Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jungle Hermit in Sri Lanka

Dhayananda's mother scraped together just enough rupees to pay for the school uniform of blue shorts and a white-collar shirt. When she brought them home and insisted that Dhayananda put them on, he ran into the jungle. That evening, when the young boy returned, he insisted that he was not only not going to wear the school uniform, but that he would never wear clothes again. He walked outside defiantly and crawled into a small adobe shed nearby used to house young water buffalo. There he would remain, naked, seated in meditation posture. That was over forty years ago; and Dhayananda is still sitting in that cowshed, naturally attired as ever.

Sri Lanka is not like the Indian subcontinent in having wandering holy men, mountain retreatants, or jungle renunciants. In fact, the practice of meditation on the island was only recently 're-instituted' by Sri Lankan's late modern day saint, Anagarika Dharmapala in the late 1890s. Successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and English colonial missionaries had tried their best to stamp Buddhism out of the Sinhalese people. But with the likes of Dharmapala and others, who taught meditation and Buddhist ethics openly, by the early 1900s, the practice was available to monks and lay followers alike. Dharmapala is most remembered for founding the Mahabodhi Society in Bodhgaya, India and his life-long battle to wrestle the 'ownership' of the Mahabodhi Temple, which marks the seat where Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, from the Hindu mahats. Dharmapala’s intention was to place the Mahabodhi Temple in the hands of Buddhists--a battle that is still being fought today.

When Monica and I arrived in Walligama a few days back, I asked some of the locals if they knew of any hermits or sadhus in the area. I have made it a habit as I travel around the world of asking locals about their holy men or magicians. I've been taken to funky astrologers in Madras, ash-covered ascetics in Kathmandu, mountain yogis in Tibet, as well as a fair number of bona fid charlatans. Without centuries of a hermit-tradition in Sri Lanka, I did not expect to find a holy man. An unlikely source stepped forward—Arun, self-proclaimed 'party boy' and our local surfing guide. He told us he knew of a local hermit and would arrange for someone to take us to see the 'jungle man', as he called him, in a day's time.

Bouncing through the jungle on dirt and mud roads in Arun's three-wheeled tuk-tuk, we stopped off to buy some jack fruit and pineapple, as well as a straw mat, to present as offerings to the hermit. On the way, we picked up another local, Ajit, who said he knew stories of the jungle hermit, Dhayananda. Ajit told us how Dhayandana never ate rice but only fruit, tea and water, and how he only moves from his abode in the evening when nobody can observe him. He also only speaks to his mother. It is said he meditates all night, but during the day he does not like to demonstrate anything and as such, if people come around his mud hut, he lies down on the floor. While I did not expect to discuss the meaning of life with the hermit, but I nevertheless was hoping for some sort of advice from someone who had been meditating for forty years.

After an hour of driving, we arrived at a clearing in the thick jungle where fifty water buffalo grazed in a lush bog. Arun told me to walk ahead of him, finally telling me that he was in fact a bit afraid of the jungle hermit.

"Maybe he’ll throw jack fruit in your face," Arun warned.

I nonetheless grabbed the sack of fruit and proceeded towards Dhayananda's 'house', which was more of raised clay platform with a thatched roof, situated under a grove of banana trees. When I approached the doorway, I found him lying on his side on a broken wooden board, his head resting a square stone.

"His face is glowing," were Monica's first words when she saw him.

Dhayananda’s serene expression did not change when I approached him; though I found out later we were the first foreigners he had ever laid eyes upon. I set the bag of fruit and straw mat next to Dhayananda, and then stepped up into his seven-foot square 'house' and sat on the floor. There were no windows though a crack in the back wall allowed more light in than a normal window. A clay pot of water was the only thing in the room. A plastic picture of the Buddha was tacked to the wall and underneath it was a framed black and white photo of the hermit's deceased brother. And below the Buddha and brother was, surprisingly, a battery-run clock. When I asked what need Dhayananda would need for a clock, his aunt told me that he has a cup of tea at 3 pm sharp everyday. His aunt continued to tell us that Dhayananda chants simple Buddhist verses in the night, especially when the moon is overhead. And that he only leaves the room at night to wash and clean his teeth when no one is watching. Though villagers used to visit him to ask him advice on many matters, Dhayananda would deflect their questions, and not accept their offerings.

