Varanasi I

Varanasi 5

My train from Kolkata was two hours late. But no matter, I thought. I’m here. Though I had little idea what “here” meant. It was dark. I found my way out of the train station, knowing I would encounter enterprising taxi drivers offering me a ride. Sure enough, I land a tuk-tuk and tell him where I’m going. He knows the place, but says we will not be able to go all the way there. He says I’ll have to walk some. I ask how far? 100, 200 meters? He says 800. I am wondering what I have done. Committed myself to staying in a place that’s 800 meters from a road?

But no. It turns out to be more like 400 meters. But to get there, he is dragging my suitcase behind hm as we trek through darkened narrow winding alleys, taking so many turns I could not possibly remember where I’ve come from, dodging puddles, mud and cow dung, bumping over potholes, passing hole-in-the-wall shops, motorbikes, cows and people. The aromas are, shall we say, earthy.

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I reach my destination, check in and discover that I am staying in a fourth floor walk-up.  This is a mistake, I’m thinking. I won’t go into detail about the room or the night I spent or how much sleep I actually got. Let’s just skip to the part where I move to another hotel in the morning that’s more my style.

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I settle in. I venture forth, walking the alleyways, finding the river, meandering through  the streets. Unfortunately, this is as I pictured it: impossible traffic with no rules, dust, fumes, the incessant honking of drivers, every moment a narrow brush with death as people, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, rickshaws and carts weave and dodge in an omni-directional dance.

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Occasionally there is true gridlock here because virtually everyone is loath to yield to anyone else except under the most obvious death-defying moments. Drivers play chicken here to make a macho statement. So there may be no movement whatsoever, but everyone is honking because it’s someone else’s fault, someone else must move to effect the breakthrough.

Varanasi is known as the city of learning and burning. It is a center of higher education. There are billboards everywhere touting programs, schools, test prep.  Today, as part of my daylong tour I passed through a vast campus, the Banares Hindu University, with dozens of identically-styled colonial  buildings housing university departments. It is the city of burning because one could spend 24 hours of any day attending (being careful–as a foreigner–to maintain a respectful distance) the cremation ceremonies along the banks of the Ganges. People come from all over India at the end of life to be cremated here on the banks of the Mother Ganges.

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The burning ghat: Manikarnika

To my great surprise, after a couple of days, and by the smallest of increments, I notice I am acclimating to the impossible cacophony of Varanasi, where the sacred rises from the filth. I think what better place to experience the dissolution of edges than here. It’s not a place I would wish to occupy on a permanent basis, but it’s a good reminder that the comparative sterility of the developed world (even the Indian developed world) is a combination of sophisticated technological masking and (as we well know) the illusion of being able to banish the costs of that development. Our shit is getting in our way. Here, that truth is literal.

My tour started about 9:30 in the morning, going first to Sarnath, the place of Buddha’s first teaching, the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and the location of a small but impressive museum housing the archeological remnants of Buddhist culture that existed before the Muslim invasion about 1000 years ago. The museum is only 100 years old, holding a collection of Buddhist statuary dating from the 4th to the 10th century. It’s impressive. I stayed long enough to cool off.

The rest of the day was spent visiting a collection of the most important temples in Varanasi. It was a Sunday, so the streets were thankfully much less crowded than they would be on a weekday, but it is also a Shiva festival time this month, so there were big crowds at the temples.

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Shiva and girlfriend (one of many)

Varanasi tour 1

Photography is not permitted inside, but I visited a beautiful Durga temple in which women make offerings to the goddess Durga,

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a monkey temple of Hanuman that was even more crowded than either of the first two, monkeys roaming the grounds fed daily with offerings of beans and bananas, and in which hoards, I mean ten deep, men and women separately, pushing and shoving to get to the altar and touch their clutch of flowers (marigolds and roses) and leaves to the stone so they can return home with blessings to share.

Varanasi 3

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The best and last temple was a thoroughly modern chamber of coolness. I mean literally, the entryway was an arch-covered stairway with fans spraying cooling water. At the top, one enters a chamber filled with flowered decorations on the walls and ceiling.

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Varanasi tour 2

Yes, a real person.

The centerpiece was a shallow rectangular pool with fountains around the inside perimeter. The walkways, the central pool and the displays on the periphery are bordered by blocks of ice. The floor is awash with an inch of chilly water from the melting. There are chandeliers made with flowers and rolled currency, wall decorations made with flowers and more rolled currency, ceiling decorations made with, you guessed it, flowers and…money. It is seriously hot out, like 90, with high humidity, so this was the most refreshing, aromatic and, well, also the most seriously crowded “temple” of all. A special occasion. Hinduism with a touch of Disney.

Neighborhood shrines?…Or London phone booths? You decide.

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Ma boyz at the barber shop.

Note: many photos from my first week in India, especially the tour day, were lost when my computer crashed.

 

 

Kolkata

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I am under the temporary illusion that any location in India is virtually identical to any other. This not true, of course, but for the moment I am lost in a hologram. At least that’s the way it seemed as I rode in a taxi from one hotel to another in Kolkata. I was less than 12 hours from arrival, well after midnight the previous night, and no more than 5 hours of sleep later.

