Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bamboo Buddhism in Nepal

I'm asked, on occasion, "Why 'Bambuddhism'?"

It's a pun, naturally, on the immense interest about Buddhism by the western world, as well as a more intimate reflection on my own personal journey to Nepal.

For we western-types, coming from our Judeo-Christian cultures on the other side of the world, Buddhism (and, to a certain degree, its Hindu origins...) continues to be one of the most fascinating, intriguing and lasting attractions of life in Nepal.

I remember a photo of Scott and me at Amherst when we were studying Buddhism w/ the young (we were all young then...) Bob Thurman. We were dressed in white kurta and beads, long hair, devoutedly sitting in a full lotus asana with our hands in a meditative mudra. Although, the ironic, playful smiles on our faces had more to say about our pyschic state than the posture -- for sure!

No doubt, part of my own youthful journey outside the US in the late 70s, after a stint on Capitol Hill, was not only for some much-desired cultural fresh air and perspective, but also the desire to learn more in situ of these great Asian religious traditions, as well.

I'd started college w/ a keen interest in politics and political change. I even left Amherst after a month, convinced/seduced by Allard Lowenstein (LBJ's nemisis...) to come to Brooklyn to work on his election campaign. The politics of the 60s was in my blood from 1968 when Robert Kennedy ran for president against Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Then I'd worked on McGovern's campaign in Upstate NY in 1972 the year I went off to college so full of such political idealism and naivite.

When I met Scott that first week in James 410 son/grandson of Presbytarian missionaries to China, Berkeley-raised, my world shifted a few degrees off my earlier center. The books for his religion courses looked more interesting than the political theory courses that I'd enrolled in. Quickly, I shifted my studies from political science to religion, philosophy and literature, the humanities.

In this way, the call of the world outside had more to do w/ the nature of culture, history and reflections on our human patterns on this precious world -- than political change.

Maybe, as well, that teenage idealism couldn't quite last through the 60s and 70s in America. The assassinations, the election of Richard Nixon, the seemingly endless trauma of the Vietnam War, the doubts about how one could change a country as large, powerful and vested as the States led me to thoughts both more philosophical and spiritual.

For, as we know, those years were also the first public, open engagement of the modern Western world with the diversity, cultures and religions of Asia. Somewhere on the distant horizon, past the suburbs of America, was another world that flickered in our consciousness. It appeared in the evening news, in the war-obsessed reporting from Vietnam, in sacred writings we studied and a youthful longing to have some first-hand experience of that ancient world.

Youth, of course, as we learn, turns slowly, ineluctably, yet steadily into new challenges, new opportunities, new choices, life decisions and professional experiences. Those thoughts that animated us when we were younger never quite disappear (hopefully...), but they become enlarged or enriched by the daily path that we traverse in creating our own place in the world.

Thus, finally reaching Nepal and India in the autumn of 1979, after a year and half of travels, while reading 'dharma' in Dharamsala (Macleod Ganj) overlooking the Dalai Lama's residence-in-exile, then later in the Mairut Khmer refugee camp, along the Thai-Cambodian border, through my work with Save the Children building a 'wat' (temple) where the Theravada monks could serve the refugees, all the while reflecting on the depth and beauty of those rich and diverse teachings, I made my own parabolic personal relationship w/ Buddhism.

As much as I was profoundly moved by the deep wisdom of the Hindu-Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, the elaborate spiritual architecture created by those Indian savants a thousand years ago, the lack of a confused diety in the teachings of the Buddhists, the central emphasis on compassion as the guide to living and the non-violence which drew from ancient Indic values, the awe-inspiring devotion these teachings inspired in common folk throughout South Asia... there was a spiritual river I could not cross.

Not the Jordan, but possibly the Indus.

Maybe that historic, tribal crossing of the Jordan river a couple thousand years ago had sunk it's engraving so deeply in my childhood identity that I was unable to be reborn yet again in the emblematic white kurta that I'd so blithely and playfully worn during college.

[Curious that it's Easter today, Christ's resurrection, when I find myself speaking of my own unrebirth in another religion...]

Even with the spiritual riches that define Buddhism, for me, there was still the uncritical devotion to the guru, the expensive maintenance of the numerous monasteries, the materialism of many rimpoches, the Baroque Catholicism of the sacred rituals, the lack of commitment to social justice, the uber-emphasis on the individual and, most importantly, truly, my own reluctance.

