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Why We Travel: A Love Affair with the World Print

 

Why We Travel: A Love Affair with the World

by 


Like falling in love, travel throws us into a state of delight, uncertainty and self-discovery. Like lovers, travelers both give and receive. Travelers, like lovers, go naked into the world.

 
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again-to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

The beauty of this whole process was perhaps best described, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, "The Philosophy of Travel." We "need sometimes," the Harvard philosopher wrote, "to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what."

I like that stress on work, since never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are to the difficulty that precedes them; and I like that stress on a holiday that's "moral," since we fall into our ethical habits as easily as into our beds at night. Few of us ever forget the connection between "travel" and "travail," and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship-both my own, which I want to feel, and others', which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us towards a better balance of wisdom and compassion-of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.
 
Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Beijing) or a scratchy revival showing of Wild Orchids (on the Champs-Elysees) can be both novelty and revelation: in China, after all, people will pay a whole week's wages to eat with Colonel Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis. If a Mongolian restaurant seems exotic to us in Evanston, Illinois, it only follows that a McDonald's would seem equally exotic in Ulan Bator-or, at least, equally far from everything expected. Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home and those who don't: among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home," while a traveler is one who grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo-or Cuzco, or Kathmandu." It's all very much the same.

But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head: if a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal. When you go to North Korea, for example, you really do feel as if you've landed on a different planet-and the North Koreans doubtless feel that they're being visited by an extra-terrestrial, too (or else they simply assume that you, as they do, receive orders every morning from the Central Committee on what clothes to wear and what route to use when walking to work, and you, as they do, have loudspeakers in your bedroom broadcasting propaganda every morning at dawn, and you, as they do, have your radios fixed so as to receive only a single channel).

We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow's headlines: when you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example, where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet and a "one world order" grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.

And, in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon-an anti-Federal Express, if you like-in transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I find that I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California; I invariably travel to Cuba with a suitcase piled high with bottles of Tylenol and bars of soap, and come back with one piled high with salsa tapes, and hopes, and letters to long-lost brothers. But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places, like Pagan or Lhasa or Havana, we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with the world outside and, very often, the closest, quite literally, they will ever come to Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import-and export-dreams with tenderness.

By now all of us have heard (too often) the old Proust line about how the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new places but in seeing with new eyes. Yet one of the subtler beauties of travel is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter. Thus even as holidays help you appreciate your own home more-not least by seeing it through a distant admirer's eyes-they help you bring newly appreciative-distant-eyes to the places you visit. You can teach them what they have to celebrate as much as you celebrate what they have to teach.

This, I think, is how tourism, which so obviously destroys cultures, can also resuscitate or revive them, how it has created new "traditional" dances in Bali, and caused craftsmen in India to pay new attention to their works. If the first thing we can bring the Cubans is a real and balanced sense of what contemporary America is like, the second-and perhaps more important-thing we can bring them is a fresh and renewed sense of how special are the warmth and beauty of their country, for those who can compare it with other places around the globe.

Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: it shows us the sights and values and issues that we ordinarily might ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we'd otherwise seldom have cause to visit: on the most basic level, when I'm in Thailand, though a teetotaler who usually goes to bed at 9:00 p.m. each night, I stay up till dawn in the local bars; and in Tibet, though not a real Buddhist, I spend days on end in temples, listening to the chants of sutras. I go to Iceland to visit the lunar spaces within me, and, in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally obscured by chatter and routine.

We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity-and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are, as Hazlitt puts it, just the "gentleman in the parlor," and people cannot put a name or tag to us. And precisely because we are clarified in this way, and freed of unessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).

Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation. We even may become mysterious-to others, at first, and sometimes to ourselves-and, as no less a dignitary than Oliver Cromwell once noted, "A man never goes so far as when he does not know where he is going."

There are, of course, great dangers to this, as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more open kind of self. Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year-or at least 45 hours-and traveling is an easy way of surrounding ourselves, as in childhood, with what we cannot understand. Language facilitates this cracking open, for when we go to France, we often migrate to French, and the more child-like self, simple and polite, that speaking a foreign language educes. Even when I'm speaking pidgin English in Hanoi, I'm simplified in a positive way, and concerned not with expressing myself, but simply making sense.

So travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self. I tend to believe more abroad than I do at home (which, though treacherous again, can at least help me to extend my vision), and I tend to be more easily excited abroad, and even kinder. And since no one I meet can "place" me-no one can fix me in my resumé-I can remake myself for better, as well as, of course, for worse (if travel is notoriously a cradle for false identities, it can also, at its best, be a crucible for truer ones). In this way, travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: on the road, we often live more simply (even when staying in a luxury hotel), with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.

This is what Camus meant when he said that "what gives value to travel is fear"-disruption, in other words (or emancipation), from circumstance and all the habits behind which we hide. And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions. I, like many people, tend to ask questions of the places I visit, and relish most the ones that ask the most searching questions back of me: in Paraguay, for example, where one car in every two is stolen, and two thirds of the goods on sale are smuggled, I have to rethink my every Californian assumption. And in Thailand, where many young women give up their bodies in order to protect their families-to become better Buddhists-I have to question my own too-ready judgments. "The ideal travel book," Christopher Isherwood once said, "should be perhaps a little like a crime story in which you're in search of something." And it's the best kind of something, I would add, if it's one that you can never quite find.

I remember, in fact, after my first trips to Southeast Asia more than a decade ago, how I would come back to my apartment in New York City and lie in my bed, kept up by something more than jet-lag, playing back in my memory, over and over, all that I had experienced, and paging wistfully through my photographs and reading and re-reading my diaries, as if to extract some mystery from them. Anyone witnessing this strange scene would have drawn the right conclusion: I was in love.

For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can't quite speak the language, and you don't know where you're going, and you're pulled ever deeper into an inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in with. All the great travel books are love stories, by some reckoning-from the Odyssey and the Aeneid to the Divine Comedy and the New Testament-and all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.

And what this metaphor also brings home to us is that all travel is a two-way transaction, as we too easily forget, and if warfare is one model of the meeting of nations, romance is another. For what we all too often ignore when we go abroad is that we are objects of scrutiny as much as the people we scrutinize, and we are being consumed by the cultures we consume, as much on the road as when we are at home. At the very least, we are objects of speculation (and even desire) who can seem as exotic to the people around us as they do to us.

We are the comic props in Japanese home-movies, the oddities in Maliese anecdotes and the fall-guys in Chinese jokes; we are the moving postcards or bizarre objets trouvés that villagers in Peru will later tell their friends about. If travel is about the meeting of realities, it is no less about the mating of illusions: you give me my dreamed-of vision of Tibet, and I'll give you your wished-for California. And in truth, many of us, even (or especially) the ones who are fleeing America abroad, will get taken, willy-nilly, as symbols of the American Dream. That, in fact, is perhaps the most central and most wrenching of the questions travel proposes to us: how to respond to the dreams that people tender to you? Do you encourage their notions of a Land of Milk and Honey across the horizon, even if it is the same land you've abandoned? Or do you try to dampen their enthusiasm for a place that exists only in the mind? To quicken their dreams may, after all, be to matchmake them with an illusion; yet to dash them may be to strip them of the one possession that sustains them in adversity.

