Happy Anniversary — Birthday Poem !!!

This poem first made its appearance one year ago — and because it is indeed that time of year again...

We interrupt this esoteric and suddenly serious nature of this blog for a (40th) birthday tribute to my sister…ahem…

An orbital rotation marks a shift into bliss
A spectacular of dreams, sure not to be missed

For those with an eye on my beautiful sis
It’s indeed that time — to Plant a BIG Birthday Kiss

Mother India’s been restlessly chanting her name
Where are you dear child? Why aren’t you in the game?

Gear up. Get ready. Get set. And Go!
There is no escaping your roll in this show

The players are here; the pieces in place
It’s you we’re waiting on; your turn in the race

Yoga & mantras & kirtan & such
Her head may pop off; it’s all just too much!

Agores & Monks, High Priests & the like
They all will line up to bask in her light

A magmatic glow, iridescent as stars
Sparks will soar, colliding with Mars

Planets will sing; Galaxies will hum
Moons will shine on, engaged in the fun

What a time we’ll all have, zinging around
Who’s time for liberation when such fun is abound!

Break for the party; celebration for all
When lil’ sis arrives she’ll be queen of the ball

So make up your mind. Set your resolve.
Your big sis is waiting, controlling the mob

It can be intense and at times kind of scary
The monsters look fierce, all bloodshot and hairy

Sometimes they smell and play nasty tricks
It’s all in good fun — how they get monster kicks

But I’ve got some pranks of my own up my sleeve
I know some things you just wouldn’t believe

We’ll dazzle, disarm, confuse & distract
Little do they know it’s only an act

While clown-puppets dance on a stage with a script
The element of surprise only shoots from the hip

For real freedom lies in no agenda nor plan
The Universe alone holds the true fate of man

But until such a time sis hears the great
Mother’s call Its nose to the grindstone and balls to the wall

There is work to be done but a break in sight
Until she arrives I’ll continue with might

For years sis has nurtured a much softer side
No alter ego to disguise, maneuver or hide

For her liberation will be but a breeze
With a little encouragement she’ll find it with ease

My goals are for naught but when shared with another
She’ll serve as my muse. My sister. My brother.

She’ll inspire with grace, with joy and with love
To see her freed on the wings of a dove

With this last thought I will bid you adieu
Until we lock eyes sis…Happy Birthday to you.

All of my love.

~  by Christine Fowle
~  Photo Credit: Paideia: Songs of the Celestial Beings

Symmetry

For the first time in sixteen months family matters have beckoned a return from India, back to the United States. Perhaps the contrast would appear less dramatic if the destination were a place other than that which I spent my childhood. Perhaps it is the perfect location for a homecoming.

Scores of densely clustered villages dance along the distance from Varanasi to Delhi by train with the scheduled four stops developing into four times that, delaying the arrival by two and a half hours. Dropped at the airport and walking through the check-in process leaves just enough time to step up to the back of the line upon reaching the gate. Thus continues a perfectly succinct succession of events set into perpetual motion.

Landing gear deploys and in a striking contrast to the multihued Eastern disarray just left behind are groomed monochrome towns gaining in size through the portals of rapid descent. Roads cross and cul-de-sacs loop, with rows of orderly homes, carefully manicured lawns and automobiles, pulled into uniform driveways. Street lamps poised to light the night sky and signposts at each intersection mark the transition into an organized world of symmetrical proportion.

The enduring appeal of my charming hometown juxtaposed against the assorted carnival of the city I’ve departed only days ago, presents the most extreme of contrasting landscapes and a nonplusing question. Is the surreal dream revealed within the erratic and vibrant mayhem of India or is it found in the comforts and measured security within the luxuries of the country I grew up? Perhaps the answer is neither. Just as the two can never simultaneously face the sun, the same is true of a mutually exclusive answer. It is time that serves as the veritable dream.

Projecting hallucinations into the peripheral distance, blurring vision and obscuring sight, time reflects a tomorrow that never arrives and a yesterday that will forever remain in the shadow of today. Stretching the reverie of past and future over the current moment, this shrouding continuum casts layers of tinted imagery, further deluding the truth. Only now may be inspired by our attention and only effort will bring this about. No matter how often we retrace the steps of yesteryear we cannot touch the experiences and no matter how we plan a more fruitful forthcoming, our minds cannot grasp beyond what is in directly front of us. All else is an illusory notion.

So, which is the dream? Decidedly, whichever is outside of my direct sphere of engagement.

In two weeks time, a swirling mirrored  déjà vu finds me on the same train, traveling the direction opposite. The same four scheduled stops have developed into four times that, and the same inverted scenery is every bit as enigmatic viewed through an eastbound looking glass. Loosely hanging nostalgic threads of tasks left unfinished have, upon returning, morphed into a trimmed sense of remaining purpose in this country.

