Faith And Action: How The Sikhs Keep The Balance

Sikhs are famous for their turbans, their honesty, their bravery as soldiers, and the Golden Temple.  It’s a spectacular marble complex in the center of Amritsar, India, where 70,000 or more guests get a good vegetarian meal any time 24 / 7 / 365, and where dozens of men are reading the scripture aloud, nonstop, also 24 / 7 / 365.  Let me explain…

Sikh Guard at Golden Temple Gate – Version 2

Founded around 1500, Sikhism began with the experience of a Hindu man named Nanak.  At the age of 30, he had a mystical vision of visiting heaven, where he learned that all religions–including Hinduism and Islam–are imperfect human paths leading to a perfect Divine Path.  Nanak was the first of ten gurus (teachers) who served during the next 200 years until the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth, was declared complete.  The book has since then served as on ongoing “eleventh guru.”

Sikhism is one of the largest world religions, and one of the newest.  We visited the Golden Temple on two successive days last week, first with the wonderful Davinder Singh as a guide, and then on our own.

As you enter the gates, you catch a glimpse of the gold-covered marble building that seems to float in a huge pool of water.  The line of people waiting on the bridge to the entrance pavilion, and then the most sacred (golden) part was long, and didn’t seem to be moving, so we walked slowly around the colonnade that surrounds the four sides.

Entrance Pavilion and Golden Temple ROoftop View

Inside the Temple are musicians and singers, and the lyrics are projected on jumbotrons like the one below. “O Nanak,” they chanted, “their faces are radiant in the court of the Lord, and many are saved along with them.”  The hymn, “Kirat Karo,” is one of the three most famous in Sikhism, reminding people of their duty to work hard as well as meditate.  We learned from Davinder (talking with Lynnell, below) that a Sikh house of worship is devoted to both: the inner journey of contemplating God and the outer journey of practicing truthfulness, compassion, contentment, humility, and love.
Davinder, Lynnell, and Jumbotron Lyrics of Live Music, Golden Temple

The “inner journey” was best symbolized, in our opinion, by what was happening in room after room off the colonnade: quiet prayer by individuals, accompanied by a nonstop recitation of the scripture.

In each room, a man sits in front of the scripture and chants one poem after another, until his colleague comes to take a turn.  In this way, a relay of 6 men recite the entire scripture — all 1430 pages — in about 48 hours.

If you have a special intention, you can sign up to sponsor a portion or all of this recitation with that intention in mind.  We stepped quietly into one such recitation room and found these two women meditating to the sound of the Sant Bhasa (holy language).

Continuous Scripture Reading, Golden Temple

The Scripture is treated with great reverence, even put in a luxurious bed every night, under embroidered covers.  Then, the “eleventh guru” is awakened the next morning and brought back into the worship space.

Another ceremony of the inner journey is quietly dipping in the pool, after taking a good soapy shower and focusing on one’s intent to walk closer to God’s Will and wash away selfish or lazy habits.  Men and women have separate areas, the women’s being more screened from view.

Bathing, Golden Temple

This guy was taking advantage of the serenity of the Golden Temple by taking a nap by a marble staircase.  We passed him on our way to the rooftop.  Like most Sikh men, he doesn’t cut his hair, like Samson and Samuel in the Bible.  Sikhs don’t drink alcohol or gamble, either.

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As Davinder said, contemplation is one half of a person’s spiritual life.  The other half is action, and the Sikhs are very much women and men of action.  Besides being among the first to volunteer for disaster relief, and besides their stellar record of military service in India, Pakistan, the UK, Canada, and the US, Sikhs do one simple thing as well as any religious group I can think of: feed people.

Every Sikh church (they’re called gurdwaras) has a large, well-equipped kitchen, and everyone in the congregation helps with the cooking and joins in the eating.  For years, I have looked forward to taking part in this; and although I felt suddenly very shy about volunteering last week, I walked up to this guy and asked him if he needed help.  He handed me a stack of plates, fresh from the sanitizing bath, and motioned for me to start welcoming people.  So I did.  I provoked a few double-takes, but my white privilege kicked in and lots people gave me the thumbs up, grinning their approval for my joining in on something that hundreds of Indians were doing as a matter of course.

One guy took my picture, saying “USA is the best!”  In fact, Lynnell and I were recruited into a half-dozen selfies per day by teenagers in Amritsar, and we could hardly say no, since we were always snapping photos of Indians.

Handing Out Dishes To ANyone, Golden Temple

You can get a free meal in the Golden Temple kitchen absolutely any time.  The all-volunteer crew wheel in carts of flour, milk lentils, rice, oil, and radishes (below) and circles of other volunteers peel, stir, slice, and serve in always-changing groups like the one I joined.

Prepping Radishes, Golden Temple

The men and women below are cooking up lentils in spotless cauldrons over propane flames.  The scene reminded me vividly of a soup kitchen crew I used to lead one Saturday a month at Trinity Church, Detroit.  We mostly made chili with donations from grocery chains, and served a lot of Wonder Bread from their bakery just down the street, which is now a casino.

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When you’re ready to eat, you get plate, bowl, and cutlery and walk into one of the dining halls.  You find a place on a woven mat, and people come around with serving bowls, ladles, and baskets of chapati bread.  I’m pretty sure there are homeless people who eat there more than once a day, every day, right alongside the tourists like me and the Sikh pilgrims from all over the world.  Pilgrims know the drill, of course: walk into any Sikh house of worship and you’ll be welcomed with a meal.

100,000 meals A Day, Golden Temple

I wanted to take a turn at serving food, too, but there wasn’t a break in the action at the front of the house, so I stayed put.  I could also have volunteered to hand out drinking water or help with construction and renovation work, like the man below is doing.  He and a bunch of teenagers were carrying rubble out to the street in baskets.

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Sikhs also have a sacrament they call holy communion.  In the course of their worship service, everyone gets a little porridge sweetened with honey.  Like Christian communion, it’s more of a reminder than a proper meal.  They have baptism, too, but one should wait until ready to follow all the ethical and ritual commandments before accepting baptism.  It’s serious business, and our guide, who is our age, told us he is still not really ready to be baptized.

