Awakin Dialogue With Zilong (in India!)
Posted by Meghna Banker on Oct 30, 2016
Q: We are so honored to have at this Awakin Circle, among so many of us who have been following your pilgrimage online. Welcome!
Zilong: Thank you.These days, I feel like my center of gravity is more in the underworld, so I'll share from that place. Before going there, just to get the logistics of it -- I'm on an open-ended pilgrimage, maybe 2 or 3 years or it might end tomorrow, to go around the world. Mostly by bicycle, heading back east to China, where I grew up till the age of 17. The initial calling is to be in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening that's so alive for our generation.
The idea of the pilgrimage came in early 2015, as an answer to a call I had been putting out to the universe. If I give myself more fully to service, how can I be an instrument? It's like dialing up God for a year. No answer, no answer. Then one day, suddenly got a text saying -- ride your bike to China. I almost had tears in my eyes because I knew this is it. All the rest were details. I had to quit my job, lose my work Visa, green card, insurance, and everything and explain this to my parents.
Then actually go on the pilgrimage. Go into the underworld, to the place that I least wanted to go. It took a year of preparing, after kicking and screaming trying to suppress that idea, until it became too unbearable that if I don't do it, the calling will kill me. I would have to surrender to it and do it. I told my boss that I will quit my job by the end of the year. My boss said, "Yeah, I saw it coming." On the upside, that boss, for the past 2 years since I've been meditating, said that he started to see the change in me. He also asked me, "Where do you do your meditation?" I said, "Well there's this 10 day course that you can go to." But he said he is not ready for a 10 day. :)
A few months ago, I had a dream of the exact time and location where he will do his first 10 day meditation and I will be there to serve. A few days after that dream, I got an e-mail out of nowhere from him and he said, "My daughter is 18. She's off to college. I'm an empty-nester. I think I'm ready to sit a 10 day and would love if you could be there." He signed up to sit at the exact time and location as in the dream this coming Winter in the US and I will sign up to serve that 10 day. It felt like destiny in many ways.
Q: Can you share a bit more about your intention behind the pilgrimage?
Zilong: The pilgrimage is called Journey to the East as a play on the book, Journey to the West with the monkey king, that you might've heard of. The journey, for the past 7 years of my life, has been a journey to the West to learn the secret of the West's success, hoping to bring it back home, thinking that it might be the answer to the suffering of China's poverty and weakness. I thought that if China becomes powerful and wealthy, that would solve the problem.
That 7 year journey of the journey to the West is to increase the knowledge everyday. The journey back home to the East is to decrease, do subtraction everyday. It started on February 29 of this year, on the leap year, as a leap of faith. It has been 6 to 8 months into that journey. So far, it has been about 2000 miles bicycling in the US and then a little bit in Tibet, to Nepal, and then into India.
The parts in Asia have been less by traveling by bicycle than traveling with bicycle for various reasons. The bicycle has spent more time on top of a bus than underneath my ... That is part of the reason why I'm confused these days on the pilgrimage and I feel like once again, at a place of dying to the old self. This is dying to the old self. Hopefully not drowning.
Q: What inspired you to take this leap of faith?
Zilong: All you know about these Awakin Circles. This is really coming full circle because such a circle is what really changed my life. The first time I went to an Awakin Circle in Santa Clara, 3 years ago, I met Guri and at the end of the evening, she gave me a book -- Highway Dharma Letters about Heng Sure and Heng Ch'au. Two American monks who on 3 year, 3 steps 1 bow pilgrimage traveling at the pace of 1 mile per day, with a vow of silence. Mostly to repent and to pray for world peace. After receiving that book, I just read it a few pages every morning and it changed my life and planted a seed of a pilgrimage.
Then there's Guri and Nipun's walking pilgrimage in India. Living on a dollar a day between them, walking for 3 months, 1000 kilometers. I had no idea of the magnitude of that commitment until I traveled in India. It's nothing like traveling in the US. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the inner work and the service work that they took on.