It’s good to be back; but then again, it could be said I never left.

~ by Christine Fowle

Relevance

The striking gong propels a resonate hum into the distant horizon. Slowly stretching my arms to the sky, an escaping sigh indicates it is indeed time to greet a new day. I scan the dark room to ascertain where I am. The constant travel still tosses a confused haze over my waking eyes however, outside the tall windows a familiar Himalayan silhouette gently tickles an azure halo.

Encased within grasshopper-green rice fields, tucked away in a tiny pocket of Himachel Pradesh, is the monastery and surrounding locales I’ve called home for the last four lunar cycles. Bustling underneath twisting Tibetan prayer flags, time has provided the quintessential classroom for unfolding lessons since before the rains began, providing gentle protection from the suffocating heat and impaling downpours of monsoon season. These Himalayan mountain towns submit to a weather pattern all their own, while the remainder of India has endured the nastiest of nasty summer heat and a ravaging rainy season, ripening the country for travel.

As my North American home balances precariously amidst threats of an impending government shutdown the obscure web appears worlds away, as does the ridiculous nature of a political force involved with such a proposition. What is designed to work for we the people is undoubtedly selfishly motivated and the childish antics of threatening to pull away from the responsibilities accepted to prove a worthless point, are duly recognized.

When pondering the legitimacy of what I am attempting to accomplish on the other side of the planet I continue to weigh whether my endeavors are better served at home. Perhaps making contributions to society through a more active standpoint would move forward the causes for democracy and planetary health that I so adamantly believe are our responsibility to pragmatically support.

The facts however, continue to pacify my sense of purpose. Tantalizing options I’ve entertained to return to the US are equal parts selfless and ego driven moving me no closer to the truths I’ve left home to uncover. I’ve also decided that it is no less respectable to live an alternative lifestyle and adjusting to satisfy the degree by which others accept what I’m doing as relevant is not a move I am willing to make.

It’s an enormous challenge balancing worldly responsibilities with an exploration of the desire to break free from all that binds us. We are mothers, sisters, sons, caregivers and providers; responsibilities exist and there is no way around this, nor was there designed to be. One of the fundamental aspects of this game is accepting the circumstances of our lives not as an unchanging hand that we’ve been dealt, but as ever-morphing diversions that must be recognized as such in order to transcend the constraints we have accepted as self-imposed boundaries to growth. The illusion is not in the rules themselves but in our perception of these rules.

The machine in which we are integrated gathers power by replacing independent thought with automated notions. We’ve been handed blueprints of what success looks like. The American Dream is no longer about reaching our highest individual potential and instead involves surrounding oneself with more increasingly decadent aspirations. Within the societal model we’ve been exposed to since birth, we’ve been convinced that our lifestyle is important to maintain without ever questioning, why?

Taking our country’s leadership as the example, there is little directive for the population to break free from the ingrained patterns of conditioned complacency and fear-based grasping at security and safety. Therefore it is up to each of us individually to unlock our own conventional thinking long enough to glimpse what lies beyond the doors blocking the path to this freedom.

It is only walking through this entryway that we may access the opportunity to develop the fullest expression of ourselves. Knocking on this door however, requires acceptance of the unknown, awaiting our arrival on the other side, a prospect that may be unsettling for most. The illusion of control often explains that no good can come of risk and avoids the uneasiness of questions that may remain forever unanswered. Breaking the façade also means facing the truths we maintain a steadfast vigilance to hide. At either end of this spectrum the internal dialogue is more important than the result of such inquiries, merely signifying the opening of the door and taking the first step.

As for me, Mother India is chanting her playful mantra inciting a delightfully tempting provocation to once again dance with her children. After shaking off the sleepy haze of monsoons, I am rested and beyond ready to learn some new steps.

The gong has sounded; it is indeed time to wake up.

~ by Christine Fowle

Clarity on the Temple Steps

As is bound to happen when leaving a normal life behind to discover what makes you tick; you find out. Admittedly, the post Flashback? may have been a bit misleading. Certainly, there are aspects of India that are akin to a raving party, such as the festivals or even tooling through a local bazaar, however, much of the country is focused on making a living and passing the days. My reasons for being here are also not to whoop it up, shriek like a banshee and swing from the rafters. Well, not any more than usual.

In fact, since May I’ve been calling Himachel Pradesh home. It is here, against the mountainous scenery of the Himalayas, tucked away in a monastery amidst a six-week retreat, that I fell into a rut. Nothing happened per se, or perhaps it was a handful of not-so-little-but-not-really-big, things. Either way, something’s been tossing me off a beat making everything difficult including my focus, eating habits, meditation and desire to write. Motivation flows smoothly when solid rhythms are tapping out, but maintaining the tempo when the music stops can be a test of will. It requires focus and at times, doing things I don’t feel like doing or not doing the things I do.

