Thursday, February 14, 2013

January 6, 2013
2nd day of Sakyadhita Conference of International Buddhist Women.  Theme: Grassroots of Buddhism

Academics and devotees, lay and clergy, Europeans, North Americans, Australians and Asians.  I’m probably playing mind games, but being asked about Buddhism in my life is oddly disturbing as I’m such a dilettante here.  I've been consciously studying Buddhism for 7 years, but don't feel that I'm a "Buddhist."  I'm often asked why I've come to India.  Only my desire to learn has brought me here, but it takes me a while to realize that. 

January 9

Three of us walk/stroll to the Japanese Peace Pagoda near the hotel.


One of the women, a nun, tells me about relics, one of which is buried across the lake.  There are many, many of them all around the world, small, some like pearls, she says.  I wonder how there can be so many and she tells me that they multiply.  I say, “like gall stones?” and she gives me a funny look.  I regret my unwise speech and hope I haven't hurt her feelings.  Relics are, of course, symbols of devotion, ways of renewing one's belief with an object of love.

The walk around the lake was lovely and the unearthed relic burial site in a garden, very peaceful and well kept. We walk around in a clockwise direction (circumambulated) the pagoda 3 times (a sign of respect).  Again, I wish I could be more devotional, but my skepticism (or something I haven't figured out yet) stops me.  Even though my back was hurting with the slow walking, I appreciated the sense of peace and am content to know that Gautama Buddha's presence here has caused it to be so.

Walking in the neighborhood, for the first time I see the homes of people in this region close up.  Cows lay about like cats in their most comfortable positions; crows land on the cows to preen them, finding tasty morsels.  Sculptures of cow dung mixed with straw dry in the sun.  They are the primary fuel used in this area and they contribute to the smog. We walk by a small tourist area near the relic garden, with low key salesmen. J bought a little plastic prayer wheel driven by solar power chip.


Back at the tea shop outside the monastery, life again seems mundane again as children laugh and ask for anything in our pockets.  Is this any more real than the idea of a relic of the Buddha being buried only a short distance away?

Thoughts on Buddhism.  We strive to control wildness--even of thoughts…but should they be tamed/trained?  Don’t we love the wild? When we are the slaves of our minds, untamed thoughts can be harmful, but can't wild thoughts also be creative?

Shamata:  calm, quiet.  The reason why we are not ‘awake’ is because of ego.  Studying dharma creates a well balanced, healthy ego, with self-esteem.  This is a preparation for looking through it (the ego) and losing it (even momentarily).

Shamata is calming
Vipassana is analyzing.

If we try to dissect and analyze before enough calming, the insights will not be deep enough.  And so the meditation calms the mind before the analysis.  Shamata is merging of subject & object (breath).  Then one can turn awareness back to itself and watch the mind.  Thoughts are not the problem; identifying with the thoughts is the problem.  Thinking that we are our thoughts and then clinging to that identity that thinks causes suffering.  All of our beliefs are merely the result of our thinking.

‘Space’ is the nature of the mind … there is just awareness there … it cannot be claimed.  The open, awake mind doesn’t project because there is no place.  The word for “awake’ in Tibetan is more than ‘space’ but ‘expanding,’ that is, in process.

Meditation makes attention very sharp and precise so that when we look at the thoughts we can see clearly what they are without ego projection.  (Haven’t reached that clarity myself!)

Talk by Tenzin Palmo~~Everything goes with you on the path: both obstacles and opportunties Life is the gymnasium of the soul.

January 9

The conference is coming to a close.  Panel papers are stimulating and relevant--focusing on practical issues and women’s empowerment.  A monk from Sri Lanka has been the only male to speak and he was eloquent and moving, encouraging and supporting women's desire to be ordained in all Buddhist traditions.  Thai women (from a population primarily Buddhist) are not allowed ordination.  I find this amazing as so many of  the Northern California Buddhist teachers were trained (and ordained) in Thailand.  One would think that they would boycott or speak out against the sexism of the monks in their tradition. (Maybe they are doing this and I am unaware.)
Here we are, a conference of academics, monastics, and feminists.  Many are doing wonderful things to promote peace and understanding between cultures.

Workshop about international interfaith dialogue (led by Gabriella Frey) with the passionate Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo as co-participant was a highlight for me. Fascinating and valuable thoughts and actions are going on in the world to get people of faith together to learn how to get along.  Gabrielle Frey of the European Council:  Social harmony can’t be complete if neighbors don’t at least know something about each others’ religions.  We don’t have to believe the same things, but we need to be tolerant and know that we have the same goals of happiness and harmony.