That whole complex interaction-not unlike the dilemmas we face with those we love (how do we balance truthfulness and tact?)-is partly the reason why so many of the great travel writers, by nature, are enthusiasts: not just Pierre Loti, who famously, infamously, fell in love wherever he alighted (an archetypal sailor leaving offspring in the form of Madame Butterfly myths), but also Henry Miller, or D.H. Lawrence, or Graham Greene, all of whom bore out the hidden truth that we are optimists abroad as readily as pessimists at home. None of them was by any means blind to the deficiencies of the places around them, but all, having chosen to go there, chose to find something to admire.

All, in that sense, believed in "being moved" as one of the points of taking trips, and "being transported" by private as well as public means; all saw that "ecstasy" ("ex-stasis") tells us that our highest moments come when we're not stationary, and that epiphany can follow movement as much as it precipitates it. I remember once asking the great travel writer Norman Lewis if he'd ever be interested in writing on apartheid South Africa. He looked at me astonished. "To write well about a thing," he said, "I've got to like it!"

At the same time, as all this is intrinsic to travel, from Ovid to O'Rourke, travel itself is changing as the world does, and with it, the mandate of the travel writer. It's not enough to go to the ends of the earth these days (not least because the ends of the earth are often coming to you); and where a writer like Jan Morris could, a few years ago, achieve something miraculous simply by voyaging to all the great cities of the globe, now anyone with a Visa card can do that. So where Morris, in effect, was chronicling the last days of Empire, a younger travel writer is in a better position to chart the first days of a new Empire, post-national, global, mobile and yet as diligent as the Raj in transporting its props and its values around the world.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the British famously sent the Bible and Shakespeare and cricket round the world; now a more international kind of Empire is sending Madonna and the Simpsons and Brad Pitt. And the way in which each culture takes in this common pool of references tells you as much about them as their indigenous products might. Madonna in an Islamic country, after all, sounds radically different from Madonna in a Confucian one, and neither begins to mean the same as Madonna on East 14th Street. When you go to a McDonald's outlet in Kyoto, you will find Teriyaki McBurgers and Bacon Potato Pies. The placemats offer maps of the great temples of the city, and the posters all around broadcast the wonders of San Francisco. And-most crucial of all-the young people eating their Big Macs, with baseball caps worn backwards, and tight 501 jeans, are still utterly and inalienably Japanese in the way they move, they nod, they sip their Oolong Teas-and never to be mistaken for the patrons of a McDonald's outlet in Rio, or Morocco, or Managua. These days a whole new realm of exotica arises out of the way one culture colors and appropriates the products of another.

The other factor complicating and exciting all of this is people, who are, more and more, themselves as many-tongued and mongrel as cities like Sydney or Toronto or Hong Kong. I am, in many ways, an increasingly typical specimen, if only because I was born, as the son of Indian parents, in England, moved to America at seven and cannot really call myself an Indian, an American or an Englishman. I was, in short, a traveler at birth, for whom even a visit to the candy store was a trip through a foreign world where no one I saw quite matched my parents' inheritance, or my own. And though some of this is involuntary and tragic-the number of refugees in the world, which came to just 2.5 million in 1970, is now at least 27.4 million-it does involve, for some of us, the chance to be trans-national in a happier sense, able to adapt anywhere, used to being outsiders everywhere and forced to fashion our own rigorous sense of home. (And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere).

Besides, even those who don't move around the world find the world moving more and more around them. Walk just six blocks, in Queens or Berkeley, and you're traveling through several cultures in as many minutes; get into a cab outside the White House, and you're often in a piece of Addis Ababa. And technology, too, compounds this (sometimes deceptive) sense of availability, so that many people feel they can travel around the world without leaving the room-through cyberspace or CD-ROMs, videos and virtual travel. There are many challenges in this, of course, in what it says about essential notions of family and community and loyalty, and in the worry that air-conditioned, purely synthetic versions of places may replace the real thing-not to mention the fact that the world seems increasingly in flux, a moving target quicker than our notions of it. But there is, for the traveler at least, the sense that learning about home and learning about a foreign world can be one and the same thing.

All of us feel this from the cradle, and know, in some sense, that all the significant movement we ever take is internal. We travel when we see a movie, strike up a new friendship, get held up. Novels are often journeys as much as travel books are fictions; and though this has been true since at least as long ago as Sir John Mandeville's colorful fourteenth-century accounts of a Far East he'd never visited, it's an even more shadowy distinction now, as genre distinctions join other borders in collapsing. In Mary Morris' House Arrest, a thinly disguised account of Castro's Cuba, the novelist reiterates on the copyright page, "All dialogue is invented. Isabella, her family, the inhabitants and even la isla itself are creations of the author's imagination." On page 172, however, we read, "La isla, of course, does exist. Don't let anyone fool you about that. It just feels as if it doesn't. But it does." No wonder the travel writer narrator-a fictional construct (or not)?-confesses to devoting her travel magazine column to places that never existed. "Erewhon," after all, the undiscovered land in Samuel Butler's great travel novel, is just "nowhere" rearranged.

Travel, then, is a voyage into that famously subjective zone, the imagination, and what the traveler brings back is-and has to be-an ineffable compound of himself and the place, what's really there and what's only in him. Thus Bruce Chatwin's books seem to dance around the distinction between fact and fancy. V.S. Naipaul's last book, A Way in the World, was published as a non-fictional "series" in England, and a "novel" over here. And when some of the stories in Paul Theroux's half-invented memoir, My Other Life, were published in The New Yorker, they were slyly categorized as "Fact and Fiction."
 
And since travel is, in a sense, about the conspiracy of perception and imagination, the two great travel writers, for me, to whom I constantly return, are Emerson and Thoreau (the one who famously advised that "Traveling is a fool's paradise," and the other who "traveled a good deal in Concord"). Both of them insist on the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, "We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is Africa and her prodigies in us." So, if more and more of us have to carry our sense of home inside us, we also-Emerson and Thoreau remind us-have to carry with us our sense of destination. The most valuable Pacifics we explore will always be the vast expanses within us, and the most important Northwest Crossings the thresholds we cross in the heart. The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Center.

And even as the world seems to grow more exhausted, our travels do not, and some of the finest travel books in recent years have been those that undertake a parallel journey, matching the physical steps of a pilgrimage with the metaphysical steps of a questioning (as in Peter Matthiessen's great Snow Leopard), or chronicling a trip to the farthest reaches of human strangeness (as in Oliver Sacks's Island of the Colour-Blind, which features a journey not just to a remote atoll in the Pacific, but to a realm where people actually see light differently). The most distant shores, we are constantly reminded, lie within the person asleep at our side.

So travel, at heart, is just a quick way of keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau, wrote, "There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor." Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love-affairs, never really end.


Originally published in the March 1999 issue of the Shambhala Sun.


