High Drama with Spiders. Tragedy with Sparrows. Tiny Burials. Thoughts on Buddhism and Suffering and a Quotation from Nietzsche.

Nietzsche said famously that, “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”  What he meant is something like this.   We see the immense suffering, illness, predation, and death around us all the time—in nature, everything eating everything—children suffering and dying, evil men thriving, good people dying in accidents or to crime or cancer.

How can we justify such a world?

Religions offer their best explanations, none of them all that convincing: We suffer now we’ll but go to heaven later. We suffer now but we’ll be reborn in a better life next time. We suffer now, but it’s our karma. We suffer now as a test of our faith.

Unconvinced by all of these, Nietzsche says that in the face of all the suffering we see everyday, one thing we can say about the world is that it is beautiful.   It is eternally beautiful.

Whether this makes up for the suffering is another question. But perhaps beauty is a window, an intuitive window into something larger, wiser than we can imagine.

The day before yesterday, Kellen was sitting by one of our windows and said,

“Daddy.   I found a honey bee that’s dying. It’s lost one of its wings and two of its legs.”

“There’s probably not much we can do for it,” I said, looking up from my book. “Should we take it outside?”

“I don’t want something to get it.   Let’s bring in some food for it. Clover flowers!”

The boys went out and got a clutch of clover and added a stick of incense to the mix and lay him in it.   Kellen said he was crawling toward it.

“He likes it!”

But an hour later, Kellen said it was dead. Both boys were sad.   They wanted a little burial. We took it out and placed it under a bush in a burial nest made of clover.

“Do you guys want to say a few words?”

Kellen said, “We’re sorry you had to die, honey bee.”

“We will remember you,” Aidan said.

“May you go on to another life, a wonderful life,” I said.

I reminded them that in India, people believe in reincarnation. I said, “Maybe because the bee experienced human love before it died, it will take a new life as a kitty or a fish or another kind of pet that humans take care of.”

We felt a little better.

Yesterday, Jennifer and I were reading on our bed just inside from our balcony terrace.   Aidan had gone out and he came back in and stood with a shocked look on his face.

“Mommy, Daddy, the bird nest fell down.”

We went out to see.

A beautiful little bird called a brown-headed sparrow had built a tan-colored, swallow-like nest attached to the underside of the eaves of the terrace of the house. It was just to the left of and above the door and made of mud, just like a swallow’s nest. Every morning for the last week, when I opened my eyes from meditation I’ve been watching the parent birds fly to a little iron arbor sculpture on the terrace.   Each parent would hold a tiny grub-like insect in its mouth. It would sit on the metal perch for a long time, looking this way and that, this way and that. Then, all of a sudden it would fly to the nest, and disappear inside. The cottage caretaker told me that it had been there for three or four years. That meant the same parents had used it again and again.

The boys were entranced by the babies. As I noted in another post, our boys love baby animals. We could hear them crying. Aidan tried to stand on a chair, then a table, to see the little checks but we never got to.

“O, My God, what can we do?” Jennifer asked.

The nest, evidently, had broken loose from the eave and fallen the nine feet to the concrete floor. Crumbled, broken chunks of mud lay there with feathers and straw and the four chicks. The chicks were about two-to-three inches in size, without feathers, eyes shut, folded as in fetal position. They must have been a week or two old. Two were dead, their skin broken, killed by the fall. Two were crying, trying to hobble around, unable to stand up.

“I don’t know!   Do you think a cat knocked the nest down?”

“There’s nothing a cat could have climbed to get to it.”

“We have to help them!” Aidan cried.

“Sweetie,” I said, “I don’t think we can do anything.”

“We can put them back in the nest. Maybe the mommy and daddy will come back.”

“The nest is in pieces.”

“People say once you touch a baby bird,” Jennifer added, “the mother will abandon it.”

“Can’t we put them in a box and feed them cereal.”

“No, the parents have been bringing them little grubs, soft things with no shell or legs. I don’t know what they were. They can’t eat cereal.”

“What about milk?”

“I’m sorry, sweetie.”

We gathered up the straw and feathers and remade the nest and lay it on the wide concrete bench in front of the windows below where the nest had been in hopes that the parents would come back and feed them.  I got of piece of cloth to pick them up with. They were completely helpless. Unable to walk or fly or really move.   I situated them in the nest and put the dead ones in there, too. Maybe they weren’t dead, yet. Maybe they’d all feel safer together.

We went inside the bedroom and watched and waited. After a few minutes, sure enough, one of the parents appeared on the metal sculpture with a tiny grub in its mouth, looking this way and that!

The nest must have just fallen.   The parent could hear the babies crying, but didn’t know where to find them.   Eventually, it made its way to the concrete bench. It hopped around toward the babies but then after a couple of seconds flew away.   We thought it had sensed our presence or seen us move inside the window. We tried to be quieter, stiller. It came back, but the same thing happened.

“Let’s leave them alone and go downstairs,” Jennifer said.

We went downstairs. We told they boys that the chances were that they were not going to make it.

Later, I went up to check on them. The two live chicks were crying with their mouths opened, as wide as their bodies.   I hoped they were being fed.

Later that evening, I checked again.

The two that had seemed dead were clearly dead. The other two had fallen out of the nest, lying there, one on its back and one on its side, mouths opening and closing without sound. I doubted they were going to make it. I gingerly picked them up and put them back into the nest.

We decided to bury the dead ones and then add the other two to the grave if they also died.   We dug a hole in the flower garden and put the two in it, wrapped in tissue.   We said a few words and covered them and put a rock on top and the boys went and got blue hydrangea blossoms to put on the rock.

I told the boys not to look at the other two chicks, as it might upset them.

Jennifer and I talked about what to do.   Should we leave the birds in the nest in hopes the parents may still feed them? Should we take them to the animal shelter?   We visit an animal shelter every week where the boys play with the dogs.   Should we put the baby birds out of their misery?   I couldn’t imagine doing that.

