India 2019

India 2019

How would I describe India?

Now that I have been back for a week that seems to be the question everyone has been asking me. I never thought such an easy question could be so complicated. As I converse with people who have been there in recent years, I have found that I am not alone. There was however a common theme, there seems to be two camps of people; people who loved it and people who hated it. I cannot say that I am in either camp, my verdict is still out. I think the better question is, would I go back?

The answer is yes, but only in the right circumstances. India is the most challenging country I have ever visited. There is a huge social aspect to it, the class system, the poverty, the life style. It is completely different from what we know as Americans. (Please keep in mind this is a very American perspective.) While there, I was asked by a lovely young, educated man (21), what I liked best about the US. I quickly answered that it was clean and organized. (Yes, I recognize that there are countries that are cleaner and more organized. This was a general question.) I think my answer was a reflection of where I was physically, at that moment. For me India was utter chaos.

So what is the right circumstance for a return visit? A wedding. Indian weddings are notorious for being amazing. I would love to experience that. The opportunity to be in the South, I understand it is completely different there. Or perhaps the opportunity to volunteer with an organization. Mostly an opportunity that is directed and confined. I don’t think I would ever just explore as we did in Peru or even in China. It would have to be a focused trip.

Not The Expected Journey

I was unsure of what to expect from this opportunity but I felt strongly enough that I wanted to go. I waited 3 years for the invitation to join a group of Vietnamese Buddhists on a pilgrimage to India and Nepal. The birthplace of Buddhism. I had never wanted to go to India before this because of all of the stories I had heard of poverty, crazy hot foods and general lack of cleanliness. But this seemed like the right opportunity. It felt like if I was to ever go to India it would be for something like this.

When asked what I was hoping to get out of the trip my answer was simple. An experience that I would not have otherwise and maybe, just maybe to underscore my faith in Buddhism. But in the back of my mind, it was more about the opportunity to go places that I would not have gone to on my own. That is just honest.

When asked what I expected? Hours of prayer and meditation. Which I got and then some.

From the beginning this trip was problematic, as things seemed very archaic. The “booklet” that was sent was a photocopy. Literally. And it was ALL in Vietnamese. Did I mention that I don’t read Vietnamese? Luckily, there is thing called Google Translate, and it came in very handy. The booklet laid out in no uncertain terms that this was not a trip for tourists (oops) and that unless you were Buddhist or are seeking to be Buddhist, this was not a trip for you. Well, it wasn’t like I did not qualify. The booklet lacked what I would consider as substantive. That was ok, I had my aunt for that.

My aunt was the person who invited me to join this excursion. Co Hoa (my aunt) lived what I would describe as a monastic life. After her husband left her for another woman, she chose to dedicate herself to her religion and sits in prayer and meditation for more than 6 hours a day. She has chosen a simple life letting go of material needs and wants. She appears to be happy and someone who wants for nothing but to be with her scripture and religion. She seemed like the right person to partner with on a religious pilgrimage. In the end, she would become one of the many “challenges” of the trip.

Believing that I might never return to that part of the world and aware of the difficulty in reaching such a place from the US I decided it would be best to take advantage of the trip by rounding it out with a few extras. I scheduled an extra week onto the trip with a friend (Mary) to see the iconic Taj Mahal and do a little business. This would be the highlight of my trip. Had it not been my commitment to Mary, I would have left India long before the end date of the tour.

With ticket and visa in hand I embarked into the unknown. This was the most trepidation I had ever had before a trip, but my heart was open and ready for perhaps transcendence.

Starting From the End

I thought it would be best to start at the end of my trip because it was the most non-controversial part of the trip.

Mary, my friend from Tokyo had previously mentioned that she wanted to go to India. Considering she was so “close”, I thought it would be nice to invite her to join me after I was done with the “tour”. But even this was not quite how it happened. At the end of the trip I thanked Mary for agreeing to join. To this she quickly corrected me and pointed out that she invited herself! She remembered how emboldened she felt for such a bold move. Ha! However it happened, I was most thankful for her presence and giving me something to look forward to; to salvage my trip.

