Sunday, October 9, 2011

To the Nameless

Songshan Tsu Huei Temple.
 Taipei, Taiwan

Words have lost their weight. They have come to seem so inadequate for anything I feel, anything I taste, anything I experience. They have always been my outlet for expression, the conduit of my creative flow, the way by which I could relate to the world around me; and the act of writing itself - my private sanctuary, my passage to healing and understanding. And yet after a month in Taiwan my journal, aside from one poem, remains empty…

There is some part of me that knows not to fear this. It is this same voice that tells me this loss of words is not a loss, that this emptiness is just a making way for something beyond words, beyond worlds.

I feel a fire in my heart, and it glows brighter now in the darkness of night. Dawn is just breaking on the horizon. Soon, I sense, the world will be ablaze.

This is the one poem on the first page of my patiently waiting journal.

To the Nameless,

I have lost words
Discovering worlds
That make this piece of paper and pen
Seem useless
Who are you?
What are you?
That which the poet cannot describe
The singer cannot sing
The scientist cannot comprehend
The painter cannot paint
You who exist only in Light
And are that Light.
I search for you
In everything, every time, everywhere
In the stillness of morning
In the silence of night
I hear the whisper of your sweet song
But what is sound
what is taste
what is form
what is matter
what am I
in the presence of your eternal bliss?
Take me there
Drown me in the ocean of your love
There are hearts burning with yours
I feel the heat of the fire
If only I could torch my ignorance to ash
and dance with you in the endless space of your Heavens
Would you let me in?

I am knocking. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Paint the world red.

Ni hao. 您好

For the Comparison Seminar I am currently attending in Taiwan, we were asked to somehow
document either one or many of the observations we have made throughout our time here in Taipei.
This is the result of that assignment.     
                                                                                         CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

Just beyond the district 
where your sickness can be cured, 
where remedies and the secret knowledge 
of wise old healers 
sit in porcelain jars on shelves

Not too far past the passageway
where giant snakes dance in cages
waiting for their burial
in the mound of your rice
And across the street from where the man
who lost his wife
and has always sat
bare-chested and tired
(of life & the noise of things)
chewing on the ends of
his cigarettes

There exists a maze of ancient alleyways
where feet have tread since the days of the 
great Qing Dynasty

I will take you

 Follow me as your eyes     
traverse the walls of aging brick

The strings of red lanterns

in the light of
the day's dying sun

the wooden doors bent by the secrets
they have
always held 

Take my hand
As we pass under the sacred arches


Into the smoke
of the temple's
burning incense

Sit with me and sip slowly 
the earthy 
Puerh Tea

Walk with me &

for a moment

can't you hear 
the mantras that are spilling forth
into the universe?

for a moment

can't you see the story 
unfolding right in front of
your eyes?
Discover the world
that has always been there

Taiwan will share its wisdom with you...

              All you have to do is ask.

Reading: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 

  // Check out a short video I made below //

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Namaste, America?

After two trips to and something like six months in Nepal, I find myself at the beginning of an end. Tomorrow I have to say goodbye to this country and start the two-day journey back to the America...

Nepal has truly become my home this past year, and the friends that I have made along the way, my family. This is not so surprising in a country where everyone calls each other dai (brother) or didi (sister) and – as if that weren’t beautiful enough – where the standard greeting is ‘Namaste’ (I greet the Divine inside of you). I have, throughout my time here, been taken in by two families who loved and cared for me as if I were their own. Their endless generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness and openness have, admittedly, brought me to tears on more than one occasion. The people of this country and their ceaseless kindness have left a lasting impact on my heart and restored within me faith in the human race.

This hospitality and the understanding that ‘everyone is family’ is something that is shared by all Nepalese people. Even out of Kathmandu and in the village, where people live in the most extreme and unimaginable depths of poverty and solitude, one would think this generosity would be lacking – but this is not the case, at all. This is a country where you can walk in to any home in any village and receive the warmest smile you’ve ever seen, a mat to sit on, a bed to sleep in, a cup of dud chiya (milk tea) and a plate of food. Given that I’m from a country where if you stand on someone’s front lawn or, God forbid, approach their front door, they’ll either reach for the shotgun or the phone to call the police, this was a hard concept to grasp at first. I seriously doubted that an entire country and people would be this open and giving to everyone, especially me, a foreigner. It has, however, been a very humbling experience realizing that I was, in fact, very wrong. Hospitality to this extent does actually still exist in this sometimes seemingly hopeless world, and it is coming from the heart of a country ranked 140 out of 169 in the UN Human Development index (quality of life, literacy, life expectancy, % living in poverty, etc.). 

