Postcards From India
Enclosed is a leaf…
Enclosed is a leaf from a Bodhi tree. Inside it lies the essence of what makes a tree a tree—different, I suppose, from a monkey or a fish or even a human eye. In every single leaf is an entire Bodhi tree just as in every drop of rain is the ocean, only not so deep. A blessing and mystery at the same time.
I also enclose my greetings, though they are not as endless as a leaf or a star or the sky. At Lumbini I saw a bottle labeled ‘Scent of a morning from August 2, 1962.’ The bottle was empty except for that captured essence, to be uncorked centuries from now when some pilgrim like me desires to know and understand what it was to be alive in August 1962, just as I have been intent on knowing what it means to breathe the delicate air of your being, to inhale your breath, to dance in your eyes.
The best thinking is done on foot. And so the road is home. It is both destination as well as the way there. I think I have never understood that till now. How far have I traveled to be here? How far is it still from where I am? Send me your kisses. I will bottle them and take them with me to the end of the road.
I am unused to writing my thoughts down. I fear everything, and putting that into words only makes my fears more concrete. Well, then, let me be concrete: what I fear most is losing you. A beggar with a bowl has nothing to fear because he has nothing to lose. A commonplace thought, words unworthy of even a postcard. But take away his bowl and see how he will squirm. An empty bowl holds many things.
Tiger in a bush
The Way is always hidden: anger is disguised as praise; praise becomes a silent goad. In tantric practice, the withholding of pleasure becomes the doorway to endless delight. What is up may be down. The Way is hidden like a tiger in a bush, unseen until it springs.
Alert to all ironies, I head north hoping to find the secret language containing worlds of possibility said to be as numerous as sand grains on the Ganges. There is rumoured to be a map leading to the unexcavated grave of every Bodhisattva.
In the meantime, here is what I know: it is best to disregard both gate and boundary. They are false and lead nowhere. Look for the sign that says ‘Away.’ When you return, it will not be there. Search for a passage that is both near and far, wild and calm, fearsome and soothing. Be both pirate and mendicant, lover and soldier, merchant and buyer.
But first, pay your bills and lock up the sash. Wish your family long life and your friends great good fortune. Then pick up your begging bowl and a threadbare robe. Close your eyes, finger pointing forward, and spin. Turn your back on everything you know. Now you are ready.
All direction is inconsequential
The guide says you must embrace an ‘elemental recklessness’, keeping a wary gaze on the road ahead, which you are already leaving. No matter—all direction is inconsequential. Leave your books, your journals and your poems. One coat is easily replaced by another. The Way exists, but where is the traveler?
Can you be charitable without being sentimental, wise without being knowing, witty without being cynical? Can you embody purity without excessive piety? Can you embrace the scorching winds of Nalanda, tolerate the dust that rakes your throat, and still leave them behind?
Soon you will encounter the intolerable perversions of the mind: whirling dervishes, the white dust of a dried riverbed, lost dreams of kings, splendid palaces, mountains and tigers. In time you will meet courtesans and queens, rogues and saints, poets and philosophers, and prophets of all sorts.
The lokapalas, those useful deities guarding the holy sites, have performed their duty unstintingly for more than two and a half thousand years. I have marked this country end to end with the soles of my burning feet. Now I say, better to stay at home.
I have been to Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kusinara. Benares and Kapilavastu lie at my feet. Of all the sacred places I have known, your body is the one I remember best. Why go all that way to touch a monument of stone?
The hardest part…
The hardest part of setting out is returning. It sounds contradictory, but it’s true. I’ll say it again: the hardest part of setting out is returning, emptying the contents of your traveling case on the bed, or a rug on the floor, and saying to yourself, ‘This is where I have been,’ as though this assemblage of trinkets is the crystallized essence of all you have been and done. Are there new worlds in the soiled laundry, meaningless souvenirs and scattered toiletries? Your day-timer is as blank as the day you left, as though time had stopped while you neglected to record the pages that remain empty, unlived. They can tell you nothing of where you have been.
So I resolve to return with nothing, and take with me everything, discarding and refining myself along the way. Breathe in and breathe out. One does not hold onto the breath, but grows in and through it, before expelling it. Some things I will keep: the memory of a smile and the tears of a child, an understanding of sorrow, and how over time it becomes strength with a gleam as hard as a diamond, as colourful as a rainbow.
I will take whatever I can pack into this infinite space inside me. Don’t worry. You are already there.
August 2, 2006
Starbucks, Jones and Danforth
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