21 Day Pilgrimage Reflections
Posted by Zilong Wang on Feb 16, 2018
No backward glances
The games we've played till now are at an end
Past all thought of if or when
No use resisting
Abandon thought and let the dream descend
-- Phantom of the Opera
Another volunteer at Gandhi 3.0 said it well: "I come this year to volunteer, hoping to repay in a small way the life-changing gift I have received at last year's retreat. But I am leaving with even greater debt of gratitude."
Volunteering at this year's Gandhi 3.0 retreat has definitely been a life-changing gift which I could never repay. But before I could think of how to pay forward the blessings, I was blown away by another gift. Before I could even thank the volunteer team for allowing me to join the caravan at the last minute, they had the "insanity" of thanking me.
When they handed me the exquisite, hand-made booklet of "21-Day Pilgrim's Challenge", I couldn't even cry because I was so overwhelmed by the love and magnitude.
At the same time, the ego also had a sinking feeling of despair, because it knew that this gift was the last nail on its coffin. This gift is "to me", but not "for me". Considering what I have received from the noble friends, there's no way that I could ever repay their kindness. I am "on the hook" for the rest of my life -- or lives -- to pay it forward. It's no longer "my life", nor is it in "my hand". There is no place for the ego to assert sovereignty over "my plans". Truly, as Phantom sings in the finale,
Past the point of no return
No backward glances
The games we've played till now are at an end
Past all thought of if or when
No use resisting
Abandon thought and let the dream descend
The pilgrimage came as a calling, in response to a prayer, "If I give myself more fully, how may I be an instrument?" Now, it is perhaps only fitting that, in the final days before returning home, the gift of a lifetime has sealed a promise of lifetimes.
As a small way to pay forward the richness from the past two years on the journey, I hope to take the opportunity of the 21 Day challenge to do 21 short reflections on each day's theme.
Day 1: Deep listening
Some years ago, a friend asked the classic question, "What superpower do you want to have, if you can only choose one?" My spontaneous response was, "Listening."
Two years on the pilgrimage have given many opportunities to develop this "superpower" :) On one hand, carrying little material belongings, I have found "deep listening" to be a most precious gift I can offer to my hosts along the way. On the other hand, as a stranger in other people's home, I have no option to dismiss them or turn away, so I have no choice but to listen. Slowly, listening becomes one of my most cherished practices. Here are a few learnings.
We can only listen to others as deeply/much as we have been listened to. They say, "Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people". The same is true for listening. Most of the time, we are not able/willing to listen to others, because no one has listened to us. We want to be heard/witness so badly that there's little bandwidth left for holding space for others. But the good news is, we don’t need another person to listen to us. As Thoreau writes in Walden, "I have never found a companion so companionable as solitude." I have found three "companions" -- good listeners -- in our solitary moments.
The first companion is a diary. My parents gifted me a diary book when I was in third grade, and coaxed me into writing every day, which I did till today. This is perhaps the single most beneficial habit I have. A blank notebook is a better listener than a best friend, because it will never glance at the clock, or say, "Oh, I have a similar experience…" :)
The second companion is Mother Nature. Nature is aware of each and every thought of ours, all the time. She is ever attentive, and often communicative. When we realize how deeply Nature is listening to us, there's little need left to speak.
The third companion is silence. Rev. Heng Sure quipped, "I meditate because I'd like to know what's on my mind." Most of our talking originates from not really knowing what we think. In silent meditation, we are listening to our own mind at the deepest level. It is humbling and freeing to realize how much nonsense there is.
These three "companions" honor and witness our human experience. It then leaves us with enormous freedom to offer the same gift of deep listening to other humans :)
The effort of listening is not actually in the "listening". When I try to listen intentionally and deeply, one third of my awareness goes toward quietening the mind (letting go of mental noises and judgments); another third goes toward sending metta to the one speaking; the final third of attention goes toward actually listening to the content of what's being shared. Even if I don't hear a word of what's being said, so long as I am holding a quiet, receptive and compassionate mind, the healing of bearing witness is complete.
Don't listen past the point of impatience. Sometimes, because people have such huge deficit of being listened to, they may talk nonstop when they get a willing audience. When we notice that we are reaching the limit of our "listening reserve", we should take skillful action before we start to generate impatience and judgments. To know and honor our own limits is part of self care/compassion. To avoid being stuck in a long one-way speech, we can withdraw our awareness to quiet the mind and send metta (forget about listening). Or, we can ask questions to nudge the conversation in a more fruitful direction. (For many, so long as they are doing the talking, they don't care what's the topic.)
Ultimately, when one is speaking from the heart, it doesn't matter who is talking or who is listening, because it is Life expressing and witnessing itself -- we are both part of the wholeness <3
Day 2: Honor Your Roots
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T. S. Eliot, Little Giddin
Today's prompt brings to mind two "lineages" I am learning to honor: ancestors, and homeland.
After two years of journeying around the globe, and staying with hundreds of families from different cultures, I have come to realize how fortunate my family is. "Fortunate" in the sense that all four grandparents and their children are alive, healthy and relatively happy. No one has died prematurely or have cancer. No one is disabled, addicted, imprisoned, or engaged in "wrong livelihood". It sounds like a low bar, but I have seen very few families who are lucky enough to be just "normal".
