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Friday, August 29, 2014

Visiting Dhan's Utopia

I met Dhaniella (Dhan) three years ago in Japan on Project Tohoku, where just by looking at her dreads and how she dressed knew that she was a hippie. It was not until after talking to her though that I learned she was living off the grid three and half hours outside of Brisbane in the community of Utopia.  When I decided I was going to take the monetary plunge and head to Australia I knew she had to be one of my stops, which happened to line up with her rain water tank raising party.  Since she doesn't drive and obviously no buses go to where she lives she arranged a ride for me with her friends George and Mel.  They are the type of people that you feel like you know for ages after knowing them a few hours.
We arrived on Dhan's land in the dead of night, with only her solar powered rainbow lights and a sliver of a moon giving me any clue of what I had gotten myself too.  I quickly asked for something warmer to wear even as we settled in around the fire with beers in our hands.  Dhan provided me one of her well worn house coats, a bright blue silk lined with fleece.  It became a trusted combatant against the falls nights during the duration of the stay.  The first night I squeezed in Dhan's caravan with her so Mel and George could sleep in Dhan's summer tent under the mango so they didn't have to put using headlights.
When I woke with the sunlight the next morning with a Rudolph nose, I finally got to see the home Dhan created.  The huge mango tree not ready to bear fruit, but covered with enough leaves to provided extra protection of a four man tent (now mine for the rest of my stay) from the cold nights and warm days.  The "toxic" teepee, where you went number two in a hole that Dhan dug earlier in the year, which actually was quite magnificent.  You sat on a toilette seat attached to a milk crate, with the teepee and pirate flag guarding you from human eyes, while facing nature's glory.  I know this is t.m.i. but night poops soon became my favorite, where I could enjoy the release of one of our amazing meals while wishing upon stars.  It you could replace the milk carton with a Japanese heated toilet, I might have never left that space.  The tin shed used as a kitchen with a new added refrigerator  and gas  burner stove that you have to be careful doesn't go to crazy and burn the roof.  Then of course Dhan's caravan, and the creation from her last party, raise the roof overhead, which added an extra layer against the elements, a better place to collect solar, and soon to be rainwater collector/director to the water tank we were building.
One of the main things you need in life is drinkable water.  Off the grid you can water your gardens, wash dishes, and take showers in dam water, but to drink even after boiling was not a great idea, so instead of buying water from town, borrowing from friends, Dhan thought it was time to build a rainwater collection tank.  One of the many tasks on her list of comfortably living away from societally conveniences and the annoyances that come with them.  When we arrived she had already dug and leveled the base for the foundation, we were going to build with recycled tires.  We found the tires that would provided the best base and started filling them with dirt and gravel, and then we packed it until we thought it was sturdy with our feet and sledgehammers, but of course it wasn't. So we repeated this process for about 5 hours, quickly finding what make tires so great to build with with, their side walls our nemesis, as that is the hardest place to pack the dirt in. Finally we took all the bounce out of the first layer of tires, and were able to level it with dirt and dancing.  The next day we completed another layer, but only taking half the time with the lessons we had learned from the day before, pack the sides first as when you fill the center expecting it to move to the sides, it won't work.  Duh, it's a dry substance not a liquid.  Unfortunately people had to leave before the last layer of tires and rendering was complete, so Dhan will have to have another party which I will not be able to attend.  I can't wait to hear how the rest of the job goes, and see pictures of Dhan drinking water from everyone's work. 
There were a lot of great times in Utopia but I want to share the two most memorable.
One afternoon Dhan and I choose to relax by taking the hour walk through her community to the neighboring national park, Mount Walsh. While there we hiked through more open forests and grassy woodlands to Waterfall Creek, which due to lack of rainfall was at a trickle.  Even still the natural rock pools that have potholed into the granite by years of water erosion where still breathtaking.  Dhan enticed by the fresh water decided to plunge in, after 30 seconds, enough to get one layer of red dirt off she was back out, where as I was happy just dangle my feet in and see watch the baby crawfish try to bite my toes. 
One night we decided to pass the time by watching movies on laptop charged earlier by sunlight, next to Dhan's potbelly wood stove, drinking hot chocolate under the stars.  For what we choose to watch you really couldn't be in a better setting or set-up. We watched Waking Life an animated movie is centered on a young man (the kid from Dazed and Confused) who wanders through his dreams encountering numerous individuals who willingly engage in insightful philosophical discussions including but not limited to, how can one distinguish dream life from waking life and do dreams have any sort of hidden significance or purpose?  The second movie we watched was Into The Wild based on the travels of Christopher McCandless across North America and his life spent in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s, even with the tragic ending, the movie was the perfect choice for the setting we were in and the hippie road trip we were about to embark on as it mirrored the lives of many of the people I was about to meet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

