the records of our slow trip through this beautiful land

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

No Photo Available

Dear Valued Reader,

The dramatic decline in frequency of posting in the last month is due to a particular malfunction in my digital camera. If my camera were still working, I would have wonderful pictures to post along with my droll commentary. But without the pictures I feel that my words are not as interesting. If a picture is worth one thousand words, surely they speak the first thousand and my words are some kind of afterward.


Monica and I will return to the United States in one week. Shortly after that time we will develop the hundreds of film pictures we have taken while the digital camera was not working. Stay tuned for more pictures -- and afterwords -- after that point.

With warmest regards for you and your kin. May your digital camera not fail you now!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mid-May Update

Now. Enough time has passed since my last thwarted posting that a bloated "here-is-what-has-happened-since-then" posting seems justified. I never wanted to leave such a one, but in truth we are both alive and happy and we don't want anyone to be afraid for us. There now, that's better.

After our retreats we decided to leave McLeod Ganj, the town we'd come to love so well. We wanted trekking, but the surrounding hills were too snow covered for our under-equipped selves. Head to Sikkim.

But first we had to go to Delhi to arrange the train tickets. One could say many things about the rail system in India. Behemoth. Filthy. Inefficient. Inexpensive. Late. Most of all, we find it very confusing. For example, we tried to book our tickets from a small branch office in a rural area, but they were not able to do it. We actually had to go to the big office in Delhi to make the booking. Same computer network. Same rail network. Different office, different results. Very confusing. We felt better to learn that even Indians find the system confusing.

We then spent two days in the sweltering heat (108 F) of the urban wonderland that is Delhi. I will not say anything about it here, since it is far too great a subject. We did have a great time, though, and we are excited to return for some days before our flight back to the United States at the end of the month. Great food. Great shopping. Great wide avenues, reminicent of Washington D.C.

Getting into Sikkim turned out to be more challenging than we expected. It's a peculiar state in many ways. It is small, sparsely populated. It is also a coveted border state. It shares borders with Nepal, Tibet (China-occupied) and Bhutan. Up until the 1950s it was a soverign nation, and it was not a regular state until a 1973 referendum. Today, foreign visitors must obtain special 15-day permits to enter, mostly because of the security situation. Not that it's unsafe to travel here, just that India wants to be very careful who goes in and for how long. To give you a sense of the urgency, China has never recognized India's claim to Sikkim. There are many many army bases in the border areas.

After our 27-hour train ride to the border (and one day of getting permits) we entered in a small under-full bus to Pelling. Which brings me back to the low population. This state is so under-populated and roadless that we feel as though we are no longer in India. We have taken to walking from village to village instead of taking share-jeeps. We have time to look people in the eye when we say "namaste." And people smile here in a wonderful way.

And the ecology. Sikkim is nestled right up into the eastern portion of the Himalaya. On its border with Nepal sits the third tallest peak in the world. Where we are in the south-west district, the landscape is a steep hilly green. The climate has more in common with coastal Oregon or Hawaii than the rest of India. It has rained every day since we arrived, often in dounpour. Ferns are everywhere. There are so many types of trees and flowers. If you keep your eyes trained on the tree trunks you can see several varieties of orchids. It's a wild and totally unspoiled paradise. I hope it can stay this way for a few more generations.

We plan to keep up this village trekking routine for another five or six days before we head to Darjeeling to go tea-shopping and gompa-visiting. We'll return to Delhi through Bodhgaya, the place where Siddartha Gottama became the Enlightened One. Then it's a flight back to Oregon.

If our camera were still working I'd post a picture. But maybe it's better that you just imagine the view from our village.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Vipassana Meditation Course

One week has now passed since the completion of my Vipassana meditation course. Normally after such I significant event in this journey I would have posted something within the day; but it has been too difficult to find the words. This experience has been quite important for me. This is somehow a focal point of the whole trip. Okay, let me try to write something today.

What was it like? Tough question. Let's try an easier one.

What did I do for the ten days? I learned a particular meditation technique.

Who was the teacher? This standardized course is taught by S. N. Goenka via videotape. All 10-day courses are taught in the same way, with the same tapes. Although it sounds droll, it's actually totally enjoyable. Goenka is a delightful fellow, very charismatic, and a real joy to meet on tape every evening. There are instructions in English and Hindi; translations into many other languages are available (students in my course were from all over the world). Each of these standardized courses also comes with two real live assistant teachers--one for the male students and one for the females students.

Where was I for ten days? The Himachal Vipassana Centre is settled in a beautiful wooded area 3 km uphill from the traveler center known as McLeod Ganj. You can get a few images from their website by selecting Photogallery from the sidebar. This center is one of 50 such centers in India; there are 100 worldwide.