The custom of feeding everyone, called “langar,” is not a sacrament in the same way as baptism or communion.  But in keeping with St. Augustine’s definition, “it’s an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.”  Or as my theology teacher in high school used to say, “it does what it signifies.”  A sacrament is not just a symbol, though it’s a ritual full of symbolism.  It’s a ceremony that somehow accomplishes what it seems, on the surface, to be only playing at.

I’ve often said that Christianity would be a very different religion if, instead of the sacramental “meal” of bread and wine, the followers of Jesus had picked up on his other mandate from the Last Supper: “wash one another’s feet.”

Lynnell waiting for me at Golden TempleWhat if that sort of humble service was the norm, instead of taking a little wafer for yourself and sipping wine from a chalice?  I think it would be a powerful thing.

It might make us more humble, too, though I fear we’d still have arguments about doctrine.  Instead of debating whether communion was the Real Presence of Christ or Just A Memorial, maybe denominations would split over Soap vs. Just Water, or Splash Through A Shallow Pool vs. Let Someone Actually Touch Your Feet.

The Sikhs have their arguments, to be sure.  One group in British Columbia has relaxed the rule on haircuts and beards, allowing clean-shaven men full leadership positions, even though the ban on cutting hair is one of the 5 khalsa requirements.  The community eventually split in two.

That’s organized religion for you.  And disorganized religion, too.

“We all get to be human,” Lynnell says, though we know we can do better!

It’s true.  Sigh.

Dish Crew, Golden Temple

“Sow a seed and plant a tree…”

(By John) I got up early, made coffee, and sat down in the living room of the shared apartment we’re staying in.  I love morning: it’s so quiet, and during the night, my unconscious img_7293seems to have sorted things out, so I feel calm. And I get to have coffee! So I awoke today full of the urge to write about religion in this remarkable land.

In spite of India being a secular country, it’s utterly normal to be religious here. We see shrines, temples, mosques, churches, and religious pictures everywhere as our bicycle-rickshaw drivers steer us through traffic jams.  Instead of Plastic Jesus on the dashboards, we see Plastic Krishnas, Ganeshas, Durgas, Buddhas, Guru Nanaks, and Shivas.  screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-24-51-amThe everyday greeting Lynnell left you with in her last post  is namaste, meaning “I bow to The Divine in you.”  It’s accompanied by praying hands and a little bow.  People bring God into conversations all the time in India , and I’m not talking about “OMG” or “I swear to God,” which in America almost never literally refer to God nowadays, any more than goodbye does.

In keeping with the guiding metaphor of my sabbatical — and we will never stop being grateful to Edward Kim and the Faculty Advisory of Breck School for this year of a lifetime — India is trees and rivers all at once. I’m not sure how you describe trees intertwining with rivers without mixing metaphors, though: the branching of a tree means a split, or at least an evolutionary step, but the confluence of rivers signals the union of separate things.

Maybe you could picture Hinduism like this braided river plain on the Paraná in Brazil.

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The gurus who developed Sikhism, on the other hand, combined elements of Hinduism, Islam, and their own spiritual experience.  More to come in another post on our wonderful two days at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.  Maybe you could picture Sikhism being like the confluence of the Yangtse (left) and Jailing (right) Rivers in Chongching, China, below.

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Yesterday, we visited the Baha’i House of Worship here in Delhi.  We’ll tell you about that soon, also.  For now, here’s one more river picture.  Maybe the Baha’i Faith is like the mouths of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, with various streams coming together, progressively revealing the will of God to an evolving human race:

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On the other hand, maybe Islam and Christianity are more like trees: the roots draw nourishment from many sources, and their religions surfaced as a single stem, but soon there were many branches, all reaching toward the sun, but often wrinkled and scarred at the branching-points.  The branches tend not to reunite, though I think God longs for a reunion.  These bare Frangipani trees caught my eye yesterday in the gardens of the Delhi Baha’i House of Worship:

Branching Tree

I’ve spent most my life helping people understand different languages, cultures, and faiths as a teacher of French, History, and World Religions. As a boy of eleven, my parents encouraged me to apply to a Childrens’ International Summer Villages (CISV) camp, and it changed my life.

Two boys and two girls from each of nine countries gathered for a month in southern Holland to play sports and games, learn songs from each others’ countries, and make friends despite the language barrier. I’m not sure if I ever really thanked mom and dad properly for CISV, not to mention so many other world-enlarging gifts they gave me. My folks were deeply-rooted Detroit Catholics.  Hardly world-travelers. They spoke only English and theirs was a bit of a mixed marriage: Dad’s family had been 100% French for generations, and mom was more typically mixed European-American.

CISV was for me what a church or synagogue youth group was for my peers, and I stayed involved in meetings and exchange programs until well after college. I became passionate about learning other languages, I corresponded with friends using those thin-paper aerogrammes, and then caught up with my friends at big conferences in places like Trento, Italy. The only “sacrament” we had was to stand in a big circle, right arms crossed over left, and sing the CISV song while raising or lowering the CISV flag. The second verse goes like this:

Here we live and eat and sleep,
Talk and laugh and somethings weep;
Here we share our hopes and fears,
Build a bridge across the years,
Sow a seed and plant a tree
Beneath whose branches there may be
All the nations gathered free

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The late Dr. Doris Twitchell Allen invented C.I.S.V. so that something beautiful might grow from the ashes of World War II. Bigotry, hatred, religious intolerance, and dictatorship had scorched the Earth in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, and Auntie Doris’ gift to the world was to give children like me and my sisters unforgettable experiences before we had the chance to become intolerant. Walter Cronkite did a documentary about us, called Too Young To Hate. Margaret Mead called Doris’ idea “a stroke of genius.”

India reminds me of those international summer villages. We slept all together in a big dorm full of bunk beds, tried each other’s food, and learned to dance at least a half dozen folk dances like the Filipino bamboo pole dance Tinikling (left),

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and the Mexican La Raspa (right). Photos from Fordneyfoundation.org and artsandpe.net.

In Agra, India, Lynnell and I we were lucky to find the extraordinary bicycle enthusiast / tour guide John Rosario, whose family later had us over for dinner. (Oh, man, we need to write a post about our ride together!)  Their own Catholic priest, John said, regularly went over to the mosque for tea with the Imam, and participated in Hindu temple ceremonies. John’s family is originally from the west coast of India, and includes a Portugese grandfather (hence the family name).  The family found the grave of a Sufi (Muslim) saint while digging the foundation of their house years ago. The Rosarios carefully moved the remains to a shrine (photo below) they built in the center of their garden, and painted the outside green, the color of Islam.