And I have come to realize that the source of our good fortune is the simple yet precious virtues of my grandparents, which come down from generations before them. Just today, my 84-year-young grandpa observed, "For as far back as we can recall, our ancestors have never committed evil."
My four grandparents are "ordinary" by worldly standards. They come from simple background, and live by down-to-earth values: don't do any harm; wherever possible, help others. They have good habits in life: moderation, frugality, integrity. These simple virtues are their greatest legacy and my richest inheritance. It is due to their merits and virtues that their children and grandchildren have stayed safe over the years.
For example. My paternal grandfather is a hardworking engineer and a kind colleague. He dedicated his whole life to building up a shattered country that he had little time for family. But due to his virtues, he is well respected by the whole factory and neighborhood. The goodwill is extended toward my grandma and her four children. Even during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (where many people were persecuted or even killed), my grandpa's merits have been the invisible shield for the whole family. They passed through the storm more or less unharmed. Even today, when I am introduced as my grandpa's grandson, the neighbors will give an automatic thumb-up.
Over the past two years, I have never experienced any physical harm or ill will -- not even a flat tire! I don't know how the causes and conditions travel, but I know it is the protection of the ancestors and the prayer of friends that keep a pilgrim safe. One could only wish to cultivate the same simple virtues within himself to pay forward the gifts from the ancestors.
Grandparents' youthful "heart" at age 80+
The other lineage is the "homeland": the culture, land, and people that have raised me. This is not a patriotism of the nation-state zero-sum game, but a natural gratitude that wells up in the heart of someone who has been away from home for a decade.
Chinese civilization is among the very few continuous cultures that has endured over the millennia. The global pilgrimage has deepened my appreciation for what my own culture has to offer for the future of human unity. The journey has assured me that there's no need to look elsewhere, or to run far away for opportunities or salvation. All the problems and solutions are available at home :) The journey has finally slowed down the youthful haste, and dispelled the illusion that "the grass might be greener on the other side." It has given me the humility to accept that the Work is right here at home.
It has also made me realize that there is nothing "inherently Chinese" or exclusive about the "Chinese civilization". A civilization is a living evolution, a permeable and transient organism. For example, Buddhism from the West and the nomads from the North have both greatly influenced the fate of the "Middle Kingdom". I am only "Chinese" in this lifetime, under the convention of borders and nationalities. "China" is the base from which I could serve the universal good, together with our global siblings. As a sign on the wall of Gandhi Ashram says, "Serve locally, love globally." This is perhaps the best way to honor the roots of my homeland.
Day 3: Learn Something New
They say, there are things we know that we don't know, and then, there are things that we don't even know that we don't know. Being on a pilgrimage provides plenty of opportunities to encounter the latter :) It is a great privilege to be forced out of one's comfort zone, and to have no option other than facing one's blind spots and unexamined assumptions. If we are receptive in these circumstances, the reward could be a willingness to hold paradoxes, and a newfound compassion for "the others".
One time, I was stranded on "the Loneliest Highway of America", Highway 50, due to a bike problem. I tried to hitchhike, and waited for probably two hours in the hot desert. Some cars passed by and did not stop. Finally, one big blue pickup truck passed by me and turned around. The young man was very friendly and gave me a ride till the next city. During the hour long car ride, he shared fascinating stories. He is an auto mechanic, a Trump supporter, and a gun collector. He has fond memories of going hunting with his grandpa, and inheriting grandpa's antique pistols. His hobby is driving pickup trucks into swamps. When he drowns the car engine, he rebuilds it in his garage. He is a perfectly smart, reasonable, and kind young man. Every opinion he has is well thought out. After listening to him with open curiosity and suspended judgments, I realized that if I had grown up in his environment, I would probably be somewhat like him.
Along the journey, I've stayed in the homes of many people whom I would never "voluntarily" hang out with or even know of their existence. I have learned from them, not because I intended to, but because I was dependent on their hospitality, thus could not dismiss them. It is in these situations of "unexpected learning" that I have learned the most important lessons.
In an individualist market economy, we very rarely are "dependent" on other people. The self-sustained consumers can just buy what we need from the "marketplace". Thus, we can afford to stay inside our bubbles and echo chambers, and never experience the discomfort of considering another worldview. In comparison, a pilgrim is constantly dependent on other people, thus must enter into their realities. The "vulnerable dependency" is a pilgrim's doorway into "unexpected learning".
So, it is certainly good to learn about "things we don't know". But it is perhaps even more important to put ourselves into position of "vulnerable dependency", so that we can encounter "what we don't know that we don't know" :)
Day 4: Tune Into an Attitude of Gratitude
A pilgrim -- or actually anyone -- is always receiving, a lot. There is no "self-made man". Being on a pilgrimage makes one a bit more aware of all the receiving. It re-sensitize us to Life's gifts. We might have forgotten to thank our mother for another home-cooked meal, but our appreciation is refreshed when a stranger invites us to her cozy dinner table, after a day of cycling uphill in rain and wind. Gratitude naturally wells up and overflows when we open our eyes to the abundance.
(Photo by Gao He Ran)
And the gratitude is coupled with a huge responsibility. A respected Rinpoche wrote, "When a student offers a single penny or makes any kind of effort, however small, to show respect for the teacher—by standing when the teacher enters a room, or bowing to the teacher, or letting the teacher go first—there are consequences; and if the so-called Vajrayana master is not enlightened, he or she is not above the karmic debts these offerings create."
