Friday, July 17, 2009

“Searching Shambhala”


From times unbeknownst man has sought the mystical, the magical and at times the diabolical. What that portends is anybody’s guess, but the quest to possess, discover and explore a piece of the element representing the mystical, the magical, the ideal, the personal or even mere objects of some historical symbolic significance has both been a universal desire and a personal romantic crusade, promising adventure and discovery if not the treasure themselves. A quest that promises a metamorphosis of the soul, with the power and wisdom to satisfy desires both spiritual and material, heal suffering both mental and physical, providing answers to the deepest doubts and shedding light on the darkest fears. Irrespective of the means for which these marvels were sought, received or perceived, the journeys have always provided some revelations and insights unto one’s own self and the way we then perceive the world; albeit with a new sense of heightened reality. Still others have sought treasures of the earthly kind, filled with the stuff of legend. Most of these stories seem to border basically on man’s quest for some heavenly perfection on earth, a reputable name and a distinguishing fame perhaps; and in some unfathomable way, rising above it all or sinking farther into the deeper abysses of the mind. The blade cuts both ways and life’s a razor for a reason. Whatever the guises and whatsoever the motives, the desires remained the same. The quest and the journey were in itself a reward.

For centuries the name ‘Shambhala’ has triggered visions and notions of a vaguely promising ‘Buddhist Paradise’, becoming in the process a popular romantic and adventurous acronym for recovering and reclaiming the ‘truth of things’, whatever that entails. Peace, truth, love and liberation? I don’t know but the word shambhala does intone a sense in here of the Buddhist equivalent to the Christian quest for the ‘Holy Grail’. It is said the Shambhala Kingdom is only accessible to warriors of the spiritual path, who must fight, battle and conquer endless lifetimes of ignorance, suffering, deaths and rebirths to gain an insight and with continuing diligent practices are rewarded at long last with the keys to this ‘Kingdom of the Awakened’.

And so I made a little journey of my own as I heard more and more about shambhala. I started by posing a question to myself, just what is Shambhala? The name has a ring to it, and there’s an Indiana Jones feel about the whole thing, especially if you are into trashy Hollywood and Bollywood movies the way I am. So I packed my green jumbo army rug sack and decided to make the trip. Shambhala wasn’t the only thing driving me; there was also this long delayed desire to make it to Bodhgaya, a sparkling gem in the deeply afflicted karmic state of Bihar in India, poor and wretched, a sight of epitomized suffering welcoming anxious seekers. Is it a coincidence the Buddha chose this particular region of abject poverty for his ultimate englightenment? The very place evokes questions the Buddha himself sought answers to, why is life so full of grief and suffering? Isn’t that the very question we all seek to find an answer to as well…?

For my own part, the goal was to make it for the annual Kalachakra blessing and initiation ceremony duly conducted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama every year in specially designated places. That year it was held in the holiest of Buddhist sites, Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained Nirvana and later turned the wheel of the Dharma setting in motion not just his teachings, but a quest for ‘Truth’ that eventually made him realize his own inherent ‘Buddha-Hood’. Such a desire to understand the meaning and truth of things, similar to his own, regarding birth, life, suffering and death has inspired many souls over the centuries and led them to their own deliverance and liberation. For me the trip was going to be a spiritual soup of varied ingredients brewing up as much as I could afford and contain in my cooking pot. There was a lot happening in my life and predictably, none of it was too good but least I carried enough excess existential baggage qualifying me for such a venture, the wisdom of hind-sight which is the child of suffering and reflection. In other words what I desperately required was a stinging shambhala-holy grail kick in my nuts to get my stale life juices bursting forth and breaking the mental dams of stagnation. I lacked and needed spiritual cleansing and purifying pain, a baptism of sorts to rescue whatever scraps of meanings were left on that lifeless meaningless table of nothingness. Or so I gathered hoping for a revival of sorts. For me the time had come to pay a visit to the laundromat, read the instruction labels carefully this time around, set and get the timings and the temperatures right and stuff in the dirty filthy laundries. I just hoped they would come out a bit cleaner and nicer. Everything else rested on the Laundromat and all I had to do was sit and wait and try to rest. That’s what I had to do, and whatever that meant, curtailed or embodied my mind was made up and the planes, trains and buses would do the rest.

I stopped first in Bodhgaya. It was mind blowing. There was a tremendous feeling of wellness being in the midst of a very holy city and a strong empowerment ceremony being conducted. The sight of thousands of devotees camped everywhere for the month long ceremonies was both humbling and inspiring. There were monks and nuns in their rich red robes, saffron clad Buddhist monks from the Theravada tradition, mountain yogins with matted dread locks grown of long meditations, laymen and laywomen in ankle length robes, families with children, assortment of westerners, tribal people from the highlands and other varied folks of the faith, with their prayer beads and spinning manis. The experience of humility was stronger when I learned how some of these farmer folks from the poorer regions of Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan were here on months and months of hard earned savings. For many of them this visit would be their first and probably their last, yet they were happy to be here and thanked their good fortune and karma. I felt deep gratitude to the prayers of their teachers, families and friends for making it possible for them to be here, and a quiet guilt for having had a relatively easy arrival myself. The first thing every devotee would do upon arrival was to prostrate before the statue of the Buddha in the main sacred temple, offer the customary white Himalayan silk scarf of honor and light incense sticks and butter lamps.

