Night Entry to the Himalayas, 1/4/13
The drive to Dharamshala felt like a release from a weeklong traffic jam. Doused with a quick rain and a good-riddance clap of thunder, Delhi had spat us out onto our pilgrimage road.
The van driver skillfully drove our family through a tumult of taxis; bicycle rickshaws; motorcycles; cows; riders on wedding steeds, on elephants, on camels. Oh to leave behind this clamor of beeps, honks and squealing horns; and the news stories on the recent gang rape of a twenty-three-year-old girl—all amplifying my own everyday blames, upsets and fears. I longed to find something other. I did not know what.
Along the road, trucks and buses squeezed by or fell behind—traveling carnivals painted in floral extravagance, garnished with fringes and bells. One truck carcass lay in the roadside ditch, overturned into a rice field. We learned in the newspapers the next morning that the driver, rice harvesters and village children, thirty-seven in all, had been killed, casualties of the fog and the chaos.
As we began our ascent, night was coming on. Fires glowed on the edges of the rice paddies. In the gloaming, villagers squatted around burning brush, warming their hands over the flames. Approaching car lights illumined the fog.
As the darkness became increasingly dense and the route steepened, we stopped speaking. We all knew the dangers. From the front seat, my husband Patrick let out a wary chuckle. In the far back, my daughter Caitlin and her friend started intense reading—one with a Kindle, the other with a headlamp and a real book. The driver inched along, now predicting the twelve-hour trip would take fifteen. With each switchback, the van lurched and sometimes stopped. I imagined cliffs, sheer drops on both sides.
Quite a challenge for me, whose freeway phobia, only recently quelled, had certainly restricted twenty years of my life, during which I’d also avoided any fast-moving contrivance that spun, zoomed or flipped. At ten on a Ferris wheel, I screamed for help until someone cranked me down and set me free. At thirty-five I survived a harrowing roller-coaster ride only because I was cinched in tight next to my most composed friend, a doctor no less and father of two. Without the solace of his “protection,” I might well have passed out in terror.
Here I was, so many years later, in the back of a van groping its way blind, carrying the most precious people to me in the world. How could I navigate this danger? Raised by atheists, I’d always seen myself as a skeptic, the opposite of a “faith” type. And yet . . .
From the mirror above the dashboard a gaudy Hanuman icon shivered, twirled and sparkled its monkey magic in the shimmer of oncoming headlights. Please, Hanuman, protect us.
Or should I shout out “STOP! We will not go an inch farther until the fog clears, until . . .” morning light, until what? It was maybe five more hours to Dharamshala. We’d come all the way to India for this family pilgrimage. I had to trust that this wasn’t our time to die.
Or if it was, I thought, as we hurtled through the dark, at least I am not alone. I’m with those I most love.
I recalled the monk Ajahn Sumedho’s essential Buddhism: “Let go, let go, let go.” So up, up the van went, spiraling through the opaque darkness into a parallel universe where there was no alternative but to allow myself to be carried.
Camel on the Hook, 1/7/13
In the cozy den at Kashmir Cottage, a fire burned in the hearth. After the circuitous journey through the dark, I was sitting with wise counsel in a radiant inner space. Our two chairs drawn up to the low table, I enjoyed a cup of hot ginger-and-lemon tea with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, wife of the younger brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and founder/director of the Tibetan Nuns Project.
Rinchen Khando asked me what I had noticed on my visit earlier that day to two of the nunneries. I described a collage on the wall in an English classroom at Shugsep Nunnery. The collage featured an image of a camel hitched up on a sling and suspended in the air, struggling. “That poor camel was hanging as if from a hook,” I told her. “Above the camel, someone had printed a question: WHAT IS THE CAMEL THINKING? And the students had scrawled: ‘I’m cold.’ ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘Too much suffering in this Samsara.’ ‘I’m scared.’ ‘Please let me go.’” I asked Rinchen Khando, “For the nuns in this classroom, this wasn’t simply training in using English. Do you think it was some kind of ‘compassion training?’”
Rinchen Khando paused, then turned our conversation inside out. “We ourselves are like this camel,” she said. “We are so hung on the hook of self. For what? When you realize that you may not be here, you could die, even tomorrow, why cling so much onto that so-called self?” Through the tender vibration of her voice, I heard an inner chime, almost a laugh. “The clinging to self,” she continued, “that’s where all of the suffering comes from. ‘I’m scared.’ ‘I’m cold.’ ‘I’m hungry.’ If you let go of that hook, you are free.” She looked me directly in the eye. “That’s where the compassion comes in. As long as we are so stuck with the self, we don’t even have time for compassion, for doing things for others.”
Easier said than done. I have a body. I have thoughts. What to do with all that? In the following days the image of the camel hooked on self repeatedly returned to me. And I wondered, How do I find that release?