This pilgrimage that I'm on, also has no set route. Everyday when I wake up, I will look at the weather and my body condition and go bike toward where the next town. In the evening, I will knock on the door of strangers and ask if I could camp in their backyard. Every single night, somebody will say "yes." Usually 1 in 5 say "yes." All of those who say "yes" have invited me into join them for dinner and often the next day for breakfast. When they open the door, they're a little suspicious. Who is this guy? By the next morning when I leave, we're hugging and tears, as if we've found our new best friends. Some of them are still in touch. One is sending blessings everyday. I remember them everyday.
Another vow of this pilgrimage is no commercialization. No fundraising, no solicitation. No intention to get money or have foundation sponsorship to cover the cost in any way. For any voluntary contribution, I will commit to share online of how much, when, so to publish online. For each donation, I will also pay-forward (and write down) a non-financial gift -- the blessing, the wave, a smile of the face of the car that drives by.
That is truly the sustenance that supports a pilgrim. Money has been the last thing that I needed to worry about. After 8 months, my expenses and the voluntary donation has been in exactly in sync. Never a few hundred dollars apart. I haven't even needed to use my own savings from working. It has really given me faith that when you trust the universe, when you have a pure intention at a need level, you will be taken care of many times over.
Q: Could you also share some of your practices doing the pilgrimages? Personal practices, because I think that's what makes a journey different from just traveling.
Zilong: Yeah. There are 6 vows for the pilgrimage. I thought about the vows for a long time and finally committed to the 6 vows. They're essentially the 5 precepts for the lay Buddhists, taken out the no lying one, because I don't feel like I'm ready to take on that vow. Plus, no commercialization.
The other four are no killing, no stealing, no sex, and no intoxicants. These vows also count as an ecosystem, as a group, that I cannot take one out. For example, the "no sex" vow, I feel that vow has really protected me because I am so often in people's home. I don't want the father to worry about their daughter, or the husband to worry about their wife. I don't want to waste energy in seeking or flirting even with the eyes. That vow cannot stand on its own. I feel like being vegetarian and committing to a daily meditative practice makes that vow possible. So far so good.
All the vows are in tact. No stealing vow is in tact, but only in a narrow sense. In a broader sense, if I sleep more than I need, I'm stealing time from being of service. If I eat more than I need, I'm stealing food from those who need it more than I do. I have definitely stolen in that sense. Only narrowly defined, that vow survives.
Q: Why bicycle? You've named your bike White Dragon? And why do you have an American flag on it?
Zilong: The story of the White Dragon part, the bike has a legend more interesting than my journey. That bike was gifted to me as a college graduation gift. I've biked across the US once. Three years ago, I rode it for 5,000 km. Never locked that bike once. I left it in front of Wal-Mart, a museum. Gone for an hour, come out, no problem. By the time I got to San Francisco, within 3 weeks, the bike was stolen while locked. Surprisingly within 48 hours, that bike was returned to me because a lady who worked for a bicycle messenger bag company, saw the thief walking away with the bike that still has the lock on it. She just cornered the thief and threatened to call the police, and the thief just let the bike and ran away. The woman tweeted the bike to the San Francisco Police Department, and I liked that Twitter account. :)
They matched it with a bicycle I filed a stolen bike report. They called me and said, "We have your bike, come pick it up." They really restored my faith in humanity. Yes, there are a lot of bike thieves out there, but there are these women, men who just step out and redeem my faith.
And here's something that happened at the Move by Love Retreat -- part two of the story. I had thought about when I go back to the US, I will sell the bicycle because I would need a different type of bicycle for the rest of the trip, but in Delhi, a few friends of the Move by Love family in Delhi came around and sang a prayer for the bicycle. At that moment I knew I cannot sell the bicycle. This is a different bicycle than the one I bought earlier, a different wheel size for India. I was hoping, that I can work it a bit and sell it later for a few hundred dollars more.
When a blessing was bestowed upon it, I know there is no way I can sell the bike. I've been secretly waiting to see where the bicycle wants to go. At the Move by Love retreat, many of us were there, we met Brother Tim, who is leaving in less than a month on a three year bicycling program at Jerome Vail Road for peace and friendship. He's leaving from Pune. I asked him a little bit more about his journey. Really moved by his passion and sincerity. At Seva Cafe, I asked him, do you have a bike? He said, no, but I'm about to place an order for a bike tomorrow. I said, don't place the order. Please have my bicycle. It was the most natural thing for both of us. We don't even need to say "thank you," it's just meant to be. The bicycle is being sent to him and I will accompany him, hopefully around the world with many more legends.