To be parting from this culture, one that is as deeply spiritual and loving as it is disorganized and slow-paced, will undoubtedly be pretty rough. The chaotic, disorganized, polluted, lawlessness of Kathmandu, and the simple, organic, far-removed, beauty of Nepal village life, have become normal life for me. I speak far more Nepali in a day than I do English. I sleep soundly despite the incessant barking of dogs and honking of horns that play throughout the night. I watch Bollywood movies in Hindi as I used to MTV. I greet people with my hands clasped together at my heart. I sit peacefully on the bus even when I’m running an hour late for a work-related event because of a traffic jam caused by a goat falling off the top of a bus. I eat ‘dal bhaat’ (lentils and rice) twice a day, everyday, and I still love it. I don’t even notice that for 14 hours a day there is no electricity or that I haven’t had a truly hot shower since February... 

It's hard to imagine not being able to hop on a bus (painted with both the faces of Bob Marley, with an appropriate giant pot leaf next to it, and Lord Ganesh) and in a matter of hours be surrounded by the giant, snow-capped Himalayas. It is hard to imagine driving on roads (on the right side, for that matter) without tuk tuks, rickshas, microbuses, fruit sellers, Sadhus begging alms, shrines of worship, old men hocking loogies on the sidewalk, rabid dogs, forgotten shoes, piles of burning trash, monkeys, Lepers, old women charring corn over a fire, homeless children begging – literally, anything. It is hard for me to imagine guaranteed hot showers (what?) and electricity that isn’t shut off for 14 hours a day (what?) and washing machines and dryers and microwaves and shiny cars on paved roads and bathrooms with actual Western toilets and toilet paper and supermarkets filled with things, things, so many things. It’s hard to imagine going back to a country where it’s not OK to tie goats and chickens to the roof of your car, or fit 30 into a microbus made for 10, or fit a family of 4 – and a goat - on a moped, or hand babies through car windows, or drink roxy (local alcohol) with the man driving your bus. It’s hard to imagine a country without daily pujas. Its hard to imagine not being able to go to Boudha and do kora around the stupa spinning prayer wheels with ancient-looking Tibetans and monks...

Nepal, this tiny little backward and underdeveloped country, sandwiched between giant India and giant China, has never ceased to humor, amaze and inspire me. During a time of confusion and uncertainty in my life, this country showed me a path. When I thought I was forever lost in the darkness of myself, this country showered me in its light. In moments of lethargy, this country reminded me of the miraculous beauty of this world and its adventures. Where I once saw chaos, this country showed me peace...This tiny little backward and underdeveloped country has been my greatest teacher. The lessons it has instilled upon me are grand and priceless, and there are many. For every moment, every lesson, every friendship, every single thing, I am forever grateful.

And so, I must say goodbye to beautiful, wild, spiritual Nepal, to my friends and family, to the smiling faces I will never forget nor tire of seeing, and head back to America. But, as I was reminded of recently in an e-mail...“During our lives we are only temporary visitors in different places of the world”. On to the next adventure...

Namaste, ramro sanga jaanus (go with the good) 
& so much love to all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Bodies burn on cremation ghats
Just a few miles away from where I now sit lies one of the most sacred Hindu temples in the world, a temple of Lord Shiva, called Pashupatinath. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world make the journey to pay homage to this temple and bathe in the Holy waters of the Bagmati River, beside which it rests. It is here in this sacred area that one can find dreadlocked Sadhus smoking 'chillums' in the doorways of their caves. It is here in this sacred area that one can find Babas roaming the alleyways between giant shrines, thumbing the beads of their malas. And it is here in Pashupatinath where bodies are always burning. 

Boys drag coffin, man tends to the fire
I wrote the poem below as I sat on the banks of the Bagmati, who's flow eventually reaches the Mother Ganges, while watching four bodies turn from what was once a mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter, into a pile of ash. At one of the ghats, a funeral had just begun and I watched as all the rituals were carried out. I watched as the female's body was placed atop the wood pile by wailing family members. I watched as all of her clothes, all of the flower garlands around her neck, were removed and thrown into the river. I watched as flames gathered and soon engulfed her body. I listened to the sound of her head exploding from the pressure of the brain boiling...I watched as young children played and splashed in the river's water, where ashes were falling like waterfalls from the platforms. I watched as teenage boys waded up the river, dragging behind them uncovered coffins. 

