The Official Himalayan Masters

I always get a little queasy when I read the biography of someone who cites their training, in Buddhism, Yoga, Chakra training, Advanced Third Eye Cleansing Technique or what have you, as being conducted by The Himalayan Masters. Now I know there is a book with Himalayan Masters in the title by Swami Rama but that’s not what I’m talking about. His is a collection of stories of meetings with remarkable people. I am talking about some “official” Himalayan Masters who seem to pop up now and then on somewhat New-Agey sites.  They seem to grant some kind of empowerments or degrees or something to rather “differently-consciousnessed” individuals and they will, for a price, demonstrate their mystical powers and for an even greater price teach you how to invoke said powers.

It sounds very official, as if there is some kind of Official Himalayan Mastery Institute somewhere on a mountain top and devout pilgrims trek for days to reach this little piece of Shangri-La. There one would expect to find an array of mellow wisened old fellows ready to dispense the wisdom of the ages to all who wish to collect it.

Well, I’ve been wandering around the Himalayas for almost 9 years now and have yet to hear of the location of The Official Himalayan Masters or their Institute. No one I know between Sikkim and Siachen has any information about such individuals either.

It seems like the notion of Himalayan Masters has been taken from the title of Swami Rama’s book and spun into some imaginary group to give credence to whatever is being sold by unaffiliated people.

There are certainly “godmen” aplenty in India. Swamis, babas, priests, spiritualists, tantriks, saints, fakirs, masters, emanations of Bhagwan, adepts, yogis, saddhus, monks, gurus, teachers come in thousands of different varieties. Some are the real deal, some might be the real deal, some aspire to be the real deal, but general consensus amongst those surveyed (by me, unscientifically) is that the majority are either consciously fraudulent or rather deluded.

Here’s a great video about some of them in the Indian state of Kerela. If you love Amma maybe you’ll want to skip this, as she’s mentioned prominently. It is very interesting to draw parallels between this and numerous situations festering in the United States and Canada.

From the video:

“You can really understand why victims are so reluctant to come forward and say how godmen have exploited them, when you see the baying mob that surrounds the godmen.”

People in India though have been experienced in this for centuries. Many don’t speak about it. But much more often than in the West many do. Look up “fake guru” on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of submissions from the sub-continent including from media. People are willing to go to the media and the police about their experiences.  At least the police are willing to take the complaint and sometimes follow up. Perhaps that is what is required more often in “Western” countries.

But we don’t have much of a religious press or a media particularly interested in this kind of thing. There are a few outstanding reporters on the religion beat such as Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun but they are rare. And news reporters generally don’t seem to think this is much by way of news, even when Christians are involved, as compared to Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement for example.  So what are we going to do? (hint-blogs, websites, disclosure, transparency)

[Addition Aug. 10-the New York Post had this article today Eat Pray Zilch on these very topics. Let’s see a lot more in the media! ]

And maybe if the police were consulted a little more frequently, for there are quite likely legal issues such as fraud, theft, tax evasion, extortion, intimidation, and perhaps even racketeering involved in some instances, awareness could be raised. (Provided the above mentioned Kardashian doesn’t pick up a new boyfriend)

Whether in India or the United States many aspects of humanity are pretty similar. As to why people are willing to follow the “godmen”:

“They have everything, in plenty. Except peace of mind.”

I don’t know who the Official Himalayan Masters are.  Perhaps they are a cricket team. Maybe they live in Sedona. Quite likely we’ll never really know.

Here’s a couple of chaps I do know who might be unofficial Himalayan masters. I’ve never asked them though.  And I’m quite sure they’ve never attended an Official Himalayan Masters Institute or anything similar. They don’t give degrees or empowerments or trophies so most people aren’t too interested in what they are about. You can click on the photos to go to more information about them.

Here is definitely NOT a Himalayan Master of any sort, at Lacha-Lang-La Ladakh (the closest to Shang-Ri-La I could find-16 617 ft.)  “La” means a pass in the mountains in Tibetan and in the local Ladkhi language. On the right is Bara-Lacha-La also over 16,000 ft.

It’s damn cold and windy on the way to the mountaintop. That’s about as much wisdom as I’ve got about attempting to visit Shangrila.

It Means Nothing to Me

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This post is something of an introduction or tangent to one of those real long, intense, chaotically linked up observation pieces that I’ve been working on for a while.  It’s about popular culture,  conventional reality, the construction of Samsara, post-modern philosophy, identity, meaning…the usual fun stuff. I’m going to put that on another blog probably but for now I’ll just post this here. When I get that other one done I’ll link it at the bottom.

