“If the mind is happy, not only the body, but the whole world will be happy. So one must find out how to become happy oneself. Wanting to transform the world, without discovering one’s true self, is like trying to cover the whole world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.” — Sri Ramana Maharshi
“Foreigners were stared at in India. Somewhere in the five or more millennia of its history, the [Indian] culture had decide to dispense with the casual, nonchalant glance. By the time I came to Bombay, the eye contact ranged from an ogling gaze to a gawping, google-eyed glare. There was nothing malicious in it. The staring eyes that found and followed me everywhere I went were innocent, curious, and almost always friendly. And that intense scrutiny had its benefits : for the most part, people stared at what I was, not what I did. Foreigners were stared into invisibility. So I wandered in and out of travel agencies or grand hotels, airline or business offices, followed every step by eyes that saw me, but not the crimes I committed.” — Gregory David Roberts, “Shantaram”
My last night in North India, after three weeks there, was an emotional one. I was in Bodhgaya, a town best known as the spot where Buddha yes THE Buddha attained full liberation/enlightenment, after he sat all night under a tree in the middle of the open field. Modern Bodhgaya is no longer that serene, 2,500 years later. Instead, it has paved streets full of the typical busy Indian overwhelm that I have become familiar with – jostling noisy crowds of people vehicles and cows, people constantly coming up wanting me to buy something, crumbly buildings and homes, and even snaggle-toothed beggars wearing dirty rags and holding outstretched hands (which is actually a rare sight for me in India).
But Bodhgaya is also unusual for an Indian town, in that it contains relatively luxurious, air conditioned hotels and restaurants catering to international pilgrims and sightseers. Even more remarkably, it contains an amusement-park of temples and monasteries, different Buddhist lineages each seemingly competing to build more ornate, more peaceful, more hospitable complexes to represent their home countries (Tibet, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, Bhutan, etc).
[Me in Bodhgaya, with some li’l lamas]
[Me in Bodhgaya – the big statue is said to be hollow and hold thousands of little brass Buddha statues inside of it]
The Japanese Indosan-lineage “Nippon-Ji” temple was my favorite, with a large shaded lawn, and a spacious tranquil Japanese-aesthetic temple. I sat in the sanctum for perhaps an hour, talking about Buddhist teachings with the pretty German girl I had spent the day sightseeing with. Mostly, though, we just sat in silence.
[Me and German Christine at Nippon-Ji]
The living heart of Bodhgaya is the Mahabodhi (Great Awakening) Temple, which purportedly sits on the spot where Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni actually awakened and became The Buddha. The three-story tall carved-stone temple building, with a “Bo Tree” (Tree of Awakening) to one side, is set in a terraced pit a the center of large garden park. The rest of the park, run by the Indian government, is filled with a big rectangular pool of water, ornate shrines, peaceful landscaped vegetation, and crowded throngs of people.
I felt surprised to see that most of the visitors in the park seemed to be middle/upper-class Indians, the men dressed in slacks and dress shirts, and the women dressed in the ever-present resplendently bright and lovely saris. My surprise was based on knowledge that Muslim invaders basically violently wiped Buddhism out in India 800 years ago, that the main group of Buddhists in modern India are the poorest of the poor (who converted to try to escape the caste system), and that The Buddha is, in mainstream Hinduism, considered to merely be one of the avatars of Vishnu. I guess that the Indian pilgrims were drawn by what seems to be an Indian habit of being willing to pay respect to, and incorporate into the people’s Hinduism, anything that has a good sacred feeling to it.
Besides Indians, the park’s visitors also contained masses of people seemingly from all over Asia, and a handful of whites. Many of the people were in big tour groups (but most were not), many were in formal priest/monk robes (but most were not), and many were doing formal Buddhist practice (sitting meditation, Tibetan prostration practice, or chanting – but, you guessed it, most were not).
I am embarrassed to say that, during my four days in Bodhgaya, I had not yet visited the temple – I had mostly been avoiding the intensity of the streets by hiding out in a calm, safe restaurant next to my guesthouse (despite its rather brutal food). As I approached the front gate of the Mahabodhi, though, I was surprised by the powerful good energy emanating I felt from over the wall. My Zen friend Eleanor had warned me that, before entering the temple, “if you ever want to see your shoes again, check ’em in at the check-in stand at the front gate”. As I stood in the crowd of people standing with their shoes in their hands, I was feeling appreciative of the Indian government for having a check-in stand like that. I was also feeling how I dislike walking barefoot when I am outside, and disappointed to think that someone might be is such a state as to steal shoes from such a holy site.
And then, as I first stepped into the Mahabodhi park … my heart jumped and opened, tears welled up in my eyes. Maybe I was feeling the sincerity emanating out of the Buddha’s enlightenment spot, in terms of the impact that that particular man, and his moment of awakening, have had on the world. Maybe I was feeling the sincerity radiating into the spot, the commitment of so many Buddhists, in the park and around the world, to be the best person that they can be, and to realize the Universal. As I walked around, feeling deep within my heart what the Buddha-Dharma means to me, I felt “at-home” and at peace amid all the chanting chatting shuffling throngs. I could imagine spending days or weeks there – sitting, meditating, feeling. I felt a shameful regret for not visiting earlier.
A few hours later, I was sitting on the German girl’s guesthouse room bed, leg pressed up against leg, as I transferred some of my favorite songs from my travel netbook to her iPod. Her cute looks reminded me of an ex, and she was wearing a charming yellow salwar-kameez that she had changed into for dinner … in my heart, I wished a silent prayer of good luck for her and her boyfriend. When we were done with the transfer, I found that the heavy front gate to her guesthouse was locked for the night, and the manager wouldn’t awaken to knocks on his room door. I considered jumping down the ten feet from the second floor open terrace, but Christine knew of a secret side door, and I was soon walking under the clear sky and bright stars back to my room.
My alarm awoke me a few hours later, and I hurriedly packed my things. As I checked out, the guesthouse woman asked for 300 rupees ($6.70) per night for each of my four nights there, when she had quoted me 250 a night as I had checked in. But, whatever – it had been a big, clean, safe room, with a shower and a western-style toilet, I had been happy there, and I had seen with my own eyes that the woman worked hard to keep the place clean. I gave her what she asked for.
I went out to the town and bought a few essentials for my upcoming train trip, and sent some last-minute emails. I then made one last visit to sit and meditate under the Bo Tree at the Mahabodhi temple, my eyes misting up and my heart full of emotion again. In a spot under the tree, I left a li’l wooden Buddha statue from Cambodia, meditating, waiting for whoever should realize that it was a gift sitting there waiting for them.
[Me under the Bo Tree]
When I snapped out of my Dharma-trance and looked at my watch, however, I was shocked by how late it was. I soon hopped into an autorikshaw (little covered three-wheel motorcycle taxi) and asked my driver to step on it.
