Awakin Circle With Zilong Wang!
Posted by Anuj Pandey on Jun 28, 2019
Introduction: Zilong is one of those just souls who, when you meet him, you walk away feeling a little bit lighter afterwards. He grew up in China and came to the U.S. to study at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where he graduated as valedictorian of his class. After getting a job with an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco, he decided that he would spend the summer biking from Massachusetts to San Francisco, to expand his worldview. He stayed in different homes and depended on the kindness of strangers along the way. He also read the Tao Te Ching, the Bible, the Koran and Moby Dick along the way. When he moved out here, he became a familiar face in many of these circles and we have been inspired by his quiet and gentle way of showing up in the world.
A few years ago, he left the Bay Area to go on a bike pilgrimage back to China. Over the course of 2.5 years, he biked in different countries, relied again on the kindness of strangers, and learned and grew in many different ways. Upon returning to China, for the last nine months, he's been living at a monastery, where he's been meditating for 4-7 hours everyday. Thank you, Zilong, for letting us put you on the spot to share some stories tonight. :)
Zilong: As you said, I'm living in a temple in China, but I think this home is the "temple" where it all started. Just being here feeling among a family. Last Spring Festival, I went back to my biological family. I didn't have nearly the same ease and relaxation. I have to explain to my parents why I'm hanging out in a nunnery in rural China, whereas here there is no need to explain any of that. So thank you dear family for saving that part of the work. :)
The disclaimer is no enlightenment after two and a half years. :) That's the "bad" news. The good news is that the opportunity to work continues -- that we still get the opportunity to work, thanks to the blessings of all that people here and all people who I probably do not know. Not even a single flat tire for over 10,000 kilometers of cycling -- which is proof enough that it's not me doing the work.
Now the pilgrimage continues in an inner sense, inside of a monastery. Along the way, many days I feel like on the "Karma Register," now I'm in red, because I probably have exhausted more merits than I have earned. There were those days when I was just staying at a friend's house, catching up on Saturday Night Live clips on my computer instead of doing my hour sit. :) Hmm. But the fact that there is a continuation of an opportunity to practice gives me the relief that perhaps those 2.5 years has indeed been what it's supposed to do, and I have not completely wasted the opportunity.
Also, that I got to be back here is another proof that I'm still hanging in with the right crowd. :) So that's the gratitude for the circle.
How did you decide to do your first bike trip from Massachusetts to California after you graduated college? And what moved you to go on your most recent bike pilgrimage from California back to China?
The first bike journey was an unintentional pilgrimage. It was more like a rite of passage after college. Having spent four years in a liberal bubble, I felt, to understand America better, I should at least go through the country -- the flyover states, Mormon country, corn country -- to see the real America before going to another liberal bubble on the other side of the coast. :)
It was an unintentional pilgrimage because I had not planned on knocking on a stranger's door along the way -- I planned on camping. But I way over-estimated my camping skills. :) The first night was a disaster. It was so miserable that I decided knocking on strangers' doors has got to be better than 30 mosquito bites while trying to cook over a whisper light stove.
That was the intention. But the universe was generous enough to give me a lift to see the world tour into a semi-pilgrimage. That was for 2.5 months after college graduation.
The more recent pilgrimage, which ended up being 2.5 years -- the seed was planted right here. In October 2013, soon after I moved to the bay area, I met Birju, who brought me to my first Awakin Santa Clara. On the first night, meeting the Mehta family, Nipun and Guri. Guri gifted me the book, Highway Dharma Letters -- that many of you might be familiar with -- about two American monks undertaking a three-steps-one-bow pilgrimage for 2.5 years for world peace. Just reading that book, a few pages each morning, slowly changed my worldview. And being around the values that's shared here, seeing that this is what's bringing people alive and what's worth living for.
On the other side, at work, I saw all the very seemingly noble attempts at solving problems, which are making both the problem solver miserable and the problems worse. :) So, it seemed something is missing. Slowly, especially after my first 10-day silent meditation retreat, a drastic shift (which, at that time I didn't notice) was looking from outside to looking within. Beforehand, the question was: "What do I want to do with my life?" Slowly, it the became: "If I give of myself more fully, how can this body and mind be of greater service, or in alignment, with the will of nature?"
