Traveling Zen: Safety and Security

June 5th, 2009

In a couple months, I’ll be making my second trip to India to see the places where Buddhism was started.  And I’m a little geeked about it, because it’s an exciting break from my usual life.  A little scary–okay, sometimes a lot scary–overwhelming, and chaotic, but there’s something compelling about India that makes it a great place for a pilgrimage.  Because India traveling is challenging and often requires some adjustment of thinking, occasionally my thoughts about it seem a little like Dharma talks.  Other times, because India is such a marketplace of practical setbacks, my thoughts are more detail-oriented.  If I talk about it as part of a Zen teaching, it’s hard to tell where the “Dharma talk” ends and where the “travel tips” begin.

Or, if I share advice on a travelers’ website like India Mike, I wonder how much my Dharma training seeps in, and if it makes me kind of a know-it-all on there.  So it goes.  I don’t know everything about India travel, but I do know a thing or two about the lessons we might need to unlearn if we’re going to see India for what it is.

Some people on IM preparing for a trip ask questions looking for reassurance about safety. One person said he didn’t want to take anti-malarial pills, because he heard they didn’t work. I wondered what he meant; did he mean that someone had taken them and got malaria anyway? Or did he mean that someone didn’t take them and didn’t get malaria? Either is entirely possible, because there’s always a risk.  That’s what risk is.

The Buddhist teaching on dukkha could be translated as “life is risky.”  We want to be told with certainty that the future outcome is there. Another traveler asked if she should bring her netbook computer–she wanted to know, will it get stolen?  What if I leave it in my hotel room, locked? Will my hotel room have a safe?  Will the hotel staff be digging through my stuff when I’m gone?

To face risk, we need to keep don’t-know mind.  No one knows.  You could ask your hotels if they have safes–some do, some don’t.

Yet there’s also a benefit to focusing loving-kindness.  The hotel owners are sentient beings who want to be happy.  Whether they steal your belongings or not, they are acting for their own happiness.  Practically speaking, though, they know that they make their living renting rooms to visitors, so in all likelihood, they don’t want to steal from their guests and get a bad reputation.

The other side to this is nonattachment.  I always give this advice to people who travel India on a budget: don’t take anything you can’t afford to lose. If losing it would be an utter disaster and destroy your life, it’s not worth the risk.  If people really get this, they’ll know that no object’s loss can destroy your life. It will be inconvenient and disappointing if your camera doesn’t make it home–especially because of the once-in-a-lifetime photos you’ve taken!  If you are overtaken by fear of losing your possessions, you’ve already lost them.  If you can visualize losing them and keeping your equanimity, then you won’t have to worry too much.

Really, it’s less likely that your possessions will fall to malicious theft than that they’ll get broken when you drop your bag, or will get muddy in the monsoon rains, or you’ll misplace them… or they’ll get taken by a monkey.

Hallo sir?  Monkey?

Leave a Reply