who went to India to seek their guru or to attend a meditation retreat. Their feelings of euphoria echo mine, and yet it almost sounds too perfect for me to believe. Now that I have experienced India, I know their stories have left something out.

I witnessed complete chaos during my journey to see the Karmapa, and I need to share this too. Peace is not just about high and ethereal moments. It's also about the shadows that we walk through to get there. Think about it. How could peace be recognized if you never experienced anything else?

The back-story began when I landed in Delhi. The second I walked into the airport to collect my luggage, the smell of burning plastic filled my nose. Minutes later, I felt an itchy burning sensation in the back of my throat that didn't disappear until I left Delhi days later.

I waited at the Delhi station to catch my train to Bodh Gaya. I sat down at a little café where I ordered some toast and eggs, because I wanted the comfort of something familiar in the exotic land of curry and rice.

As I sat there, a barefoot child approached me in tattered clothing with messy hair and big sad eyes. She begged for money, but I refused to give it to her because I just saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire a month before. The film told the story of how many of these begging children are enslaved and forced to collect money for dark hearted and greedy adults. These adults don't use the money to provide these children with what they need.

I offered the girl my toast instead of money. She wouldn't take it at first, but I was persistent. Like a beaten and cowering dog, she looked to make sure that no one was watching. She scarfed down the toast in seconds.

The train departed. I thought leaving the city would mean cleaner air, but it kept getting browner. I wasn't sure if the sun was going down or if the pollution was growing thicker. I felt suffocated and scared of the unknowns that I would face during this eleven-hour train ride.

As the train chugged on, women washed their clothes and dishes in the dirty water of a ditch. Children were with them, playing in the filthy water. Garbage covered the ground as far as I could see. People were physically suffering from the effects of poverty and hunger, but I will spare you the imagery. It still makes me cry to even think about it. This was hell on earth and I was horrified for the people who lived there.

The bathroom on the train was a joke. The toilet was just a hole in the floor, and I could clearly see the train tracks through the hole. So much for proper plumbing.

I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself that this wasn't real. I popped my headphones on and did my best to get lost in music as the rickety old train rolled down the tracks.

Hours passed. I fell asleep, only to be woken up by the image of an Indian policeman beating several Indian women with the butt of his rifle. It was so confusing to wake up to. His rage was frightening. I wish I could have stopped him, but I didn't know how. It was even more disturbing to see the Indian passengers on the train that didn't bat an eye or turn their heads to see what was happening.

The train stopped, but only for the policeman to kick the women off. Like a bad dream, he vanished into the night. I never saw him again.

When the dust settled, I asked a young Indian man across the aisle to explain what happened. He said that the women were gypsies and they hopped the train without paying for tickets.

Time inched on and my spirits started to lift as the first rays of the morning sun broke the darkness of such a bizarre night.

When I exited the train in Bodh Gaya at 6am, I thought to myself that I could breathe easier because this part of the journey was almost over. My expectation was that I would find a hotel room within minutes. Boy was I wrong.

The town was busting at the seams with thousands of Buddhist pilgrims, and I just couldn't find a room. All I wanted was sleep and a hot shower, but it was nowhere to be found.

The rooms I did find were about fifty dollars, because the locals were taking advantage of the overnight population growth of their tiny town.

I know this sounds cheap to Americans, but typically hotel rooms in towns like this in India are about five dollars a night. These rooms are usually pretty seedy too. You can expect to have a very stiff mattress made of plywood with lumpy cotton, cold water showers, weird stains on the wall, a squat toilet on the floor and shoddy fluorescent lighting above your bed. I would never pay fifty dollars for that. Would you?

I gave up my search around lunchtime, slurped down a bowl of Tibetan noodle soup and went to attend the Karmapa teachings for several hours. I figured that was a better way to spend my time and that my room would appear just when it was destined to be. When I find myself trying too hard for things like this, I like to stop, do something else, and try again later.

I was weary from the journey, but seeing the Karmapa was everything I hoped it would be. I couldn't find a bed, but at least I found some peace. When I did resume the search for my room, it took me all of 20 minutes to find. It even had the luxury of a hot shower so it was worth the wait! The toilet was still a hole in the floor, but, unlike the bathroom on the train, I couldn't see what was on the other side of it. Things were looking up.

After settling into my well-deserved hotel room, the rest of my time in Bodh Gaya was easy and light. My spiritual retreat had arrived, and the violence and inhumanity of my train journey was long gone.

My journey was bizarre. It was so uncomfortable and disturbing. I went from riding a grungy train through some of the world's worst poverty, and feeling bad because I couldn't do a damn thing about it. I couldn't help the suffering people I saw, and that was hard to accept. I was severely exhausted, mentally beaten up and in a very unhygienic state. It was ok though, because I arrived to my destination. If I had taken a sterile ride in a private vehicle with a driver staying at 4 star hotels along the way, would I have learned so much about accepting and flowing with whatever comes my way? Would the final touchdown at the feet of the Karmapa have been so sweet?

Here's what it comes down to for me. I see the world as myself. I do not recognize the world as something separate from me. If I pay attention and listen, I can hear a story that holds all the nuggets of wisdom and lessons that I need.

In this story, the Karmapa is a symbol for the peace that lives somewhere within me. That train is my metaphor of what it took to get there. The ride went through darkness, and that also resides within me. The events were insane, but I always trusted that I would eventually be in his presence, just as I always knew that one day I would find my peace.

People look at the drama of theirs lives and think that they will never find peace. People also look at the destruction and atrocities of the world and say that we're all doomed, but are we? I have to believe in a brighter outcome because I don't see another choice. Just like the Karmapa waiting for me at the end of a dark and twisted night in the middle of nowhere India, peace is waiting me. Peace is waiting for all of us and It's ok when the ride gets bumpy.

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