The reason why I chose the bicycle is because I want to travel as slowly as my spiritual evolution allows. The more spiritually prepared I am, the slower I would travel. Guri and Nipun, they walked. Reverend Heng Sure bowed. I know I'm not ready to walk, much less bow. The slowest I can go at this point is to bicycle. Any motorized transit as a pilgrimage feels a little too insincere. The bicycle is the fastest mode within the non-motorized transit. That's why I chose to go by bicycle. The name White Dragon Horse has to do with the story journey to the West.
The monk who came to India to study the Dharma, he came from China to India about 1300 years ago. He traveled on a horse, and that horse was called the White Dragon Horse. According to they myth, the White Dragon is the third son of the Dragon that's the King of the Oceans. That third son accidentally ate the horse, and then the Prince felt remorse. He turned himself into a White Horse, to carry the monk onward to India, from China to India to learn Dharma. To learn the teaching. That's why the bike, when I saw the bike as a gift from the mentor as a college graduation, I know that's the White Dragon Horse. That's where the name came from.
Q: The meditation retreat -- where was it? How did you connect to it?
Zilong: In North Fork and in Casa de Paz in California. At the beginning when I said, right now I really feel like I'm in the Underworld, dying to the old self, really looking back has been a series of dying. The pilgrimage is about a series of dying to the old self, and one of the most important dying to the old self happened at a ten day. It was two years ago, when I met some noble friends in the US. They had some special light in them. I asked, "What's your secret? Tell me your secret." After a few weeks, they mentioned that I should consider going for a sit, a ten day sit, and I signed up for a ten day and my boss say, okay. Then a few days he said, "We have a big project coming, we need all hands on deck. You need to cancel the sit." So I canceled. It happened twice. My boss, the work delayed my sit for an entire year. The universe was telling me that I'm not ready -- but now my boss is paying for it by sitting himself. :) It comes back to him, it's his Karma.
When I sat for the first time and came back, I just cried for half an hour straight. I've never cried like that in my whole life. My whole life I had been searching on the outside and now it had turned inward. There I saw the root of all problems, and also the solution. One thread of the whole pilgrimage is -- what is the root of the problem and what is the ultimate solution? That has lead me from Shanghai to Germany to the college in the East Coast and then working the West Coast, but until that point, the light finally turned within and realized wow, all along, the problem was not out there, it's in here.
With that realization, I didn't know how to proceed, how to practice, how to go deeper. That's why I put out the message to the universe. How can I be of service in a different way, how can I retreat into the world? That's why the pilgrimage around the world came both as a retreat and not having to hide in a cave, but to retreat into the world.
The reason why I am now confused is that the journey has created a story on its own. This 3-year bicycling pilgrimage around the world, but it has never been set for 3 years. It's never been about bicycling. But my ego gets attached to the idea that it has to be 3 years, I have to bicycle all the way through.
When I came to India, I gave up the idea of bicycling in India. Because I came in through Bihar and every day at the end of the day, I was just so glad I'm still alive. I thought, well if the rest of the time in India is going to be like this, I'm not going to bicycle. There are safer and saner ways to practice and bicycling in India is not one of them. After traveling in other parts of India I realized, oh maybe it's just some parts of Bihar. It was a big ego check when I was no longer bicycling in Delhi. I have not been on a bicycle for about a month now. Then who am I, if not a bicycling pilgrim? I'm totally out of my routine. There's no doors to knock on.
In the US. I figured out a way to do the program, to do the pilgrimage. But now I'm totally out of context. I have not been able to knock on doors of strangers, I have not been able to bicycle. Really who am I, exactly? What am I doing, exactly? It really is a round of tying to that self identity as the cycling pilgrim.
That's why I've been confused and would love to hear your advice or thoughts on when you're facing the dark night of the soul, what helps you? What practice, what helps you to be grounded and not regress? To keep going, keep staying open, keep having patience?
Q: I admire you for saying that you are in this confused state. If is your confused state, I wonder what you'd be like in your clear state! On your travels, did you ever encounter anybody when you were traveling around wondering what you're doing and why you are here, maybe a Chinese spy?
