Traveling Teacart

A collection of tales from a young vagabond in India

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Beyond all words. I can’t believe I went, but I can’t believe I am back. To be honest, it all feels like a dream now.
That is the only response I have to the question “How was India?”

Now the snow is starting to fall outside my window. The holiday is over; my distractions are now gone. Now starts the next stage: integration of what I have learned.
But first I must pause. Part of this journey has been left open. I will take you all one last time through a few small adventures and a few small struggles of mine.

I was asked by a friend if I would wear sari back home. I was known in the group for wearing one the better part of a week. Forgetting about the cold, I said yes. But after the first cold day in an outfit that exposes your mid-drift, they all went in the drawer until warmer day dawn. But to look in my closet seemed daunting. The walls of it are close and seem looming as they are heavy laden with clothes of all different sorts. They loom with the obligation to wear them (the clothes), memories hide inside them and beg for me to keep them, but my heart cries out to clear out all but the essentials. So one sleepless night I started taking shirts and skirts down off their hangers. I thanked them for their service to my life but let the clothes fall gracefully to the group and out of my life. And a weight was lifted, but not all the way. Soon I was going through all my drawers and shelves searching for things I could purge from my life.

Rooms have often been used to symbolize people’s minds for they are a clear representation as to what people hold on to. I came back to my room filled with clutter, a stark contrast from my room at the Vihar which was filled only with the essentials. It was a simple room but it allowed for creativity to fill its simplicity. The mind could breath and when a friend came by, there was room for them with little distraction to take away from the connection between friends. But I have returned to this cave of stuff I have created myself. The cave is my collection of object that I have held onto, objects that remind me a certain places or events. So clearing them out is so hard, for they all have sentiments attached to them.

But more subtle shocks have filled my days: I drank from a straw in a restaurant and was utterly surprised at how sturdy it was compared to the flimsy straws of India. It was the difference between a blade of grass and a great oak to me. I keep fighting the urge to eat with my hands in front of my parents. The need to drive everywhere has kept me inside most days. Yet I long to stroll along, but even then, there are no people to watch here. I noticed yesterday that I was rather dehydrated. In the cold I feel no need to drink extra liquids yet without twice daily tea times, I don’t drink hardly anything at all.  Unlike the small dingy mirror above the sink in the Vihar (which only gave a general outline as to how you looked) he mirror in my bathroom is clear and big and I can see the flaws in my skin arise. I went from going days without looking at myself to facing my face every morning and night. It is not that I don’t like the way I look, I don’t like being concerned about how my skin or the like looks.

But here, we must not romanticize India and think that living there was without problems. One must remember the good along with the bad. So yes, it is not all easy coming home. I have a struggle raging inside of my.  But I had that in India as well. That struggle is life blooming inside of us. This struggle is growth in disguise. It is the battle always of what to hold on to and what to let go of: it is hard to stay but it is also hard to leave. Much like a plant which is either growing or dead, if one’s heart becomes stagnant, something inside has died.

So it has been a struggle going and a struggle coming home. But I am blessed that I have been surrounded by love the whole way. To help me readjust my family has been supportive and forgiving. They have put up with my new way and forgiven me when I fall short of what they expect. Without them I would have never been able to go on this trip. But even more, without them I would have been unable to deal with life coming back home. I cannot thank you enough. And as for you, the rest of my readers, I want to thank you for joining my on this journey. I am sad I could not bring a piece of the hot Indian wind to open in front of you so it might blow across your face. And I am unable to bottle the smells and pictures just don’t quite capture the sights. But I hope I was able to give you a glimpse of what is out there. If I could inspire just one to take a journey, maybe not to India but to whatever place you need to stretch you, this all would be worth it.

But now, as I conclude this blog, I think to what Donald Miller said in one of his book: life is like Jazz, it never quite resolves.

This chapter is over but my journey continues.
Love and blessings to you all: May you be peace, happy, and free from suffering
Christina Hallam

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The Stages of Returning

The room was so dark it almost did not matter if I had my eyes open or closed. It was five-o-clock in the morning and the sun had not yet risen. I sat on the floor in an empty chapel. In front of me was a small room with the flickering light of a butter lamp. The tiny dancing flame was the only light to fill the emptiness whose darkness sat heavy in the room. I realized in the peace of the darkness, alone but not lonely, that I had changed. This all is part of the journey, the last stage: the hero must return home with the elixir.

