India: a Meditation on Living and Dying

Presidio Cemetery

Christmas 2007.

It is morning in Mamallapuram, a small coastal town 40 minutes south of Chennai in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This morning, as I do each morning, I walk along the beach before the cafes open, watching the waves there mass and roll and break into hissing white foam gilded by the blinding horizontal sun. And this morning, as happens every morning that I walk here, I pass the dead dog lying at the edge of the surf.

The first day it was lying on its side, in the little depression in the sand its body made, and bloating, with a weird mortal pathetic snarl and its piebald skin all wet as the water would shush up around it and then wash back. There was a family bathing in the sea maybe ten meters away, either oblivious to the dead dog slowly rotting on the beach or unconcerned by it.

A day later, running in the sunrise along the beach, I see that the dog has been pushed up by the last night’s tide and now lies on its stomach, muzzle buried in the sand as if it were very tired. I am surprised to see that its eyes are still there, looking all mucid and cloudy as a couple of crows hop around the carcass, pecking at it in the sharp, spasmodic way crows do.

Everywhere around the fishermen are gathering and mending their nets before they set out for the day, laughing and talking beside the colorful little boats that cluster on the shore, totally uninterested in the body of the dog which is lying there mere feet away from them, and sadly bloating.

There is something about this business of the dog that fascinates me, something about how naturally it is regarded, lying there rotting comfortably on a tourist beach and nobody batting an eye. Each day as it lies there people splash in the surf nearby – children laughing, families on holiday – and yet still the dog remains, looking so sad with its muzzle pushed into the sand and its empty eyes.

It seems a strange and vivid thing to my American sensibilities, which scream that death must be kept apart, and sterilized, not left here to contaminate the living with its bleak reminders. But here on the shore in this tiny town in Tamil Nadu the dog lies undisturbed. Nobody denies it, and no one has asked that it be removed from view. And if the dog is a stark reminder of the reality of death, it is a reminder that has been stripped of its capacity to startle.

As the legend goes, Buddhism itself began here, in India, as a flight from the ever-present reality of death. The story is well known: a prince outside his palace cloister in what is now southern Nepal happens upon an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and afflicted by these revelations of morality sets out across the eastern Indo-Gangetic plain, through the wilderness and patchwork city-states of ancient India. For years the historical Buddha wandered and practiced austerities, seeking liberation from the sickness, suffering and death of the human body. And while it’s well known that his travels eventually led him to Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon of Buddhist law, it is the where of Sarnath that usually escapes notice.

Just miles from one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, Sarnath was (and still is) little more than a morning’s walk from the city known today as Varanasi, and in the Buddha’s day as the eponymous capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. So when the Buddha opened his mouth to preach the first words of Buddhist dharma, it did not happen in isolation, static as a museum frieze, but in fact a mere stone’s throw from what was already one of the most important religious centers of the ancient world.

People came to Kashi to die. For Hindus, Kashi (the city of the great god Shiva) was synonymous with liberation, and dying within its precincts conferred upon them absolute moksha – a final release from the cycles of living and dying. The dead were burned there on the west bank of the Ganges in the final Hindu rites, consumed by flames said to have already been burning for a thousand years. Those riverbanks were the heart of a thriving city with a great economy of death, a place permeated (and made rich) by mortality.

Hinduism, though, mediated its liberation through a vast priestly caste, the Brahmins, and all such priestly classes exacted a price. Poor and surrounded by the immense mortality of the city of Kashi, it is easy to imagine how compelling the Buddha’s egalitarian gospel of bodily liberation must have been to people living in that time and place in the world, their death plain all around them.

Today in Varanasi, more than 2000 years later, scales at the Ganges riverside still measure out the weight of wood to fuel the cremations, every last bite of flesh exactly paid for. Standing there myself on a late December morning in 2007, breathing in the smell of smoke with the heat of the cremation fires on my face, I can imagine a figure – the Buddha – cut out of the indistinct shapes the mind makes of legend, watching as I do a raw red foot tumble out of the fire, charred bone at its edges, to be tipped by outcastes back into the flames; watching, without romance and without mystery, what becomes of what is human.

There is though perhaps another lesson to be found here, in this impermanence without romance, in the candidness of human perishing. Here on the banks of the same grey Ganges, the ash from the burning dead settles on my jacket and on the bare brown shoulders and shorn heads of the Brahmins. It settles in the hair of the indifferent boys talking on mobile phones and drifts over the kettles and the tiny earthenware cups of the chai vendors and up into the air above the city. That air is alive already this day with a hundred paper kites, their orange and red and blue paper rustling as they dive and swoop and dip above the boxy rooftops.

Below in the narrow streets, the dead are borne on bamboo litters in shrouds of gold and white fabric, and draped in garlands of marigolds. The processions with the dead pass by and the living move aside, and when the dead have passed, the living go on living – buying fruit or cigarettes, pursuing tourists, and doing wash.