New Delhi's Puppet Colony

Please note that below is not hard facts, but instead based on what I found on the web, from those living in Kathpulti, and my short experience visiting the colony. I apologize for any misinformation.

Kathputli Colony is stuck between the metro and railways lines in the Shadipur Depot area of Delhi, just a few miles away from Connaught Place and its fancy shops. Named after the centuries—old wooden string puppets of India’s Rajasthan state, Kathputli Colony is said to be the biggest single concentration of traditional street artists in the world. About 800 families have settled here since India's Independence from Great Britain.
Its narrow lanes and teetering brick houses are home over 600 artists who have represented India in fairs and festivals in countries near and far.  They are dancers, sword-swallowers, singers, fire–eaters, magicians, snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, jugglers, sculptors, mimes, artists, puppeteers, folk singers, bear handlers, monkey trainers, ribbon dancers, and other practitioners of fasts disappearing traditional arts. 

The colony began organically in the 1950's.  Performers from all the different regions and artistic tribes from the country would come to Delhi to perform, and then they would go back on their routes. However, as T.V. and radio became available in the rural villages, their was less money to be had, so they had to move into the city, where people would still pay to witness their talents.  They settled upon a scrubby woodland area on what was the edge of town at the time, and started making homes with their own hands and resources.  More and more people came, so more and more was built, to present day where there are around 40,000 people living in Kathputli.  As the colony grew so did India's capital, which makes the colony relatively central now, only 15 minute metro ride from parliament, fancy shops and hotels, museums, ministries and the central business district. What once was scrubby forest is now some of the most valuable land in the area.

So is Kathputli Colony a slum?  It's alleys are strewn with garbage and sometimes feces, as there is no proper sewer system or garbage system. Children paddle in stinking black drains, not realizing how unhealthy it is for them, instead simply thinking how nice the cool mixture feels. Electricity supply, "borrowed" from the nearest pole is basically a constant, powering fans, swamp coolers, color tv's and even a colony arcade with four games.  Water is supplied by the government to the areas that are lucky enough to be hooked up to the system, but as it runs through old pipes and tubes, it is constantly contaminated. For those not lucky enough to be hooked up to the main system, those who are not pay 3-7 rs. depending on the size container they have to those who share. With lack of access to water, also means not everyone has a bathroom, and there are only five public bathrooms for the entire colony and they cost a small fee per use. Most have a gas cooking stove to boil water and cook food throughly, but some do not. Within the colony some are defiantly better off than other, poor, really poor, desperate.  

Kathputli Colony's 6.5 acres is broken up into different areas based on religion, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. and by which Indian state they come such as Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, UP, Bihar and Gujarat, with 11 different languages spoken.  This may lead one to believe there is a lot tension, but in fact, the community is closely knit, centered around family and each other.  Families live together for years, sometimes 6 families living in only four rooms. When you literally live on top of each other you have to find a way to make it work.   
As one walks it's is easy to get lost with so many many criss-crossing pathways, surrounded by dilapidated hovels, shanties, pucca houses, cemented dwellings, and mud huts, but as you do you also notice that there is a beauty to it.  It's hard to explain to an outsider, but I will attempt.  Walls are painted in painted in bright colors, children play with homemade toys, and women hustle around carrying water, making food, and washing clothes in their colorful sarees.  Besides the constant buzz of mosquitoes and flies, you can hears musicians and singers practice their craft, and the jingling of their silver anklets and glass bangles creates a fine music.