Since I was so late, for much of the hour-long journey to the Gaya train station, I sat there uncomfortably wondering if my final morning visit to the Mahabodhi temple had been an indulgence. I also felt like a maharaj (a VIP), the back seat of the vehicle to myself (Indians often ride with as many as six passengers to an “auto”), as my young macho driver zipped around trucks and buses, bicyclists, pedestrians, other autorikshaws, and the ever-present wandering cows.
Given my hurry, I had offered to pay my driver twice what a journey like that would have otherwise cost ($4.50, instead of $2). Still, once we pulled into the train station parking lot and I forked over the cash, he insistently asked me to cover his “parking fee”. Having been in India a while, I realized that he wanted the extra fee so he could wait at the station for another customer – which has nothing to do with me. I was all, “What are you, mentally joking.” He didn’t press the issue.
I felt nervous and bad because I had arrived at the train station thirty minutes after my train was scheduled to depart (just like the first time I had taken an Indian inter-city train). I asked various middle-class-looking people whether my train had departed yet, and they all tried their best to be helpful (a typical Indian behavior, I have found), even if they were just making information up (another typical Indian behavior, I have found). Anyway, also just like the first time I took an Indian inter-city train, once I finally found an official who spoke English and who actually knew what was going on, the guy seemed apologetic in explaining that the train actually wasn’t going to arrive for another hour or so.
I hung out in the train station, with the hundreds, maybe thousands, of Indians who were sitting and chatting or, mostly, just sitting around.
As I walked past, many looked at me with a blank stare that I have grown used to. People have explained to me that the unsmiling stare is usually simple unfamiliarity or curiosity, but it often feels uncomfortable to me; in the States, to look at someone like that, and to keep the stare without smiling when it is met, is often a gesture of hostility.
I felt self-conscious for the big bags full of stuff on my back. I reasoned to myself, as I had a number of times before, that I had big bags and most of the Indians had but one small bag, because, yes, the relative wealth of our people, but, also, my bags are my only home for nine months, which is, I imagine, not true for them.
As I walked around in the hot sun, my feet felt hot and sweaty in my shoes and socks. Many Indians, like Thais, seem to wear cheap open shoes (flip-flops, etc) at all but the most formal occasions. And I knew that my own feet would feel more cool in the other shoes I had with me, the Teva-like open “adventure sandals” that I had mostly worn all through my time in Thailand. But I had found, after a few days in India, that my closed-toe sneaker/walking shoes are best, with the streets full of the gifts that keep on giving : rotting vegetation, cow shit, and sewage overflows. My closed-toe shoes are also maybe the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn, all the more so with the gel cushions that I have put in them – which is good when walking around with my heavy packs for extended periods of time.
I had been excited for a train ride Westwards during seven hours of daylight, as an opportunity to see the Indian countryside. I did indeed see plenty out the window as we chugged along – jungle trees, farmers in their fields, mud-hut villages, and industrial towns. I also listened on my ipod to Ali Hameed Almaas‘ spiritual teachings about relaxing and deeply trusting the basic goodness of the world around us. I felt relaxed and content. But, with a couple seats to myself to stretch out on, and not so much sleep the night before, I kept nodding off. Sooner than I expected, I found myself on the platform at the Kolkutta (Calcutta) Howrah train station, literally gasping for air in the pushy-shovey massive crush of bodies.
Long ago, one of my friends, whenever he came on a scene of an overwhelming mass of people all bunched together and pushing, used to say, “This is like Calcutta.” Well, my first experience of Calcutta was, ummm … “like Calcutta”.
I wanted to get from the main Howrah station to a small ancillary station (Shalimar), from which my next train was departing. Outside many Indian transportation hubs, there is a pre-paid taxi stand, where you pay the man at the stand a fair fare for your destination, and he gives you a voucher that you give your driver at the end of your journey (so that the drivers don’t rip you off). When the pre-paid man assigned them to drive me, however, the macho mustachioed taxi drivers outside the train station just laughed, one after another. I was irritated that they wouldn’t do their job, and told them that I though that they were lameass fuckfaces – I don’t think that they understood my words, but I think that they got the idea. I was then relieved when, finally, one seemingly kind-natured driver accepted in me and my bags, and we sped off through the crowded nighttime streets.
Shalimar Station is only a few miles south from Horwah, along the West bank of the Hooghly River that cuts through the immense mass of Kolkutta – it looked like a clear shot on my guidebook map. But the reality was my driver and me slowly making our way through a confusingly tangled maze of curving streets and alleys. We were crawling through what seemed to be a shantytown for truck- and bus-drivers and their families, with shacks on one side of the street, and long looming lines of the big vehicles on the other. It was difficult to see far in any direction, with all the dust in the air. I came to understand why the more experienced taxi drivers had refused to drive me (and I asked that the merciful Lord Jesus Christ in Heaven Above forgive me my earlier unkind and thoughtless words to them). Tough groups of grease-stained working-class guys and their buck-toothed wives looked up from cooking pots, or from circles of card-playing smokers, to look at me and my bags full of stuff riding past, giving me that same blank unsmiling stare that I had grown used to.
Finally, after maybe forty minutes of uncomfortable wandering and asking around, my driver got us to some sort of hut that said on its marquee, among other things, in English, “Shalimar Station : Cargo Registration Office.” My driver agitatedly yelled something I took to be Bengali for, “Ok, I’m sick of this shit, it says ‘Shalimar’, get the fuck out.” I forcefully told him, in English, that I wasn’t getting out until he took me to something that looked like an actual train station. That’s one thing I have learned to appreciate about working-class Indians – they will be blunt, to a level that would be rude in America, but I have found that they are reciprocally OK with it when I am blunt with them.
Predictably, it only took a little more asking around and driving to get me to the brightly-lit, wide platform. I was soon ignoring more blank stares from the crowds, as I did some hatha yoga asanas (stretches) next to my bags, preparing for my upcoming twenty-eight hours cooped up. A couple stylish teenage boys jumped, and looked suspicious, when I walked up to plug my cell phone to charge next to theirs (I think it might have been illegal). After I smiled at them, though, they were soon broadly smiling, introducing themselves as “Mohammed” and “Abdullah”, and chatting in simple fractured English. My heart felt lifted and gladdened by this little encounter with the local youth, as I left them to locate my assigned train car from the train that stretched out in a curve that extended out as far as my eye could see.