What was life like in the course? In a word: monastic. One gets up early, meditates, eats simple meals, meditates more, listens to a lecture, meditates more, and goes to sleep. There is no talking, no interaction with fellow students, no phones, no TV, no contact with the outside world. A prospective student agrees to these restrictions and more: no killing, no speaking untruths (easy when you can't talk), no sexual misconduct, no stealing, and abstention from all intoxicants. This meant for many students that they had to give up cigarettes for the course. All of this discipline and all of these rules were in place simply to help the students maintain the proper mindset for the meditation.

Especially the silence. Folks have asked me what it was like to shut up for the duration of the course. Initially I was afraid that silence would be painful, lonely. But throughout the course I reveled in it. I did not know any fellow students, so there was no motivation to break my silence. Oh sure: I was curious about how others were feeling about the course, if they were enjoying the food as well, or if they felt pains in their knees and back. But I knew that it was more important for me to have my own experience and not reshape it based on the words of others. It was easy to keep quiet.

What was a typical day? With the exception of day zero and day ten, all other days were identical.

  • 4:00 wake up bell
  • 4:30 - 6:30 meditation practice
  • 6:30 - 8:00 breakfast and rest
  • 8:00 - 9:00 group meditation 1
  • 9:15 - 11:00 meditation practice
  • 11:00 - 13:00 lunch and rest
  • 1300 - 14:15 meditation practice
  • 14:30 - 15:30 group meditation 2
  • 15:45 - 17:00 meditation practice
  • 17:00 - 18:00 snacks & tea
  • 18:00 - 19:00 group meditation 3
  • 19:15 - 20:30 discourses and theory
  • 20:40 - 21:00 meditation practice
  • 21:00 - I always went straight to bed
In all, I spent about ten hours per day in the meditation hall---sitting on cushion 30---trying my hardest to perform the meditation technique correctly. The difference between "group meditation" and "meditation practice" was actually not very great. In "group meditation" we received little or no directions but had to hold one position for the entire hour. In "meditation practice" we often received a little more detailed directions and sometimes the assistant teacher would call up groups of five or six students to answer questions and reinforce the instructions.

You may have noticed that there is little food to speak of after 11:30. Oh yes. In fact, the returning students (about 20% of us) were expected to take no snack at 17:00, only lemon water. Yikes! Myself, I was always hungry before going to bed, so it's hard to imagine adherence to this rule.

So what was it like at first? I'd say the main two themes for the first days were 1) the pain of sitting and 2) the wandering mind. The pain of sitting needs no explanation, save that it does slowly subside after about four days. Myself, I never became comfortable sitting cross-legged on my cushion; instead I opted for a crutch, the meditation bench. Others used rigid backs behind their cushions. And the ones who did sit cross-legged looked like so many Buddhas lined up in rows.

How I learned to notice my wandering mind: the assignment, for the first three days, was to focus all of my concentration on the breath passing in and out of my nostrils. Nothing else. Not the rise and fall of my stomach, not the pain in my lower back, not the guy sitting next to me burping. And I was most definitely not supposed to let my mind wander onto other things.

But thoughts appear. I think of the past: I remember childhood events; stories from this adventure; old friends; inconsequential trivia from days long gone. Oh wait, I'm supposed to be staying with the breath in my nostrils. The breath in my nostrils. The breath in ... and then more thoughts appear. I think of the future: I wonder about what things will be like when I return to the states; I remember a store I want to visit when I get back to McLeod Ganj; I think of what to write on this blog; I start designing a briefcase. Oh damn, I'm supposed to be staying with the breath in my nostrils. The breath in my nostrils. The breath in ... and then my mind is wandering again.

My mind is a monkey mind, climbing from branch to branch. I try to tame it but it always gets away from me.

A few days into the course it gets easier, the mind does not wander quite so quickly. Then we have a new assignment. The actual Vipassana technique is given some days into the course. I had better not go into detail on the technique itself since I am not myself a teacher. But in a rough approximation, the technique goes like this: stay aware of the sensations in your body with an equanimous mind. Stay aware of the sensations like pressure or heat or prickling or pain or numbness as they arise and as they pass away. And when noting them, try to be as objective and impartial as you can be. If you feel pain in your hip, okay, there is pain. No need to develop hatred towards it, just notice it. If there is a pleasant sensation of tingling moving up your forehead, okay, it feels good. But beware not to become attached. Not becoming attached to good sensations and not developing hatred towards unpleasant sensations is the essence of the equanimous mind.

[ note: the following is the continuation of the above unfinished posting - sean]

So Vipassana is basically complete awareness with equanimity. Simple to describe and tricky to sustain.

Why would someone do Vipassana meditation anyway? One does Vipassana to free one's self from the suffering of life's ups and downs. The practice teaches the mind not to cling to pleasant things (which are impermanent and will always fade, leading to suffering). Likewise the practice teaches the mind not to hate the unpleasant things (which also are impermanent, therefore not deserving of your hate). The mind begins to see the world for what it is. Suffering is decreased. If one sticks to the technique long and hard enough, enlightenment is the promised result.

