When They Stop You at the Border (Punjabi Remix)

July 17th, 2014

Astrology

In India, I have come to suspect that there’s a sentence that makes sense to American drivers that never crosses the mind of Indian drivers. That sentence is “I almost got in an accident!” We Americans feel a great deal of stress at near-misses–and I’m not going to give up that fear. In the famous areas of Rishikesh, the only vehicles allowed are motorcycles and official Jeeps, which ferry people from one end of the street to the other. Unless you get on a Jeep at one of the far ends, you have to walk, and the Jeeps come barreling through with no reason to stop. When I was walking with my friend and his children, this particularly disturbed me. I’m going to take this as an absolute: you should always slow down when you see a six-year-old in the road.

But the feeling that something almost happened, that a near-miss is important to note, seems foreign to Indian drivers. You didn’t almost get in an accident, they seem to say. You didn’t. If there was no accident, there was no almost-accident.

The different states of India are all one nation, of course, but they have different road taxes, and drivers must often stop and pay when crossing from one state to another. My day-long travel had me in a short space of time crossing the corners of a few close states: Uttarakhand into Himachal Pradesh into Haryana into Punjab. At the state crossing, the driver would pull the car over, say, “I need to pay tax,” take his documents with him, and be back in moments.

It didn’t seem different, at first, in the last border between Haryana and Punjab. The border seemed a little more elaborate than others, with a line of toll booths, and my driver stopped before them to get out and pay. (I presumed that hired tourist vehicles needed a different approach than private cars, that could pay the toll and go.) So he left the car running and left me alone. To wait. And wait.

I texted my friend in Patiala and told him the border where I was waiting. He replied, “Good, so you will be here in 30 minutes.” I replied, then explained the American saying “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” And I waited some more.

I grew concerned. But nothing was happening.

Then a police officer came and knocked on my passenger window. I said “Hello,” tentatively.

“Hello sir.” He paused. “Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, thanks. That would be great.”

He nodded. “Would you like a cold drink?”

“Yes, that would be better.”

A nod. “Would you like water?”

I paused. “No, thank you.”

“Would you like a cold drink?”

“Yes.”

He walked away.

A while later, four other policemen approached. “Hello, sir. You are from which country?”

“USA,” I said. “America.”

“Ah. Which city?”

“Detroit.”

“Which city?”

“De. Troit.”

“New York?”

“No, no. Detroit.”

He turned his head. “New York?”

“I guess… it’s near New York.”

The officer looked at me. “When you come to Punjab, you come to enjoy your visit, you come to be happy. And you see the people of Punjab, and you want the people of Punjab to be happy, right?”

“Yes.”

He pointed to the other officer. “His son, he lives in New York. His son lives in America.”

“That’s good.”

“So you come in Punjab, you are going to Patiala, yes?”

“Yes, when my driver gets back.”

“Soon, soon.”

I thought over what he said. There was something to the tone of what he said, something much like, “We can take care of it right here in Brainerd.” But I really didn’t know. So I took out my wallet and grabbed a 100-rupee note.

“Oh no,” said the officer. “No, I don’t need.”

Soon the officers were starting to walk away. “Your driver will be back in two minutes.”

I looked at the time. “Two minutes from now will be 3:36.” They walked away.

Maybe I hadn’t offered a sufficient bribe. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to bribe. Maybe they were coming back to drum up some charges that I was trying to bribe an agent of the law. Bribe, let me say, to get them to do exactly what they were supposed to do. But I thought I could have some digital evidence in my favor.

I texted Rupinder. Okay strange thing

Punjab police came to my car where I waited

It sounded like they wanted a bribe

He asked me how it happened, but in a moment, the driver came back. The older police officer spoke to him at the window while one of the officers gave me a plastic cup of Mountain Dew. He asked for my phone number. It seemed like he wanted somehow to keep track of which foreigners were staying in the area, but when I gave him the card, he said something again about his son in New York.

And soon we drove on.

The driver said that the police were just getting their lunch when he arrived, so they stopped to talk. Then they wondered if his passenger was getting uncomfortable waiting alone, so they came over to make sure I was doing okay.

