Not This, Not That ~ STOLEN-STUFF SAGA

I bought a mountain-bike to take to India with me, but it was quite a heavy one, and I’d not ridden a bike for years, so my first long ride from Madras south to Mahaballipuram ~ a distance of about 65 kms ~ was hard-going, and I was quite worn out by the time I got there. I spent several days wandering around the ruins and stupendous rock-carvings, then went back to Madras. From there I took a train to Hyderabad, and had some difficulty finding a cheap hotel. I set off to visit the massive Golconda Fort a few kms away. I explored the lower ruins and climbed to the highest point. This had been the seat of a Muslim dynasty, which derived its wealth from nearby diamond-mines, and had long resisted the Moghul armies led by Aurangzeb; with ring after ring of fortifications, I could see how. The number of forts across the land, and museums bursting with weapons, are mute witness that Indians have been a martial race throughout history, and not just recently; war is strongly in their blood, and peace not dear to their hearts, despite their claims to the contrary, and Gandhi’s call to non-violence. Nor is it surprising, when Hinduism’s main scriptures, certainly as understood by most Hindus ~ the Ramayana and the Mahabharata ~ strongly seem to extol war and violence; all the heroes are warriors, and even their god, Krishna, instructs Arjuna to kill his relatives in the course of duty; there’s no need to speak of Islam, as it’s not an indigenous Indian religion, and its own history speaks for it any-way.

I made my way around Hyderabad, visiting mosques, museums, and of course, the famous Char Minar, but I could only guess at the former splendor of this city. Until today, although it is far from the sea, Hyderabad is renowned for its pearl-trade.

The great Buddha-image in the middle of an artificial lake be-tween Hyderabad and its sister-city of Secunderabad was either still under construction when I was there or had fallen into the lake and had yet to be salvaged, so I didn’t get to see it.

From Secunderabad, I went to Aurangabad, and visited Ajanta and Ellora again; it is always good to be there. I bought several kgs of geodes and crystals, and sent them off by sea-mail from Bombay, which was my next stop. Having seen little of this city during my earlier visits, I hired a guide to show me some of the sights by taxi, visiting the Parsee Towers of Silence, where the dead are exposed for the vultures to eat, a magnificent Jain temple, the Hanging Gardens (so called not because they hang, but because in the time of the British, criminals were hanged there), the world’s largest open-air laundry, where they have such an efficient system that clothes seldom get lost or mixed up. Bombay was very hot at this time, and quite trying for me. Even so, I made an effort to visit Kanheri, a group of Buddhist caves north of the city; it wasn’t easy to get there, as it was a Sunday, and by the time I did and had a look around, I was drenched in sweat.

It was at this time that I was told that Bombay now had a popula-tion of about 16 million people, one million of which were beg-gars! Near the Gateway of India ~ a monument built by the Brit-ish to commemorate the visit of the King-Emperor George V in 1911, but not completed until 1924 (it earned its name because it was often the first sight beheld by visitors as they arrived in In-dia by way of the country’s busiest port) ~ I met a street-kid, and was appalled by his story: Aged about 12, he’d come to Bombay from a village somewhere, as do countless people, and lived on the streets with other kids, sustaining his life by begging. One night, while he was asleep, some kids had grabbed him and cut off one of his ears! He was a pleasant little kid, not rude or greedy, and was delighted with the few rupees I gave him, im-mediately ordering tea for himself; I wish I’d given him more.

The name of Bombay has been changed, but I refuse to use its new name, Mumbai, because it shows nationalistic chauvinism; in several states, all road-signs in English have been replaced by Marathi or Hindi, making it hard to get around. English used to be the official language of this polyglot nation, and to a large extent still is, but years ago there were riots in the south when the Federal Government tried to make Hindi ~ a northern tongue ~ the national language. Tamil ~ a Dravidian language ~ is much older than Hindi.

I wasn’t sorry to leave Bombay, and make my way north to Udaipur, a city on a lake in Rajasthan, where I stayed for a few days. While there, I came down with bronchitis, a sickness that afflicted me quite often, brought on by the pollution and dust in the air; it responded only to antibiotics, the alternative being to go on suffering for months. I see now that antibiotics have weakened my system.

My memory fails me again here, and I don’t recall how I got from Udaipur to Agra, where I stayed in a hotel near the Taj Mahal. It was run by a shrewd old Haji, who persuaded me to exchange my bike for a small inlaid marble table-top and some gem-stones, he getting the better part of the bargain; I didn’t really want these things, but he refused to pay with money. I’d had enough of my bike by then anyway, so it didn’t matter.