Dhayananda pulled the straw mat we gave him closer to him to inspect, sitting up briefly. Extending twice the length of his body, in a flatly matted 8-inch wide dread, I saw that he used his hair as his bed. His body was thin, but not frail, like many of the yogis I have met in India. I immediately thought of some of the Shiva swamis I had just seen ten days before in Bodhgaya, and how they conveyed a sense of entitlement to pilgrims' alms because of their supposedly holy appearance. Dhayananda was awaiting nothing. He did not have any expectation, that was for certain. As he looked at me with a smile, it seemed he would have looked to a local villager, a bumblebee, or the jungle itself with the same contented eyes. Though I asked a few questions, he indicated he did not know anything, so I did not persist in trying to get him to speak.

Then to our surprise, Arun pulled a bottle of whiskey from his pocket that had survived the previous night's beach party in Walligama. Seeing what Dhayananda would do, Arun set the bottle next to him as an additional offering. Dhayananda, as if to somehow instruct us on the meaning of 'spontaneously abiding', opened the bottle and in one motion, downed the contents of the entire bottle, without the serene look in his eyes wavering. I was convinced he had done so to demonstrate his utter non-attachment to anything. Indeed, it seemed that he had gone beyond needing anything, any thing at all. As I departed, I took my camera out. As if he wanted to mark my picture with his own stamp of spontaneity, he held the whiskey bottle in the air and waved good-bye.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Heading to India

Last posting was December last year...and then the ammunition came and I spent 12 months doing battle with a manuscript.
...4 chapters left and heading to the Indian subcontinent for some inspiration. Back in the saddle.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

More time at Chengdu's tea houses

I am putting up a few pics that didn't make the BBC edit. Look to the links on the left bar for more photographs from Tibet and China published on the BBC or HIMAL magazine.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Chengdu's tea houses--BBC story

Sorry for the long silence. I was out and about in Sichuan for a while. Click the Photo links to the left to see all the photos from the tea house story on the BBC. I'm putting here a few other photos that did not make it below from former visits to Sichuan tea houses.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

PHOTO of the WEEK May 23--Mickey Gone Buddha

Recognize the natural state
Rest in one taste
Of all that arises
Trumpeting melody
Will announce the blissful union
Of Emptiness and Awareness
Resounding throughout cyberspace
It will be heard by all elongated or rounded ears
Of the Buddha, Mickey and by you
Remain in that one taste.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

PHOTO of the WEEK--Rainbow Body at Boudha Stupa

Yet another late-breaking story from Kathmandu: Darren Attains Rainbow Body at Boudanath Stupa in Nepal.

Rainbow body, you ask?

This is when a highly accomplished meditator's bodily substance is transformed into multi colored light. This usually takes place at the time of death of realized masters who have reached the exhaustion of all erroneous grasping and dual fixating, usually through advanced practices in the Dzogchen tradition. The five gross elements that are the constituents of the physical body dissolve back into their essence--that is, rainbow light. Remember, ROY G BIV? That is right, a rainbow of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violent light and they are gone to the Pure Land. Often, only the hair and nails remain on the meditation cushion.

I'll let you do more research. But for short snips on a recent yogi attaining rainbow body, look into Trungpa Rinpoche 'Born In Tibet' or Sogyal Rinpoche's 'Tibetan Book of Living & Dying'.

For now, I will leave you with this image of my buddy Darren attaining Rainbow Body in Kathmandu. Well, actually we met the next evening for pizza at Fire and Ice but I am hedging my bets that all of his retreat in India and in Tibet did him well. So well that he is about ready to, POOOOFF.

photo courtesy Buddhafield, Inc. Hopkins Ltd.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Tao of Nepal's Revolution

Note: Gratitude to the friend in Nepal who penned this text during curfew hours to help friends understand what is happening behind the barricades of burning tyres......
"What's a revolution?" asked Piglet excitedly, although he didn't know whether he should be.

"It's when the people over throw their Government," Rabbit replied knowingly.
"Sounds like a lot of change to me, and change is bother," Eeyore sighed, dropping his head cynically.

"But why would they do that in Nepal?" Piglet enquired.

"Boredom probably," muttered Eeyore, chewing a thistle out of one side of his mouth.

"No." Rabbit responded sharply, "it's because of a number of complicated reasons. Firstly the country has been engaged in a civil war for over ten years, as a result of Maoist insurgency..." "Taoist philosophy?" Pooh interrupted, lifting his head from a jar of honey, licking his lips and now taking an interest. "Didn't we write a book about that once?"