There are several recent incidents that have connected up in an unusual way so I’ll describe them and make of it what you will.

When I was visiting my sister she got very involved with a project at work. So she was doing work at home after hours and asked me to help her with some computer problems while making a Powerpoint presentation. While trying to discover the reason the background wasn’t printing properly this is what I think I heard:

“On that slide is the summary of the points of the assessment tool for staff. One of the other resources I’m using comes from the same site. Here I’ve got printouts.”

[She hands me a file folder full of paper and shuffles through them explaining all.]

“This one is the list that accompanies the handout. It will be double-sided and laminated. That’s just the preliminary report of this one. They will be stapled together.”

[I glanced at the papers as I was tinkering with the software problem.]

Now there are no specifics here because I have no idea what this presentation was about. The words geriatrics and staff response were frequently used.   I was happy to see her so enthusiastic about the project but it was so specific that it was beyond my frame of reference at that moment. It struck me then that it meant nothing to me. I didn’t have any attachment to it.

This then reminded me of a situation I’ve encountered 0ccasionally on Twitter and Facebook. That would be the pet photos. I don’t mind looking at one or two photos of someone’s cute pet now and then. But 47 photos in one day is too much.  It becomes like the Tweets of Common Squirrel after a while. It means nothing to me as I have no attachment to these animals other than the “cute pet” type of thought. I recognize the sender’s attachment to whatever is pictured but have no access to that emotion. And I can invoke a simulated sense of that attachment if I recall previous pets or the like but it is one step removed, or more considering it is a photo on the Internet. I have to construct a whole narrative involving pets, pet care, pet photos, the family place of pets, attachment to pets, personal pets I’ve had as well as imagine all of this in the realm of the sender who I also must imagine in these dimensions.

Same thing with on-line conversations with strangers. They are strangers. We are making up who they are in our heads based on an extremely limited data set. We are therefore responding to a framework of identity that has been placed over them. And the data provided cannot be thoroughly trusted. It is the subset that they wish to provide based on their own constructions of themselves, current circumstances and how they wish people to perceive them. (The most adept at understanding and manipulating this become self-help gurus, bogus religious leaders or  scam marketers hiding behind elaborate facades to make a name for themselves and often also a fortune.)

I’d like to explain all this in terms of the Abhidharma but likely few people would have much interest. But briefly this is the process of recognition for every iota of information that enters the sense doors and the mind door. It happens in a flash. If we meditate well enough sometimes we may be able to take note of it from time to time. And we may also be able to take note of what further information, emotion or thoughts that we attach to the raw data to make it “fit” into our personal psychological schema. (If you have further interest Nina Van Gorkom’s Abhidhamma in Daily Life, particularly chapters 13, 16 and 17 -requires some terminology knowledge or The Abhidharma by Peter Della Santina, Ph.D. may be helpful)

To carry on, from there it reminded me of travel experiences. Entering a new culture always has an air of unreality to it initially. This is called the Honeymoon phase in anthropological literature on culture shock. This is due to the lack of familiar references by which to orient thought and behavior. Initially the predominant feeling can be one of lack of meaning, loss of comforting attachments but also an entranced fascination with so much newness.

The same thing happens in India but I am well aware, every day, that I am foreign. Lack of the previous type of similar attachments has become the norm. This is one of the things home-leaving does. Who we are is dependent upon where we are. (Do you normally wear beige trousers with zip off legs and a fanny pack? Or carry your identity documents in a pouch on a string around your neck? The travel wardrobe in recognition of becoming a “tourist”. Behavior while enacting the tourist role is another “self” we present to the world.)

What happens to some people, if they’ve been away from their culture of origin and enculturation cues for some time and they come back to it, is known as reverse culture shock.

Returning to Canada for a visit for me is like trying to walk through that big ring on Stargate except it feels like a big foggy wall that I keep bouncing off of. I find it takes about 2 weeks to start to feel moderately comfortable and somewhat culturally competent in the country of my birth.

Once immersed in the other side it is like being in a somewhat familiar yet simultaneously alien environment.

It’s quite  fascinating actually. Nothing anchors experience. That which had been familiar has changed enough so that those portions of personality that had been previously identified and tied up are loose. It strikes no chord. All is continuously new and renewing. And all the things one recently held dear and close and true, mean absolutely nothing to many others. This can be a somewhat disconcerting thought.

But it can also be considerably freeing. If we really consider each moment in unfamiliar or even familiar surroundings this is also true. There is no repeatability with exactly the same variables. It is a continual movement.

We are balancing on clouds.