Rent averages at about 1,000 rupees ($17) per month and can be as low as 185 rupees ($3.50) per month.  Besides making money as performers,some make money as rickshaw drivers, cleaning houses for the affluent down the street, selling sweets, mending clothes, others in the lower class resort to trash picking and sometimes prostitution.  Government schools are technically free in India, but there is a cost for uniforms and supplies, which means quite a few children go without, with the girls usually being pulled out first. 

The harsh conditions make for some of the toughest, most creative, and thrifty people in one area.  So yes, Kathpulti Colony, is officially defined as a slum, but at its core it’s an artist community with people making the best life they can.  There is a sort of dignity to it all.  

I encourage you to visit it and it's in habitants and also make up your own mind as words, especially mine, will never be able to fully describe its complexity.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tushita - finding happiness.

About three months ago when I decided to go to India, I decided to look into Buddhism courses, as the county is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama while he is in exile from Tibet, I figured it be one of the best places to learn about more about this religion/ philosophy, something I had wanted to learn more about since my brief time teaching English to monks at Rigon Choeling Tashi monastery in Nepal, the fact that I believe the Dahlia Lama is the happiest person on the planet, and I want to be happy too and help others to be happy. Using good ole Google, I came upon Tushita, located in the hills only a 10 minutes from his home, which focuses on teaching Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Twice each month they offer a 10 day residential "Introduction to Buddhism" course for a nominal fee (enough to cover food and shelter) to whoever was interested in learning.  It seemed perfect, except for one catch, the course was to be done in silence, but not 100% silence as you could ask questions during lectures and in the organized discussion groups. After some pondering and some discussions with family and friends (no I would not shave my head and become a monk...well unless I really thought it would make me happy) it came down to two thoughts I really wanted to learn and that some monks do this for years so I surely could survive 10 days.
I finally arrived on Saturday, August 9th, my mom's birthday. There were 51 other people, from around the world, with different cultural and religious backgrounds taking the course with me. The only surface things we had in common was English, an interest in Buddhism, and that we had to follow the same rules during our stay.  In addition to being silent we all had to follow the first five monastic vows: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, remain celibate, and do not use intoxicants.  Since they cooked amazing vegetarian meals for us, kept us pretty busy; first meditation at 6:45 am, then breakfast, two lectures on Buddhist , lunch, karma yoga job (mine was washing windows which I finished in one day), discussion groups, another lecture, tea, meditation, dinner, meditation and expected us to stay on Tushita grounds for the duration, what I internally called the safety net during my course, they were pretty easy to keep. The hardest part was forgetting my good habits, saying bless you, please, thank you, and keeping "noble silence," not looking at people in the eye or smiling at them.  Also because everyone was supposed to be in silence it was hard for me to be patient with those who were not, I constantly had to tell myself to act compassionately, something Buddhism holds at its core, for those who found it difficult. 
Besides compassion another thing I really like about Buddhism / H.H. Dahlia Lama is my understanding that they want everyone (emphasis on everyone) to be happy aka reach nirvana and do not think the Buddhist path is the only way, just the way, they believe, to be the fastest.  For example during the first lecture we were given two pieces of information: first, that we may treat Buddhism as a supermarket, by picking out the pieces of the teachings that we find most useful; and second, that (as the first Buddha himself said), it is absolutely necessary that we do not take anything on faith alone. We must be cautious buyers, such as a goldsmith buying gold, you must check each nugget of data with our own rational minds before accepting it as to be true.  This approach hands the controls to the individual, which is both a curse and a blessing.  You are allowed to deal with our own doubts and difficulties in our own individual ways, but it also means you have to make up your own mind on what is good for you and the planet as there are no  absolutes.      