Zilong: You know, the conversation is being recorded. :) In Dharamsala I did get a visit from the IB. Because as a Chinese in Dharamsala in the Tibetan refugee community, it raises an alarm. But just traveling in daily life, I've been met with the most warm and joyous welcome.
When I was in indeed bicycling Bihar, sweating and there are other people bicycling on their motorcycle they would look, they would slow down, and then they would stop on the side of the road until I passed. They would bike up again, just to have a second viewing. One guy on a motorcycle actually did it 3 times. And many of them would bike with me for a period of time. They were kind of enough to try to speak English and we would chat and they would say, "Oh, stop here, we will have a samosa. I will treat you to a samosa."
It was most heartwarming. It really made me realize all of these boundaries it is so silly, but the collective karma is real. As long as my ego identified with China's ego and a person who lives in India, his ego is identified with India's ego, we will fight a proxy war of our ego by using China and India. This is part of what I learned by leaving China, coming to the US., realizing that I don't really care about China. When I say I care about China I'm never really caring about China. I care about myself. I have an ego.
My ego is derived from how other people view China. Therefore, I want to correct other people's view on China, et cetera. So in the end, it's not really about my love for the people on that land, that culture. It's about my ego. That's the root of the problem. It has nothing to do with China or India, it's my ego, our ego, the ego.
Just to relate to the note that you mentioned, I did carry an American flag the first time I bicycled across the US. I did that for personal safety because the truck drivers, the big semi trucks, they would pass by me so close that a few times it was so dangerous. But when I put an American flag on the back of my bike the patriotic truck drivers, they love it! They will honk, they will give my more space. That has been like my protective shield.
But this time I didn't carry a flag, but I printed out a picture of the Earth with the picture of the Earth from Apollo 13. The image was called the Blue Marble, it was the first time that humans see, that there was a picture of the earth. I put that image on my bike because it's no longer about having the American flag protect my back but about being one with the Earth community.
Q: You had a dream that guided you. Can you just reflect more on the dream and on the exact day and what were your exact feelings at that time? What exactly were the thoughts that came to your mind at that time? And the day after, the next morning, did you doubt yourself?
Zilong: So that timeline was that I first met the Awakin family in San Francisco. Then one year after that, I did my first unguided mediation. And about one year after that the thought came, the calling came to go on a pilgrimage. One year after that, I started the pilgrimage, so it's been this long time. One year of time in between.
After I did the first ten day I knew that I could no longer wholeheartedly do my day job and say that's my life is just to climb the corporate ladder. I didn't know what else to do. During that period of time I started to spend more time serving and volunteering, going to a weekly circle, meditation. That was a very uncomfortable time because I know the job that I had was no longer my work. I didn't know what my real work was, or how long it would take for me to find it.
That's the time when a family of noble friends helped keep me on track -- or at least made sure that I don't regress. It's okay that I'm still confused, but instead of bad habits, I'm developing good habits. The rest is just patience. Only patience can accelerate cultivation.
When the thought and calling came, 'Ride your bike back to China'. Back east has nothing to do with China, just back east to where you come from. For two weeks after that idea, I resisted the idea. Not I, my ego resisted that idea. My ego knew that he has to die for that calling to be fulfilled. All the dreams that I had, that my parents had, my grandparents had for me. They worked hard their whole life to send me to study in the US. Now, I'm telling them I'm coming back with nothing on a bicycle. They have a bicycle their whole lives but they wanted to buy a car or buy a house and send their kids to America. So my ego didn't want this pilgrimage.
There was that quote, I think, from the gospel of Thomas, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you.". For that two weeks I was trying to suppress the calling, but the calling was killing me. Every moment that I'm not obeying it, it's just killing me until I said, "Okay", I surrendered. The rest is detailed, but I will surrender. Thy will shall be done.
After that, I had a very difficult task of explaining this to my parents. I was on a Skype call with my parents, my dad was turned off, he raised his voice and said, "What? You're being irresponsible, you're too young you don't know what you're doing.". I said, "Dad, I have to call back in a few minutes.". I hung up and cried for ten minutes straight because I've been close with my family all along. I was afraid that for the rest of the journey I would have to travel without their support. I apparently hurt their feelings.