Shrine to SUfi Saint in John and Moses' garden, Agra

The fact he was a Muslim Saint, not Catholic, was utterly irrelevant. Left to right, below: John, Moses, their mom, Steffi, and Roslynn.

John, Moses, their mom, Steffi, and Roslyn Rosario, Agra

India is a bit like a giant CISV camp, with so many languages, nationalities, castes, and religions that real unity is still a dream; but we have been honored to meet a lot of dreamers. The last verse of the CISV song tells us there will be more to life than simply having fun now, but it’s just a reminder, not a warning.

That our children so may grow
In a world we did not know
Sharing all they have to give
Learning how to love and live
In our hands the future lies
Seize a moment here it flies
(optional stomp for emphasis in some camps) Stamp the present with an act
Dare to make our dreams a fact

And then, without letting go, everyone turns clockwise 180 degrees, making pretzel arms like in swing dancing, until we’re holding hands uncrossed, facing outward to meet the world.  It’s pretty cool.

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A couple of years ago,  I gave a talk at St. John’s Church back home in Minneapolis and repeated it at Breck.  It’s got lots of slides, and I titled it Many Paths To God. I later recorded the narration and put it on YouTube. Like a mountain we all climb, I said, the paths of our lives take many turns, and we start out in such different places. The religions of the world are each like a string of path-markers, with sherpas, cairns, shelters, and sometimes even ladders to help us do our climbing.

Our goal, we believe, is at the summit. We call it God. Other climbers may call it the Eternal Tao, Nirvana, or moksha, but the reality is beyond words.  Some say you cannot reach it until you die, others claim you can at least glimpse the summit before death, and still others say they have been there and have come back down to encourage us to keep climbing and show us how to do it.

In this view, religions are a series of upward struggles, rather than downstream flows. Of course, from the point of view of the universe, our lives are both: uphill and downstream.                                                         screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-42-54-am

I was going to end this post there, but Brampal just came in and said something wonderful. He’s one of the hosts at the air bnb where Lynnell and I are now staying.  We told each other good morning while he took off his shoes, and without prompting, he told me that he walks here every morning.   It takes an hour, and the streets are so quiet.

Not knowing I was writing this, nor what I do for a living, he said, “Morning is God’s gift to us,” a fresh time for planning and praying. He told me my face and whole personality are so peaceful and happy.  Of course that made me smile.

He asked me if Lynnell was sleeping, and I told him, “Yes. God’s gift to her is the late hours of the night.”

We both laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the Indian Rails in Which We Are Saved By 20-Something Indian Millennials and Their Apps And Later By The World’s Greatest Stunt Driver.

by Lynnell Mickelsen

A few days ago, we took our first trip on the Indian Railway system, which the Lonely Planet Guide includes on its list of top things to do in India because it’s a classic way to see the countryside and hang out with ordinary Indian travelers.

We decided to start off easy with an overnight side trip to a Bodhgaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site about 150 miles from our base in Varanasi. We’d put our big backpacks in storage at our hotel, take the  five-hour train trip  up to Bodhgaya in morning; stay overnight at a Buddhist retreat center; come back the next afternoon and stay one last night in Varanasi. We had bought our tickets a week in advance.  I mean, what could go wrong?

As it turns out….plenty. Riding the Indian Railways can be so confusing, it’s inspired an entire cottage industry of ways to cope

We got a preview of this when we first tried to buy the tickets on-line. The Indian Railways website was so confusing and difficult, John ultimately gave up and went to an Indian travel agency. It took hours for the experienced  travel agency staff to book the tickets. But thanks to their heroic efforts, we were able to reserve all our scheduled Indian rail tickets in advance and emerged with printed confirmation sheets showing we had paid in advance.

But in India, paying for tickets doesn’t necessarily mean you actually have a seat. Instead, you are put onto a waiting list. There are phone apps that can let you track your  ever-shifting chances for getting on…40 percent….70 percent, etc.

We were blissfully unaware of all this the morning that we arrived at the vast and aging Varanasi train station. We stared at the big electronic departure board, which shifted from Hindi to English, and eventually figured out our train was scheduled to depart on platform 9 and was already a few hours late.

varanasi-junction-train-stationVaranasi Junction Station,  photo courtesy of jabalpur rocks/Flickr

We spent a few hours in the station, killing time with crowds of Indian travelers, some of of whom looked like they had been waiting for their train for weeks. Eventually, we made our way to platform 9 and encountered the next problem: there were no car numbers or seat assignments on our printed confirmation sheets, so how would we know which car to get on and where to sit?

We watched as several crowded and extremely long trains pulled into the station. Crowds of passengers then pushed their way on. We were baffled We tried asking our fellow passengers how to get a seat assignment, but no one spoke enough English. We searched for conductors or any other Indian Railways employees. Never saw anyone. Eventually, two young 20-something Indian Millennials, seeing us wandering around confused and helpless, took us in hand.

train-arriving-in-varanasi-courtesy-india-raiuTrain arriving on the platform at Varanasi Junction , courtesy India Rail Info

In order to get seat assignment, they explained, we needed to find our 10-digit reservation number, which was located in tiny print in a tiny box on our confirmation sheet. Who knew? Then we needed to go on-line to the Indian Railways website, type in the number to get our train car and seat assignments. Except the Indian Railways website is infamous for not working. So instead we should download some of the phone apps like Train Man, which which give out the same information and seem to be more reliable.

The two of them whipped out their phones, punched in our reservation numbers and told us our car and seat numbers. They were so busy helping us, they nearly missed their 0wn trains–one had to chase the train down and leap onto one of the last cars as it pulled away.