As an unenlightened work-in-progress, I am certainly not "above the karmic debts" of all that I receive. It is especially hopeless because I hang out with a group of noble friends who excel at giving… :) It is impossible to keep up with them.
Gratitude is a nudge to pay it forward. Gratitude behooves us to know that the gifts are "to us", but not "for us". The moment we start to passively enjoy the dividend of past good karma, we are using it up.
At some point of the journey, I realized that one of the best ways to honor the givers is to cultivate at my highest potential.
Wise ones have taught that the merits due to the giver is proportional to the virtue of the receiver. If I make an offering to an ordinary person, I would get some merits from my generosity. If I make the same offering to someone who is living a moral life, then I would receive much more merits. If I make an offering to someone who is not only perfect in morality, but is also purifying her/his mind and cultivating the Way, then I would receive even more merits. If I make an offering to someone who is not only virtuous and diligent in cultivation, but has also attained stages of liberation, then I would receive innumerable more times of merits.
Similarly, I would like the people who are helping me to receive the maximum merits that their kindness deserves. So it is incumbent upon me to cultivate at my highest potential. Likewise, if I ever slack in my practice, then I am not only wasting my own life, I am also depriving my benefactors of their due share of merits. The stakes are high both ways :)
May the spirit of gratitude be a constant reminder to step up our cultivation!
Yet, I will let the poet have the final word:
And you receivers
and you are all receivers
assume no weight of gratitude,
lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
For to be over-mindful of your debt,
is to doubt his generosity who has the free-hearted earth for mother,
and God for father.
Day 5: Give 110 Percent
Day 6: Be Gentle
The Challenge prompts from Day 5 and 6 are a pair of seeming paradox :) On one hand, we are inspired to break the self-imposed mental limits, and in Nipun's words, to "give with reckless abandon" as if there is no tomorrow. On the other hand, there IS a "tomorrow" in most cases :) How do we practice moderation and gentleness in a life of service?
Recently, a group of ServiceSpace volunteers were having a late night meeting -- way past my usual bed time :) In a hopeless attempt to put some cap on the meeting length, I quoted a DailyGood article, which proves that sleep deprivation increases the chance of Alzheimer's disease, among other irreversible damages to the brain. Nipun responded with a glee, "If I get to do this work [selfless and tireless service] all my life, and I get Alzheimer's when I am old, so be it!"
Late night work party :)
Another time, after a long day of many circles (in the middle of his grueling 2-month marathon in India), Nipun seemed near physical exhaustion. He casually remarked in good spirit, "When I feel tired, I try to dig deep into my reserve and give it all away. So, usually, by the end of the day, I have no reserve left."
On the days when the volunteer team is working hard and late, Nipun would "put us to bed" by emphasizing the importance of self care, but would then go back to work himself.
I asked Nipun what is his view on self care. He said, "As our cultivation deepens, our definition of both 'self' and 'care' would change."
Here I use Nipun as an example for the wider ServiceSpace/MovedByLove volunteers, and volunteers in general. I've been in many high-stake corporate settings where there is a high premium on work ethics (or a tendency toward workhololism), but I've never seen anyone working as hard and happily as the these unpaid volunteers.
Each of the above incidents (among many other) has left a deep impression in my heart. I have been holding this question: what is the proper level of giving that brings the most benefit to all being -- including the being we call "self"?
On one hand, we hear mind blowing stories from the saints . In one of Buddha's past lives, he saw a tigress dying of hunger, with young cubs crying near her. The then-Bodhisattva's compassion so overflowed that he offered his body to be devoured by the tigress, so that the mother and cubs could be saved.
On the other hand, there is a Chinese riddle, "A Bodhisattva made of clay crosses the river." The answer to the riddle is, "He can’t even save himself."
On one hand, we could be "doing not enough". We can give in to laziness, procrastination, Facebook, etc. We are shortchanging the world by withholding our full self. But how much exactly is there in our "full self"?
On the other hand, we could be "pushing too much". If we are not eating well, not sleeping enough, or have no time for physical and spiritual exercises, then the quality of our giving -- and presence -- is greatly reduced. Subconsciously, we might be even generating negativity and resentment. As a secondary impact, my "workaholism" might create a culture of ignoring self care around me, and limit the space for my co-workers to take care of themselves. How can I avoid the shadow side of "service", and ensure that I am not giving from a place of guilt, peer pressure, competition, sense of unworthiness, or ego?
I am far from resolving these question within my heart, but for now, I am putting in the following two guardrails.