There’s no denying it. I was in shock. The air was thick, not terribly hot, but it was still early. My Uber taxi driver speaks a smattering of english, checks his phone frequently mounted on the dashboard of this small, loud, manual transmission, nondescript Indian model. He weaves in and out of traffic with a mix of daring, aggression, deference and caution down streets with no lane lines, more pothole than pavement, no more than inches separating us from other vehicles. The road is similarly occupied by swarms of small trucks, tiny open three-wheeled and four-wheeled taxis.

Kolkata museum 2

Pedestrians weave through the minefield of moving vehicles, exhibiting subtle hand gestures, showing equally impressive moments of bravado, deference, narrow escapes, nonchalance, disdain and pure faith that they will not be obliterated. No quarter asked and none given. An Indian  definition of nano-second: the amount of time after the light turns green before the  cab driver behind you leans on his horn.

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We make our way herky-jerky across the city. It is dirty, loud, crowded, old and new, heavily weathered and in dis-repair. On the dashboard of every cab is a photo or some other representation of a holy baba, a teacher. In traffic, we need one. I pass one long continuous makeshift shelter along the metro tracks, full of micro-commerce and desperation with no visible evidence of sanitation or even water.

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The change in hotels was planned. The new one is in a slightly more upscale commercial district two minutes walk from the India Museum, which alas, was a disappointment since so much of it was closed for repairs that–I’m guessing– may never be completed. I can find the essentials here…an ATM, a phone shop, decent food. Even though my stay in Kolkata is very short, I have little energy for anything more ambitious.

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It’s impossible to tell if much of the construction in India was never finished or if, by some prescient design, merely appears to be crumbling with age. This seems to be true whether it is city or rural construction. Then again, decay is inherent in any act of creation. Perhaps India knows something about such things that we in the west do not. After all, they’ve had 5000 years to figure it out.

In the west, we strive to construct a facade of permanence. Here, impermanence is an accepted fact of life. Appearances here, so far, are that everyone lives in closer quarters with each other, the earth and mortality than I am used to. It’s easy to fall immediately into judging everything here by western standards of development. But considering what we in the west have overlooked in the course of our own development, and which is coming back to haunt us, who are we to judge?

Kolkata rickshaw

 

Tibet Now

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This gallery contains 11 photos.

  There is a powerful presence in Bodhgaya of ex-pat Tibetans. There are booths along the streets to the main venue for various Tibetans causes. Students for Free Tibet, a very effective and long-standing global presence for Tibetan Freedom is … Continue reading

Kalachakra: Turning the Wheel of Time

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 One purpose of the entire Kalachakra Initiation is to turn the wheel of time, to accelerate our encounter with our own karma. Because the wheel is also symbolic of timeless bliss, we are also presented, as is the intention with … Continue reading

Kalachakra: Preliminaries

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The monks sitting in the glass house are able to sustain chanting for hours on end. There are only minimal breaks of a minute or less before proceeding from one portion of ritual to another. This surely means they are … Continue reading

Kalachakra: Swimming In An Ocean of Benefit

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As the program moved into the teachings on Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva, more people arrive to the covered venue. They are now lining the walkways, even sitting across from each other in the narrow aisles between the corrals. The … Continue reading

Kalachakra: Immersion

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This gallery contains 10 photos.

Our first task upon arrival in Bodhgaya was to register for the event and get our ID badges. We found the registration area, but the gate was closed and guarded from the inside. We could see multiple lines waiting to … Continue reading

Bodhgaya IV–color and contrasts

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Another visit to Maha Bodhi Temple. So much to see and feel here. Color and design.

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The ocean of devotion.

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A prostration board soaked in sweat.

The ngondro practice is not mere recitation or repetition. It is the deliberate progressive effacement of ego, a slow drip of purification to reveal that which is already unstained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An amazing display of flower arranging–mostly marigold.

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I spent part of the morning yesterday visiting an semi-rural orphanage/school, the Human Development Charitable Trust, which is completely dependent on the kindness of strangers. The most primitive of conditions. The most radiant faces.

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Abundance and squalor:

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The complete destruction of a waterway.

Thailand has more than a dozen installations in Bodhgaya, including this most beautiful (and from what I can tell, almost entirely hidden) Thai temple I’ve seen anywhere, including Thailand. Its peaked roof is barely visible from the Maha Bodhi temple. It’s actually difficult to find. And it’s huge, including a monastery–of course!–and a large residential facility solely for visiting Thais. As striking as it is from the outside, it was the inside that left me slack-jawed.

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The inner walls and ceilings of most Thai temples are painted with scenes depicting Buddhist philosophy and the Life of Buddha. These were the most finely detailed and colourful of all.

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Buddha’s enlightenment

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All in all, a deeply provocative experience for my visit to India in decades. I’m so glad I came, though I also won’t be sad to leave. If I return, it will be for a different reason, at a different pace, and at a different time of year.

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Ceiling mandala at Nyingma temple, Bodhgaya

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Ceiling painting at Nyingma temple

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Nyingma Temple exterior painting

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Bodhgaya III

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Those of us attending the teachings at Tergar Monastery, also referred to as the Karmapa Monastery, were graced with a brief visit from the Karmapa himself on Wednesday, along with his retinue of attendants and uniformed Indian military armed guards. … Continue reading