There was no lack of friends or companions! Loneliness had no friends here and must have gotten a dose of its own medicine. Everyone was high just being in such sacred surroundings, tasting simple spiritual ecstasy. The differences were instead of gung ho rockers we had realized practioners of the path infusing, diffusing and cleansing our soiled auras and karmas with pure cleansing spiritual showers of purification. The euphoria of drugs and rock and roll cacophonies were replaced by the calm reflective rhythmic recitation of sacred scriptures and religious instruments; invoking all the awakened Buddhas and evoking what is most noble about our-selves with frequent reminders to our own dormant potentiality for realizing these very living truths. Time it seemed was just too short, and the urgency for practicing the path couldn’t be overstated. A life time is as long as the blink of an eye! The teachers warned, and urged us to make use of every precious living moment.

The four day duration of the ‘kalachakra

Initiation Ceremony’ was undoubtedly the highlight of the month long ceremonies. The presence of HH the Dalai Lama and all the other heads of the Buddhist Lineages conferring, empowering and reciting the scriptures were what hundreds and hundreds of yogins, monks and lay practioners await for so patiently all their lives, as practioners, to authenticate and further their practices with renewed strength and fervor, energy and profound faith in the essence and meaning of the teachings. Confirmation of one’s practice must be a source of immense satisfaction and an unspeakable boon of immense inspiration. How I wished I was in their shoes! For simple commoners and spiritual illiterates like myself with little or no knowledge of the meanings of these teachings and of their profound depths of truths about reality, it was rewarding enough to just know and feel the sacredness of life, just resting in simple faith and belief soaking up as much of the positive vibrations in the atmosphere as possible. Yet I was reminded of the feebleness and pettiness of my own nature, and to an extent of people who are like me. One has to thus remind oneself that when the journey ends these invaluable teachings still live on, providing a source of deep well wherein one can always draw endless spiritual comfort, encouragement, wisdom and a strong sense of commitment and continuity.

The air of deep spiritual gravity was felt even deeper when circumambulating the temple built in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment. These were moving spectacles and I dared nearly steal a piece of the temple stones of carved Buddhas as a piece of my own traveling spiritual souvenir and a perceived sense of some naïve accomplishment. Spiritual materialism can get the better of one’s own misguided judgment and prod one to do wrong thinking it’s alright and fully justified! Very nuanced and real, one can become blinded as I was by the bountiful offerings and brilliant butter lamps that illuminated the temple in all its glory every night prodding me to own a piece of it. I very nearly did it, till it became so obviously obvious how totally wrong and shameless the act was. At the time I was in the midst of reading the Venerable Thich Nanh Hanh’s wonderful account of the Buddha’s life in a book called, ‘Old Path, White Clouds’. A book that I truly love for its simple story, radiating compassion, loving kindness and for its insight into the life of the Buddha and his timeless teachings, and how far from the path I and many have strayed. Here I was trying to own a piece of that story! I returned the slightly broken sculpted Buddha back to its rightful place, with a lot of careful maneuvering; I didn’t want to be found out.

I just hoped and prayed none of that’d erased my good intentions to do the right thing blinded as I was.

Recovering from the fervor of the ceremonies, I then headed for the holy city of Varanasi two weeks later. What I didn’t know was that Varanasi has always been a boiling point for Hindus and Buddhists alike, and the other Buddhist holy city of Sarnath in Varanasi were just kilometers away from each other. These twin cities of Varanasi, the holiest city in Hindu India and Sarnath, the place where Buddha delivered his first sermon seem to reflect the twain meanings of ones who search for ‘something shambhala’. They are sister cities of deep spiritual awakenings able to activate the sloth, satisfy the pig, bring humility to the cock and help pacify the snakes of deception. Giving some meaning to our life’s fruitless labors and bringing renewed life to living corpses.

As I look back and reflect upon what I encountered in my own simple way with an eagerness to find some connection I can only draw upon these three distinctive worlds and their similarities; I say three distinctive worlds for I encountered an unexpected third source in a Christian in Sarnath.

The Buddhist in the ceremonies of the Kalachakra Initiation in Bodhgaya, The Hindu in the holy city of Varanasi with its millions of devotees and the mesmerizing river Ganga, and the Christian in the person of the Franciscan Father Pinto, who presides over the only church in Sarnath.