During my stent in South India for my Independent Study Project (ISP), I had intended to return to my own faith tradition. I was to take what I learned and compare it to something that was already a part of my life, prayer. So I traveled to a new place in hopes to return. And there I found wonderful people who took me in, much like a younger sister, and showed me their faith. This is the start of my return, the return to my own faith.

My paper finished, I took one most stop before I returned to Bodh Gaya. I was welcomed in once again by the community at Shantivanad, a Catholic Ashram. It was a quite place built for a simple life. Monks and nuns live there and visitors cycle through. Made famous through Father Bede Griffiths, the ashram has adopted many customs from the Tamil area where it found. But most importantly, it is quite there. It ashram gave the space to think and reflect and it gave me the space to process everything that has happened in the past 12 weeks of my life.

There was a certain point during the program  that I was frustrated because I did not see myself growing or changing. I was afraid I would come out of this program the same as I went in. But it was in the silence of the ashram that I could spend the time with myself to investigate who I was and how I had changed. And I had changed. It was in the most subtle way that one cannot see until one looks back. Much like a tree that shows no sign of movement, growth is seen only when you count the passing of time: one does not see the leaves emerge spontaneously  but one day you notice the green buds on the tree. Soon, those buds are leaves even if you did not see them open. That is the change I am talking about.

So there I sat, in a dark room. They said to search for God in the dark in the cave of your heart. Truly, God has been there all along, through meditation and in celebration. I just had to return to my own spirituality to see it. Often we like to put a personality to God but in that moment of darkness, it seemed God was there in the quite, the source of meditation.

But a few days passes and I returned again, this time to the group. We returned to tell stories and share a few last meals. We returned to our Indian family, a family that will look like this only for a little while longer. But in a day or two we will start the process of returning again as we all depart. We all must return home, never the same but with something in hand. It is the Hero of a 1,000 Faces. It is the final part of the journey: to return home with the elixir.

 

Typing Time

My research is done. Interviews complete. Visits over with.
And I finished the paper just in time – hand written that is.

There is a festival called Deepalm going on in Tiruvanamalai currently. Right this very moment there is estimated to be 1/2 a million to 2 million Hindu pilgrims circumambulating the mountain at the end of the street. Tonight they light 10,000 lbs of gee on fire at the top of the mountain. After the festival is over, the city will no longer be given access to power 24 hours.

Thus, here I am typing my paper.

Wish me luck!

The (un)Importance of Language

In a place where you don’t speak the language, ordering at cafes is always an interesting experience. But if you want the good South Indian food, you have to go to where the locals go. So it has been an experiment. Reid and I have been walking into the cafes and sitting down. Someone normally comes up speaking rapid Tamil at us. One can either try to decipher what they are saying or go with our method: the Indian head wobble. In India, one will notice no one nods in agreement. Rather, the nod is replaced with a back and forth wobble of the head (think ear to shoulder, ear to shoulder). It is most similar to our maybe head movement but it means Yes! here. Anyways, with the Indian head wobble, the waiter or waitress walks off with an idea of what you want to eat. It is always a surprise too at what you get to eat that day!

That is how much of our dining goes in a place where you don’t speak the language. In the most basic sense, you don’t really need many words, though you may end up eating a lot of idily. Our adventure trying to get on the bus in Cheni to go to TVMalai was similar. We were trying to find the ticket counter and no one knew enough English enough. We ended up just saying “Tiruvanamalai” enough times that people ushered us in the right direction. Finally, some one said, “no ticket, just get on!”. And that is what we did. Turns out, for bus rides, there is no ticket counter; one pays on the bus. No English needed.

Ordering clothing proves to be a bit harder with no English though. Two types of clothing exist: ready made and tailored. Ready made clothing tends to be cheap and a bad fit. So tailored clothing is by far the way to go. It is basically the same price anyways. The problem comes that one often buys the cloth separate from the sewing. Occasionally  the cloth merchant has a tailor that sits to the side of the shop that he uses. Still, they will say something rapidly in Tamil and expect you to know what they are instructing you to do. We have run into a few issues when they want us to try something on or take measurements and we have no idea what they want. The women at the shop were helpful though and firmly showed us what to do.