Whatever the trigger was, I cannot be certain but the result was swift and acute; I got scared. It’s not the first time. Grasping for the safety and security I left behind, the voice of my psyche began pumping the tactical fuel necessary to light the fire. Thoughts like, “What was I thinking?” “I can’t continue to do this?” “What is it I’m doing anyway?” raced through my head. Personal growth set in firm opposition to the obstacles necessary to achieve it; I stood mesmerized in the heated conflict, paying no attention to the rainwater I was sweeping from the temple steps. Until I looked down.

I noticed the curled green leaves floating amidst the puddles and the sun barely spreading first light from beyond the mountain peaks and rice paddies. I felt the hard broom handle in my hands and heard the sounds of tweeting birds waking. It is in this brief space that I made a choice. In lieu of the options that could potentially make me feel better, I would act on a different alternative, and do nothing. It’s not really nothing though. It’s the active process of watching the stream of thoughts without giving into the urge to do something, to make them go away. To make the feeling go away.

This can be a tricky prospect. Although intrinsically aware that frolicking through a rainbow of happy is simply not a sustainable high just as wallowing in murky puddles of sorrow will not last indefinitely, it’s challenging to avoid grasping at one and pushing away the other. These instinctual byproducts of environmental conditioning are reactions to the ever-so-ample social encouragement that we should feel good all the time. If we don’t, it’s a problem that should immediately be remedied.

The difficulty is we’ve never been taught to manage our emotions; instead, cultural programming has trained us to manually alter our moods. From food and drugs to alcohol and retail therapy, there’s a flavor of self-avoidance for everyone. Because we’ve no practice, it is not easy to hang with a funk sporting an attitude of Okay…it’s you and me today Funk…I hope you like Yoga, particularly when habitual tendencies present a copious array of colorful, escapism-based alternatives.

It’s not to say there isn’t validity to some of what rolls through our minds. There are certainly nuggets of wisdom to glean and golden ideas to polish. But if in the throws of stuffing the uncomfortable feeling into a place where it can’t breathe, any brilliance that may have been panned, is likely to be smothered.

It was during this process of staring at the tauntings of inner-doubt that something shiny did catch my attention. Tiny, yet recognizable, it was the spark of an idea. Perhaps it won’t amount to anything. Perhaps it will. Having given this sabbatical a very fair shake, it may indeed betime for a little planning. But this pointed illumination could have easily been missed entirely had I already begun washing down the discomfort with a cup of tea and bag of chocolate cookies.

~ by Christine Fowle

Jerry Would Love It!

Why India??

Surely there are other, gentler, locales in which one could do, well, whatever it is I'm doing.

The best way to explain the power of Mother India's allure is through the medium of music. No. I'm not gong to sing. And it isn't the mixing of keys and strings I'm referring to either. I suppose the easiest way to know this experience is if you've been to a Grateful Dead show (Phish would also do). But it's not the concert itself that lends to the depth of this realization. It's the pre-show unfoldment that takes place in the parking lot. Yes. The parking lot.

In the moments following the breaking of dawn, hours before the band takes the stage, an empty slab of dirt silently hums with the first signs of life. Drops of morning dew slowly slide down arching blades of grass — and the daydream begins.

Pilgrimaging devotees, arriving by whatever viable means possible filter in with the rays of the rising sun. Seeking mystical affirmation, a sign, a vision, message from beyond. Nothing fancy — just an otherworldly indication that the journey was not all for naught.

Early morning zeal is handsomely rewarded with front row seats to the pre-show acts I, II & III. Hatches lift, lawn chairs unfold, canopies are pitched & the coolers come a-rollin' out. VW Buses transform: glitzy marketplace shops, make-shift kitchens, DJ booth, massage studio & spacious sky-decks. Extraordinary vantage points for examining the swirling microcosm precariously preparing to burst.

Intricately bound together by the forces of space & time, the vision unfolds in expanding moments of swift succession. An existential bizarre for the senses pops open with boxes, bins, blankets & booths, begging one-and-all: Come out to play! FRESH Vegan Muffins (no meat added), bRight sqUisHy toys, gReAt BiG fiLLeD BallooooonS, bouncy sticks & pixie sticks, bubbles & YoYos & soooo many Striped Tall Hats. Dr. Seuss would be proud — As is so very much of the crowd, Many fans are dressed like Who’s, Their only job to leave musical Clues…A road to follow, A sign to behold, Magic to know, or so we’ve been told, Just open your ears, There’s nothing to fear, the message is ready, If you’re game to hear.

Swirling heights of mayhem peak at a palpable pace.  Nothing ascertainable, abstract glimpses of the menagerie pouncing and leaping by:  a pogo stick riding dog, banana tossing jugglers, volume cranking at volatile decibels; all of Canada invited to stand next to Jimi's fire, tie-die banners maniacally waving hello, trails of streamers leading to a party everyone is invited to. A crazed continuum of rapid-fire enquiry — huh? how? what the hell was that?

