Monday, November 18, 2013

Asia Trip: Final Countdown

I'm writing to you today from my new ASUS tablet that I bought a few months ago for my big trip...which is now known as my big Asia trip. The keyboard is a bit small, but I'm getting used to it!

If you don't already know, I'm traveling to Taiwan, Burma (renamed Myanmar by its military government), and Thailand. I leave on December 4 (at midnight) and arrive in Taipei, Taiwan, on December 5 at about 4:30 p.m.

That gives me about two weeks to finish my still growing to-do list. Oy! At least I finally got my Visa from the Myanmar Mission (to the UN) in NYC. Phew.

In these next two weeks, I also have to get ready for Laura's birthday (November 24), celebrate Thanksgiving (we're going to "the" parade in NYC), and celebrate Chanukah - my first as a member of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, i.e. our Temple, or Synagogue, or Shul, depending on which denomination of Jew one might be.

Did you know that Chanukah falls on Thanksgiving day this year!? This hasn't happened since 1861, or would have if Thanksgiving was actually a holiday yet.

These last two weeks could have been more relaxed if I hadn't curled into a vegetative mind-state starting sometime in early October. I think that all my frenzied trip planning activities finally got the better of me, and I turned it all off for a bit...maybe too long a bit for peace of mind. But, that's the way it is. Of course, I do thrive on deadlines after 17 years of litigation, so perhaps everything is as it should be.

Laura suggested I go on a short retreat before my trip. She's so smart! I just returned from a weekend retreat at Dharma Drum, a Chan Buddhist center in Pine Bush, New York. It was lovely. Chan is a form of Buddhism that developed in China.

The form is a bit different than my lineage, Theravada, or more widely known in the West as, Vipassana; but, the dharma is the dharma. Siddhartha Gautama ("the" Buddha) taught what he taught, no matter the cultural influences that affect the form of practice. I have a long history with the meditation methods taught in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism - 13 years history - but have had a bit of a disillusionment with the teaching establishment (those located in Northern California) over the last few years. I am not necessarily looking for a new lineage, but am definitely adjusting my expectations and plans with respect to the old lineage.

With that in mind, I introduced myself to the Fashi (title of "teacher" in the Chan tradition), and told him what my current mind-state is about my practice. He was gracious, and invited me to take part in Dharma Drum activities -- even to sit in with a Dharma discussion group that meets on Tuesday nights. This last bit was an invitation to a group that is by invitation only -- I love this fact, which means my ego might not deserve the invitation.

Anyway! During the Dharma talk given by the Fashi on Saturday night, he spoke of the Sutta of Complete Enlightenment. This is not one of the Suttas emphasized in my tradition, but I recognized the teaching (again, Buddha taught what he taught), and it is this bit of paradox (paraphrased): don't have discursive thinking while meditation, i.e. focus all of your mind and its attention on your method of practice - for instance, watching/being with the breath (a very limited way of describing my method); and don't eliminate/push away discursive thinking while meditation.

Like I said, a paradox. Quite the useful paradox, though, it turns out.

So, retreat is like this: put all your electronics, your books, your music, your t.v., your everything away and set up a simple camp in a clean, cell-like room in a dorm. Also, put away all clocks and watches -- the schedule is easy to follow if you stay aware of the signals, such as banging of a wood block to wake you up, or the striking of a bell to let you know it's time to walk to the meditation hall, etc. 

Then, after various formalities including bowing (in the Chan tradition), you sit absolutely still in one position (on a cushion on the ground with crossed legs, or sitting on a cushion with your knees bent under you) for 40 minutes. Take a short break. Do it again. Maybe do a 40 minute walking meditation (visualize a row of people walking as if they were on a slow motion reel). Sit again. Listen to a dharma talk (twice a day).

You do this from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. with 2 hours each for breakfast and lunch, about an hour and a half for dinner. During these breaks, you eat, shower, do chores assigned to you, take naps, take walks. I cleaned the women's bathroom in the meditation hall as my chore.

What actually happens on retreat has little to do with all of that, and is a little difficult to express in words. Of course, the Buddha found words, something we now call the dharma (or, in my tradition, the damma - which is the Pali word for the Sanskrit dharma). The Dharma can be capital D or lowercase d. Lowercase d dharma is sort of like, the way or the path - or, as I think of it - just life.

The capital D Dharma are the teachings of the Buddha, and can often present paradoxical instructions such as that I was offered by Fashi during retreat this past weekend:  direct your mind to your method (i.e. watching/being your breath for me) and don't engage in thinking BUT if you think, don't suppress your thoughts.

For someone like me, whose mind is just one long train of discursive thinking, this paradox was delicious!

A long time ago, I'd realized that I had to let my mind just go on about its thinking ways. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. So, most of the time, whether on or off the cushion as meditators say, I have a million thoughts coming at me from every direction, all the time. It can be painful, but most of the time it's just annoying. I've been known to do a lot of things to get away from my head - some really self-destructive like drugs or raging, and some just common place distractions like television.

What was so great about the Fashi's teaching on Sutta of Complete Enlightnment was how the Buddha summarized that particular form of suffering, i.e. the suffering that arises from a too-busy mind. My mind latched onto it with every bit of its attention...

...and suddenly, I felt that crowd of thoughts just melt into wherever they came from...I wasn't thinking them AND I hadn't suppressed them.

Of course, I almost immediately started to think about how COOL the whole experience was, and there came that thought train again...and then the retreat was over.

Even so, the knowledge that I don't have to live as a prisoner to crowded and racing thoughts stays with me, and that knowledge alone causes me some peace.

Whew. Where was I? Oh, yeah, I'm going to Asia for six weeks, and I'm leaving in about two weeks. My first stop is Taiwan, where I will meet up with another Fashi at the Dharma Drum center in Taiwan, and I hope, stay there for a few days soaking up some more dharma, and Dharma. I also plan on soaking in some of Taiwan's famous hot springs - there's a lava flow underneath the island - and eat some yummy beef noodle soup.

And, then, it's on to Burma, to see the country that birthed one of the truly great human beings in history, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and daughter of the man who led Burma out of bondage to the British Empire, Aung San Suu Kyi. After British rule, the country had a short respite before being put back into bondage, this time by one of the most outrageous military dictatorships of the modern era.

Aung San Suu Kyi, or The Lady as the Burmese call her with much love, along with her party (she is Chair and General Secretary), the National League for Democracy (NLD) were elected to a majority in 1990, despite the fact that she had already been detained by the military. She has been held under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years, but currently sits in the lower house of Parliament, and has announced her bid for president in 2015.

 I read a book about the history of the country as seen through the eyes of a visiting Orwell scholar (George Orwell was a British officer in Burma before he left service to write), who was traveling around the places Orwell lived. Very good book for people interested in George Orwell, Burma, the consequences of oppression generally, etc.

I also downloaded Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi to read on the plane.

I have little planned for Burma as of yet, although I have ideas for side trips after I arrive in Yangon (renamed by the military dictatorship - it used to be Rangoon). I'll probably have to take notes and write a blog from Thailand, which is my next stop. Burma, I hear, is a bit like entering one of those time capsules...the country stopped in the 1950's, and the internet is still new there.

After Burma, I fly to Bangkok on December 26 to meet up with one of my dear friends, Kelly. We'll be celebrating her 50th birthday on an island called Ko Lanta. Ahhh...white beaches, blue ocean, a cold beer...nice.

And, then, home to New York on January 14, and back to planning the next great adventure...

Next time I write on this blog, I hope to be above the clouds, on my way to Asia. See you then!