As I boarded my car, my heart closed again, and I felt the familiar barrier between me and Indians go back up, as the middle class people in my air-conditioned sleeper cabin looked at me with the same old blank unsmiling stare (or, even more, ignored me entirely). I had fun smiling and playing with the little children, who were curious, touchy, and smile-y. But the pot-bellied old man who slept in the bunk underneath mine (who, I later found out, was a businessman, and who seemed to be the boss of most of the other people in our little bay), just sat for hours and glared at me in a way that felt especially uncomfortable the next day as we sat side by side. I thought to myself … man I really need to stop riding these trains sober (kidding … and, even if I wasn’t, it could take all day in many parts of India to round up enough booze to get a buzz on).
While on the train, I felt my ever-present wariness of theft. As I always do, I took my backpack (with my computer, camera, and ipod in it) with me when I went to visit the dirty hole-in-the-floor not-toilet thingee room. There were times though when I got into the Indian community vibe, and left my computer or iPod charging up in the power socket next to some of the folks. And, unlike my first few train journeys in Thailand, I let go and trusted to Goodness of the Infinite Cosmos (which means that I left my shoes underneath the old businessman’s lower bunk as I slept at night in the upper bunk.)
As we rolled along throughout the next day, I got a lot of good stuff done, meditating, computer work, reading books. I was reading three books :
* A Mahayana Buddhist scripture called “The Lankatavara Sutra“. It consists of page after page of lines like “It is only when the mind-system comes into activity and discriminates the manifestations of mind that existence can be said to come into view.” When I stop and think about it for a while, I realize that that means “we only really see true existence, deep reality, when we become self-aware and realize of how our mind is constantly making meaning” – cool – I can dig it. But … c’mon, translator, I’m sure you can do a better job using plain English.
* A novel “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts, loosely based on his personal experience as an Australian getting involved with the shantytown people and criminal underworld in Bombay during the eighties. The book has observations of Indian culture that I found valuable, and also some philosophical/spiritual musings in it, but it was more of an exiting page-turner thriller/fun novel that kept me riveted for hours.
* A collection of transcripts of satsang (back-and-forth discissions with a spiritual teacher) with Sri Ramana Maharshi, an Indian saint of the first half of the twentieth century. He was considered the most clear and enlightened being of modern history by the philosopher Ken Wilber. Sri Ramana also seems to be revered by many modern Indian people (one thing I love about India is that there is a background cultural understanding, even among the most secular people, of spiritual practice and liberation). Sri Ramana was seen as ethically pure, never a hint of scandal about him (unlike so many other gurus). The cat was : Stone Cold.
Reading the words of Sri Ramana, I was struck by their clarity and simplicity. He basically taught that we humans are not the individual humans we take ourselves to be, we are actually “The Self” (i.e. the universe, God, the Cosmic Oneness, etc), and that it is our identification with our limited bodies that blocks our awareness of this and has us suffer. One could say that the words that Sri Ramana used contradict the Buddha’s teaching (“self” vs “no-self”, etc), but I think that the deeper truth is that both men’s teachings are compatible, and, once one gets beyond language, fundamentally identical.
Meanwhile, as I sat and industriously read and computer-worked, the Indians mostly just kicked it like Chuck Norris – chatting among themselves, taking naps, or sitting there staring into space. I sometimes admired their seeming untangled peaceful inner tranquility, and other times I thought to myself, “See, this right here is why our per capita GDP is like twenty times what yours is.”
I periodically made small talk with the businessman across from me, and the connection between us gradually grew. Eventually, he gave me all sorts of friendly and helpful paternal input about the esoteric rituals of Indian train riding (such as when to pay for the catered meals, etc). That evening, with a seeming mixture of curiosity, repulsion, and compassion, he asked me why I was traveling alone, without any family, and how I could be forty-one and not yet married (these are all questions that I’ve gotten a lot in India). He eventually opinioned that Americans have too much freedom, the key evidence being that we are stupidly going to die out if we don’t stop distracting ourselves with so many “amusements”, and instead get married and have more children, like responsible Indians do. I laughed and told him that I loved America and Americans, but that I also respected the Indian way and basically agreed with him about the children thing.
I then felt grateful when he and his wife then gave me huge portions from out of their delicious multi-course dinner, insisting that I take the first and best portions. I had moved seats so that they could eat together, so, then, in simple broken English, I talked about Indian enlightened beings (Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Nisagardatta, etc) to a man with kind eyes now sitting next to me. I felt connected, at peace, and human.
After just a few hours sleep, I woke up, and, heart racing, couldn’t fall back asleep, knowing that my train was scheduled to get in to Chennai (Madras) soon. I calculated that we were probably at least two hours behind schedule, and I had an expectation that I would be reading for drowsy grumpy hours in the brightly-lit between-car connection space as our train trundled on though the night.
Accordingly, it pretty much blew my mind’s ass when, at the exactly correct minute, the train came to rest at a big-city station. After verifying that we were indeed in Chennai (the fourth most populous city in India), I hoisted on my heavy bags, and walked in my comfortable gel-filled shoes down the platform. I noticed many blank unsmiling stares coming to me from the unreserved-class train cars. My third-class AC sleeper car had felt crowded to me by my American standards, but most Indians who travel between cities seem to stuff themselves in to the dirt-cheap unreserved-class – which means sleeping jammed together upright on wooden benches or on the crowded dirty floor, or not sleeping at all, hanging out the big open doors (apparently, about 25,000 people die in the Indian railway system each year, mostly from “falling from the open doors of carriages or being hit on the tracks, which are mostly unsecured“).
The train station was, even at four am, filled with a bustle of people. I left, and pre-paid an autorikshaw driver to take me to what my guidebook said was a “twenty-four hour internet cafe” in the heart of the city. The cafe was, of course, closed, but my journey there had meant a ride through the slums of Chennai. They were the poorest slums that I had seen yet in India, with masses of dirty spindly people sleeping on sidewalks, in trash-filled open lots, in sewers, or on highway meridians just a couple feet from to the zooming cars and trucks – so many skinny people wearing rags, skeletal dirty people everywhere. I felt the familiar feelings that such scenes have come to evoke for me: compassion gratitude admiration concern and sadness on the one hand, mixed with repulsion disgust guilt contempt and fear on the other. Fear is maybe the strongest feeling in me when I see the masses of the poorest Indians: I realize that I feel a fear of them coming at me as a horde, grabbing at me, wanting and violently taking all my stuff from me.
At that moment, I explored into the fear. I found myself thinking that traveling with a little netbook computer has been wonderful for me in so many ways – it has given me an opportunity to work on projects while traveling, for example writing this little recollection. But traveling with a computer also feels like a barrier between me and my environment, between me and the people around me. This is because my computer and my credit/ATM cards are the thing I most don’t want stolen, and they are the things that I get the most protective of and defensive about, the most closed when I feel them threatened.