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The White Darkness Print

Shambhala Sun | March 1999

The White Darkness

 


 

 




 
"Never have I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of Vodoun possession".
-Wade Davis on the rites of rural Haiti


Haiti is saturated with cliche-the poverty, the tortured landscape, the spate of abominable political leaders, consistent it seems only in their personal greed and disregard for their people. But find a quiet place somewhere-perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a sacred mapou tree, or on a hotel verandah at dawn, when, from sheer exhaustion or moved by the splendor of the city basking in such soft light, you can forget all that you have heard about this turbulent country. Breathe deeply and listen to the rhythm of the land, and you will hear voices speaking of another Haiti, one whose beauty and magic make it unique in all the Americas.
   The challenge of travel is to find a way to isolate and understand the germ of a people, to measure and absorb the spirit of place. In Haiti one begins in Port-au-Prince. The capital lies prostrate across a low, hot tropical plain at the head of a bay flanked on both sides by soaring mountains. Behind these mountains rise others, creating an illusion of space that absorbs Haiti's multitudes and softens the country's harshest statistic: a land mass of only 10,000 square miles inhabited by over seven million people, making it one of the most densely populated nations on Earth.
   Port-au-Prince is a sprawling muddle of a city, on first encounter a carnival of civic chaos. A waterfront shantytown damp with laundry. Half finished public monuments. Streets lined with flamboyant trees and redolent with the stench of fish and sweat, excrement and ash. Dazzling government buildings and a presidential palace so white that it doesn't seem real. There are the cries of the marketplace, the din of untuned engines, the reek of diesel fumes. It presents all the squalor and all the graces of any Caribbean capital.
   Yet as you drive through the city for the first time, down by the docks perhaps, where the shanties face the gleaming cruise ships and men with legs like anvils haul carts loaded with bloody hides, notice something else. The people on the street don't walk; they flow, exuding pride. Physically, they are beautiful. They seem gay, jaunty, carefree. Washed clean by the afternoon rain, the entire city has a rakish charm. But there is more. In a land of material scarcity, the people adorn their lives with their imagination: discarded Coke cans become suitcases or trumpets, rubber tires are turned into shoes, buses transformed into kaleidoscopic tap-taps, moving exhibits of vibrant, naive art. And it isn't just how things appear; it is something in the air, something electric-a raw, elemental energy not to be found elsewhere in the Americas. What you have found is the lens of Africa focused upon the New World.

Today, evidence of its African heritage is everywhere in rural Haiti. In the fields, long lines of men wield hoes to the rhythm of small drums; just beyond them sit steaming pots of millet and yams ready for the harvest feast. Near the center of a roadside settlement, or lakou, a wizened old man holds court. Markets sprout up at every crossroads, and like magnets they pull the women out of the hills; one sees their narrow traffic on the trails, the billowy walk of girls beneath baskets of rice, the silhouette of a stubborn matron dragging a half-dozen donkeys laden with eggplant. There are sounds as well: the echo of distant songs, the din of the market, and the cadence of the creole language, each word truncated to fit the meter of West African speech. Every one of these disparate images translates into a theme: the value of collective labor, communal land holdings, the authority of the patriarch, the dominant role of women in the market economy. And these themes, in turn, are clues to a complex social world.
   Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this, like a psychic education, must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed. In this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, the Vodoun religion provides the essential bond. Vodoun is a Fon word from Dahomey that simply means "spirit" or "God." It is not a black magic cult; it is a system of profound religious beliefs concerning the relationships among man, nature and the supernatural forces of the universe. Like all religions, it fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible.
   Vodoun not only embodies a set of spiritual concepts, it prescribes a way of life, a philosophy and code of ethics that regulate social behavior. As in a Christian or an Islamic society, within a Vodoun society, one finds completeness-a distinct language; a complex system of traditional medicine, art, and music inspired by African antecedents; education based on the oral transmission of songs and folklore; a system of justice derived from indigenous principles of conduct and morality. The religion cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community.
   Vodoun is not an animistic religion. The believers do not endow natural objects with souls; they serve the loa, which are the multiple expressions of God. There is Agwe, the spiritual sovereign of the sea; and there is Ogoun, the spirit of fire, war and the metallurgical elements. But there are also Erzulie, the goddess of love; Guede, the spirit of the dead; Legba, the spirit of communication between all spheres. The Vodounists, in fact, honor hundreds of loa because they recognize all life, all material objects, and even abstract processes, as sacred expressions of God. Though God is the supreme force at the apex of the pantheon, he is distant, and it is with the loa that Haitians interact on a daily basis.
   The spirits live beneath the great water, sharing their time between Haiti and the mythic homeland of Guinée. But they often choose to reside in places of great natural beauty. They rise from the bottom of the sea, inhabit the rich plains, and amble down the rocky trails from the summits of mountains. They dwell in the center of stones, the dampness of caves, the depth of sunken wells. Believers are drawn to these places as we are drawn to cathedrals. We do not worship the buildings; we go there to be in the presence of God.
   In summer in Haiti the spirits walk, the people follow, and for weeks the roads come alive with pilgrims. The most revered site is a waterfall named Saut d'Eau, where years ago Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love, escaped the wrath of the Catholic priests by turning into a pigeon and disappearing into the iridescent mist. Saut d'Eau is doubly important to Vodounists for it is also the home of Damballah-Wedo, the serpent god, the repository of all spiritual wisdom and the source of all the falling waters. Legend has it that when the first rains fell, a rainbow, Ayida Wedo, was reflected. Damballah fell in love with Ayida, and their love entwined them in a cosmic helix from which all creation was fertilized.
   The waterfall carves a deep, hidden basin from a limestone escarpment, and for three days in July the trail descending to the falls quivers with the mirage of pilgrims coming and going. There is no order to their arrival, but it is a constant stream-as many as 15,000 appear-and the basin nestled into the edge of the mountain swells like a festive carnival tent to absorb everyone. It is a joyous occasion; one sees it on the faces of the children, the young city dandies leaping over the rocks like cats, the ragged peasants laughing derisively at a fat, preposterous government official. But for the devout it is also a moment of purification and healing, one chance each year to partake of the power of the water, to bathe and drink, and to bottle a small sample of the cold thin blood of the divine.
   In the cool, limpid light of dawn the pilgrims gather around the periphery of the basin, where the herbalists set up their dusty stations, displaying sooty boxes, hunks of root, loose bags of healing leaves and tubs of water and herbs. Houngan and mambo-Vodoun priests and priestesses-speak of magic done with dew, and tie brightly colored strings to barren young women or around the bellies of plump matrons who, in time, dangle the strings from wax stuck to the surface of the mapou tree, consecrated for the blessings of the gods.
   One need only touch the water to feel its grace, and for some it is enough to dip into the shallow silvery pools, leaving their offerings of corn and rice in small piles. But most go directly to the cascades, women and men, old and young, baring their breasts and scrambling up the wet slippery bedrock that rises in a series of steps toward the base of the falls. At the lip of the escarpment the river forks twice, sending not one but three waterfalls plunging more than 100 feet. What is not lost in mist strikes the rocks with tremendous force, dividing again into many smaller chutes, each one becoming a sanctuary. The people remove their clothes, cast them into the water, and stand, arms outstretched, beseeching the spirits. Young men move directly beneath the head of the falls, which batters their numb bodies against the rocks. Their prayers are lost to the thunderous roar, the piercing shouts, and the screams of flocks of children. Everything is in flux, with no edge and no separation-the sounds and sights, the passions, the lush soaring vegetation, primeval and rare. Merely to submit to the waters is to open oneself to Damballah, and at any one time at the base of the waterfall in the shadow of the rainbow, there are two or more pilgrims possessed by the spirit, slithering across the wet rocks.

