Pilgrimage Happens

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I got back a few days ago from almost two weeks of travelling, not just travelling, but pilgrimage, and I’m just now recovering.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And, if you’re me, you spend a week recovering, then wake up to realize you are flying to France tomorrow. Pilgrimage…it happens.

Suffice to Say, I am in India

No photos yet, as I’m on a school computer and this is my foray into internet-dom. They will come soon.

At the moment, I am mostly amazed that I am here. It took about twenty-four hours of travel to get here, from Los Angeles to New York to Delhi. And that’s not counting the roundabout cab ride from the airport to the center, hehe. Things of note:

The center, formally known as The Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, looks like a Tibetan monastery, and in fact most of its inhabitants are monks. Students from around the world have been trickling in. So far no other Americans, but I’ve met several Germans, a Canadian, and a Dane. Everyone is friendly and everyone is dedicated to the Dharma. This is a good place to be.

There is  a temple in the middle of the compound where people meditate and do prostrations. The statue of the Buddha there is the most impressive and inspiring I’ve ever seen, entirely gold and probably twelve-feet high. It’s quite cold here, which is very encouraging of prostration practice as it heats one up considerably. I’ve been doing one hundred a day, but I might start doing extra before bed to keep warm.

Outside the center, directly close by is all institutions; there is a hospital, the Indian Statistical Institute, and various places with Hindi names that I don’t understand, but which have impressive buildings to go along with them. A short walk away, through a park and off the nearest main road is what I would guess is a more typical neighborhood, where tall buildings stand close together, street vendors sell everything from fresh curry to room heaters, and men speed by on motorcycles while honking their horns maniacally.

There are no squirrels here, but energetic chipmunks with striped backs and a single ring on their tails. There are crows, as there seem to be Corvidae everywhere in the world; the ones here are black with gray hoods that stretch over their breast and half down their backs. The blackbirds, if they are blackbirds, have orange beaks and orange around their eyes, and there’s waterbirds with fat bodies on stick-like legs near the river that runs by a park just a short walk from the center.

I imagine I will be at the center most of the time, working and practicing, but perhaps on weekends I’ll venture out to nearby destinations of interest or to sample the local fare. Everything now is new and unknown. You’ll know when I know what life has in store.

After the Holidays

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Happy third night of Chanukah and Merry (T – 15 days to) Christmas.

My family is not particularly religious, but we do celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, as an ode to our roots, and as a way to bring us all together. My mom was raised loosely Catholic, and professes to believe in a higher power, but has never glommed on to organized religion much. My Dad is a reform Jew from a big Jewish family on the East Coast who took my sister and I to synagogue every year for the High Holy Days, and still does if we’re in town. When I was little, we read about the parting of the Red Sea and the miracle of oil that became Chanukah.

I love the singing of songs, the eating of fried food, and the sense of history that my Jewish heritage gives me, but I never much formed a bond with the God of the Israelites. My sister is a devout atheist; I guess she never did either. In our respective years of life, we have each stumbled upon various forms of value and guidance for this life. Taylor is discovering her own goodness and the power of human communication. I have developed meditation practice and am walking the Buddhist path of discovering the nature of mind. We share the practice of creativity and faith in the power of art to connect and elucidate the workings of the human engine.

This holiday will see all of us, on our various paths, come together to light candles, top trees, wrap presents, and share meals made with love. It’s the big family hurrah! And when the holidays are over, my own path will take me far afield. Come January, I am heading to India to study some of those texts that have been handed down through generations to tell those of us alive today what the Buddha taught over 2,000 years ago. The opportunity came up quickly, and, for now, I mostly feel a sense of giddiness combined with all the uncertainty of what lies ahead. I don’t know what will happen to this little blog in that time, but, as it unfolds, I’ll keep you posted. Happy Holidays!

From Under a Rock

Proof that I went somewhere; I've been hiding under some pretty good rocks. Bianca (left) and me in the mountains above Durango. Photo by Iza Bruen.

Proof that I went somewhere – I’ve been hiding under some pretty nice rocks. Bianca (left) and me in the mountains above Durango. Photo by Iza Bruen.