Since I am here on a “spiritual journey”, I have pondered how to spiritually practice with such feelings. What is it to be genuinely open-hearted and kind, without being guilt-ridden, codependent, and fawningly friendly, like I sometimes see hippy westerners be. Is there a positive difference I can make, just traveling through? Surely the barrier I feel so often, the wall I put up on my face and in my own heart against those ever-present blank stares and masses of poor people, isn’t being the best person I can be. Can I, as the saying goes, “surrender to India”, be open to the land and the people around me, without being open to, for example, my computer being stolen?
My friend Ross Holzman recently communicated to me, “Couttsian, India is your teacher. As she is for everyone who visits. Notice your judgments. Be with the fears. Release the need to know and understand by simply arriving into your present. Be the witness….to your self and your surroundings…as you open your heart to fully love the Universe you are creating everyday. Now get off the internet and drop in. Much Love from Uganda!”
And my friend Nandi said, “If you go to India with an open mind, heart and an attitude that everything is an opportunity for spiritual practice and transformation…well, you won’t need to seek far. As far as I’m concerned, everything about India is an opportunity to transform attachments and aversions. When you find yourself somewhere without reference point, all that is left is your mind. So, traveling there is a beautiful thing in that regard.”
Words to live by.
Anyway, a little extra coin got the rikshaw man to drive me out of the Chennai slums, and over to the main bus station. Once inside, I noticed that, like all the Indian train stations that I have been to, there was no Western-style central board of arrivals and departures. So, I started questioning some friendly food vendors . I also made inquiries at the “May I Help You” desk (yes that’s what it said), with a soldier lady (I have not seen any police in India, only army solders where I expect cops to be) who seemed to have more of a “May I Completely Fail To Help You, And Get Back To Napping ASAP” attitude. I finally found a bus that the driver said was going to my destination.
[South Indian bus]
The bus was basically empty as we pulled out in the cool night air to negotiate a tangle of other buses. But, as the hot dry sun slowly crept up over the big city and then beat down from above, we repeatedly stopped, and the bus filled up until it was stuffed to capacity, and then some. It’s funny how I remember inter-city bus rides in Thailand as relaxing opportunities for solitude and productivity, but crowded Indian buses are among the most stressful experiences that I’ve encountered in Asia.
Anyway, I felt guilty that my big main bag was taking the seat next to mine, while people were standing in the aisles sweating in the heat for hours. I was not however aware of any other options for where to put my bag, so … that’s life folks. My eyes felt heavy, but I was unable to sleep, feeling interest in the exotic landscape I saw out my window, guilt for taking two seats, and the ever-present wariness of theft. I also felt some excitement about finally getting to my destination – I was feeling like I deserved something like “The Grover Cleveland Alexander Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence” (just made that up) for getting myself all across India so precisely.
[this picture doesn’t show how sunny, hot, and crowded it was when I arrived]
From what the guidebook said, I expected Tiruvannamalai to be a village in a jungle, but, no, once I got there, it turned out to be another crowded Indian city, filled, like every where else, with oh so many Indians, so so many, all with their saris and their moustaches. Carrying maybe seventy pounds of bags, I walked and sweated in the hot sun as I walked up and down the dusty crowded broken-concrete streets. Blank-faced and unsmiling, people swiveled heads to stare at me, the only fair-skinned person in the massive crowd. Finally, I found an internet place, sat down, plugged in, and logged on. I was so tired that, for hours, I mostly spun my wheels and didn’t do anything important or productive. Still, it felt like such a relief to get off the hot streets, and onto the cool internet.
I pondered the large amount of time that I have spent on internet while in India. Sometimes I feel like it would be healthier for me, while I am here, to spend more time out, off the computer, seeing the sights, meeting people. But I also understand why I am on the internet as much as I am – it is a refuge from the overwhelm, it is familiar and manageable, there is love and connection for me online when there doesn’t feel like there is any in the mass of strange staring faces.
I ate lunch and dinner place at a clean air-conditioned “hotel” (which of course means “restaurant” in this part of the world, just like “mansion” means “cheap hotel” in Thailand). The food felt like a gift from Heaven it was so good, and it was rock-bottom cheap. Lunch was a big plate of rice, with curries and sauces to mix into it and eat with my hands, and with clean safe water to drink, all for about 70¢. Dinner at the same place was a few butter-smooth South Indian dosas, at about $1 each.
[Lord Shiva’s gift to Man : a South Indian dosa]
After each meal, I sat and chatted with the kind old assistant manager man who had spent time in America – each time, as I left, he and I shook hands and hugged. He told me that I was “a man of good character”, maybe in part because I tipped him and his boys at 50%.
Back at the internet place, I finally drank some diet soda (which is almost impossible to find in India) to get myself caffeinated, and started getting stuff done. I was still doing internet stuff when the shop closed at nine pm, however, and still hadn’t done the things I most needed to do (make inquires with some ashrams and yoga centers about staying/studying with them in April). Damn.
I wandered down the street, and got a room at the second “lodge” I visited (the ironically named “Buddha Lodge”). The room was nasty : while looking it over, I had noticed splatters of dried bodily fluids (of an unclear taxonomy) all over the walls, and slime on the bathroom floor. And then the nasty dirty thuggish looking man behind the front desk seemed to have decided that customers were too much trouble, and he was going to try to do his best to discourage them. He started by ripping me off (charging me $8 for the night – I felt pretty certain that Indians were probably paying $3, or less). He then followed that up with roughly barking orders at me in Tamil, and repeating his violent yelling if I didn’t understand (which, since I do not speak Tamil, was most of the time), with his assistant boys snickered with every new abuse he threw at me. I snarled at him in English to stop fucking yelling, that it was putting the serious freak on me, which calmed him and his insane clown posse down just long enough for me not to snap. I didn’t like the situation, but, it was nine pm in a strange town and I had no place to stay – the guy had me over a bitch, what was I gonna do – I paid the asshole his 350 rupees, and went up to my chamber of filth.
I put my bags down and looked around, and noticed a new problem : a little un-screen-ed window (mosquito corridor) over the balcony door. After some thought, I blocked the window up with an extra bed pillow. Then I noticed dried vomit/diarrhea in a corner of the bed sheet. Nauseous, I spread a clean-ish blanket over the sheet. Problems solved, I meditated, and then started to get organized for the next day.
I eventually noticed a small bug crawling on me. It could have been a mite, or it could have been a baby bedbug. Ugh. I killed it, and went back to what I was doing. Five minutes later – God DAMN it – that fucker was unmistakably a bedbug. I examined the bedspread and mattress – yup, blood splatters. I started yelling and cursing. Bedbugs are, I concluded after my encounter with them a couple years ago at the SF Zen Center, the worst goddamn thing in the universe. My heart burned with a simple pure hatred for the hotel manager.