There's the muffin guy again...no meat...no sir...hoola hoops! Eight of them swirling and swirling; round and round. Are those superballs? Pingng off the roofs of cars? YES they ARE!!! Do they glow in the dark?

WARNING: Serious Seekers: Don't get lost in the labyrinth. Step smartly. This way please…

Kaleidoscopic sprays assault every mental faculty. Just when one more ambush cannot possibly be dissolved and then the mooing begins. The show's about to start.

Ah yes, my point — India's kinda like that.

~ by Christine Fowle

Searching For OM

Why on earth this endeavor? The odds of winning the lottery are greater than the percentage of those who've attained Supreme Consciousness. It's not mainstream and a vastly foreign concept to the Christian based beliefs we're naturally exposed to in the West.

It didn't begin this way. Meditation became an option only because of exhausting every conceivable method of securing and sustaining true happiness. Because of closing my eyes on that fateful day, and because I continued to do so, the content of my thoughts was unavoidable. Although I chose to listen, truly, I didn't wish to hear.

The truth wasn't so much harsh as it was upsetting. The person I'd become, this woman who thought she was caring and giving, insightful and non-judgmental, in reality, wasn't. The thoughts running throughout my head were in direct contrast, primarily self-serving and opinionated. There was very little compassion to be found.

It's not that I was a horrible person. I took care of those in my immediate circle, rarely lied and took responsibility for my actions. But at the core of my humanity I truly cared for only one, me. I'm not looking for sympathy and our cultural conditioning certainly supports such behavior. This doesn't make it right.

When through continued meditation I came to the realization that this process, in it of itself, was a form of de-conditioning, the results encouraged moving forward.

The notion of Nirvana was just that, a notion. I no more thought of it as truly possible than spreading my wings and flying around the moon. Nor did I understand it. The idea of a permanent condition called bliss sounded groovy. I didn't look at it as finding God, transcending mind & matter, developing Pristine Awareness, Liberation — whatever you wish to call it.

A turning point in my understanding occurred when I came to realize what Buddhism refers to as suffering; the basis of our unsettled, unsatisfied, minds. Before I knew what to call it, I experienced it, profoundly. The depiction of suffering as the ceaseless internal commentary regarding how things should be and could be in an illusory world outside of here and now, consuming our thoughts and present moments, is apt.

Something else I understood was that meditation was changing this and bringing me into the present. But I fell into it backward, practicing the cure before diagnosing the affliction. This, however, was pivotal. Had I not already experienced myself, through practice, what The Buddha prescribed to liberate oneself, it is likely that it never would have happened. Suffering would have appeared as a melodramatic term and meditation would have looked like not a lot of fun.

It takes effort, and at times — it's not a lot of fun. I've fallen off the truth-wagon more times than I care to admit and even profound shifts in perspective have not always been strong enough to combat the powerful pull of denial. The life-choice I've made is not a popular one and faith has been very slow to build. But once the Truth is glimpsed it is very hard to ignore. It calls you back with reminders that all that glitters is not gold and reality & illusion are two sides of the same coin.

Searching for OM was not about finding myself; it was about creating myself. The merging of the spiritual being I felt myself becoming with a livelihood that supported it. It was also not about Enlightenment — until it was.

A line was crossed. And it suddenly became profoundly clear. Liberation is possible.

In the last post, What if?eluded to the tremendous power that lies latent within each one of us. This isn't referring to the intellectualized notion in the mundane sense. I am talking about earth-shaking, mountain-moving, power.

But this is the problem. It's only talk. Glimpses of the other shore, no matter how profound, do not qualify one as having reached the other side and the ocean has not yet been completely traversed.

And it is on this note that I thank you for reading. It is necessary for me to drop off the planet for a little while to continue working on what I came here to accomplish.

Love & OM-

Christine

What Would Buddha Think?

It is unlikely that 25 centuries ago Guatum, The Buddha, would have conceived of a lassi shop across from the spot he attained Enlightenment, sporting his name. But here it is nonetheless.

I believe oppressive was the word the guidebook used to describe this holy desert in the month of June. Devoid of rain and tourists, my parched pilgrimage to the Divine One was short-lived and after a six-moth detour, Bodh Gaya has once again found its way into my plan of plans.

Monks donning maroon, yellow and orange robes far outnumber the vendors, beggars and touts competing for tourist rupees. Cool temperatures have propagated an ideal environment by which those seeking vibrations of peace, love & compassion can comfortably collect under the infamous Bodhi tree  to chant, pray and meditate for salvation.