One day, that shift was like an unintentional prayer. For many months, no response. That limbo period was quite tormenting, because I was doing what I know I was not supposed to be doing, but I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing.
When the answer, or the calling, finally came (maybe as an inner voice) that said, "Go on a pilgrimage back home," I just almost had tears in my eyes. I sighed, "Thank you." That's it.
I chose the way of bicycling because, for one, that's one thing I know how to do. :) And also, I wanted to travel as slowly as I was spiritually prepared for. The more spiritually prepared one is, the slower one would travel -- being the bowing pilgrimage of the monks, or Guri and Nipun's walking pilgrimage in India. And I knew I was not ready for that level. I was not ready to take what life throws at me at the speed of walking. So bicycling provided a faster escape, but was not as insincere as driving back to China. And I had the bike. So all of these condition aligned.
I said, okay, I'll go on a bicycling pilgrimage for an open ended process, from the U.S. back to China. The work, the intention, is to take the values that have been gifted and the teachings that I have received, to take all of that onto the bicycle.
For example, the alms round in many a traditional spiritual practices -- going knocking on a stranger's door each evening, and asking if I may sleep in their front yard. Being a vegetarian along the way, not soliciting or fundraising any money along the way. How do I take these values on a bicycle, and ride them through (what ended up being) 16 countries, back to China? So that was the starting point of that journey.
Halfway through your pilgrimage, when asked "What have you learned," you immediately said, "There are zero bad people in the world." You've had so many interesting encounters throughout these 16 countries. Are there any particular people or moments that stand out to you?
As I knock on doors in different cultures and countries, the average is about 1 in 5 families whose doors I knocked on would say yes to welcoming me in. This is the rate in the U.S. I also went through Europe, the Middle East, Asia -- so mostly North America and Eurasia. In Europe you maybe you want to guess which country has the lowest "yes" rate. [Audience member: England.] Yes. That might not be surprising. But even in England (and maybe it's just not part of the general culture), the families that did open their doors, they were just so disarming. There was one family, an elder couple who let me stay in their home. When I was doing my evening meditation, they saw that and afterward they came up and said, "Well, I don't know what you believe in. We are Christians, but when you pray, would you please keep our grandson in your prayers? He was just born prematurely, and we don't know if he will make it."
It's those human connections that equalize all the labels.
You might also want to guess, out of all the countries, which country has the highest rate, where almost every door that I knocked on said yes. [Audience member: Iran.] Exactly. I was biking through Iran for about 1.5 months, and I think the rate was actually about 1 in 0.5 families would say yes, because often, even before I was ready to call it a day, they would see me on the street and say, "Oh, come stay for the night please." And they would drive out of their way to take me to do grocery shopping. I know Iran might not have a good reputation in some news media these days (and that's also the fear that I had going in), but being in there and seeing such a welcoming and loving culture just shattered all my prejudice -- all my Islamophobia that I didn't know that was in there -- was dissolved by the kindness of the people.
Was it ever difficult for you to connect with somebody or a culture, or to find that common ground? Did you ever have moments where you were challenged or pushed to an edge?
I'll continue to take Iran as the example. At the level of a heart and practice, with things like generosity and hospitality, there's a sense of commonality. But whenever it goes to the head -- for example, when I tried to discuss religion -- then the disaster began. :) I'm just realizing that what people claim to believe have so little to do with the actual practice. Along the way, this made me realize it's much better to stay at the level of how we actually are -- what we actually do -- than the intellectual ideas of what we actually believe. There was a one night along the coast of Persian Gulf, I was in tiny villages where they probably have never seen a foreigner. I was just trying to sit in the meditation position and start to do an evening meditation sit.
I saw the family being a little suspicious. "What is the nonbeliever doing in our living room?" :) So I explained to them -- I just remembered friends have mentioned to me that the Sufis have the practice of zikr, of a silent remembrance of God. So, just through Google translate, I told them I'm practicing zikr. I'm just silently remembering the name of Allah. They were so happy with that. I think that definition is a very good definition for what meditation is, and just saying it in their language, they were very happy.
So at the level of practice, the inner process the same, but the outer label so easily leads to conflict.
One of the practices that you did along the pilgrimage was keeping a log of non-material gifts that you received. What inspired you to keep that log and what stood out to you from it?