The ease with which the Haitians walk in and out of their spirit world is a consequence of the remarkable dialogue that exists between human beings and the spirits. The loa are powerful and if offended can do great harm; but they are also predictable, and if properly served will reward men and women with good fortune. But just as humans must honor the spirits, so the loa are dependent on people. They arrive in response to the invocation of the songs, riding the rhythm of the drums. Once possessed, the believer loses all consciousness and sense of self; he or she becomes the spirit, taking on its persona and powers.
   One night on the coast just beyond the Carrefour road, I was invited to the temple of a prominent Vodoun priest. I watched quietly as a white-robed girl-one of the hounsis, or initiates of the temple-came out of the darkness into the shelter of the peristyle. She spun in two directions, placed a candle on the dirt floor, and lit it. The mambo, bearing a clay jar, repeated her motion, then carefully traced a cabalistic design on the earth, using cornmeal taken from the jar. This was a vévé, the symbol of the loa being invoked. After a series of libations, the mambo with a flourish led a group of initiates into the peristyle and around the centerpost, the poteau mitan, in a counterclockwise direction until they knelt as one before the Vodoun priest. Bearing a sacred rattle and speaking in a ritualistic language, the houngan recited an elaborate litany that evoked all the mysteries of an ancient tradition.
   Then the drums started, first the penetrating staccato cry of the cata, the smallest, whipped by a pair of long, thin sticks. The rolling rhythm of the seconde followed, and then came the sound of thunder rising, as if the belly of the Earth were about to burst. This was the maman, largest of the three. Each drum had its own rhythm, its own pitch, yet there was a stunning unity to their sound that swept over the senses. The mambo's voice sliced through the night, and against the haunting chords of her invocation the drummers beat a continuous battery, a resonance so powerful and directed it had the very palm trees above swaying in sympathy.
   The initiates responded, swinging about the peristyle as one body linked in a single pulse. Each hounsis remained anonymous, focused inward toward the poteau mitan and the drums. Their dance was not a ritual of poised grace, of allegory; it was a frontal assault on the forces of nature. Physically, it was a dance of shoulders and arms, of feet flat on the ground repeating deceptively simple steps over and over. But it was also a dance of purpose and resolution, of solidarity and permanence.
   For forty minutes the dance went on, and then it happened. The maman broke-fled from the fixed rhythm of the other two drums, then rushed back with a highly syncopated, broken counterpoint. The effect was one of excruciating emptiness, a moment of hopeless vulnerability. An initiate froze. The drum pounded relentlessly, deep, solid blows that seemed to strike directly to the woman's spine. She cringed with each beat. Then, with one foot fixed to the earth like a root, she began to spin in a spasmodic pirouette, out of which she soon broke to hurtle about the peristyle, stumbling, falling, grasping, thrashing the air with her arms, momentarily regaining her center only to be driven on by the incessant beat. And upon this wave of sound, the spirit arrived. The woman's violence ceased; slowly she lifted her face to the sky. She had been mounted by the Divine Horseman; she had become the spirit. The loa, the spirit that the ceremony had been invoking, had arrived.
   Never have I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of Vodoun possession that followed. The initiate, a diminutive woman, tore about the peristyle, lifting large men off the ground to swing them about like children. She grabbed a glass and crunched it in her mouth, swallowing small bits and spitting the rest onto the ground. At one point the mambo brought her a live dove; this the hounsis sacrificed by breaking its wings, then tearing the neck apart with her teeth. Soon two other hounsis were possessed, and for an extraordinary thirty minutes the peristyle was utter pandemonium, with the mambo racing about, spraying libations of water and rum, directing the spirits with the sound of her rattle.
   The rhythm changed and the spirits arrived again, this time riding a fire burning at the base of the poteau mitan. A hounsis was mounted violently-her entire body shaking, her muscles flexed-and a single spasm wriggled up her spine. She knelt before the fire, calling out in some ancient tongue. Then she stood up and began to whirl, describing smaller and smaller circles that carried her like a top around the poteau mitan and dropped her, still spinning, onto the fire. She remained there for an impossibly long time, and then in a single bound that sent embers and ash throughout the peristyle, she leapt away. Landing squarely on both feet, she stared back at the fire and screeched like a raven. Then she embraced the coals. She grabbed a burning stick with each hand, slapped them together, and released one. The other she began to lick, with broad lascivious strokes of her tongue, and then she ate the fire, taking a red hot coal the size of a small apple between her lips. Then once more she began to spin. She went around the poteau mitan three times until finally she collapsed into the arms of the mambo. The burning ember was still in her mouth.

For the nonbeliever there is something profoundly disturbing about spirit possession. Its power is raw, immediate, and undeniably real, devastating, in a way, to those of us who do not know our gods. To witness sane and in every regard respectable individuals experiencing direct rapport with the divine fills us with either fear-which finds its natural outlet in disbelief-or envy.
   Most psychologists who have attempted to understand possession from a scientific perspective have fallen into the former category, and perhaps because of this they have come up with some bewildering conclusions, derived from quite unwarranted assumptions. For one, because the mystical frame of reference of the Vodounists involves issues that cannot be approached by their calculus-the existence or nonexistence of spirits, for example-the beliefs of the individual experiencing possession are dismissed as externalities. To the believer, the dissociation of personality that characterizes possession is the hand of divine grace; to the psychologist it is but a symptom of an "overwhelming psychic disturbance." One prominent Haitian physician, acknowledging that possession occurs under strict parameters of ritual, nevertheless concluded that it was the result of "widespread pathology in the countryside which, far from being the result of individual or social experience, was related to the genetic character of the Haitian people," a racial psychosis, as he put it elsewhere, of a people "living on nerves." Such inadequate explanations are typical of uninformed observers of the Vodoun faith.
   Until the turn of this century most references to Vodoun merely acknowledged its role as a catalyst in the only successful slave revolt in history. The notion of Vodoun as something evil and macabre emerged largely after 1915, when the U.S. Marine Corps occupied Haiti. For the next twenty years the island was inundated with missionaries and marines, mostly from the American South, who were both captivated and appalled by everything they saw, or thought they saw, in the infamous Black Republic. Americans at home shared the fascination. Books, with titles such as Voodoo Fire in Haiti, Black Baghdad, A Puritan in Voodooland, The White King of La Gonave, Cannibal Cousins, and The Magic Island, in turn inspired a succession of Hollywood B-movies-I Walked with a Zombie, The White Zombies, Zombies on Broadway, and Zombies of the Stratosphere.
   In any other era, these books and movies, full of pins and needles in dolls, children bred for the cauldron, and zombies crawling out of the grave to attack people, would have been immediately forgotten. However, appearing when they did, they conveyed an important message to the American public: any country in which such abominations took place could find salvation only through military occupation. This false and absurd depiction of Vodoun accounts for its reputation as a nefarious black magic cult.
   Vodoun, in truth, is a complex, metaphysical world view distilled from profound religions that have their roots in Africa. The essence of the faith is a sacred cycle of life, death, and rebirth unique to the religion. For the acolyte, death is feared not for its finality but as a crucial and vulnerable moment in which the spiritual and physical components separate. One aspect of the soul, the ti bon ange, or little good angel, goes beneath the Great Water. A year and a day after the death, in one of the most important of all Vodoun rites, the ti bon ange is ritualistically reclaimed and placed by the houngan in a govi, a small clay jar, which is stored in the temple's inner sanctuary. That soul, initially associated with a particular relative, in time becomes part of a vast pool of ancestral energy from which emerge the archetypes which are the loa, the 401 spirits of the Vodoun pantheon. To Haitians this reclamation of the dead is not an isolated sentimental act; on the contrary, it is as fundamental and inescapable as birth itself. One emerges from the womb an animal, the spiritual birth at initiation makes one human, but it is the final reemergence that marks one's birth as sacred essence.
   It is possession, the return of the spirits to the body, that completes the sacred cycle: from human to ancestor, from ancestor to cosmic principle, from principle to personage, and personage returning to displace the identity of man or woman. Hence, while Vodounists serve their gods, they also give birth to them. The ultimate experience in Vodoun ritual is the moment when the loa responds to the invocation of the drums and rises from the earth to inhabit the body. In many ways Vodoun is the most quintessentially democratic faith, for the believers not only have direct access to the spirits, they actually receive the gods into their bodies. That moment of spirit possession-what Maya Deren, dancer and author, described as the white darkness-is by no means a pathological event. On the contrary it is the manifestation of divine grace, the epiphany of the Vodoun faith. As Haitians often say, "White people go to church and speak about God. We dance in the temple and become God."
   To be sure, there are other less benign forces in Vodoun, the conjurers of dark magic, the manipulators of the hexing herbs. Yet to ask why there is sorcery in Vodoun is ultimately to ask why there is evil in the universe. The answer, if there is one, is the same as that given by Krishna to a disciple, when he said, "To thicken the plot." Indeed, nearly every religion has a notion of darkness and light. In Christianity there is the fallen archangel who is the devil, and the Christ child, the son of God. For Vodounists, sorcery is merely the manifestation of the dark side of the universe. Balancing those malevolent forces with the magical power of the positive is the very goal of the religion.

