August 3, Leh
So I said I was serious with my quest for the sleeping lotus -and I really meant it. After more than a month traveling in Buddhist India, after browsing for endless hours the monastic library at Tabo, after visiting dozens of remote gompas and getting to know the hidden agenda of the Dalai Lama, I resolved it was time to try Samadhi myself: meditation as taught in Buddhist tradition. So just arrived at Leh I learned that the Mahabodhi center was about to launch a three-day meditation retreat, and not thinking it twice I joined it. I had read too much about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and Vipassana meditation -and I felt it was about time to have a taste of it.
And I grew more intrigued when I learned that the teacher at the retreat was a well-respected monk, but a Westerner… That would overcome the frustrating problem of language barrier with local monks. And don’t think that our guru was a naive, new-agey, flower-power gringo. Rahula (that was all I could understand of his Buddhist name) was an obscure, powerfully-looking man; in his late sixties, extremely tall and lean, with a piercing stare. His mindfully, exasperatingly slow walk, his long, skinny, head-shaved silhouette and the severe expression in his face reminded me of Murnau’s Nosferatu. When he showed us a few yoga stretches, I was waiting for him to teach us the one on the movie: “Now lay flat on your back inside your coffins and get on a standing position pulling your rigid body up from your heels”. It did not happen. But Rahula and Dracula sound quite similar, don’t they? The lad grew up in California in the era of Jim Morrison and LSD. Then he got enlisted in the army and fought in the Vietnam war. Afterwards, he traveled around the world following the route of hashish, from Morocco all the way to Afghanistan, where he was put in jail and nearly got killed. Out of prison, he joined a Buddhist meditation retreat in Nepal, and it was there where he heard the call of Dhamma and decided to become a monk. After a short parentheses living naked in the beaches of Goa for a few months (a hippie’s dream), he got ordained in Sri Lanka and spent years meditating in caves, mountains and jungles all over the Indian subcontinent. After that, he founded a Buddhist monastery in West Virginia and now he travels around the world teaching yoga and meditation. Getting to know this character was worth all the pains of the experience.
The rules at the retreat were quite severe -we had to stay completely silent, observe strictly the Five Precepts and attend the lessons and group meditations, spanning from 5 AM to 9:30 PM. The meditation posture turned out to be physically very demanding -maybe for a yoga monitor it’s OK, but in my first session I pinched a nerve and my right leg is still numb. As our monk guru made clear to us, the awareness process in meditation has much to do with dealing with pain, observing it and enduring it, realizing at the end its impermanent nature. This might definitely improve anyone’s performance at BDSM sex games, but I doubt that pain is the gateway to wisdom. Isn’t it the old Indian commonplace, the fakir on a bed of sharp nails?
Actually, Buddha himself discarded ascetic practices as a way to enlightenment, after nearly starving himself to death. Why is always there that unhealthy touch of masochism in every organized religion? You should have seen the sparkle in Rahula’s eyes when he talked about pain… and his delight when talking about impermanence, reminding us that our young, attractive bodies will one day wither and rot. He’s a monk, after all. Makes me recall that excessive Gothic novel, “The Monk” by Matthew G. Lewis. Do you know it? It is (obviously enough) about a monk, employed at the Spanish Inquisition (a fine job), who develops an insane passion for a portrait of the Holy Virgin he treasures in his cell, whipping himself to blood in front of it. There is something deeply unhealthy about becoming a monk, and from my viewpoint that is linked with the fact that there is something deeply unhealthy about organized religions. In my previous posts I have shown that the differences between the Dalai Lama and Benedict XVI are scarce. And my immersion in Buddhism gave me the same feeling of something smelling fishy.
But still I discovered some positive things: some of the preliminary exercises we did showed me the benefits of yoga stretches -they can really empower body and mind. And the more I know of Buddha’s own teaching, as collected in the Dhammapada, the more I like them… but then, they made up a religion on them and they spoiled the whole thing. Buddha was a philosopher. A teacher of philosophy who showed a way to get rid of suffering. It became successful, and a victim of the typically Eastern cult of the guru. Siddharta Gautama, the teacher, became a deity: Lord Buddha. And, instead of following his philosophy, people worship blindly golden statues of a thousand different Buddhas and donate their money to a vast community of sexually repressed monks that control the cult and eventually strive for political power. A magnificent temple surrounded of dingy, wrecked down dwellings: a recurrent image in Buddhist India.
When first climbing the stairway to the praying room at the retreat, I rejoiced at the sight of a line of lotuses at the front gate, floating in many-colored basins. Then I took a closer look and realized they were just… plastic lotuses.
The last day in the retreat I wore symbolically my orange t-shirt, because I felt enlightened. I realized a deep truth: there is a profound spiritual craving in every human heart, and organized religions pursue to take hold of such a powerful trigger: a longing that legitimally should be fulfilled with contemplation of Nature, with poetry and art.