Have we mentioned that we keep meeting the nicest, most generous people in India and everywhere else on this trip?

trainman-appThe life-saving Train Man App

After they left, we got out our phones, downloaded the Train Man App—this is one reason why we labored long and hard to get Indian SIM cards.  You really do need data to negotiate India as independent travelers. We punched in our reservation and voila—-there was loads of information. The good news was that we were off the waiting lists and our seats were now truly confirmed. The bad news was the train was five hours late, which by Indian standards is actually just an eensy weensy delay—-we’re learning that Indian Railways makes Amtrak look like it’s run by the Swiss.

crowds-waiting-at-varanasi-staitonTravelers waiting for trains in Varanasi station. Rail traffic in India means a lot of waiting. 

When our train finally pulled into platform 9, a guy was in one of our of our seats. We eventually got him to leave, but we never did see a conductor, nor did anyone ever come by to check our tickets. John and I were in different compartments. There were no announcements about what station is coming up; most of the signs were in Hindi; and we weren’t always able to glimpse the station signs in English as we went by. So we had to ask our fellow passengers where we were or try checking it on Google maps if our phone cell data was available.

interior-of-carjpgThe second-class sleeper cars–pretty basic. Courtesy India Rail Info

It was dark when we arrived at our peaceful Buddhist retreat center in Bodhgaya. The next day, before we starting out tour of various temples. John checked his new Train Man apps, which said our return train was delayed by five hours and would now arrive back in Varanasi around 2 a.m.

Trust me, you do not want to arrive in Varanasi at 2 a.m. as 60-year-old Americans carrying cash, credit cards and passports and try to get an auto-rickshaw back to the area near our Hotel Alka, which can only be accessed on foot through a maze of walkways, all of which are completely dark at that time of night.

The alternative to Indian Railways: driving in Mad Max convoys

So with the help of the Buddhist retreat center, we arranged for a car to drive us back to Varanasi. It cost $75—or about triple the cost of both of our Indian Rail tickets. The dispatcher said a driver would pick us up at 2 p.m. and the 150 mile trip would take at least six hours because route was known for particularly bad truck traffic jams.

Our driver seemed to be in his mid-40s. He spoke almost no English, so we communicated through hand gestures or on occasional notes on our phone translated into Hindi via Google Translate.

And man, what a drive. The roads in India are intensely crowded and/or bumpy.We drove through a never-ending cloud of dust with the usual collection of cows, people, dogs, bicycles, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, horse-carts, cars and trucks.

We spent most of the ride on a divided freeway that seemed to be under continual construction. And we discovered the dispatcher wasn’t kidding when he talked about truck traffic jams. Again and again, we found the highway completely obstructed with lines of semi-trucks, clogging up traffic and standing still. The backed up traffic stretched out for miles.

Our driver’s solution for this was to turn around, cross over the median—over huge bumps or weaving between a break in the concrete lane barriers– and then start driving the wrong-way, directly into the on-coming traffic, flashing his lights because the jams were generally only on one side of the highway.

At first we thought he was crazy, But we soon realized he was amazing.  When our driver encountered traffic jams that couldn’t be solved by simply driving the wrong way,  he would take back roads—along with plenty of other drivers. We always seemed to be part of a Mad Max kind of convoy as we hurtled down dusty back roads, some of which seemed more like paths, dodging cows and food carts  But eventually, we always found ourselves back on the freeway, past the latest crazy traffic jam.

The man was a genius. And don’t even get me started on his hair-raising, surgically-close, but ultimately successful passing techniques that NASCAR drivers and Hollywood stunt men wouldn’t dare attempt.

The whole ride was like a wild, wild virtual reality video game.  Naturally, there were no seat-belts.

At 8:30 p.m. we arrived in Varanasi, feeling vindicated because according to the trusty Train Man app, the train we were scheduled to take still hadn’t even left Bodhgaya and was now scheduled to arrive in Varanasi the next morning.

In Varanasi, however, the traffic was too crazy for even our driver to negotiate, which tells you a lot. So he parked his car, hailed a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw for us, negotiated the price and jumped in, determined to personally walk us to our hotel, if need be.

It was a Sunday night, so in addition to the usual dense-packed traffic, the streets were crowded with massive wedding parties, floats, bands and horses carrying the bridal couples to the next party. Our rickshaw driver pounded his horn, ducked and weaved, but there wasn’t much room to negotiate, so he too ended taking back routes that were so rutted and bumpy, I thought the whole rickshaw would dump over.  Even our fearless car driver, clutching the handgrips, at times appeared wide-eyed.

maxresdefault-1Wedding procession moving through Varanasi at night, courtesy YouTube

Eventually, the rickshaw driver got us close enough to the hotel to start walking in. All three of us got out. After a few blocks, we convinced our car driver that we knew our way from here, thanked him profusely and gave him a big tip.

We never did understand how to pronounce his name and didn’t speak the same language. And yet he was such a heroic sweetheart to us. I wanted to hug him, but that’s not done in India. So we put our hands together and said Namaste.

Bottom line……..travel in India is never dull.

——-Lynnell Mickelsen

Taj Mahal & Why It Works

(By John)

Yesterday was our third day in Agra, former capital of the muslim Mughal Empire.  A brief history lesson: starting in about 900, various Muslim sultans and kings ruled parts of what we now call India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and fought each other.  Tamerlane and Genghis Khan swept through, pillaging and destroying, and a man descended from T on his mom’s side and GK on his dad’s seized Delhi in 1526.  He was the first Mughal: Babur.
screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-10-36-09-amOn the map, courtesy of globalsecurity.org, his territory is the olive-green part.  His grandson was Akbar The Great, who extended the boundaries to the lighter green area, reaching the coasts.  Akbar is most admired by historians for religious tolerance, diplomatic savvy, and even the invention of a new Religion Of Religions, which took what he thought was the best of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and a cult of (his) personality.  He called it Din-i-llahi, “God’s Religion,” which is hardly a modest claim.

Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, didn’t increase the territory of the Mughal Empire, but he spent lavishly on palaces, courtly life, mosques, and the famous tomb for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz.  The last great emperor was Shah Jehan’s son, Aurangzeb, a ruthless infighter who imprisoned his father and killed his brother.  His religious intolerance was ham-handed and smashed his dynasty’s carefully-assembled network of friendly interfaith and international alliances, and after him, a long, steady decline began at the hands of the British.

Back to Shah Jehan: he built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for Mumtaz and, eventually, himself.  It’s maybe the most beautiful building in the world.  The Lonely Planet Guide says so several times!  We sure loved the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona and the Alhambra complex in Granada.