"Not Taoist philosophy, Pooh, Maoist insurgency," Rabbit said abruptly.

"Oh," said Pooh "hmm, are they related?"
"Well, eer… sort of…. they come from…. the same place," Rabbit stuttered uncertainly, when Owl, much to Rabbit's relief, proclaimed, "Philosophy is engaged in by academics, whereas insurgency is conducted by people with guns…" Pooh had now put down the pot of honey and once again interrupted. "Well, if I remember rightly Taoism is about following the Way. Hmm… I am sure I sang a song about it once," and he started humming and drifted off into his own thoughts again.
"So is revolution about finding your way?" Piglet once again enquired; although he was still not sure he knew exactly what a revolution was and therefore was no closer to the answer to his original question.

At that moment Christopher Robin appeared and everyone turned to him, as he generally new about things like this. Rabbit looked quietly relieved that he didn't have to continue explaining about a situation in a far away country, which he knew little about, had never been to and had no intention of visiting. "Nepal is a beautiful and magical country, with some of the most spectacular mountains and hospitable people in the world," Christopher Robin started, "but it has many complicated political and economic problems at the moment and the current crisis is a culmination of these."

"An accumulation of bees!?!" Pooh gasped in a startled voice, and immediately stopped humming and trying to remember the words to his song about the Way, and started looking around nervously, shielding his pot of honey.

"Let me make it simple for you. The root of the problem is that those people living in the remote mountainous areas are very poor and have very little, whereas those who have governed them have always lived comfortably in the cities, with plentiful food and security. Despite people in rural areas having the least access to basic provisions and services, and therefore needing most help, traditionally the ruling urban elites have not provided them with the support they need to improve the quality of their lives."

"So who's ruling the country?" Piglet asked, hoping this might bring him closer to understanding what a revolution was.

"Good question, Piglet, and arguable currently no one is."

"See, I told you. Boredom. No one is even ruling," Eeyore huffed.

"Prior to 1990 the country was ruled by the King but a democratic government replaced the monarchy following a revolution at that time." Piglet sighed to himself, there had now been two revolutions and he still didn't know what one was. "However the government that replaced the King," Christopher Robin continued "still did not represent the rural poor or increase their access of basic services despite it being the poor who sacrificed the most in the 1990 revolution. As a result those people within the country, who believed in the political thought of Mao, started a quest…"

"Like ours one to find the North Pole or catch a Heffalump?" Pooh inserted.

"Sort of…. a quest to capitalise on the disillusionment among the rural poor," Christopher Robin continued "and encourage them to take up an armed struggle against the government for their rights. The fighting has spread across the country and led to many people being killed, the erosion of human rights and the crimpling of the rural economy."

"It doesn't sound like it is helping the rural poor very much," Piglet said in a concerned voice.

"Civil wars mostly have the greatest negative impact on those that they claim to be trying to bring justice to," Rabbit said confidently, pleased he was able to engage in the discussion again.

"Certainly in the short term, Rabbit. Then in February 2005 after over a decade of fighting between the Government and the Maoists a dramatic event happened, the King seized power back from the government claiming they were not doing enough to tackle the Maoist insurgency and in doing so become an authoritarian ruler…"

"An author? With a tartan ruler?" Pooh interrupted in a confused tone, once again removing his head from now even deeper inside the honey pot.

"An authoritarian ruler is one that takes control without the will of the people and governs without checks on his power, normally resulting in abuse of their position," Christopher Robin explained. "As a consequence of this, during the last year a strange pact has formed between the Maoists, representing the rural poor, and disposed government, made up of the urban elite, as both desire the removal of the King, with the former wanting a Republic and the later a return to democracy." Christopher Robin paused for breath, by now even Rabbit and Owl looked a little lost. "In recent months both the Maoist and the democratic parties have been carrying out an increasing number of activities to disrupt daily life and unsettle the current regime, in the form of strikes, protests, road blockades and in the case of the Maoist more brutal and concentrated violence. This has culminated in the mass protests, violence and disruption of the last few weeks, which has seen both groups join together and mobilise a significant number of people onto the streets, bring the country to a stand still and demanding a change of regime and a new constitution in Nepal – the start of a revolution."