Boy plays as offerings from the funeral float by
What a place this is, I thought to myself as I sat alone, silently observing. In the midst of the thick fog of burning bodies - Sadhus smoking weed and playing drums, Babas meditating and practicing yoga in their caves, monkeys climbing on top of shrines and stealing food from vendors...In the East, this is everyday life. Death is real, it is inevitable, it is not overwhelmingly sad - it is a intrinsic part of life. The Sadhus, the Babas and the pilgrims come there because it is a sacred place that fuels their meditation and their practice, because death is as alive as anything else there, because in facing death we face life. This is something that I've come to understand living in the East and studying it's philosophy. It took time to become comfortable with it, however, for in the West death is taboo, it is feared, it is the cessation of life forever...It's amazing how differently two cultures, two human beings, can view such a great phenomena as death, and therefore life. This is the beauty of traveling and experiencing the world...

Family members lower body onto pile of wood

As Pico Iyer said, "...The first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle...The sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal."
Namaste and love to all.

If I asked you what Death looks like,
Could you tell me?
If I asked you what Death smells like,
Could you tell me?
If I told you that Death has a sound,
Would you believe me?
If I told you that Death is nothing at all,
Would you believe me?

Can you smell their bodies burning?
Can you bear their weight as you breathe them in?
Can you hear their silent weeping?
Can you feel the wet of their tears on your lips?
Can you sense their spirits rising in the gathering wind?
Can you trace the route of their belongings down the sacred river?
Can you read their histories in the creases of the river’s Holy water?
Can you see the young boys splashing in the ashes?
Can you meditate on the gathering flames?
Can you taste the pain brewing in their hearts?
Can you listen to the sound of brains exploding?

Could you watch as the young boy cradles the lifeless body of his mother?
Could you stand as she is lowered onto a stack of wood?
Could you bear witness to the end of a life,
the loss of a mother, daughter, sister, lover?
Could you walk away from it all and go back to your day, just as it was?
Could you sleep with the smell of burning bodies in your hair?
Would you forget about the boy?


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mountain Dweller


There are many recluses who live in the solitude of the vast Himalayan wilderness. For centuries, the mountain range has acted as a home for pilgrims and spiritual seekers of all backgrounds and practices. Its pathways and its caves have been graced with the presence of some of the most highly realized human beings to have walked this Earth. At this very moment, there are human beings surviving in the most hostile of environments, wholly consumed in a deeply meditative state, one beyond our lay people’s comprehension. On the Nepal Himalaya side there exists an ethnic group of mountain dwellers known as Shamans, or jhankaris. It is believed that Lord Shiva brought the path of the Shaman, the path of love, to this world. Through ritual and trance, Shamanas are able to invoke spirits and traverse their ancestral roots in order to heal diseases of a spiritual nature. It is a difficult life of solitude and survival, however, and only very few are called upon to follow the Shamanistic path. When trekking in the Himalayas, one is sometimes fortunate enough to cross paths with these wandering recluses. It was on a month-long trek this past winter to the base camp of the 3rd highest peak in the world, Mt. Kanchenjunga, that we stumbled upon a very, very special Shaman. What I witnessed and experienced that night I remember with vivid clarity.  The knowledge of this particular Shaman penetrated far deeper than I ever could have imagined, and in the reading that he gave me he was able to call upon certain intimate aspects and afflictions of my life that only a man of a heightened mental and metaphysical capacity could see. The results of my reading are trivial compared to the moments that preceded them. What amazed me most was the sheer power that a single human being possessed - a human so far removed from society, modernization and civilization. His intentions were genuine, he sought no fame or money or praise. We just happened to have set up camp in the backyard of the home that was built for him to live in whenever he emerges from the mountains to heal. It is moments like this one why I am so utterly captivated by this country, why I have fallen so hopelessly in love with a land and it’s people...

I have no pictures of the Shaman or his home, but below are pictures of some other ascetic beings that I have crossed paths with on my journey...

Sitaram Baba & his disciple in their cave

‘The mountains are my playground; the herbs are my tools.’