The god of war and fire dwells in the north, in the shadow of a mapou tree that marks the place where once each year a mud pond spreads over a dry roadbed near the center of the village of Plaine du Nord. Like the waters of Saut d'Eau, the mud of the basin is said to be profoundly curative, and each year thousands of pilgrims arrive, some to fill their bottles, some to cleanse their babies, many to bathe. Unlike Saut d'Eau, the area is hemmed in by houses that funnel all the energy of the pilgrims into a small, intensely charged space. And in place of the serenity of Damballah, there is the raging energy of Ogoun.
   Around the basin a ring of candles burns for the spirit, and the pilgrims, dressed in bright cotton, lean precariously over the mud to leave offerings of rum and meat, rice and wine. There is a battery of drums to one side, and those mounted by the spirit enter the basin, disappear, and emerge transformed. A young man, his body submerged with only his eyes showing, moves steadily like a reptile past the legs of naked women, their skin coated with slimy clay. Beside them, children dive like ducks for tossed coins. At the base of the mapou, Ogoun feeds leaves and rum to a sacrificial bull; others reach out to touch it and caress its flank, and then the machete cuts into its throat and the blood spreads over the surface of the mud.
   On my last day in Haiti, I was watching all this when I felt something fluid-not water or sweat or rum-trickle down my arm. I turned to a man pressed close beside me and saw his arm riddled with needles and small blades, the blood running copiously over the scars of past years, staining some leaves bound to his elbow before dripping from his skin to mine.
   The man was smiling. He too was possessed, like the youth straddling the dying bull, or the dancers and the women wallowing in the mud. Men and women, descendants of those who had been dragged in chains from an African homeland, embraced by a new landscape which they, in turn, had impregnated with all the forces of light and darkness. "Haiti," a Vodoun priest once told me, "will teach you that good and evil are one. We never confuse them. Nor do we keep them apart."

Wade Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, is author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and One River. His most recent book is Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, in which this essay is included. Shadows in the Sun is published in the U.S. by Island Press and in Canada as The Clouded Leopard by Douglas & McIntyre. 

The White Darkness, Wade Davis, Shambhala Sun, March 1999.

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Signs of Spiritual Progress (July 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2012
You'll find this article on page 64 of the magazine.

Signs of Spiritual Progress

The concept of success on the spiritual path is pretty suspect. After all, isn’t it a journey without goal? But there are some ways, says PEMA CHÖDRÖN, we can tell if our practice is working. 

"As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion."

It is tempting to ask ourselves if we are making "progress" on the spiritual path. But to look for progress is a set-up—a guarantee that we won't measure up to some arbitrary goal we've established.

Traditional teachings tell us that one sign of progress in meditation practice is that our kleshas diminish. Kleshas are the strong conflicting emotions that spin off and heighten when we get caught by aversion and attraction.

Though the teachings point us in the direction of diminishing our klesha activity, calling ourselves "bad" because we have strong conflicting emotions is not helpful. That just causes negativity and suffering to escalate. What helps is to train again and again in not acting out our kleshas with speech and actions, and also in not repressing them or getting caught in guilt. The traditional instruction is to find the middle way between the extreme views of indulging—going right ahead and telling people off verbally or mentally—and repressing: biting your tongue and calling yourself a bad person.

Now, to find what the middle way means is a challenging path. That is hard to know how to do. We routinely think we have to go to one extreme or the other, either acting out or repressing. We are unaware of that middle ground between the two. But the open space of the middle ground is where wisdom lies, where compassion lies, and where lots of discoveries are to be made. One discovery we make there is that progress isn't what we think it is.

We are talking about a gradual awakening, a gradual learning process. By looking deeply and compassionately at how we are affecting ourselves and others with our speech and actions, very slowly we can acknowledge what is happening to us. We begin to see when, for example, we are starting to harden our views and spin a story line about a situation. We begin to be able to acknowledge when we are blaming people, or when we are afraid and pulling back, or when we are completely tense, or when we can't soften, or when we can't refrain from saying something harsh. We begin to acknowledge where we are. This ability comes from meditation practice. The ability to notice where we are and what we do comes from practice.

I should point out that what we're talking about is not judgmental acknowledging, but compassionate acknowledging. This compassionate aspect of acknowledging is also cultivated by meditation. In meditation we sit quietly with ourselves and we acknowledge whatever comes up with an unbiased attitude—we label it "thinking" and go back to the outbreath. We train in not labeling our thoughts "bad" or "good," but in simply seeing them. Anyone who has meditated knows that this journey from judging ourselves or others to seeing what is, without bias, is a gradual one.    

So one sign of progress is that we can begin to acknowledge what is happening. We can't do it every time, but at some point we realize we are acknowledging more, and that our acknowledgment is compassionate—not judgmental, parental or authoritarian. We begin to touch in with unconditional friendliness, which we call maitri—an unconditional openness towards whatever might arise. Again and again throughout our day we can acknowledge what's happening with a bit more gentleness and honesty.

