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Understanding the Stories

Illiciting intense emotions, the negative always supercedes the positive in my memory, pulling raw at the mind and drawing up the darker sides of humanity. The truth is that every challenging story from India was leveraged by a deep positive, as every harassing man was tempered by the encircling protection of women. India, in my experience, is a land of extremes: an ancient civilization embodying the human story. One of the oldest living cities on earth coexisting with progressive technology, rampant cruelty and indifference matched by truly genuine human connection and potential. To stand outside in judgment is dangerous, indicative of a divided perspective on the global community. If Earth were a single organism, then India marks the development of its human aspect. To see its violence and slf-destruction is to contemplate the dangers that humanity lays against itself — our indifference towards the earth, to our slow and unnecessarily-advancing death. To witness the fear, the seeming social decline, the brutality, must be tempered by realizing that aggression is learned, gender dynamics constructed and perpetuated, economic strife the result of unhealthy economic structures. To abandon it is to forget our united desire for life. The privileged, local or global, can choose to withdraw entirely or to engage, learn, grow, and empower others.

To travel there is to be challenged into becoming the best and worst of yourself, to crack open and gaze into the misery and ecstasy of what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, an education in humanity.

To the End

Oct 17. I reached out to friends in India, telling the Avila Guest House story. The exposure to harassment and staring dulled my ability to distinguish it from the general melee — their shock startled me.

The lore of the southernmost point of the subcontinent, the place where three seas meet, inspired most of this journey; it is the reason that I decided to come south at all, which produced the more troubling stories that have increased concern in family and friends back home. It has a beach town feel with many Indian tourists, and I am soon immersed in why I have come.

Salty water swells into waves that burst onto the rocks in a cascading drama. With nothing to break or shape them, they descend untempered at sizes that I have never seen in my life. Delineation between official bodies of water breaks down, and I imagine them slamming together to create such enormous waves. Staring into the distance, I remember my childhood, when we would stand on the Atlantic coast and point straight out to sea, shouting “Ireland is that way!”

I find a spot away from the jostling crowds that laugh at the young men who are willing (or reckless enough) to swim. The occasional tourist climbs down the same staircase to snap a photo of the nearby islands’ statues and temples, but I sit quietly, simply gazing at the moving water.

Everything was worth it, and anything that comes after this moment will be worth it.

The goddess Kanya Devi is said to have come to this spot to bathe herself in the waters, in preparation for her oath and battle. The temple here focuses on her declaration of virginity as a sacrifice for Shiva; only Hindus are allowed inside, and when I first felt drawn to this place, the plan was to talk my way in.

But I see how they focus on her “honor” and forget that she took such oaths, shedding distractions and obligations to prepare for a battle with a demon, which she defeats to save Shiva. Not quite the classic chaste woman waiting demurely at home. People focus on what they need, but going to the temple to connect with the story no longer makes sense to me. So instead, I climb over and down to a greater stretch of beach mixed with rock for unmediated access.

On a low expanse of boulder, with India at my back and the rhythmically crashing water striving for my feet, I think about the symbolism of her actions: peeling away commitments and dedicating herself, setting out for a challenging task that, if overcome, will bring great benefit.

I wet my hands, face, feet in the water, taste the touch of salt on my lips, and send out a prayer. Deep gratitude and connection. It feels like something has concluded, although it can only be the completion of a beginning.

Just Down the Hill

This morning, a Buddhist nun, originally from Germany, led me down a shortcut to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

I met her behind a car that was stuck in the rubble of the cracking road; we had both offered to push. Must have been startling for the two Indian men – suddenly finding themselves next to a young woman from the United States and a previously-German Buddhist nun in her saffron robes attempting to fight gravity and pebbles sliding underfoot.

She took off down the mountain at a quick pace, perhaps some combination of German upbringing and Buddhist purpose. I caught up with her, asking if she was going to the dharma class at the Library. It had already been quite a hike down the steep road from the main part of McLeodganj; I knew it was halfway down the mountain, but I had not fully realized how far. Students in this class walk it every day.

We set out down a stone steps laid into the side of the mountain, an apparently faster route. Concerned about tripping over my feet and knocking a Buddhist nun down three flights of stairs, my focus narrowed to the width of a single stepping stone. The stairs led us to a complex of houses, the nun briskly moving up and down more wet concrete staircases, around corners, my eyes still focused on her swishing red hem and sneakers. As we popped out onto a slippery stone courtyard, she said “That was easy!” as I staggered up behind her.

The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is exactly what you want it to be: simple but gorgeous stone, brightly painted wooden eaves and an elaborately detailed entrance-way not overpowering its elegance. Rather than walking directly to the classroom, we turned left, moving clockwise around the building holding sacred texts – this, as I understand it, is called korma, and when done mindfully has as much merit as if you read all of the texts inside. Same reason that people spin prayer wheels.

A mix of Westerners and Tibetans were milling around outside and in the classroom. I joined the nun after removing my shoes, followed her advice on etiquette, and summarily botched the genuflections made when the teacher entered the room. Wise elders are revered more than any statue or image as the embodiment of Buddha. I chanted as best as I could, tried not to wiggle too much on my little mat (even though I was lucky enough to get one against the wall), and listened to the lecture.

Afterwards, alone, climbing the winding road back up the mountain in the reasonably-light rain (for the monsoon), every empty taxi honked and waved at me – why on earth would someone get soaked walking up that awful road if they could afford a lift?

But philosophy cannot remain trapped in a classroom, it must breathe throughout the mountain and in life.

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