Rudolf Steiner Rides Again

Anyone who looks anxiously and fearfully towards the future hinders his development, hampers the free unfolding of his soul-forces.  Nothing, indeed, obstructs this development more than fear and anxiety in the face of the unknown future.  But the results of submitting to the future can be judged only by experience.  

What does this humbleness mean? Ideally, it would mean saying to oneself: Whatever the next hour or day may bring, I cannot change it by fear or anxiety, for it is not yet known.  I will therefore wait for it with complete inward restfulness, perfect tranquility of mind.  Anyone who can meet the future in this calm, relaxed way, without impairing his active strength and energy, will be able to develop the powers of soul freely and intensively.  It is as if hindrance after hindrance fall away, as the soul comes to be more and more pervaded by this feeling of humbleness towards approaching events.

– Rudolf Steiner, from Metamorphosis of the Soul, Vol 2

Nepal and its Crumbling Infrastructure

Nepal is truly a beautiful country, but if there’s one thing I kept coming back to it was the state of the infrastructure. The roads were in an appalling state in so many places – some were just dust baths (even in Kathmandu), others were composed entirely of chunks of broken tarmac, and others had pot holes that could swallow whole houses. In many places in Kathmandu the edge of the road was a mess of broken sidewalk, gaping holes, rebar, watery puddles, clumps of sand and garbage. And let’s not forget the roads where part of it was washed away down a cliff. I can generally put up with a fair amount of discomfort and whatnot, but being in a jeep with two wheels a couple inches from a 100 foot drop was more than I could bear. “I think I’ve reached my limit,” I told Paul as I clung to the door handle and made sure to keep the door unlocked in case we needed to roll out in a split second. Sabine thought I was being particularly annoying and silly but I could barely function on that particular dirt road.

But it wasn’t merely the roads. The Internet crawled and hiccuped along in most of our hotels. The electricity was still on load balancing in some towns. Garbage was strewn everywhere and many rivers were full of it. And sending a couple of letters back home took 7 weeks to arrive.

But where this touched me was the fact that Nepalis have to live with this poor infrastructure. They do so with grace and humour, but they have to put up with it and live with it every single day. Their government isn’t going to resolve these infrastructure issues any time soon. And when you see the amount of money pouring in every day from tourist visas and hiking visas, especially for remote areas, you wonder what is going on.

So when I found myself in a tuk tuk ride with a Nepali working for Plan International, a NGO, I seized the opportunity to ask him how he thought Nepal could improve the state of the country. He was happy to talk.

“First,” he said, “there must be a stable government. We cannot have elections every 1 or 2 years, whenever the government want. Every 4 years, every 5, this is better. We cannot achieve any real change of significance without a stable government.”

“Secondly,” he continued, “there must be protection for investors. Their money must be secure. They have put much work into their investment and they do not like to feel that they must walk away from it.”

“Thirdly, we must be able to mobilize our resources. This in my mind are the three most important things we need to do.”

“But how will the government in Nepal become more stable?” I asked him.

He paused for a couple of seconds, and then replied, “It must be from the people. It’s up to the people.”

And that was where we left it.

Nepalis in Disguise as Westerners

Sometimes I’d be walking down the street in Nepal and someone would pass by who I thought was Western. They’d be wearing Western clothes and their features looked Caucasian. Yet I’d look again and see they were actually Nepali. It was a little disconcerting – this effect of seeing so quickly the assumptions you make about someone evaporate.

This happened only to the men, because their clothes are not as well defined as female fashions so some could be from anywhere once they started wearing Western clothes.

Later Paul and I talked about what’s left over if you could remove someone’s culture from them. “Emotions and instinct,” I said. But culture is how you interact with the world and with other people – a set of rules you follow both knowingly and unknowingly. Perhaps it really can’t ever be removed, but only one set substituted for another. Though we can become aware of how emotions are sometimes the result of cultural conditioning, whether from society, religion, family or self-beliefs.  (And modernity itself is a type of culture.) I do believe though that through meditation we can temporarily step away from our culture and join the river that unites all humans.

Brothers and Sisters

In Chitwan, Nepal, we ran into the young guy from California, Manny, who we’d met before in the Korean Monastery in Lumbini. At the monastery he’d been scooped up by an older Korean man who was giving him advice about meditation and life in general.

That was one thing I noticed about travelling with a boy through Asia, particularly in Nepal. Men, both older and younger, would give special attention to Aaron – whether we were riding a bus, walking down the street, staying at guesthouses, buying food, hiking in the mountains. Time and time again they would talk to him, give him things and shower him with attention and kindness. There seemed to be a strong thread of brotherhood running through the culture that Aaron could so easily tap into. “Why does Aaron always get stuff?” Nerys would ask me. As a corollary to that, the girls were approached much less – a few times by teenage girls squealing at their cuteness and asking for selfies together, but almost never by males, reflecting the culture of females not talking to males they didn’t know. The exception was cheeky younger guys asking for selfies with the girls, which we quickly realized we’d need to kibosh.