First, I am trying to know my own capacity and limits, and work accordingly, without comparing myself with others. In the words of Byron Katie, "Don't pretend yourself beyond your own evolution." I aspire to live a life of selfless service as role models like Nipun and Jayesh bhai. But I also know that it has taken them lifetimes of cultivation to develop their capacity of giving. For example, Nipun might have dissolved the "self" in the "self care" enough to willingly accept Alzheimer's as a possible consequence of his nonstop schedule. But I have not. I get grumpy when I am sleep-deprived, and might start to blame others for my discomfort. We have different paramis -- perfection of virtues and accumulation of merits. The role models show me the possibility; that's the direction I am going. But I should not let the ego trick me into prematurely imitating their ways. As the Dao De Jing forewarns (Ch.74), "When you handle the master carpenter's tools, chances are that you'll cut your hand." Perhaps, one of the best service I can offer at this stage is to model how to be gentle with the lower self :)
Second, I am setting a conservative goal in life right now: do not regress. There are two aspect of not regressing: do not break my vows, and do not exhaust merits (which is harder than it sounds). So long as I am not regressing, progress is only a matter of fast or slow. Good thing is, the "proper level of giving" is not a precise point, but a wide spectrum :)
Day 7: Laugh and Find Humor in Your Day
Around the world, a most commonly seen decorative figure is the "laughing Buddha". Everyone loves him, and his big belly and smiling face makes everyone grin :)
In fact, he is none other than the Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha to succeed our Buddha. He is honored in many Chinese temples. And often, a couplet (two lines of symmetrical poem) goes along with the statue.
His big belly can hold it all, holding all the unbearable things under Heaven.
His open mouth laughs ever, laughing at all the ridiculous people on Earth.
Day 8: Hold Space for Stillness
A pilgrimage is an attempt to practice stillness in motion. To practice stillness in motion, I first needed to practice stillness in stillness :) To practice stillness in daily activities is like trying to repair the airplane engine while flying mid-air. To practice sitting meditation is like fixing the engine in the airplane hanger on the ground -- much safer and easier. Daily sitting meditation has been my safety net, life straw, and reset button over the past two years on the road.
Since my first "real" meditation course three and a half years ago, I've always wanted to establish a daily two-hour sitting practice. I've sat and served about a dozen Vipassana courses since then, but for one excuse or another, I have managed only an average of one hour per day.
Sometimes, I am too exhausted at the end of the day to stay awake. Sometimes, sitting meditation might seem suspicious in the cultural context of my hosts, and might make them uncomfortable. For example, while traveling in Iran, I've stayed in homes of some villagers who are conservative Muslims. We all sleep in the same room without private space for meditation. My crossed-legged, closed-eyed "ritual" seemed really foreign -- and perhaps alarming -- to them. But I assure them that I am doing "Zikr", the silence remembrance of Allah (which is true!), then they are relieved and happy :)
The difference is night and day if I skip the daily meditation. One hour of meditation per day is merely a damage control, not really making any progress, but such damage control is much needed after a long day of ups and downs.
There are perhaps two ways to generate the strong determination for daily meditation: induction and deduction. Induction is a leap of faith and divine inspiration. Deduction relies on logical reasoning and will power.
In the case of "induction", one would develop such strong faith (without a need for all the evidences) in the practice, or have such convincing experiences, that it becomes unthinkable for them not to meditate daily. But it takes a lot of merits from the past to have such good fortune. Only very few people start to meditate two hours a day after their first course(s). When I look at these people, they all have very wholesome foundation of virtues, and seem to have strong affinity with the practice.
For the rest of us, we are left with "deduction" to coax ourselves into perseverance through reasoning, habit change, and sheer will power. It is swimming upstream. My two biggest hurdles are sloth and doubt. Sloth: how can I squeeze out two hours out of my busy day? Doubt: is Vipassana really the right practice for me or the best practice out there?
My "deduction" goes like this. In response to "sloth": what else am I doing with my 24 hours that is more important than purifying the mind at the deepest level and sending metta to all beings? One hour could easily come of out sleep (a.k.a. rolling in bed and not getting up even after waking up). Another hour could easily come from a 10% efficiency increase during my 16 wakeful hours. The quality of my presence would be so much better if I meditate.
In response to "doubt": currently, do I know of any other practices that suit me better? If not, then I might as well practice Vipassana in the meantime. No harm, for sure. Life is too short for waiting for the "perfect match".
Either "induction" or "deduction", we would be much stronger if we practice together :) May we come together in stillness, again and again!
Day 9: Practice Agendaless Service
On the days that I am cycling, I knock on doors of strangers in small towns and villages each evening and ask them if I may camp in their yard. Sometimes, I might take more than a dozen tries, but eventually someone would always say yes. Over the past two years, I have knocked on over a thousand doors, and stayed with perhaps 200 different families around the world.
Staying with a big family in small village Iran :)
Over time, I have been trying to shift in my inner experience/motivation as I knock on doors, from one of "seeking" to one of "giving".
In the beginning of the pilgrimage, when I knocked on people's doors, I was hoping that they would say "yes" and relieve me of the search. I was concerned about finding a safe place to stay for the night, and was feeling self-conscious about how others would perceive/treat me. If people say "no", I would feel rejected and discouraged, wondering if there's anything I did "wrong".
But slowly, I realize that there is no need to seek or worry. On the outside, the Universe is kind and generous, and will take care of a pilgrim. On the inside, the equanimity is growing to face whatever comes. As a result, the act of knocking on doors is no longer about finding a place to stay, but becomes an opportunity to offer a silent prayer to each family I approach. I would try to feel and send metta (loving-kindness) as I knock on the doors, no matter what their responses are. The outer action and the inner experience are unhooked -- no expectation, no agenda. When people say "no" to me, it only gives me an opportunity to offer silent prayers to more families. Especially to those who are unwelcoming, I should step up the prayer for them that they may experience the abundance and warmth of the universe.