Now, because Agra was for a long time the Mughal Emperors’ capital, it is still very much a Muslim city. It was at this time that I had a discussion with a Muslim I met outside the Taj Mahal, and among the things he said to me was “Right hand is good, left hand is bad.” I knew what he meant, of course, but wanted to play with him, so asked him why this should be, and he replied, “Because the Holy Koran says it is.” Upon my request for further elucidation, he explained: “Well, the right hand is for eating with, and the left hand is for toilet purposes.”

Unwilling to let such gross unreason go unchallenged, I then said: “But if you wash both hands with soap and water after an-swering the calls of nature, they will both be clean, and there will be no question about one hand being better than the other.”

With this conversation fresh in my mind, I went into a restaurant and ordered right-handed chapatties (Indian unleavened bread). The waiter looked puzzled and asked what I meant. I said: “Chapatties made with just the right hand.”

“No such thing!” he retorted; “we must use both hands to make chapatties!”

“Ah, but I thought the left hand was bad and only to be used for toilet purposes,” I said. “We wash both hands,” he said sullenly. Having provoked him, I decided not to eat chapattis there in case he spit on them or something, and went out.

I went to another restaurant nearby and sat on the verandah, and while waiting for the food I’d ordered, I observed an old man pull down his pants, in full view of everyone, and squat over an open drain across the narrow street from where I was sitting, and calmly and unconcernedly do his thing, using a can of water that he had brought with him to clean himself afterwards! This must have been his regular spot! And people were passing by within arms-reach of him! But this is not unusual in India; in fact, the whole country is just one big open toilet, where people do it anywhere and everywhere: on the streets and in the fields, just wherever and whenever ~ so it seems ~ the mood comes upon them. Beautiful beaches and other scenic spots are befouled, and you really must watch your step! I got the impression they consider themselves invisible while doing it, as they seem oblivious to everything going on around them. You see rows of men and boys along busy highways and railway-lines at dawn, separated from each other by a few meters, hard at it, with traffic streaming past (women and girls must work night-shift, as they are seldom seen); indeed, some of them gaze up at the buses and trucks as they go by, and smile! It’s remarkable to anyone unfamiliar with such habits, but normal to the natives, of course. Maybe they feel claustrophobia inside enclosed toilets, or like to be close to nature and see the sky and hear the birds sing while doing it. Gandhi’s exhortations to dig latrines obviously went un-heeded. Even in big cities, people pee wherever they feel like, and attempts to rectify this by building urinals have been in vain. Never, anywhere, have I seen so many public urinals as in Delhi, and never have I seen so many people peeing anywhere ~ anywhere except in the proper places. Consequently, many people associate the odor of urine with Delhi; it is omnipresent, even in the tourist areas! Not just this, but many urinals are avoided because they have been used to defecate in!

Indians seem to have a fixation with shit, leaving it around for all to see, as if it’s something lovely. Cow-dung is at least useful and forms an important item of their home economy, collected while still fresh, and put to numerous uses, like plastering walls and floors; much of it is mixed by hand with grass or straw and cakes of it are then stuck onto any available surface to dry, with a handprint visible in every cake. It is then used as fuel for heat-ing and cooking and burns without much smoke or smell while giving off quite a bit of heat. Cow-dung also forms part of their traditional pharmacopoeia ~ another reason why cows are so highly prized in India. If only they would find use for their own excrement instead of leaving it lying around; someone could make a fortune from it. India really is a shitty country!

Cow-cake-covered wall

Most people in the West would not remember ~ or only dimly ~ the days when many houses had no flush-toilets but only an out-house in the back garden, with a bucket that had to be emptied into a pit periodically. Now we just press a button or pull a chain and our waste-matter goes gurgling out of sight so conveniently. We’ve come a long way.

Now, the whole world ~ or most of it, anyway ~ is convinced that right is somehow better than the left. Why do I say this? Well, just look at how we shake hands: except for the Boy Scouts (al-though why they should be contrary, I don’t know), everyone offers their right hand for others to shake, and some would take offence if they were offered the left hand. But I can think of no good or logical reason why the right should be regarded as in any way better than the left; it is just a matter of convention and we are stuck with it, because to change it now would be almost impossible, and what would we change it to that would not also be ~ or soon become ~ a thing of convention? There are so many things we are stuck with that have no foundations in real-ity, but to change them would be very difficult. Another example is our dating-system, which is really relevant only to Christians, yet the whole world conforms to it. Such things should be re-garded as what Buddhism terms ‘relative truth’ and as useful for the purposes of communication; but they have nothing to do with ‘ultimate truth’ ~ that is, to things that are as they are, or to the principles of life, that do not change. There is no need to change them; rather, we should understand them as what they are: just social conventions, which are useful as such. We have lived with them for a long time already and can continue to do so, as long as they don’t cause inconvenience or trouble.