"But how will people know when the revolution is over," asked Piglet, who now was a little clearer on what a revolution was, but was not sure whether it was a good or bad thing as yet.

"Well if successful, the demands of the revolutionaries have to been met, i.e. the King must steps aside and a new leader has to be identified to bring stability back to the country through a new constitution," Christopher Robin stated.

"But the revolutionaries are only united over the removal of the King. With the King now saying he is willing to pass power to the people, won't their conflicting demands and ideologies and the fact there is no obvious leader among the revolutionary movement, or at least no one everyone will agree on, mean that Nepal will drift into anarchy." Pooh suddenly interjected.

"I told you, bother, a whole lot of bother!" Eeyore groaned.

"Sounds like revolutions are more about getting lost, than finding the Way – I think we should stick to Taoism," Piglet concluded, picking up his bunch of violets, "come on Pooh, let's go and play Pooh Sticks, which at least has a clear objective and a winner."

April 25--Nomad Photo Journal on BBC

A photo journal of mine just went up on the BBC web site entitled, 'The Life of a Tibetan Nomad' with about a dozen photos. I worked with the BBC to walk through a day in the life of Jigme and his family who I stayed with for a couple weeks. Check it out. Paste this into your brower:

The last time I had an on-line photo journal, which is a stark contrast to the current BBC series of nomad photos, was a few years back in HIMAL magazine. You can check those out by pasting the link into your browser and click on the Tibet Special Photo Gallery (photos by Scruffy Squirrel Prints).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Th Philosopher Has Escaped-Piatagorski

I recently heard of a Latvian film entitled 'A Philosopher has Escaped' which received top award at an International Film Festival...well, the festival was in the Russian outpost Anapa... but still, the documentary film, "Filozofs Izbedzis" (A Philosopher has Escaped) from the "Lokomotive" film studio and directed by Uldis Tirons, was awarded first prize in the CIS and Baltic Film Festival.

The film is about my crazy professor of Indian philosophy Alexandr Piatagorski who I referred to in the Hungarian Csoma de Kőrösi blog from a few weeks back. 'A Philosopher has Escaped documents the eccentric and paradoxical life of the Russian Piatagorski, a specialist in Buddhist and ancient Indian philosophy, who was a legendary figure in Russian intellectual circles.

In trying to track down the film, which I have not so if anyone can help please send me information, I came across his most recent book, 'Who's Afraid of the Freemasons'. Check it out.In the eighteenth century, Freemasonry was seen to be a force of enlightenment, yet it has come to be regarded as a sinister influence in public life. This definitive study reveals more about Masonry and the way it functions than any other work. Professor Piatigorsky considers the institution from the points of view of both Masons and their critics. In the first section, he gives an outline of Masonic history, from the foundation of the Grand Lodge in London's Covent Garden in 1717, through the extraordinary role of Masonry in Enlightenment Europe and the American Revolution, to the present day. In the second part, he describes Freemasonry's rituals and symbolism, within which all Masonic religious ideas find their place. It is here that Piatigorsky's wide knowledge of the world's religions comes into its own.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

PHOTO of the WEEK April 24--Flavor Flav spotted in Tibet

Yeeaahhhhhh Boooooyyyyyyy. You found it here Under The Same Moon. Flavor Flav was spotted on the Tibetan plateau! He just exchanged his Clock for a similarly ridiculous sized Dzi-Stone.

It took the Oolong-aficionado turned Private-Eye Joe Wagner, known in Haiku circles as 'Wood-Cutter-Up-Yonder', to track Flavor Flav down in on the windy Nangchen plains in Eastern Tibet. "I had to sort through many butter-stained Tibetans trying to pass themselves off as ex-Public Enemy rappers," Joe said, granting exclusive rights of this photo to this Web-blog. "But, I will tell you this," Wagner continued, "The Flav has it goin' on."

It became known late last year that Flav is part of the US Witness Re-location Program after secret testimony in the Enron hearing. "We want to keep the Flav safe," an unnamed kevlar-vest wearing spokeperson from the US Vice-President's office told us. "There aren't many rappers who are so punctual."

If you thought that this (see second photo) look-a-like is the real Flavor Flav these days livin' it up in Beverly Hills, think again Holmes, it's all part of that surreal thing they have going on in Hollywood. But here is the real story: the lovely lady with the green hat and matching purse and fuzzy robust top, that is actually Private Eye Joe Wagner on another assignment. Stay tuned.