The knocking on doors has become a sweet little practice of "agendaless service", if you will.
Knock, knock :)
Day 10: Practice Minimalism
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
When you have to carry all your worldly belongings on your bicycle for two years -- and climb up many mountains, very quickly, you become a diligent minimalist :) Any unnecessary item soon becomes a burden whose usefulness could not outweigh the toil of schlepping.
Along the way, I've learned to travel with two sets of clothes (which entails handwashing the sweaty set every night) and one pair of shoes (sport sandals). The whole system weighs less than 30kg: 15kg of bicycle and toolkit, another 10-15kg of personal items, including food and water.
The whole "setup" :)
The simplicity is both a physical necessity and a spiritual practice. There has been a few key shifts that have helped to lighten the load. It has been a gradual cultivation of renunciation, trust, and equanimity.
One shift is to ask the right question. Early on, while packing, I ask myself: would I need this item (such as a cooking stove, a nail clipper, or a pair of slippers)? The answer is usually "yes", so I carry it with me. But slowly, I started to re-examine every item I carry with a new question: can I survive without this item? The answer is also usually "yes", so I give it away. This is a practice of non-attachment and renunciation, of discerning between "need" and "greed".
Another shift is to trust in the kindness and abundance of the universe. Most of the stuff we carry (or keep in our house) is there only to provide mental comfort. We feel that we need to be self-sufficient and self-independent, that strangers would not care for us. We have become so afraid to ask for help that we have even invented the selfie stick :) Along the pilgrimage, a trust has grew inside of me in the universal generosity of people. I need less and less "protection" and "emergency stash". I know that another "home away from home" awaits me at sunset, and another mother is lovingly preparing dinner for a son she is yet to meet. I do not need to carry a house on my back when I have a home everywhere.
But most importantly, the embrace of simplicity emerged from a growing willingness to accept the consequence of my vulnerability. The more I am at ease with discomforts, the less I need to carry. I have stopped carrying a stove and cooking set, because I know I could be content with eating cold trail-mix if I am not invited for dinner.
And, periodical clean-up is needed to neutralize the tendency to accumulate. According to the law of entropy, life accumulates -- until death dissipates it all. People along the way often gift me things. I have to consciously make a habit of passing them on. About once a month, I go through every item in my backpack, and force myself to give away any item that I have not used for a month. It could be an expensive rain pants, a sentimental shirt, or a precious book.
Sometimes, people would gift me small trinkets of spiritual significance, for remembrance, protection and blessing. I made it a point to carry only one such item at a time, and pass on the rest, even though I deeply treasure the gifts. Blessings are better when shared, and it does not diminish or depart with the object.
Perhaps more freeing that the physical minimalism is a simplicity of thoughts. A master once observed that 95% of our thoughts are unnecessary. These "false thoughts" are the reason why we are always hungry, because they consume the lion's share of our vital energies.
On the pilgrimage around the world, it became so painfully apparent to me that 95% of all our activities (mental or physical) and possessions are completely unnecessary. Most families' homes are full of stuff which they rarely use or hardly remember. Most of people's problems are self-inflicted wounds. Most families spend so much time and energy on elaborate cooking and over-eating that the running-around and digestive burden end up consuming much of the energy they gain from the food. Most countries squander their wealth and goodwill on war-making and in-fighting. Our false thoughts exhaust our material and spiritual resources and lead to superfluous consumption, ecological destruction, and global conflicts. Life is so simple, but we make it so complicated. Perhaps, the ultimate minimalism is to purify our minds :)
Day 11: See Everyone As Your Friend
There has been a few fundamental shifts of perspective along the pilgrimage -- not a change of intellectual opinion, but an awakening of a deeper knowing. Here are three such shifts.
One shift is on "cause and effect", the law of karma. I used to focus more on the "effect", the things that happen to us. Now I focus more on the "causes", the seeds that we plant with our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Another shift is about the "driving forces" in the world. I used to think that the visible and material forces are the most important: the scientific progress, the well-known historical figures and events, etc. But now, I have come to realize that the invisible and spiritual forces are orders of magnitude more powerful in shaping the fate of humanity.
A third shift has to do with "reality". I used to believe that the "real world" is what meets the eyes, real and objective, following impersonal and meaningless physical laws. But slowly, I have come to realize that the "real world" is a fable, a teaching tool of the Wise, a training ground for the soul. "Reality" is much more malleable, but not any less "real" for its fluidity.
This third shift is brought about by meeting so many "familiar strangers" all over the world. Many times along the pilgrimage, strangers would come out of nowhere to offer me help in difficult moments. A driver on the highway would come out of her car, hold my hand, close her eyes, and bestow an impromptu blessing. Families in remote villages would treat me with such motherly love. Friends I am meeting for the first time would kindle an instant bond that feels so ancient and familiar. These connections happen again and again, even in places I've never heard of.
Often, I have to look at the "stranger" doubly and wonder inwardly: who are you exactly?
The following excerpt from the Shurangama Sutra resolves part of the mystery for me.
In the sutra, the Great Compassion Guan Yin Bodhisattva explains the 32 ways in which she transforms herself, and appears in front of sentient beings to guide them toward ultimate liberation.