I also felt despair, collapsed, defeated, and alone. What could I do? I feel about bedbugs the way medieval Christians did about Satan. I did not want to be there in that room right then, anywhere but there. That despairing state lasted just a minute, though, before I took all my stuff off of the bed, vigorously shook it all out and then packed it way, and zipped all my bags up tight. I then stacked my bags on top of a plastic lawn chair, and put the chair as far from the bed as I could, not touching the walls either.
I then took my un-gruntled self out into the warm humid night air to another “lodge”. But, as bright and clean as the second place looked from the outside, it wasn’t any better : there were piles of trash and filth in the rooms, the bed sheets looked unwashed, and, it being midnight, the guy at the desk wasn’t gonna cut me anything like a bargain.
As I walked back to my cursed room, up several flights of stairs off the street, I reached a brightly lit landing, and saw the abusive manager guy and his two assistant boys there splayed out asleep. They were tangled up and snoring on a filthy oversized couch, with trash strewn around them. In a sudden flash of compassion, I guessed that they regularly woke up to the fiery itchy pain of a bedbug’s bite. They did not even have their own room, and this buggy mess was their life, night after night – I felt contrite for my earlier anger.
Once back in my horror-movie room, I sprayed mosquito spray on the legs of the chair holding my bags, hung my walking shoes high up on a cable, stripped naked (so no bugs could hide in the crevices of my clothes), put my clothes inside one of my bags and rezipped it tightly shut, covered my entire body (except for my face) with mosquito spray, and uneasily lay down to sleep.
In the bright morning light, I felt triumphant, as I noticed a distinct lack of burning itching welts anywhere on my body. I showered off two days of train grime and one night of bug spray … as the broken shower-head shot cold water in random jets all over the bathroom.
After carefully dressing in clean clothes, I walked to a different internet shop. The stylish hip-looking guy running the place had a big subwoofer hooked up to his computer, and he shook the windows of the place with the bass of his favorite Bollywood soundtrack songs. We exchanged a smile as I noticed him tapping his fingers along to one tune. After a few hours, I got done what I needed to get done, and I felt great.
As I left and paid, the guy told me that using my own lap top was an extra charge. I felt a second of fear at his insistence, and a desire to just pay the man anything he asks for, just so that he won’t get angry at me, which I often feel in situation like that. But, after that second, I then told the man, Ninja please, if anything, the cost should be less, since I just used his signal, but didn’t put any wear and tear on his computers. He smiled an embarrassed “busted” smile, and backed off.
I flagged down an autorikshaw, and got a ride to the ashram that was my destination. Once we arrived, the driver wanted more money than we had agreed on, for some reason or another. OK, whatever, I paid it – it didn’t feel worth arguing about twenty cents.
I noticed that my autorikshaw driver didn’t mind ripping me off, even though he was dropping me off at a spiritual ashram. My friend Freedom (my friend Anitra’s husband) has spent years in India, and he gave me an astute observation about this type of situation, as part of the invaluable “welcome to India” information he kicked down to me when I first arrived here, and hung out in Varanasi with them.
[In Varanasi : Anitra Cole, Antara Cole, Me, and Freedom Cole]
Freedom told me that he has noticed that Asians who are seekers on the spiritual path are impressed and hospitable when they find out that you are in their nation for sincere reasons; but, for the typical Asian on the street, they could not give a shit whether you are visiting to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, or visiting to smoke opium and fuck their hookers – they’ll treat you just the same either way – which is, often, as a mark.
Anyway, I had finally arrived at the Ramanashram. This center was founded by the devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi in 1925, once they coaxed him down from the caves of holy Mount Arunachala, which overlooks Tiruvannamalai. Sri Ramana then lived at the ashram for his final twenty-five years. Someone told me that head people still running the center are his family’s descendents.
[The picture is of the ashram parking lot and entry walkway.]
I found the ashram to be exactly what I came to India looking to find. It is lovely and peaceful, with people meditating, chanting, and doing puja (Hindu spiritual ceremony) all day in the public spaces, or walking in the peaceful gardens, or reading in the library. My favorite regular daily puja was right before dinner, when a big group of men on one side of the room would sing-intone one line of Sanskrit-language scripture, and the women on the other would respond with beautiful melodic lilt – back and forth, back and forth, their words floating up to the vaulted marble ceiling – honoring their community, honoring the mystery of masculine and feminine, honoring The Divine.
[Evening puja at Ramanshram]
The soft-spoken, friendly folks at the ashram gave me big clean beautiful room to stay in, with its own bathroom (someone told me I had been given the nicest, newest room on the temple grounds). The price was right : a donation of my choice when I left. My first night, I fell easily asleep in the clean, trustworthy, safe bed, with the room fan whirring above me like a guardian angel. I awoke after ten hours, feeling like a fresh new man.
The ashram also offered three great meals a day, which were abundant and delicious. We ate with our hands, sitting on the ground, using palm-tree leaves as plates. I felt gratitude for the serving guys, shirtless in their dhotis (traditional Indian diaper-like garment) and Hindu face paints, rushing up and down the rows of seated diners and ladling out the big dollops of rice, curry, chutney, sweet buttermilk, etc. A friend told me that all of the food is prepared with fresh healthy local ingredients, chanting, and extra conscious love. And, she explained, after the ashram guests finish their meal and leave, the huge serving room is filled with a second meal shift, this one of poor people that the ashram feeds.
[Lining up for breakfast. The man in white on the stairs was a relative of Sri Ramana’s, an ashram official, and a sweet guy.]
There were a bunch of white people at the ashram, as well as a few East Asians. Some of the white people seemed cool, charismatic, and perhaps genuinely spiritual, but most of them were not the droids that I was looking for. Many of them seemed a little clueless, wearing tank tops and little shorts into the shrine room (considered disrespectful in India), or were sitting on the wrong gender side of the room. Many others looked new-agey and like they were trying to be something they clearly were not, Indian babas or saddhus (holy men) or Indian ladies in saris. It seems to me like maybe some of these folks are looking for something in India that they had lost in their home countries and that they felt the Indians have … some sort of sense of unquestioned belonging to a community, and an easy sense of religious faith. That search for an elusive belonging, certainty, and wholeness reminded me of people who watch the movie “Avatar” over and over, and then tell the newspaper reporters that they want to suicide their human selves so that they might possibly be reborn as Na’vi.
Anyway, most of the people at the ashram were, predictably, Indians. And, from most of the Indians, I did not feel the usual barrier or blank stare – I felt an openness, and good friendly feeling, looking at their faces, or making easy eye contact, or even smiling together, saying “hello.” I ended up having some great conversations about spirituality, culture, and India with some aware and English-fluent Indians while at the ashram.