We kicked off her part of the trip with the Taj Mahal. We hired a tour guide for our excursion, and in the words of Mary, “He was worth every penny.” For me it was doubly so. I had already been there a week before and was given a different perspective (doom and gloom) of the king who built it. This time, we were guided by a Muslim who would share the beauty and the loving story from which the site was built. It was a blessing to see it from a perspective of appreciation. Shortly after we arrived Mary found herself in tears of happiness. This had been on her list for as long as she could remember and she was finally there. Wow, what a great feeling to be a part of that with someone. For me, the Taj was more than I had expected, amazing and beautiful.

My trip with Mary was the kind of traveling I like to do. The opportunity to stay with local people, sharing home meals and being able to participate in gatherings with locals is the best way to experience a foreign country. Luckily for us we had a mutual friend who happened to be in Jaipur during our stay and invited us to stay with his family. We experienced local food the way that everyday people enjoyed it. Despite the gas we enjoyed every moment. We also went to a couple of “western” restaurants because I was desperate for a break from Indian food. But they were not so “western”, there was always something that was a little “Indian” to it. Just like in China, there was always something “different” about it. Meh.

We got to go shopping at local markets instead of just tourist markets. Where according to Mary, the men were all staring at my legs because I was wearing shorts! It was winter in India too and it was cold, like 60˚F cold. Oh, my. We found the jewelry market but didn’t buy any jewels. We got to visit a couple of manufacturers of gemstones to see how business was conducted in India.

Then there were the magnificent sites found in coffee table books. Along with site images, never before had I enjoyed street photography as I did on this trip. This was the first time I couldn’t get enough of taking pictures of people. The color of our surroundings was amazing. India never disappointed with hundreds of photo opportunities. I came home with more than 2k images. Despite all of the pretty pictures to be had there were just as many of real life that were not taken. It was only on the second day of the trip that I had decided how unfair it would be to be taking pictures of the piles and piles of filth and the poverty that was present almost everywhere.

In the conclusion, India is rich in history, though you can say that about any place in the world. India has amazing sites, I was lucky enough to visit about 5 Unesco World Heritage sites. India was not as hard to navigate as I had assumed. With the right planning and private drivers we were able to navigate our way fairly easily. I made a few mistakes along the way, but was able to remedy them before they became problematic. Like many tourist destinations, in such countries, we had to be on our guard for scammers at every corner. It is just a fact of being a tourist. Poverty and grime is just a part of life there. It is not a country for the timid or first time travelers. Life there is hard and it is a hard trip to take. I had mentally and emotionally prepared for poverty and begging that we would encounter. I believe that being resolved before arrival allowed me to less conflicted.

Would I go again? Mary and I did agree that we would meet in India again for a wedding. Something we would both like to experience. Indian weddings are notorious for being over the top and quiet the party. Aside from that, my verdict is still out. It is unclear to me how different other parts of India would be. But I think that for most tourists, India is much like Jamaica, if you don’t leave the resort everything is great. Similarly for people who visit India, they stay within the confines of tourist locals which makes it much easier than venturing out with the locals.

The Pilgrimage – not really a travel blog, more like a journal.

I would be the only person to travel alone to meet up with the group. This simple act would have the monks overly concerned. And despite best efforts to assure them that I would be fine on my own to make my way to the agreed hotel, they stayed at the airport until my arrival…without communicating it with me. But as luck would have it, I accidentally left the airport and was made to stand outside where I bumped into the Vietnamese looking monk and Vietnamese looking people, who ended up being the group.

Though I was willing to wait 2 hours for the arrival of Co Hoa, they insisted on transporting me to the hotel so that I may get proper “rest” in the meantime.
The first morning I reluctantly joined everyone in the dining room for breakfast. As expected, no one spoke to me. So I sat with the roommate I was assigned the night before while waiting for my aunt to join me. We were given a leisurely morning as they waited for the rest of the group to arrive.