Because I gained a power of compassion identical with that of all Buddhas, I became accomplished in thirty-two response-bodies and entered all lands.
If there are Bodhisattvas who enter samadhi and vigorously cultivate the extinction of outflows, I will appear in the body of a Buddha and speak dharma for them, causing them to attain liberation…
If there are living beings who wish to have their minds be clear and awakened, who do not engage in mundane desires and wish to purify their bodies, I will appear before them in the body of a Brahma king and speak dharma for them, causing them to attain liberation…
If there are living beings who would like to be kings of people, I will appear before them in the body of a human king and speak dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…
If there are men who want to leave the home-life and uphold the precepts and rules, I will appear before them in the body of a bhikshu and speak dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…
If there are women who govern internal affairs of household or country, I will appear before them in the body of a queen, first lady, or noblewoman and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…
If there are dragons who want to quit their lot of being dragons, I will appear before them in the body of a dragon and speak dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…
If there are living beings who like being people and want to continue to be people, I will appear in the body of a person and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…
If there are non-humans, whether with form or without form, whether with thought or without thought, who long to be freed from their destiny, I will appear before them in a body like theirs and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…
So, everyone I encounter could be a manifestation of the Bodhisattva, here to teach me a lesson and guide me toward the ultimate goal -- a noble friend indeed.
With this perspective, every pair of eyes I glance at seem to have a knowing twinkle, a playful wink, behind its outer appearance. The entire universe -- with all its creations and destructions -- is a playground for the evolution of the soul.
Perhaps, as we learn to see the Bodhisattva "friend" in each stranger, we would one day realize that we, too, are her manifestation. Who's "seeing", anyway? :)
Day 12: Honor All Life
Once, the Buddha and his disciples was traveling through a small kingdom. When the people in the kingdom saw the Buddha passing in front of their doors, they all frowned and shut the door. But when they saw Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha's disciples, they all ran out of the house in excitement, bowed to him and made generous offerings.
Other disciples were very surprised by the different receptions, and asked the Buddha, "Why would the people in this kingdom treat you, the fully enlightened one, with such disrespect, but adore one of your disciples?"
The Buddha explained, "Many eons ago, Maudgalyayana was my son. There was a bee hive near our home. I was worried that the bees might sting my son, so I used smoke to drive away the bees. My son, on the other hand, was kind to the bees and made a vow to help those bees if he ever become enlightened. Now, many lifetimes later, the bees from that hive have become the people in this kingdom -- the queen bee has become the king, and the worker bees have become the people. When they see Maudgalyayana and me, our past karma has come into fruition."
Before I embarked on a pilgrimage, I took on a few vows. The first vow is "no killing" -- the same cardinal rule in many world religions. This vow is not just a willing constraint on myself, but the best gift I can offer to all life -- a gift of peace and harmlessness. When I see a bug crawling across the road while I am cycling, I try to swirl the bicycle around it and avoid hurting the insect. Perhaps as a result, over the past two years, I have never suffered any injury -- not even a flat tire -- during the entire ten thousand kilometers through a dozen countries.
However, it sometimes become hard to abide by this vow when I realize that one hungry mosquito has slipped into my enclosed tent. It comes down to "my blood or her blood". It is in those moments that the story above comes to my mind. Still, I've killed a few mosquitos, even knowing the karmic consequence. My aversion to itching and desperation for good sleep sometimes overwhelm the better side :)
Not to mention killing, even if I have generated hatred toward a mosquito, an unwholesome affinity has been created, and would surely yield fruits now and in the future.
The pilgrimage has given me plenty of opportunities to practice the honoring of all life, not just in actions, but also in thoughts. Often I would see roadkills or flattened insects on the road, and I try to send metta (prayers of loving kindness) to the departed souls, or dedicate merits to them for their transition into next life.
There are many reasons to honor all life. Here is one :)
Day 13: Vow Towards Sincerity
Wise ones say that there are only two forces in life: karma, and vows.
The force of karma is the inertia of our habit patterns, the currents of our past deeds that pull us along the wheels of samsara, round and round again.
The force of vows is the rudder of the ship, as well as the hard work of rowing. It orients us towards the light, and endears us to the grace and guidance from higher planes.
In the beginning, the vows are for the safe passage of our own ship. Eventually, as our ship becomes larger, our vows help to carry more people across the river of life.
Before I started on the pilgrimage, I was inspired to take on a few vows. It took months of reflection and "trying them on" to arrive at the following six.
1. No killing
2. No stealing
3. No lustfulness
4. No intoxicants
5. No meat-eating
6. No profit-seeking
Over the pas two years, I try to check myself regularly against these precepts, and internalize them to become natural habits. Here are some learnings along the way.
First, vows lead to freedom. It might seem counter-intuitive, but I have never felt constrained by any of the precepts. Instead, they give me much inner peace and freedom -- free from the pull of old habits, free from entanglement with unwholesome conditions, free from harm and ill will.
Second, vows are among the best gifts I could offer to every being I come across: "I mean no harm, and want nothing from you."
Third, there are many (perhaps endless) layers to each vow. By dutifully observing the vow at its face value, the subtler layers would open up for us to deepen our cultivation.