It works on so many levels:

As a sculpture, it sits on a ten-foot high marble base so there’s no background to distract you.  It’s perfectly symmetrical, a huge square set on that giant marble base with four minarets at the corners, and the building’s corners are sliced off at perfect 45-degree angles to make the whole thing rounder.  And then there is the dome and the smaller domes.

Taj Mahal

As a monument to Love, the Taj Mahal reminds everyone who sees it of the guy who built it for the woman he loved most.  He had many wives and lovers in his life, but Mumtaz was his treasure.  Imagine 22,000 workers spending more than a decade making the world’s biggest Valentine!  Lynnell immediately recalled the famous picture of Diana, Princess of Wales who, when visiting Agra with her soon-to-be-ex-husband Prince Charles, showed up for the couple’s scheduled photo shoot alone.  Charles was off making a speech.  In retrospect, the image became an icon of her brave loneliness and her tragic elegance:

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As a dark and somber interior, with almost no light except that which enters through carved marble lattices.  The inside is surprisingly small.  These monuments are not the real resting places of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal.  Those are sealed up under the base of the Taj Mahal.

False Crypts of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz, Taj Mahal

As a landmark and a focal point, because so many other buildings in Agra have views framing it through prominent windows or arches.  Shah Jehan, imprisoned in the Red Fort just a few miles down the river, must have looked through the haze to see his beloved wife’s resting place many times a day.

view of Taj, Red Fort Agra

As a teaching tool, inviting the visitor to read, and to consider their mortality and readiness to face an evaluation of how they’ve lived their lives so far.  The inscriptions (a) invite you to contemplate Paradise as you enter, (b) remind you that your words and deeds matter, and though your reputation with people is an indicator, your reputation in God’s Eyes is far more important, and (c) remind you of God’s Eternal Mercy if you surrender to Him, and (d) specifically commend Mumtaz Mahal herself to God’s Embrace.

Qur'anic Inscription, Taj Mahal

As a decorated surface, like a page of parchment with flowers and stems as well as stunning calligraphy.  The black lines above and below, and all the designs, are inlaid.  That means someone chiseled the marble a few millimeters deep, and then glued in the proper color of semi-precious stone. Here’s a YouTube for any art nerds out there.  We saw a guy outside his shop two days ago sawing marble with a water-cooled circular saw, which people did not have in 1632-1643!   The first picture is a simple floral design from inside,

Inlaid wall design, Taj Mahal

and the second picture is the west gate.

Qur'an Inscription, Taj Mahal

As one of the greatest works of Muslim religious art, because it avoids any depiction of human forms, relies on abstract beauty, including the letters of the Arabic language, which I started learning ten years ago in part because it is so fun to write the words! Spanish Christian Art, funded by crusaders and glorifying martyrdom, often repelled us with its gruesome depiction of martyrs, conquerers, and submitting Moors and Jews.  Hindu Art is often joyful, frequently playful, full of magic and symbols.   But Muslim art is so understated and elegant.  It takes some time to work its spell, but it wows you.

Lynnell at Taj Mahal

 

 

 

Cows In The House, Gods In The Streets And Why Indian Women Have The Best Hair: A Report On Our First Two Weeks In India

(By Lynnell)

We’re now a little over half-way through our 30-day Indian visa on our year-long sabbatical trip. We love India. We love the food. We love the people and can I just add that Indian women wear the most amazing clothes with the most vibrant colors, enough to make the rest of the world look drab by comparison?

But it’s not an easy place to travel.

Bangalore

We were lucky enough to spend our first five days in India under the protective and generous custody of Pankaj and Retnam Kurup, who are the in-laws of one of John’s former students at Breck.  They picked us at the airport, housed us, fed us, took us around town, and found a tailor for John (who took advantage of Indian’s incredibly affordable and excellent suit-makers)  They also helped us get new Indian SIM cards for our phones .

This last item is no small thing. Because we are often in countries for three or more weeks, we now get local SIM cards, so we can have data and call each other if we get lost in a crowd. We’ve bought SIM cards in England, France, Spain and Morocco and it’s usually a pretty smooth routine process.

But not in India, land of legendary bureaucracy. In order to purchase a pre-paid SIM card in India, we had to make multiple trips to multiple stores, seeking the right person who could do the right paperwork. We needed copies of our passports, visas, plus new passport photos, plus the full names of our fathers (“But we’re 60 years old and our fathers died years ago,” we protested, but if it’s on the form, it must be filled), plus a local address for India, plus a local name and phone number of someone who can vouch that you are indeed staying at this address.

After you do all this, you have to wait for up to 24 hours to have the SIM card activated. And then you have to buy data and minutes at a separate shop..

But with Pankaj’s help, we were successful and voila, we’ve had working phones!  We’ve encountered fellow travelers who went through same long process and their phones never did work, so we felt lucky.

Hampi

While we were in Bangalore, Pankaj and Retnam also took us on an overnight visit to the famous ruins of Hampi, about a six-hour drive by car. We had been so deep in their protective, all-Indian cocoon that this was the first time we saw other tourists in India!!  Guidebooks call it the number two sight to see in all India, and as we write, we’re a couple of blocks from Number One, the Taj Mahal in Agra.  Hampi was once a sprawling city, but warring kings demolished it and turned it into a ghost city.  See John’s earlier post about Hampi.

Elephant Stables at Hampi

Kochi

After five days with Pankaj and Retnam, it was time to move on and see India on our own. We flew to Kochi, which is in the south on the ocean where it’s very steamy and tropical, full of coconut trees and backwater fish and prawn farming—it reminded me a lot of southern Vietnam in terms of heat and humidity and water, water everywhere.

Kochi is the home-stay capital of India——there are lots of places where people have turned part of their house into a guesthouse. We stayed at the Honolulu Home Stay, which we found on-line  and saw that it got good reviews through Trip Advisor.

It was a great place: simple, clean and welcoming. We had an air-conditioned room with a private bath and breakfast for $25 for the two of us.  It’s run by Mr. Taris, who spent 20+ years working on big cargo ships before retiring from the sea. His favorite port was Honolulu, so he named his homestay after it. He lives with his extended family on the first floor of his large house and basically runs a seven-room hotel out of the second and third floors. The third floor also has a big terrace where they serve breakfast.