Our first outing would be to the National Museum in Delhi. And despite the short bus ride, there would be a prayer service on the way. OMG. As if that was not enough, when we arrived at the museum, there was another prayer service in the museum. So why the museum? Because there is a relic of Buddha there. And we were not the first to do such a thing. There was already a group gathered doing the same thing and we had to wait for them to clear the area before we were able to take our place in front of the display to conduct our prayer hour. Wow.

On Day 2 we were set to leave Delhi. My suspicions of organization or lack thereof revealed itself early. We left 1.5 hours late that morning because they were unable to pack the bus due to the overabundance of luggage and oh, could it be the 10-15 boxes of stuff they brought along of food (literally snacks and other things for the trip), charitable goods and lord know what else. There was just a lot of stuff! Oh, how many people were on this trip? 40! 43 if you include the tour guide and the 2 drivers.

As soon as we were underway that morning to the Taj, there would be a worship service, chanting and bells not to be left out. Then came the lecture about the site we were to see. AND of course the obligatory sermon. Yeah, didn’t realize that Buddhists did sermons, but they really do. It was a four hour trip to reach our excursion which included a stop for the bathroom and another for lunch. You wonder how the group got behind schedule, snort. Our next hotel would be another 6 hours away where they finally fed us dinner at 10pm!

By Day 3 I was abundantly clear about my life for the next 10 days! To such I started a score board. Every day would start at about 4am, get dressed go to breakfast (which by day 4 I was no longer eating at that hour) and get on a bus by 5am. Ride on the bus for a number of hours during which there would be a worship service or two or… four; a sermon or two or… six, a lecture or two or four; testimonials or two or lost count; and finally “karaoke”, which I did not bother counting.

For those still reading at this junction, let me define all of this. Just to underscore the point, most of this was happening on the bus.

Worship/prayer service – For Buddhists it means sitting together to chant scripture, out loud. It is led by a monk and memorized by the congregation. For me, having only been to a couple dozens of these in my life time as a child, I would have no clue what was being said. And despite my knowledge of Vietnamese I still have zero understanding of the words that were being chanted. Additionally, there is a brass bell rung in sequence with the chanting. I don’t truly know why they use a bell, except that it acts like a metronome. Unfortunately for me the bell was being rung directly next to me by the nuns. The constant ringing amplified the motion sickness I was experiencing from being on a bus for long hours.

Luckily, the night before leaving on this trip I read a quick blog of the top 10 things you should bring on your trip to India. One of the items on the list were ear plugs for the city noise. Despite already packing my noise canceling headset for the plane I decided that ear plugs were small and light enough that it should not make a difference. By day 4 they were in my pocket ready for the bus rides. This further explains why I lost count for the score board. The ear plugs allowed me undisturbed sleep on the bus!

So the question is, does a sermon or worship count if I slept through it? According to my therapist friend it does because one does “hear” in their sleep. However, if I was snoring so loud as to disturb or be disruptive to other people it would not count. Just in case you were wondering. In case you were wondering further, when awake, I would use this time to meditate.

Sermons – I have never known Buddhists to have sermons. This is the first time I would experience this. And it got deep. Sermons are exactly that, talks about how to live your life according to scripture by interpretation of the monks. The sermons on this trip were mostly conducted by two of the four monks. One of whom thought himself a poet and would recite poetry as part of the sermon; the other thought himself a comedian and would make jokes along way. This is cute and but by at some point for me it just got annoying, not only because there were wayyyyy too many and over the top, but because at the end of a joke or poem they would literally say, “Clap your hands.” My interpretation of that, “Praise me, I did something really good.” Nothing like a little Buddhist humility. (If you continue reading, it is only going to get more cynical from this point on.) It also did not help that I barely understood the Vietnamese.