For example, regarding the vow of "no intoxicants", one would obviously stay away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. As the purification of the body deepens, I started to realize that added sugar is also a potent intoxicant and spiritual hindrance, if not consumed with awareness and moderation. What sugar does to us at a neurological, psychological, energetic and behavioral levels is alarmingly similar to addictive drugs. The practices of the sugar industry (as part of the food-agriculture-industrial complex) is comparable to the tobacco industry. At its source, the development of our sweet tooth -- and the rise of the colonial sugar plantations -- was built on the lives of millions of slaves. From the 16th to 19th century, about 10 million African slaves were brought to America, 70% of whom worked on sugar plantations. As a result, the annual sugar intake of an average Englishman rose from near zero in early 17th century to around 18 pounds by early 19th century. (Sapiens, pp. 330. ) The karma of industrially-produced white sugar is as heavy as other more notorious "white powders". In light of all the evidences, I have started to wean myself off of this socially-sanctified intoxicant.
Fourth, some vows we take in this life are a continuation of promises made in past lives, while other vows are new commitments in this life. Certain precepts come so naturally to me, even from the time of birth, that I highly suspect that I might have taken these vows in past lives. For example, I've had such an innate dislike for the smells of alcohol and cigarettes that it is unthinkable to consume them.
Some past-life vows might take years in the current lifetime to be reawaken, perhaps because we are not as strongly established in them. For example, it has taken me over 20 years to realize that I want to be vegetarian. But once awaken, this vow feels completely effortless. Some people are so established in vegetarianism in their past that they would be born into a vegetarian family in this life, or, even if they were fed meat as an infant, they would spit it out.
Life after life, may we continue to cultivate wholesome vows and develop in strength.
Fifth, we should take on a vow only when we are spiritually ready for it. The vows should be a good stretch, but also within reason. Otherwise, we might end up in similar situations as lofty New Year's Resolutions. For the pilgrimage, I did not take on the vow of "no lying", because I knew I was not yet ready for it. My level of awareness is not sharp enough to keep up with the amount of careless talking I do. However, in recent weeks, I am starting to feel called to finally commit to "no lying", especially given how much untruth there is in contemporary China.
Finally, and ultimately, we do not take vows; vows take us. Last year, while I was at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, one day, it became so clear that I would keep the six pilgrimage vows for the rest of my life, and for all lifetimes to come. There is no other choice -- nor was I choosing. It just happened. Later on, I learned that the day when the "vows took me" happened to be the anniversary of Buddha's Enlightenment, the most auspicious day of the year to make vows.
Perhaps, we never know who is doing the Work; we could only attune ourselves to the guidance from beyond.
May I end by invoking the Four Great Vows of Bodhisattvas:
Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Afflictions are endless, I vow to end them all.
Dharma doors are countless, I vow to practice them all.
The path of enlightenment is supreme, I vow to realize it.
Day 14: Be Openly Informed
Before setting off, I made a choice to not follow any news during the pilgrimage. It has turned out to be a great blessing.
I certainly didn’t miss anything important. There is nothing new under the sun, as the Bible says. "Trump who?"
Plus, if there is really something relevant that I need to know, the fruit seller on the street would duly inform me, as they declined my thousand-rupee note that was nullified by the Indian government overnight :)
The two-year hiatus from news makes me wonder how come, earlier, I could have spent an hour a day reading up on current affairs and still feel behind? What was I really chasing after?
Staying away from "news" not only saves time, but also saves "mind". I've stayed in hundreds of homes in over a dozen countries. Most homes are burdened with a TV that's always on. The families would often worry for my safety, and warn me of a dangerous world out there, as they see plenty of madness on TV. But I've encountered none of that -- even in places we fear the most. People are inherently good, but they believe the rest of the world to be otherwise, thanks to the hypnotization of mass media.
What we call "news" these days is largely a catalog of sensational events and manipulative narratives from the past few hours. Overtime, most of the "news" become background noise of history. Studying history is perhaps a better way to "follow the news" -- news from the past few hundred years of the human saga, as if we are aliens revisiting Earth after a few centuries of absence.
Only after we've tuned out of information pollution could we have space to be openly informed :)
Day 15: Take Only What You Need
"The Buddha told the assembly: while eating, observe the Five Contemplations. A scattered mind and confused talk make the offerings of the faithful hard to digest.
These offerings of the faithful are the fruit of work and care
I reflect upon my conduct, have I truly earned my share?
Of the poisons of the mind, the most destructive one is greed
As medicine cures illness, I take only what I need
To sustain my cultivation and to realize the Way
So we contemplate in silence on these offerings today."
- Five Contemplations from the dining hall at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
It certainly helps when I have the "creative constraint" of traveling with a folding bicycle and ultralight backpack :) There's really not much I can carry beyond the bare essentials.
But more importantly, living on the generosity of others makes a pilgrim keenly aware of the karma of receiving. Truly, there is no "free lunch", not in the sense of economic quid-pro-quo, but in view of cause and effect. Do I have the merits and cultivation to deserve the offering? Am I ready to create affinity with this benefactor? Am I reinforcing patterns of greed and attachment?
It is one thing to be vigilant and take only what I need; it requires even greater skillfulness to receive abundantly -- beyond one's needs -- for the sake of paying it forward.
