The Moon in Rippling Water

Evening in Delhi. Indian winter, still, which is no season I have ever known or thought of, nor particularly memorable. Foggy in the morning, chilly in the evening, sunny in the middle. The rain, though, the rain will hold you in place. And then let you go.

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Today was a perfect day. The sky hung low and dark with clouds and latent thunder. It felt as though the whole world slept and tossed in its sleep. Windows shed little light into rooms, leaving them silent and dormant even in the middle of morning. At midday, I sat alone on the marble stairs and watched water making pools and ripples in the courtyard.

In class, we are reading Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way. He says,

“Beings are like the moon in rippling water, fitful, fleeting, empty in their nature.”

This morning's tree, reflected, seen through the pattern of the gate.

This morning’s tree, reflected, seen through the pattern of the gate. (Is this picture sort of tiny? Why WordPress, why?)

We appear, quite luminously even, and still we are empty of essence. If I were to stand and walk into the rain, I could see my reflection – fitful, fleeting, rippling in the stone tiles.

Emptiness and Interdependence

This is home now. Not like any home I have known before, and yet only a week has passed, and I find myself at ease here.

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Welcome to KIBI. This is the gompa, or the temple building. It’s also where we have class, and it houses the library, student lounge, dining hall and living space for important people. The rest of us live in dorms that ring the gompa and surrounding courtyard. The compound and structures are built in the style of a Tibetan monastery, which is what they are. In addition to the forty ragtag Westerners here for the course, there are about twenty monks living at KIBI. I’ve met a few of them, and am becoming friends with a couple, but I must admit, I am a little shy of them, and they, I think, a little shy of us. Our lives and histories are vastly different, and our language too, which is perhaps the defining barrier. But slowly, slowly, we exchange smiles and good mornings, and there is the comfortable comradeship that comes from knowing you are in pursuit of the same good.

And as for that good, what a pursuit it is. Classes started on Monday. There are three classes a day, which focus on different topics depending on the day. Essentially we are studying two main teachings plus the foundations of meditation. The teachings are called Madhyamika and Abhidharma, and I don’t recommend trying to figure them out on your own. Here is a teeny bit of explanation based on my own understanding, which is a student’s view and not necessarily correct, but all these things are muddling about in my mind and it helps to write them out. If you find this stuff interesting, I recommend finding a Buddhist teacher who comes from a traditional lineage and can explain it properly to you. They are around, surprisingly enough, and not hard to find via the great internetz.

Anyway, here goes:

Madhyamika focuses on the emptiness of phenomena, that what we perceive is based on concepts we apply rather than any intrinsic nature to objects and experiences. Simple right? But think about emptiness long enough and your head will start to spin and the floor will drop out from beneath you, which is the point, I think. All of your ideas about the world become ungrounded in the face of emptiness, which, in the long run, makes us flexible, and in the really long run, makes us enlightened, but which, in the short run, mostly makes us dizzy. Makes me dizzy, anyway, and that was the general consensus over dinner last night, hehe.

Abhidharma focuses on what is translated into English as “dependent origination,” which is immensely complicated but which I often think of as the way that our sense of self arises in conjunction with our perception of external phenomena. The thing about dependent origination is that it applies not just to self but to everything. It is the idea that causes and effects exist entirely interdependently; there is no cause without an effect and no effect without a cause, but they don’t appear one and then the other. They come about simultaneously. The moment the correct conditions come together, they are the cause, which in that same moment manifests the effect, without any time lapse. Fine, makes sense. But there are so many causes and conditions in the world, and they are all intertwined, so it’s very hard to know what leads to what. The study and practice of how this all works gives us some ability to distinguish causes and effects, which is important because then we can engage in positive actions that will have positive effects, i.e. benefit ourselves and others and help us to experience less unnecessary suffering. Sounds good to me.

That’s the word these days. Love to all. Also, words are getting emphasis over pictures because pictures take bandwidth, which is scarce in India. But there was plenty of great travel-writing before photoblogging, so hopefully I can live up to that tradition a bit. I’ll try to supply imagery when I can.