Numerous instances in the last few weeks have reminded me just how playful this universe can be. Hours after writing an email to Carina, my yoga teacher friend, about how I had gotten into the habit of daily practice, I forgot my yoga mat on a local bus (first thing I’ve lost all trip). Yesterday, Giulia and I went to a bakery and took something called a “moon cookie.” I started singing “moon cookie, moon cookie” to the tune of Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow”…and then we walked 50m down the street and heard that song playing at a music shop. While dining at a restaurant the other night, we noticed a group of Buddhist monks eating something tasty, and asked its name. When we ordered the same thing the next night, we were shocked to find that it was a mincemeat pie! But the top example was a situation last week when I presented myself at a meditation center with the intention of sitting for a week, was turned away, and then went for a bike ride to into the countryside where I eventually found a village chai shop with some Enligsh speaking Nepalis who offered me a joint. Let me explain.
So where to begin? (how ’bout at the beginning…oh, too bad there’s no such thing!). I was in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, where the enlightened one popped into the world.
It was a strange mix of pilgrims, bike wallahs, and various vendors. I also found it strange the emphasis on venerating the exact spot where he was born (as if it matters). But I was struck by the beauty of the different cultural expressions of Buddhism on view at the various monasteries in the area. It was fascinating to see how Buddhism, much like other religions, has taken on and absorbed so much of the various cultures it has encountered.
In any case, I had come to see whether it felt right for me to join Giulia at a center where you wake up at 4AM and do formal practice for 12-14 hours a day. Given my experiences at the nunnery and the lessons I learned about the importance of relaxing a bit on the spiritual path, I wasn’t sure this was the right thing for me at this moment. I was quite scared at the prospect of going in there, an vasscilated back and forth for days. But after I walked by the center the first evening, I felt like I had to face my fear, and had a feeling that I should try it out and see what happens. I realized that fear would be present in any decision I make, and that the important thing was that it not paralyze me. I wrote to myself a little note that reminded me to look at the coming meditation non-instrumentally: it wasn’t going to get me anywhere, and I would instead see it as a celebration of life.
So it came as some surprise, then, when I was rejected from the center. A few days later, Giulia helped me to see that I actually couldn’t understand this situation rationally- it came from the fact that I had, for some reason unknown to me, upset the person who was in charge of coordinating new arrivals. Instead, they offered to let me come “part time” and sent me on my way with a smile on my face wondering how life could have served me up such an Abrahamic moment!
And in place of the sacrificial son, I found the most wonderful day of sitting in rice fields, looking at buffaloes bathing, smiling with children, walking through villages, and meeting some genuinely nice people- probably not all that different than the environment the Buddha knew.
When I was biking through a field, I received an invitation for chai, which then led to an invitation to smoke with three young men who spent most of the year making money as computer repairmen in Quatar (!). After going through what had just happened, I faced a dillema: do I just go with the flow and break my precepts (not to mention contradict what I had just written on the blog last week!). Or do I see this as another sort of “test” that I’m being put through to see if I can remain true to my commitments?
I felt that the rejection at the center was part of the universe trying to tell me, “this formal meditation practice isn’t for you right now; go play somewhere else.” And seeing as how this situation just…happened…I went with it, and it provided me with numerous insights, such as how one of the principle sources of suffering for me when I smoked regularly was the constant second guessing about whether it was the “right” thing to do. I’ve been coming to see just how much my own identity and feeling of worthiness is tied up with being the one who does the “right” thing- a very masculine way of looking at the practice. But the truth is that I really have no idea. There is no one right way, no one answer, because life is too complex and textured to ever have one authoritative system dictate what to decide in each and every circumstance. It seems like we have to figure things out for ourselves as we go along, and that the answers might be different for different people at different times. True, the practice is invaluable because it gives us a way of becoming familiar with our minds so that we can remain calm and centered in the midst of storms of doubt. And true, the precepts are there mainly for our protection, because they prevent us from getting into situations that will cause suffering. All I can say is that for me, in this particular moment, it just seemed like the thing to do, the way to fully participate in the laugh the universe was having with me. But then again, this entire explanation and my reasoning process could just be a fancy way of justifying selfish, egotistical behavior. I suppose there’s always that risk, and I suppose I could continue doing the analysis ad infinitum, but at a certain point, you just have to let the feedback loop drop and just say, I enjoyed myself and had a great time!
Giulia and I are off the Everest trek tomorrow morning! We’re planning on combining the walk with a one week retreat in a meditation cave that was home to Lama Zopa Rinpoche- looks to be a powerful place. Likely no news for the next little bit- although I do hear there are internet cafes at 4000 meters.