Then came one of the most moving story of transformation. Within a few weeks, my dad came around to accept it. I'm the only son in China, with the one child policy. I'm the only grandson on my father's side. In traditional culture, you know what that means. Now I'm taking a vow of celibacy to go on this pilgrimage. What about the family lineage?
My dad turned around and say, "If it makes you happy to do this when you're young, go do it. Don't have regrets." My dad was very suspicious about this meditation, this volunteering. My dad said, "If you want to learn about Buddhism, you could have stayed in China. You're in the heart of Silicone Valley, learn about artificial intelligence. Learn about biotech." I wanted to tell him that meditation is the most advanced biotech that I have ever encountered. There's so much more wisdom beyond artificial intelligence can ever reach, but there is no shared context. My dad accepted it, but was suspicious.
And I'll tell you the last part first. Right now, my dad is serving a thirty day meditation retreat in Northern China. He will celebrate his 54th birthday in a few days, as he serves the thirty day. Tomorrow I'll go to Dhamma Giri to serve a ten day there, to join him in service -- during his 54th birthday.
What has happened this past year, last November, he sat for twenty minutes. That's the first time he has ever sat in meditation for twenty minutes. He came out and said, "Truth is hard to encounter. Life isn't permanent, and I may die tomorrow. I shall not delay, sign me up for a meditation retreat." He signed up for a ten day last November. For the six months after he has been sitting and serving as meditation centers all over China. Always, nonstop. He quit his job, quit smoking, quit drinking, became a vegetarian. He's actually living like a monk for most of the past year. Now he's in the middle of serving a thirty day meditation retreat.
It has just brought the most profound change in his life. Now I no longer need to explain anything to him. Now it's his job to explain it to his parents what their grandson is up to and what he is up to. I feel so grateful that I'm given this opportunity to be a small part of my Dad's journey. In the end, it's his karma that has ripened, but the fact that I am his son and we have this strong bond is a big blessing. It made me realize that change is possible.
People ask me, "Is change really possible?" I say, "Yeah. Look at my dad." Other people ask my dad why he decided to sign up for meditation from this 180 degree turn, and my dad said, "My son, my ony-son, never did house-work his whole life. But after meditation, now when he comes home, he voluntarily does the dishes. So, I thought the meditating must not be that bad.". I've been trying to wash dishes everywhere I go, because I have so much debt to repay. If that joke was even one percent true, I will commit to do dishes my whole life.
Q: You were the brightest student in college, a valedictorian speaker. But now after this pilgrimage, what is next?
Zilong: I don't know, and I haven't tried to know. Really there's no gaurantee. Bicycling is dangerous. People ask me, "Aren't you afraid of having an accident?" Right before I started the bicycling pilgrimage, four people very close to me all crashed their car, totaled their car. They were just driving, and fortunately, all of them escaped with any injury. But four people close to my life all crashed their car. That's just driving in San Francisco. It made me realize there is no guarantee. If fear is an excuse for holding us back, then forget it. There's no where to hide. Knowing that anything can happen anytime has made me realize -- 'Don't waste any energy to worry about the future that hasn't come'. I have taken it to a literal extreme by not planning my visa logistics. I've gotten into some last minute rush. It all worked out perfectly in the end, thanks to the blessings and prayers. It made me realize that 'Yes, do not over plan', but still I cannot count on God to apply for my visa. I still have to show up and do my messy work. Knowing that it's in the hand of the universe.
I don't know when the pilgrimage will end, or if I will end before the pilgrimage ends.
Q: Last night you were sharing how you learned a lot from Ramesh. Can you share more on that?
Zilong: I just want to quickly share Ramesh life story. Ragu, his brother, was contracted polio at a young age. For many years he has been serving the elderly ladies in the slum-area by bringing them lunch and dinner everyday on his bicycle. Sometimes when there's not enough resources he will make sure that the grandmas eat and he would go hungry on those days. About three years ago, Ragu passed away from a car accident. Three days before he passed away, he met Ramesh, who is also in the exact same physical condition. Ramesh, at that time, had a different job and he was so inspired by the three minute conversation with Ragu that he quit his job and decided to do the work Ragu had initiated. And when he came a few days later, he realized that Ragu is no more! So he took on the same job to continue doing this work.