I even felt the grace of Ramana Maharshi as I walked around his ashram, sixty years after his passing. There are pictures of him everywhere, and I felt peaceful as his gentle, patient, mysteriously cosmic smile looked down on me. I felt motivated to do good things, to be a good person, to make the best use of my time at his ashram, to open the li’l shiny disco ball of my heart, and to not do any of my bad habits while visiting his joint.
[The Man Himself]
This was the small and simple room where Sri Ramana had, for a couple decades, sat or lay on a couch and received seekers, pilgrims, and other visitors. The room is now used for meditation. I felt it comparatively easy to get into a deep, peaceful state of concentration and relaxation while meditating in this room.
Often, during the day, the ashram’s main shrine room was comparatively empty, and was available for quiet contemplation, prayer, and circumambulation of Sri Ramana’s samadhi (burial place).
I did not know that my San Francisco Zen Center friend Gita Gayatree would be at the ashram at the same time as me, and I was delighted to see her. She grew up in South India (on the opposite coast – Kerala state), speaks the various South Indian Dravidian languages, and explained many local customs to me.
Gita told me that she feel uncomfortable in most of the United States, and that she knows that her place is ultimately in India, with her people and her homeland. She ordained however last month in San Francisco as a full Zen Buddhist priest with my teacher Paul Haller, and says that she loves Northern California. She also told me that she hopes to bring home to India some of the good stuff that she found at the SFZC : a sense of strong meditative sitting practice, more of a religious role for women, and a genuine disciplined sense of religious ethics (she is of the opinion that many Indian sadhus (holy men) don’t walk the walk, and are mostly in it for what they get out of it : reverence, free food, and the opportunity to lie around).
Gita introduced me to a long-time friend of hers named Michael, a bright friendly guy who had started his spiritual quest as a Catholic Benedictine monk in Texas. Michael has lived at the Ramanashram for ten years now, though, currently heading up the publications department. He laughed when I told him of some of my recent (mis)adventures, and said, “Yeah, India’s a good place to find a place that you’re comfortable with – a deep place – and just stay there, doing your sadhana (spiritual practice). Yeah, India’s not a good country to travel around in, and try to see a whole lot all at once – that’s just a grind, man, just a grind.”
[Me and Michael from Texas]
Gita also introduced me to a tall and awkward but sincere English Theravada Buddhist monk, who mentioned that he and some other ashramites would be walking into town that evening for the MahaShivaRatri, a big Shiva festival. It was going to be at the immense ancient Arunachaleswar Temple (apparently, one of the biggest and most well-known temples in India), which I had been wanting to visit.
That sounded to me like a good adventure to join in on, so, after an invigorating afternoon of hatha yoga, I showed up at the meeting place. My wrist-watch was slow, though, so I found that the group had just left. I figured that they would be that easy to find on the road or at the temple, so I went back to my room to put my camera away – I didn’t want any fear of theft to come between me and diving in and having a full authentic local experience that night. I also stopped by the ashram office before I left, and asked to extend my stay, from three nights out to two weeks. “Ask later”, was the gruff reply from the ashram officer (who looked exactly like a pudgier Sri Ramana).
After leaving the ashram, I walked along the dusty broken-up crowded street, and I felt the familiar intense pressure and the usual blank unsmiling stares. This time, however, I felt unusually open and at peace. Inside my mind, I kept a mantram (internal recitation) of two phrases going – “We each live in a world that our mind creates” and “Who am I?” – both of which derive from the teachings of Sri Ramana. And, as always, as I watched Indians step in the running sewage flumes with their bare feet or open shoes, I felt glad for my closed shoes.
[Sometimes, I prefer closed shoes while walking on Indian streets. Still haven’t figured out why. If you figure it out, let me know.]
As I got to the immense temple gate, and joined the huge crushing throng of people pushing to get in, I noticed piles of well-worn, cheap-looking shoes to the side. Hah, that’s gotta be the worst place to leave some shoes, in a country as poor as this, I thought. I then noticed that everyone else in the crowd was barefoot. Oh yeah – damn – I guess it is that sort of party. I took off my shoes and carried them in with me.
[One of the four gates to Arunachaleswar Temple, seen in daytime]
After I pushed my way (and, more so, was pushed) through the gate in the outer wall and then through another gate in the next tall wall, the beauty of the scene inside took my breath away. The massive temple, with its immense two-hundred-foot-tall towers (“gopurams“) and several layers of nested two-story-tall walls, was filled not only with thousands of Indians, but with hundreds of thousands of glowing candles, set out in huge intricate patterns. Each candle was a semi-sphere about the size of half the peel of an orange, filled with oil and a burning rope wick. For a moment, I had wished that I had my camera, to capture a most beautiful scene: a rectangular pool of water, about the size of a city block, with terraced steps leading down, with rows and rows of thousands of candles in ornate patterns on each descending step. Even in the fading evening sunlight, the glow of the candles was welcoming, calming, loving. I felt gratitude for all the locals who must have spent hours, days, maybe weeks preparing such a beautiful experience.
[Some pictures I found on the net of the candle festival at Arunachala Temple, apparently taken before the pushy crowds arrived]
A massive crowd was pushing to enter into a gate into the still inner-er sanctum of the temple. That seemed to be where the real gangstas are partying, I thought, so I joined in the slowly churning crush to get in. I caught sight of the English monk’s mangey-shaved head and brown robes, flanked by some other white Ramanashram people. Seeing them gave me a feeling of companionship, familiarity, and safety, and so, I threw myself against the crowd, grinding it out in the direction of the folks I “knew”.
Suddenly, a dude roughly grabbed me out of the crowd, started yelling words I didn’t understand, and pointing at the shoes I was carrying. As if the dude’s meaning wasn’t clear enough, a white person nearby not-so-helpfully explained, “Shoes aren’t allowed in the temple.” The yelling dude then brought me down to some other young macho guys, who all began yelling in Tamil and pointing at my shoes also, and momentarily grabbing my arms too. I felt the urge to roughly push them off of me and tell them to fuck off, but I realized that it was nothing personal. Also, I had seen enough in India to know that the way they were touching me, although disrespectful in America, was no big deal in rural India, just how people communicate.
I was irritated, knowing that there was no way that I would let my shoes touch the ground while in the temple. I told the guy, “Yeah, well, thing of it is, you’d never fucking guess this, but I’d actually like to see these shoes again.” He didn’t seem to understand or care, and kept violently motioning to the gate I had come in through. So, I went back the way I had came. Finally, after I got back to the space between the outer wall of the temple and the first inner wall, I saw some areas where no one was or would go, with dark little piles of stones, where I could sneak off and hide my shoes. I started looking around for the perfect place, when I was suddenly startled by the dude, yelling again from right behind me. He was also gesticulating wildly again towards the gate in the outer wall, out onto the street. “OK, OK, man, I get it, I’mma goin, I’mma goin.”
