Had breakfast and coffee at the “espresso bar” just outside our camp. Bamboo poles hold up a tarp, an old, rusting folding table, and that’s about it. Oh yeah, and the chrome toy “espresso maker” that doesn’t make espresso. It does steam milk but otherwise it’s just there for show. But the nice guy who runs it makes nice little cups of instant coffee and sweet milk. We’ve become regulars there and he always likes to see us in the morning.
“Namaste!” he said and put both his hands to his heart. It’s a beautiful gesture. I think it means basically “I hold you dear to me”. That’s how Indians show respect and gratitude, not the hands folded at the heart and bowing like most westerners think. Doing that usually just gets you a weird look and a fumbling, unnatural bow in return.
We sat at the tables outside the stall on the side of the road. A young Tibetan man, Lobsang, talked to us over eggs and coffee. It was a nice little impromptu dharma lesson, history class and reality-check all in one. He told us that he came from Tibet as a refugee in 2006. The Chinese had killed his mother and grandfather. On the way over the Himalayas, his friend died after falling into a rushing river. Unfortunately, this is a common story.
“I don’t feel suffering for this,” he said. “Suffering only in mind.”
Then, in broken English and despite the fact that he was just a lay practitioner, he gave us one of the most succinct and practical dharma teachings I’ve ever heard. All the world’s religions have the goal to lead us to happiness. This happiness eludes us because we grasp at things that have no substance. We seek happiness in money, power and prestige but then we die without having found satisfaction. The true path to happiness lies in realizing the true nature of reality and by treating everyone and everything on this planet with love and respect.
And that was it. Nice to meet you and have a nice day. I had a lot to think about as we made our way down to the Kalachakra ground.
The walk was the same as it always is: total chaos and frenzy. It never ends here. A constant assault. My nose is running and clogged with thick, stringy mucus from the pollution. My eardrums are raw from the non-stop honking of horns. (India, is it really necessary to honk your horns all the time? What would happen if you stopped for just a few minutes? Would there be some calamitous hundred-rickshaw pile up on the no lane highway?) Then there’s the Smell of India. The guide books allude to it but they are never specific. Let me clarify: It is an olfactory army marching straight up your nose. It does not seek to lay siege but rather to lay waste. It is burning, rotting garbage, dead dog, piss and shit, festering pools of standing water, bad breath, sweat, moldy crotch and an occasional wafting puff of incense thrown in just to keep you on your toes.
And none of this, not the sounds, the sights or the smells, ever stops. Ever. Sometimes it’s all just too much and I want to just find the off switch or at least the volume nob. But there is no such thing. India is on all the time and there is no escaping it.
Made it to the Kalachakra ground and found our seats that we’ve kept for the whole time so far. The custom is that you place a piece of foam or cardboard with your name on it on the ground and, by some miracle of human kindness and cooperation, 100,000 people agree that you can sit there for the duration of the teachings. It’s really wonderful.
There were actually no teachings today. Those are over till the actual empowerment begins tomorrow. Today was more ritual preparation and chanting. Talked to a couple of Sakya monks during a break. They were very nice. One of them sneezed at one point.
“Bless you,” I said.
“Kalachakra only blessing I need,” he said with a clear light in his eyes and smiling. And so I believed him, both his words and his smile.
It was a short day so we left the grounds around 2. It was nice to have an easy day. The long walk back to camp was slow, both of us tired. This is a beautiful experience but it is demanding on body and mind. The swelling energy of thousands. Sleeping outside on the ground in the cool, damp nights. The intensity of it all. Moments of spiritual euphoria juxtaposed with the reality of the suffering here.
The beggars have been out in full force since I arrived over a week ago. Lepers with their stumps. Young men with limp, spaghetti-like legs that have been decimated by polio or MS (I’m not really sure). Filthy children in rags who materialize by your side the second you stop to buy a bottle of water, like they were always there but not seen. They all ham it up of course. Open arms, crying out in Hindi, some even singing at the tops of their lungs melodies of lamentation and hard luck: The Broke Down Raga Blues.
All the while, they stuff cash into secret pockets, dumping their shining begging bowls out just enough so they don’t seem too full. But we all know that Kalachakra is their mother lode.
Some people say don’t give to them. They list a host of reasons and some of them even make sense. The beggars are con artists who are just pulling your heartstrings, they say. Giving to them is really just selfish, a few rupees to ease our guilty consciences. Or maybe, we’re not doing them any good at all, that we’re really just enabling their victim behavior. Then there’s the argument that it’s simply their karma.
But then I saw a woman yesterday helping her teenaged son to urinate by the side of the road. He was one of those with spaghetti legs and he couldn’t walk at all. He was lying on the ground next to a filthy, greasy pool of water. His mother held his penis, aiming it away from his body and into the puddle. When he was finished, she pulled up his pants and lifted his broken body back on a wooden cart that she rolled through the crowd, resuming their begging.
My god, I thought, she is a saint of the earth. Then I thought maybe even that one act of supreme patience and kindness would one day result in her and all beings enlightenment. That’s karma, too after all.
So I have to wonder. What is the right thing to do? I really don’t know. It’s a question I haven’t resolved yet. I’m not giving alms like I did on my last trip. I do agree that it’s not the solution to these people’s troubles. Better to give a bit instead to the local free clinic that does a lot of good for these people year around, even when the Kalachakra crowds are gone and the money’s been spent.
The main thing is to not shut down or become jaded while I’m here facing all of this. No matter what the reality of their situation, con artists or truly suffering souls (and what’s the difference really?), these people are still my kind mothers right? They still deserve my love, respect and compassion. It’s hard but I’ll just have to keep my heart wide open.