I realized I was still caught in the way of thinking. I was in a situation where my fears were raised, and I clung to the idea that something almost happened. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe the police officers were just curious. Maybe it was a kind of theatre–press the tourist to the point where he thinks he’s being asked for a bribe so that you can tell the tourist that police do not take bribes. But nothing almost happened at the border to Punjab. Only what happened happened.

Novelist Slash Buddhist

May 11th, 2013

Years ago, when I was just beginning my journey into serious Buddhist practice, I found myself faced with a nagging fear that Zen would hijack my writing career.

Just for the sake of timeline: I began living in and practicing with Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in 2001. In 1998, I had gotten my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, specializing in fiction. For my thesis, I had completed a collection of short stories, but I always believed I’d eventually write novels. In grad school, I’d written stories about people keeping secrets, about mythical battles, about characters with a deep-seated fear of some internal phantom.

And yet when I looked for a model of Buddhist fiction, I perceived it as very different. I suspected that a Buddhist novelist would only write about Buddhist topics, like compassion, equanimity, loving-kindness and sympathetic joy. That a Buddhist story would strive to present a paragon of good Buddhist behavior. And if, through meditation, I’ve worked out the twists in my own mind, then probably I’d write characters who were less twisted.

Is that what I’m supposed to write?

There are some books of Buddhist children’s stories which, in my opinion, epitomize the kind of storytelling that I don’t want to do. When we have a children’s service at Still Point, it usually ends with reading one of these. They are all parables of children who learn a valuable lesson of acceptance, patience and honesty. And I practice my acceptance and patience when reading them to children, but honestly, I am cringing on the inside. So I know that there are great, timeless children’s books out there–The Monster at the End of This Book, or Harold and the Purple Crayon, or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But comparing it with Buddhist Stories for Children feeds my fear that a Buddhist writer is going to be one who makes it cloying and boring.

I’ve been trying to reconcile. Is there a way to keep hold of my dream, my training, my career, while also being devoted to the Buddhist practice?

To spend this summer getting deeper into my writing, I’ve convinced myself to think of it another way. A “Buddhist novelist” is much like a “Buddhist violinist” or “Buddhist plumber.” Works shouldn’t always be infused with specific Buddhist memes. The plumber who practices Buddhism is not going to shape every pipe into an “Om,” and is especially not going to revise the goal of plumbing into teaching people to accept with serenity their leaky faucets and flooded basements. Sure, we could say the Buddhist will act with mindfulness and dedication, with equanimity and patience, but at the end of the day, if there’s a job to do, it must get done. If my novel is shaped by Buddhist thinking, it will be inherent in the way I do it, not deliberate. Much like a musician might be shaped by the nuances of Buddhist practice, without ever saying “Notice how Zen my violin sounds!”

So I’ve been pondering a scene I haven’t written yet where characters talk about what they wish after they die–what kind of arrangement and memorial, and then what they’d want done with their earthly remains. One of these characters is an Indian Muslim, and I am not sure I know what he’d say, what is typically done in those cases and how a young person might choose to question it. I’d found the basics in Wikipedia, but still didn’t feel confident.

In a break from writing, I got a chat message from my friend Sikandar. He lives in Delhi but had just returned from his hometown, Bodhgaya, the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, home of the tree where Siddhartha attained enlightenment. In the chat message, Sikandar told me that his grandfather passed away.

“I am so sorry to hear that. My condolences to you and your family. I will keep him in my prayers.”

Then I took a breath.

“Listen, if it won’t make you too sad to talk about it, can you tell me about the funeral? What happens at a Muslim funeral in Bihar?”

I wasn’t sure if I should feel good about mining his story for my novel. But he was happy to tell me about the procession, carrying the remains to the Muslim cemetery. “It’s right by the Buddhist temple, you know,” he told me.

I looked on Google maps. Right behind the Mahabodhi temple, the site where Buddha sat in meditation and awakened, the road changes names, from Butter Lamp Road to Masjid Road. (Masjid is the Hindi word for mosque.) I’d been on that road but didn’t know it had a name–signs and road names are not as common on the ground as they are on Google Maps. And now I had other things to tell in my story–Butter Lamp Road, the Muslim cemetery in the shadow of the tall Buddhist temple, and a train ride taking a sad grandson back to Delhi.