There was a pile of shoes right next to the doorway, and I walked to the back of the pile, and stuck my shoes under a rock overhang. This fat peasant-y woman sitting nearby, maybe selling gum, started cursing me out, and threw my shoes out on the street. I think that maybe that was her shoe-watching domain, and that she was offended that I had not only not paid her, but had walked through her little empire all on my ownsome. I picked up my shoes and placed them back in the pile. She roughly threw them out, yelling more curses. I was so infuriated, at the end of my tether, I felt the impulse to punch the lady’s head as she sat just in front of me. That would have done nobody any good, though, so, I just picked up my shoes and strode off.
If the situation was as I suspected, and if I could find someone to translate, and if the lady wasn’t too angry, I knew that it might be best to pay her the fee to have her watch my shoes. But – Fuck her and her stupid ass. I considered buying some fruit, and using the plastic bag to carry my shoes back in with me, but felt a vague certainty that the dude-guy would bust me again. I considered just leaving. But, instead, I walked across the entry way, on the opposite side from the fat lady, and stuck my shoes in an unlit dark cubby under some stones, behind some parked bicycles. I felt pleased with the remote dark coziness of the spot I had found.
I slowly grinded my way back through the various crowded gates, girding my muscles to keep the crowd’s force from crushing the various little kids I kept finding in front of me (India has more children than the USA has people of all ages). Eventually, I worked my way to the huge courtyard within the third set of towering walls. There I found massive groups of families and squadrons of youths, milling or sitting around, chatting. There were a number of shrines, with pushy throngs of people clamoring to get in to do puja or get blessings. There were beautiful huge (thirty feet long) paintings in colored sand of Shiva, other deities, and of religious patterns. There were groups of musicians and a dancer doing Indian classical routines (neither of which were that interesting to me, though, after the amazing stuff that I had seen performed in Varanasi).
I never saw the English monk and his group again that night. I did however enjoy sitting and watching Indians going by, trying to divine what they were feeling, what were the emotions on their faces, and the secrets in their hearts. India is more gender polarized than the west, and I felt fascination for both the men with their ubiquitous moustaches, and the women with their beautiful colorful saris and salwar-kameezes.
[Indian women in saris]
[Indian girls rockin the salwar-kameez]
Life in India seems to age women more rapidly than the life lead by my friends in America seems to (with our “amusements”). Many Indian mothers looked like tired old women to me, even if I would guess that they are my age, or even five or ten years younger. But the beauty of many of the younger women took my breath away. I didn’t find many women in North India to be that attractive, but Tamil women seem to be something else. How YOOOUUUU doin’, ladies?
I have felt irritated at times, in India, by the double standard around dating and foreign tourists. Nearly as I can tell, those beautiful Indian women are strictly off limits for us white tourist guys to have even so little as a relaxed one-on-one conversation with on the street, without all the Indians within visual distance stiffening up as if we were about to besmirch the national honor. Meanwhile, not all but certainly a large number of Indian men seem to think that white tourist women are all just like the white girls they see on internet porn; the men’s actions, as I’ve seen and heard, range from polite but unmistakable solicitousness to frightening grabiness. I know of a bunch of Indian guy/white tourist “couples”, but none in the opposite direction. Hey, India – if you want to come to the party and chow down on the buffet, bring some party treats to share, y’know?
It’s funny how India is so the opposite of Thailand, with its comparatively feminine women and comparatively feminine men – in Thailand, you see white guy/Thai women couples everywhere in the tourist zones. And I noticed that Thai women are, ahem, pretty forward with flagging down white men’s attention (seems to me out of some combination of desire for money and genuine attraction). Meanwhile, only the Thai dudes with unusually high-testosterone and alpha male attitude seem to even bother flirting with white tourist girls, the rest seemingly knowing not to waste their time.
Anyway, given all this, I was charmed when, at one point at the Arunachaleswar Temple festival, a trio of cute late-teens-looking girls came up to me and wanted to … shake hands, before scampering off, nervously giggling. I thought to myself, “I guess with their arranged marriages, Indian girls aren’t any more skillful at flirting with a white tourist boy like me than the Indian boys seem to be famously unskilled at flirting with white tourist girls.” Another event that gladdened my heart was, as I stood and watched a big group of people throw piles of leaves on a Shiva lingam and chant “Om Shanti”, one man smiled and offered up some handfuls of leaves to me. It felt fun and holy to join in their puja.
Mostly, though, again and again, I got the blank unsmiling stare from the Indian festival-goers, and also, again and again, people unconsciously bumping into or pushing against me. After a couple hours of wandering around, I eventually chatted with a Czech woman from the ashram. She eventually confided, “I need to get outta here … I don’t have the nerves for this scene.” I felt the same way.
I felt peaceful as I left the final huge wall of temple, and went to get my shoes. What had been a dark cubby in the sunlight, though, was now flooded by a bright street light – and there was a distinct lack of Adam’s shoes in the spot. I cast about, looking all around, maybe someone threw them aside looking for their own shoes.
After a few minutes of denial, though, I came to my senses : “No, dude, they’re gone. Not only is it possible that they are gone, it’s completely probable. Of course they’re gone.” I looked around and saw that the other shoes in that place were all cheap flip-flops. Of course my sturdy walking shoes, a hundred dollars new, would be boosted. Some people in India really have not much – although India has more million-dollar-aires than the US does, two-thirds of Indians also live on less than two dollars a day – so, I imagine that a pair of shoes like mine might be like bars of gold to one of the poorest Indians.
I was angry with myself for not taking better care when I knew I should have, but, even more than that, I was angry outwards. A dark, hateful feeling settled on me. At a religious festival? Are you fucking kidding me? What the fuck good does religion do you, if you steal someone’s shoes from a fucking temple? Carrying shoes around in a temple is horribly unclean – but stealing shoes from a temple wall isn’t?
I walked barefoot towards downtown Tiruvannamalai, avoiding the cow shit patties and open sewage flumes, but still feeling disgust as my feet repeatedly squished into mystery entities. As I walked in front of the massive front gate of the temple, I noticed a big shoe-storage shed doing brisk business keeping festival goer’s shoes secure. I felt hatred for the dude who busted me, since he must have known about that stand, but he had kicked me out of a different gate.
In fact, I hated every Indian I saw, and imagined that each one of them was the vile thief, hiding their evil deed behind their jovial festival smile, or behind the stressed-out just-trying-to-survive look that Indians more usually seem to have … although I knew in my head that most of the Indians I saw would actually be horrified at the thought of stealing from a temple. Why the fuck am I here in this fucking country, it’s such a constant grind here. I should go back to Chiang Mai, man that place was chill easy and safe… or better still, I could just go back to the States. There are so many valuable things I could be doing back home right now. What the fuck am I doing here, in this weird-ass place.