However, there comes a point where language is necessary. I have been talking to people about prayer and how it relates to their life. I become limited at who I can talk to by who I can understand. A few times people have volunteered to translate yet they always feel limited at what they can say in a language where their vocabulary is limited. Most are bashful about their skills in English but truly, most speak very well. But behind their words lies something that communicates better than their words. It is in their hand gestures, the gleam in their eyes, and the passion in their voice. One man said to me “when you send prayers up, blessings come down.” and the conviction with which he said it made me have no doubt that he believes it. And at times that language is the only language one has to communicate with.

Yesterday I traveled to a village church near by. It was small and only had one room and six benches. The windows didn’t have glass or even screens. A school sat behind it and rice patties surrounded it. Sunlight was the only power and the wind blew in freely. There was no instruments but the congregation, all 12 of them sang with every bit of might in their lean bodies. At the end, all of the women came up to me one by one. First we put our hands together and bowed towards each other as standard in Indian culture. Then they grabbed my hands with both of their with a smile that not only stretched from across their entire face, but a with a smile that radiated love through their eyes.

I did not understand the word that were spoken in the service but they spoke to me in a language deeper than words.

Two Trains, One Bus, and Four Nights

I am here in Tiruvanamalai (TVMalai) safe and sound!

I haven’t been here even a full day but I can already tell it is a much different town.  All of the buildings are painted bright colors, the streets are cleaner, the people are fatter, and the language is completely different.

TVMalai is a Hindu pilgrimage sight with one of the biggest temples in India. And Yes, it is huge! It has four entrances and on each there is a tower the size of the Mahabodhi Temple and there is a huge complex inside of them! But because it is more of a Hindu pilgrimage site, that means there are less world travelers coming in and out. That also means that less people speak any sort of English. Most know enough to say they don’t speak it. If you remember I was talking Hindi classes back in Bodh Gaya. It was wonderful because I could get by there when I encountered someone who spoke no English. However, I am not in the land of Tamil.

Tamil is the oldest language that is still spoken today. The guide book says that much of the slang and jargon is the same as was recorded being used when explorers were coming over by boat in the 1600’s. That said, it is not in the same language family as Hindi. Coincidentally, Hindi is derived from Sanskrit which is a relative to English and all the Latin languages. Tamil is not. It has a different alphabet (which is closer to Burmese script) and its own sound system. Thus, Reid, my traveling companion, and I are completely lost when it comes to language here.

On a similar note, getting food in restaurants has been fun. Most small restaurants there are no menus which means order is a challenge, but a challenge well accepted. We don’t speak their language and they don’t speak ours. They say a few things that are slurred together and we try to piece together things we might know. Then we nod our heads and they bring out the food they think we want. So far it has worked out well. That said, many of these places only make 2 or 3 dishes so it is hard to go wrong.

Anways, that is my adventure for now.
More updates later!

Illumination

A major Buddhist teaching is non attachment. Objects and people do not cause suffering, your attachment to them does.

So many time with powerful experiences, I feel myself grasping at them and trying to hold on. There is a sadness that the moment is over. But that is not here right now. I have finished my classes; the course work is done. Three weeks were spent on three traditions. But now it is time for independence as the local boys say. Tonight I leave on a train to do a study project. No teacher will hover over me. No class will require my attendance. And every person becomes my teacher.

But before I leave, I want to take a moment to reflect on a few moments.

The Halloween Party:
Yes, we had a Halloween party. I was dressed in a tailored genie costume complete with NettiPot genie lamp. The music started at 6:30 and turned off at 10:30. And for that time we danced. We danced with no expectations. We did not try to attract one another. We had not intentions other than dancing. And we danced, in whatever style we knew. Some ballroom, some interpretive, some boodie poping, and some Charlie Brown.
No wall flowers, no middle school dance separation.
We danced.