Lectures – These were talks about the site that were about to see. Historical information meant to be informative. Lectures were generally reserved for the “in house India” monk. This monk had spent the past 10 years living and preaching in India, thus he was considered the expert on all things India. At some point I stopped listening when I started fact checking some information that I considered sensationalized. And I was right. Some of the information was incorrect and a product of folk lore made out to be facts. If you know me, you know that I prefer to stick with the truth when presented with historical “facts”.

This monk, like the others, also like hearing himself speak…a lot. Lectures could have taken about a fourth of the time but because he literally repeated himself three or four times. It draggggggged on and on and on and on. . I decided that perhaps it was my lack of Vietnamese that I thought it was repetitive; nope, it really was repetitive. To amuse myself I started counting just to make sure. This was later verified when other people from the group mentioned it in conversation One more reason why I started tuning out.

Testimonials – Another new concept for me as a Buddhist. I had never witnessed Buddhists making testimonials about their faith. I believe that as a way to “kill time” on the ride the monks started asking people to come forward to make testimonials about their decision to join the pilgrimage. This, by the way, also included monetary offerings to the “temple/monks”. Yes, there were public rallies to give additional monies to the cause (I will define this later in the blog).

Karaoke – Short of a karaoke machine, there would be much singing, all in Vietnamese of course. There were several people who thought themselves singers and would sing Vietnamese folk songs. Some became singalongs while others were just “entertainment”. Again, despite my parents’ best efforts to expose my sister and I to Vietnamese traditions, some things just did not stick. This would be one of them.

During the entire trip communication was one of my biggest challenges. I would describe my knowledge of the Vietnamese language as that of and eight year old. Thus, when scripture is discussed, it was all tongues to me. My parents are from the North, which, by default, makes me a northerner too. People from different parts of any country usually have a different accent (and sometimes dialect), but in this case it was purely accent. Their sound and tones were different from what I was exposed to thus comprehension was a challenge. At some point, I was told that my Vietnamese was quite “stiff”. I have no idea what that really meant, but then I started asking people to speak more “stiffly” so that I might understand them. It sorta worked.

The Unicorn

By Day 2 I discovered that I was quite the unicorn. As much as I thought I was going to be with “my own people”, in my gut I knew that I would be different. I did not put much thought into these differences going into the trip because I felt that my focus was not to be with the group but to be with my faith. Even as I am writing this I am discovering how idealistic these ideas were.

From the beginning, the differences were very stark. I do not dress like them, think travel-Americana. I did not look like them, what? How could this be? Well, all my life I have known that I my looks were very homogenous Asian and did not have really strong Vietnamese markers. Regardless of which Asian country I was in, the natives always thought I was one of them with exception of Vietnam. Vietnamese people have never in my life been able to identify me as one of them. I did not sound like them, as mentioned, my Vietnamese is very “stiff”. With exception of one person, I had spent more time in the US and came to the US at the youngest age, which also meant that I was the one who spoke the most English. Then there was this crazy fact, I looked like some famous actress (don’t ask me who), which added to the intimidation. Lastly, I was the only one not tied to a temple of any sort, my only connection was my aunt.

All of these traits would put me on the outs with the group. I discovered through conversation that there was some hesitation to converse with me because some thought I was crasher from another race thus they assumed I would not be able to speak Vietnamese and shied away. Even on day 10 someone told me that she was surprised to hear me speak Vietnamese. Ugh. Then there were a few who thought I was someone famous and also shied away. Luckily, there was a couple who was amused by this fact and made it the reason to engage with me. It was also revealed that I appeared intimidating because I was so quiet. Hello people, no one was talking to me, of course I was quiet.

Identifying this early on in the trip, I made a point to converse with people (in Vietnamese) and to put myself out there during meal times. I also used my camera as a tool to engage with others. It only sort of worked. I think it made people more comfortable with my presence but it was not enough to motivate them to do more. In the end, I think that this was more about them then about me. One of the many lessons from this trip. You can only be who you are, it is not up to you to make others accept you.

