A Birthday in Bodhgaya

From my journal, Nov. 24, 2016.

I am forty years old today, and here I am in Bodhgaya, the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It has a beautiful symmetry, I think: a marker at the mid-point of my life, honoring that which is most important to me, this ongoing inquiry into fundamental nature, into ultimate reality.

Recently Peggy Sensei asked if we (Zen Center of Denver members) would write a paragraph answering the question “How has Zen changed you?” And as it happens, in Varanasi someone asked much the same question in person. I explained how Zen had made me calmer, more aware, more centered, and how ultimately it was about seeing one’s connection to all things, and actually experiencing that connection in the moment.

It wasn’t terrible, as answers went, but afterward I felt dissatisfied. Because I don’t practice just to gain some balance. If that was all I sought, I could probably accomplish something similar by exercising for an hour a day; certainly that will improve your mood. No, I don’t practice to improve myself. Nor do I practice to obtain some experience, however grand. I practice to reach the root, to touch the firmament, to live beyond the reach of petty doubt.

And this is Zen’s great strength, this direct approach in addressing the roots of suffering and separation. It refuses to become lost in the leaves and branches; it moves straight down the trunk into the black earth.

“Wonder of wonders! From the very beginning all beings are by nature whole and complete.” The Buddha’s words, spoken in this very place, perhaps the most profound words ever spoken.

How have I changed? It isn’t necessarily much on the outside. I look much the same, I speak much the same, my mannerisms and even my faults are much the same. But these are only the outward appearance, the leaves and branches; it’s what lies at the root that is different.

This is hard to see in another. It takes real perception and insight. Often, we look at someone else and say, “Oh, it’s the same old John. He still curses like a sailor, and eats too much, and watches football on the weekends.” Because outward change is slow, we miss the inner transformation, which may happen in an instant.

And if you could stand in my shoes, you would see that I am irrevocably changed from when I was a teenager, before I began this practice. The difference lies not in a change of any habit, not in whether I watch television or not, eat meat or not, wear certain clothes, change my hairstyle, expand my vocabulary, gain a job or lose one, gain a partner or lose them, nor in any circumstance or condition; because all these are transient. It lies rather in the timeless, the unceasing, the limitless and vast, an understanding that reaches beyond the stars and down to the very core.

This is what Zen offers: a truth beyond the reach of opposites, of you and me, here and there, knowing and not knowing. It offers a certainty not found in words – including these – but only in reality itself. This is why Zen teachers so often seem to present such randomness: because they are guided by the reality of this moment, with all its particularities, and no other.

So forget what you think you know. True knowledge isn’t found by knowing. I’ll do the same, and tell you instead about this moment, this place and time:

This room is on the fourth floor of an out-of-the-way guest house in Bodhgaya, India. The concrete walls are painted the color of straw, and the floor is a dusty red. There is a desk, some shelves and a nightstand, all painted lavender. There is a flatscreen TV on the wall opposite the bed, its plug dangling because its status light was shining in my eyes at night.

There is a strong smell of indefinite origin, perhaps from the many cookfires outside, that reminds me of pot resin. On the wall, around the spiral of the light bulb, many small insects are gathering. I’m not sure what they are – some kind of aphid? – nor how they are finding their way inside. This reminds me to touch my neck, where a previously enormous mosquito bite is slowly subsiding.

Bodhgaya isn’t quiet; far from it. Just now an auto-rickshaw honks outside; two men are speaking in Hindi outside my door; some children are playing in the courtyard; someone is chopping vegetables in the rooftop restaurant, a hollow wooden rhythm; a dog barks; a door slams; a pot clangs; my pencil scratches on the page.

The place of enlightenment isn’t quiet. It is full of noise, cacophonous, complex. But none of this is a stumbling block; it is, just as it is, the living truth.

Now forget all this, crumple up the page, turn off the computer. Where are you now? What is this place? What’s really happening here?

Clean, quiet, beautiful

Things for which, on returning to Denver, I am newly grateful:

1. Air! Beautiful, crisp, clean, gorgeous mountain air! This sweet life-giving elixir, this ambrosial ether extending to the pure untarnished cerulean! Never again will I malign you. Denver’s intermittent “brown cloud”? Ha! Just a dash of lemon in a glass of spring water.