The journey isn’t complete, however, without a sentimental reminder. Luckily, a person need only turn around to find such a treasure. Pendants, clocks, playing cards and plastic trinkets, all for sale, commemorate Buddha’s relentless pursuit of Truth. 'Get your Guatam shoe-horn here…’ Only slightly more disturbing is the much larger-than-life, 80-foot Buddha statue down the street.

What The Buddha would truly think, I cannot be certain, but I have to believe it would be along the lines of, “find your own tree.

~ by Christine Fowle

A Birthday Poem

We interrupt this esoteric and suddenly serious nature of this blog for a (40th) birthday tribute to my sister…ahem…

An orbital rotation marks a shift into bliss
A spectacular of dreams, sure not to be missed

For those with an eye on my beautiful sis
It’s indeed that time — to Plant a BIG Birthday Kiss

Mother India’s been restlessly chanting her name
Where are you dear child? Why aren’t you in the game?

Gear up. Get ready. Get set. And Go!
There is no escaping your roll in this show

The players are here; the pieces in place
It’s you we’re waiting on; your turn in the race

Yoga & mantras & kirtan & such
Her head may pop off; it’s all just too much!

Agores & Monks, High Priests & the like
They all will line up to bask in her light

A magmatic glow, iridescent as stars
Sparks will soar, colliding with Mars

Planets will sing; Galaxies will hum
Moons will shine on, engaged in the fun

What a time we’ll all have, zinging around
Who’s time for liberation when such fun is abound!

Break for the party; celebration for all
When lil’ sis arrives she’ll be queen of the ball

So make up your mind. Set your resolve.
Your big sis is waiting, controlling the mob

It can be intense and at times kind of scary
The monsters look fierce, all bloodshot and hairy

Sometimes they smell and play nasty tricks
It’s all in good fun — how they get monster kicks

But I’ve got some pranks of my own up my sleeve
I know some things you just wouldn’t believe

We’ll dazzle, disarm, confuse & distract
Little do they know it’s only an act

While clown-puppets dance on a stage with a script
The element of surprise only shoots from the hip

For real freedom lies in no agenda nor plan
The Universe alone holds the true fate of man

But until such a time sis hears the great Mother’s call
Its nose to the grindstone and balls to the wall

There is work to be done but a break in sight
Until she arrives I’ll continue with might

For years sis has nurtured a much softer side
No alter ego to disguise, maneuver or hide

For her liberation will be but a breeze
With a little encouragement she’ll find it with ease

My goals are for naught but when shared with another
She’ll serve as my muse. My sister. My brother.

She’ll inspire with grace, with joy and with love
To see her freed on the wings of a dove

With this last thought I will bid you adieu
Until we lock eyes sis…Happy Birthday to you.

All of my love.

Once upon a time...

Voices from past strike the drum, pounding out a faint tribal beat that intensifies along with the heat of the rising sun. Pages from the fairytale flutter open to precisely where it was left, amidst a luscious green hillside, underneath an ancient palace keeping stoic watch over the stirring town of Amnavad down below. From top to bottom, the palace’s only occupants are summoned by the breaking day and slowly the sleeping furry creatures begin emerging from beyond the magnificent curved entranceways and miniature portals to revel in the unfolding magic.

From behind the walls of the protective fort, clouds of twittering birds flock from treetop to treetop, flitting high above single-file parades of monkeys. Swaying to the music of existence, the agile primates outstretch long gangly arms, hoisting their hairy bodies onto dangling branches, swinging with primal grace from one to the next. Chipmunks in chase scale vertical walls scurrying in circles until tiring of the game. Far below, the pristine lake lays quietly, reflecting Amnavad’s poignant charm, invites grazing horses and robust water buffalos to wallow within her reserves. Birds by the dozen circle the water, taking rest on the step well in the center only to resume their soaring flight toward the awaiting white puffy clouds.

Along the dirt road into town, small temples await the faithful while a family of hogs submerges into the murky water of a narrow ditch in heat seeking refuge. Wooden vegetable carts covered with red onions, tiny green peppers, eggplant and giant club-shaped cucumbers roll on tall metal-rimmed wheels, propelled by vendors melodiously shouting at the top of their lungs of their fresh offerings. Passing with skillful balance, drivers navigating motorbikes, chained on either side with heavy brass vessels filled with diary, deliver their fresh milk and curd to the homes and restaurants preparing the morning meals.

In and out of town the only road, wide enough to accommodate one oxen pulled cart, is traveled by foot, bicycles, rickshaws, motorbikes and…oh yes, cows…lots and lots of cows. Big cows, little cows, black and white and brown cows with broken horns and baby calves doddering after their mothers in unsteady attempts to nurse. The bovine share a similar diet with the fuzzy snouted hogs, feeding on piles of fresh trash scattered intermittently throughout the streets, especially relishing scrumptious treats of chewy cardboard scraps.