Buddhists also think of the right as better than the left, as evinced in the way Buddhist monks dress, with the right shoul-der bared in the case of Theravada monks (monks of other sects also dress with something distinctive about the right shoulder); then there is the way they circumambulate stupas or holy places: always clockwise, with their right side towards the object of veneration. Once, in Budh-Gaya ~ where there are al-ways people circumambulating the stupa, chanting, reciting mantras, prostrating, telling their rosaries, or sitting quietly in meditation ~ I saw a Western monk going in the opposite direc-tion. When I asked why, he said that you don’t always have to do what everyone else is doing, but can do whatever you want. Well, in principle I agree with this, of course, but feel that to try to be different, instead of letting your natural differences out, is an expression of ego, and therefore defeats the whole purpose. He knew the custom, but while he didn’t see anything intrinsi-cally wrong with it, just wanted to be different; or maybe just wanted to see what would happen if he went the other way around. I don’t know what ~ if anything ~ did happen, but while I was there, nothing extraordinary took place, and he wasn’t struck by a thunderbolt for his ‘impiety’.

There is nothing wrong with convention if we understand it and it is useful, or at least, not harmful. If we decided to shake hands with the left instead of the right merely to defy convention and demonstrate our ‘independent thinking’, we wouldn’t be arrested and charged with committing a crime, but it would create unnec-essary confusion and serve no useful purpose.

We can be ~ as many of us are ~ bound by convention, or we can understand and follow accordingly. To offer our right hand to someone to shake rather than our left means we’re being mind-ful to some extent, and mindfulness is always good. To make a point of giving with our right hand instead of the left might mean we are aware of what we are doing, whereas to give with either hand, not much caring which, would indicate unawareness or even sloppiness. Better still if we would give with both hands as that would indicate much more awareness of what we are doing, and the person to whom we are giving might feel honored to be made the object of such special attention.

Manners are another convention, and though there are certain manners which not everyone would agree upon or share ~ for example, the custom, in some countries, of belching loudly after meals to show satisfaction over the food ~ many things are gen-erally accepted without question, and courtesy and politeness would facilitate our passage in most parts of the world, whereas roughness and rudeness would cause doors to close in our face.

Back to India, though, it is a place to really tax your patience, and though we do, at times, meet friendly people, I’ve found my-self becoming suspicious and thinking, “What does he want?” as you meet so many people who are not friendly. And very often, it turns out that your suspicions are justified. It is not good to feel like this, I know, but what is the alternative? If you didn’t, you’d be ripped-off on every side. Then ~ you may ask ~ why do I keep on going there? I don’t know; sometimes I think I must be mad, or masochistic, or maybe I have to pay some ancient debt to that land and its people.

Passing on from Agra to Delhi, I again made a search for Ven. Dhammika’s small temple, even checking a city-guide for the street name ~ I remembered it was Church Street or Church Road ~ but had no more success than the last time. I accepted the fact that I would never see him again.

I’d never been to the old British summer-capital of Simla before, so decided to make a visit. Boarding a train for the steep climb on the narrow-gauge line, I got to this formerly-prestigious town perched high on the ridges of several hills. It was cold, with patches of snow still around. I went to the old Viceroy’s lodge ~ the administration-center of the Raj during the hot season, and built of the finest materials at great cost in the form of a Scottish castle ~ and wandered right through it, even into parts normally off-limits like the Viceroy’s bedroom, which would have been the height of luxury at that time, but which we would probably com-plain about today ~ especially the plumbing! I felt a very strong presence, as of old ghosts, much stronger than at Mussoorie; the Brits had never really left there; much of them remained. I went along the Mall, past the English tea-shops and the Angli-can Church, and even climbed the steep hill overlooking the town, and from where there is a good view of the Himalayas.

Back in Delhi, eating in a restaurant near the Red Fort one day, I was served by a Nepalese waiter, and was glad to see a non-Aryan face again after such a long time. I admit to having racial preferences. After numerous times in India, there is not even one person I can call a real friend. Unable to find work in Nepal, many people leave to find work in other places, where they are often exploited, made to stay in crowded quarters, and paid a pittance. Many Indians look down on Nepalese and consider them uncivilized; the highly reprehensible Hindu caste-system is largely to blame for this and other ways of looking at others.

I went on to Benares again, and stayed at the Chinese temple in Sarnath for a day or two; there was a young Malaysian monk in charge at this time, and he was quite friendly; pity he didn’t stay long. From there, I went to Budh-Gaya to stayed in the Vietnam-ese temple again. Thay Huynh Dieu was away in France, so I didn’t get to meet him.