So we opted for the first choice.   But I felt helpless. Clearly they were suffering. Chances are they were going to die. But I wasn’t going to cut their throats or smash their heads.  It would make the planned burial more difficult for the boys.

Killing. I’ve spent a lot of our time here in our cottage killing.   We are a family of vegetarians.   But our Aidan has a bad spider phobia. I don’t know where he got it. We’re reading The Lord of the Rings together right now. They boys have seen the first of the movies. We decided we needed to read the books before they see the other two. I can’t imagine how he’s going to deal with Shelob, either in the book or the film.

In our cottage we have big spiders.  I mean really big. So big that when you first see one, you go, “Uh!” and your breath is sucked in. Like Dickinson says about the snake, your feeling is “zero at the bone.” The big spiders are as black as a night and four inches in diameter.   I am not exaggerating. Four inches. Please spread your thumb and middle finger to four inches right now and see how that looks. They have big bulbous bodies, which I have found out, are full of a foul liquid.  On one of our first afternoons in the cottage I thought Jennifer was going to pass out when she turned to me breathing loudly from one that was sitting there on our white bed spread.   I killed it, of course.

I’ve learned they are harmless. Normally, I might consider just helping them out the door. Except for Aidan.

For four weeks we lived in fear that he might see one of the big ones.   He was terrified about going to bed, having only seen some of the smaller ones.   We rearranged the upstairs bedroom, so that the head of our bed met the head of their bed in the middle of the room, away from all walls.   I hold his hand as he’s going to sleep.

Then, one night it happened.  Every night, Jennifer goes upstairs to do a “spider check” while I get the boys’ teeth brushed and ready for bed.   If she finds one, I go up and kill it.   On this night, we had brushed our teeth downstairs and Aidan went over to the corner of the room to get his Kindle Fire.   Suddenly, he let out a blood-coagulating scream and ran into the kitchen where I brushing my teeth at the sink. His eyes were as big as moons and he was hyperventilating.

“Help me, Daddy! Help me! Help me!!”

I knew what he’d seen.

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” I said. In that moment, I realized that this is the sentence I say to my boys more than any other—when they wake from nightmares, when we encounter a bull on the trail, when they have been fighting and squabbling.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.”   He was crying. “They’re harmless,” I said. “They’re scary looking but they’re harmless.”

“I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer was upstairs yelling.

“Michael! Michael!”

I had inadvertently locked her in upstairs.  She was hearing her child screaming down below and could not get to him.

As I’ve written before, you have to go outside to an outdoor stairs to get up to the second level. All the screen doors tend to swing open after you close them, so I’d developed a habit of latching them whenever I went through any of them to help keep the spiders and mosquitoes and flies out. But several times I’ve locked a person in or out. So, Jennifer was upstairs locked in the room and screaming for her son.

“Michael, let me out! Let out!”

Aidan was crying for me to help him. Kellen was crying along with Aidan.

But I have to kill the fucking spider!  

“Aidan, stay here! I have to kill the spider before it gets away!”

I grabbed a fly swatter.

“Where is it? Aidan, where is it?   Focus. You have to tell me!”

“Over there in the corner. Daddy, help me!”

“I will. I will.

“Michael, let me out!”

“Jennifer! I’ll be there in a minute.”

I saw the spider. It was the biggest and most bulbous yet, with a fat yellow-greenish body. It was in a corner where a piece of molding met the main wood of the base of the window seats. I knew it would be a bad shot. I whacked it as hard as I could.   Two legs broke off, but it scurried away. I whacked again, but it was gone! Gone!

“Fuck!” I said, before my sons. I have to pretend that I got it.

“It’s gone! I got it.”

I took them upstairs. Jennifer was beside herself. I apologized profusely. Again and again. We let the boys sleep that night with us.

I kill them everyday. Big ones. Small ones. Mediums.   It makes me a little sick to do it.   If I miss, they scurry away quickly on what look like charred, skinny-fingered hands. It’s the first thing I do every morning. I come down stairs and do a spider check.   I usually find one or more of one size or another.   I’ve probably killed fifty spiders since we’ve been here.   Killing the big ones feels like killing something real. Substantial. Not like a mosquito or a fly.

One of the Buddha’s precepts, of course, is not to kill.  But we all kill all the time: when we breathe, when we sweep, when we vacuum or paint or cook. Our immune system is killing microbes all the time, thank God for that.   So, it’s not a rule one can follow to the letter. I might spare the spiders, too, except for Aidan.

Who knows what the best practice is? One does one’s best to harm as little as possible on this sojourn through life. In the yoga tradition I was trained in back in the 1970s, we were taught to eat low on the food chain, killing what seems the lowest forms of consciousness, as far as we know. I still follow that practice.   Plant food rather than animal food, seafood before fowl or mammals.

 

The sparrow parents kept bringing little grubs to their babies for a day and a half.   But they didn’t know how to feed them. They would fly to the arbor on the terrace, sit there looking around, and then fly over to the wide concrete bench. It would stand there, looking around. A few inches away from them, the babies were lying there, their mouths open or closed, moving a wing or a foot. The parent would look back and forth, hop a bit, and then fly off.  In a few minutes, the other parent would bring another grub and do the same thing.

They kept returning, doing this ritual again and again, bringing fresh grubs, flying over to the babies, hopping about them, while the babies were lying there dying, and flying off.   I arranged the babies back in the nest, but they eventually rolled out again. Every time I went to the window, one of the parents would be bringing a new grub.   It was heartbreaking.

On the last evening, only one of the chicks was still alive. The other was covered in ants. I thought they were both dead. But then I saw the last one twitching a leg or a wing. I still couldn’t “put it out of its misery.” A parent would still bring over a grub and not know what to do.   The next morning it was over. Jennifer and I buried the last two before the boys got up.