Almost as abundant as the cows are dogs. Each dog nurses with a limp and has an innate fear of motorized vehicles…as well as red-faced monkeys. There are two types of monkeys in Amnavad and it’s the aforementioned red-faced variety that not only possess sticky fingers, but also have a wicked mean streak. Nothing is off limits; chairs, flip-flops, storybooks, hats and nuts - if they can wrap their mischievous hands around it, it’s fair game; and if it’s not edible, then quickly airborne.

Layered throughout the town in varying heights and permanence, faded pink, yellow and lavender structures merge one into the next, baring witness to the constant stream of life passing in their midst. The quick ringing of devotional bells offering homage and prayer to the Hindu Gods chime in varying tones and depth from doors, windows and gardens within. Leading the hunt into the town center, life-size murals adorn the walls with Rajas riding atop regal elephants pursuing dangerously elusive tigers. Followed by images of blue Krishnas, the wide-eyed maidens desirous of his love traipse blissfully behind coyly naïve to his romantically flitting nature.

Local women draped in bright saris balance laundry parcels, wood bundles and wide metal bowls upon their heads with perfect poise. Children, whooping and hollering, grip long metal wires with hooked ends in frantic chase after small tire rings rolling down the light slope of the road, while the older men grasp hands in gestures of brotherly alliance and support.

Adjacent businesses run the length of either side of the street. When shut for the night, appearing as closed garages, thick aluminum shields roll down in protective security from the elements, and of course, the monkeys. When opened, each window is a private portal granting access into the magical worlds of artists, jewelry makers, antique collectors, clothing sellers, and restaurateurs.

The occupation of earning a livelihood breathes steady streams of mischief through the streets of Amnavad. Intimately engaging work with personal, local men can be found spending as much time eking out a living as engrossed in visiting, gossip, and the circular passage of time. Unsuspecting visitors are tossed onto center stage of the magical town, acting out the starring roles in Amnavad’s infinite street circus. For a price, the games may be played; the larger the tag, the more intricate the ruse. But all cons are borne of inherent risk and monetary wagers are not the costliest of such schemes. Not in Amnavad. There are far more delightful methods of winning and losing in Amnavad, especially for those with a rich bag of tricks and copious amounts of time to plan their next move.

~ by Christine Fowle

Sarnath

I need a distraction.

Upon attaining enlightenment, the Buddha’s gave his first discourse in the city of Sarnath, ten kilometers outside of Varanasi. Underneath a cloud soaked lead sky the rickshaw drops me in front of a Jain temple. Staring at the twenty-foot Buddha statue it begins to drizzle. There are benches so I sit under the protective cover of an awning and watch a dog carry a monkey on its back. After eating a few peanuts the rain subsides.

I cross the street.

Through a wide, paint-chipped metal gate, a Buddhist center anchors the far end of a circular stone drive. Upon ascending the steps, three golden Buddhas come into view. Perched at the back of the temple they keep watch over the marble floor and large pillars. Two monks sit in meditation and three others converse quietly in a small saffron circle.

After greeting the golden icons of liberation I move outside. The rains begin again. Avoiding the heavy downpour, I seek refuge under the protection of the large entranceway. From behind I hear a noise. It’s the guard, holding an umbrella. Upon accepting that there is more for me to achieve here, I again ascend the staircase. Bowing toward my escort I then gingerly step onto the cool marble, approach one of the thick pillars and lower myself to the floor.

Closing my eyes, I sit in silence listening to the rainfall. The tight knots inside my head begin loosening and within the air molecules of each out breath, tension slowly begins to dissipate. I’ve been resisting India. Since my arrival I’ve been tossing up walls to protect myself from the fray, a futile illusion depriving me of feeling her deep immeasurable beauty.

It’s still lightly sprinkling when I get antsy and make a break for it. As luck would have it, I step onto the street and directly in front of me a rickshaw is emptying of its passengers. I take a seat in the back. We negotiate a price and the driver’s arm waves wildly through the air as if conducting an orchestra, all the while laughing wildly at the punch line of a joke only he himself knows.

Cha Cha (Uncle), motions with his hand for me to sit in the front seat next to him.

“Nahi.” There is no reason for me to sit in front, or so I think.

He waves his arm and pats the seat. My attention is diverted; two women and a man approach; it is now that I understand. He’s sold me out. For the price, this is a private rickshaw, no doubt. But nothing but time on my hands and Cha Cha ji bouncing on the seat, whooping it up, I move up and squeeze in. And we’re off.

Rain is dripping onto my face and legs, cold against my warm skin, centuries old buildings speaking of their history as we pass. Deep rust bricks bear the remains of worn Hindi lettering; structures and cryptic looping script repeating, one after another. Men, women, bare-bottomed children, and cows share the unpaved road with rickshaws, trucks, motorbikes and vegetable carts. Graceful disorder in full motion. A thin woman draped in a sky blue sari, soaked to the bone, stands alone in the center of the swirling mayhem. She bends to the ground and picks up a bright orange brick the color of the soil and heaves it through the air, landing behind the moving rickshaw.