Just as I was about to head south again and return to Malaysia, I met three Vietnamese ~ an elderly lady, a younger woman and a young guy ~ from the US, who had rented a car and driver, and were on their way to visit the other Buddhist places; they in-vited me to go with them. As a guide, they had an Indian monk named Nanda, but he was a rogue, only concerned with money. I sat with him and the driver in the front, and we set off along the Grand Trunk Road to Benares and Sarnath, where the Buddha preached His first sermon, known as The Turning of the Wheel of the Law. We stayed in the Chinese temple, but the Malaysian monk had left and his replacement was of a different tempera-ment. Now, temples at the Buddhist holy places are dependent on the donations of visitors and pilgrims, who visit during the cooler months from October to March, after which it gets too hot until June or July, and then the monsoon breaks. I mentioned before that there are no Buddhists in these areas, the population being mainly Hindu or Muslim, and of course, they don’t support the Buddhist temples. Accommodation is available for visitors in most temples, and the Chinese temple in Sarnath is particularly large, with many guest-rooms. Monks from overseas volunteer to stay in temples to run them for a while, and probably go there with good intentions, but it is not long before they are faced with the necessity of making ends meet; it is an unenviable position, and soon they look at the visitors in a calculating way, wonder-ing how much they will receive. Now, most visitors, having come all this way, are not stingy with donations, and would offer more than they would pay for a hotel. Well, we got a warm welcome here, and were given nice rooms, and when we left, the Viet-namese people made their offerings.

After seeing something of Benares and the shrines of Sarnath, we went to Kusinara, where we got rooms in another Chinese temple, which, since my last visit, had somehow been taken over by a prominent Vietnamese monk from France, named Thich Huyen Vi (who had studied in India years before, and knew about the situation of the Chinese temples there: how the Chinese Buddhists of India are hard-put to find monks to run their temples); he had sent one of his nuns to take care of this temple, and again, we were warmly received. She was in the middle of extending the temple and told us she was transforming it into a meditation-center. More about her later.

Traveling by car like this was quite convenient, even if we were a bit cramped, as we could stop where we wanted, and make any detours. Our next stop was Shravasti, after which we back-tracked to cross the border of Nepal and check into a hotel at Bhairava, and from there drove to Lumbini, but didn’t stay. Then, paying off the driver, and giving Nanda a handsome tip, they dispensed with the car, and invited me to fly to Kathmandu with them. Arriving, we got a taxi to the city, pre-paying the fare at the airport. Getting down, we offered the driver a tip, and were astonished at his reluctance to accept it; had it been in India, he would have snatched it from us and asked for more!

I led the way to a monastery near the river, where I knew the abbot, Ven. Ashvagosha, from twenty years before. We were welcomed, but the rooms were spartan and it was very cold, so showers were out of the question. We then proceeded to see the sights, and at one point stayed overnight at Nagarkot, a hill place from where there is a good view of the Himalayan peaks as the sun rises.

After a few days, my benefactors flew to Delhi, and I got a night-bus back to the border, and from there, another bus to Benares. I went to the Chinese temple in Sarnath again, but because I was alone this time, the monk-in-charge was not so welcoming, and gave me a very dark and dirty little room, although there were many other empty rooms; he probably thought he wouldn’t receive much from me. Anyway, I’ve stayed in worse places over the years, and made the most of it.

I was looking forward to spending time in this generally-peaceful place, but the next day, when I returned from a brief visit to nearby Benares, I found it very unpeaceful, as ~ being January 1st, and a public holiday ~ it was crowded. People were every-where, sprawled on the grass around the central stupa and among the ruins, picnicking, playing football and cricket ~ some young people even dancing to music from their tape-players! ~ in spite of signs around the place forbidding such activities. Rules like this are seldom respected or enforced in India. At one side of the main stupa a Tibetan lama was giving a Dharma-talk to quite a large group of people, mainly Westerners, many of them monks and nuns. I only wanted to be quiet, so didn’t join them, but how to be quiet with so much noise and harsh music blaring from the ubiquitous loud-speakers outside the grounds? I felt sad at the irreverence of the local people, although I’d seen so much of it before in other places that it should have caused me no surprise and I should even have expected it.