In a small, far-removed village of the Himalayan foothills lays a home made of mud and stone. It is in this home that a man who does not know his age lives. His skin is the color of chestnuts; deep creases fold along it like soft ripples expanding on the surface of a lake suddenly moved by a gentle wind - the fabric of time. It is as if hidden in those creases lay the secrets of the Earth’s history, of the constellations, of your own life.  His eyes are made of only one color, the black emptiness of outer space.  When you look into them, it is as if you are staring into an entirely other world, an infinite vacuum where time and sound cease to exist. It is here, in their endless capacity that that the lineages of all sentient beings can be read in the roots of the tree that only he knows and sees. His hair is the color of his eyes, black, draping upon his broad shoulders like the cloak of night. His hands are thick and strong; it is in them that the wisdom of ancient civilizations long forgotten is held.  He does not wear shoes. In the village, he adorns simple clothes, worn with dirt and many years of use.  Though you will not find him there often. If you are looking to meet him, that is simply for the planets to decide. For this home is merely the resting place of a mountain dweller, a man who lives amongst the forest, who speaks in tongues, who transcends the boundaries of the material world, who emerges only from the wilderness when he is called upon to heal. He is a doctor, a master of herbs, a reader of histories, a sewer of tattered consciousness, a scholar of planets not visible through the lens of any telescope. He is a Shaman.
Village settling (14,000ft) at the base of Manaslu
It was after three days of walking that we came upon the village. The chill of evening in the lower Himalaya began to creep its way underneath the layers of our clothes. Clouds gathered and hovered like halos over the snow-covered mountain peaks as the day melted into twilight. We sought refuge from the imminent cold and rest for our tired limbs on a small field of grass. Barefoot children with faces encrusted in a layer dirt and snot gathered at a safe distance to watch as the strange group of foreigners set up camp in their village.  Old men and women, their backs bent with heavy loads of food for their animals, fertilizer for their fields, passed by slowly and unnoticing.  The owner of the home beside our camp opened up his home to our group for cooking and soon the saffron glow of a fire illuminated the edges of the kitchen’s windows; smells of daal bhaat seeped out into the valley.
I emerged from my tent only to find an entirely different world existing than the one I had left upon going inside. It was as if someone had changed the backdrop while I wasn’t looking; the whole world seemed to be hushed under the cover of night. A brilliant display of stars shone above overhead. The silence was almost deafening, so consuming that it seemed as though all the elements of the valley - the jagged rock walls, the fields of green, the rolling hills spotted with wild flowers, the flowing river’s water – existed in a time and space of their own. It is the silence in which every sound and movement has been contained for millennia - the silence of snow and rock and water. I felt weak in its grasp and found a sitting place on a large rock overlooking the valley. I folded into the lotus position, rested my hands in mudra, and filled my lungs to their capacity with the crisp mountain air. Eyes lowered, I turned inward and meditated on the vulnerability of human beings in the presence of Mother Nature. Soon it was time for dinner and I was called into the home of our neighbor. I bowed in gratitude to the Holy Himalayas, ending my meditation.  The magic of night had only just begun to show its face.
It was late when dinner was finished. An elderly woman led us up a steep wooden ladder into a small room at the corner of the house. Once inside the closet-sized room, I noticed the air contained within its mud walls felt different; a curious energy loomed, its presence so apparent that I felt as though I could reach out and touch it.  At the front stood an extravagant shrine – unmistakably, the shrine of a Shaman. Atop its base platform were golden bowls that looked as if they had been made thousands of years ago. Petals of red and yellow flowers filled them, amongst which sticks of incense were stuck and lit - the curve of their smoke twirling upward effortlessly to the ceiling. Metal tridents towered proudly over an array of animal bones and wooden carvings. The faces of the carvings looked contorted, tortured, and inhuman. Drums leaned against the surrounding wall; grains of rice scattered the area like fallen flakes of snow. Overhead hung an array of giant malas, their beads separated into sections by bells and the horns and teeth of large animals. A mala made solely of vertebrae hung amongst the others. 

The focus and energy of the room shifted abruptly as an eccentric looking man entered and made his way to the shrine. An indescribable force seemed to have suddenly gripped every soul in the room. Behind the man a young girl, no more than sixteen, followed him inconspicuously. Behind her, two men followed. Silence reigned.

The man who first entered, clearly the Shaman whom we’d been brought to see, sat just in front of me. Legs crossed and back erect, he gazed out onto the small gathering of people. His voice, earthy, smooth and unmistakable, broke the silence. Sweta translated.
Sadhu in his cave, Pashupatinath

“The mountains are my playground, the herbs are my tools.”

His hands moved as he spoke. They seemed to navigate magically from one place to the next with no movement or effort in between.

“I am a doctor of a different kind. I am a healer. The elements of this Earth are my medicine, the knowledge of which has been bestowed upon me by my ancestors. I will give a reading to whoever in this room wishes to receive one. If so, please come and sit before me.” I, and four others sat in a semi-circle in front of the Shaman, the girl, the two men, and the shrine.

“Please no one speak until the ritual is completed. If anyone is unsure of their presence here, please leave now.”

The crowd grew smaller; still, no one had said a word. A feeling of fear began to take rise in the pit of my stomach – fear of the power that this man sitting before me so clearly and gracefully possessed. My heart pounded with a fierce intensity in my chest, so loudly I was sure everyone in the room could hear it. 