We then discover that patterns can change, which is another sign of progress. Having acknowledged what is happening, we may find that we can do something different from what we usually do. On the other hand, we may discover that (as people are always saying to me), "I see what I do, but I can't stop it." We might be able to acknowledge our emotions, but we still can't refrain from yelling at somebody or laying a guilt trip on ourselves. But to acknowledge that we are doing all these things is in itself an enormous step; it is reversing a fundamental, crippling ignorance.

Seeing but not being able to stop can go on for quite a long time, but at some point we find that we can do something different. The main "something different" we can do begins with becoming aware of some kind of holding on or grasping—a hardness or tension. We can sense it in our minds and we can feel it in our bodies. Then, when we feel our bodies tighten, when we see our minds freeze, we can begin to soften and relax. This "something different" is quite do-able. It is not theoretical. Our mind is in a knot and we learn to relax by letting our thoughts go. Our body is in a knot and we learn to relax our body, too.

Basically this is instruction on disowning: letting go and relaxing our grasping and fixation. At a fundamental level we can acknowledge hardening; at that point we can train in learning to soften. It might be that sometimes we can acknowledge but we can't do anything else, and at other times we can both acknowledge and soften. This is an ongoing process: it's not like we're ever home free. However, the aspiration to open becomes a way of life. We discover a commitment to this way of life.

This process has an exposed quality, an embarrassing quality. Through it our awareness of "imperfection" is heightened. We see that we are discursive, that we are jealous, aggressive or lustful. For example, when we wish to be kind, we become more aware of our selfishness. When we want to be generous, our stinginess comes into focus. Acknowledging what is, with honesty and compassion; continually training in letting thoughts go and in softening when we are hardening—these are steps on the path of awakening. That's how kleshas begin to diminish. It is how we develop trust in the basic openness and kindness of our being.

However, as I said, if we use diminishing klesha activity as a measure of progress, we are setting ourselves up for failure. As long as we experience strong emotions—even if we also experience peace—we will feel that we have failed. It is far more helpful to have as our goal becoming curious about what increases klesha activity and what diminishes it, because this goal is fluid. It is a goal-less exploration that includes our so-called failures. As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion. We will just continue to buy into our old mindsets of right and wrong, becoming more solid and closed to life.

When we train in letting go of thinking that anything—including ourselves—is either good or bad, we open our minds to practice with forgiveness and humor. And we practice opening to a compassionate space in which good/bad judgments can dissolve. We practice letting go of our idea of a "goal" and letting go of our concept of "progress," because right there, in that process of letting go, is where our hearts open and soften—over and over again.

Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun whose root teacher was the renowned meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Since his death in 1987, she has studied with Sakyong Mipham and with her current principal teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Her many popular books include The Places that Scare You, When Things Fall Apart, and Start Where You Are.

From the July 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.




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Basically Good Print

Basically Good

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on good heart, awakened mind, the causes of happiness and other basic principles of Buddhism.


I believe that all human beings are of the same nature. At the mental and emotional levels we are the same. We all have the potential to become happy and nice people and we also have the potential to become very bad and harmful people. The same potential for these things is present within all of us; the important thing is to try to promote the positive and useful sides and try to reduce the negative sides.

Inevitably, the negative side will bring miserable experience. In the short term you may get some kind of satisfaction, but in the long run the negative will always bring some unpleasant experience. On the other hand, positive things always bring us inner strength. With inner strength, there is less fear and more self-confidence. With this inner strength, it is much easier to extend our sense of caring to others without any barriers, whether religious, cultural or so on. Therefore, it is very important to realize this potential for good and bad and to analyze it carefully.

This is what I call the promotion of deeper human value. This deeper human value is compassion—a sense of caring and commitment to others. These basic human good qualities are essential, and without them you can't be a happy person. This is something very important, whether you are a believer or nonbeliever in any religious faith.

Among humanity there are some who have a mental disposition that suits religious faith, and utilizing religious faith to promote these basic human values is something very positive. The different major world religions basically have the same message, the message of love, compassion and forgiveness. The methods to promote these things can be different, but as these traditions more or less aim at the same goal—which is a happier life, becoming a more compassionate person and a more compassionate humanity—the different methods do not present a problem. The ultimate achievement is what is important.


Implementing the Teachings

Once you accept a religious tradition, it should become part of your daily life. In this way, you may have some experiences, and with these experiences we will come to know the deeper value. The practice is very essential.

If we do not appreciate the importance of implementing the teachings into one's own life through practice, there is the danger of following a cliché or popular impression. For example, when someone talks about Christianity, the first image one thinks of is a big cross inside a church or chapel. Perhaps when someone talks about Buddhism, the image you get is of a serene Buddha inside the huge hall of a temple. Specifically, when people talk about Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps you get the impression of a monk holding a drum and cymbal; maybe people think of a monk wearing a weird-looking mask. This is what I mean by popular impression or cliché. There is a sort of danger in this.

When someone mentions Buddhism, in particular Tibetan Buddhism, you should have the feeling of altruism, infinite altruism, and an understanding of sunya—emptiness or ultimate reality. We should cultivate our perception so that when we think about Tibetan Buddhism, the first images in our mind are concepts like altruism, universal compassion, and the understanding of the deeper nature of reality. This is the kind of perception that we must cultivate.


The Four Noble Truths

As you might be aware, the core teachings of the Buddha are grounded in the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of the Buddhist teaching. These are the truths of suffering, its origin, the possibility of cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

The teachings on the Four Noble Truths are grounded in our human experience. Underlying our existence as human beings is the basic aspiration to seek happiness and to avoid suffering. The happiness that we desire and the suffering that we shun come about as a result of causes and conditions. Understanding this causal mechanism of suffering and happiness is what the Four Noble Truths are about.

To understand this mechanism, Buddhism analyzes the various possibilities of causation. For example, one could argue that our experiences of suffering and happiness occur for no reason, without a cause. That is one possibility that has been rejected in the Buddhist teachings. There is also the possibility that our experiences are created or caused by some transcendent being. This possibility is also rejected in Buddhism. There is also the possibility of postulating some kind of primal substance that could be the root of all origination of things and events. This has also been rejected in Buddhism.

Having rejected all these metaphysical possibilities, Buddhist teaching presents an understanding of the causal process in terms of interdependent origination. That is to say, our experiences of suffering and happiness do not come about by themselves or by some other independently existing cause, nor by some combination of these. The Buddhist standpoint is that all things and events, including our experience of suffering and happiness, come about as a result of a process of interdependent origination—the coming together of a multiplicity of causes and conditions.


The Primary Role of Mind

If we look at the teaching of the Four Noble Truths carefully, the principal point we find is the primary importance that consciousness, or mind, plays in determining our experiences of suffering and happiness.

When Buddhism talks about the nature of suffering, there are different levels of suffering. For example, there is the suffering that is very obvious to all of us, such as painful experiences. This we all can recognize as suffering. And there is a second level of suffering, which in ordinary terms we define as pleasurable sensations. In reality, however, these pleasurable sensations are suffering because they have the seed of dissatisfaction within them.