I passed through the park and went over to the Burmese monas-tery on the far side, hoping to find some quiet there. Well, it was quieter, to be sure, but none of the monks I met or saw showed much friendliness, and I was either ignored or met with quizzical looks, probably because of my dress, which is different from theirs. It has been my experience, over the years, that Theravada monks, especially, find it very hard to deal with monks who do not follow or subscribe to their type of Buddhism (once, at the Great Stupa at Bodnath, I greeted a Nepalese Theravada monk with anjali ~ the traditional form of greeting with joined palms ~ and the word “Namaste”. Getting no response, I said: “No Namaste?” He then hurriedly mumbled “Namaste”). Sadly, sectarianism is widespread among Buddhists, although it never gave rise to violence, as it did among followers of other religions.

Preferring the noise of the crowds to the non-friendliness of the Burmese monastery, I went back to the Deer Park to find a place to sit, feeling that something was about to happen. I sat cross-legged beneath a tree, on the low wall of a ruined monastery, my eyes half-closed and downcast; my mind soon became focused and calm. Although people kept coming by to look at me and make fun and silly remarks, I ignored them and it didn’t disturb me. After a while, someone came and stood at one side, looking intently at me; I could feel his gaze; but I didn’t move or acknowledge him in any way. After some more minutes, he sat down nearby, and I thought: “He wants something. Well, let him wait; I’ll test him to see how long he’s prepared to wait.” Continu-ing to sit there, unmoving, for maybe another 20 minutes, I then stirred, at which he stood up and came over to me with his hands in anjali. Respectfully, he said: “I saw you sitting there and was impressed, so asked my friends to leave me here for a while and come back later. I’m interested in meditation,” he said, “and wonder if you would explain something about it for me.”

I asked if he knew the significance of the place we were in, but he said, “Not really.” I found this a bit hard to believe, as he had already said he was studying philosophy in Varanasi University, so how could he know nothing about this Buddhist holy place? Maybe he just said it to see what I would say. Anyway, I told him it was here that the Buddha gave His first sermon to the five as-cetics who had formerly been his companions, and related to him the reason they had left Him. Before his Enlightenment, they had followed him in his austere and extreme practices, waiting for him to make the breakthrough, and feeling that he would then show them the way. But when he failed to achieve his goal by fasting so much that he was reduced to just skin and bones and almost died as a result, he realized this was the wrong way and that, just as a life of luxury and pleasure, such as he had lived in the palace, was ignoble and unprofitable, so was a life of self-mortification and deprivation, which he had been following; both ways make the mind dull and incapable of seeing things clearly. He felt there had to be a middle way which avoided these extremes, and that it would be the way of meditation such as he’d experienced in his boyhood when he had been taken out to the countryside and left in the shade of a tree while his father and courtiers went off to lead the Spring Plowing Festival.

Gradually, the young prince became aware of the suffering all around him: how the oxen pulling the plows were beaten and goaded to make them pull harder, how the plowmen sweated and strained under the hot sun, how worms and insects were exposed and died as the plow-shares turned the earth, and how birds came down to eat them, big birds attacking small birds; he noted how life lived on life, from the smallest of its forms to the largest, and how man was also a predator. His observations moved him so profoundly that, seating himself cross-legged and upright, his mind became calm and clear. It was the memory of this incident so many years before that now showed him the way to go: not by torturing and starving the body shall I find libera-tion, he thought, but by observing how things are.

When he began to eat again, however, the yogis attending him thought he’d given up his search to return to a life of pleasure, so left him in disgust. Undeterred, he continued, and slowly, his strength returned. After some weeks, recovered and refreshed, while seated under a tree respected by Buddhists ever since as the ‘Bodhi-tree’ or ‘Tree of Awakening’, he became a Buddha, Enlightened, an Awakened One. He had achieved His goal, had clearly understood Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the Ceas-ing of Suffering, and the Way that leads to its Ceasing.

After His Enlightenment, He was at first inclined to remain alone in the forest, thinking that what He’d discovered was very hard to comprehend, and that if He tried to share it with others, no-one would understand, and it would only be needlessly trouble-some for Him. But He eventually decided to go forth and teach, and then He considered who He should teach. He recalled His former companions. “They were intelligent and good, even if a little misguided,” He thought; “They might understand.”

So He set off to join them just outside Benares, about 200 kms from where He had become Enlightened. It would have taken Him several weeks to walk there as He was in no hurry. When He arrived, the five saw Him coming in the distance, and said to each other: “See who’s coming: Siddhartha! Ignore him; we lost our respect for him when he abandoned his search for truth.” But as He got nearer, so impressive was His appearance and bearing that they forgot their resolve to ignore Him, and sponta-neously rose to receive Him respectfully. They gave Him water to drink and wash His face and feet, and prepared a seat for Him. Then, refreshed and seated, He addressed them thus: “Open is the Gate to the Deathless. I have found that which I sought! Pay attention and I will explain,” and He told them of the Middle Way, which avoids the extremes of a life of pleasure and luxury on the one hand, and a life of self-mortification and depri-vation on the other, and which leads to Enlightenment. He ex-plained what He had realized about Suffering. As He spoke about these things, one of them ~ Kondanya, by name ~ be-came enlightened, and the Buddha saw it on his face, because when a person understands something very deeply and clearly, it does show on his face, like a light radiating outwards through the skin. The Buddha exclaimed: “Kondanya has understood! Kondanya has understood!”

