I got back a few days ago from almost two weeks of travelling, not just travelling, but pilgrimage, and I’m just now recovering.
The landscape of the journey is chaos. Picture clouds of mosquitoes and an endless stream of nappy-haired child beggars, tragic and frustrating at the same time, as all are suffering, yet almost none can benefit from offerings you would make because they live in basic serfdom, passing their earnings on to a bigger fish, Oliver Twist-style. Feel the washboard roads bumping your tailbone kilometer after kilometer. Hold your pee for hours and be shocked at your relief upon the sight of a urine sprayed, fly-ensconced squat toilet. Check your disbelief at the utter lack of regard for queues everywhere from ticket counters to temple entrances. Get used to meditating through three to five other schools of Dharma’s prayers projected over loudspeaker, not to mention the flash of cameras in your face as even the monks stop to capture on film the anomaly of Western Buddhists.
Even in that chaos, there is beauty. Monks with skin every shade of tan and brown wander in groups wearing robes every shade of orange and crimson, with the occasional stroke of blue-gray painted in by a Zen roshi here or there. Amidst the nonchalant voyeurs who snap your photo in a quick walk-by or flash their phone cameras right in your face, there are gaggles of preteen girls who run up, having mustered courage in numbers, to ask, “Picture, madame? Picture?” To which you cannot help but oblige. And despite causing traffic jams in all holy places, the Thai pilgrims compensate by leaving flecks of gold behind when their clusters dissipate. They speckle every stupa, temple, and ruin they pass, with great devotion and without regard for the Indian Archaeological Survey’s wishes. You can hardly blame them, it is so beautiful and wrought with so much love.
Amist all this, of course, there is practice. Sitting in a quiet group, listening to Khenpo’s – loudspeaker free – histories and life stories, his own and those of the masters who passed here. Singing aspiration prayers in a single voice through the twilight. Walking clockwise circles, repeating six syllables to purify disturbing emotions…Om Mani Peme Hung…Om Mani Peme Hung. Just sitting. Where the Buddha attained enlightenment; where he spoke the Four Noble Truths; where he taught about emptiness; where he offered his last truths and passed from this life. And just once, rising before the daytime to throw your body flat-out on the ground once, twice, four hundred and thirty times, all the way around the spot where a prince named Siddhartha became a being called Buddha, the Awake One. Every time your forehead taps the stone, you pray to think less of yourself and more of all beings, and by the end, you just might, a little bit.
Along with this, there is the meeting of chaos and practice. Most people probably call it calamity; Buddhists call it purifying karma. In other words, experiencing challenges, but using them to work with the way we respond instead of just plain freaking out, so that we can carry on with better habits, or even less habits and more flexibility to a moment or an obstacle as it arises. It sounds very positive, and it is, but at the time it mostly feels like a shitshow. For instance: getting attacked by monkeys, getting swarmed by bees…twice, hiring a cab to take you 300 kilometers and realizing you have been taken 300 kilometers in the opposite direction of your destination, and, of course, the old standby: food poisoning. At every new absurdity, you work with anger, you test out laughter, you strive for patience. And when you have endured all this and done your best to be grateful for it, you collapse onto a fourteen hour sleeper train and arrive home at seven in the morning.
And, if you’re me, you spend a week recovering, then wake up to realize you are flying to France tomorrow. Pilgrimage…it happens.