Still in Delhi on the opening day of the third test, I thought, ‘why not?’, packed a bag, walked to Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium and approached the entry gate, where I experienced first hand, the ‘terror effect’. In light of the twin bombings in the city just one month earlier, items in my bag denied entry included my camera, a pen, a newspaper and book, a roll of toilet paper and indeed, the bag itself. I was beginning to wonder if my physical being would be permitted entry or if I would have to wait outside while mine along with 20,000 other souls enjoyed the game.
It was another relaxing day watching the Aussies get smashed, away from the hustle and bustle of the madness outside.
The following day was one that I had not been looking forward to, despite it marking my release from the grips of the filthy beast that is Delhi. I was to finally encounter the infamous Indian Railway Network by enduring its tracks for 18 hours across the country. The train was apparently not pulling a designated luggage carriage, so I was advised to simply take my bicycle in to my compartment with me. Having never seen the inside of an Indian train, I figured that if advised by the authorities, then this must be a plausible option.
When the train pulled in, a very slow moving, several hundred metre long queue was standing parallel to the tracks, to what end, I know not.
The first of several trips to my reserved seat with my bags was expectedly busy, but manageable. Then, as so often happens in India, chaos spontaneously broke out with everyone in the queue suddenly rushing the doors, carrying their sacks, suitcases, babies and God knows what else. I forced my way out, grabbed the King Brown, less wheels, and made a half-hearted surge into the crush of bodies, only to be pin-balled straight back to where I began. The snack-wallah on the platform looked at me and said one word; “Bihar.”
Bihar is the most impoverished state in India, meaning that everything related to it seems to be dirtier, more crowded and more desperate. It is also the state that my train happened to be traveling to.
The third-class sleeper carriage consisted of an aisle little more than half a metre wide, to the right of which were small compartments that seated six on the lower beds, three on three, knee to knee, while the middle bed at head height folded down at night. To the left were two more bunk beds and during those mad minutes, every space in between was filled with arms, legs, heads and torsos; crates, bags, sacks and boxes.
After my first failed attempt, I steeled myself, began chanting the mantra, “Gotta keep moving forward, gotta keep moving forward” and made a charge. Having at least one foot and twenty kilos on most of the rest of the mob certainly helped my cause. Carrying a bloody bicycle certainly did not. All around me, I could hear, “cycle, cycle, cycle,” proclaimed in disbelief. I myself could not believe what I was attempting to do, which was akin to carrying a bicycle through the mosh pit of a Rage Against The Machine concert in Mexico City.
At one point, I came face to face with a young man who was carrying a large sack on his head. We could not squeeze past one another and I had to forego my instinctive sense of civility and common courtesy, “Sorry mate, gotta keep moving forward.” He knew what was coming and showed a look of understanding before being barreled out of my way.
My ‘compartment mates’ greeted me with looks of horror. I shoved the King Brown between their knees as they squirmed out of the way. Two men started vigorously protesting in Hindi, while one did so in English, “You can’t…..,” “You can’t…..,” “You can’t…..” By now I was wired to the eyeballs – I was covered in sweat and still had two wheels on the platform that I had to retrieve before the train began rolling away.
Despite the noise of a thousand crazed Indians echoing throughout the carriage, it was these “can’ts” that were bombarding my head, suffocating it of the ability to think clearly. In a very un-vipassana moment, I snapped, “Will you just shut up for one minute?!”
I was taken aback by the calm, balanced, very vipassana-like response, “Ok.”
Had he shouted something back at me in anger, as would be the instinct of most, I would have rolled further in my aggression and that would have manifested itself as further verbal abuse that would have been met with more of the same and together we would have rolled further and further out of balance. Instead, I was overcome by a wave of calm that enabled us to work together in lifting the bike on to the upper bunk out of everyone’s way.
Aggression begets aggression. Calm begets calm.
In a single moment, I learnt so much from my friend’s, “Ok.”
As the train slowly chugged along and darkness fell, it became apparent that there were at least twice as many occupants in the carriage as beds and since the King Brown was comfortably stretched out on my bunk, I was one of the many bedless. Unable to curl up into a small enough ball and join the lumpy carpet of bodies that littered the floor, I sat at the end of a Chinese man’s bunk and prepared for a sleepless night. At about midnight however, one of my previously protesting compartment mates offered me the comfort of his bunk. I was not surprised in the least, for it is the kind of selfless generosity that I have come to expect from the Indians whose awareness of the wellbeing of others in times of need seems to be instinctive and it never fails to warm my heart. After a couple of hours, I surrendered the bed and slyly climbed in, head to toe, with his mate, who sleepily grunted and made room for me so that I was able to lie with one arm and one leg dangling over the edge of the bunk.