I’ve been hiding, a little bit, over here. You may have noticed I’ve been gone almost a whole month. Minor yikes, though I’m not planning on making a habit of it. I could easily attribute the absence to travel or an abundance of epic meals to be made. But truthfully, neither is to blame. I suppose the best explanation is to say that, lately, I’m a little dumbfounded by life.

The Buddha taught that all things are impermanent; the only things we can rely on are change, impermanence, creativity, and uncertainty. The cells of my body are dying and being made new every day, as are plants and animals, stars and planets. Impermanence is sensible, but it also comes as a surprise when change applies to the things we thought, or hoped, we might be able to rely on for a little while.

From the series Midday Crisis Aphorisms, Mixed Media on Paper, 4 3/8" x 4 3/8"

From the series Midday Crisis Aphorisms, Mixed Media on Paper, 4 3/8″ x 4 3/8″

In my silence, I have been digesting some impermanence. The strange thing about ever-changing life, though, is that you don’t get settled with it. Even new changes shift and change as I am watching them, living them. My friends are changing, dispersed over country and continents. Many of the cares that held us together have faded or been left behind; some have been remade and others not. My family is changing, less a tightly-woven unit and more a fragile web of individuals. My future is changing, places and paths I thought I might see someday becoming ones I might see very soon, while others disappear completely. Inside this sense of loss I wonder: even the best of plans are only imagination until they come to pass and even the best of people are only with us when they’re with us and gone when they are gone. It may seem a heavy thing, and yet everything about it blows away with the wind.

A temporary friend.

A temporary friend.

As Burns said and Steinbeck reminded us, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I have nothing else pithy to say; I just really wanted to include this adorable picture of a critter I had the pleasure to meet before sending him on his way. I know most people don’t like rodents, but isn’t he cute? I think he’s grateful to be alive. Me too.

Buckwheat Pancakes and Good News

Toward the Hills

When I was a kid I longed for snow. With passion, with ire. But I lived in Southern California, and so it never came. In the years that I was away from home I relished the changing of seasons each place I lived. White and pink blossoms of pear trees lining East Village streets. Yellowing cottonwood leaves along Arizona creeks. Snow on high rises and snow on mountainsides.

I woke up this morning and I thought, “It feels like autumn.” Slightly crisp air in a gray sky. A dense fog crept up last night to cradle the houses and streets. But in Santa Barbara, fog is no indication of season. It is merely a pleasant reminder that we live by the ocean; our fog is a marine layer– moisture that drifts in from the ocean to settle over the city and surrounding mountains. It can come any time of year, but is honestly most prevalent in the summer. How bout that?

Toward the Ocean. Check it out; you can see the pier through the trees!

Spring and autumn feel about the same. Winter is a touch colder and clearer. Summer spends the morning socked-in and usually toasts up nicely by afternoon. The drinking of hot chocolate and wearing of mittens are purely for ambiance at any time of year. It’s yet another sign of how subtle the seasons are that I’ve become nostalgic for autumn and winter in the springtime when I should be sick of the chill and waiting for sunshine. 🙂 I wanted to make pumpkin pancakes in my out-of-season confusion, but after wrestling a bit with my own obstinacy, I settled on buckwheat instead.

I ate them for lunch with my Dad, while we looked out the bay window at the fog, and talked about art and architecture (I’m an artist; he’s an architect) and maybe planting some lemon trees in the front yard. Even if it’s not autumn, I love the clear, grey light of outdoors and the way it contrasts with the warm amber of indoor light. On days like this, I feel taken care of by the world.

As we ate lunch, I mused over the contents of the table. Waffles to share with my papa and to post here, plus this: a short stack of postcards advertising an art opening next weekend. Buddha Abides: a juried show of work inspired by Buddhist themes and intended to raise money for children’s charities. And including a painting by this very artist. It’s true. I spent a good portion of this week conceptualizing and executing the painting, which I took to an in-gathering yesterday, and after biting my nails for two hours, I went back to discover it had been accepted. Yay!

Human Heart, Buddha Nature, acrylic on unprimed canvas, 20" x 16"

Pancake recipe after the jump… Continue reading