One Indian man, Bijay, came every morning to the Korean monastery to sell bread, doughnuts and yellow coloured cake slices from an enormous basket on his bicycle. He soon began giving Aaron free slices of cake and by our last day it was becoming a tad excessive how many slices of cake he was handing out to him. I came over to say I would pay for them, but he quickly waved aside my offer. Ranjeet, the office assistant, helped translate what he was saying. “A gift,” he said adamantly. “No money. A gift for the boy.” Bijay was undoubtedly poor yet here he was refusing money from a rich Westerner.

When he heard we were leaving he lifted Aaron up high to sit on his bike and asked me to take a photo of the two of them together. How this man’s heart was captured by a little seven year old was touching to see. Their hearts are very open to children here.

Wildness Abounding in Chitwan

Depending on your perspective, one thing about a developing country that can greatly appeal or not is the lack of safety regulations. You can really make the most of this in Chitwan, a national park in southern Nepal with elephants, tigers and rhinos.

At the Elephant Breeding Centre while we were enjoying the cuteness of the baby elephants, a wild elephant entered the camp and tromped around like he owned the place. The visitors huddled together, bolting from one side to another if the elephant looked like he was getting too close. With fires burning in the background, apparently to keep the bug situation down, it had all the ingredients for Jurassic Park take 6. The free thrills were greatly appreciated by Paul and I, but the kids were not so sure. You can never get enough of this stuff so we went back to the breeding centre two days later and the wild elephant was back again. Sabine in particular was horrified at the whole place.

The wild rhino who liked to amble through the main street at 9 pm was also a highlight. “Don’t get too close. Don’t catch his eye!” the locals hissed as we stood watching from the guesthouse gate. A crowd followed him down the road in awe. It was quite a sight.

Lumbini by Bicycle

We got off the bus in Lumbini, a few kilometres from the Indian border and the birthplace of the Buddha. Here many people looked more Indian than the broader faces of Nepalis. Our 70 cent omelette made us feel that we were in India too, yet I felt relief that we were not in India. India might have been too much for the kids and I didn’t want to scare them off Asian travel forever. Though the garbage in Nepal and Indonesia might have done that already. “Why do you bring us to places full of garbage?” Nerys still keeps asking me.

We decided to stay at the Korean monastery in the monastic zone of Lumbini. It was peaceful and had plenty of space for Aaron to run around and minimal garbage. The rooms were dorms, but since there were five of us we took up the entire dorm room, thankfully. Nerys however was horrified at the state of the bathroom. I will not go into detail except to say that it was extremely basic, involving buckets, bad smells and not much else.

It was $15 US a night for all of us to stay, which included three meals a day. It was a complete deal as long as you didn’t mind eating the same meal breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was surprised the cook wasn’t going out of her mind with boredom from cooking exactly the same rice, dahl and green bean curry stew 365 days a year but it sure must have simplified grocery shopping.

This monastery had only two monks and one nun staying there, along with visitors from India, China and Korea, and a few Westerners. The nun was Korean but completely fluent in Nepali. It took me three days to realize she was the nun – she strode about the place like the business manager, complete with blouse and business pants.

Sabine turned 13 the day after we arrived, and we spent the day cycling around on ancient rented bikes visiting the Mayadevi Temple with a sacred stone where the Buddha was born. As we parked our bicycles to go in the Temple we passed one Indian guy shrieking vehemently at another. Perhaps the anticipation and all the quiet pilgrims had simply been too much for them. I call that “Library Syndrome” – places where you must be quiet but simply can’t be. Of course, fighting in front of the Buddha’s birthplace seems a little more dire than giggling behind the library stacks, but there you have it. I hustled the kids past them before fisticuffs broke out and in we went to line up to gaze at a dark stone on the floor encased in a glass box. The pilgrims in saris and the red powder and orange marigolds on the wall beside the stone gave the place a strong Hindu feeling, which made sense since Hindus consider Buddha an avatar of the god Vishnu.

After we inspected the Bodhi tree outside the Temple, we got back on our bicycles and explored a few other monasteries, several of which were eerily empty. The monastic zone where all the monasteries were built was so vast that it was quite easy to see only a handful of people at each place. Then monastery burn-out set in and we bicycled off home to our dorm room.

The bicycles were highly amusing and liberating after being dependent on buses and other people’s cars to get around. It turned out the bikes we rented from the Korean monastery were actually the workers’ bikes – you rented them for the day for $2 US each, but had to return them by 5 so the workers could get home. It was genius really.

Farewell to Pokhara

Soon enough it was time to leave the monastery in Pokhara and head to Lumbini near the Indian border. As we packed our bags in the early morning, many images passed through my mind: the monks dancing in the courtyard at 6 am, sunset on the Annapurna range behind the temple, a sea of maroon robes eating in the dining hall, the cook stirring his enormous pots, and the school administrator urging Aaron to step into the dining hall to say hello to the seven year old monks.