On my visit to the Deer Park in Sarnath I came across a church. That was a most pleasant revelation! He was an Indian Franciscan Father administering this serene little church located a few walks away from where the Buddha preached his first sermon. The father spoke about Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and how similar they all are in their essence. Christ as an inspiration and as an example of peace and love in this troubled times of wars to come and ones being waged. The statue of a meditating Christ, in the place where Buddha first preached the Dharma, seems to further invoke and reinforce the universal meaning of all the teachings. The irony was not lost on me, or the good father himself I thought. The church also administered services to Christians in the area and did a lot of social work. Did I leave an offering for the poor, I think I did. To my good fortune, at the time Sarnath was also the place of residence to HH the 17th karmapa, the second most revered Buddhist teacher in all of Tibet. Lately the Karmapa had moved here in Sarnath, and to our good fortune, he was more carefree and mobile here than he had ever been, even as signs of heavy Indian Security hung all around. Hoping for an audience, I hung around the holy city visiting the sights as three days of peaceful patience had its just rewards. The third day arrived and I was squeezed in with a group of foreigners and we had an audience with the Karmapa. A boy of 18 years then, and a spiritual leader to thousands of Buddhists all over the world. He had escaped from Tibet when he was fourteen, and since his arrival in India, the Dalai Lama has nurtured and tutored him personally at his residence in the mountains of Dharamsala. During the audience he was asked about the existence of Shambhala by a Swedish photographer who hopes to photograph and hang around the kingdom of Shambhala some day. The karmapa spoke of shambhala, how once upon a time in the past, it had been an actual place located in the navel of the earth, and how it was ruled by a Dharma King, until it had to be locked off, and the keys kept secret. The era we live in is not spiritually mature enough to unlock those gates of hidden wisdom treasures, but when the appropriate time arrives, so would the kingdom of shambhala. This was mythic stuff, but I listened more carefully when he spoke about shambhala as a symbolic kingdom of spiritual warriors who having managed to conquer the devils of the deceiving mind, enter the gates of shambhala at their will, minus any obstructions or distractions. This sounded more appealing to my mind, I was thinking, this is the right way to fight, a fight not for economic or political gains and/or profits, but for the mastery of the mind. What fight could be any nobler than waging a battle to gain an understanding of the meaning of life and its very existence? Christ was crucified for it, but he arose three days later. The Buddha swore to tame the mind and reveal its real identity and he did that eventually sitting under the Bodhi tree.

Truly mesmerized and miles away from the humdrum of daily life, I was beginning to peel the mental layers of my tearful onion-ed life one by one, yet they don’t peel off easy!

On the ride back to Varanasi, the auto rickshaw rode over all the potholes of Uttar Pradesh and somehow we all arrived in one piece; the driver, his rickshaw and me. It was good to be back in Varanasi, with fresh memories of HH the karmapa and the Franciscan Father keeping me in thoughtful enlightened company.

The holy city of Varanasi looks as though the wheel of time has stopped spinning here centuries ago. The timeless river Ganga is a source of spiritual healing and cleansing to millions of devoted Hindus who flock here every day to have a ‘holy bath’ in its purifying waters. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi is the ‘fortunate death’ that will provide them with ‘Moksha’ or ‘deliverance from the cycles of birth and death, freedom from existence and suffering’. It makes you wonder where you are, even as the coca-cola billboards just behind the ceremonial banks symbolized a world that is ever changing.

For the better I hoped.

Each belief belies a hidden Shambala awaiting discovery, whether one is a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu or a person in search of his or her own piece or a peace of shambhala, I thought. I am not sure what I consider to be my own shambhala, but there is no denying I started this journey with nothing and came out loaded with a lot of thoughts and grateful for the experiences. Maybe I learnt that in everything in life there is always room for more, and that not all of these beliefs and practices can be labeled, compartmentalized or analyzed. That everything is the way it should be and in the nature and order of things as it has always been; That every birth, life and death comes hidden and laden with its very own unique list of karmic laundries for that inevitable trip to the Laundromat; That every cup you drink in can be the holy grail of your own life; That the journey itself is all of these and yet none of these; That life itself is everything and nothing;

There are a lot of question marks dotting the horizons of my life, I know that, and I don’t expect too many answers. Maybe the beauty of life is in its very simplicity, which of course is as complicated or as dumb as the story I have just narrated!

Hanging onto such thoughts, I hailed an auto rickshaw, stuffed my green mumbo jumbo rucksack in and headed for the next destination. This time I am going to try to enjoy the journey and quit the mental jargon of endless conferences, I decided. Then the mind unfolded, only this time I didn’t fight it, as I saw a cross, a fluttering prayer flag and a river, and they left me with that much more to ponder. Life’s like a fresh mountain stream; that becomes a river, which becomes the sea, bringing rainfalls and snows on the mountains.

When it ends, it begins afresh.

India 2004

Ps: YourLustForLifeStartsRightNow!

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