Sikandar should know by now that the currency of my trade is stories; when we met, I asked him to tell me a story while we drank our chai on the road that Google Maps lists as “80 Feet Statue Road.”

Anyone who befriends a writer should know that telling a writer a story is taken as an invitation to re-tell, to put in writing. Even the stories you don’t think you’re telling, if the writer notices your odd turn of phrase, or your nervous habits, or the button on your shirt you left unbuttoned. We have this job to do, and we’re using everything we can find to do it.

That might not be a Buddhist thing. That might be just a me thing.

and in my story, I describe someone looking across the Ganges at Patna and describing it as

Las Vegas is their India

April 24th, 2013

I get on the Las Vegas Monorail at the LVH station and sit in the end of an empty car. At the next stop, a family gets on, people with the typical wide round faces and pasty skin of the rural Midwest, the sun visors and walking shorts the uniform of the tourist. The woman and the daughters sit on the bench at the far end of the rail car, but the dad of the family chooses the seat next to mine.

“Hiya,” he says, “Do you work here?”

I’m not sure if my conference outfit and messenger bag send a signal that I am someone else, but I might chuckle a bit when I say “No.”

“No, I don’t mean here on the train. I mean, you work here in LA?” Then he laughs at himself. “No, I mean, here in Las Vegas?”

Still no.

“All righty. We’re gonna head down to the casinos and try to find a buffet. Do you know where the best one is?”

I am really just a fountain of “No” in this conversation. I try not to be unfriendly when I shrug and say, “Um, I got nothin’.” I haven’t tried any of the buffets, had a few good places to eat but nothing it seems he’d like. I ask a few polite questions about where they’re staying and what they’ve done in Vegas so far. Then I retreat to my own space.
Tao Spiritual Nightlife
Later, I talk to my colleague and co-presenter Kristi about it. After three days in Vegas, we are both a little tired of it. “This city just isn’t for us,” she says. She looks around at the families of tourists. “But for them, this is the best place to go. For them, this is Italy. For them, this is India.” Kristi knows that I’ve gone to India, and I know that she’s lived in Italy.

But somehow I can’t agree. “No, it’s different.” I say.

I’ve thought about this conversation for a while now. I’d like to think it’s not just my arrogance, my self-centered wish to believe that my motivations for travel are noble and deep, while other people’s are shallow and simple. There’s something charitable about parallel structure. If we could just say that everyone has a favorite food, a favorite music, a favorite store. Some people have a taste for samosas and masala chai, some have a taste for risotto and tiramisu, and some have a taste for all-you-can-eat crab legs and margaritas in giant plastic tubes. For music, some people like Sukhwinder Singh, some people like Renato Carosone, some people like Celine Dion. We might like to shop for Rajasthani puppets, for Venetian glassware, or for discount designer clothes. So, based on your tastes, this theory goes, you choose the best place to travel.

Except I don’t think I go to India to gratify my tastes. Sure, there’s delicious food and there are many appealing sights, but what draws me to travel is the opportunity to resist my tastes, to observe a part of the world that’s far outside my comfort zone. I go to seek out a heartbreaking experience, to feel homesick and culture-shocked.

Egg Roll Stand, Varanasi

And I guess I think of it as a significant difference in approach to many things. Some people only watch movies to gratify their preferences and wishes, and wonder why I would seek out a movie that subverts my expectations and frames of reference. Some people only pursue education to gratify their preferences and goals, and don’t see how someone could like a learning experience that’s tough, that’s mystifying, that’s inscrutable. For a long time, I’ve thought there’s something different about me, some weird way of seeking out the opposite of my preferences.

And then, perhaps the reason I don’t see eye-to-eye with the Vegas fans is that I’m essentially an introvert. I can understand the desire for gratification, for comfort food and familiar songs. There’s a place I can go for gratification; a place where I can eat the foods I like, listen to the music I like, play the games I like, line up all my favorites and indulge.

Why would I leave that place to go to a casino?

I did find a Hindu shrine in Las Vegas, though.