LM at Honolulu Homestay

Mr. Taris genuinely seemed to enjoy having guests. If we needed an auto-rickshaw or a lift to the airport, Mr. Taris would call one of his friends or cousins. So you felt like you were part of a family network. In the afternoon or evening, we’d come home all hot and sweaty and find Mr. Taris’ toddler grandchildren, happily playing in the courtyard or running around naked either before or after taking a bath.

I mean, I’d take that welcome over uniformed desk clerks at the fancier hotels any day.

In Kochi, at one point, I tried to get my hair cut and colored.  Mr. Taris’ daughters called around, but alas, no one had any blonde hair dye in stock. There’s just no market for it. So I walked around the corner to Seena’s Beauty Shop to look for just a haircut. Seena’s shop was on the third floor of a house. She spoke only a little English and she and her assistant and her 16-year-old daughter, who was just hanging out, seemed taken back to see a foreigner at their door .

“How do you find us?” Seena asked. I said I was staying at the Honolulu Homestay just 50 or so meters away  They looked at me blankly. Anyhow, I sat down and through my pantomime and Seema’s limited English, we started doing business

Seena said a haircut would cost 400 rupees, which is about $6. But she  insisted I should also have a “hair spa” treatment” which would cost an additional $13.50. When I said, no, I just wanted a haircut, Seena touched my sweat-encrusted head and said, “But your hair, so sad, so dry.”

I looked at her hair. Indian women have the best hair in the world—so thick and shiny and gorgeous. So I thought, what the hell, she’s a professional, just do what she says. We started with the hair spa, which consisted of dumping some kind of oil on my head, massaging it around for a half-hour, then putting another kind of cream in and steaming it for 15 minutes, then a few other things.  When it was time for the haircut. I showed Seena some Googled pictures on my Iphone to to try to show her what I wanted. But Seena, now fully in charge, looked at the photos and waved them off with contempt.

“No. Not look good on you,” she said. “I do my way.”

In the end, I actually got a great haircut.  It looks pretty much like my usual haircut, but still. And I came away a devout believer in the hair spa.  My hair felt so soft, healthy and happy. She was totally right on both counts.  Trust the pros!

The Indian Phone Bureaucracy Strikes Back

While we were in Kochi, we got a text message from Airtel, our phone company, saying there was a problem with our Indian government SIM card applications and the government would de-activate our SIM cards within 24 hour unless we went to an Airtel store and sorted it out. So once again, we set off on the pilgrimage, driving in an auto-rickshaw from phone store to phone store, looking for right person authorized to fill out the right forms. We ended up having to drive to a different city, about 30 minutes away.

When we finally found a person who was authorized to help us, she first said it was a Bangalore-issued SIM card, so we needed to return to Bangalore and the store that took our first application. But we’re travelers, we pleaded. Bangalore is a 14-hour train ride from here. Okay, she said, but then she needed the address of the phone store in Bangalore, so she could call and talk to the person who first filled out our application.

Bangalore is a city of 10 million people; we had had to inquire at multiple stores before we found the right one. Furthermore, we weren’t driving–our host Pankaj and the auto-rickshaw driver  were always negotiating where to go next in Malayalam, the local language. So we had no idea what the address was.

But we found a receipt from the photo shop which had taken the required new passport photos of us–we remembered we had to walk about a half-kilometer from the Airtel store to find it. Then we Googled descriptions of Airtel stores in area and found one that said the store was crowded, dirty and the staff was rude.

“That’s the one!” I cried triumphantly.

She called the store. But the person who had filled out our application was off for the next few days. Can we just start over and fill out another application? we asked. She wasn’t sure. She also thought the Indian government was just bluffing and would probably not deactivate our phones. But we didn’t want to risk it. We use the data plan on our phone all the time–for Google maps and as a back-up if the wifi fails. It’s our life-line.

After a long conversation by phone with a regional manager, she agreed to start over—no small thing because this involved making multiple copies of our passport, visas and other documents and filling out the extremely long and detailed form. We called Mr. Taris and asked him to tell the phone representative that we were indeed staying at the Honolulu guesthouse. She activated new SIM cards but told us not to use them—just keep them in reserve and wait and see if the government really does deactivate our phones.

The whole visit took about 90 minutes. She had an office filled with other customers. Yet she was so patient and generous to us. Factor in all the driving around and solving our SIM card took about four hours.

One of the advantages of having this long year to screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-9-48-44-amtravel is that when something goes wrong, it’s not as if we’ve lost a half-day of our precious vacation time. And it’s often in these very mundane tasks that we get a better sense of what it’s really like to live in a country. Plus, we meet such nice people.  In addition to the phone store lady, our auto rickshaw driver–who was either a friend or relative of Mr. Taris—was a sweetheart.

By the way, the phone store lady was right—the Indian government has yet to deactivate our phones. But we still hold on to our reserve SIM cards. They’re like a talisman.

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Above: Goats on our street near the Honolulu Home-Stay

Varanasi Lodging, In Which We Discover That All Homestays Are Not Created Equal

From Kochi, we flew to Varanasi. After our great experience at the Honolulu Homestay, we booked six nights at The Somit Homestay, which we planned to use as a base while touring the city and doing an overnight side trip. The Somit Homestay also had rooms for about $25 a night, was located about 500 meters from the Ganges River and  got wildly enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor.

According to the Somit website, the homestay also ran a small Hindu academic tutoring program for poor kids, offered yoga training and walking tours of Varanasi as well. Plus, for a reasonable fee, they would have a driver meet us at the airport and take us directly to the homestay–a huge help, since the place was located in the old section of the city, which is a tangled warren of alleys that can only be reached on foot.

It was dark when the driver dropped us off on a corner. Somit, the owner, who is in his early 30s, met us and we followed him through a labyrinth of alleys and walkways, trying to step over the huge piles of cow manure, which wasn’t easy because it was dark. John stepped right into a particularly gooey pile.

When we arrived at the place, it was an old, narrow, dingy and dimly-lit concrete building. The walls of the narrow reception area were covered with lined notebook paper from previous guests, saying how wonderful their stay had been.