Cha Cha ji whoops on.

The three passengers exit and I am shooed into the back. Within moments we stop for another, a young woman. The road turns bumpy. An enormous crimson brick structure stands alone breathing under a roofless open sky. Massive chunks absent from the upper rim form a structurally jagged painting against a backdrop of translucent humidity. Great wooden doors matching in bulk are slowly pushed open from the inside by two men, one against the weight of each, swinging open time’s window and exposing hundreds of thick black cattle. Howling guttural shoves echo through the mass of hulken bodies.

Cha Cha ji whoops on.

I look down at the young woman seated next to me. Her brown skin glows in contrast to the sheer lavender fabric pressed against it. Her dark wavy hair pulled back, frames the features of a delicately sculpted effigy of a Princess past. She bounces lightly to the beat of the bumpy road and looks up at me.

Cha Cha ji whoops on.

~  by Christine Fowle

Varanasi

Windows open so that her centuries-old mysteries may be gazed upon with awe. Focus, ever elusive, the vision vanishes, disappearing through whatever portal by which it was created. It is only by allowing such experiences to flow through you in a constant stream of expression that India may be known.

“Tell everyone you meet you have been to Varanasi three, no, four times,” says the rickshaw driver, pointing emphatically. “They will think you know.” He spits red tobacco juice onto the dirt. “Everyone works on commission. No one is your friend. Silk pays forty-five percent. Forty-five percent,” he repeats.

Kashi, revered as the most sacred city in all of India, only became known as Varanasi in the eras following her birth. Her strong pulse, attracting centuries of wisdom, developed her heart into a core of religious faith and knowledge. Her magnificence matured into a powerful energy source, the cleansing force of the River Ganges washing away all wrongdoing, venerated by the devout as a center of re-birth. She is known by the ancients as Avimukta.

Sacked and looted, Varanasi was ravaged, raped of her riches. At the whims of the malevolent, decimated symbols of the sacred were replaced with alternate symbols of the same, trumping one god for another, in religious fervors of differing beliefs. Stone by stone her temples were destroyed. Stone by stone, her temples were re-built. Perseverance, conviction and indomitable will; the faithful will be rewarded.

It is in Varanasi that I hit a wall.

Depth

A parched riverbed runs through the city of Bodh Gaya; ancient depressions carrying the strength of apparitions though the sand, borne of the opposing desert, emerging from the mirage. Dust fuels a local market’s heat streaked pace. Cattle, vegetables and cash change hands; the subtle flow of commerce marches on. Karsen brings me to a village.

Two men greet us as the motorbike turns onto the perpendicular path. We walk, weaving through a patchwork of homes crafted of mud and thatch, a matching rusty hue with the earth. A group of children begins collecting behind us.

Radiating a warm glow, the village is resting in the quiet corner of a lucid dream. We sit. A welcome glass of water is accepted. A few dozen adults and children gather amidst manmade constructs of no doors, only windows. Women draped in saris effortlessly lower to the ground close by, men on the opposite side. Children arrange and re-arrange themselves, curious.

Then, we do something: nothing. In the silence only stillness permeates and we quietly sit — like sitting in a temple. Centuries of devotion, encased instead of within stone walls, by flesh, revealing reverence of equal depth. Absorbed in the energy of the moment we simply are.

Finally, we stand and silently stroll, stopping at a tin roof supported by metal bars wedged into the dirt. It’s the children’s school. We stand in this space and I am introduced to the teacher. She motions with her hand, “Come,” she says. “To my home.”

An iron stove anchors the front room along with a push-pedal sewing machine. In the back is a sleeping room with fan where we sit. She says in English, “Not good, my home.” I search my Hindi. “Bahut accha.” It’s all I have at a subtle contradiction. I want to tell her the walls are good and the floors are good but the words escape me.

We take our leave. My train departs Bodh Gaya at 1:55am and after dinner I am dropped at the gates of the guesthouse. Upon bidding my new acquaintance good bye Karsen asks, “Would you like to give money? To help fix the roofs in the village.”

I’d considered it, before dinner, offering money. Touring the village we discussed fixes to the dwellings, the need obvious. But instead of listening with my head about dollars, cents and obvious need, I listened with my heart. My heart said nothing. Doing nothing is also a choice. It was a privilege to visit the village. But when giving becomes compulsory, compassion is removed and it is no longer a gift.

I also remembered something. The first words Karsen spoke to me at the temple were not: “Which country?” They were, “Twenty rupees to take a photo.” It was the reason I ignored him.

“No, I don’t think so,” I tell him.

“Maybe later,” he says.

“Yes. Maybe later.”