At this point in my narrative ~ and I must confess I have fleshed it out a bit in writing here for the sake of further clarification for my readers ~ I asked the young man to visualize the scene of the Buddha speaking to the five yogis; it is most important to do so. What the Buddha looked like, we really don’t know, but He certainly did not look like the images we have made to represent Him. If He had not yet shaved His head at that time, as an example of what He later asked His monks to do, He probably looked like a yogi Himself, with long, matted hair and beard. And if He didn’t look like that, the five almost certainly did, and not as most Buddhist art since then has shown them, as Buddhist monks, with shaven heads and faces, clad in typical Buddhist robes; we must keep it in mind that, at this point, there were no Buddhist monks; they were about to become the first; and it was some time after this that the uniform of the monks was decided upon. They ~ and the Buddha Himself ~ would have looked weather-beaten and not overly-clean, living the life they did.

We have idealized the Buddha so much that it is hard to imagine Him as a normal-looking human-being, yet such He was, behind all the deification of Him that has gone on since. Indeed, there are still Buddhists who believe that He was about five metres tall! In Thailand, there is a beautiful temple built around a de-pression in the rock that is believed to be a footprint made by the Buddha, but it is so big that a person could get into it and lie down! This is not realistic and merely increases superstition and ignorance instead of diminishing them! Buddhists are often guilty of idolatry ~ as we are sometimes accused of being ~ but we are by no means the only ones; it is quite common, and comes about through mistaking the form for the essence. (Besides, the Buddha never left India, and probably never went beyond the Ganges river-valley, or even saw the sea, although he often used the ocean as a metaphor in His teachings).

Continuing, I asked the young man if he imagined the five yogis to all be sitting in the same position ~ the posture we associate with meditation: cross-legged, upright, hands in lap and eyes downcast ~ like statues, or photo-copies of each other, as they appear in Thai or Indian pictures of this scene? Would they not probably ~ I went on ~ have been sitting in various postures, maybe with elbow on knee, chin in hand, and so on, relaxed, yet perfectly attentive? We can be attentive without sitting cross-legged, can we not? And in that attentive state, they would not have been thinking about the past, the future, or even the pre-sent; nor would they have been thinking about or practicing meditation, as do so many ‘meditators’; they would have been rapt, paying complete attention; they were in the present, in meditation. Have we not all known this kind of meditation at times? Of course we have, but probably didn’t realize what it was, and so we ask around about meditation, thinking it must be something exotic and special instead of something we have known ~ in one way ~ for most of our lives.

It is because we have not understood what we have known that we continue to jump around, seeking teachers, doing medita-tion-courses and retreats, and so on, looking, but not seeing, and in the end we have to come back to ourselves, having gone a long, circuitous way around, when a little intelligent thought would have saved us much time and trouble. It’s rather like rub-bing two sticks together ~ and wet sticks, at that! ~ to produce fire, when there are matches and other means of ignition at hand. Why insist on doing things the hard way? What are we aiming for with our pious and strenuous practices? What kind of race are we running ~ a marathon or something? If the aim of our meditation-practice is insight ~ insight into how things are ~ can it be ‘attained’ by sitting cross-legged for hours and hours? Obviously, we think insight can be made to arise, and that it is within our capacity to do it ~ to ‘storm the gates of heaven’, as it were. The corollary of this is to conclude that people who don’t practice such things are incapable of experiencing insight, which is a great misconception and reveals our greed and desire to get something in return for our efforts, instead of seeing things as they are and what we’ve already got. There is so much fearful self-concern behind our efforts. Thus, our religious practices be-come materialistic ~ what the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche ~ a well-known Tibetan lama ~ referred to as ‘spiritual materialism’: the craving for and attachment to results.