To teach the above Buddhist philosophy and more, the course was a mixture of lecture and meditation.  This combination gave us space and time to work through any challenging material and to put the lessons into practice. I never knew there we different kinds of mediations, I thought meditation was simply a mind empty of thoughts.  I found out their are a variety of types and our course would focus on "mindfulness" meditation and guided "analytical" meditation.   Mindfulness meditation is essentially a practice in focus; one chooses a single object, often the sensation of the breath or a mental or physical image, and attempts to single-pointedly observe that object without distraction. The idea is that, when mindfulness practiced in meditation is applied to the rest of life, we are more aware and in control of our own thoughts, emotions and actions.  This is the one I have an extremely hard time with during the course and the one I will need to practice and not give up on because in the long term I think it will be super beneficial to me and my sleep. On the other hand, analytical meditations are meant to bring the knowledge from the lectures or anything we comprehend intellectually, to a deeper level of understanding.  This understanding provides an easier path to put into to practice or accepting, as it is for you and no one else.  These mediations were a bit easier for me and not only helped me better understand thing, but were also extremely healing.
An example of this teaching is one of the lessons about the Buddhist view of "emptiness." I put emptiness in quotes because it is the Buddhist view of it and not our traditional view of the word. Basically, the idea is that everything that we see, experience, perceive, exists only through the filter of our own minds; nothing has an inherent existence without its relation to something else; without good there could be no bad, without many colors there could be no yellow. Because of this reasoning, we must understand that any attachment or aversion that we hold towards these pieces of the world is only a construct of our own minds as well. Thus, the emotional responses that we habitually fall into because of these attachments are aversions are in our own control. For example, using this thought process, if a person says something that I find irritating, I can recognize that the person is not inherently irritating, nor are the words inherently irritating, instead these "realities / irritations" are created by own mind alone, and through this knowledge I can avoid being irritated.  This simple shift in perception of reality puts a person in control of their own experiences and their own emotions, and gives one the full power to be happy.  Having this knowledge is the first step, now putting into to practice, against old habits, shared customs, ignorance is the hard part, and something I will struggle with until the day I die. 
Speaking of death, we talked about it a lot and even meditated on it, since Buddhist philosophy not only teaches emptiness it also teaches impermanence. The metaphor for it being a river.  From moment to moment, second to second, a river is always changing, not just the water but the animals, the trees, the world, and of course us. This constant changes means eventual death and is one of the easiest ways to gain an understanding of impermanence and our resistance to accepting it. Each second, we are getting closer to this moment and even though we all know it is going to happen to us all one day, we still tend to deny it. So we talked about it instead of leaving it down deep and had an amazing, yet heartbreaking, we at least for me, meditation about it. Again we all know we are going to die, but most of us don't know, unless the doctors give us an estimate, so the guided meditation instructor told us three weeks and walked us through the days, asking what we would do, who we would have to say goodbye to and the tears in the room started to flow.  I didn't cry for the physical things I would not have the chance to do since I have led an amazing life, but it did remind me I better keeping living each day the best I can and to the fullest. I did cry about the lost friends and the ones that deserve my forgiveness or I need to ask forgiveness of.  Mainly, I cried at the goodbyes not wanting them to happen, but knowing no matter what that someday they would have to happen. Facing this heartbreaking reality, through meditation, was a way to start conquering the fear of death (for me the goodbyes) and one of many tools that will help me be prepared for when they are certain to happen.  Crap, I'm crying now just as I reflect, so you can imagine a room full of people meditating on them, sounds of tears running and sniffles in every direction, which may sound strange and uncomfortable, but in fact was the opposite, because it reminded everyone you are not alone as we all face death and the things that come with it.  Another reason to be kind to those you love, those you hate, those who are strangers.  Also even in facing death there is a world going on around you that you can care for, so in this meditation not only we were facing our own impermanence and the worlds, we were able to help each other through it - you could feel the love and warmth in the room, which in turn made it a safe place to deal with even deeper things.  