Popular books about Buddhism talk about the need for “acceptance” in our lives.   They say that to have peace we have to accept reality as it is and not resist it or fight against it.   Eckhart Tolle and Tara Brach are two teachers who talk a lot about acceptance.

But I think “acceptance” is the wrong word.   It creates a lot of confusion. People get turned off to Buddhism because they think, “You mean I’m supposed to accept racism? I’m supposed to accept torture, war, and injustice?” The death of innocent baby birds?

The problem is that the word in its common usage seems to imply a condoning, an acquiescence, an approval.   We use the word when we approve of something. “Yes, I accept the terms of the contract.”   “Yes, I accept that you are the boss.” “Yes, I accept the responsibility.”

But the state or mind or attitude that Buddhist teachers are trying to describe is something different. Language always fails us. It is not an attitude that is condoning or approving of or acquiescing in some horror staring us in the face. The whole point of Buddhism is to help people heal from suffering.

By saying that we should “accept” the reality in front of our noses, what these teachers mean is that we should not do what we often do, which is to react against and resist reality by spinning off into habitual patterns of conditioned thinking, which creates a kind of story or theory about our life that takes the place of our actual life.

For example, I come home and find that my partner has left the house a mess. I spin off into my habitual thoughts: “Damn it. I asked him to clean up after the football game.   He always does this.   I’m sick of it. Just last week, he left the mess downstairs after the poker party.   Why can’t he clean up after himself? I always have to clean up. It’s just like it was with my last boyfriend. Men are such slobs . . .”

Or we fail at something at work.   We go home and hit the gin-and-tonics or the ice cream. Running away into pleasurable sensation. Someone at work says something insensitive, and we spin off into what a horrible person he is, how “people like him” are insensitive, etc. How our job is crap, etc.

When Buddhist teachers talk about “acceptance,” what they really are trying to counsel us to do is to stay with our experience as it is and not to spin off into these habitual patterns and mental reactions.   These patterns end up becoming a supposed reality we act out of but which may have little to do with the actual problem at hand. We are then acting out of a story in our heads, rather than acting out of the real situation that is before us. Often those stories were created when we were children. We are still acting out of them.

Rather than the word, “acceptance,” I think we could say that we need to “meet experience with clear seeing and an open heart.”  Not condoning, but not running away, either.

The state of mind we are talking about is one that is open, free of automatic judgments, positive or negative. We meet the world with an open heart rather than with our clichéd stories.

So, what about the sparrows? How does one deal with that?   One can spin off into judgments and theories:   “It’s just nature.” “It’s the natural cycle of life.” “These things happen all the time.” “Animals don’t feel pain the way we do.” “The chicks will go on to another life.” “There’s a greater good behind this.” “The world is filled with suffering.” “The world is not fair.” “Life sucks.” “How could a loving God allow this to happen.” “There is no God.” “Life is hell.” Etc.

We use such theories as defenses against the simple sorrow that we feel. The sadness we feel before tragedy. I find it endlessly amazing how were are afraid of our own feelings. Judgments and conclusions, even the negative ones, pull us away from experience and into our heads, where we think we are safer.

Of course judgments and conclusions are necessary in many areas of our life.  If we see an accident happen, we can see how it happened and learn from it.   But the point here is that often these automatic patterns  keep us from relating to what is actually in front of us.

So, it’s not that a Buddhist would “accept” the death of these birds in the sense of condoning or approving of it, but rather that he or she will not turn away from it or from the sorrow that comes up and run for  the safety of a judgment or conclusion that will deaden the felt experience.

The first morning after the birds fell and I rearranged them in their nest, I went downstairs and told Jennifer and the boys I how sad I felt about them. I cried with them about the birds.   I cry easily.   Don’t worry, being a Buddhist doesn’t mean crying all the time. That’s just me.  But I do believe that crying is a natural healing response and release of our sorrow. It is a spiritual practice. I highly recommend it, especially for men.

Pema Chodron says the heart of the spiritual path is this: We find ourselves pushed to the edge, and we soften.”

Can we stay present with what is, with the reality before us, even the feelings that arise within us, without spinning off into a mental trance?   And if we stay with the present with clear seeing and an open heart, we do not become apathetic, but have a chance to act from a deeper place of intuitive wisdom and compassion than that which our ready-made opinions and judgments and reactive stories give us. With an open heart, action becomes spontaneous and compassionate, rather than pre-packaged and often inappropriate.

I don’t know that leaving the birds in the hope that the parents would be able to feed them was the “best” choice.   But it seemed the most compassionate thing at the time. There is no right and wrong in situations like this. We act with our greatest, deepest compassion. We all do the best we can.

On the second morning, I cleaned up the mess before starting my meditation.   I was glad that it was over.  I lay the birds in a little box and wrapped them in a cloth.

That morning my meditation was filled with thoughts and feelings about the sparrows. When I opened my eyes a bird perched on the arbor. A red sunbird, my favorite bird of India. I’d only ever seen one or two of them, half-hidden in trees, in the distance, fluttering away.   But here was one perched not fifteen feet from me in the clear morning sunlight with nothing between us!  I felt inexpressible joy.

William Blake said, “Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.”

I believe that our emotional life is of a piece.  To the extent that we are willing to feel sorrow and pain and not bury it or compartmentalize it or run away from it, to that extent we open our capacity for joy.

Was the sunbird a miracle appearing here at the end of this little avian family tragedy? Was it a message from the universe? Of course, it was. As Whitman said, every moment of our lives is a miracle and a message from the universe.

But such moments are not well translatable into words. Was the red sunbird some symbol of reassurance?   A symbol of hope? A symbol of a truth or purpose that we can only intuit? Some totality that somehow incorporates and transforms suffering?   Perhaps Nietzsche is right. The world can be justified by its beauty.

But now we are spinning off into interpretations, conclusions.