A few restless hours and a short cycle later and I arrived in the small town of Bodhgaya; perhaps the most important of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites. It was here that, 2,500 years ago, an emaciated Siddhartha Gautama, realising that starving one’s self is not conducive to achieving true happiness, indulged in a rejuvenating meal, sat beneath a great bodhi tree, a direct descendant of which flourishes at the Mahabodi Temple today, and vowed not to change his posture until he was fully liberated.
49 days later, he stood as Gautama Buddha.
What better place then, to strengthen my meditation, which had weakened during my tense days in Delhi, than the birthplace of the wonderful technique of vipassana. I made my way to Dhamma Bodhi on the opening day of a course with the intention of taking advantage of my ‘old student’ status by sitting for just a few days.
The first session that evening went well, as did the early morning session on Day 1 – I was relaxed and comfortable. After breakfast however, I was struck by a return of the intense pain in my knees. Unlike during my first course, this pain came on fast and sharp. One minute I would be cruising my way to enlightenment and the next, I would slam, knees first, into a brick wall embedded with nails and broken glass. I did not understand. I thought that I had passed this phase.
An experienced Austrian meditator who was in the process of deciding whether he will commit his entire life to the attainment of true peace and happiness for all beings by becoming a Buddhist monk, later explained it to me; since my first course, I had developed my equanimity, so that when I was submerged once again in an environment conducive to it, I was able to delve even deeper within myself, summoning the impurities at such depths to the surface. It made perfect sense, but at the time, I was trying to figure out what knots I could possibly have tied in the last two and a half weeks – an effort that is both futile and pointless – futile because there is no way of figuring out such a thing and pointless because even if there were, the solution is always the same; meditate. That is one of the great things about meditation; any problems that one encounters on the path are to be met with one, simple, universal solution; meditate further.
My Austrian friend would also later tell me that it is for this reason that it is dangerous to sit under course conditions for just a few days and by Day 2, I knew that I would be staying for the entire ten. I did not know why at the time, but it just would not have felt right to leave early. Like Goenka says; it would have been like leaving halfway through a surgical procedure with the wound still open.
I continued to battle through to Day 3 and on Day 4, I absolutely plummeted. I knew that things were bad when during one of the breaks, I wrote a song entitled ‘Fuck Vipassana.’ Included are a few verses for your pleasure;
Wanna hate, wanna lie
Smoke bongs ‘till the day I die
Wanna kill, wanna maim
Flush meditation down the drain
Wanna fuck, take ten girls to bed
Punch Goenka in the head
I wanted to act out every impurity of my mind and break all of my precepts, beginning with the big one of ‘Do Not Kill’ by plunging my snoring, coughing Indian roommates’ gag-inducing, stainless steel throat scraper through his skull.
I wanted to raid the kitchen and steal everything that was not rice, potatoes, cauliflower or dal.
I wanted to commit acts of ‘sexual misconduct’ with the cute Canadian sitting on the other side of the hall. Then with the pretty, long-haired dhamma server. And then with the solemn-faced, smooth-skinned, graceful Japanese girl. Or preferably with all three of them at the same time.
I wanted to skol a pint of vodka, punch a cone, drop a pinger and rack a line simultaneously.
I was down and out and wanted to self-destruct in a blaze of impurity.
Had I left the course on that day, I would have never meditated ever again, but it is with great pride that I awoke on Day 5, said to myself, ‘This is a new day and due to the law of impermanence, these are new legs, new body, new mind,’ and I went to work.
Unlike in Dharamkot, Dhamma Bodhi had a great stupa on its premises full of ‘meditation cells.’ When I first entered my assigned cell with its bare walls and only a small, round window linking me to the outside world, I laughed and thought, ‘Ok, now I’m definitely in a cult.’ Perhaps I am starting to live up to the name of ‘Hermie the Hermit’ that my sister cruely gave me because unlike several other meditators who were somewhat spooked by them, I came to love my cell of isolation. At 4:30am on Day 5, it is where my work began. It is where I truly began to realise the benefits of a balanced mind and those thoughts which are and are not conducive to such balance. Instead of using the breaks to fantasise about the Canadian across the hall or about what I was going to do upon my release, I used them to reflect on Goenka’s discourses or to dissect the experience of the previous session and the lessons within it, while always striving to maintain an awareness of the present.
As the days went on, I kept expecting to fall down again, but by continuing to work, I got stronger and stronger and traveled deeper and deeper on this amazing journey of self, mind and spirit.