The Highlight

By Day 5 I found the light that would be my salvation. There was a group of four “kids” who were mostly in their late 20’s. They were all members of the same temple in Iowa and were on the trip to be “helpers”. At some point I overheard two of them discussing how to create a photography effect. Having knowledge of this, thanks to my sister, I decided it was my opportunity to engage. It was a start. That evening I decided to invite myself on their excursion into town to go shopping. From there they became my salvation. They were willing to converse with me in Vietnamese AND English as needed; I related to them the most because of their sense of adventure. But mostly because there was mutual respect between us.

The Monks/The 3 Amigos

This would be the most emotionally challenging “thing” I have ever done. I had no idea what I was going to encounter and the depths of which it would affect me. My hope was that I might hear things that were profound and enlightening, things that might give me more meaning to my understanding of Buddhism, my faith. Or perhaps even make my faith stronger. Instead, I left disenchanted and disgusted with what I was witnessing. My heart was broken and I could not reconcile what I was experiencing.

This trip was “sponsored” by one of the most respected monks in the US. He (the poet) was joined by three other monks, one residing in Florida (the comic), one in India (the story teller) and a very young, 23 year old monk from Vietnam (the Boy). Additionally, there were 6 nuns, some of whom came directly from Vietnam, the others from around the US with some connection to the lead monk. The rest of the group were made up of people from around the country, all of whom were somehow affiliated with the temples mentioned.

My expectations (so I thought) were simple. Mindful, respectful, do-gooders. Right? A group of people who were seeking to give charity and do charitable work while strengthening their faith. My assumption was, if you are willing to go half-way around the world on a pilgrimage perhaps you would have a heightened understanding of your faith and religion. I was grossly wrong or perhaps my understanding of said truth is grossly different from, almost, everyone on that bus.

What I found was a group of people who were (mostly) willing to believe everything they heard and follow along without question. They obediently did what was asked and seemingly happy to do it.

So what really was the problem? To understand my discord with the situation I need to first define what Buddhism means to me. For me, at its core, Buddhism is about humility, compassion, kindness and understanding. Materialism is something that should not be embodied. It is about simplicity. It is about living well by doing right by others. To reach nirvana you must also create merit. Merit, creating good deeds for others. I do not believe in doing deeds for the sake of merit. I believe that you should do good deeds because it is the right thing to do, and if there is merit to be earned it will come in its time. Much like the concept of respect, it is earned. Just because you gave a dollar to a charity does not mean you should earn merit.

All of this said, I do recognize that for most Vietnamese Buddhists, my understanding of merit is different. They not only believe but demonstrated during the trip that you can earn merit by handing a panhandler money.

My expectation is that religious leaders should embody these concepts and that it is their vow to share this understanding. My naivety resulted in great disappointment.

It was only Day 2 when I first witnessed the disgusting acts of the monks. In India there is a HUGE disparity between the rich and the poor. To say that they are simply poor is an understatement, most of those who are panhandling are homeless and seeking out some sort of existence. It is common knowledge that they prey on tourists for hand-outs especially at tourist sites. At times there would be masses of these people begging and it was quite overwhelming. I do not give to panhandlers. It was and is a clear choice that I had made before going to India. I believe that my monies are better served by giving to larger institutions, this is very personal philosophy. But if someone was to choose to give to panhandlers, that is their choice and I would not judge that, until I did. I also believe that charity is simply that, something that should be given without expectation of reward. When you hand someone money, ultimately it is out of your hands. What they do with it is up to them.

On this day, I watched as the Comic gave money ($0.12) to a young boy. The boy immediately took the money and tried to buy a snack from another boy who was standing near. The monk did not find this acceptable and insisted that the translator tell him so. They actually went back and forth (between the monk, the translator and the boy) on this until the monk eventually gave up.