“Just stay with the sunbird,” I said myself.  Drink in this scarlet color. Rejoice and be grateful for its sunlit presence. Feel the joy just as you cried for the sparrows.   Give thanks for the curved beak and quick darting head. For its wet black eyes. Let it in, to work its wordless, healing power. Just stay present.  Just stay, stay, stay.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Monsoon Is Coming!

The monsoon is coming.

Every morning at 4:30 or 5:00 I sit on our balcony terrace, on a broad concrete bench in front of the cottage windows, facing east, facing the Himalayas to meditate.   The birds are already awake in pre-dawn darkness: singing, crying, whistling, calling, trilling. The air is cool and inviting.

I light a stick of incense and place it between two rocks and close my eyes.   My journal and books and two cups of tea steep beside me. My morning ritual, morning retreat and sanctuary, my daily nourishment and favorite part of the day.

After I finish meditating, I open my eyes and look at the mountains and the sky. Usually, towering clouds are coming toward me, from the Himalayas.  It’s said that tall mountains create their own weather.

Having grown up in the American South, I miss thunderstorms.   We don’t have many in Logan, Utah.  But here, we have whole festivals of them!   Afternoon storms and night storms and morning storms whose thunder shakes the ground and the house.   On one night I wrote of earlier, the lightning and thunder burst simultaneously just outside our window, going off like a canon!  Being up in the clouds much of the time, this theater of wonder plays right beside us.

Indra,the thunder god, Zeus-like, of the ancient Indian pantheon, rules the sky and war and storms.   As Greece and India share the same Indo-European language family, they also share similarities in mythology. Indra has been generous with his storms while we have been here, his high snowy peaks unleashing juggernaut clouds of rain and fire.

I put my incense stick on my left since the air is always moving from the Himalayas down towards us, and I can catch a whiff of it now and then while I sit.   But this morning it wasn’t working. I opened my eyes and saw a different sky. Instead of huge, towering clouds sailing out into the blue from the high peaks, ships with white sails full of the morning, today the whole sky is a dull, white-and-gray wool laid over us in all directions, blocking the view of the mountains, and moving slowly, inexorably from the south.

It’s starting to sprinkle.

This is not rain from the Himalayas. This is rain from the plains, the coming of the monsoon from the south. A giant weather season that will cover the sub-continent for months, with flash floods, surging rivers, mudslides, streets of water, muddy sidewalks.   And the barren, cracked, parched, brown landscape will burst into green everywhere.   Waterfalls everywhere!   Rain! Rain! Rain!  Goodbye, Himalayan thunderstorms!  Now, surrender to the Asian monsoon!

Our Kellen Almost Gets Hit by a Taxi. His foot is run over.

It’s been a while since I posted a story about our trip. I got sick after coming back to Dharamsala after our trip to Rishikesh.   I’ve started a lighthearted post on the subject of getting sick in India. But I don’t feel like being lighthearted today.  Our little Kellen almost got hit by a taxi and his foot got run over.   We feared his ankle was broken.

It happened in lower Dharamsala.   (We live in Upper Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj.) We had decided to walk the mile or so down the steep winding road to Dharamsala proper to visit a tiny mall that has a Coffee Day—a Westernized coffee shop—and a Domino’s Pizza, believe it or not. We planned to have coffee and a treat and get a pizza to take home in a taxi for dinner. We don’t usually like patronizing Domino’s, for political reasons, but we were making an exception.

It was a beautiful walk down the hill with views of the Bhagsu River canyon as it widens and opens out into the hills and plains below.

The “mall” was tinier than I had expected.   Jennifer had been there once before. It had a modern looking façade and interior, but only two businesses seemed to be operating, the Coffee Day and Domino’s.   After we had our treats and got our pizza, we walked down to a little three-way intersection, where the main road, our road home, goes up very steeply.   We waited beside of the narrow road and hailed a taxi coming down the road.

He pulled over to the right and stopped across from us.   It’s a very busy intersection. When the road was more or less clear, we crossed over and stood on the side of the road beside him, while I negotiated the price.   Following British custom, the steering wheel is on the right and the cars drive on the left.   The road is extremely steep there. After we settled on a price, Jennifer and Aidan and Kellen started getting into the back seat, and I went around into the traffic to get in on the passenger side.

I opened the passenger door and was about to get in when the taxi started rolling forward.   I jumped back about to yell at the driver, when Jennifer screamed, “The Taxi’s on Kellen’s foot!” Kellen let out a piercing scream. Jennifer was yelling for the driver to back up off of his foot.

I dropped or threw my backpack somewhere, maybe in the road, and raced around to see about Kellen.   Jennifer flew over Aidan who was sitting beside her to get out the door.   Aidan doesn’t think she even touched him. I ran to Kellen and picked him up.

“Are you okay? Which foot is it?”

“This one,” he said, pointing to his left.

Jennifer and Aidan were now in front of him. Aidan was trying to take off his shoe.

“Wait!” I said, “We have to see how bad it’s hurt first.”

A crowd had gathered.   Hands were reaching in to hold or touch and check his ankle and foot. I didn’t want random people doing amateur diagnoses and possibly injure him further.

“Jennifer, take his left ankle in your hand,” I said, “and hold it.”

Kellen didn’t seem too bad.

“Can you move your foot?” we asked.

He could.

“I’m okay. I’m okay,” he said.

We took off his shoe and sock.   The first couple layers of skin on the back and side of his ankle were badly scraped away.   But there was no blood.

“Can you feel this? Can you feel your toes?”

“Yes.”

He seemed more or less okay.

I saw the driver.

“What the hell were you doing?!” I yelled.

When I looked up, I saw a hundred people had surrounded us.