The Vipassana technique comes from a lineage of Buddhist teachers in Myanmar who (supposedly) preserved the technique for 25 centuries since the time of Siddartha Gottama, the Enlightened One. Therefore present-day practicioners of Vipassana are following in the Buddha's footsteps, trying to reach enlightenment.

Now that the course is over, what has changed? Let's be clear about one thing: I have decided to continue the practice, in my normal life, for one year. That's one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening, every day. I'm giving the practice a little chance to work on me. It's a long and slow path, enlightenment, and I don't really expect to see any huge results soon. But I do hope that the continuation of this practice will help increase the quality of my life. I think that it has already. I think that I'm more balanced and have better perspective. I think I'm better able to handle stressful situations. Slight as the changes are, I welcome them into my life and I look forward to this year's project.

Do I recommend Vipassana to others? Absolutely. Go for it. I'm not saying that it's going to change your life. But if you don't try it, how will you know? If you have any other questions that I can answer, especially if you're considering taking the course yourself, don't hesitate to contact me.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Shhhhh

I admit, this is not so much a posting about our adventures. It's more a "meta-posting" about what to expect from this blog for the next ten days: exactly nothing.

From 15 April to 26 April I will be secluded in the forest above McLeod Ganj in the little village of Dharamkot, meditating. On what? I have not a clue. I will be taking a ten-day silent meditation course, also known as Vipassana meditation. Sounds very strange at first, but I know several people who have completed this course (Monica included) and who have recommended it highly.

I am a little afraid of losing my mind, but I think that is part of the point of the practice. Here goes nothing (pun intended).

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Dharamsala

(Note: this post written by Therese)

We are now staying in the beautiful, rugged mountain town of McLeod Ganj, elevation 5800 feet. This is the home of His Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and of numerous Tibetan refugees and northern Indian people. Yesterday we went to a meeting of the Dharamsala Lion's Club to inaugurate the 20th annual plastic and reconstructive surgery camp. We went because we wanted to see the Dalai Lama. Even though this was a civic event, his beauty, spirituality, and compassion was shining through. It is hard to imagine that the Chinese (or anyone) could wish him any ill. But, as much as I don't want to admit it, there is a shadow side in this world.

I have seen three photos together here in this town: Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa. They are all very much revered in these parts.

We are all well and having wonderful adventures. Today I went to the temple at the monastery where the Dalai Lama lives and teaches. (Cheryl and Jim: we have not yet met his younger brother Tenzin Chokal) The temple here is very beautiful and quite humble. It was exciting to watch the monks in spiritual discourse. Amazing.

The Buddhist teachings are challenging me. I spent the afternoon searching in my heart and writing in my journal. I do wonder if I could stay here forever. Perhaps ...

Love, Therese

PS - we inadvertently forgot all addresses at home, so this is your postcard. Apologies.
PPS - prayers and healing energies to Helen K., Elfi, Claire N., Ursula, Helen R., Tucker, and Bernhadine.
PPPS - Love to all of you from all of us here in Dharamsala. See you later in this life.

Taj Mahal Mania


To tell you the truth, Monica and I had decided that we would not visit the Taj Mahal. This outstanding mausoleum is perhaps the quintessential tourist attraction. It is India's most popular destination (and deservedly so) which made both Monica and myself want to boycott the whole thing. Thankfully we relented.

While I won't even try to describe how fantastic this place is, I will give it my complete endorsement--with one proviso. Go first thing in the morning. Get there by sunrise if possible. This is for two very good reasons. Firstly, the mobs of tourists who show up at eight or nine must be avoided. Secondly, the Taj is made of white marble. To gaze upon it bathed in early morning sunshine is divine; to be blinded by the glare of mid-day sun bouncing off its every surface would be downright painful.

Cave Temples of Dambulla


Sri Lanka has loads of history. Most of it is Buddhist history, which is very interesting to us. We took a trip to the ancient cave temples outside of Dambulla in Sri Lanka's "cultural triangle." The picture above is of the courtyard outside the temples. The white walls provide the "fourth wall" of the caves, where the rock provides the floor and ceiling and the other three walls.

These spectacular Buddhist temples date to the 1st century BCE when the caves were cleaned and filled with a tremendous number of Buddha statues. The cave's inside surfaces were frescoed at that time, and they were repainted some 800 years ago. Actually, one of the five temples was painted in the 1950s---but it was painted with artificial pigments. It actually looks more shabby and weathered than the 800-year-old paint jobs done with natural pigments.


These cave temples were so amazing that my heart stopped and my breath was taken from me. We tried to take some pictures inside the caves; but alas, caves are dark and the flash on our camera is nearly useless. I think you will just have to visit the caves yourself.