A burly samurai comes to a Zen master and says, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”
The Zen master looks at him and says, “Why should I tell a scruffy, miserable slob like you?”
Consumed by rage, the samurai draws his sword and threatens to cut off the master’s head.
The Zen master says, “That is hell.”
Instantly, the samurai understands that he has created his own hell-becoming so filled with hate, anger, and resentment that he was ready to kill someone. Tears fill his eyes as he puts his palms together, bows to the master and with humility thanks him for the gift of this insight.
The Zen master says, “That is heaven.”
How we see the world is partly the way it actually exists and partly how we process it internally. Eastern wisdom traditions point out that none of us are aware of true reality because it is filtered though our senses, perceptions, emotions, and personalities. We never actually perceive the world as it truly is, but take it in with our senses and then construct our own personal reality in our minds. That observation is as old as the Hindu Upanishads and as current as modern Gestalt Psychology which has as one of its maxims “There is no immaculate perception.”
One time Carol and I were sitting in a hotel room when we heard the faint strains of instrumental music coming through the open windows. We both noticed it at the same time and simultaneously asked if the other one heard it, too. So, at first, it seemed that we were in perfect sync. But then I said that it was lovely piano music that we were listening to while Carol said she heard a tuba playing. What? A piano versus a tuba? Most people can easily tell the difference.
As it turns out, it was a tuba. Who was playing it, and why, remains a mystery but the odd part is that Carol heard a tuba and I, for reasons I’ll never know, heard a piano. Weird, but it must be attributable to how I internally processed the sounds rather than the sounds themselves.
That was the same trip that was the setting for another story, the one about “Carol and the Log.” It was at Big Sur in central California, a place of rocky, windswept coast lines and groves of huge redwood trees clinging to steep hillsides. We were there several years ago and hiked a precipitous trail through the tall trees. At one point along the trail we could take a slight shortcut that required walking across a fallen redwood tree that spanned a narrow and deep gorge. Carol was nervous about it at first but climbed up on the log with a long walking stick for balance and a heart full of courage and good intentions. She was about to start across the log but hesitated just long enough for a kernel of doubt to take hold. After a long period of pondering what to do -and how she would feel later if she didn’t walk across- she decided against it and went back around the long way. I busied myself taking pictures of her the whole time.
It would have been fine for Carol to just shrug her shoulders, turn away, and not look back, but for years she was haunted by her decision to turn around and not walk across. Her choice was probably made more out of an abundance of common sense than any lack of courage but she always wished she had summoned whatever it might have taken to be able to walk across that log above the precipice.
So this year we went back. In my journal I had recorded the details of the previous hike and we had the pictures, so it wasn’t that hard to find the trailhead and, eventually, the same chasm and log-bridge, now overgrown with redwood saplings. Carol looked it over, then stepped up and walked across, twice.
Same Carol. Same log. Totally different outcomes. It seems that there is the physical world and then there is what we do with it. The outer reality and the inner reality.
How does Nepal fit into that? One thing that I have learned over the many times that I have gone to the country is that there is more than one Nepal. Like other things, Nepal is in the eye of the beholder. From our side of the world -the other side from Nepal-we envision an ancient, exotic, mysterious mountain kingdom with snow-capped summits and precipitous river valleys, saffron-robed holy men and sari-clad women strolling past ornate temples infused with the scent of incense and marigolds.
Nepal is all of those things, but to the Nepalis that’s all window dressing. They see it differently because they live there. If they saw their country like we do it would be like us thinking America is best portrayed by what goes on at a western dude ranch. Not inaccurate, just incomplete.
We are returning to the Nepal that exists behind the post cards. To the unsanitized Nepal, not the EPCOT version, if there even is a Disney-Nepal somewhere. To the Kathmandu that is a city of more than two million people with not a single Starbuck’s or McDonald’s. And we like it that way, for as long as it lasts.
Things have not been going very well in Nepal recently. For one thing, earthquakes happen there frequently. The Teutonic smashing of India into Asia creates an up-thrust that provides spectacular views for trekkers and epic adventures for climbers but a lot of problems for everyone else. For the average Nepali, this geologic drama results in moments of terror followed by years of hardship.
On April 25, 2015 Nepal was rocked by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that lasted a full three minutes ( by comparison, the recent quake in Haiti was 7.0; Italy’s was 6.2). That was bad enough, but on May 12, there was 7.3 magnitude aftershock and there have been many more since then. Kathmandu suffered destruction in historic proportions and there are villages on its outskirts that essentially disappeared. There have been so many aftershocks over such an extended period of time that even now it is difficult to declare that it is all over. Nearly 9000 people have died and 740,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. Not only houses were reduced to rubble but also ancient temples and many historic structures, including multiple Unesco World Heritage Sites.
To make matters worse, since the earthquake there has been more then the usual amount of political turmoil, including violent protests over a new constitution and a blockade by one faction of all imports from India. Nepal gets almost everything from India and the blockade lasted four and a half months, causing severe shortages of everything the average family needs to get along. Although the blockade is officially over, the flow of goods and services, which wasn’t that great to begin with, has not yet returned to normal. The earthquake relief effort overall has been hampered by inefficiency and corruption and reconstruction has been slow.