In that moment I flashed on a scene from the book I just read, Shantaram. The narrator and his Indian friend and guide, Prabaker, were in an accident in a taxi in Mumbai.   The accident was their own driver’s fault, and a woman in the car ahead of them had been either seriously injured or killed.  Prabaker said they needed to get out of the taxi and get away, anticipating trouble. They did. When they looked back, they could see that the injured husband of the dead woman had gotten out of his car and was standing there, beside himself with grief and agony and rage, and started smearing himself with his wife’s blood and yelling and screaming.   A crowd had gathered around them and became inflamed.   In a moment of mass hysteria they began pulling the driver of the narrator’s taxi out of his vehicle. They started beating him. They put him on top of his taxi and were pummeling him, tearing his clothes, bloodying his face, beating him to death.   The last the narrator saw, the crowd was carrying him towards the police station.  Prabaker said he might or might not survive.

The rage of such crowd is incomprehensible, and in some ways comprehensible.   The traffic in India, in any kind of town or city, is perilous. The drivers maintain such a tiny margin or error between their vehicle and those around them. As a Westerner, when I ride in a taxi or tuk-tuk, if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch any vehicle that we passed or that passed us. Literally inches separate you from the next vehicle.   The metal of an automobile has no mercy when it meets a human body.

In addition, in these streets and intersections, everyone is hot (at least most, who do not have air conditioning.) Everyone’s breathing exhaust and fumes, hearing blaring horns constantly, driving too fast, having—what seems to a Westerner to be—fatal close calls every couple of minutes or so. Yet, the drivers maintain a sense of outward calm, but which might also cover a suppressed state of tension.   The passengers on the street are having no better a time. They are trying to cross the lanes without getting run over.

So, on one hand, if we all agree that this is the way we are going to drive, then how can a crowd inflict murderous judgment upon a driver who happens to slip beyond that tiny margin of error and cause an accident?   I am shocked that more accidents are not happening all the time. On the other hand, such a mass hysterical reaction by a crowd suggests that everyone really may be suffering from a reservoir of pent-up tension, a tension that got unleashed in that scene in Shantaram. And the narrator’s friend’s fear of it suggests that it may not be all that uncommon.

But today I looked up into a hundred eyes of concern around us.   Everyone wanted to help.   After we had checked Kellen out, I handed him to Jennifer.   A man walked up and gave me my backpack.   He or someone else could easily have walked off with it.

I wasn’t sure it we should get back into the taxi and have it take us home. Jennifer decided that we would walk. She took Kellen in her arms and started up the road. I watched her walking up that steep hill, Kellen not that much smaller than her, his arms and legs wrapped around her. I saw a vision of the fearless, powerful, protective care of a mother. I couldn’t help thinking of the mother monkeys we see every day with babies clinging to them. Aidan and I followed.

Now, two hours later we’re home, and Kellen feels fine, he says. He just ran around the room to prove it. We checked out his bones carefully.

“Kellen, you’re like our kitty Este used to be.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she was scared and got upset about every little thing, sort of how you do sometimes. But when the chips were down, she was the fighter.   If a strange dog came into our yard, the other cats would run and hide, but Este would stand there with her back up, hissing, until the dog backed down.”

“Remember when we turned our canoe over on the river and had to swim to shore? We got out onto the bank and watched our canoe and gear go down the river. You were six. You were the first one to say anything.”

You said, “The important thing is that we all survived.”

This morning, I was hiking up to the trail to circumambulate the Dalai Lama’s temple and do my prostrations and was feeling a little despondent.   I’d not been up to the temple in a while.   First we’d gone to Rishikesh and then I’d gotten sick.   In ten days, we’d be leaving Dharamsala.   While it’s been an amazing, life-changing time here, I felt disappointed that I hadn’t developed a closer connection to the temple.   We’d gotten to see the Dalai Lama and I’d taken a class on Buddhism from an amazing Geshe—nun and teacher—but I didn’t have any ongoing relationships with anyone there. Perhaps I was just missing my own sangha in Logan.

As I walked up the trail, I thought of what my friend Jaguri (Jake) of Logan often says about gratitude. Jake is not a stranger to suffering, though he’s only in his early twenties.   He often says, in this moment we can be grateful we don’t have a headache.   When we have a terrible headache, we think that if we could just get rid of it, we’d be fine. When we are undergoing it, or a toothache or a broken collar-bone, or stomach bug, we think that if we could be free of it, all would be well. Yet, every day, we are free of so many kinds of suffering.   Wow, today, I haven’t had a headache, a toothache, a broken ankle, a car accident.

I felt lucky to be over my sickness, to be able to hike up to the temple. The family was in India and everyone safe and well. It was a beautiful morning.   An old Tibetan woman I passed gave me a beautiful, warm smile.

And then the taxi ran over Kellen’s foot. My friend Ben Gunsberg jokes about how many bullets we dodge everyday. A popular song says, “we’re all just a phone call from our knees.”

Kellen dodged a bullet today.  Today, that’s all that matters.

How A Billion People Get Along In India

India is about one-third the size of the United States, yet it has one-fifth of the world’s population—over a billion people.   How in the world are so many able to live in this geographical space?

Here is the answer of a French character, Didier, in a wonderful autobiographical novel, Shantaram, that I am reading, by Gregory David Roberts, the best thing I’ve ever read about a Westerner coming to India.

Here, Roberts has befriended an Indian city guide in Mumbai, and the guide, Prabaker, has invited Roberts to come with him to his village.   What follows here is quoted from the book:

Didier raised his eyebrows in theatrical surprise.

‘For how long?’

‘I don’t know. A couple of months, I think. Maybe more.’

‘Ah, then it is so,” he concluded. ‘Your little friend is beginning to love you.’

‘I think that’s putting it a bit strong,” I objected, frowning.

‘No, no, you do not understand. You must be careful, here, with the real affection of those you meet. This is not like any other place. This is India. Everyone who comes here falls in love—most of us fall in love many times over. And the Indians, they love most of all. Your little friend may be beginning to love you. There is nothing strange in this. I say it from a long experience of this country, and especially of this city. It happens often, and easily, for the Indians. That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another.’

He paused to light a cigarette, and then waved it like a little flagpole until the waiter noticed him and nodded to his request for another glass of vodka.