The Real Buddhist in the Real Las Vegas

April 5th, 2013

Years ago, I taught a creative writing class at a community college in rural Ohio. One young man in the class wrote a short story about a man and woman on their first date, who decide on a whim to go to Las Vegas. In the class workshop, I said, “It’s interesting how your run-on sentences and unbroken paragraphs add to the surreal nature of the story. It helps create the sense of a crazy, dreamlike world where someone can say, hey, want to go to Vegas? and then pow! they’re in Vegas.”

The student, a soft-spoken farmboy type, looked a little deflated. “I don’t know. I just wanted to write about two people on a date. I tried to think of something cool people would do on a date, like go to Vegas.”

I’m not sure if he knew that Las Vegas is a city surrounded by desert, a destination that would take hours to reach from any other city. It seems possible that he thought Vegas was a generic noun or a brand name, like people on a date might stop at a Vegas after their dinner at a Cheesecake Factory before they go to a nightclub. To a teenager in Fremont, Ohio in 1998, one’s best guess as to what it’s like to be grown-up and single seems to be a mish-mash of still frames from music videos and car commercials. The handsome man says to the beautiful woman, “Let’s go to Vegas,” and like Beetlejuice, you only have to say the name enough times and you’re there.

I’d almost forgotten all about this student, certainly forgotten his name and face, and forgotten the juvenile misunderstanding of an actual place. That is, until two weeks ago, when I, for the first time in my life, visited the real city of Las Vegas, and found out that I, too, had misunderstood the real place, mistaking it for a city that only existed in imagination.

Las Vegas, Paradise

I found Las Vegas very unsatisfying, but I hope you don’t think I’m saying this in a holier-than-thou Buddhist kind of way, that I’m claiming to be wiser than the hungry ghosts who come there in search of unfulfillable desires. No, I didn’t leave with a meditation on the pervasiveness of desire and suffering; I just left annoyed.

Here was the secret surprise of Las Vegas: it is the least sexy place I have ever been. Yes, I realize that means I’m putting it below Cleveland, below Calcutta, below Holdrege, Nebraska. But I think of experiences in other cities. When you walk down the street in Chicago, and you’re stopped in your tracks by an absolutely gorgeous human being, just waiting for a bus or walking to an appointment, or when you stop by a little diner in San Jose and your server is just radiant. Sexy.

This doesn’t happen in Las Vegas. I once heard a comedian talking about New York City, saying that often in Manhattan, he doesn’t know where to stare, because at one angle, there’s the most beautiful woman he ever saw, and in another, there’s the craziest man he ever saw. In Vegas, the alternative is a woman who thinks she’s the most beautiful you ever saw, and a man who’s paid to act like he’s crazy, and you can tell they’re both a little bored with the act. There are giant posters with images that look like human bodies, but the color of the skin is bronzed to the point of chemical, the shape barely human. Women and men, either one–you can tell they are supposed to be sexy, designed and shaped to be sexy, but as for any of the feel of human contact, totally nothing.

Ask About Late Checkout

My hotel key card came in a paper jacket that encouraged me to ask about late checkout. I found out that this means “Ask, so that we can tell you no.”

This served as a working metaphor for all my experiences in Vegas. The text, the publicity, the signage all exhorted the reader to ask for anything. “Let us know anything we can do for you.” “Ask for whatever you want.” But dealing with real people was the uphill climb. Most of the customer service workers were surly and took a put-upon attitude. If you make a plan, the layout of the place is designed to sidetrack you from that plan.

The city is a master of judo. It uses your own momentum against you, causes you to spin up and fall on your face. Las Vegas doesn’t seduce you; you seduce yourself. I can’t blame it for being what it is, but as for me, it made me grateful for Detroit.

a theory of loyalty

November 13th, 2012

There’s a concept, a theory, I’ve been kicking around in recent days. I was thinking about the way beliefs are social; we believe things because we want to fit in with certain people, because we want their approval, because in our formative years someone taught us to think and feel in a certain way. In terms of Buddhist psychology, the self isn’t separate–these traits I take as “me” exist only in collaboration with others.