So, I was really blessed to meet him. The first day I met Jayesh-bhai, he said, "We go cook with Ramesh and you go deliver the cans to the grandmas." The experience was so rich and so moving. Ramesh is the like the unthroned mayor of that community. He bikes around, he smiles everyone. Everyone knows him. They laugh. Just see, this big city, but with an invisible layer of relationships that this brother (who contracted polio at the age of one) was creating.
What struck me most personally is how much attachment I have to comforts. Driving through the whole area, my eyeball hurts. The air pollution, and then the night staying in slums. I barely able to sleep because of the dogs barking, mosquitoes biting. Half way through the night, I have these semi-awake dreams, almost like waking up as a beetle. I had a dream of waking up, the next day, and I knew Ragu's body doing this work and the scream, "No! I don't want to do that."
So the irony, or the hypocrisy that I admire and talk about this brother's work on one hand, but I am not willing to surrender, yet, my attachment to comforts. I do not want to be in his shoes or no shoes. It was really humbling to have that moment of facing the truth of where my mind is shut off, my souls real response of a big scream of "No!" It was both inspiring and humbling at the same time and also made me think -- is there a place to both have some comforts and still be at a place to serve? Or, it hasn't fully processed through my system. It was a horrible night. Not much sleep but very refreshed waking up, not tired at all. And Ramesh let me sleep in his bed and he slept on the floor last night.
Q: What perceptions have been broken through your pilgrimage?
Zilong: If you're all following the news, you've heard about Donald Trump (laughter). You'd think that anyone who vote for Donald trump is a little crazy. At least, I thought, before starting the journey, I think "How could anyone vote for someone as indecent as that?" Throughout the pilgrimage in the US, I met many Donald Trump supporters. They have welcomed me into their home.
There was this one day I was stranded on a very lonely highway, some bicycle problem, and I was trying to hitchhike; no cars stopped. There was big, blue pickup truck passed by me and then a few minutes later came by- came back, to pick me up. The young many, nineteen year old, his hobby is collecting the guns, collecting weapons. His other hobby is remodeling the big pickup truck to drive them in the mud and drown the engine and rebuild the engine. It's the whole other end of the spectrum, but he's the one who stopped, turned around, picked me up on a lonely highway, shared his life story on the whole trip. And everything he thinks makes perfect sense. So I got to know that this young man -- and he is kind, not crazy. He has very sound reasoning and he will vote for Donald Trump.
Another old man who led me into his home, hosted me for one night, and the second night I was not able to find a place, and he said, "Okay, come back." Hosted me for two nights in a row and he supports Donald Trump and will vote for Donald Trump. He is very decent person, a violinist, a carpenter, wood worker. He just really made me think that all the barriers of Chinese, Indian, Nepali, American; all the political parties; these are all minor details. Underneath it all, humanity is the common denominator.
And the other lesson is if I were independent, on my own, I would never come across these people. I would be living in my comfortable bubble, the liberal left, progressive, intellectual bubble where everyone will vote for Bernie Sanders. I would never come across these people and when I come across them I would dismiss them: "I don't need you. Therefore I don't care about what you think. You're crazy."
But on a pilgrimage, I do not use any money for lodging, so every night I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to find a place to sleep. I cannot dismiss them because I'm their guest. What they say, matters. I have to listen, I have no choice but to listen. And then that's- just made me realize that this notion of independence, the self-made man, is really making us miss out on the reality -- that we are interdependent. None of us is independent. We rely on each other and what other people think matters and who they are matters.
I still probably won't vote for Donald Trump (laughter). I can't vote in the US anyway, but it really humanized all the barriers.
Q: You're on the fast track to cultivation! Let alone a bus, you've seem to be on a very fast supersonic jet. Hats off to you, your pilgrimage, your presence.
Zilong: Thank you for your blessing but I hope I have been able to slow down through the journey (laughter). The purpose of the pilgrimage is to slow down because I've been running around to look for the answers all these years but the answers have been looking for me. I'm too busy looking for it that I cannot listen for when the answer calls. I'm hoping this journey can help me slow down and develop, so that the answer could find me. So the black bird let them fly (laughter).