‘India is about six times the size of France,’ he went on, as the glass of alcohol and a bowl of curried snacks arrived at our table. ‘But it has almost twenty times the population. Twenty times!   Believe me, if there were a billion Frenchmen living in such a crowded space, there would be rivers of blood. Rivers of blood! And as everyone knows, we French are the most civilized people in Europe. Indeed, in the whole world. No, no, without love, India would be impossible.’

How To Do Business In India

I have just discovered the best book I have ever read about a Westerner coming to India (not that I’m a scholar of the genre): Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, an autobiographical novel about the narrator’s escape from a prison and landing in Mumbai on a false passport.   Like me, he immediately feels that India is home.

In the first chapter, on the way to town from the airport, he hooks up with two Canadians, who have been to India many times, and he shares a hotel room with them.   The Canadians are staying for the night and then going on to Osho’s ashram in Pune.   When the narrator returns from getting dinner and the three of them are in their beds, one of the Canadians has this to say about their arrangements for their hotel room, about how to do business in India.

“’We could’a beat him down, you know,’ the tall Canadian said from his dark corner on the far side of the room, his sudden voice in the whirring silence sounding like stones thrown on a metal roof. ‘We could’a beat that manager down on the price of this room. It’s costin’ us six bucks for the day. We could’a beat him down to four.   It’s not a lotta money, but it’s the way they do things here. You gotta beat these guys down, and barter for everything. We’re leaven’ tomorrow for Delhi, but you’re stayin’ here. We talked about it before, when you were out, and we’re kinda worried about you. You gotta beat ‘em down, man. If you don’t learn that, if you don’t start thinking’ like that, they’re gonna fuck you over, these people.   The Indians in the cities are real mercenary, man. It’s a great country, don’t get me wrong. That’s why we come back here. But they’re different than us. They’re . . . hell, they just expect it, that’s all. You gotta beat ‘em down.’

“He was right about the price of the room, of course. We could’ve saved a dollar or two per day. And haggling is the economical thing to do. Most of the time, it’s the shrewd and amiable way to conduct your business in India.

“But he was wrong, too. The manager, Anand, and I became good friends, in the years that followed. The fact that I trusted him on sight and didn’t haggle, on that first day, that I didn’t try to make a buck out of him, that I worked on an instinct that respected him and was prepared to like him, endeared me to him. He told me so, more than once. He knew, as we did, that six of our dollars wasn’t an extravagant price for three foreign men to pay. The owners of the hotel received four dollars per day per room. That was their base line. The dollar or two above that minimum was all Anand and his staff of three room boys shared as their daily wage. The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists cost Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.

“The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There’s nowhere else in the world where that’s quite so true.

“I didn’t’ know that then, as I closed my eyes in the dark and breathing silence on that first night in Bombay. I was running on instinct, and pushing my luck. I didn’t know that I’d already given my heart to the woman, and the city. And knowing none of it, I fell, before the smile faded from my lips, into a dreamless, gentle sleep.”

We Take Horses Into the Himalayas

 

morris and cynde

Yesterday morning Jennifer’s parents, Morris and Cynde, departed for Delhi and then to the U. S. of A.   We had a great two weeks with them.   One day we went to 5,000-year-old Fort Kangra, a fort that Alexander the Great made it to, which once again suggests that there must have been much cross-fertilization of ideas between East and West three centuries before the time of Jesus.   Another day we hiked down to the Bhagsu River, and on another to our favorite little town, Dharamkhot for lunch. We visited the Dalai Lama’s temple and saw the Dalai Lama, himself. We had great days at home playing hearts and chess and crosswords and one day Morris and Cynde watched the boys while Jennifer and I had an afternoon date in town.   The two of us had coffee at the Moon Peak café, visited a bookstore and several Tibetan shops, walked around town, and had dessert and coffee at Nick’s.

But our favorite outing (other than seeing the Dalai Lama, of course) was taking horses into the high Himalayas. We had planned a trek of eight-hours, climbing to “Triund,” which as best as we could tell was a town up in the mountains, a climb of some 5,000 feet in four hours, a steep rise to over ten thousand feet.

 

view from cottageEvery morning, I’ve been doing my morning meditations on the terrace of the cottage, looking up at the mountains. High in the distance, a green pass, a yoke or saddle, dips down between two higher green ridges. Beyond that yoke, rises the great Himalayan peak, Hanumanji Ka Tiba, or “white mountain,” a snowy cone, shimmering and usually cloud shrouded.  Hanuman, the Lord of the Monkey armies in the epic, The Ramayana, rested there on his way back to the battles of southern India, after he came north to fetch a sacred herb needed to heal the hero Ram’s younger brother who had been wounded in battle. Sometimes, it seems you can feel the cold air pouring down from the mountain’s glaciers to cool McLeod Ganj far below.

It wasn’t until we were on our way up the mountain on our horses that I learned that that high green pass was Triund.

I was excited about the day, because our boys love animals so much and I hoped they would love the ride. Aidan, Kellen, and I are basically crazy about animals. Jennifer likes them pretty well. In Dharamsala, the boys have adopted one of the neighborhood dogs, a sweet, black-and-brown one with thick fur they’ve named “Woof-woof.”   Two others they’ve named “Bark-bark” and “Ruff-ruff.”   Woof-woof has taken a special liking to us. Almost every afternoon she comes to our back door and whines, and while we don’t let her in, the boys and I go out to rub her tummy. She spends her afternoons sleeping at the top landing of the outdoor steps that lead to the second floor of our cottage.   (Why you have to go outside to reach the steps to the second floor has been a subject of much speculation in our cottage, especially on rainy nights.)