This theory applies perhaps most to the concept of “liking.” In our current conception, there’s not a lot of difference between making the statement “I like U2′s songs” and the statement “U2 is a great band” or “U2′s songs are great.” But as I said, we believe these things in collaboration with others. The strength of your conviction (that U2 is a great band) is not only based in how much you enjoy the songs, but in how much the people for whom you feel loyalty expect you to enjoy the songs with them.

I’ve noticed that certain media, or certain people, seems more likely to show this trend. There are certain movies or shows that it’s considered a kind of sacrilege not to like. Tell someone you don’t like this movie and you’ll get an offended result, the implication, “I thought we were friends.” So it’s tempting to like that just to solidify your loyalty to those who like it.

And in our media-entrenched world, we have a sense of loyalty to the makers and performers of entertainment as well. Listening to a favorite song can feel like hanging out with an old friend, and we keep liking the song out of loyalty.

This loyalty isn’t entirely rational, which is something that caused me distress as an overly rational teenager. I’d sometimes feel like there should be some tit-for-tat. “I listened to U2 because you wanted me to,” I’d think about a friend, “so why won’t you listen to Nitzer Ebb for me?” I didn’t ask in so many words, of course. And perhaps if I’d been self-aware enough to ask, and they were self-aware enough to answer, they would say, “I didn’t ask you to listen to U2 for me; I asked you to do it for Bono.”

Pop-culture debates become pretty contentious in my circles (and my favorite websites) perhaps because we try to assert the independence of self, try to dance around the issue without recognizing the role that society plays in quality. And when someone else doesn’t see it the same way, it seems like we need to put the pressure on.

For the record, I don’t like the movie Napoleon Dynamite. It just does nothing for me. But this is one of those places where, if I talk about it, the argument gets heated fast. If I say, “You only like Napoleon Dynamite because your friends like it,” that’s kind of mean, and vice versa if you say to me, “You only dislike Napoleon Dynamite because it’s too popular and you want to be different.” Those words wouldn’t hurt if there weren’t some truth to them, some fear that you’re actually looking into my psyche.

I think what I’m getting at is how much this sense of “self” that we take for granted is actually interwoven with other people. We have to try very hard to make this “self” separate… all that hard work for nothing.

Making Sense of Senseless Violence

August 9th, 2012

Last night, I attended a vigil for the Sikh community and the victims of the attacks in Milwaukee. Of course it is sad and tragic, and I added my prayers to those of the many people of different faiths (and of no faith) who attended.

At the Gurdwara Vigil in Plymouth

Violent fringe groups are troubling, and an irrational person who would commit such an act of terrorism might be so psychologically different from me and those close to me–I can’t fathom doing or even thinking such a thing. But I’ve also been troubled by a common reaction, one I can understand. Many of my friends and other Americans, in discussing this hate crime, have assumed that the killer mistook the Sikhs for Muslims.

To be fair, there’s background to this assumption. The man who killed Balbir Singh Sodhi in 2001 outside of his gas station almost certainly thought the turban identified a Muslim. But Wade Michael Page chose a gurdwara for his attack. Being a white supremacist, clearly, he had hate for most people of the world. I can’t help but think that if he wanted to plan an attack on Muslims, he would have gone to one of Milwaukee’s mosques. We know that he hated Jews, but we don’t talk about whether he thought the gurdwara was a synagogue. We know he hated African-Americans, but we don’t discuss whether he thought the ethnic Indians in the temple were black.

I know people discussing the distinction between Sikh and Muslim don’t mean to be offensive to Muslims. And yet it troubles me that when this act of violence happens, one in which neither the assailant nor the victims were Muslim, we still feel the need to talk about Muslims. It almost implies, when we presume Page was mistaking them for Muslims, that if he’d assaulted a mosque at least he’d be hurting a community that had done something to deserve it. Again, I know that’s not what people mean to imply, but it’s still there.

We talk about hate crimes against Muslims as perceived retaliation for Muslim terrorist attacks, and because Sikhs are not widely known for terrorism, we assume they must be mistakes. And yet, other victimized groups aren’t seen as retaliation. A hate crime against a transgendered person isn’t retaliation for terrorism–it’s an assertion of power, a violent reclaiming of the norm. Hate crimes against Jews are, perhaps in theory, retaliation for the crucifixion, but seriously, that’s not actually what gets people worked up.