So I think that log is still on there as a practice of both financial transparency and also as a way to remind myself what is truly supporting a pilgrim. So there was no solicitation or fundraising along the journey, but every time there was an unsolicited donation -- maybe $5, maybe a thousand dollars -- I would write the amount and the blessing; usually there is a message of blessing that came with the donation. I put it in a public google doc, and then on a page next to it, write a story of those few days of a non financial gift that has nourished and supported the pilgrimage. I tried to force myself to not repeat twice what I'd written before. I can say "someone gave me a dinner," one time, but the next time, I can't say "someone else provided dinner." Just forcing myself to see all the different ways, all the different forms of capital.
Now, thinking back, I'm actually realizing it's such a great privilege and also a deep context. Hmm, if I were to thank the donors, I could have easily called the pilgrimage, a ServiceSpace sponsored pilgrimage, because that's where so much of the support -- both the unsolicited material and also the spiritual support -- came from. Just realizing this time I have friends here -- this context, this web of support -- who have made it easy for me, because that's what I was ready for. I might not have been ready for some harsher conditions. Just noting that this is a great privilege and also an "easy version" that was given to me, knowing that that's where I was.
If the pilgrimage were to happen again now, the setup might be a bit different. Just having this deep trust that life will give us challenges at exactly the rate that we can take it; there is no insurmountable challenge. Actually, usually life gives us things a bit more on the slack side. So thank you all for giving me so much slack -- for all that extra guacamole in the burrito. :)
Before embarking on the pilgrimage, you also took on a set of vows, or practices, to keep along the way. Can you describe that a little?
The 6 vows for that pilgrimage was to abstain from killing, stealing, lustfullness, intoxicants, meat-eating and profit-seeking. It's the five precepts for lay Buddhists, minus no lying, plus no profit-seeking and no meat-eating (which might have been implied in the other four, but just wanted to name it out for myself).
It was very important to have these set of guidelines for the pilgrimage because that's what reminds me that I'm not on a "see the world" trip. It's not a tourist package. This is actually taking the monastic teachings onto a bicycle pilgrimage. These are my best protection along the way. I'm sure having no fat tire has something to do with keeping to these ethical bottom lines.
And it's also my best gift to the people that I visit -- the assurance that the living beings that I meet, I will not to take their life. I will not kill a mosquito, as much as I can. And that the families that I go in to stay, that their daughters and wives are safe. After the pilgrimage, looking back, one area where I feel very happy is that these precepts -- at least taking them for their word (maybe not at their deeper meaning) -- they have been kept and they have become second nature. And they will take roots for the rest of life and for all lifetimes to come.
But also knowing how difficult it is to keep them at their deeper layer. For example, no stealing: it's easy to not take what's not given, but over-eating and oversleeping is stealing from other people's mouth and stealing from life; stealing time from life. So seeing once the surface layer of the vow is observed, the deeper meaning reveals itself. I say, "Okay, that's just the tip of the iceberg that you thought what the vow meant." Each of these vows corresponded to the rest of its iceberg. So it's very humbling.
Along the way, you also, encountered a lot of different people, a lot of different groups. You visited a lot of different spiritual spaces -- monasteries, temples, churches. Are there any in particular that stand out to you, or that give you hope?
The pilgrimage happened to string together a few dozen spiritual communities that have been inspiring, and that I have always wanted to visit. But I also realized that people's homes are just as much a temple as spiritual places of practice. Also, one thing that's sobering and alarming is that at most of the spiritual centers, those who are truly practicing, might not be that many. And those who are truly practicing might not be in spiritual centers. For a spiritual center, even if it has only one true cultivator, that's enough. That's enough of a spiritual energy to uphold and that spiritual center. And, to see how in almost every single spiritual center, what the founder has put in place has become almost a joke. For example, with what I'm most familiar or connected, in many Buddhist places, we'll just go through the motions -- the bowing and the "amitofo" -- and in the Puttaparthi, I just hear "Sai Ram, Sai Ram". In many lineages, the tool that was given by the founder has kind of become a cliche and just become another, "oh, how are you doing?" Especially once the founder is gone. It just happens so quickly, it's very sobering.
