Tag Archives: buddhism

Musing about Self and Non-Self

In therapy, we very often use the process of integration to reconcile “conflicting” or “disowned” parts of ourselves. We tell our parts, “I welcome you back to my family of selves”. There may be a 3-year old self who was afraid, a 5-year old self who was angry. These are the selves who react to our lives and sometimes run it. So who do we mean when we say ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’, ‘mine’? How do we define our identity? Most of us introduce ourselves by our name, and immediately attach another label to it – tinker, tailor, soldier, spy… We are what we do? We think therefore we are? In the Buddha’s estimation,  to be or not to be is NOT the question.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the buddha introduced the concept of non-self as an antidote to the concept of self. It was that attachment to a “self” that caused people to live in the grips of the “I”. And if then we abandon the self and latch on to the non-self, well, then we have jumped from the pot into the fire. Self and non-self, attachment and aversion – tricky stuff. The over-inflated ego is a “self”. The over-afflicted ego is also a “self”. Perhaps to transcend both is where there is non-self?  

So one would never find the non-self by seeking it, neither could it be found if one never seeks it. So it is not able getting, finding, having. It’s about seeing, accepting, embracing. In the end self and non-self are just concepts, fingers pointing to the moon. If our eyes are glued to the fingers and we will never clearly see  the moon.

19 Journey of 1000 kilometers

One does not sit in the south pole and winch about the weather…. One does not travel non-aircon sleeper from Varanasi to Chakki Bank and winch about the distance. People who travel with “unreserved” tickets sit on the floor or perch off other’s bunks when they fell asleep.  All in all the train was 5½ late in pulling into Chakki Bank. I thought that wasn’t bad for a journey of over 1100 kilometers.  It cost Rs369 for this trip of about 36 hours. The almost completely Indian men kept to themselves. The women were very kind, and curious, especially the middle-aged aunties. They kept feeding me , and invited me to stay with them.

On arrival in Chakki Bank, Thomas and I managed to find each other on the platform. We shared a 3 hour taxi ride to McLeod Ganj. The 3 other foreign girls who were also going there went to take the bus. They had a ‘closed sisterhood’ thing going and weren’t very friendly. The prospect of another 5 hour bone-rattling bus journey didn’t quite appeal to me. Thomas and I arrived at McLeod Ganj at 8.30pm to find that rooms were scarce. It could be that we took the only 2 rooms to be had that night. I had the Rs 60 (US$1.50) hole-in-the-wall at the Green Hotel. Thomas took the strastospheric Rs500 (US$12.50) room at the …. hotel. Everything is relative.

16 City of Learning and Burning

Varanasi, the ex-Benares and ex-Kashi is older than history, older than legend, older than mythology, and older than all three put together, so said Mark Twain. It has been a centre for Indian philosophy and learning for millenniums. Besides the river, Varanasi silk brocades are also world famous. No rich and respectable Indian woman would marry without a wedding sari of brocade silk from Varanasi. Varanasi silk is supposed to be the softest silk around, and made from wild silk worm cocoons, vs. the Chinese’s farmed variety. My guide, Dubai “like the country” said Varanasi was a place of learning and of burning. It’s a good place to die. He tries to drive and explain Varanasi and its connection to the Hindu god Shiva. “Shiva smokes ganja, so Shiva worshippers little bit crazy”. The French ladies keep up their chatter and pay absolutely no attention to our Brahmin. So far I’ve heard only 2 people have announced their caste, both Brahmins. This guy bathes in the Ganges everyday before the sunrise and then meditates for 20 minutes (20 minutes is chicken feed, I thought, especially if one is a Brahmin). Only Brahmins and saddhus bathe before sunrise, I guess it’s an elite thing. Brahmins are strict vegetarians, i.e., no eggs, no buffalo milk (only cow milk), No intoxicants, no caffeine, no ganja. Dubai walks around with a pack of herbal tea in his pocket. No regular chai for our Brahmin. He looks like everybody else except for a little lock of longish hair sticking out of the back of his head, a sign of his high caste.

As we make our way into the heavy dust and chaos, with the windows closed, no air-conditioning in hot weather, I learn that it is very big trouble to hit a cow on the street. For penalty, one would have to compensate the family, fast for 10 days, sleep on the floor, and then feed your Brahmin friends a big banquet in atonement. 

Dubai takes us to the little town of Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first started to teach the middle way. There is a ruined monestary, a museum and huge stupa built by the emperor Ashoka, later sacked by the moguls. The significance of the stupa is that it was topped by a statue of 4 lions, which is the symbol of India today. Also in the stupa are some bits and pieces of the buddha’s mortal remains. What is it with humans that we like to have pieces of some one’s corpse close at hand? Communist leaders are embalmed and displayed. Buddhist leaders are cremated and distributed. Catholics bite off the toes of their deceased saints, at least in Goa they did. I can see having the ashes of some one in your family in an urn, but having a bit of ear or teeth or toe of someone else is a bit morbid.