The Talent Show:
So many in our group are either singers musicians, or otherwise artists. So we gathered for a talent show. The rain fell outside as we sang inside. Gospel versions of Buddhist texts, heartfelt acoustic songs, Bodh Gaya cover of American Pie, happy ukulele tunes,  mash-up jounal entry poems, pros readings, raps songs, hindi class song, and a small girls dance.
We sang together. We laughed together.

The Candle Light Vigil:
We gathered on the roof with 250 lit candles in honor of five Tibetan monks that self emulated. We sat in a circle, a wheel make of candles in front of us, holding hands and talking about what this group meant to us. Some Tibetan prayers were sang for peace, for hope, for compassion, for bodhichitta. Students and professors sat hand in hand in a time of unscheduled peace. The cool Indian breeze danced by.
We sat together. We were at peace together.
We loved together. We were one.

Yet I do not grasp at this. It is a good time for this to end. I hold this sweetly in my heart as I go out on my own.
The adventure is not done yet. A new chapter starts soon.

Much love to you all.

Quick update

My apologies for this quick update.
To let you all know, this is finals week for me. This includes a philosophy paper, meditation paper, philosophy test and a Hindi test.

So I only have time for a quick update.

The Tibetans and flooding in from all over India. One part of the Temple is called the gym due to all the prostration boards and all the Tibetan monks doing intense prostrations in groups of 10,000 at a time. Burmese pilgrims like wise are flooding and and being cycled through the Vihar every two to three days. New friends are being made all this time such as Yogi Mike or the Where There Be Dragons gap year program.

But this Friday I head out for the South. It marks the beginning of my independent study period. I shall be going to Tiruvanamalai in Tamil Nadu to study how South Indian Christian prayer compares to Theravada Buddhist practice of Metta.

Well, off to more paper writing and studies.
Much love to you all!

A busy week

I apologies in advance for this week has been busy enough that I haven’t been able to collect my thoughts enough to give you all a well put together blog post. So instead, I thought I would just update you all on the crazy week that just finished.

Last week was the first week of Tibetan Meditation. We were learn from a teacher (or Rinpoche) from the same lineage as His Holiness the Dali Lama. Unfortunately  there was a serious illness in his temple the day he was supposed to fly out of Nepal making him unable to come. Instead, one of his Tibetan students, Lama Tinzin who teaches in Austria, flew in along with their Austrian Translator.

All of that coincided with a huge Indian festival called Durga Puja. This is one of the biggest celebrations in Bihar and all of Bodh Gaya was packed. This 10 day festival celebrates the official end to the monsoon season, the day Durga killed the demon, and the day that Rama killed Ravana. So each neighborhood sets up a huge display the size of a building with life-size depictions of Durga, the demon, and her court. At these tents are loud speakers blasting modern and traditional Indian music from sunrise to well into the night. Coloured lights know to Americans and Christmas lights coated the town and there was not a single spot where lights or music could not be seen or heard.
Conveniently, one of these tents was stationed right outside of the Burmese meditation hall. The music was a nice addition to our morning meditation.

Anyways, so on Wednesday we had a special meditation under the Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi temple. We brought some loud speakers and connected them to an i-phone and called Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche in Nepal and he performed a ceremony to allow certain members in our group to take refuge with him. Taking refuge is a tradition in Tibetan Buddhism that officially accepts a person as their teacher for life and creates a special connection between teacher and student. Also, in this ceremony they take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga. If you want to know more, I suggest Wikipedia for I don’t have the space to explain those here.
Anyways, the ceremony was beautiful and we did some chanting and meditation afterwards.

That night I had the privilege of going around with a local family to see all the Durga Puja shrines. There was no elbow room to speak of. Every person out had on their brand new clothes that were bright, colourful, and sequined! On the streets it was much like a fair with people selling sweets, small toys, and balloons. At the shrines, there were tv’s playing Ramayana movies and Brahmins sat at the entrances to give the blessings of the Goddess.

The next morning we got up bright and early at 4:45 to go to Rajgir and Nalanda. There we went up to Vulture’s peak, the place of the Buddha’s teachings, we had a meditation session where we recited the Lotus Sutra and other prayers. Then we headed on to Nalanda, the biggest college in history. It was a thriving sight for Buddhist scholasticism until the Muslim invaders sacked and burned it. It is said that it took two weeks to burn all of the books. There also we did some meditation and chanting.