My mind was spinning – I have lots of shoes back home … do I really need those particular shoes on the rest of this trip? Well, yeah, if I go trekking in the Himalayas, I do need some sort of sturdy shoes. I want them even for climbing up Mount Arunachala tomorrow. Fuck that fucking motherfucking shoe thief. I’m not sure if you can get either well-made walking shoes or gel inserts anywhere in India, and even if I can, it could take me hours or days for me to track them down. That potential inconvenience, plus my emotional connection/attachment to my walking shoes (they were the shoes I wore for years to my weekly men’s circle), left me feeling more angry and violated than I had felt about the theft of $100 from my backpack when it was in the luggage compartment of a Thai bus a few months earlier (which was more like, “eh, that sucks … what’s for lunch?”).
I walked on, fuming and ignoring everyone around me, eventually buying some 65 rupee ($1.50) flip-flops that chaffed my toes. I joylessly ate a delicious dinner at my favorite spot, took an cold empty autorikshaw ride home, went to bed sullen, and woke up a little less sullen … but still sullen.
I started to become embarrassed at myself, though, living at an ashram, staying in a big room under the generous hospitality of Indian people, resenting all Indians as thieves. I started to think of Sri Ramana, who, for decades, famously only owned only three things (a dhoti, a waterpot, and a walking stick) for himself. He was also famous for being equally open and welcoming to anyone and everyone who came to see him, from the most I of VIPs, to the most wretched poor person. His ashram founded free medical clinics and food-providing services for the poor. What would his smiling eyes, with eternity shining through them, say to me about my stolen shoes and the anger I felt about it? I imagine that he would never say that it was “wrong” for the anger to be there. But I feel certain that he would not encourage it, or say that my angry thoughts were “true”, or that my anger would help me at all in the goal of spiritual realization.
The next day, Gita empathetically listened to my story as we stood on line for lunch, and commiserated that she could understand my upset. She also told me that she and her partner had gone trekking in the Himalayas wearing just flip-flops on their feet, which she thought were better for crossing streams in. After lunch, she and I had a wide-ranging conversation about spiritual teachers and teachings. I felt calmer, more connected – my heart felt at peace again.
During my time on the internet, I had researched the famous Indian head wobble – it had been driving me crazy trying to figure out what people meant when they used it. The interwebs told me that it means something as strong as “I agree” and “word up”, or as simple as “I understand” and “OK, continue with what you’re saying”. So, talking with Gita, instead of nodding my head, I began a habit of wobbling it.
[Mount Arunachala towers up behind Ramanashram. Scriptures indicate that this hill has been considered holy to Indians for at least 3,500 years.]
Later, Gita and I walked up the sacred mountain, to the two caves where Ramana lived before the ashram was built. It felt good to climb the steep steps, and feel the blood pumping in my legs and my heart with the exertion. I was surprised to see that many solicitous Indians sat along the otherwise peaceful nature path, hoping to sell their wares or their services as guides to those walking up. At one point, we stopped at a table covered with beautiful hand-carved stone statuettes – Ganesh, Shiva, the OM sign, the Buddha (who is, you know, the twenty fourth avatar of Vishnu) – and I was impressed to learn that the man carved the ornate statues by hand as he waited for customers.
Once Gita and I got to a certain elevation, we were able to look out over the city, and see the immense Arunachaleswar Temple dominating our view. It’s gardens and ornate towers seemed so serene, holy, and benevolent from that perspective; there was no sense of badgering “dude”s, crushing uncaring crowds, or sneaky shoe thieves.
We eventually walked down into the city (not the way we came, since we knew that the gate from the ashram up the mountain had already been locked for the evening). As we walked through the sidewalk-less city streets on our way home, with autorikshaws and trucks hurtling by just a few feet away, I was still getting stared at. But, somehow, the attention felt more bearable and less harsh, as Gita talked about the culture and the people around us, her culture and her people.
One more thing I have noticed about Indians is, once you get on their good side – once they let you into their heart – you are like family for them, they will open their life up for you. So, before we parted ways, my friend Gita invited me to do a bunch of fun things : to go with her big-smile Indian-Jesus-looking friend named Joseph to see the relaxing beautiful city of Ponducherry, and then stay with Joseph at Gita’s spiritual-rock-star friend Ajun’s ashram/orphanage.
[Me and Joseph (a.k.a. “Indian Jesus”)]
After my time with Joseph, Gita’s plan for me included time in an ashram in the woods outside the hip entrepreneurial garden-city of Bangalore, and then camping out at her friends’ cozy guest house in the cool rural palm-tree hills of Kerala state. I was free to stay there with her and her partner until I left for my next plans : a Zen/Hindu/Catholic meditation intensive in the rural hills of Tamil Nadu state, followed by reviewing the Landmark Education Advanced Course in Mumbai (Bombay), seeing the Ellora Caves and the Taj Mahal, studying yoga in Rishakesh, and, finally, studying Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhist philosophy in Dharmasala.
I accepted my place in Gita’s wonderful itinerary. Later that night, I meditated in the hall where Sri Ramana received visitors for twenty-five years. I felt myself expand into a deep unbounded peace, where thoughts and body sensations floated in a large open space of consciousness. I felt Sri Ramana’s grace in the room, allowing relative ease in relaxing into an impersonal but warm equanimity.
Still later, I was walking back to my cabin to write out this little history of five days of traveling, and I thought to myself, “This ashram really is a jewel. Yup – OK – YES – there actually are good reasons why I am here in India.”
Addendum: A Ceremony
Life at the Ramanashram was usually calm and simple. While I was there, however, they did a ceremony to reconsecrate the altars of the ashram – to, metaphorically, charge back up their holy batteries. Apparently, they do this once a year. During the two days of this ritual, there were all sorts of colorful decorations and chanting, ceremony, and general “hubbub”.
The heart of the reconsecration ceremony was a squadron of shirtless Brahmin priests giving offerings to a fire. They threw twenty loaves of bread onto the fire, then a basket of bananas, then pitchers of nuts, as well as many other foods. Then, they threw one radiant beautiful silk cloth after another onto the fire, and then a bunch of nice household items. It was disturbing for me to watch.
While they burned all that, they were simultaneously doing repetition of verses from the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures) – chanting verses, simultaneously, at breakneck speed, in Sanskrit, first forward then backward. It was impressive to me, as a feat of memorization and skill. But it was also gross, because the priests seemed to be trying to out-do each other in who could chant the best, and they would interrupt the ceremony to argue with and correct each other.
The priests did their super-fast Sanskrit chant-y thing in the main shrine room, also.
(Note : if a picture doesn’t have me in it, then I probably borrowed it from the internet – thanks for the loan, internet picture people.)