2. Speaking of water, water! When I got home my water filter pitcher was empty, so you know what I did? I turned on the tap, leaned over and just drank that shit. You know what? It tasted great!

3. Quiet! My god, how did I ever think traffic was noisy here? Walking down Colfax is like strolling through a damn park. Walking through Capitol Hill is like tip-toeing through a meditation hall.

4. My apartment! This place is a mansion! It’s got hot water, electricity, fast internet, windows and doors and everything. You know how many people out there can’t afford doors? A lot, it turns out.

And, of course, my own good health, family and friends, gainful employment, food in my belly, and the money and privilege to have made such a journey in the first place. Apologies if this amounts to the stereotypical “we’re so lucky” message, but really: We are.

The Ganges: River of Life and Death

On the ghat the bodies burn. It is an ancient, primeval scene, unchanged in its essence for millenia. On two concrete platforms, a smoke-blackened temple above them, five pyres burn in the late afternoon, their flames head-high. Periodically a near-naked figure, dark against the flames, will approach a pyre and vigorously wave a blanket or large fan at its side, stoking the fire, he himself, at this distance, looking bone-thin, a skeletal psychopomp attending his charges. Upon the steps to either side are laid more bodies awaiting this final transformation, wrapped in saffron shrouds and marigolds.

The cows seem to enjoy eating the flowers (discarded when the bodies are laid on their biers), and five or six browse idly on the ghat, along with a single stray goat, profoundly untroubled by reminders of mortality. The humans nearby, too, whether participants or spectators, seem imbued with a deep patience, the timelessness of the ritual communicating itself unspoken. The bodies will each burn in time; they cannot be hurried. On either side of the steps, piled high against the walls, and on boats near the shore, are enormous stacks of cut ironwood, awaiting more pyres, more bodies. The fires burn twenty-four hours a day, ceaselessly, day after day, night after night, century after century.

Evening approaches. Most of the dozens or hundreds of kites out earlier have been drawn in, but one fellow on a nearby boat still tends his, jerking rapidly on the line and then playing it out, the little diamond bobbing and darting directly above the ghat, entirely unheeded. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but periodically a tourist will anyway, to be reminded of the taboo with an unsurprised word from their guide. Our own guide taps at his cell phone in the forepeak, exchanging the occasional word with the boatman, who leans back on his elbows. The boat rocks as another vessel passes behind us, engine chuffing gutturally. The horizon fades to white in all directions, a haze enveloping the far shore of the floodplain, the reaches of the river, the irregular contours of temples, palaces and hotels upon the shore, the smoke overtaking the light. Finally’s it’s dark. Time to go.

Delhi: Step by Step

The best thing I’ve found in Delhi so far are my hosts here at Safe and Cozy Bed and Breakfast in Defence Colony. The B&B is family-run through AirBnB, and in fact has only one or two rooms, a true micro operation. The room itself is not too remarkable, but it is indeed safe and cozy, spacious and clean, with all the amenities you could ask for.

But the real treasure here is the family that runs it. Each morning I look forward to breakfast with Vinod, the retired father of the family, who has been the soul of hospitality, offering intelligent, congenial conversation, all kinds of information and advice on the city, and much practical assistance, such as providing me with a preloaded metro card for my use. His adult daughter, Vandana, who manages the online side of things, was also very proactive in arranging rides from the airport and warning me about the present currency crisis.

This latter was my overriding concern yesterday. Being forewarned that money from ATMs might not be readily accessible, I brought along a decent amount of American currency to exchange as necessary. Yesterday, though, I discovered that it wasn’t much help: all the foreign currency exchange places were also out of rupees.

Obviously this leaves me in a bad spot. This was further complicated when I found that my credit card was declined (after eating a rather expensive lunch on the notion that I could pay for it that way). The credit-card issue was easily resolved (though I did have to wait until night to call the bank, due to the time difference), but the cash issue isn’t going away until more money gets into distribution. Fortunately, Vinod has contacted his own currency-exchange guy, and it seems promising that today (Friday) I should hear back regarding it. I’m crossing my fingers.