Still with my young inquirer: I asked if he’d seen the Tibetan monk over near the main stupa, speaking to a large group of Westerners. These people, I went on, had left the comfort and luxury of their homes on the far side of the world, to come to dirty and smelly India where one must undergo so many hassles as a matter of routine, in search of Dharma. And all around them are Indians oblivious to this, just whiling away their time with picnics and games. Why should this be? And why are you dif-ferent? Why do you want to know about these things? Why aren’t you enjoying yourself instead, like your people here? Don’t even try to answer, I told him, because you don’t know, as the roots of the present ~ and of any situation and thing ~ are hidden in the past, and very few of them can be perceived. There are no accidents in life, but neither is everything pre-ordained; all things arise from causes, and there are so many contributory causes to each effect that it is simply impossible to imagine or perceive them all. You must accept the fact that you are different, even though it is often difficult to be different and ‘odd’. And try to keep the flame of your inquiry burning steadily ~ not high one minute and low the next. Ask questions, yes ~ ask questions of anyone and leave no stone unturned ~ but don’t accept their answers unthinkingly, as their answers will not be your answers, and in such matters, second-hand answers will never completely satisfy you; at most, they can reassure you somewhat and help you check and confirm your experiences; we must find our own answers; there is no substitute for this.

The young man seemed satisfied with my explanation and went away with a light step; and as for me, I knew that this was why I’d felt the need to sit down; my feeling had been vindicated.

Our desire and search for results from our efforts often blinds us to what is here. Moreover, there is often a fearful self-concern in our search. The Buddhist scriptures tell of many cases of people becoming enlightened just by listening to the Buddha, and some of them had no conscious knowledge of meditation and had never ‘practiced’ it. So, to claim that “meditation is the only way” ~ as a well-known Buddhist figure in Malaysia said ~ is not cor-rect, unless we consider meditation in a much broader way than most ‘meditators’ do: that there is nothing outside of it, that it is all-inclusive. Enlightenment arises as a result of seeing things clearly ~ not with our physical eyes, but with the ‘third eye’ or ‘eye of understanding’. Understanding plays such a big part in our lives ~ from very basic things like how to tie our shoelaces or make tea, to perception of reality. So, we might say meditation concerns understanding, but understanding is not something we do; instead, it happens to or in us, something, in fact, that does us! In this way, who doesn’t meditate? Who has not known meditation? Away with foolish and elitist questions of “Do you meditate?” “What kind of meditation do you practice?” “Who is your meditation-teacher?” etc. Come on; wake up!

The Pali word ‘bhavana’ is usually translated ‘mental develop-ment,’ and includes what we generally mean by words like concentration, meditation, contemplation and mindfulness. What is it but bhavana, then, when we learn how to read and write? This is also mental-development, is it not? Moreover, as a healthy kind of mental-development, it is in line with the Buddha’s Teachings.

If you wish to ‘practice’ meditation, by all means do; do whatever you like, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone or anything and you are prepared to accept the consequences without complaining or blaming others for them. Whatever you do, however, whether it be chanting, praying, meditating, keeping precepts, giving, ab-staining from meat-eating, etc., take care not to become proud of it, as that would only defeat the purpose, and you’d become like a dog running round and round in circles, chasing its own tail. It is not rare to come across people who are proud of their practices, feeling better than those who don’t do such things; but they should be regarded as our teachers, too, in that they show us, by example, what not to do or how not to do it.

Care should be taken about our motives for ‘practicing’ meditation, and what we expect to get from it. We should know why we are doing what we are doing. Some people, overly concerned with getting results from their efforts, not only become blind to what is right in front of them, but sometimes become mentally unhinged or disturbed. If one is not careful, and in a great hurry for results, meditation easily becomes maditation! It is not un-common. Approach life with Dharma and everything becomes meditation; anytime, anywhere, insight might arise.

Meditation is more about seeing than with looking. Looking is active, something we do, while seeing is passive, something that happens.

From Benares, I entrained for Jalgaon and visited Ajanta again, leaving my bags in Jalgaon station. Returning for my bags af-terwards, I went to Bhusawal, and it was there that misfortune ~ or what might be considered such ~ overtook me, in the follow-ing way: To get to Madras meant a journey of 24 hours, and I did not want to travel without a reservation, as Indian trains are usually unpleasantly crowded. I bought a ticket at Bhusawal junction, but was unable to get a reservation for that evening’s train and had to settle for one the next evening; this meant I had to stay overnight in Bhusawal. Inquiring about accommodation, I was told I might get a place in the first-class air-conditioned retir-ing-rooms of the station itself, but when I went there, I was told that there was only one place left, and that I’d have to share a room with someone else. Well, since it was for only one night, and the rate not excessive, I agreed to do so. This was my first mistake; I should have sought out a room for myself. But if we knew, in advance, that we were about to make mistakes, we would not make any; it’s always easy to be wise after the event.