The next day the Comic stopped a tuk tuk full of school children to hand them money. Again, about $0.12 each. This was a random group of kids who were NOT panhandling. They were simply driving by. But do you blame them for stopping when there is someone handing out money? Lets be honest, I would totally stop. Furthermore, the monk saw me with my camera and insisted that I took pictures of him giving money to the needy. Because it would make for a “beautiful picture”. The same monk would look around and find random people to give money to. Random people! He identified them as “pitiful” looking, waved them closer and give them money. I witnessed this time and time again. I will never forget the look in some of these peoples’ faces. I don’t even know how to put it into words. For me this is total and utter disrespect. Can you imagine someone handing you money because your looked pathetic? OMG.

Every time there was money given the monks would be proud of themselves and the group. It was brought up on the bus. “Look how much merit we created.” “Look how we changed their lives.” They even had the audacity to tell the group that the only time panhandlers came around were to busses of Vietnamese people, because they were the only ones who were charitable among all of the tourists. They were so proud of themselves.

The taste in mouth was souring quickly. Yet I remained hopeful that we would be doing charitable work soon and it would make up for all that was wrong. I was so wrong. The distasteful comments continued. “Look at those people, we should pity them.” “Despite the opportunities given to them (the poor), they chose to be beggars.” “Indian people are just like the American Blacks, they just do whatever they want to.” “Did you know that poor Indian mothers purposely cripple their children so that they can make more money begging?” Should I go on?

At some point I found myself writing this to a friend, “Well, after 4 days my disappointment grows. I am profoundly disgusted by the bigotry of the monks disguised as pity. They might call it sympathy but translated I say it is pity. Sigh. Lesson of the day, how to walk away.” My disgust would only grow as the trip continued.

Like the Christian world, Buddhist monks and nuns live by contributions from the congregation. During this trip, there were many times that the group would be asked to open their wallets to contribute to the cause at hand; another temple in India, monks in need, school children, etc… In the end, over $20k was collected. Woah. However, after distribution there were monies left over, to the tune of $4k! The Poet decided that he would ask the two largest donors if they would like to have their money returned or if they would like the money to be redistributed to his temple. This was done on the bus! In front of the entire group. What do you think happened? Duh. Really?

That same day we went to an elementary school to distribute school supplies to 500 children. While there, the principal mentioned that the children could only afford one set of school uniform each. So the Poet offered to buy them a second set at $5 each totally $2500. He then asked the group for the money and once again raised money for the cause. I would like to know why the $4K surplus was not used for the uniforms?

The Three Amigos (I don’t count the Boy Monk because he was a complete departure) and the nuns were always consumed with having their picture taken. It was so narcissistic. Always was the we need to take a group picture at every site to commemorate the trip. They spent more time taking pictures of themselves than communing with the site. And since it became known that I knew how to take pretty pictures, I became everyone’s personal photographer. To the tune of over 500 photos. At some point I found myself walking away.

These kinds of actions would be throughout the trip. My disdain only grew. The event that pushed me to finally walk away? The “charitable” work we were doing.

The Poet shared his excitement for this event. A most joyous thing that we were doing and that he was very proud to be able to set this up for the group because we would earn so much merit for it.

We were in Bihar, the absolute poorest state in India. Where there is a very large homeless community. The monk had worked with a local hotel to allow us to use the courtyard in front of the hotel to feed the hungry. Hot food was ordered through the hotel to be provided to these people. Our job was to facilitate the distribution of said meals to some 300 people. Not sure how the word got out, but before we knew it, the courtyard was filled with men, women and children. We were so overwhelmed that they had to close the gates to keep control of the population.