My main outing for the day was to the Baha’i Lotus Temple, a remarkably shaped building in the form of an unfolding lotus, placed at the end of a large park. It was thronged with tourists, especially buses of schoolkids. Some of the older boys asked if they could take a selfie with me, in fact mobbed around me laughing while I stood there grinning foolishly. No worries, but what’s up with that, anyway? Is it like a joke?

 

Inside the temple was a vast open space, formed by a complex structure of interlocking arches. The Muslim-style prayers were very beautiful, the echoes seeming to ring endlessly.
After the aforementioned lunch, I returned to Safe and Cozy, and here jet lag caught up with me. I probably should have kept going through the afternoon – there are about a thousand other places to see – but with my cash running low, I gave into fatigue and slept.
This was probably a mistake, since it’s now 3 a.m. and here I sit writing, unable to sleep. Turns out jet lag’s a real thing.
Lastly, my phone seems to have contracted a virus, with Chrome periodically redirecting me to crap websites. Not sure how it happened, or necessarily how to get rid of it short of wiping the whole system, which I have no desire to do while travelling. Hopefully it isn’t stealing all my personal info too. :/
I head to Varanasi tomorrow night on the train. Hopefully as I go along these little problems will resolve themselves rather than worsen…

Delhi: All Kinds of Whelming

“New Delhi will overwhelm your senses!” all the guidebooks say. This is true. What they don’t say is that mostly it overwhelms you with incessant honking and the reek of urine.

God, the traffic! I thought Istanbul’s traffic was a little wild, but Delhi makes Istanbul look like Orderly City, Iowa. Complete chaos. Cars, autorickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, ox-drawn carts, guys on camels, all fighting for space in a single crazed vehicular melee extending past the horizon. I’m surprised the rickshaw drivers don’t put spikes on their wheels and saw blades on their fenders. Get properly Mad Max up in here.

As a pedestrian, you skirt along the edges of this madness, trusting in the ultimate goodness of the universe and trying to inure yourself to the horns blasting in your ear as drivers warn you that a single wrong move will leave you maimed. Really, the only reason there aren’t corpses lining the streets is that the density mostly prevents anyone from gathering too much speed. Mostly.

And the trash! Come on, India, pick up after yourself. Trash in every gutter and sidewalk, trash literally lining the street, trash piled right by the stairs to the metro, plastic bags, food scraps, dog shit, human shit, unidentifiable small animal remains, it’s all just left there. And the aforementioned urine stench, sometimes so strong you feel like you should be able to see it, distorting the air like faintly yellow gas fumes.

Guess what I’m trying to say is, it ain’t much of a city for pedestrians. That didn’t stop me from spending basically all of yesterday walking, because walking is what I like to do. I don’t think you can really get to know a city without first getting good and lost in it, and that’s just what I did.

First, though, I went by the New Delhi Railway Station to buy a ticket to Varanasi on Friday. I took the metro there, which unlike the chaos of the streets was fast and easy to understand. The B and B manager, Raju, walked me to the station himself (my hosts have been amazingly kind and helpful – more on that later). Finding the official Tourist Information Bureau at the station was an entirely different matter, and in fact I circled essentially the entire station before finally finding it. True to reports, some helpful individual did tell me that the bureau was closed, no doubt intending to direct me to some very helpful travel agency, but I ignored him and pressed on until I found it. This was the first of a long series of well-wishing souls seeking to hustle me into one place or another as the day went on.

I had hoped the bureau at least would accept a credit card, but no such luck, and there went another 1500 precious rupees. Meanwhile I had already seen, and would see more, of the long queues assembled at every functioning ATM and bank entrance.

Having obtained a train ticket, I started walking in the general direction of the Red Fort. I had no particular interest in the fort per se, but when you want to wander, one destination is as good as another. Periodically I would stop and look at my phone to be sure I was moving in the right general direction, and one of these times a helpful young man asked me where I was going. I told him and he pointed me in that direction. Fair enough.

For a while he walked beside me, explaining he was going to exchange some money somewhere and making conversation. Fair enough. Then he said goodbye, and I kept going. A few minutes later I was a bit startled to realize that he was there beside me again, when I thought he’d gone. Was he following me?