Cultural re-encounter links

How to prepare for reverse culture shock

Cultural Rehydration: A Laymen’s Guide to Dealing with Culture Shock

Selling Enlightenment- a guest post from Adam

First, thank you NellaLouise for allowing me to post here at your wonderful blog as part of Nate’s blog swap. What a great opportunity for us buddhobloggers to connect with each other and share ideas and blog space.

After looking through Enlightenment Ward, and talking with NellaLouise, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the buying and selling enlightenment. So first I started by clicking on “shopping” at Google, and then searching for “enlightenment”. Much to my relief, all that showed up were a bunch of books and a Van Morrison CD. I was hoping to find something fairly ridiculous to write about there, but for once in my life Google seemed to fail me. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied something hokey. I couldn’t believe that I forgot to look at the Ads. If you’ve ever been to a Blogger site with Adsense, and it even hinted at something spiritual, you’re familiar with these ads. They all promise enlightenment, the secret of the Universe/happiness/spiritual awakening or whatever the New-Age buzzword is that month. Isn’t it wonderful living in a time in which it will only cost you 3 easy payments of $29.95 to “get” what millions have spent entire lifetimes struggling to realize? Thank God for Mastercard and Paypal.

Here’s one site I clicked on.  Check it out, scroll down. My favorite is the hat:

Caps Black

That’s right! wear the key to spiritual enlightenment on your head at all times! It’s like the Hard Rock Cafe of spirituality! There are plenty of other sites out there that offer similar promises and crappy merchandise. Now, you’ve probably already read a million times how enlightenment can’t be found outside of yourself and yadda yadda yadda. So, I don’t want to talk about enlightenment and how to achieve it, I’d rather talk about how NOT to achieve it, and avoiding snake-oil salesmen in the process.

A task that is sometimes undertaken in certain cultures and religions is a pilgrimage. The largest in the world is the Hajj, where Muslims from around the world make the trip to Mecca. There are strict rules one must follow when undertaking the Hajj, all of which have merit and reason within the Islamic faith. Jews make trips to the Western Wall, and Hindus have like 30 different holy places and cities to travel to. The list goes on and on.

In Buddhism, there are 4 main places that one might travel on a Buddhist pilgrimage. There is Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinara. These are places in which important events in the life of Siddhartha Gautama took place. In visiting them, one doesn’t hope to reach enlightenment, but rather to pay homage, or possibly gain some perspective or feel some sort of connection to the Buddha. It’s all about the experience.

So if these pilgrimages aren’t a free pass into Heaven, or a quick trip to nibbana, what purpose do they serve? I suppose the experience would have to speak for itself. I have personally never went on any sort of spiritual pilgrimage, so I can’t provide any first-hand knowledge. I have known a couple of Muslims that made the Hajj, and enjoyed it. They did it out of obligation at first, but throughout the journey they were able to connect to members of their religious community, and strengthen their own faith. It was a wonderful experience for them, and they both had plans to make the trip again in the future.

So it’s the connection to their faith, their practice, their community that becomes the fruit of the journey. I imagine it’s the same for people of other faiths on their various pilgrimages, or even the crazy Elvis fan making their way to Graceland after a lifetime of collecting the dead rocker’s memorabilia. But I also imagine that the experience of the journey itself (not just reaching the destination) has much to do with its significance. Maybe it is that experience that keeps generation after generation returning on these long pilgrimages, fasting and prostrating and dressing in a certain way. It’s another one of those intangible things not easily described in print, something a blog post will never do justice.

So back to the selling of enlightenment. Most Americans have never made a religious pilgrimage. This country is mainly composed of Christians, and any pilgrimages in Christianity are marginal and neither required nor regularly made. There are a few holy sites that some may decide to visit, but this isn’t the norm. A holy pilgrimage is not in our country’s culture or DNA. Our parents and grandparents haven’t passed that down to us. Obviously, there are people of other faiths living here in which that is part of their culture. But the networks and media outlets really don’t care about them. They aren’t the target demographic here. The target demographic is that middle section of America. It’s those people who have turned away from their respective faith because of an aversion to the extremism that is taking hold in the various religious (and non religious) organizations they were brought up in or converted to. There is a growing section of Christians in America that are getting fed up with Christianity, and they need stuff to buy to fill the void.