Nipun once explained the difference between an arahant and a Bodhisattva in terms of receiving. Arahants try to reduce their entanglement with living beings as they strive toward nirvana. They need little, and receive little. Whereas Bodhisattvas are not interested in getting out the world of suffering themselves. They create ever more affinities with living beings, and receive a lot so that they can give it all away -- high throughput, no accumulation. In particular, they give away "spiritual resources" -- transferring the priceless fruits of their cultivation to all living beings.
("Taking" one for the team, only to pay forward!)
So, we should have no fear of receiving, so long as it is proportional to our ability to pay it forward. And, as our skillfulness in paying-forward grows, we are bound to receive even more -- for the benefit of others :)
Day 16: Deepen in Filial Respect
"When your parents are still living, you should not journey far. If you must, then travel with clear intention and wholesome principles."
From a narrow interpretation of the Confucian teachings, to go on pilgrimage far away from home is not a very filial thing to do :)
I am causing my family to worry for my safety; There could be many days when they would not hear from me and do not know where I am; I am not near them to support them physically; I am not earning to provide for them materially; I am not there to console them emotionally; I am putting the burden upon my parents to explain to the rest of the family what I am "up to"…
All of these are true. I am indeed neglecting my filial duties on these levels, and owe a huge debt of gratitude to my parents for supporting me unconditionally.
But, at a subtler level, to follow the heart's calling and go on this pilgrimage is the best way I could serve my parents and family.
It is a gift of Dharma through lived experience. It is a window into the other dimensions and realities. It opens up the sacred spaces within their hearts. Every day, I try to send metta (loving kindness) and dedicate the merits of cultivation to all living beings, including my family.
During the pilgrimage, both my parents attended their first 10-day meditation course, and was deeply transformed. My dad quit drinking and smoking, and became mostly vegetarian. My parents have also quit their jobs and moved to the countryside to help start an eco-spiritual intentional community. (The founder of the ecovillage is a Zen farmer I met during the pilgrimage.) Ultimately, it is my parents' karma that has ripened. But I am most grateful to have been allowed a small role in their evolution.
The causes and conditions go even further back. In the past three weeks, I have been spending the Lunar New Year with my grandparents. I can trace my every positive quality back to their simple virtues and abundant merits. My 90-year-old grandma likes to repeat a saying as if it is a mantra, "Don't do anything bad, not even the slightest harm. Whenever possible, help others." And all four grandparents have lived by this simple motto all their life. I have no doubt that it is their virtues that have kept me -- and all our families -- safe over the years.
(Eighty-year-old paternal grandparents paying New Year's visit to my ninety-year-old maternal grandparents.)
Whoever we are, we have received from our ancestors. However much we can give back to them, could not compare to what they have gifted us. We can only keep trying, and pay forward, for we are also ancestors :)
Day 17: Be A Trustee
The prompt from today's Challenge says it well. Quoting Gibran, "You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give."
The calling to go on a pilgrimage came as a response to a prayer. For the first 20+ years of my life, the question has always been, "What do I want to do with my life?" A few years ago, as I started to volunteer and meditate, a new question emerged slowly but surely, "If I give myself more fully, how could this body/mind be an instrument?" This new question/prayer is based on a gradual realization that there is no "I": it is not "my life", nor is it about what "I" want. "Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done", said Jesus soon before his crucifixion. It is a practice of surrendering and being receptive, to the grace and guidance from beyond.
And the grace is abundant. When we surrender an inch, nature gives a mile. She has taken away all my fear, boredom, doubt, and loneliness.
However, I've also learned over the past two years that I must diligently uphold my end of the agreement: empty the self, continue to surrender, and do my fair share of the hard work. I cannot expect god to apply for my visas. Planning at the mundane level is still needed. Efficiency and operational excellent are still valuable qualities. But they serve a greater purpose.
May we be worthy trustees of Life!
Day 18: Be Honest
For their 800-mile bowing pilgrimage, Rev. Heng Sure took on a vow of silence, in large part as a way to cultivate truthfulness and discernment of speech.
After they finished the pilgrimage of two-and-a-half years, Rev. Heng Sure extended his silence (and bowing) for another 3 years inside the monastery, because he felt that 2.5 years of silence was not enough to establish "right speech".
People later ask him what he has gotten out of the six years of silence. He said, "Now when I am about to exaggerate or say something not completely true, an alarm in my mind would go off." Still no full guarantee, only a stronger insurance policy :)
(Rev. Heng Sure with his truth-telling puppets)
Such is the difficulty of being honest. When I was deciding on my pilgrimage vows, I knew very well that I was not ready for "no lying". Not that I want to lie intentionally, but just a acknowledgement that my level of awareness could not keep up with the amount of talking I do. Plus, I also want to keep the "license to lie" to get me out of tricky situations on the road. A few harmless white lies wouldn't bother anybody, I thought. I chose convenience over integrity.
However, after two years of getting established in other vows, an inner space is being cleared for the vow of "no lying". Despite its surface convenience, lying is very tiring at an energetic level, and incurs heavy karma. It is also possible to be truthful and skillful at the same time. What's more, upon returning to China, I see how much lying and how little trust there is in our society. The least -- and the most -- I can do is perhaps to make a strong resolve to be honest at whatever personal costs. It would create an invisible field of purity and trust.
As the saints instruct, "The person who lies, who transgress in this one thing, transcending concern for the world beyond: there's no evil he might not do."