There was also a smallish museum with tons of whole or broken Buddhist and Hindu statues. One looked pretty much like another at this point. We then also saw a Jain temple “near about 200 years old” and then a Tibetan temple “very new one”. Dubai didn’t know that the Tibetan temple was founded by the Kagyu master Trungku Rinpoche, who is tutor to the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu tradition. The shrine room was beautiful and appropriately ornate without being too extravagant. Everything seemed hand painted and hand carved. There was a huge portrait of the Dalai Lama and one of the Karmapa. “That is the ninth Dalai Lama” said Dubai. “That is the fourteenth Dalai Lama”, said I. Dubai was distraught. “I am Brahmin, a holy man, the highest caste”, said he, in case we’ve forgotten. “Now I am feeling very bad, because I tell many people wrong thing. When I am wrong, then everybody is wrong.” He wanted to know which the current incarnation of the Karmapa is. We were then taken to the usual big carpet and sari store.

12 Engineering and Chair Lifts

Rajgir – Bamboo Forest Monastery was 100 acres of land accorded to the Buddha by the King Bimbisara of Rajgir in the 6th century B.C. It was the first Buddhist monastery. Budhha lived and taught there for 1 2 years. The site Vulture’s Peak was a favourite place where he enjoyed numerous sunsets. We visit the Japanese Peace Stupa on top of Ratnagiri Hill via the precarious chair lifts. They cost 25 rupees return. The stupa is not really that interesting unless you have never seen a Japanese stupa before. The view from the top is good on a clear day. The chairlifts, however, is an experience not to be missed. 

First, the elaborate contraption one had to go through to get to and from the chairlifts seemed pretty extreme.  It’s a cross between a waterwheel, a revolving door and some gates for sheep going to slaughter. Only one person could go through this contraption per revolution. And it takes about 10 or 12 seconds for each person. Then there’s the one second hesitation before stepping in. Soon a long line of people build up. We joke about the genius of Indian engineering thought who thought this up. 

At first glance the chair lifts were deceptively similar to those commonly found in the Swiss Alps. Stepping up to the platform, the adrenaline levels go up pretty quickly. In Switzerland, these contraptions slow down to a crawl on the long embarkation platform, pick up the passenger and then speeds off again. Not here. The chairlifts here move along at the same speed on a short platform. You step on to a marked spot with your knees bent and you bum sticking out. You clutch your bag / small child / lunch tightly. The chair comes and swoops you up from behind. In case you hesitate the attendant shoves you into it. At this point you retract all you limbs (and your bag / small child / lunch if any). In the next half second, another attendant drops the cross bar in front of you and you are jerked upwards.

11 Nalanda University

Sariputta's (one of the Buddha's principal disciple) stupa   

Shariputta (One of the Buddha's principal disciples) stupa

At the ruins of Nalanda University, 12 km away from breakfast, we engage the services of Mr. Anil Kumar, who is name-tagged and licensed by the Department of Archaeological Survey of India. It turns out to be an entertaining and educational hour. Mr. Kumar has a well rehearsed script with each paragraph prefixed by an address to me. “Sister, this was built in the 5th century. It was excavated in 1915. Sister, look here the start of the stairs for the 9 storey building.” I take it to mean that I am responsible for ensuring he gets a good fee. “The government rate is 100 rupees, sister, but this rate is since 1995. So if happy you pay as you like, sister.” He was a studious looking fellow, a bit rumpled. He used ‘sister’ effectively when he thought my attention was wandering. “Sister, there are 108 monasteries buried by the earthquake and here 11 identical monasteries are excavated, main entrance not yet discovered. Now excavation at a complete standstill by the department. Because sister, over there villages are.”


Nalanda - Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that's a long time

Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that is a LONG time

In truth, Nalanda is pretty awesome. Some of the engineering are quite clever. The drains, for example become progressively deeper, from 6 inches to about 3 feet. “Here the monks bathe, sister. Toilet, outside.” So they were mooners back then too. The monastery was built and used between the 5th and 12th centuries. It was then sacked by the Afghans and subsequently buried in an earthquake, thus Nalanda faded into obscurity. In 1861 an English archaeologist discovered evidence of it in the diary of 7th century Chinese monk, Xuan Zhang. It was not until early 20th century that Nalanda was finally excavated.  This is the possibly the world’s largest excavated university. It was also established 700 years before Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. The grounds are well planted and very pleasant.


Beds where monks used to sleep

Kylie on a bed of stone where monks used to sleep

As we leave, a bevy of old ladies and one young girl pursue us to the jeep. Ashok irritably snapped at them and they coolly ignored him. The young girl kept up a pitiful wail while her eyes darted around watchfully, presumably for a more receptive audience.