And no one, I realize looking around me, no one is looking for death as an excuse here, because death in this place is never far away. There on the ghats with the smell of burning filling my head I close my eyes and feel the sense of life swelling within me to unbearable fullness.

Within the fullness rests a simple truth: My life will end, incomplete, and that ending makes the incompleteness precious.

In the middle of that imperfect life, lived like all others in equal parts futility and beauty, I open my eyes and thru the tears see the heat-lines from the funeral fires make distorted shapes of the boats floating on the slack grey water of the Ganga.

There is only so much time.

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Hard Travel to Special Places

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A general fact of travel worth considering: Anywhere worth getting to, takes getting to.

Many of my favorite spots in the world are on the way to nowhere, and so are most often overlooked. I hope that the spots below will inspire you to stretch out a little and make your own discoveries beyond the guidebook highlights page.

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  • Muang Ngoi, Laos. Bombed by the United States twice a day for four years during the “Secret War” spilling over from Vietnam, this riverside town, ringed by emerald rice paddies and dramatic karst limestone peaks and caves, is the essence of laid-back graciousness. Though often compared to Vang Vienne — today infamous as a riotous party centre  — the feel of the town is decidedly sleepy, and you won’t find 19 year-old Danish backpackers doing body shots here. Simplest explanation? There are, as yet, no roads to Muang Ngoi, which requires a journey of more than an hour up or downriver to reach.

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  • Tofo, Mozambique. Though it might be flooded with South Africans around the New Year, the beach town of Tofo near Inhambane in the south of the country is a far cry from popular beach spots like Bali and Phuket. There are no beach resorts, no high rises, and very little in the way of a developed ‘tourist’ culture. Instead what you get is miles of wide, empty beaches made of white sand so fine it squeaks between your toes, bookended by a sapphire Indian Ocean on one side, and high, rolling dunes on the other. Popular with both Mozambicans and hardcore travellers alike, Tofo is a party town, with a handful of open-air beach bars spread out over more than a kilometre of shoreline, but it has the sort of low-key, un-slick, everyone-is-welcome vibe that eludes scenester-y beaches the world over. The key to Tofo’s cool? If you don’t have your own vehicle, it’s a bitch to get to from Jo’burg on public transport.

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  • Togian Islands, central Sulawesi, Indonesia. If Tofo is a bitch to get to, then getting to the Togian Islands of Indonesia is beyond ridiculous. Sitting in the heart of Tomini Bay between the central ‘arms’ of the enormous island of Sulawesi, getting to this scattered archipelago takes patience, money, or both, enduring internal flights, looooong days on bad roads, and a final trip from the mainland on boats of varying size and seaworthiness. Arriving here, though, is pure Robinson Crusoe — the end of the world, with sunsets that burn out like nuclear fire over miles of cobalt blue and thriving coral gardens in waters so clear that you can spy the bottom, 40m down, from the surface. You may find yourself staying a few days longer than you wanted, of course, whether by choice or because the boatman you hired decided he has other things going that day, but that’s really all part of the charm.

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  • Lingshet, Ladakh, India. While getting to the above three destinations is inconvenient, none of them are WORK in the way that getting to Lingshet is, a tiny mountain village at 3800m in the upland desert of Ladakh, northern India. To get here you’ll have to walk. A lot. For at least three days and over mountain passes of more than 4500m. Lingshet, though, is a mountain idyll — green barley fields and a riot of wildflowers topping a series of stepped plateaus nestled between sheer mountain walls. A couple days here and I could feel my wifi addiction waning away — walking the mountain paths, chating to monks at the centuries-old Buddhist monastery, drinking tea and generally enjoying a place that neither time nor the wider world seem to have touched. One of those spots that — when you leave — you take a little piece of with you.

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  • Coffee Bay, South Africa. Coffee Bay, the gem of the South Africa’s undeveloped and aptly-named Wild Coast, is a delight. You won’t have to trek or take a boat to get here, but situated as it is at the end of a long, poorly-maintained road to the coast thru the traditional apartheid-era African homeland known as the Transkei, you won’t find the crowds here that mob Cape Town and the Garden Route. Half coastal and half pastoral, it’s a paradise for surfers and photographers alike, and while there’s a party scene here, it’s delightfully chilled-out, and you’re unlikely to find anyone trying to sell you crystal meth (Indonesia’s Gili Islands, I’m looking in your direction). Best of all, the town is home to the gracious Khosa people, who make Coffee Bay so much more than just a pretty landscape.

Published: “Turning Back the Clock in Sri Lanka”

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Sri Lanka is special.