So what exactly is actual practice and how do I not slip into the act of turning something holy back into a habit? I have not seen any lineage, or religion that's spared from this tendency. Nor is the container of a spirituality or religion necessary for true practice. Those cultivators that inspire me the most, sometimes they are just like many of the people in this room. Undercover. :)
It's been about 9 months since you completed your pilgrimage back to China. Looking back now, what would you say has been one of your greatest lessons from it? Or how have you changed, if, if at all?
I was sharing with a few others, that just being back after 2.5 years -- or for me, it was being on the pilgrimage and, after 2.5 years, having a teacher hold up a mirror, seeing how I have not changed. Or after 2.5 years coming back to Bay Area, visiting some of the old friends and seeing how, maybe in the community, some patterns have not changed. It's so alarming, because 2.5 years is a good sample size of one's life, especially in one's mid-twenties. If one has not changed the deepest pattern in 2.5 years, I'm probably not changing much in this lifetime and it's probably going to come back again. I'll make the same mistake again and again.
There has been some changes that I'm grateful for over 2.5 years. For example, the Buddha listed paramis, or virtues, such as giving, tolerance, and vigor. Maybe those have grown along certain dimension, and I do not want to downplay the benefit of those growths. But at this point, looking back, what is more jarring are the places that have not changed. For example, honestly speaking, I don't think the ego has diminished much in the two and a half years. Though the old self identity of the Achiever was dissolved, the ego clawed its way back. "So now you're a Pilgrim." Maybe the ego is no longer living off of having achieved more, but maybe it is living off of being 'holier than thou'. So on the whole, on the balance, I saw that, one, the ego probably has not diminished much, that I could notice.
Also, the noisiness of the mind has not diminished much. My ability to concentrate -- like in the language of the 6 paramitas, for samadhi (or concentration), the needle has not moved. So those are really alarming. And I was not able to see these areas myself until maybe grace showed up through a teacher coming into life and really putting up a mirror. Upon the first meeting, she was very blunt and said "Ah, you're visiting all these places, but with what are you visiting? You're talking about service, but with what are you serving in going around? Are you sure you're not creating more negative karma than positive karma?"
Before coming here, the "scolding" was even more direct. The teacher asked, "Why are you going to the US?" I was almost ashamed to say "I'm going to talk about things."
And then the teacher made sure to make fun of me and make fun of me in front of everybody. :) When we were doing meditation -- we'll be asked to sit for three hours without moving, and I was shifting and my seats, she called me out and say, "How pathetic. What are you going to the Buddhist conference to talk about? Your fragility? You can't even keep your, keep yourself on the seat for three hours without shifting." She is constantly helping me to chip at the ego and to bring the focus back to what's the actual work. There is a saying and that she mentioned, that translates to: "For those who have not attained the Tao, do not go around proclaiming it."
So I realized that I might have just violated that big time. [Laughter]
On that note, you've been spending more significant time each day practicing meditation. What has stillness been teaching you?
I haven't got in touch with stillness as much as I have been getting in touch with pain. So now it's in the stage of pain. :)
But pain has been such a good friend. Meaning, leg pain. Before that, I thought of myself as a pretty brave person. "I've biked around the world!" But the pain of maybe two hours, and then after two hours and 45 minutes of stillness, pushing the limits you're seeing, it's like "Wow, this is the choice that I have made life after life. And this pattern is just so deep." I know it's in the mind, maybe next set I will push through. I know it's all made up. I know I can do this, but maybe tomorrow I would have eaten less of a lunch and I wouldn't be so painful.
I'll push to toe three hour next time. Just the mind's habits. One is how fragile it is. Say, okay, I'm going to give up. How easily I give up. It's not even about the three hours -- it's about: Can I keep a promise I have made to myself? And just forget about everything else. I've made a promise to myself, can I keep it? How easy it is to just give up, on one hand, and also that I still have the shamelessness to find excuses -- a hundred "very valid" excuses to say, "Oh, there is a reason why I gave up. Today wasn't my best day." :) Just seeing that pattern so clearly. It's so strong. To turn that speeding car around, I have yet to find another force strongly enough as pain -- because only when pain is only thing I can think about and to escape pain is my only wish -- only in that intensity of pain could the mind start to quiet down, and another space opens.