People who were allowed through were asked to sit down on the ground in rows for the meal. Plastic plates and bowls were distributed though some people brought their own. Large stock pots of rice and lentils were brought out for distribution. We spooned out the food into the plates on the ground. People ate with their hands as it is customary in India. (Utensils were no provided.) The lack of organization and instruction created chaos, it was a frenzy. No one knew how much to distribute and if there would be enough to go around. I decided that if someone was asking for more food I would just give it to them, after all, they were hungry! Some took seconds in their own bowls to take home. This apparently was a conflict for some of the people in the group and resisted. I made the argument that they were simply hungry and that this was for charity, there was no reason to pass judgement nor should we limit the charity, after all it was Just food. If I was hungry and living on the streets, I am sure I would have done the same. Perhaps they had someone on the other side of the gate who also needed a meal. Whatever the case, there should not have been hesitation to dish out food.

The entire scene was surreal and repugnant. I could not find anything about this that was joyous and dignified. As if it were not enough, this happened. The Comic monk, as he watched the people eat with the look of disgust, said to me, “Look at them, they eat like dogs and pigs. Pity isn’t it?” It felt like a knife in my heart. I was completely destroyed by these words, by these actions. It was more than I could bare. I had had enough. I found a corner and sat quietly. One of the kids saw the look in face and asked if I was ok. As the seconds ticked I grew more and more hurt and the tears found their way to the surface; I couldn’t stop crying. I felt betrayed.

When we returned to the hotel, I just couldn’t be with “them” anymore. I was at my wits end. I felt as if my heart was broken. I felt shattered to my core. Everything I just witnessed contradicted everything I held sacred and beautiful. How was it possible that these so called faithful people could be so ugly? How was this behavior acceptable? I wanted no part of it. I could not be a part of it. I just wanted to run away. What is wrong with these people?!

This kind of behavior would continue throughout the rest of the trip. I did my best to tune it out. As I questioned my current reality I decided that that this was the journey. How to find understanding and compassion for ignorance. Luckily I had a friend in the group (ironically one of the kids) and a friend in the states who would help me back to my path. And though I still feel disappointment today as I write this journal, I feel that there was a path and I need to find more understanding of it.

After the food line, I started walking away from the group as I felt necessary. While everyone else filed in line and did as they were told, I found it interesting that no one would ask me about my absence. For me, this departure took a tremendous amount of strength. I felt that it was a test of my core beliefs. When do you stand behind your beliefs? Never allow the majority to dictate your path. Being alone does not mean you have been defeated, sometimes to stand alone is to be true to yourself.

The Czechs

We were in Bihar for four days. While there we would get up every morning at 4:30am for morning prayers at the temple, return for breakfast at 7am and depart at 9am to do “charitable” work of some sort. Then every evening after dinner we would return to the temple at about 7pm for more worshiping until the temple closed at 9pm. Four days of this.

After the incident with the food line, I needed some space. I decided that it would be best to walk away from “practicing” and spend some time on my own. As I walked through the town I found myself at a “western café” (their description) owned by a couple from Russia. This was their annual pilgrimage to India; five months in Bihar to commune with other Buddhists and be vegan restaurateurs. It was amazing. I lunched there earlier that day and felt that it was a safe place to be and perhaps have someone to speak English with.

There I met a young couple from Czechoslovakia hanging out in the café conversing with a former American practicing Sadhu. They welcomed me into their circle. It was amazing. They could see that I was distraught and invited me to share my story. In the end, the couple challenged me to seek out another monk to seek guidance. Through their own experience, they felt that I needed to find another person who exuded happiness, kindness and joy. They believed that these people existed and that I just needed to be open to finding them; for when I did I would be able to see a better way. Fortunately, there was much opportunity to find said person because there were 3,000 monks hanging out at the temple that week for a conference.

In my heart I knew that this existed, I just needed a little reminding. That there are people who just radiate a certain energy that their presence was enough to impact you. Without a word, without anything just their presence. I took the challenge. I would walk the temple grounds with a different purpose. I would contemplate my path forward and seek someone who could assure me of that path.