Somit said there would be no official charge for the room, meals, or guided tours. Instead, everything would be a free-will offering for their project with poor kids, which is why their suggested rate was higher than usual.  All the money went to the poor.   “I can feel your spirit and heart,” Somit said, “so I know this will be fine with you.”

John, a naturally trusting person, seemed to have no problem with this. But I was raised evangelical, so my red flags went up as soon as I heard “free-will offering” and ”I can feel your heart.”  Somit also pushed us hard to take their tours; we finally agreed to take one the next day.

An assistant led us up a steep flight of stairs to our room, which was as grim as a prison cell with one dim light bulb from the ceiling and a bed with one very dirty blanket on it. That was it. No chair.  No towels. The toilet across the hall had a broken seat, which slid off every time we sat down.

I met two other groups of guests that night—an American couple traveling with two kids for a year and a Danish couple. None of us could figure out the glowing reviews on Trip Advisor. It made no sense.

There are temples everywhere in Varanasi and as luck would have it, there was a small Hindu temple in the alley directly below our room. We later figured out they were celebrating the feast of the goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, although we initially thought it was some kind of bachelor party because it sounded like a bunch of drunken young guys happily shouting about beer and football. Whenever their shouting died down, the temple drums would start up and when the drums stopped, extremely loud Hindu praise music—which turns out to be just as inane, repetitive and annoying as Christian praise music— blasted through the loudspeaker.

How John managed to sleep through most of this. I do not know. On previous travels,  I have slept through massive fireworks going off 50 meters away. But this was too much for even me. The festivities went on all night.  At some point in the wee hours, as I laid awake, feeling something in the bed bite me (fleas? bed bugs?), I went online and tried to book us into another guesthouse starting the next day.

The only place I could find at that hour in the old city near the Ganges River was the two-star Alka Hotel which was offering its premium room for $75 a night, which is a lot more than we usually spend and pretty expensive for India. The Alka Hotel also got mixed reviews on line and in order to make a reservation I had to pay upfront with no refunds.

I hesitated. Then the recorded Hindu praise music started up again. I clicked on “Book Now.”

At dawn, the Danish couple rose to go scout for another guesthouse. The American family was gone by 7 a.m. Around 8 a.m., I went down to the reception to say we were leaving and found a huge cow in the room.

cow-in-guesthouse

Apparently the same cow comes by twice a day, and Somit and his family, who are devout Hindus, open their door and let it in. Somit’s mother filled a giant pail of water for the cow who drank it quickly. Getting the cow out of the reception area was tricky—the space was too narrow for the cow to turn around, so the cow had to back out and down two steep steps to the alley. But with our hosts’ gentle encouragement, the cow managed.

That morning, we also watched Somit and his family lead their young students through a ceremony for Saraswati. The kids were adorable and well-behaved, sitting quietly for over an hour while Somit and his family set up an elaborate altar and offered fruit, flowers, incense, school supplies, and more to the goddess of knowledge and study. As a priest,  John thought it was cool. As a former Baptist, I remembered sitting as a child through endlessly long services when I just wanted to be outside and running around. Even at age 60, the ceremony made me feel fidgety.

kids at Somit Guest House, Varanasi

Somit and his family were sad to see us go. All the testimonials on the wall and Trip Advisor reviews aside, I get the impression they are often sad to see guests go. We told his brother, Amit, that we still wanted to take his walking tour—we just wanted the first stop to be our next hotel and he agreed.

Can I just say I have never been so happy to check into a premium $75 room at a two-star hotel?  The Alka Hotel is located directly on the Ganges; our room was spacious, bright and airy–it even had its own balcony.  The views from the hotel patio were breathtaking; the beer in the hotel restaurant was cold; the staff treated us like family. After a few days, we downgraded to a $38 room. The hotel was close to fully booked all the nights we stayed there and we keep meeting other travelers who had fled bad guesthouses.

Varanasi, One Of The World’s Most Intense Cities

After we checked into the Alka, Amit gave us a tour of Varanasi temples and holy places.  He turned out to be a terrific tour guide—great teacher, thoughtful, well-informed and passionate about Hinduism and the city where he has lived his whole life.

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Varanasi is one of Hinduism’s most holy cities.  It’s full of temples, especially to Shiva, and it is considered an especially auspicious place to die and be cremated. In Varanasi, the Ganges is lined with a six-kilometer series of linked stone boardwalks—they’re called ghats–featuring wide steps down to the river.

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The ghats are where people do laundry, ritual washings, meet with Hindu priest for religious ceremonies, play cards, ritually shave their heads, meditate, wash their cows,  sell snacks, go boating, cremate their dead, play cricket, fly kites—I mean, it’s all there and it’s all happening in the same space, with a lot of cows, goats, and stray dogs wandering around.

There are two cremation sites on the river, surrounded by big stacks of wood.  People do not play cricket on this ghat–they do that at the adjacent boardwalks.  Taking photos of the cremation up close is discouraged.  But outsiders are allowed to watch and it’s both fascinating and gruesome  (you can see and smell various body parts burning at various rates). It’s also moving because it’s done with a lot of ceremony and reverence.  Eldest sons and grandsons, clad in white, heads newly-shaved, swing smoldering straw bundles in circles around the pile of wood.

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The Lonely Planet Guide, which in India is the independent traveler’s scripture, describes Varanasi like this: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

We’ve got another 10 days to go, so we don’t know whether it’s our favorite stop yet. But once I got to the Hotel Alka, I really did like Varanasi. It’s an intense city, so it was really nice to have an oasis of calm to retreat to. Here’s a photo of the Ganges in the evening, take from the hotel patio.

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——Lynnell Mickelsen

Next up: Riding the Indian Railway System, In Which We Are Saved By 20-Something Indian Millennials With Cell Phones and Apps.

December and January In Pictures

Click on each image for captions.  We cannot believe what an amazing year we are having.  Thanks to all you frequent and infrequent readers for your clicks and comments!

-Lynnell and John

In Siddhartha’s Footsteps

Too Much Luxury

Prince Siddhartha’s dad worried a lot about his son fulfilling a wise man’s prophecy: he will either be the king of all India or the savior of the world.  Well, no one had ever conquered all of India, so the king set about making sure that his son had the best possible training for such a task.  Lots of sports, great food, and no distractions.  Especially not the kind that might make him empathetic or compassionate.  Everyone knows rulers can’t afford those evil temptations!