There is also a third level of suffering, which in Buddhist terminology is called the pervasive suffering of conditioning. In a sense, one can say that this third level of suffering is the mere fact of our existence as unenlightened beings who are subject to negative emotions, thoughts and karmic actions. The very existence of being bonded to negative emotions and karma is in fact suffering and a source of dissatisfaction.

If you look at these types of suffering we find that all of them are ultimately grounded in our state of mind. When we talk about the delusions that propel one into acting in negative ways, these are states of mind, undisciplined states of mind. Therefore, when Buddhism refers to the truth of the origin of suffering, we are talking about an undisciplined and untamed state of mind that gives rise to a state of unenlightenment and suffering. Ultimately, the origin of suffering, the cause of suffering, and suffering itself can be understood only in terms of a state of mind.

Buddhist teachings describe the cessation of suffering as the highest state of happiness. This should not be understood in terms of pleasurable sensation; we are not talking about happiness at the level of feeling or sensation. Rather, we are referring to the highest level of happiness, which is marked by total freedom from suffering and delusion. Again, this is a quality of mind, a state of mind. Therefore, we have to understand the nature of mind.

And when we talk about the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering, we are also talking about various levels of mind, various levels of realizations. So in order to understand the Four Noble Truths, one has to understand the primary role that mind, or consciousness, plays in determining our experience of suffering and pain.


Samsara and Nirvana

The actual process by which mind creates our unenlightened existence and the suffering we experience is described by Candrakirti in his Guide to the Middle Way, where he states, "An undisciplined state of mind gives rise to delusions which propel an individual into negative action which then creates the negative environment in which the person lives."

When trying to understand the nature of freedom from suffering (nirvana) that Buddhism talks about, we can look at a passage in Nagarjuna's Fundamentals of the Middle Way, where he in some sense equates unenlightened existence (samsara) and enlightened existence, or nirvana. The point Nagarjuna is making in equating unenlightened and enlightened existence is that we should not have the impression that there is any kind of intrinsic nature or intrinsic being to our existence, be it enlightened or unenlightened.

From the point of view of emptiness, samsara and nirvana are equally devoid of any intrinsic reality or intrinsic being. What differentiates an unenlightened state from the enlightened state is the knowledge and experience of emptiness. The knowledge and experience of the emptiness of samsara is what can be called nirvana. Again, we see that it is a state of mind—an understanding or knowledge of emptiness—that differentiates samsara and nirvana.

Given these premises, it is very fair to raise the question: is Buddhism suggesting that everything is nothing but projection of our mind?

This is a critical question and one that has elicited different responses from Buddhist teachers. In one camp, great masters have argued that in the final analysis, yes, everything, including our experience of suffering and happiness, is nothing but the projection of our mind.

But there is also another camp, which has vehemently argued against that form of extreme subjectivism. This second camp maintains that although one can, in some sense, understand everything as creations of mind, this does not mean that everything is nothing but the mind. They argue that one must maintain a degree of objectivity that things do exist. Although the consciousness, the mind, plays a role in creating our experience and the world at the same time, they maintain there is an objective world that is accessible to all subjects, all experiences.

There is another point that I think one should understand with regard to the Buddhist concept of freedom, or nirvana. Nagabuddhi, who was a student of Nagarjuna, states that, "Enlightenment or spiritual freedom is not a gift that someone can give to you, nor is the seed for enlightenment something that is owned by someone else." The implication here is that the potential for enlightenment exists naturally in all of us.

Nagabuddhi goes on to ask, "What is nirvana, what is enlightenment, what is spiritual freedom?" He answers, "True enlightenment is nothing but when the nature of one's own self is fully realized." When Nagabuddhi talks about the nature of one's own self, he is referring to what Buddhists call the ultimate clear light, or inner radiant nature of the mind. He says when this is fully actualized, that is enlightenment, that is true buddhahood.

When we talk about enlightenment, buddhahood or nirvana, which is the fruit of one's spiritual endeavor, we are speaking about a quality of mind, a state of mind. Similarly, when we talk about the delusions and the factors that obstruct our realization of that enlightened state, we are also talking about states of mind, the deluded states of mind. Particularly, we are referring to the deluded states that are grounded in a distorted way of perceiving one's own self and the world. The only means by which one can eliminate that mis-knowing, or distorted way of perceiving the self and the world, is through cultivating the right insight into the true nature of mind, and the true nature of self and the world.

In summary, the essential point in the teachings of the Buddha is on the one hand, equating an undisciplined state of mind with suffering and unenlightened existence, and on the other hand, a disciplined state of mind with happiness, enlightenment or spiritual freedom. This is the essential point.


Valid and Invalid Thought

From our own ordinary life experience, we know that there are types of thoughts which can be classified as valid and then there are others which are invalid. For example, if one's particular thought corresponds to reality, then one can call that a valid thought or valid experience. On the other hand, we also experience thoughts and emotions that are completely contrary to the way things are.

In Buddhist texts, the attainment of highest spiritual liberation is said to be the fruit of valid thoughts and emotions. For example, according to Buddhist teachings, the principal factors that are the cause for attaining enlightenment are said to be true insights into the nature of reality. True insight into the nature of reality is a valid way of knowing things, such as the nature of the world and so on.

Furthermore, if we look at the many complementary factors, such as compassion, altruism and the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, these factors are also based on valid thought. Although altruism and compassion are more of an emotion than a cognitive thought, the process which leads to the realization of universal compassion involves comparing truths and falsehoods.

Therefore, we can say that buddhahood itself is a consequence of valid thoughts and emotions. In contrast, we can see unenlightened experience (samsara) as the product of invalid ways of experiencing and seeing things.

According to Buddhism, the fundamental root of our unenlightened existence is said to be ignorance (avidya). The primary characteristic of this ignorance is a distorted way of perceiving the world and ourselves. The root of our suffering and our unenlightened existence is based on this fundamental distortion. Once again, invalid thought and emotions—invalid ways of seeing and experiencing things—are ultimately the source of our suffering and unenlightenment. The main point in the final analysis is the correlation between valid forms of thoughts and emotions with happiness and spiritual freedom, and invalid forms of thoughts and emotions with suffering and unenlightenment.

In the Buddhist practice of training the mind, the emphasis is to engage in a process whereby valid forms of thoughts and emotions can be developed, enhanced and perfected, and where invalid forms of thoughts and emotions are counteracted, undermined and eventually eliminated.

Something we must appreciate when approaching a technique like the Buddhist training of the mind is the complexity of the task we are engaging in. Buddhist scriptures mention 84,000 types of negative and destructive thoughts, which correspond to 84,000 different antidotes. It is important not to have the unrealistic expectation that somehow, somewhere, we will find that magic key that will help us get rid of everything.

Therefore, we need more determination and more patience. It is wrong to have the expectation that once you start practice of dharma, within a short period, like in one week, you'll become enlightened. This is impossible and unrealistic.


Cultivating Wisdom and Skillful Means

If we are to categorize the complex, multiple approaches to training the mind and bringing about a mental discipline, we can identify two principal aspects. One is the aspect of developing insight or wisdom. The second is the method, or "skillful means," aspect. The dimension of insight, or wisdom, is primarily focused on procedures for developing, cultivating and enhancing valid ways of knowing and valid forms of thought.