On the last night in Bihar I found him. He was just standing there making conversation with some French people about what we were watching. His energy was true and seemed genuine, so I asked him to speak to me. Of course he said yes. He politely listened as I shared my disappointment in the Three Amigos while not successfully holding back tears. He acknowledged how I was feeling and in a few sentences set me back on my path. He reminded me that they were human, with human faults. That their actions were simply made up of their life experience, and though their behavior was unfortunate they are still human. He gently pointed out my wrongs; that I had forgotten this simple fact, and that I needed to find compassion for their ignorance. I believe he was right.

My Aunt, the Blindside

I was so excited to embark on this trip with my maternal aunt. As a family we are not close to any of our aunts and uncles. After all, we are from a war torn country. Family separate for decades without seeing one another. Opportunities to reunite are few and far in between. What I knew of my aunt was limited and brief. I thought I knew who she was, until I did not. By the time we were about 6 days into the trip she would stop speaking to me. I came to realize that she was very silent and even stopped looking at me and for the life of me I could not figure out why.

Things had already started falling apart for me on this journey and I could not bear yet another aspect going wrong. So I put on my big girl pants and breached the topic. Why are you not speaking to me? What have I done to create such sadness for her? She refused to “speak” to me. Instead in anger she yelled at me and told me that I should think about it. That if I had thought about it I would have the answer for myself. Confused and distressed I chose a path that I thought would defuse the situation, I apologized for creating an unhappy situation and offered to leave. She refused my apology stating that I “had nothing to apologize for”. Asking, “why would you apologize?” And concluded with, “you are just ignorant about life. You don’t understand anything.” Sometimes you just can’t win for losing. And on this day that would be my reality. With nothing more to offer I walked out of the room and we did not speak again, period.

It took a conversation with older lady (73) in the group before I understood where I went wrong. Apparently my prompting her to join the group instead of sitting alone was disrespectful. My insistence of verifying information instead of just accepting lore as facts was disrespectful. My helping her to reduce stress was just insulting. The bottom line, I was just too American.

She whom I thought would be my guide through this trip blindsided me. Sigh.

The Take Away

My heart was broken and I felt shattered but I never gave up on my faith. The Buddhist in me is reminded that everything happens for reason, the American in me wishes it were an easier path without a trip halfway around the world. This was all a learning exercise in compassion and understanding. How will I find way to forgive others for their human failings? How do I stand and be true to myself while those around me chose ignorance. How can I create an environment of positivity despite the cynicism of the majority?

I am left with much introspection about my own strength and willingness to be myself in the face of adversity. I have grown some as a result of this trip but I believe that this will be a never ending journey. I can only hope that I will continue to see things more positively and not allow disappointment to sway my resolve.

A Month Later...

As I have visited with friends shortly after the trip I have retold this story many times. Every time I have done so I learned something more about my journey. One of the most interesting points was about my will. I was told that I was a strongly opinionated person and that it was hard to sway my opinion. This took me a back a little. Yes, I have very strong opinions about that way life should be, but if my philosophy is flawed no one has yet to call me out. I am deeply resolved that treating people as you would treat yourself should be a way of life. Treating people with the respect that you would expect for yourself is simple. Being humane to other humans should not take a revelation. If having a strong core belief in humanity deserves criticism I guess I will live a life of criticism.

I also discovered in my story telling where my expectation came from. This took a month to discover. If I grew up with these so called “practices” how did I now know how this was going to be? It turns out that when I went through the process of confirmation over 20 years before with the renowned Thich Nhat Hanh, this was not how things were conducted. What I had modeled in my head from 20 years ago set the stage for my expectations and disappointment.

There is much more that I need to contemplate about my trip as I continue to digest it. This I know for sure, despite the hurt, my life has been altered in a good way. I find myself more sensitive than before, more fervent in my philosophies on life, and more devoted to a path of understanding.

Thank you for making it all the way to the end. I hope to meet you again along the way.
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