On our way home to the Vihar we encounter something I had never before seen. At the end of Durga Puja, the all of the statues are returned to the river and since they are made of clay, the slowly melt and wash away. However, they must be escorted with music to the river first. So as we bounced through a village in our big buses, we came upon lots of music and a major traffic jam. Up ahead we saw a dj and disco lights with young men dancing about. This is called the mobile disco.
Yes indeed, the party can now roll all around town.

Here is what you need:
Someone brings a tractor, any tractor like the ones we use for farming. Attach to the back a platform to carry a dj, sound system and rave lights. And when I say sound system, the amplifiers better be taller than I am. Then, DRIVE! but slowly so you may gather a following.
But note, only guys are allowed to dance. We don’t want those women being too promiscuous!

So do to the mobile disco, we were delayed two hours. But all was well and good.
For the next two days we would encounter these discos as the drove down the street escorting the Goddess home.

And for all of you who though I would be missing Halloween because I am in India, you thought wrong. Friday morning we waved good by to Lama Tinzin and the 30 pilgrims of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. On Saturday night, we all got dressed up in Halloween coustums (custom made in Bodh Gaya) and had a Halloween dance party! We carved pumpkins (which gathered a lot of attention from Indians and Burmese pilgrims… they thought we were weird) and then danced from 6 untill 10:30 at night.

So I am still sore from that but now it is time for work again. My independent study project is coming together but between that and classes, there is still much to do. Know that I love you all so much!

Namaste!

Teachers and Mini Monks

So as a part of our philosophy course, our class has to go out and interview monks, nuns, and locals about certain philosophical issues.  We wander into town or into temples asking pesky annoying questions that not many people like to answer. We have asked about karma and rebirth which often bridges into discussions of other things. But the past few days Kalya and I have been walking all over town asking about the five skandas or aggregates (look it up on Wikipedia). This is our adventure:

So language is often an issue. At the Thia temple, the head monk said that he could not explain it to us because we did not speak pali and he could only explain it in pali (but he did say if we meditate long enough we will realize it ourselves). But some times there is a more fundamental problem of finding the right people to talk to. Terragar is a huge temple associated with the Karmapa (he is the Dali Lama of a different sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Most monks there know a few words of English. A few weeks ago we wandered in and found an older Lama to talk to us about re-birth. He said to come back if we had any more questions. So here we were wandering back in with more questions. What we noticed this time was a ton of young monks is Tibetan robes running around. We eventually got shuffled around to a monk around our age that spoke the most English. However, that was still not a large amount of language skills. What we finally got across was Monk, teach, and Buddhism. Thus we follow one of them but this time not to the temple nor to a sitting area to talk. No, we are lead behind the public area into the school common area. As it turn out, Terragar is a temple that trains and schools young monks! Our guide then led us to the English classroom filled with thirty to forty ten-year-old monks. He gestured to go inside and in our confused state we did! Yes, indeed we ended up teaching the class! it was fun too! We went through colors, animals, body parts and numbers. Eventually, we ran out of things to say and we said goodbye. When we asked to talk to older Lama we were told to come back for he was teaching a class.

That night, seven of us went to a restaurant for a nice dinner. We had ordered and were waiting for food when a large group files in. Low and behold, it was all the older monks from Terragar, teachers and a few other friends, all of who saw us wandering around the temple earlier that day. It turned out to be a long meal for the restaurant out of respect  served the monks their food first. Indian locals are served next, and despite the fact that we were the first ones in, our group were the last ones served an hour and a half later.

So the next day we came back! We asked to talk to a monk who spoke English and the monk knew right away who we should talk to! He would take us to his teacher! So once again we were lead to the class room area but this time up a few flights of stairs as well. He brought us to a room and low and behold it was the English teacher again!!! We then explained what we were looking for and thus began our new rump to find the Lama we were talking to. The problem was, the last time when he introduced himself, he mumbled and none of us caught his name. Thus, it could be one of many and we were all unsure of who we were exactly talking about. But, he had a good idea who this Lama was. So, for a third time, were lead past the class rooms, up the stairs and were brought to the room of the Lama. Sadly, it was not the Lama we were looking for but we decided to talk to him anyways and he was very helpful.