Maybe so, but soon enough he vanished for real. At another juncture I again checked my phone, and another helpful fellow again asked where I was going. He, however, discouraged me from going there, saying there were protests there right now and suggesting Connaught Place as a better destination. He also warned me about the touts, and that I shouldn’t take my phone out so much, because someone might steal it.

A few points here: first, I actually don’t think this guy was pushing anything. He really was just being helpful as he saw it. Which shows that there are two types of helpful fellows in Delhi: touts, and guys warning you about touts. Also, everyone kept telling me to not take out my phone too much, which is ridiculous, because everyone else was holding their phones all the time. Like, is a white person’s phone somehow more attractive than an Indian’s phone? Methinks not. Maybe the touts just didn’t want me actually consulting information on my own?

Also everyone wanted to ask about Donald Trump. God, that man is just fucking inescapable. But in a country with a huge Muslim population, the concern is entirely understandable.

I found Connaught Place to be… well, nothing much, really. A bunch of shopping, a whole lot of traffic. But I stopped somewhere for a lunch, pulling away from four child beggars yanking on my sleeves. Lunch was dal makhani and naan: delicious and very buttery.

More walking. Now I really did get lost. I found myself by an enormous Sikh temple, having headed in entirely the wrong direction. Giving up, I took an autorickshaw to Lodi Gardens, no doubt paying three times the regular price (but still only about two or three dollars US, so whatever).

Lodi Gardens was really the highlight of the day. In stark contrast to the hubbub and demands of the rest, the gardens were free, quiet and serene (although the mynahs could be pretty raucous). There were ruins of a mosque, five centuries old, and some very vocal green parakeets, and some random teenager asked to take his picture with me, for some reason. I found a bench and sat and breathed it in.

Delhi: First Impressions

I arrive in New Delhi around 9:00 p.m. I have been sitting on a second-rate 767 for the last fourteen hours, so I am glad to leave it. Customs is no big deal, as long as you have an Indian visa, and of course you do or they wouldn’t have let you get on the plane in the first place.

Outside customs is the first real challenge of the trip: obtaining money. At the beginning of November India demonetized its 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which is kind of like the U.S. saying that twenties and fifties are just paper now. So everyone now has to either deposit their cash in a bank, or exchange their old bills for new ones. This has understandably caused a run on bank machines, and most of the ATMs simply don’t have any money in them. Out of order. This is true of two of three ATMs at the airport; the sole remaining ATM, naturally, has a line around the block, so to speak, and a guard with an assault rifle standing beside it.

Fortunately, forewarned by my AirBnB host, I have come prepared with a bunch of American bills to exchange. After twenty-five minutes in line at the currency exchange place, I manage to get some money: $100 worth, or 6,000 rupees, which is the most they’ll hand out to one person at a time. Clearly this is going to be an ongoing issue.

Gandhi-faced bills in hand, I find the manager for the AirBnB waiting for me outside with a sign, and I follow him to a taxi. His name is Raju. He says his English isn’t very good, but it’s about a thousand times better than my Hindi, so English it is, and if you know the word for “farmer,” which he does, I’d say your language skills are in good shape. Raju is of medium height, round face, round build, short hair, mustache and stubble. The driver, whose name I don’t catch and whose face I don’t see until we arrive, has a turban and a beard and speaks no English. In any case, I am more than content to let conversation be and stare out the window.

So: Delhi. First, maybe you’ve heard that the air in Delhi is really bad right now. Like, some of the worst on planet Earth. And there is, in fact, a noticeable haze in the air, like a low-lying fog, except it’s not fog, it’s more like you’re sitting a little too close to a campfire that someone just threw a bunch of plastic bags into. Makes your throat a bit scratchy, after a while.

It probably doesn’t help the pollution that even at ten at night there are a great many cars out, about as many as Denver has during rush hour. (Denverites seriously have no idea how not bad their traffic is.) The taxi I’m in feels like it was built in China circa 1980 – just guessing here – with patterened tan seat covers made probably right here in India, circa 1985. True to mundus inversus British Empire form, the driver’s seated on the right side (i.e. the wrong side) of the vehicle.