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The morning of the ride arrived, and we gathered at the dirt road that rises steeply out of town up into the forested mountains. We were led to our horses by a small, wiry rugged, middle-aged man who looked like someone who had spent his life around mountain horses. I liked him immediately.   He could have been a Spaniard, a Basque. We found the horses in a little grassy area off the road.   There were a couple young guys there, who said they’d be accompanying us. We had heard that guides would be leading the boys’ horses.   This was good to hear, as there were no helmets lying anywhere around.

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Morris and I were concerned that the horses seemed pretty small. Morris called them “mountain ponies.”   The guides assured us that they were big enough for us.   So, we mounted up. Aidan and Kellen both got the horses they wanted, Kellen a white one and Aidan a larger brown one.   I got a white one, and Jennifer a very pretty gray one speckled with white. They all had bells around their necks.

Once on the trail, I asked our guides their names.   Kellen had “Nehlu,” which means “Blue.” Aidan, “Sairu,” which is also the real name of our friend, “Bark-bark.”   My horse was “Valdo,” which means “Cloud.”   I liked my guide, Vikal, a twenty-year old guy with frizzy hair and an easy smile, who carried on a conversation with Cloud the entire ride, sometimes in English:

“You’re a good horse. Strong horse! Good! Let’s go! Up! Up!”

Aidan and Kellen thought the guys were too rough on the horses. They yelled, “Loh!” frequently, which must have meant, “Let’s go!”   They carried small switches that they used on the horses rumps.   Not very hard I thought, but the boys didn’t like it. Aidan said one of them kicked one of the horses. The boys felt the same way about a shepherd we had seen one day “coaxing” his goats up the hills above Dharamkhot.

I never got over feeling that my horse was too small for me, so I hiked essentially all the way up the mountain. I loved walking beside my Cloud, holding her reins, talking to her. It felt more intimate than being on her back.   Of course I smiled at the irony of paying many rupees to hike up the mountain beside my horse.

Aidan and Kellen rode well, but still I worried. An eight-hour ride would be more than anything they had done before. We climbed through deodar cedars, sacred to the Hindu god, Shiva.   It was refreshing to be in the mountain forest, above of the noise, traffic, crowds, litter, and fumes of the crazy town.

IMG_1879 IMG_1880 IMG_1873After an hour or so, we came to a pass where the road ended and our first rest-stop, tea-stall canteen awaited us, a little shack, named, “Rest-A-While,” which Aidan got a photo of. We had snacks and water and a rest, and the horses had water and sampled the leafy things around, especially the mint.

From the tea stall, the trial really headed up into the mountains, becoming rockier, steeper, narrow. I wasn’t going to ride sweet Cloud now. We rounded rocky ledges where the ground fell away into bright green emptinesses below. The guides walked on the outside of the trail as the horses went around them. The mountain flanks were covered with laurel and rhododendron. The day was becoming clearer, the sky bluer, the mountains taking on an almost fluorescent green.

In a few flat places that traversed across ridges, I rode for a while, but got off again when the rock of the trail became stacked in high gray steps or the horses hooves started to slide off the rock into clefts and holes.

IMG_1889 IMG_1883 IMG_1885 IMG_1886After two hours, we reached a second tea stall, a well-deserved canteen, dramatically perched on the side of the cliff like a bird nest. My shirt was drenched in sweat. Two dogs lay about, which Aidan and Kellen immediately sat down with. The horses found a steep grassy area, and I enjoyed watching the young Westerners lounging about, dressed like hermits and yogis, shirtless Rastafarians, sadhus, wayfarers, castaways, gypsies, Bedouins, fakirs, and random homeless hippies. A few ultra-athletes stretched in tights and trail running shoes. Lots of languages going on.

We had a nice rest. I downed a bottle of water and bought another. Aidan and I munched mint leaves with the horses.   We passed around chocolate, almonds and raisins.  Morris shared stories with a young French woman who had somehow become part of our company, tales about being in Paris in 1968 in the middle of, well, “Paris, 1968.”

But all rest stops have to end.   And not long on the trial everyone had to dismount when it became too rough.   Around one bend, we met a shepherd who our guide said was heading so Manali, a distant Himalayan town. His journey would take over a month.   As we rounded ridges, the slopes of the mountains became more and more vertical, lime green, with great slabs of gray rock cliff cut sheer by glaciers. The sky a brilliant lapis blue. Big white clouds floated by, not far above us.

All along the way, I worried about altitude sickness.   Fifteen year ago in Peru, we were hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, and I came down some kind of dysentery, we think, from our guides’ cooking and possibly mixed with some altitude sickness.   We had traversed 14,000 feet crossing the Andes. In our tent on the third night, the night before we would hike down to Macchu Picchu, I thought I was dying. I had a blinding headache, vertigo and a sense of the world closing in on me. I lay there and asked my beloved atheist, Jennifer, to pray for me. The next day, I made it down to Macchu Picchu, but while the rest of the company ecstatically explored the ruins, I slumped against a wall trying not to throw up or spin off the mountain in dizzy delirium. On this trail we’d only reach 10,000, the same elevation as mountains back home, but still I worried.

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Near the end of hour four, we could see above us the top of the ridge, Triund.   When we made the crest, I had the feeling I have hiking in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.   You hike all day under the towering forests, your range of vision close and focused on details of the trail. Then, at last you come out onto a summit where in one exhilarating moment the landscape flies out in all directions to far-off horizons and an endless sky.   Triund lay before us, an early summer alpine meadow, wet and green with rills and ponds, soft like a blanket thrown over the saddle of the ridge.   Straight ahead the meadow rolled away and down—down, down, down—into a deep valley where a river roared and out of which Hanuman Ka Tiba, the White Mountain I see when I open my eyes every morning from meditation, stood before us. It seemed to shoot up out of the valley into its cloud-shrouded cone of rock and snow, and my mind shot up with it. I felt I understood the origin of the architecture of all the shrines and churches and temples of the world.