So I don't know about stillness, but pain, highly recommend. :)
What has your relationship with your parents been like over the last few years and how has that journey evolved?
My parents had the blessing of meeting many of you when they came to the U.S. for the first time. That very Wednesday night, when they first landed from China, they came straight to an Awakin Circle -- they came here. That was the start their 5-month pilgrimage through the U.S.
Now, when we're back home, more often than not, we call each other, Dharma Brother Dad, and Dharma Brother Mom. And they will call me Dharma Brother Son.
There is really a sense that we've been at this for a long time, for a lifetimes. And, in this lifetime, you play "Dad", you play "Mom", I play "Son". Let's play this well, both to fulfill our karmic obligations or ties to each other and also to show -- especially show Chinese parents -- how parents could be.
At the beginning of the journey, both parents were not very happy about their son. All their bragging rights were taken away overnight. :)
Now, it's all the confusion and the kind of shame they have among neighbors. "Your son doesn't have a girlfriend, doesn't have a job. What is he doing?" That might be the easier part, but then the grandparents -- they've worked hard their life to go from the countryside to the village, and from the village to the city, so that their kids can go to Beijing for university. And my parents worked hard so that their son can go to the US to study.
The mode of transportation for my grandparents was bicycle. :) For my parents, it was a car. Now maybe you'll go to Silicon Valley and get a Tesla. :) But a bicycle again?! Back back to China, living in a nunnery in a countryside?! It's like three generations of effort lost! :) So that wasn't easy to get over for them to begin with.
But as the journey went along, first, my dad went to do his first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat and came back a changed person. He quit drinking, quit smoking. Soon, he became a vegetarian. He quit his job and then moved with my mom to start their pilgrimage. People ask him why he has this openness to try some, he's a trained science minded, uh, engineer. And why he, people ask why he has this opening, willingness to try. He said, "I saw my son coming back home and he started to do dishes for the first time in his life that I have seen him. The spoiled brat :), growing up never did any housework, but I saw him doing dishes with a smile and mindfully." That's something that almost made him envy that. He's like, "I want to have what he's having." (By the way, this home is where I learned to do dishes -- as we, as we fight over that precious two square meter of dishwashing space. :))
So that was for my dad's transformation. But my mom, she has always been supportive. She has higher IQ and EQ than my dad and I, :) and she has greater virtue in compassion and selflessness. But I think for people who are better than most people around them, they also have subtly more pride and doubt. I know my cultivation and virtue and merits is not enough to crack the facade of the good life -- of that 'good enough already'. "You and your dad go meditate. Tell me how it is. I will just continue to be the good person. I already am."
But this past February, for the past nine months at the monastery, my job was cleaning toilets, taking out garbage compost or recycling. That's the majority of my community work. Going back home, I saw my parents' bed were not made. So it just became second nature just to make their bed. I didn't really think much about it. And then, at the end of my short time with them -- one week -- they very strongly wanted to come to check out the nunnery I'm hanging out in. They came and volunteered for two months and it was a turning point for my mom. She used the word "reborn". She was in tears and she said for the first time in her life, she felt the necessity of her own practice and also the urgency of time. She realized that nobody can walk the path for her. She has to do it herself and time is running out. I can see that, even visually, physically, transformation happened.
At the farewell party, fellow volunteers -- young people my age -- asked my parents why they are willing to come to the temple to volunteer, whereas their own parents are really resisting the idea. My mom said, "Well, my spoiled son came back home and made our beds. It's a little embarrassing for us, but I would never have imagined my son making our beds. And I know it's not my son who has made our bed. It's our Dharma Brother Son who was making our bed, and whatever place can change his hopeless case, I'm curious to check it out. So that's the opening for her and leading to her transformation for the rest of her life. I think she is very committed, at least last I checked.
Traveling through the different cultures, seeing there is a pattern in Eastern cultures. The parents usually think of their child as almost a possession, an attachment: "You're my son, I gave birth to you, you owe everything to me." Whereas in the West, it's the other extreme. They're all separate individuals without much to do with each other. "You're on your own. After 18, you can borrow money from me with interest." [Laughter]
But both are not really honoring the individuality of a soul, and also the deep karmic connection between these sets of souls. Yes, we are all individual spirits, but there is also a reason I'm born to them. Just seeing that and then recognizing, "Oh, we're fellow practitioners. And, in this life, this is how we practice" -- it really changed our family relationship.