Along with the usual sedans and whatnot – nearly all of Asian make, though – there are many more motorcycles and mopeds than in the U.S., driving with a commendably brazen disregard for the probability of crippling accidents. This likewise applies to bicyclists, and with such daily risking of life and limb one begins to see the need for religion. Lanes seem entirely nominal, like just a sort of suggestion that you should feel free to disregard, and there is the usual honking of horns to announce that all need beware, for death and injury are nigh. I also look with some delight at the auto-rickshaws, coneyances I have often heard mentioned but never seen with my own eyes, like something out a gritty noir alternate-reality story. Just one wheel in front! Ha!

There are few lawns, a good number of palm trees, shops close to the streets, plenty of signs of all types. And a surprising number of people about, mostly men, from what I saw. Men driving, men crossing the street in groups, men riding bicycles, lined up outside a bank (at 10 p.m.!), doing something at a juice stand. Do Indians just like to go out at night?

Finally we arrive at the bed and breakfast. I tip the driver too much and head upstairs with Raju. It is, of course, basically someone’s home: specifically, that of Vinod, who is there doing something in the kitchen, a tall gent whose white hair, spectacles, and neat clothing give him the distinguished air of a professor, which for all I know he is. I don’t really know the etiquette here, but I am happy enough to retreat to my room, which is perfectly nice in a dingy, dark, comfortable kind of way.

And here I sit still, typing this on my Bluetooth keyboard and tablet. With luck, I’ll even sleep a little, although I’m now a good twelve hours out of sync with Denver. Tomorrow my aim is to buy a train ticket to Varanasi for Friday. Hopefully I can pay for it with a credit card, because this cash ain’t gonna go far…

Vegetarian Food in Turkey: What to Expect

Being a vegetarian, I tried to do some research before traveling to Turkey regarding food. After all, food can be the deciding factor in choosing a destination and enjoying a trip. Most websites I found said that’s it’s easy to find vegetarian food in Turkey, and this is more or less true, but after reading such assurances we were surprised, on actually going there, by how limited our options were.

The first thing to understand is that Turkey has very few foreign restaurants. Nineteen out of twenty restaurants are Turkish, and even in sizable cities it can be hard to find non-Turkish food. There are a few Indian restaurants and a few Chinese restaurants, and you may want to seek them out if and when you want an alternative to the local cuisine. The rest of the time, you’ll be eating Turkish food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The second thing is that while there are lots and lots of Turkish restaurants, by and large they serve the same things. Walking around Sultanahmet, you’ll be approached by host after host asking you to look at their menu, but the fact is every menu is nearly the same. Turkish restaurants don’t go for culinary innovation. There’s no experimentation, no nouveau cuisine. Instead there’s the same vegetables in saffron sauce, the same pilav, prepared with small variations. Once you’ve eaten a dish at one restaurant, you have a good idea what to expect at the others.

Within these bounds, the food is generally well-prepared and flavorful. Turkish food heavily favors certain vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, and onions. Generally they do not use legumes in main dishes, so you’ll have to rely on eggs, cheese, mezes and soups if you want more protein.

While this is fine for ovo-lacto vegetarians, vegans face considerably greater challenges. Many dishes are cooked in butter and cream. The cold meze platter is safe enough for dinner, but breakfast especially offers few options beyond fruit and bread (if the bread is vegan). If you plan to make your own meals, choose your hostels carefully: most Turkish hostels don’t have kitchens, and ask that you not bring in outside food. If you have a private room, the last is easy to ignore, but Turkish markets also offer little in the way of healthy ready-to-eat items.

Anyway, here’s a detailed breakdown of vegetarian options:

Turkish breakfast

Breakfast: A buffet breakfast is included at virtually all Turkish hostels and hotels, so it’s a good opportunity to fill up early. The buffet will invariably include hard-boiled eggs, white bread, cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, olives, white cheese, fresh fruit (most often watermelon), butter, honey, çay (tea), and instant coffee. Usually there’s also yogurt. Additional items may include muesli, cereal, milk, croissants, various other cheeses, dried fruit, and sigara borek (rolled phyllo dough stuffed with feta and/or spinach).

