“Every day is trick or treat in India.” – Kathy Sage
After 15 hours in flight I enter into the teeming explosion that is India. Delhi is alive and it is as if it has been waiting for the 8 of us who are here on a secular Buddhist pilgrimage with Norman Feldman. To negotiate this country requires a path and we are on it. Mindfulness is only one of the essentials.
Stephen Batchelor writes about the Four Noble Truths–not as truths but rather as tasks to be accomplished. The Eight Fold Path might be viewed in this way as containing the tools necessary to extinguish suffering, to reduce our reactivity when things are not going as we would like. And here, in India, there are endless opportunities, people, situations and environments to which we can react. The practice becomes both study and protection. Here, it is of great help to work with the ethics of the path; right speech, action and livelihood. When travelling it is always useful in any situation to ask yourself, “Did you go looking for it or did it come looking for you?” If it is the latter, best to have your eyes wide open.
In India, everyone is looking for you, to offer assistance (which you may not want or need), to sell to you or to take from you by request or other means. This may come in the form of help with directions in order to get you into an autorickshaw or by begging or even theft. This is all understandable in a country where the average annual income is somewhere around $1300.00 and you; a foreigner, definitely earn far more than that to be able to travel here. But throw in some jet lag, the sights, smells, sounds and mass of people and the onslaught on the senses can make you feel a little unstable. So it is important regarding the ethics of the path to be awake to what people are saying and doing and also to watch what you say and do. Do you expose yourself to attention? If so, what kind are you inviting? India is a land of extremes, both potential delight and disaster on every corner, so it is helpful to walk the “middle way.”
The Eight Fold Path also contains tools of wisdom; skillful view and understanding. We all see the world through our own mental lens and filters, our own cultural ethnocentricism. Here, we need to change the lens, widening the aperture and cleaning our filters to see clearly. India is not the West. Our point of view is by definition narrow. Sickness, aging and death can be on any corner in all their manifestations. They are in your face, in full view, not hidden, sanitized or repressed as in the West. In the West, there is always the promise of anti-aging, and if you’re lucky, you might even escape the grim reaper. The lie of this promise is revealed here.
India is glorious and exquisitely beautiful, ancient and deep but you must bring an open heart and mind to see it all. There is, of course, the foundation of the practice; right effort, mindfulness and concentration. These bring stability to our attention, helping us to be both fluid and centered in the groundlessness and chaos of this country of contradictions.
Right effort means being skillful, knowing when to yield the field when bargaining for a bauble, when to give in to the relentless miming of starvation from the hoards of disenfranchised and disabled and also when to say no. Right concentration and mindfulness are the wings of our wakefulness. They allow us to stay open and compassionate and to accept the gifts from those who offer them to us in so many forms. As we begin our journey following Mr. Feldman through this uncertain terrain we will need them. With mindfulness and skillful concentration we can experience all that India has to offer, the pleasure and the pain.