A few of the topics at the conference:
Buddhist Women of the Himalayas
Ambedkar's Perspective on Women in Indian Society: Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar ( knew nothing about this 'untouchable' who became a writer of the Indian constitution)
The Changing Roles of Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen in Cambodia
Than Hsiang Kindergarten:  A Case Study
Self-Esteem, Self-Promotion and No-Self
Identity and Samsara
The Good Girl Syndrome:  Feminism and Being an Authentic Practitioner
Lay Buddhist Women in Buryatia
Beyond Text: Rebirth Narratives of Model Women in Buddhism
Dress and Liberation:  Ordained Buddhist women in Britain
The Council of Europe's Investigation on Religious and Cultural Relativism
Gender Equality among Buddhist Clerics in Korea
Buddhism and Aging
Why Educating Nuns is Important in the 21st Century
So many more!!

Monday, February 11, 2013

January 2, Dubai to Delhi 

Flew over some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever seen.  Southern Iran and Western Pakistan.  Brown, grey ridges of what must be huge mountain ranges separated by dry valleys with not a sign of vegetation or settlement.  How dare anyone try to  live there … it can’t be easy for humans.  The people who live there must know there is more and better land to be cared for; some land somewhere that will care for them.

January 3, Delhi

Easy pick up at the airport at 7pm local time, and a short drive to the hotel, which was part of the Sakyadhita Conference Tour package.  Jet lag or excitement, I’m very tired, but I don’t fall asleep until midnight …then, slept until 6 am.  I'm at the Ashok Country Resort.  It seems to be out in the country, though it’s only 15 minute drive from the airport … no sidewalks, plenty of open land, large, old buildings nearby that look like colonial houses.  Ashok is also an old estate with several buildings and gardens (though it’s too cold to take advantage of them today).  I find out that these estates are now mostly horse ranches. 

As I’m alone in my more than adequate room for two, I take a good, long, hot shower.

In the breakfast room I start to look at the buffet when an employee comes to me and says ‘Please sit down.’  in no uncertain terms.  Once I am seated, he comes and invites me to serve myself at the buffet.  Lovely fruit, sausage, 2 kinds of beans, a rice porridge w/ peas & sesame seeds.  I stop at the coffee pot and cups, but again am told to sit down and will be served.

Note to self:  remember to let Indians keep face and keep their jobs by following procedures.  They are so polite it isn’t hard.

January 4

Women from USA, Australia, England, France, Germany, Sweden, Taiwan have converged at the Ashok.  The excitement of meeting people of like gender and spiritual interest is wonderful.

I connect with a woman near my age from Melbourne, JM, and we head out to the National Museum of Delhi.  As she has an errand to do first about fixing her phone, so our trip becomes an adventure of finding and then fixing.  The hotel's driver (after much discussion with the concierge) takes us to Connaught Place and dropped us near a Nokia store.  There we meet a young man outside the store who very kindly helps J understand that she has to wait until 7 pm that night before the phone will work.  We chat for quite a while with this pleasant person, and when J asks how and why he would stop to help strangers, he simply answers “Karma is good”. 

First impressions:  Delhi looks like it’s been under construction forever and still is in disrepair.  Connaught Place is a series of rings that are connected by streets radiating from the center. I had no desire to go to the center, as all looked chaotic, dusty and pointless.  Colonnades overhang shops of all sorts in no particular organization.  Phone shops, tailors, travel shops, etc all have equally unattractive storefronts.  Even our driver did not know how to find the phone shop, except that international Nokia has a large, blue sign.  So far, Delhi seems as chaotic and dirty as Dubai was orderly and clean. 

We continue on with our driver into a nicer part of town.  Diplomatic and government offices show off spacious green lawns and well-kept, clean streets and buildings.  We spend two hours in the wonderful National Museum and are able to see artifacts from Harappa (5000 years ago) to the Gupta reign (300 years ago).  Well arranged and well lit, there is another floor to the museum that we do not get to because of  our hunger for food over culture. We take a tuk-tuk (aka auto rickshaw, a motorized golf cart that are ubiquitous, used as taxis in Delhi and other Asian countries) to the Pandara shopping center, a small, horseshoe shaped strip mall full of restaurants.  Our driver steers us to the Pinda restaurant which is full of Indians; it's pleasant and quite good.  Expensive though, and as tourists we spend $10 each for lunch.

We take off after lunch on our own, and walk to Kahn Market, a labyrinth of stores, some upscale, some local and full of variety.  J bought a little plastic box that she needed, and we both find our first pashmina scarves … me a purple one (I think I spent $30 which was too much, but it’s quite lovely) and J less for one of wool print.   I learn that the more expensive pashminas (from the wool of Kashmir goats) are made of under-the-chin wool, while the less expensive come from wool on the back of the neck.  Looking forward to buying more shawls!!

