Here’s a Buddhist joke:
There are three kinds of pilgrimage: a decent pilgrimage, a good pilgrimage, and a great pilgrimage. If you get there, pick up your bags, catch a bus, visit some sacred places, practice a bunch, and come home, it’s a decent pilgrimage. If you get there, lose your bags at the airport, breakdown in the middle of nowhere, get laid flat on your back by food poisoning, and barely make it home, it’s a good pilgrimage. If you get there–and die, it’s a great pilgrimage.
Contrary to evident appearance, the point of this joke is not that the path should be difficult. The path is as difficult as it is, and the point of this joke is actually that practice is about transforming obstacles into positive growth. As death is the biggest obstacle most of us will face in this life, turning that into practice would be revelatory. I’m, however, still hoping to come home in one, if slightly ravaged, piece.
The last time I went on pilgrimage in Asia involved getting attacked by bees–twice, a horrible bacterial infection of the stomach, and a fourteen-hour detour for an eight-hour car trip. So far, predictions for Nepal include ninety-degree weather, steaming monsoon rain, and one hundred thousand people in the same place. Pretty tame, but things tend to get exciting on the ground. I’m gearing up to be extremely flexible and as joyful as possible through whatever madness comes my way. As far as I see it, anything that happens on pilgrimage isn’t suffering; it’s just the good misery.
**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.