But of course, one day the prince insisted on actually seeing the city his father ruled, and was shocked and heartbroken by poverty, sickness, old age, and death. But, God knows, there is more room in a broken heart.  He left home during the night, and soon joined a group of ascetics.  They gave up just about every material thing, and soon he was the champion of self-denial.  He spent five years like this, and was nearly a skeleton when a simple request from a young woman jarred him out of his single-mindedness:

“Please, sir, eat something.”

When his disciples found him eating and enjoying the porridge, they abandoned him as a heretic.  But Siddhartha knew that neither extreme, sheltered luxury or extreme, voluntary poverty was a gateway to what he was looking for: the key to unlock the prison of human suffering.  This meeting with his savior, who is sometimes called a village girl and other times as a queen, took place at this spot, under a banyan tree:

Banyan Tree, Bodhgaya (village girl story)

Here is a closer look at the scene on the altar under the banyan tree:

Ascetic Siddhartha being offered food by village girl/queen

The Middle Way: Moderation!

John’s dad used to preach the virtue of moderation, despite the fact that he struggled not to overdo things.  Perhaps because of grade inflation, John likes to say that most daily tasks you should do well, but not perfectly.  A-minus is quite a good grade.  Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The Buddha, giving up the quest for perfect self-denial on one hand and total self-indulgence on the other, sat down again to think.  His great meditation happened not too far away from the banyan tree, also near the place Bodh Gaya.  It’s now the Mecca or Jerusalem of world Buddhism.  Unlike the banyan tree shrine, the bodhi tree shrine is a gigantic temple on grounds that could hold six football fields.  The tree is next to the main temple, and that’s surrounded by several terraced levels of gardens, flat horizontal surfaces for offerings, and shrines.   Photo: wikimedia

bodhi-tree-bodhgaya

Tradition says that Siddhartha reached enlightenment sitting right there, under the bodhi tree, after seven days.  “Humans can remove suffering,” he said to himself, touching the ground, “the Earth is my witness.”  From then on, he became Lord Buddha.  His discovery was the famous Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is full of suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by our selfish craving for our own private fulfillment at others’ expense
  3. To remove suffering, stop the selfish craving
  4. Do that by following the Eightfold Path, which can be a lifelong effort to become more mindful, more devoted to the happiness of others, less anxious, and so on.  Easy, right?

We lucked out, coming to Bodh Gaya this week.  Half the Tibetan monks who usually stay in their monasteries on the Indian side of the Himalayas are in town for a ten day prayer celebration called The XXVII Nyingma Kagyu Monlam (okay, they really just call it the 28th).  Led by the second most important Lama in Buddhism, the 17th Gyalma Karmapa, thousands of maroon-robed men and women, their heads freshly shaved, gathered in national groups that also included some westerners and folks from all over Southeast Asia.

We saw them meditating, some swaying, some walking with prayer beads, some sitting still like a mountain, ranged in perfect rows and columns facing the Tree.  It is probably like being a Muslim finally seeing the Kaaba cube in the center of Mecca and walking seven times around.  Or stepping into the church on the spot of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem. Photo: wikimedia.

monks-opening-day-kagyumonlam

In their spare time, monks, nuns, and laypeople filled hundreds of metal bowls with water and placed them on one shrine.  On others, they made beautiful mandala designs with marigold flowers that match their yellow and maroon robes.  We couldn’t have taken either of these pictures, however, because cell phones are not allowed in the Maha Bodhi (Great Awakening) Temple grounds.  At all.  As a result, no one bumps into a meditator while backing up to get a little more in the viewfinder.  No one poses self-consciously for a selfie in front of “that Buddha thingy.”  And no one paces back and forth, spare hand covering his ear, like John, saying a little too loud, “no, I hear you, but there’s a delay.  Yes, we’re in that Temple place, but we’re gonna get some food pretty soon.”

Instead, everyone is quiet.  Near the temple, shoes come off.  More than half the people look like they are praying.  The rest are relaxing in the shade, for even in January it’s hot in the sun.  And when we come close to the Tree, we feel the sacredness in everyone around us.  Some hang garlands of yellow or white marigolds on the fence around it.  Some press their foreheads to a stone shield in front of the trunk, as if to ask for some of the wisdom still residing there.

The actual Bodhi Tree was poisoned by the jealous wife of Ashoka the Great about 300 years after the Buddha.  She resented his obsession with everything related to Siddhartha the Buddha–all the shrines, temples, stupas, memorial stones, monasteries, libraries–and it fell to their children to save a cutting and some seed from the tree.  These were taken to Sri Lanka, where an offspring tree still stands.  And the present tree is an offspring of that one.  bodhi-leavesKind of a grandchild-tree of the original.

The leaves remind me of linden trees, as do the berries.  The bark is like a pockmarked moonscape of craters, only smoothed-over.

And the massive trunk appears to enclose a number of other trunks, each now deeply wrapped up in the base of the tree, sending roots like buttresses into the Earth that the Buddha called on.  We picked up a leaf from one of its neighboring Bodhi trees and tucked it safely into John’s passport.

The shade was glorious.  The branches were powerful, some propped up with steel pillars as they stretch far out in every direction to cover the hundreds of people seated in meditation.

What if we really could let go of all that craving?

  • We wouldn’t stress out over train delays on Indian Railways.
  • We’d just notice our hunger, thirst, or tiredness, rather than become crabby like Siddhartha was when he accepted the porridge.
  • We would do our work, and not cling to the outcome.
  • We wouldn’t need to have even a souvenir leaf, nor our very own photos.

One last picture, of the back of a taxi at the Root Institute, a Mahayana Buddhist Center where we stayed the night in Bodh Gaya.  Their head Lama was also in town, visiting from Dharamsala in the Himalayas, and we got to see him and try to hear his talk about training your mind.  This was maybe the car that was poised to take him over to the Great Awakening Temple for the ninth day prayers.

if-no-anger-no-enemy

“If no anger, then no enemy.”  It sounds impossible.  Or maybe we just want it to be impossible so we can hang on to our anger.  Sometimes it’s useful.  John says he’d settle for someday getting an A- in No Anger.