Enter Ekhart Tolle, Oprah, The Secret, Deepak Chopra and fill in the blank with the latest New-Age craze author or speaker. Now, I’m not saying that these people don’t have anything of value to say. I actually really liked The Power of Now. I thought it was a great read, and certainly held plenty of value. My issue isn’t with the message, it’s with the people who have taken over the delivery of the message. People have taken that one word “Now” and blown it into a multimillion dollar industry. Google “The Secret” or “law of attraction” and see what you come up with. Be sure to pay attention to the ads over on the right hand side as well. It’s looking more and more like “the secret” is to talk about “the secret” and make a ton of money doing it. The Law of Attraction really does seem to work for those that are selling you the Law of Attraction (hint: it’s because you forked over your money for it). Again, I want to reiterate the fact that I don’t have an issue with any of the New Age beliefs out there. I have my own theories about the law of attraction, but this isn’t the place or the post for that. My issue is with those that are promising to unlock those secrets for you.

You can’t buy enlightenment. You can’t watch a DVD and transform your life. You can’t read a few books and suddenly change your luck. You can’t chant your way to enlightenment, nor can you just sit on your zafu and *poof* you’re a Buddha. I also have no plans on blogging my way to Shangri-la either. It won’t happen. Sorry. It is only through diligent practice and experience that any transformation can occur. Is enlightenment possible? Yes. Probable? No. And that’s the sad truth. You may devote your entire life to realizing enlightenment and never achieve it. That’s what happens most of the time. Enlightenment isn’t easy. Awakening yourself spiritually isn’t easy. Anyone that tells you otherwise is probably just trying to get rich off of you.

The ad wizards are targeting the upper-middle class because they know they have money to throw away on anything that offers a glimpse of a better version of you. And these people are rich! I suppose that’s a lesson in attachment and impermanence right there. When even the rich suffer, and look to the supernatural and spiritual for fulfillment, what’s wrong with all the poor people who are suffering daily in their attempts to get rich quick? But I digress. And while I digress the publishers and advertisers are targeting  the lower class because they know how the poor suffer and will do anything (fork over $$$) to get away from their plight. People have been getting rich off the hopes of others since we started using currency as a means to exchange goods. And they’ve only gotten better over time.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to others to help us on our paths. I’ve read The Celestine Prophesy, but I didn’t start seeing auras around everything. What I did was use the book to gain a new perspective on my life. A lot of people want to talk about these types of books and seminars, but few put them into action, or integrate them into their lives for any significant period of time. Why? Because a DVD is easy. An audiobook on your iPod is easy. Reading a few books is easy. And Americans love their easy. Rather than gaining a little insight and putting it into practice, we want it all, we want it now, and we want it to work or we demand a refund.

So where does that leave us Buddhists here in the US? Where “easy” Buddhism seems to be sold in bulk at Costco, leaving the mom-and-pop Buddhists in the shadow of mainstream America? How does Buddhism get away from the convenience and super-sizing of the other religions in this country? I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to start calling someone else’s practice “not authentic” or anything along those lines. Clearly that is divisive speech, and won’t lessen anyone else’s suffering. I suppose the answer might be to point out that Buddhism isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to understand, and it isn’t easy to practice. The Eightfold path is not easy, but such is the nature of the path. It’s through that struggle and difficulty and regular practice that we are able to figure out a way to deal with Samsara and continue on our path.

I’m just beginning on my path, and already it’s challenging. I have a hard time practicing everyday, staying mindful, trying to cultivate compassion instead of road rage, and maintaining right speech. These are just a few of the things I’m trying to focus on in my life to deal with the suffering I’m causing myself and others. But it’s that experience of my own personal, inner “daily pilgrimage” that is helping me deal with it all, and become more skillful. A weekend retreat sure as hell isn’t going to get me there. And while I doubt I’ll ever get to visit Sarnath, I’m trying to make each day my own inner Hajj. If you want the real secret, it’s that it’s hard as hell to realize enlightenment, and you’ll probably fail if you try. But anything in life worth “having” doesn’t come easily, unless what you want is a hat with the secret of life on it. That will only cost you 19.99 plus tax. Cheers.

*If you found this at all interesting or if you thought it was pure rubbish and want to yell at me for ruining NellaLouise’s perfectly good blog , you can find me over at Home Brew Dharma

Modern Vacation or Spiritual Tourism? -Walmart Campground

Went to visit some family members in western Canada in July and came upon this vacation phenomenon.

Now it isn’t an official campground nor is it authorized by Walmart, but it is a practice that seems to be on the increase. Last year at this time there were perhaps 2 or 3 RVs or trailers in the lot on any particular the night. On this day, I think it was a Tuesday, pictured below there were over a dozen scattered around the edges of the parking lot. On weekends there are considerably more.

Walmart Campground.