Carol and I are returning along with six other people from First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City. Never have I planned a trip to Nepal for a group larger than three so that part alone will be something different for me. David Henry, Kyle Kittrel, and I were last there in January and since then we have doubled the number of children enrolled in the Ripple-Nepal scholarship program. We have matched 27 Nepali children with American sponsors who believe that providing a child with an education can change the life of that child, their family, and their community.
Ripple-Nepal was conceived and established several years ago when we were in Kathmandu and Carol had a conversation with our friends Rabi and Sudha Malla about the plight of the street children that we saw running around. Carol’s first instinct was to build a school that some of those children could attend, but that proved unrealistic for us. Instead, there emerged the idea of a scholarship program that would allow those children to go to schools that already exist. The concept is that if you can make a positive change in life of a child, in this case by helping them get an education, then you will also effect everyone who that child touches as they grow and live out their life …..the “ripple” effect.
Only around 50% of Nepali children go to school at all, so if whoever gets the chance has already taken a giant lead forward. The sponsors who have joined into this project have been matched with children who were not currently going to school and who had little, if any, hope of ever doing so. One of the purposes of our visit to Nepal this time is to strengthen the connection between the children and those sponsors. We will meet with them as a group and visit them in their homes. We will take letters and gifts sent with us by the sponsors and gather letters and take pictures to be brought back when we return. Here are pictures of a few of the Ripple children who we have been with for the past several years.
The symbolic hand gestures called mudras are a highly stylized form of body language that serve to both express and direct a state of mind. They are used during spiritual exercises and for ritual mediation and concentration and are commonly seen in Buddhist and Hindu ceremonies, dance, and statuary.
One of the most familiar mudras is the Chin or Gyana mudra where the thumb and forefinger touch to form a circle. It is used to enhance concentration.
The Dhyana, or meditation, gesture is where the hands rest gently in the lap, palms turned upward, forming a bowl, with thumbtips lightly touching each other.
My favorite mudra is the Bhumisparsha, or earth-witness mudra, which depicts the moment of the Buddha’s awakening. He is seated with the fingers of the right hand extended downward, their tips touching the ground, while the left hand is resting in the meditation pose in the lap.
If all that sounds a bit remote, it really shouldn’t. Much of what we do with our hands is an expression of what is going on with our heart. Consider blowing a kiss, crossing your fingers, clinching your fists, giving a high five, cuddling a pet, even gripping the steering wheel.
I wonder if there are mudras that express the mood of an entire country? One that captures something of the national attitude in a single posture or gesture. The Russian’s might be a clinched fist, like on one of those old communist posters of Lenin with his arm raised into the air. The U.S. mudra might be pointing the finger straight ahead, like Uncle Sam does when he says “I Want You” or, more likely these days, pointing straight up while shouting “We’re number one!” The French mudra? I picture it as sitting back in a leisurely posture, as if at a sidewalk cafe, with the legs crossed, a hand raised to the mouth with the first two fingers extended as if holding a cigarette.
I sometimes think Nepal national mudra is a shoulder shrug. The notions of karma and caste, coupled with a history of natural disasters and political corruption, have created an endemic sense of fatalism in Nepal, yet not of hopelessness.
One of the Nepali phrases I find most endearing is ke garne, roughly translated as “what to do?” or in our vernacular “waddya gonna do?” It’s kind of a rhetorical question that follows on an observation that something has gone wrong. The market did not have what I wanted to cook for dinner, ke garne? The buses weren’t running because of the strike, ke garne? Half my house was destroyed in the earthquake, ke garne? For the Nepalis, there is more to the expression than just futility in the face of adversity. It is also about resilience. I found something else for us to eat for dinner. I got home some other way. We are now living in the part of the house that survived the quake. Some things are out of my control but that doesn’t have to stop me. I just keep on going.
The last time I was in Nepal I asked our friends Rabi and Sudha Malla how Nepal was doing…really? Rabi, with the understatement that I have come to expect from him and with the shoulder shrug in play, just said, “It’s OK.” I pointed out that it had been a bad year for them, right? His reply, ”It wasn’t very good before.” I asked the same question to some other Nepali friends, Sanjeev and Sirish Chettri, and they also didn’t have much to say about the national mood other than that Nepalis aren’t prone to anger. They can get quarrelsome with each other but usually they just get on with it.
The Nepali collective mudra? I think a shrug works as well as any.
If a Mudra, or any form of body language, is an outward expression of the psyche of an individual or group, it is also true that, with concentration, it is also able to shift energies from what we might be experiencing to something closer to how we would like to feel. Maybe that is why some of our own “mudras” are so useful and universal, such as when we hold the hand of another person or place both of ours in the prayer position.
We are on our way. It is a long journey and the next dispatch will be from the other side of it.
I hope you are all well. Be kind to each other.