January 3, Delhi to Patna

We leave Delhi hotel at 9 am in 4 buses, lots of misinformation and confusion, but no chaos (that’s Buddhists for you.  Trained in equanimity, we remain calm).  Some (the Swedish women come to mind), look perturbed, but they just stand aside, waiting.
Bags packed, people seated, we finally set out for the airport, where we will fly to Patna.  Eventually things became clear as we finally received boarding passes and check-in at the airport went smoothly.

A nice young man sitting next to me on the plane told me his name was Afroz, which means ‘success’.  He wants to know what my name means and I tell him that 'laurel' means reward or honor.  So I guess my name means 'little reward or honor.'  He is the 7th and youngest son and is majoring in business.  He will go into his father’s business, he says, after school.  He taught me 'thannaada' for ‘thank you’.

We land in Patna where the weather was blissfully warmer than Delhi and wait at the bus for instructions.  First, however, lunch at the airport held us up… we wait, and wait and finally take off at rush hour in Patna, a busy transport town, and on to Vaishali, the site of the 7 day conference. 

Evening poverty along the way, staring at the bus, eyes perhaps as stunned by me as I am by them.  Roads in poor condition, the bus wove from side to side.  There are sometimes fires along the side of the road and I see people huddled around, keeping warm. electricity is limited.

We arrive at Vaishali at around 7:30 (3 hours) to the hotel staff at the Residency lined up outside to greet us at the door with soda and smiles …Check in somehow moved to successful resolution.  I have a clean, bright room with comfortable bed and lots of hot water at the shower.  I’m rooming with two women from California … one a high maintenance, but very sweet woman from San Diego, the other a Zen priest from SF Zen Center who knows Mary Mocine.  This could be fun.

A good night’s sleep.  Dream I’m in a foreign land. In the dream there is a small local girl who comes to me in pain because her earring has infected her ear lobe.  She asks me to remove the earing, but when I look, I see it’s serrated and will be very painful to remove.  There is a group of entertainers in the dream who for some reason I think can help.  I ask a man who seems like a doctor and he, while sympathetic, says it can and must be removed in spite of the pain.  The child understands and wants me to try but I am hesitant.  I go in search of someone who can give me topical Novocain at least to dull the pain a bit. (I wake with the word Faluja--a site in Iran which saw fierce fighting in the US war there).

Note:  I’m at a conference with 500 hundred Buddhists.  The pain/suffering of life is the first noble truth.
Starting the year off right

December 31, 2012

Shared breakfast with Donna at the First Street CafĂ© in Benicia … our usual weekly tete-a-tete, with the added event of a ride to BART for me.  I’ve packed, repacked and  packed again over the past week, getting my luggage down to manageable weight and size for a woman of my years and constitution on a 5 week itinerary in India.

Yes, there is the matter of my years.  I started traveling when I was 7, so know the routine of packing and leaving things behind.  First traveling on my own at 15,  I learned the joys of not knowing exactly what will confront me, delight me, confound me.  With my first foreign travel at 19, I learned the meaning of adventure, danger, and letting the sparkles of the present flow around me.

With recent travels, I’ve also learned how much pre-arranging I need in order to keep my creatureliness in good working order.  So  most hotels have been booked in advance, flights have been bought, and this, my first experience with organized tours, will definiately be experimental.

January 1

Dubai, Le Meridian Hotel at 10 pm Middle East time (that‘s about 10 am California time).   I deplaned into a strangely familiar world with shiny marble floors, English signs, efficiency … um, but men wearing white dresses and head scarves. Large airport, enormous, I walked for what seemed like 20 minutes to immigration.  Easy, comfortable, my tired brain didn’t have to stress.   Got a taxi cab quickly and the friendly driver described the city, deposited me at the hotel (a mere $6) where I was met by a doorman who took my luggage.  At my age, I no longer need to grab it first, I’m willing to tip someone to help me.  Inside, the receptionists were hospitable, intelligent and helpful, though the various English accents are stunning … African, Asian, Indian … all speaking English with a twist.

After a good night’s sleep, I woke early and got up to walk around.  Knowing where I am physically and first hand is important to me.  I like to place myself on the earth, wherever I am.  It is a fairly mundane neighborhood, with only a few hotels.  As I walk farther, I find a clean, middle class looking neighborhood that could be Miami or Los Angeles.  Homes have clean-cut, geometric construction and are painted neutral colors; groceries or snack shops dot corners of main streets.  Not many people are out; mainly men perhaps walking to work and a few women of indeterminate ethnicity who look like office workers.  I stop for breakfast at a coffee house across from the Emirates College, where I see people in airline uniforms.  The weather is perfect, the food delicious, the service friendly.  I continue, heading back to the hotel and see men out washing cars.  I assume these are drivers whose job it is to keep the cars spic and span and ready for their employers’ use.

A little later I head the other way and realize I’m close to the very simple metro and could have gone downtown easily on my own.  Feeling it's too close to flight time to Delhi, I kick myself for not doing something (for the first time), and head back to the hotel.