I was taken up to the room, but the other occupant was out. When he returned, we introduced ourselves; he seemed to be well-educated, decent and friendly, and gave me one of his business-cards, saying that he’d traveled overseas on business, and had even stayed in the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He said he had to meet a business-associate the next morning, and would not be leaving until the afternoon. Other than small-talk, however, we did not have much to say to each other.

The next morning, I rose at my usual early time and went into the bathroom, careful to take with me the small bag containing my passport, camera and Indian currency; my travelers’ checks were in a waist-pouch, and my other bags were locked beside my bed. Later, when I went for breakfast, he must have noticed that I took my small bag with me, and waited for a chance to get his hands on it. This came later, when I went into the bathroom for some water and carelessly left my bag on my bed. No sooner had the door closed behind me on its spring-hinges than he jumped up, bolted the door from the outside, and made off with my bag and his own stuff, ripping out the phone before he went.

By the time my shouts brought someone to let me out it was too late for pursuit, and I could do nothing but make a report at the nearby police-station. When I finally completed this lengthy and slow process, I asked where I might change money, as all my rupees ~ enough, I’d thought, for my few remaining days in India ~ had gone in my bag; I had not a single rupee left. One plain-clothes policeman offered to drive me to a bank on his scooter, which was very kind of him as it was not part of his duty. The bank, however, wouldn’t cash a travelers’ check for me, and told me I’d have to go to the next town for this, but I didn’t want to do so. The policeman then dropped me back at the station, but came running after me and pressed 40 rupees into my hand, knowing I had none; then, without waiting for me to get his name and address so I might send him back the money, he went off.

I then went to the reservations-office to report my lost ticket, and while there, met someone who was willing to change $50 for me, though at a very low rate. I was sent back to the ticket-counter to get a replacement ticket, for which I had to pay a 25% fee. I also went back to the police-station, but the officer who had helped me had already gone home, so I left a sum of money for him with other officers, trusting them to pass it to him.

All this time, I had not been very happy, of course, but consoled myself with the thought that whatever can be lost will be lost, sometime or other. I also reminded myself that I was lucky, as it was my eighth trip in India and this was the first time anything like this had happened to me. It could have been much worse, I reasoned; I could have lost everything, too, and even been wounded or killed, instead of losing just one small bag and its contents. I’ve heard of people going there for the first time and losing everything except the clothes they were wearing!

My train was 5 hours late, and I got on for the long journey to Madras, thinking there would be an Aussie Consulate where I might get a new passport, but there wasn’t, so I had to return to Delhi. To save time, I reluctantly paid US$170 for a plane-ticket, and flew out the next day. In Delhi, I went through the usual hassles of finding a taxi and a hotel, but finally managed, and the next morning, went to the Australian High Commission where I was told a new passport couldn’t be issued then, and that I should come back for it the next day. I was greatly relieved to hear this, plus being surprised at the friendliness of the staff there, as I fully expected to have to wait at least a week for it.

I went to see the Nepalese waiter in the restaurant near the Red Fort again; he was surprised to see me and gave me his ad-dress, asking me to write to him; I said I would, and I did. His name was Yam Bahadur.

Going for my new passport the next day, I met a guy from Tasmania who was there for exactly the same thing; his passport had been stolen in Madras airport, just as he was about to leave for Australia! With so much in common, therefore, we decided to travel back to Madras by train together, so we obtained tickets for that evening’s express, at about $10, with sleeper reserva-tions for the 36 hours’ trip south. We arrived in Madras tired and dirty from the journey, and found a hotel before setting about getting new Indian visas in our new passports, without which we would not have been allowed to leave the country.

Some days later, new visa in new passport, I got a flight back to Malaysia, it was perhaps the happiest part of my trip in India; it was so good to get back to friendly faces in Malaysia!

This was not the end of the stolen-stuff saga however; there was a sequel to it: Three months later, while I was still in Malaysia, I received a letter from Sheila in Adelaide saying that a big enve-lope ~ containing my old passport, address-book and some other papers ~ had arrived for me from the Aussie High Comm in Delhi. They had received these things from the police-station in Bhusawal. How the police-station had got them, I don’t know, but I presume the thief had felt some remorse at stealing my stuff and somehow handed them in to the police, because if he had simply discarded them at the roadside or somewhere, they would never all have come back to me like that. I was very happy, therefore, because although the old passport had been cancelled, and I had back-up copies of most of the addresses in my address-book anyway, it indicated to me that the thief had learned something from it all; had he not stolen my stuff, maybe he would not have learned what I think he did. My loss appeared quite differently, and I am, after all, in the business of trying to help others understand things like this, am I not? Can I expect any success without any outlay or expenditure?

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up”.

~ Mark Twain ~

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