And in truth, I don’t think 9-11 is what gets bigots worked up about Arabs. Hateful people will hate those who look, dress, speak or act in a way that’s foreign and weird. When this spills over into violence, rather than making a distinction implying one group deserves hate more than another, we really ought to affirm people’s right to be.

this is where the magic happens

June 18th, 2012

Bol Bum in Rajgir

On the India travel forum I occasionally read, someone recently posted about a disappointing experience. He’d found information about an ashram on the Internet, and when he got there, he found bad conditions and an irritable swami, not the peaceful conditions he’d hoped for. I recognized some of myself in his experience, both from traveling India and from experience with spiritual retreats. Sometimes the search for enlightenment takes you to really uncomfortable places. Sometimes you have to recognize it’s not enlightenment at all.

When I read his story, the phrase “magical thinking” came to mind. I recently read a great book called Seven Laws of Magical Thinking by Matthew Hutson. Rational people, Hutson explains, often act by irrational principles. We have expectations of the way the world will work, and choose our actions based on these superstitions. Some of these superstitions are finely distinguished from sentimentality or style. If I like drinking tea out of the mug my grandmother gave me, and would be unhappy if that mug were replaced–even by an identical mug–is it because of some magical connection, that I believe Grandma’s spirit is present in the mug, or simply that it’s pleasant? Should I be a little sad that the shoes I wore through India got left behind in the hotel trash?

At a temple in Rishikesh, to thank me for a small donation, a priest gave me a jar of blessed Ganges water. That led me to some trouble considering the jar would have to make it through a trans-Atlantic flight in my checked luggage, but I managed. I thought about my aunt who visited Florida and picked up, as a souvenir, a little bit of beach sand. I wondered if that happened over the years in India–that thousands of years ago, some visitor to the Ganges thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to take some of this water with me? And over the years people started adding their own magical thoughts to it, saying that Ganges water would bless their homes, that the spirit of Ma Ganga would watch over this water forever.

There’s a deeper kind of magical thinking we deal with in Zen as well, in dealing with the problem called dukkha, also called dissatisfaction or suffering. We think that someone out there has the magical power to change us, to make our lives complete, to drive away all our dukkha. Whether this “someone” is a guru, a lover, a billionaire, a publisher, or a genie, we keep looking for the magic lamp. People traveling in India often have this kind of magical thinking, and India itself has a fascinating way of dispelling that magical thinking. If you think India will be blissfully spiritual, you’ll find alarming materialism. If you think the spiritual teachings of India make people generous and kind, you’ll find shocking examples of unfairness and even cruelty.

But to explain this to the guy in the disappointing ashram, I found myself falling back into Hutson’s seventh principle of magical thinking: Everything Happens for a Reason. Maybe it was the master plan that there were important lessons to learn from negative example. He learned that inner peace does not come from running away to India; he learned that gurus don’t always help other people. And I went out on a limb with the magical thinking and said, this was the lesson he was supposed to learn. (I’m reminded of the time that, by coincidence, one week I kept running into references to Nietzsche in things I read and overheard. I wondered… is the Universe coming together to tell me I should read some Nietzsche?)

But as Hutson argues at the end of the book, a little magical thinking isn’t a crime, and it’s sometimes helpful for getting through our days. I’ll keep being a little superstitious, just because it’s fun to be in a magical world.

Two photos: Distant Spires

May 15th, 2012

Detroit spires
Over the Lodge Freeway, Detroit

Varanasi spires
Over a sacred pond, Varanasi

two photos: Detroit leaning/Varanasi leaning

May 14th, 2012

Scindhia Ghat tilted temple
Scindhia Ghat, Varanasi, India
Lodge Freeway tilted sign
Lodge Freeway, Detroit

three or four walls

April 1st, 2012

Kali Temple Vaishali

Kali temple in the ruins of Vaishali, India. August 2011

Trumbullplex

Donations hutch, Trumbull Avenue, Detroit. March 2012