~ by Christine Fowle

Buddha Steps

Oppressive. It’s the single word the guidebook chose to describe Bodh Gaya’s heat in June.  A more apt selection need not be desired. It is here the Buddha finally attained enlightenment.

The cycle rickshaw stops at the Mahabodhi temple entrance. I pay the driver, step down and begin my walk between two long, colorful rows of vendors setting up for the day. Sandwiching the walkway, seemingly random displays of fashion and religion are piled upon blankets and tables.

“Which country?”

The question is posed by a twenty-something year old Indian man that began walking alongside me some time ago; I chose to ignore him. “Where are you from?” I respond in kind.

His expression turns quizzical. “Bodh Gaya,” he says. “You?”

I tell him.

It has been one year since I’ve last danced with Mother India and I’m a bit rusty. The navigation of her people are the single most important steps to master; it is here much of my attention will be spent. The young man next to me has posed a question I will hear hundreds of times over in the next three months. It can be grossly repetitive.

I stop, place my sandals on a rack and continue toward the temple. The man appears again next to me on the red carpet leading in; he wears an orange mark on his forehead; it’s indicative of having received a Hindu blessing.

“How old is the temple?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he responds. ”Old.”

If he is a temple guide there are some key facts that require memorization. This is one of them. After paying tribute to the statue inside it is back outside and underneath the hot sun. After a brief look forward I instead follow the man, who’s waited for me, to the path on the right. In answer to a question about faith he responds indicating a belief in one God although raised Hindu. I respond in kind with a Catholic upbringing.

We pass through a small handful of people milling about and within two steps I am engulfed by the shadow braches of a massive Bodhi tree. It’s said to be an offshoot of the original under which Buddha’s enlightenment was attained. It is very alive and very big.

Six years Guatama Buddha’s energy mingled with the essence of this tree. But achieving liberation is not the reason he is venerated. The Buddha is revered because he dissected the truth so that man may attain liberation for himself.

We approach a wall and Karsen, this is his name, turns and points out a relief and explains the depiction of Buddha’s journey. “Twenty rupees for a photo.” Two boys shout as we walk by. It’s an occasional occurrence, temples charging for photos. If this is the case a pass is typically purchased for a nominal charge; fifteen-year-old boys are not generally sent on missions to scour the crowds for flashbulbs.

Karsen waves a hand at them. “I hate that.”

Also worth noting, in the city of Bodh Gaya, is an 80-foot Buddha statue. With no plans but to play tourist and Karsen appearing harmless enough I accept his invitation to play the role of guide.

As one would assume, an 80-foot tall Buddha is friggin’ huge.

“Those are his friends,” Karsen says, pointing toward the sky at the carved monks lined up along the perimeter, hovering conspicuously. Their hands closed tight in prayer.

“It’s good to be friends of the Buddha.” I look back at the smooth stone behemoth and imagine the hefty construct rising from the ground as an offering to the gods of enlightenment. They should be pleased. He is very big.

As one would assume, an 80-foot tall Buddha is friggin’ huge.

“Those are his friends,” Karsen says, pointing toward the sky at the carved monks lined up along the perimeter, hovering conspicuously. Their hands closed tight in prayer.

“It’s good to be friends of the Buddha.” I look back at the smooth stone behemoth and imagine the hefty construct rising from the ground as an offering to the gods of enlightenment. They should be pleased. He is very big.

tri-tree
tri-tree

Karsen picks me up the next day. The cave depicted in the Mahabodhi wall carving is a little ways out of town, down a road, through a field, by a towering tri-trunked tree and across a dry riverbed. Before reaching the mountain base our path meanders through a village. Women tend to babies under the quiet shade of quivering leaves. Men sit on doorsteps talking. Children flee from mud-packed homes, waving madly, “helllooo.” My orange and gray scarf flaps behind, gesturing in kind with the wind.

Incense, candles, and prayer flags complete the Buddha-party-pak I purchase. Ascending the cement steps and onto a landing, a group of men and women sit in silence, staring at our approach.  Two stone-carved stairs and into a black crevice within the rock wall I crawl. Head first. Breathing is an effort, as is acclimating my vision and lowering my body into a cross-legged position.

I now fully understand the Buddha’s decision to move his meditative journey to the Bodhi tree. The cave is bloody hot. I sweat maniacally. Inside is a sculpture; it’s a stone Guatama, ribs exposed, in acetic state, seated in meditation. There is a young man also seated inside the cave. He is alive. The candles are lit and secured to the low stone platforms. Incense is next, every strained inhalation swells with thick fragrant vapor.

Pushing my head out of the crevice is akin to a rebirth. The first gasp of breath fills my lungs with life; my body emerges and is immediately enveloped by the rushing air. The seated group outside begin a melodious chant. Monkeys crawl over the surrounding constructs. I descend the stone steps.