Tantra in Buddhism is the combination of wisdom and compassion, which is exactly what we received with our teachers. Our very insightful dharma teacher (wisdom) was Venerable Tenzin Legtsok, who has a very interesting story on how he ended up finding Buddhism and deciding to be a monk. In a nut shell, he grew up Catholic going to Catholic schools in Vermont, to a mom who was working to become a nun and a father working to become a priest until the found each other and love and decided to marry instead of being ordained. In turn they had a son and daughter. The son, Brian, would question the idea of a creator God, fight cancer and some how end up in India finding the answers he searched for in Buddhism. He has been living and studying at Sera Monastery, and takes breaks to help others find answers by teaching at Tushita.  I wanted to hear more but decided my short time at Tushita was better spent focusing on self (aka why we took the vow of silence anyways).   Our meditation teacher (compassion) was Richard, a former yoga center owner and teacher from Holland now who volunteers, basically full time, at Tushita where he lives inside a gompa of all places.  Even with his dedication, I find it interesting that his guru (Buddhism teacher) advised him not to become a monk.  He was so kind and compassionate, and as you read before, led the group on some amazing meditations.  To my head he is a bit out there, but as life goes on I have been learning to believe in the maybes and more importantly not to dismiss someone's belief (unless they hurt them or someone else), especially since I might actually be the one who is wrong (kind of like, the majority of people thinking the world was flat for centuries).  They make him happy, so why not. 
Thinking about Richard and his thoughts on energy and spirits made me think of other things I used to close my mind off to but now think maybe.  Such as reincarnation, which is a big part of Buddhism and also Hinduism, and how both religions explain karma.  I believe in its existence because of one of the monks I taught English to being a reincarnation that has memories of his past life.  Hearing stories about him and seeing with my own eyes how age old wisdom would flash into his eyes, made be believe it was true for him and maybe others. Since I'm still wrapping my brain around it, I plan on reading Ian Stevenson's, a University of Vermont professor, "20 Cases Indicating Rebirth," to learn more.  I told my discussion group I believe that when we die we each make our own decision on where we end up, if we believe we are going to hell, we go to hell, if we believe we will be reincarnated as a hungry ghost we will be reborn as a hungry ghost, if we believe we end up as worm food and only have one chance then the circle of life it is for us.  The part I'm struggling with is for those who don't know, don't believe, which includes myself.  They joked I should start my own religion, I joked back my parents though I might be joining a cult by taking this class but in actuality they should be afraid I might be starting my own.  Another "maybe" I explored while in McLeod Ganj, was reiki (energy healing).  My classmate was taking courses and her teacher could fit me in before I had to hop on the night bus back to Delhi.  After the intense 10 days I thought this might help with the transition back to reality.  I have no idea if it helped or not, as it is hard to differentiate with all that I learned and the amazing full body massage I had for $10 after, all I know is that directly I didn't feel a thing. My friend assures it takes a few times to notice, which combined with my lack of belief might means it might take longer.  My western need for immediatance and the fact the same treatment back in the states is triple the cost has me thinking this one will always be a maybe.  Lastly one of my Tushita classmates, who throughout the course seemed the most dedicated to the Buddhist path, is a hypnotherapist.  I have seen the shows where people act like they are having babies, stripping every time they hear "I am sexy and I know it" and feeling like they are being tickled every time they are gently touched but always thought it was a elaborate entertainment hoax, until my new trusted friend explained and demonstrated on our fellow classmates.  Seeing him practice it and how they literally couldn't remember their name, become stiff as a board, and their reactions after the fact made me a believer and also a bit freaked out knowing it actually works...especially when another classmate blurted he wanted to know how to control people.  At least my new friend the hypnotist, assured me that he only works toward better the person he is hypnotizing.  I'm still not ready to try myself though, as I can still believe it will be hard for me to put under, one of the few benefits of me not being able to relax and let go. 
There are so many things that made an impression on me but the last one I want to be sure to mention was the affect of coming out of silence had on me. On our last day after our first meditation we no longer had to follow the rules, the only one some people seemed to stop following instantly was silence, which freaked me out, the easiest way to explain it is labelling it as culture shock. I wasn't ready for the idle chatter, to open my mind back to the reality outside Tushita, and having to decide when to talk/make noise again.  The weirdest thing was over the course of the day, during certain intervals I couldn't talk I could only cry, I was extremely overwhelmed.  I have stopped crying but feel like I have been a lot quieter since, which has been awesome as it is making me a better listener. I only hope it continues as I settle back in to my life.  
This blog is just one small drop out of the ocean of wisdom I  was granted over my time at Tushita. I came out of Tushita brimming with warmth, a sense of calmness, better able to focus on the present, and what my happiness, not society's or anyone else's looks like. I can only hope, I don't slip into my past bad behaviors and remain friends with the beautiful people I met.....this post is dedicated to you! 
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