Placing a handful of rice in the palms of the five of our hands, the Shaman then turned his back to face the shrine. The young girl began twisting threads of yarn and dipping them into oil.  A plate of offerings consisting of rice, flower petals, thread, incense, a small sum of rupees and tikka was prepared and placed at the front center of the shrine. Drums were taken into position.  Chants began to spill from the Shaman’s lips. In his native tongue he sang so beautifully that every word and sound seemed to penetrate the skin. Malas were strapped around the Shaman’s body as he chanted, meeting in an “X” at his back and chest, as if amour. With his hands he pounded on the skin of his drum in precise rhythm. The young girl joined in on the drumming. His chants grew fiercer, they’re drumming faster and louder; their entire bodies shook as they sunk deeper into their ritual. From his seat on the floor, the Shaman was soon leaping at least six inches off the ground, his body wholly consumed in a Divine hysteria. The bells of the malas trembled and vibrated. The entire room shook with force. Chants spewed from the wells of his lungs with breathtaking intensity, beads of sweat seeped from his every pore. The objects of the shrine seemed to have come alive in the presence of his invasive energy. This went on for some time, only gaining momentum until, at the peak of their hysteria, both the Shaman and the young girl slipped into trance. Their heads fell backward, as if their necks had simply given way to the weight of their skulls. Their eyes rolled back along with it and lodged themselves in the pits of their skulls. Their mouths fell open. The yarn was ignited by the two men, and dropped one after another into the mouths of the young girl and Shaman. Still wholly intoxicated in trance, their expressions remained fixed and unchanged as fire blazed and then died on the surface of their tongues.  Suddenly, I felt as if my face was being pierced by hundreds of tiny needles. In the midst of the noise and trembling, I realized one of the men was lashing the offering rice at the five of our faces. He went back to join the chanting, so passionately that the blue of his veins protruded out from his neck.

I lost all conception of time and reality in that room. I would guess that the entire ritual lasted for roughly forty-five minutes. Everything about this man shook the very core of the Earth, shook the very core of my soul.  I could have sworn that the sky would break open at any moment, that the mountains would crumble and disintegrate into piles of ash right then and there. There were moments during the ritual when I was so wholly overwhelmed with sensation that I thought I would break down in tears. My entire being was simultaneously consumed in both amazement and terror, never had I stood witness to a human being so powerful. The sheer energy of the ritual, the energy that poured from the Shaman, drowned the room and everyone in it. It seized my mind and washed away any grasp on reality that I had. At one point, I was compelled to bring my fingers to my face - I had to make sure that I still existed, that I still possessed form, that I hadn’t been swallowed up and forever lost in the empty vacuum of space.

The Shaman and the girl eventually fell out of trance. I watched as they came-to. The shaking of their bodies slowed and then stilled. Their eye’s seemed to clear and refocus. I sensed as though they were taking the time to carefully step back from one realm of reality into the reality where the room and I existed. It was minutes before the Shaman’s breathing slowed and the sweat disappeared from his face. He turned to face me. It felt as though I was facing a different person than before. He seemed weightless, as if he took up no space at all. An aura of pure serenity now radiated from him. In its glowing presence all of my fear and anxiety disintegrated as quickly as it had come on. I felt as if I would simply melt into a puddle of liquid right there and seep into the cracks of the mud floor and disappear forever. It was then that I first gazed into those inhuman eyes. Once he had locked my eyes in the pathway of his stare, no amount of effort could have moved them.  I wouldn’t have cared if he had locked me inside them and thrown away the key. In that moment, I completely and totally surrendered to his Divine power. He took my hand in his. Gently, the Shaman dragged his index finger along the routes of the creases of my palm. He studied them for a moment, as if reading a complicated text. He then raised his hands and gently held the sides of my head, his thumbs resting on each of my temples. Minutes went by in this way; I had long ago lost all awareness of anyone else in the room, anything but that man’s face and those eyes. Then, having extracted whatever it was that he sought for my reading, his voice - earthy, smooth and unmistakable - once again shattered the silence.
In a small, far-removed village of the Himalayan foothills lays a home made of mud and stone.  It is in this home that a very special man lives. He is a Shaman. His skin is the color of chestnuts, and if you are looking to meet him, well, that is for the planets to decide.



Listening to:jj - 'My Way' 

Reading:Journey to Ladakh by Andrew Harvey
A Walk With Four Spiritual Guides: Krishna, Buddha, Jesus & Ramakrishna by Andrew Harvey

Check out the Sadhu's dreads coming out the door on the left........