The Eight Verses of Training the Mind summarize the key teachings on both wisdom and skillful means. The central focus is the antidotes that enable the practitioner to counter two principal factors.

The first factor is our self-cherishing thoughts and the sense of selfishness that they are grounded in. The antidotes for this principally involve cultivating altruism, compassion and bodhicitta—the altruistic aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. These antidotes are directly aimed at counteracting this self-centeredness and self-cherishing thought.

The second factor is grasping at some kind of enduring, permanently existing self. The antidote to this is contained in the wisdom teachings in these Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Therefore, it could be said that these Eight Verses of Training the Mind contain within them the entire essence of the Buddha's teachings in a distinct form.


The Two Truths

This way of looking at the essence of the teaching of the Buddha in terms of wisdom and method also correspond wonderfully to a point Nagarjuna makes. He says that the entire teachings of the Buddha must be understood within the framework of the two truths—the conventional truth and the ultimate truth.


Emptiness

The last two lines of the Eight Verses of Training the Mind state, "Aware that all things are illusory,/ May they, ungrasping, be free from bondage." These lines present the need to encompass one's practice within an understanding of emptiness. They speak about the need to engage in one's training of the mind with the full understanding of the ultimate truth, emptiness. This means that one should develop the awareness that all things are illusory and, without grasping, one should free oneself from bondage.

What is required before one can cultivate the understanding of everything in terms of illusion-like nature is to negate the substantial reality of everything, including one's own "self." Without negating that substantial reality of existence, there is no possibility of developing the perception of the illusory nature of everything.

How do we develop this understanding of the non-substantiality or emptiness of everything? It is not enough just to imagine that everything is empty and devoid of substantial existence. It is not enough to simply keep repeating this verse in one's mind, almost like a formula; that is also not adequate. What is required is to develop a genuine insight into emptiness through a rational process of analysis and through a process of reflection.

One of the most effective ways to understand everything as empty of substantial reality is to understand the interdependent nature of reality. What is unique about dependent origination is that within this understanding there is a possibility to find a middle way between total nothingness on the one hand, and substantial or independent existence on the other. So by finding that true middle way, one can arrive at a genuine understanding and insight into emptiness.

Once this kind of insight into emptiness is found in one's meditation through a rational process and deep contemplation, then there is a kind of new-quality when you interact with the world and the objects around you. There is a new quality to your engagement with the world because there is this awareness of the illusion-like nature of reality. The text suggests that practitioners should engage in mind training with this awareness of the illusory nature of reality.


Concluding Remarks

Although even now that I'm getting older, it seems my physical well-being is quite okay. Therefore, as long as this body can manage, my whole life I dedicate to others. Even with small contributions, I'm always ready to serve you as much as I can. Thank you.


This teaching was sponsored by the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture, a non-profit organization committed to preserving Tibet's unique cultural heritage. To obtain a complete transcript of these teachings, contact CTAC or Wisdom Publications (www.wisdompubs.org). An audiotape of this teaching is available from Snow Lion (www.snowlionpub.com).

Basically Good, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Shambhala Sun, May 1999.





http://www.shambhalasun.com/revolving_themes/HHDL/basicallygood.htm

Multitudes and uni-forms Print

 

Multitudes and Uni-forms

By
"When we dress uniformly we can return to nakedness," says Barry Boyce, "to even a nakedness beyond nakedness, revealing the fundamental humanness beneath our trappings."



At one point or another, every child asks their parents why people wear clothing. Why don't we just go around naked? Children usually make do with the typical answers about protection from the weather and not necessarily wanting to see everybody naked, but they are not really satisfied. And of course, the next question becomes why people wear so many different kinds of clothing and why men wear ties and why are skirts feminine but what about kilts... and so on and so on.
   
My daughters wear uniforms to school. They balk a bit from time to time, but it sure keeps things simple. I found out just how simple on my younger daughter's eleventh birthday, when we gave her a pair of tear-away pants. These fabulously expensive baggy pants (coming in either soft fabric or nylon) have snaps down the side, enabling them to be niftily torn off in a moment, usually revealing athletic shorts beneath-although their popularity has extended far beyond the athletic field.
   
Madeline was thrilled. That evening she strutted about and practiced tearing away the pants. She considered wearing them to bed. The next day when she changed for gym class, to her surprise her friends ribbed and razzed her mercilessly, because her tear-aways did not have the requisite number of stripes to make them cool. She was hurt. Her excitement had been met with ridicule and derision. So that night we had to go find new ones that would meet the grade. I never felt more happy that the school requires uniforms.
   
Clothes are obviously so much more than a skin covering. They hold meaning. The French, who brought us haute couture, also brought semiotics, the study of the world as a complex of signs and symbols. Roland Barthes wrote that a beret means something different from a bowler. A suit refers to an uptight corporate type and casual clothes mean an accommodating demeanor. To understand that clothes convey something, we need look no further than the universal symbol for a women's bathroom: a figure with a skirt. (Does that work in Scotland where highlanders once referred to pants as "the effeminate dress of the lowlanders"?)
   
When I go to buy clothing, I end up buying what others expect me to wear, the uniform that communicates the sort of person that I am. (College students don't think it's cool when I try to dress like them.) Clothes themselves are clothed in meaning and tend to identify us as a particular sort of person, whether we want to be so identified or not.
   
Even though there is a quality of uniform in just about everything we wear, most of us find the notion of uniforms constraining, if not frightening. Dress the same; think the same. No spine, no flair. And yet when we are in a crisis, we rely most on people in uniforms-doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and the military. A group of uniformed firefighters will put out a fire much more quickly than a band of well-meaning individuals. The uniform can create a communal bond that enables people to work together selflessly. It extends more than the skin: it extends the mind.
   
Religious orders have always dressed alike, because when we dress uniformly we can return to nakedness, even a nakedness beyond nakedness, because regardless of skin color, monastic robes can reveal the fundamental humanness beneath our trappings. Some countries require a year of uniformed service of their young, at least partly for the same reason-to instill a bond with the community, something beyond individual pursuit.
   
Society used to demand formal dress for formal occasions, but now, often as not, casualness (the apparent lack of uniformity) is the key ingredient. So my mother is upset when people dress the same in church as they would at the mall. She feels it conveys a lack of respect. The code has been broken and the code is part of what holds the community together.
   
The sameness emphasized by a uniform or formal dress can be a sacred sameness, a fundamental quality of being human. It can also be an oppressive sameness, but does the oppression lie in the uniform or in its application? Are peaked caps and epaulettes inherently aggressive? Are uniforms any more oppressive than fashions, which create such pain for those whose bodies (or paychecks) don't make the grade?
   
Plato said that one of the dangers of democracy would be that it would create a multiplicitous world, splendidly arrayed with every conceivable hue and idiosyncratic flair but lacking a fundamental sense of community-that quality which makes us uniform in the best sense of the word.
   
What might we see about each other if just for one day-as if for a ceremony-everyone wore exactly the same clothing? I'm sure Tommy Hilfiger or Nike would be glad to oblige us.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Multitudes and uni-forms, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, March 1999.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Boyce/BoyceMar99.htm

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