All along the way, for the past 10 years of living away from them, I would have 2-hour Skype calls with them every week, just to check in, because we are very close. But after these two months at the monastery together, I feel like I don't need to talk to them for the next 10 years. Because our hearts are so close, that there's no need to check in on how your son is doing. I would still call them, just for the love of it, but there's no longer that neediness, or that pattern.
And that also came about through grace. I could not have planned it. It's their deep merits that's ripening, and they're so generous to -- at least in the sequence of time -- give the appearance that I have gifted them something, or at least been the bridge towards something. But I know it's their karma ripening.
Thank you, Mom and Dad, Dharma Brothers. :)
Could you share more on the relationship between pain and suffering? I have not seen you move for the last two hours. :)
There is the cliche: "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional."
I think without the mind of cultivation, pain is just pain. It's a good pain wasted if I'm not a practicing with the pain. While there's severe pain in sitting, if I continue to deepen the same mental pattern of wanting to escape, then I'm just deepening the same mental habit and that leads to suffering. But when I see, "Okay, pain, can I just observe the pain and use the pain as a tool to undo those same mental patterns again?" then it alleviates suffering.
My practice is not to the point where I feel confident in saying more than, so I am still at the stage where pain is often just pain. But there were moments where I see how the same pain is helping to undo the same habit pattern. The difference is: "Is my switch turned into the mode of practicing? Or am I just letting the awareness drop, falling back into the pattern?"
What are the motivating forces that you have experienced that keep on this path of cultivation, which is more or less never ending? :)
I've got nothing else to do. :)
Nothing else has worked. :) I have come across many people who have the dream of seeing the world, and having perhaps done than that in one way, myself, it really became so clear: there is nothing "out there". No matter where I go, if the mind is not being purified at a deep level, there is nowhere to escape. I have not seen anything else that is more worthwhile.
Have you seen some opening up within yourself as a result of the purification process?
My ligaments are looser. :)
Surrender has become deeper. At the start off the pilgrimage, the genesis of the pilgrimage was an answer to a prayer, essentially, to surrender my own planning. Also realizing that people like Mozart or Alexander the Great died in their early thirties, and whatever plan I have for my life for my mid-twenties, I probably won't be Alexander the Great by the time I'm 31. :) It's not nearly that interesting, and I'm leaving the plan to a higher force, but the whole journey feels like a deeper and deeper surrender. Now in a monastery, for the first time I had no idea what a spiritual teacher meant, but when the opportunity, when the invitation, I showed up, seeing what that surrender meant and the grace that comes in, and the lightness of it, I realized, "Oh, that surrender might be the secret to the universe." :)
I remember you sharing that you had no doubt that practicing at this monastery now is what you want to do indefinitely. It's so uncommon in this day and age to see a spiritual teacher-student relationship with the kind of trust that you've described in conversations earlier this week. What do you feel it is, either about this teacher or about this particular process? It's a huge discipline. It's quite a commitment. Can you share a little bit about that?
To be in a teacher-student relationship is not a necessary condition, but it's more than sufficient, for this path. And might be one of the fastest. I was not consciously looking for a teacher, nor had I planned on surrendering to anyone. All that critical thinking that they taught in American schools shouldn't go in vain! :) But realizing that if my prayer is to be aligned with the will of nature, and I do not have the faculty to even pick up the nature's instruction, then the second best route is to receive the help of someone who is in sync. And that's the role of a teacher.
I feel like I have also done my due diligence by both the 2.5 years of just cross-comparing. And also living there, the surrender didn't happen on day one. The tie, the connection, was immediate. But my good "Due Diligence Officers" were still on duty, and checked her out for this entire period. And there is just a sure assurance from all directions, both at the intellectual and at the energetic, spiritual affirmation, that this is it.
It seems like it's never the student who was looking for the teacher; it's always the teacher who comes to the student. Because I could not have seen that she was my teacher, but she knew I was her student. So she came to get me, in that sense. Forever grateful. I could have died being hit by a truck on the road on my way, still looking around. But when that grace came, I say, "Oh, thank you to the universe."