Woman in the Sky, 1/11/13
The sun was already low on the horizon when we arrived at the base of the footpath leading up to Ratnagiri and Vulture Peak. The Buddha spent many rainy seasons meditating in the caves in these hills. Here he delivered the Lotus Sutra, inspiring compassion for all who suffer, and the Heart Sutra on emptiness.
Patrick and I had planned to hike up the three miles to the renowned Japanese stupa at the summit, but as the sun sank behind the Ratnagiri hills, we knew that to make it back down to our van before dark, we would have to take the “Ropeway.” This chairlift to the top delighted many pilgrims. The very thought of it made me queasy.
Girding myself for the ascent, I pictured sailing up the hill, safely strapped into a seat next to Patrick. We approached the gate to the platform where the lift chairs continuously circled up to deposit pilgrims at the top, and then cycled back down with returning pilgrims. Patrick and I were next. I took his hand to step through the gate; only then did I really take in the small orange one-seater swaying from its wire. I stopped in fright. Clearly, each pilgrim had to go it alone.
The guide beckoned impatiently as I allowed the orange chair to pass by with no rider; she gave me a tongue-lashing in Hindi (I got the gist) as a blue chair clattered to the platform. Did I step up, or did she give me a shove? Somehow, there I was in the seat as she slammed shut the metal guard which clicked into its groove, and the cable continued to carry the chair, now swinging above the rocks, gravel and scrub brush.
Not so bad, I thought at first, while the ground was maybe ten feet below, less than a jump from the kitchen porch of our Berkeley house to our yard. But suddenly the safe ground dropped away and I was hanging over the abyss. No point to call for help here. No benevolent deity—almighty or monkey—could possibly crank me down to safety. The chair lurched, suspended over the neem trees and rocky crags, me clutching the jangling metal bar. All the other riders vanished from my mind. I was alone and in danger.
What if the latch wasn’t securely fastened? I felt my body tumbling through the trees. What if the power cut off? Hadn’t we lost power at least once every day in India? I saw myself hanging in this flimsy basket as the sun disappeared and the sky turned dark. How many hours, maybe days, would I be suspended here over this rocky gulch? I’d die of thirst or starve. Wasn’t there a reason they called this Vulture Peak? Talk about a “sky burial.” I’d be picked clean.
Such grandiose terrors—a familiar escalating chain. The camel and the hook. I instructed myself: don’t spin out on these scenarios. Just look straight ahead. Open your eyes. Notice the chairs ahead of you ascending, the chairs on the return loop approaching.
A friend once told me about the forced emergency landing of a flight she’d been on. During a terrifying twenty-five minutes, as the plane pitched and reeled to the ground, she did lovingkindness meditation, first for herself, then her family, then for the other passengers and their families, and finally for everyone in the world. Right there, just me by myself in the swinging chair, I mustered my discipline. “May I be happy,” I whispered to myself. “May I be peaceful.” Then, “May Patrick be happy. May Patrick be peaceful.” I pictured Patrick in the chair behind me. Even though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was there, his bristly eyebrows and crooked smile. “May Caitlin be happy. May Caitlin be peaceful. May she be safe.” Bright cheeks, dimples on both sides.
From my own tight solitary niche, I took a first look out at the other riders approaching one by one. High up here above the trees, another chair glided toward me, carrying an older woman in a red sari. Head tucked into her chest, shoulders bent, she gripped her metal bar in fear. There we both were, our chairs swaying above the rocks below. “May you be happy!” I shouted out. “May you be peaceful!”
My voice echoed in the valley; I felt my breath. And I kept chanting—for Caitlin, for Patrick, for other descending pilgrims. A stout young woman in a bright green sari floated my way. This woman was unaccountably relaxed, her arms extended over the back of the seat, as if draped along the bolsters of an overstuffed couch, her green silk billowing against the darkening cobalt sky. Shaking loose from my roller-coaster self, I belted out my prayer for her, “May you be happy!” With a surprised chortle, the woman leaned forward, met my gaze as I was coming toward her. “I AM happy!” she called back. In delighted Indian cadence, “I am SO HA-ppy!” Her chest puffed in pleasure, and she waved at me as she breezed by.
As we passed each other, I witnessed myself as if through her eyes: shoulders hunched, fingers clutching the bar, bent knees squeezing the chair. A painful picture. I thought of the camel. And here was Barbara dangling precipitously from the hook of self, all tangled up in self-worries and self-jinx. In that moment, something loosened. I let out a sigh—a shiver through the spine, a lightening, almost a laugh. Panic passed through me and released, like an out-breath, a kind of trust.
Barbara Gates is grateful to Shantum Seth and Buddhapath for help in planning and booking her family pilgrimage in India: www.buddhapath.com. To support the Tibetan Nuns Project, visit www.tnp.org.