But all of this, chaos and all, I have realized is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. When the Australians Zen students said their thanks at the last meditation it sank in the treasure that I have before me. Not only am I here in India learning meditation, but I have the unique chance to talk to some amazing teachers. All of my teachers from U Hla Myint, to the sisters, to Sensei, to Rimpoche, the are all internationally known. Over 30 of Rimpoche’s students are filing in to hear him teach, many would wait for hours just to spend five minuets talking when him. And all of these teachers we have had direct access to. I have gone up to the nuns room just to talk and have taken Sensei out to dinner in order to ask some more questions. Rimpoche has open interview times every day to allow for open discussion. Even being able to go down the street and be able to talk to monks from every tradition is such a treat!I see now that not all practitioners get this opportunity. So I wanted to take a moment out to say thank you to all of you who have supported me in this endeavor. No chance like this would ever come again and I am still learning just how special it is. Truly, it would not have been possible with out you.

Namaste.

Hours in Silence

I apologies for the delay of this post. There is a gas shortage in India and people are not happy. There has been a 15% spike in price and people can no longer afford it. That means people are going hungry because they use gas as fuel to cook with. So yesterday there was a peaceful protest and all of the shops in the State of Bihar were shut down and thus my delay. 

So now the actual post:

“If you enjoy meditation all of the time, if it always makes you feel calm and peaceful, you are doing something wrong.” 

Sensei said this at dinner the other night. In the oddest way it was comforting to hear. A few day later during the Zen retreat I understood the full gravity of that statement. Contrary to popular belief, the meditation position never becomes easy and comfortable. And, it is not exactly supposed to. Certain things will improve: Back muscles will become stronger and some joints will loosen up. But a sore tailbone, achy knees, or a tense neck never quite go away. And in a 24 hour period, these pains will become old friends. Sensei explained later that even he still gets some of these pain even after years of practice. The pain does not leave, one just becomes less attached to it and it matters less and less. Sensei also stated that if it didn’t take effort, there would be no point. 

The last retreat I was on was a 48 hour Vipassana Retreat and the pain was brutal. We shifted back and forth between 1/2 hour to 1 hour sitting meditations with 1/2 to 1 hour walking meditations. In my head, I oscillated between a peaceful joy and pure anger and frustration. At times a swore I hated mediation. I see now that that thought was only my body’s reaction to the pain, to my physical condition. So I went into the Zen retreat with a different attitude. I knew that pain would be in attendance as well, so I might as well observe it and see how it moves. 

Once again we alternated between walking and sitting mediation. This time we also had did prostration and chanting. Also, the Zen tradition has neck and back stretches built into the sitting meditation. Everything is working towards being in the present moment. The working of the mind in Zen in possibly one of the hardest things here to put into words for it is a tradition that goes beyond words and concepts. But here is my best shot at it: the body is rigidly upright to allow the mind to settle into the present moment. Let all thoughts fade away and just observe the here and now. So often our minds go skipping into the future or sink into the past, they go of into a day dream or start planning . This time around I found myself planning for my independent study project, envisioning what it will be like when I get home, or working out the details of my job next summer. Then it hit me, I am in India. Before I was here I planned to be in India like I am planning to be in these other places. And in these other places, everyone will want to know what India was like. So I should observe what India is like in this very moment. For everything that India is worth, what is India like right now in this moment? 

At the end of our retreat, the end of our 24 hours of silence, we had some time to ask Sensei questions. I forgot the question but I distinctly remember Sensei’s answer. In a mocking voice he said, “I don’t like this! Meditation must not be working! or I like this, I feel peaceful! Meditation must be working!” At that Sensei’s whole body erupted into laughter, the laughter that consumes your whole body. It is one of the biggest misconceptions of Meditation: just because you like it doesn’t mean it is “working”. (or the other way around) In true Zen fashion, there is nothing to do, nothing to get Nothing to be working. 

In Sensei’s words:
“Do you always eat because you like the taste of food? No! You eat because you need to. Practice Meditation in this way.”