For me, this is the parabola effect...

You come closer and closer to your goal, stretching, reaching and pursuing... closer and closer.. til the object of your desire is in sight, just within reach...

When you are near enough to feel the truth of your search...

You suddenly and, possibly, unexpectedly feel a resistence -- not externally, but internally. That urge that animated you until that moment suddenly subides and you feel a related but quite different feeling. Related -- but oddly opposite. A new truth, more personal, more honest, more stable reveals itself. Again, unexpectedly, you feel your heart, your mind, even at times your body begin to move albeit imperceptably in a new direction, a new idea, a revised, alternative self-definition away from the object of one's earlier passionate desire...

Such is life, no? These momentary awakenings and revelations. As meaningful to each of us in our own personal karmic lives as the searching stories of the great teachers: Moses on Mount Sinai, Christ in Gesthemene, Mohammad in the desert, Ram in the forest or Gautum Buddha under his Bodhi tree.

In our own lives, we each have our personal revelations, redefinitions and resurrections. The moments or decisions of life that establish our individuality and mark our journey across time and space.

That, too, may be another reason I turned back toward my Self and not further into the wealth of Buddhist teachings and iconography. There is a part of me that steps sideway when given the choice of prostrating before another, be it a teaching, a temple or a testament.

As much as I am embellished and cherish these High Tradtions and Great Religions, my true heart is more aligned with the Dickensian, Hugoian or (earlier) Tolstoyan view of the world. If I can lump those literary geniuses together, their undeterred humanity beckons my soul more than robes, religion or righteousness.

Thus, my own whimsical, personal, searching Bambuddhism blog...

The 'Bambuddhism in Nepal' title combines my sincere affection for the compassionate teachings of the holy dharmic spirit that animates our lives, our souls, with the simple truths of an individual's life. Not Buddhism, the historical tradition, but Bambuddhism, the personal story of awakening, self-realization.

Of course, for those who know me, there is the additional inspiration of the bamboo that I equally love. What I perceive as the truth of nature in our lives. The sacred gift of the natural world in which all is revealed and returned. From dust to dust. Or, from earth to earth. The world around us that we too often tend to neglect and forget. The damage we have done to the riches of the world around us. The garden from which we were exiled. Yet, the source of so much of our peacefulness, well-being and contentment.

Somewhere along the line, suprising me as much as those who know me, I fell head over heals in adoration of bamboo as the penultimate expression of nature in our lives. The tactile beauty of this behemoth of a grass, bending, arching, flowing, growing, spreading, rising to the heavens while swaying, swinging, waving, whispering to our souls as the great wind animates our lives.

In our petite 'Giardinetti Licchavi' up here in Budhanilkantha, we have planted some forty species of bamboo (from the grand 25 m variety to the short grasses that run wildly). Each spring, like now, these bamboo send up new shoots, new life, new awareness, new awakening, new birth, a natural resurrection to endow our lives, and give us pause for reflection.

Thus, again, Bamboo-dhism, combining the rarified teachings of compassion and annica (non-attachment) with the earthy beauty of these bamboo shoots, tall, tender, defiant, powerful, colorful, vulnerable, independent, ambitious, quiet, in perpetual stillness.

Maybe more Bamboo-dhism than Bam-buddhism, if you see what I mean. More nature than sacred ideology. More pliant than formal. More natural than man-evolved. More garden than monastic. More green than maroon. More individual than authority. More free than structured.

Or, not really 'more' anything or 'than' anything...

Just being, as we used to say...

A hieroglyph of natural and human wisdom as perceived by another member of our inter-connected human tribe, another soul lost in space, struggling to keep it all together, learning how to lead a good and noble life.

Simply put, as the Thais say, 'tam di, die de' -- 'Do Good, Be Good'.

Another of the species passing temporarily through this wondrous world trying to combine the sacred with the mundane, the righteous with the riches, the familial with the professional, the sound with the fury, the sceptical with the trusting, the humble with the dignified, the earthy with the transcendent, and the giving with the receiving of life.

In this drama, this 'Bambuddhism' blog is my escape, my sanctuary, my monastery, my sacred garden...

My effort to reflect, to think aloud, to observe and perceive, to write...

Or, to'Only connect.' (as Forster said...)

To be ever slightly more alive.

While alive...

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