Triund was not a town. It was a crossroads in a green paradise with a canteen for the weary.   We bought water and chips and cookies and chocolate to eat with our lunch of cheese and bread, apples and carrots. Tents were scattered about, goats, and horses roamed. With their saddles off, our own horses lay down and rubbed their backs in the cool grass, crazy legs pawing at the sky. I thought, how fun it would be to camp here.

DSCN2197 DSCN2201 DSCN2205 IMG_1924We located a secluded spot and settled down for lunch, when Aidan stood up with wide eyes. “Look!” Over the top of the hill a chestnut colt came tearing down across the meadow chased by a great black mare. They were coming right at us.  At the last minute they veered off, galloping up and across the green, the mare blowing and snorting in anger or joy, I couldn’t tell which. But I remembered the feeling of chasing our runaway two-year-olds down sidewalks and through airports with a sort of desperate rage and joy that corresponded well with that mare’s loud snorts. I wish I had gotten them on video!

After lunch, Jennifer, Aidan and Kellen went exploring. They came back and said there was a shepherd over the hill shearing his sheep.   We went over and found an old man with a colorful round hat above a little stone house sitting with a sheep in his lap, its four hooves tied together, the man shearing away with some kind of primitive scissors.   We watched him a long while. The boys wanted to see the sheep after it was completely shaved.

For two hours, we lingered at the pass, Jennifer lying in the sun, her favorite activity, especially after a long hike to a mountain top.

On the way down, I walked again, worried about my weight on Cloud downhill over rocky terrain. The guides said we all needed to walk the first mile. As we came around a vertical ridge and down into a deep cleft, we found ourselves face to face with the shepherd on his way to Manali and all his goats and sheep, easily a hundred, right on the trail.   It was a tight corner of the mountain. After a moment’s hesitation, I told Aidan and Kellen we could walk right into them and they would part like a river.   We plunged in but stopped when we saw the babies.   Our boys are crazy about baby animals.

One came walking up, so tiny and furry and white that Aidan just had to pick it up and hold it. He held it and Kellen petted it. I’d used up my camera batteries taking videos on the meadow, but Morris got a shot of him holding the lamb.Aidan sheep

Once we reached decent trail, Aidan, Kellen, and Jennifer rode their horses. At the second canteen, Kellen decided to walk with me, and we walked the last two hours together.   We passed areas where the mountain laurel covered the trail like a tunnel.   Kellen talked non-stop about whether books or movies of books are better, about Minecraft, about the guinea pig that he wants to get. He’s read books about caring for them. He knows everything about them. Their favorite foods are fresh vegetables, but some, like St. John’s Wort, are poisonous to them. Jennifer, after years of saying we would NEVER get another animal—since our big nutty dog and two cats are already too much for us—has relented and said Aidan can get a kitten for his birthday when we return from India. Maybe she’ll let Kellen get a guinea pig. I’m all for it, of course.

Aidan and Kellen have told us that the thing they will miss most about India and the main reason they want to come back to our same cottage is Woof-woof. Once at Grand Island, Nebraska, three years ago, when they were 7 and 5, we visited their great-uncle Keith and his wife Jolene. The last morning before we left the next-door neighbor brought out kittens that her cat had just had.   Five little black ones and a couple of white-and-black ones.   We played with them on the grass, and our boys cried their hearts out when we had to leave, all the way down the highway, begging us to go back, even though they had only seen the kittens for half an hour. They may cry like that again when they say goodbye to Woof-woof.

At home, Aidan has a little beta fish, his first pet, named “Rainbow.” Betas are supposed to live one to two years. This fall it will be two years old.

Buddhism emphasizes the reality of “impermanence.” Everything is changing every day, every minute.   Nothing is permanent.   When we cling to fleeting things—and all things are fleeting—we suffer.   At first, it would seem that adopting the opposite response, the antidote of “non-attachment,” would be a kind of sterile alternative. To be non-attached would be uncaring or unfeeling. We would no longer love the people and things around us. We would stoically face their demise.

But true non-attachment moves in the opposite direction, toward a greater, deeper, vaster love. From the practice of meditation, it arises naturally, a love that does not cling, for it is not seeking for itself.   A shift occurs, and we find that we are starting to meet the world with a greater sense of caring, no longer focused on what we can get from the world, but on what we can give to it. Our love becomes selfless. We become non-attached because we become free of wanting or needing something from what we love.

And eventually we discover that that love, itself, is our refuge. Our only refuge. All else passes. In what Buddhists call Bodhichitta—“the awakened heart”—or Christians call “the peace that passeth all understanding,” we enter into a love that holds and nourishes and informs all things. We discover that that love is in fact who we are. And that can never be lost.

As human beings we still grieve the loss of persons and things we love. We honor our feelings. We go through them, feeling them fully, sometimes crying our hearts out, as Aidan and Kellen did about those kittens. Practicing non-attachment does not mean denying feelings. But even in the midst of grieving, we have the sense that we rest in something indestructible, vast, and eternal. Like Hanuman Ka Tiba, the peak above Triund (though it too is impermanent).

Aidan holds the baby sheep. Then he has to put it down.

Kellen says he is ready for his first pet.

When the trek is over and we reach the grassy area where we began, I caress Cloud for the last time, and Kellen says goodbye to Blue.   Aidan tears up because he can’t say goodbye to Sairu.   At the last tea stall, Aidan mounted Jennifer’s gray, as Sairu’s owner was taking him home.   We told Aidan that it was a gift he gave to Sairu, letting him go home early.

On the way down the mountain, for a while Jennifer and I got to hike together, just the two of us. I thought, “How many trails we have hiked together.”  Our first in Glacier National Park, so many in Michigan where we were in school, and then in Utah, Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona, California, Peru, Ecuador, Italy, Spain, and now India.  What a journey we have had together.  And now we share it with our boys. We discovered coming down the trail that we had both had the thought that we would likely never see this trail again, never see Triund, or the black mare chasing its colt down the green meadow.   Every moment priceless, unique, fleeting, unforgettable.

 

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