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They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. -Joni Mitchell

Garlands of Shame

Over at the Worst Horse blog there is an entry about a garland of shoes that have been hung over a statue of Buddha in Geneva Switzerland.  It originated from a story at the Bhutan Observer taken from The Times of India. And the comments everywhere are vitriolic.  Here is what all the fuss is about.

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To many Western people this may not seem to be a big deal. In poor taste perhaps but nothing to start a riot about. But in the cultural context of South Asia this is a very big deal.

The practice of garlanding is very old in India. It is the method by which people are honored and it is also a religious practice in that statues of gods are also often garlanded. This garlanding is usually done with marigolds-a sacred flower due to their saffron color.

Even take the concept of the Rakusu in Zen traditions or the mala worn around the neck in other Buddhist traditions. It is very much like a garland. Or even the name of the Avatamsaka Sutra-Garland of Flowers.

Recently I went on a little hike in the hills and was staying at a small village where I have some friends. There was a ceremony going on in that village and I was invited to be “felicitated”. That means someone speaks a few nice words about you and then you are garlanded.

Here are some photos of the occasion.The date was April 10, 2009 and the occasion was the official opening of Dodital which is a high altitude lake and holy place that is said to be the birthplace of the elephant headed god Ganesha. The whole route is 22 kilometers to Dodital. Agoda village, where this ceremony is taking place, is 7 kilometers from the road.

The festivities included the usual dias of people to be felicitated. Along the back wall of the tent are the officials and guests seated and taking tea. It is about 6:30 in the evening.  The ladies on the left of the picture as you view it are local Panchayat heads (elected village mayors) , the gentleman in the center with the white vest is the local member of the legislative assembly (that’s like a congressman or member of parliament-it was just before the election so politicians really like to make themselves visible-even walking  the whole route rther than taking a mule) , and the men on the right are also some panchayat heads and other guests. I am sitting wearing the black jacket and beige pants forth from the MLA. As a foreigner I get to sit with the men. Partly because the women don’t speak English and partly because some of these men are relatives of the people I know in Agoda.

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There were speeches, flowery and bold in language as is the usual Indian way and then some music and a vegetarian dinner was provided by the village for all attendees.  There were probably 200 people there in total. All were accomodated.

Throughout the night the dhols (big drums) were played and chanting and shouting was heard.  As it was just before the full moon the local goddess was taken in her palanquin (sort of like a stretcher with a decorated little house on it where the idol is carried by two men on their shoulders) from her home in the neighboring village temple up to Dodital to greet Ganesha and pay homage. Every full moon this ceremony takes place but this one is particularly well attended since it marks the start of the pilgrimage season to Dodital.

At the felicitation ceremony preceeding the next day’s pilgrimage  the Panchayat leader from the next village did me the honor of placing the marigold garland around my neck. I couldn’t get the photos that were taken by a photographer from a local newspaper and I haven’t seen the article that was written for that paper yet. But you get the idea from these photos.

agodagarland

On a bit of a tangent there were 3 other foreigners in the village but they were not invited to the ceremony. The reason was that local people thought they were hippies. When people in India go to a holy place or a festival they put on their best clothes and jewelry. Women do up their hair and children all wear clean clothes. These foreign “hippies” while having a lot of expensive trekking equipment were, according to comments I heard, dirty. That means unkempt hair and clothes. They talked loudly and acted in a “superior” manner to the locals. (There was actually a discussion about whether to invite them or not but they had already wounded the feelings of several people with their brashness) That is something that is common in foreign travelers in India unfortunately.

Some advice for those going to pilgrimage places, since I am talking about honor and shame here, consider yourself an ambassador for both your country and for other foreigners. Behave appropriately for the country you are in.  Just because you walk about on the beaches of Ibeza or California in a string bathing suit that does not mean it is appropriate in some other places. Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean the sensibilities of local people are irrelevant.  Just because you are with a few friends of your culture does not mean you are travelling in some impenetrable bubble where the person next to you on a bus or in a restaurant does not exist. A lot of offensive foreigner behavior is due to both ignorance and fear. But once the ignorance is overcome a lot of the fear and insecurity of being in a strange place also disappears. And besides, learning a little bit about local happenings and comportment can get you some really great dinners (and garlands)!

Now there is another side to garlanding in India that has to do with community shame and often vigilanteism.  For example a principle of a school was accused of molesting some young girls in his care. His school was stormed by angry town residents and he was dragged from his office into the street. His hair was cut off (tonsuring), his face was blackened with tar and a garland of shoes was placed around his neck as people nearly beat him to death with fists and sticks and shoes before police arrived.

So that is the meaning of the shoe garland. It is reserved for public shaming.