I also thought about the monkeys who had raided the American girl’s room here and thrown all her possessions out the window with gleeful abandon. In the dirt behind the building we’d helped her retrieve her clothes strewn on bushes and all sorts of things shredded and poked at, including numerous pills half demolished by the monkeys. Tylenol, anti-anxiety pills, birth control and Imodium were all devoured. There were going to be some very strange behaving monkeys around that afternoon.

Here I’d also seen something that I hadn’t seen before: a living, breathing brotherhood. I could see it but couldn’t participate in it. Aaron could see it too. A life that gave focus, direction, discipline, understanding, companionship and happiness to the path of being male, all in one place.

With those thoughts in my head, the taxi arrived at the monastery gates and we piled in to head to the bus station. I hoped to return here one day.

A Pilgrim’s Words from Long Ago

So long as we are engaged in observing the imperfections of others we deprive ourselves of the opportunities of learning from them. Remember that every being carries within itself the spark of Buddhahood, but as long as we concentrate on other people’s faults we deprive ourselves of the light that in various degrees shines out from our fellow-beings….

Therefore the greatest among men were those who recognized the divine qualities in their fellow-beings and were always ready to respect even the lowliest among them. As along as we regard ourselves as superior to others or look down upon the world, we cannot make any real progress. As soon, however, as we understand that we live in exactly that world which we deserve, we shall recognize the faults of others as our own – though they may appear in different form. It is our karma that we live in this “imperfect” world, which in the ultimate sense is our own creation. This is the only attitude which can help us to overcome our difficulties, because it replaces fruitless negation by an impulse towards self-perfection, which not only makes us worthy of a better world but partners in its creation.”

— Tomo Géshé Rimpoché, in The Way of the White Clouds: A Buddhist Pilgrim in Tibet by Lama Anagarika Govinda.

Stalking Monks

I sat in the courtyard on the metal bench stalking more monks. They were so interesting to talk to and some were inclined to chat to visitors. One monk, Ngawang, wandered over. I asked him about life in the monastery.

“We are like family,” he told me, “Little brothers and big brothers looking after them.”

“So you are happy to be here?” I asked him.

Instead he replied, “A monk is a kind of life to live, it’s a way to live. And the way we spend our life is totally different from other life. Main reason people spending such a life is because we are followers of the Buddha. He has got everything in his life to search for the true meaning of happiness. He has lots of followers who left lots of things like families and join the Buddha way, enlightenment, true happiness. We are also the followers of Buddha, which is reach happiness through your own experience and own mind, through meditation.

He paused. “The people who stay in monastery become calmer, wiser. The hardest part is training the mind.”

I thought of my scattered jumpy mind and could only agree.

Sitting by Jamyang

Jamyang sat down beside me on the metal bench in the courtyard.

“What do you think of that?” he asked as we looked over at the five Nepalis taking selfies of themselves on the monastery steps.

He was 21, about the same age as the selfie-takers yet in a world far away from theirs. It was pretty clear what he thought of the photo taking. It did look a little incongruous, these poses in front of a Tibetan monastery, kind of like seeing someone walk in a bikini through downtown office blocks.

The air was getting colder in the late afternoon. Jamyang pulled his maroon robe up over his shoulder, then spoke again.

“Westerners come here, they’re more interested in learning about Buddhism than Nepalis.”

That was an interesting statement to hear. It made me realize how easy it is to over praise the East. The West is good too. We must never denigrate one at the expense of the other. They both are exactly as they should be, in their own way.

“When did you come here?” I asked him.

“I was 9,” he said.

“And what did you think at the time?”

“It was my parents’ decision, so I accepted it.”

He explained how it was often the middle son who was sent to live at a monastery from their villages in remote areas, like Mustang. In his case, he was the eldest son, but the middle child.

“Your mother is your first teacher,” he continued. “Children learn love from their mother. And that is why the mother is everything, not the father, but the mother. She is everything.” He paused. “But be careful too, too much love destroys child.”

“How do you like your life here, in the monastery?” I asked him.

“How I think, if I go outside, is people don’t know what I think, so I like to stay in monastery.”

It was such a different life that he lived. Day after day, waking up for the 6 am service, then studies all day, meditation, and meals at set times with 100 other monks. Owning nothing except maroon coloured clothing, books, a toothbrush and maybe a cell phone. And when you’re young, hardly ever roaming around in the world outside the monastery gates. Yet you could feel what he meant. This was a life created with like-minded people. People whose minds had been trained in a certain way, a very effective way. The people outside these gates thought very differently to him – they could be interested in selfies or success, or any number of things that would hold no interest for the monks. But now that his mind was trained this way, he would never be taking selfies on monastery steps.