Lunch: Lunch was a persistent challenge for us, partly because we didn’t know all our options. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money at restaurants, especially since we’d likely be eating at those same restaurants for dinner, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of other choices. For meat eaters, döner (shaved roasted meat in a pita) is ubiquitous and cheap, but there seemed to be no equivalent for vegetarians. At first, we mostly we either ate pide (melted cheese on a flat pita, essentially a Turkish pizza; actual pizza is also common), or found a local market and bought crackers and cheese.

Later, someone introduced us to cig köfte. Now, köfte is meatballs, so this was a little confusing for us: obviously we didn’t want meatballs. And reading online, it seemed cig köfte was a traditional dish of raw meatballs, so clearly we wanted that even less. However, in the last decades the raw-meat version of the dish has been outlawed for public health reasons, and it’s been replaced with a vegan substitute made of chickpeas or walnuts. There’s no meat involved whatsoever, and there are small fast-food joints that specialize in the dish. It’s also cheap, fast, and flavorful: the perfect thing for lunch when you’re out shopping or seeing the sights. Ask for a cig köfte durum, and you’ll get a tortilla wrap with walnut/chickpea paste, plentiful iceberg lettuce and/or arugula, spicy barbecue sauce and sweet pomegranate syrup (the sauces are optional but recommended).

Cig köfte durum

There are also two kinds of soup that became a staple for us, at lunch and dinner both. The first is mercimek çorbası, or lentil soup, a light soup of strained lentils served with lemon wedges and pita. It’s absolutely delicious, very reasonably priced, and provides the protein you’ll probably be craving. Be warned, however, that it is often made with chicken stock, so you may wish to ask before ordering.

In a similar vein is ezogelin, a red lentil and tomato soup seasoned with mint, again served with lemon and pita. This was one of our favorite dishes in Turkey, and perhaps the best lentil soup I’ve had anywhere.

Often we would order a soup with a green salad (yeşil salata), which varied far more than the soup. Always the salad would have cucumber and tomato (one time, only those), generally lettuce or arugula, sometimes green peppers and white onion.

Many cafes also advertise gözleme, which they describe as a “pancake.” Well, it’s not a pancake: it’s more like a crepe, with cheese and other fillings pressed between two thin layers of pastry. Turks often accompany it with ayran, a yogurt drink similar to kefir.

Supper:

Supper offers considerably more choices, with prices varying widely; restaurants outside tourist areas can be half the price of those inside. We’ll start with the cold meze (appetizer) platter, which is delicious and found at most every dinner restaurant. In general the meze platter is all vegetarian, but there may be a non-vegetarian platter available as well, so ask to be sure. The platter may include:

humus – simpler and less potent than its Middle Eastern versions
patlican salatası (eggplant salad) – mashed eggplant, similar to baba ganoush
saksuka – cubed eggplant with tomato sauce
cacık – yogurt with cucumber and fresh herbs
• ezme – spicy tomato salad
• roasted red pepper and walnut tapenade
• yogurt with roasted red pepper
• dolmas – grape leaves stuffed with rice
• olives
• pita or flatbread

Several hot vegetarian entrees are also common:

vegetable pilaf – rice and orzo with sauteed vegetables, typically some combination of bell peppers, carrots, eggplants, zucchini, green beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes
vegetables in saffron sauce – essentially the same vegetables as above, sauteed in a buttery saffron cream sauce and served with rice
• vegetable casserole – ditto, but with tomato sauce instead
vegetarian pastry – same vegetables, this time layered with cheese and thin hand-rolled dough (similar to crepes)
vegetable kebab (kebap) – just what it sounds like. Be warned, also, that an “eggplant kebab” may include pieces of sausage; ask when ordering.

Street food:
Most street food in Turkey is vegetarian. Common items include:

simit a bagel-like twisted bread covered in sesame seeds
mısır – corn on the cob
• roasted chestnuts

All considered, it’s true, it’s not difficult to be vegetarian in Turkey, although you might start craving broccoli or tofu after a while. As a side benefit, I found the Turkish diet remarkably easy on the digestion – nary a stomach ache in sight.