On this small, tropical, teardrop-shaped island, it’s a kind of time-warped ambiance that – again and again – strikes me the most. Even with Sri Lanka’s considerable cultural and natural riches, it’s the sense the country often gives of stepping back in time that’s most striking, as if, though barely separated from the rest of the world by its narrow strait, Sri Lanka has preserved, in its trains and towns, its cities and beaches, some fragment of bygone eras elsewhere submerged by the contemporary world.

Check out my latest piece for gogobot.com, “Turning Back the Clock in Sri Lanka”, for a snapshot of what’s so unique about this often overlooked and thoroughly amazing country.

Featured: One City, Three Ways – Seoul

Heading to Seoul?

Check out my reviews of the Korean spa experience, featured here in Gogobot’s newletter:

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The Korean bathhouse experience is lesser known than the Turkish or Russians, but it’s got a ‘bang’ all its own. With ice rooms and hot salt rooms in addition to kiln saunas and even rooms where you can take a nap, the jjimjilbang is perfect for relaxing and rejuvenating before emerging scrubbed into a whole new self. Check out Matthew Crompton’s reviews of the popular and tourist-friendly Dragon Hill Spa, as well as the harder to find but more authentic Siloam Sauna. Looking for added energy after you relax? Juno Kim has a great list of Seoul’s best cafes.

How to change

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Life is short, and human beings do not tend to choose personal growth willingly.

That’s simple enough to understand — the self experiences the end of its ingrained patterns at best as discomfort, and at worst as a kind of death. But we’re all just patterns evolving our way thru time and space, and a dozen — or a hundred — years hence, whether we resist changing ourselves or embrace it, we’re all going to be living an experience of self very different to how we experience ourselves now.

Change is inevitable, and at its altar, we can offer up who and what we are — the parts of us that are closed or asleep or deluded or hateful or afraid — as a kind of fire sacrifice, to be burned up and transformed. What’s bright in us, of course, never goes away. It just burns clearer the more false things we offer to the flames.

Change is painful, and we instinctively avoid it. Yet in the end the best and fastest way of getting clear of what no longer fits, of the parts of us that, no matter how we cling to them, we don’t really like and which don’t really serve us, is to commit to experiences in the face of which we have no choice but to change.

There are a number of reliable ways to do this; consider some of them below:

(1) Move to a different city.

Staying in familiar surroundings, to which we have adapted our responses so thoroughly that our experience there produces no friction or reflection, remains the most popular way of remaining exactly as we have always been, especially as we approach and settle into the “middle third of life”. Moving to a new place, with its new geography, new relationships, and concomitant sense of confusion, loneliness and discovery is one of the best ways to become aware of the parts of yourself and your life that no longer fit you, and indeed probably have not for some time.

(2) Travel abroad alone, and without a guidebook.

The primary dimension of human experience is social, rather than physical. To understand this, consider the human child, who begins her life so embedded in a deep web of social inter-relationship that she spends much of the first twenty years of life just figuring out how to navigate the social environment, giving little or no thought to anything that could be termed ontological. Likewise, though being in highly unfamiliar places is an enormous goad to growth and reflection, when we travel someplace foreign in the company of someone already well known to us (and whom we are already well known by), the tendency is to experience that “safe” relationship as a kind of comfort blanket, to which we can turn whenever we experience personal discomfort or existential stress. Similarly, though we may travel alone, when we rely on a guidebook for advice, the tendency is towards over-reliance on that resource, such that our exploration becomes an exercise in imitation, and our experience often little more than an ongoing kind of confirmation or disconfirmation  — this guesthouse really is as good as they say; that temple the Lonely Planet gushed about was actually really overrated. Experience a very new, very foreign place without the recourse to either a friend or a guidebook, and you will often find yourself very keenly aware of a very foreign experience of yourself as well.

(3) Meditate.

Meditation isn’t about having visions. It isn’t about doing the sun salutation in Rishikesh with your guru. It isn’t something that yields results quickly, it isn’t glamorous, and most of the time, it isn’t the least bit entertaining. Generally speaking there is absolutely nothing exciting about it, beyond the very useful experience of getting thru the endless shitstorm of your own human mind, and seeing that shitstorm more clearly for what it is, composed of a generous load of nonsense, an awful lot of quite dramatic storytelling, and a fair amount of naked insanity. There you have it: meditation demystified. You want to grow as a person? Sit the fuck down for 20 or 30 minutes every day and make your mind shut up so you can see the astonishing load of junk that’s in there as it bubbles up. Do this most days for a couple of years and you’ll begin to notice that you can see that junk arising, and stop it, when you’re out in the world. Do it for ten or fifteen years straight and the source-mystery at the bottom of the mind will begin to open up. Feel free to speed that process up with entheogenics, but be hella careful — it’s a frequently scary road with its own host of potential pitfalls, dangers and dead ends, so use sparingly, and always under the counsel of a qualified guide.