Sunday, November 3, 2013


Last month I went on a 8-day trip to Ladkah. I went with Paras who was celebrating the end of his medical training. We spent two days in Leh, where we acclimated to the high altitude while visiting nearby Buddhist hotspots and Pangong Lake, the site of the final scene in 3 Idiots. After that we disappeared into the Markha Valley, where we trekked for four nights and five days through ~100kms of beautiful wild country.

We took about 1000 photos collectively, below I've compiled into about 200 to tell a story of the trip:

A few memorable takeaways from the trip not captured in the photos:

* In life we have to walk our path. While we tend to focus on the physical obstacles, the most onerous are mental. If you have fear and doubt as you walk your path, each step is made that much heavier and thus incrementally the destination becomes harder to reach or goes out of reach. On the fourth day of our trek, we walked the grueling span between Hankar and Nimaling. We were told the hike would take us 3-4 hours. After 6-7 hours, we began wondering whether we had taken a wrong turn. On one hand, the path was clearly marked out in front of us; the guide book described our scenery with the mountain on one side, the river on the other, the plains we were traversing, all exactly as we were seeing it. But fear and doubt had crept in all the way back during the third or fourth hour, questioning whether we were going the right way. And each step since then had chipped away at our confidence. I went ahead up the trail without my pack to see if we saw Nimaling's tent village past the next clearing. I went expectantly to look for it, but saw nothing. Coming back to Paras, we decided to head back along the trail and re-trace our steps, thinking we had gone astray. I started fitting the facts to the imagined reality that we were lost. Maybe we should have stayed with the river where there was a faint trail, maybe we were on a trail that was not shown in our trail maps. Fortunately after about 30 min going back we ran right into a group that had been trailing us. Their guide confirmed we were in fact going the right way all along. Relief! As it turned out, I had come just 3 minutes short of being able to see Nimaling when I had walked ahead. But I came short three minutes because of hours of doubt that had built up before that. Reflecting on that day, we had been on the correct path all along. Had we stayed confident and committed to that path, we would have met our goal. But we walked the correct physical path with a mental state of doubt and fear. And that was enough to change the correct path to the wrong one and almost cost us our destination.

* During this trip I read an extraordinary book, "Three Steps, One Bow" by Hung Ju and Hung Yo of the Gold Mountain Monastery in SF. It was gifted to me by Aarthi, who coincidentally had just traveled to Ladakh herself. This was one of the best books I have ever read, one of those rare ones where you never want it to end and despair as the thickness of unread pages dwindles thinner and thinner. It spoke to me clearly and deeply. The two monks chronicle their daily experiences during an 1,100 mile bowing pilgrimage from San Francisco to Marblemount, WA. The pilgrimage was amazing. It gave me great inspiration that anyone of us can do something great and meaningful. They faced incredible difficulties, from injuries to being arrested to being physically and verbally abused to nearly being hit by traffic. So many people tried to convert them or tell them they were crazy. But there were so many that were moved by the bowing monks. What I loved most about the book was how the monks themselves wrote and reflected. They were two just delightful, aware, humble, gentle, humorous dudes. I laughed so many times, and I teared up couple times too. I loved some of their reflections that were more spiritual:
  • To me, the river is a reminder of the ever-flowing stream of thought that runs in the mind. In Chinese, this flow is called wang syang (false thinking). This superflous cogitation is constantly making discriminations; dividing and categorizing, breaking up a fundamentally undifferentiated reality into myriads of pieces. Of course the pieces seem to be reality, too, but we become confused by these false projections, and greedily seek what we think is "good" and reject what is "bad". The superficial boundaries of "mine" and "others" are falsely established. From this arises quarreling and all manner of afflictions, up to and including world wars, and it's all simply because we are confused by this river of thought. -- Hung Ju
  • The Buddha says that in his efforts to describe the true mind, his is like someone who wishes to show a friend the full moon. He points to the moon with his finger, but the friend misunderstands and thinks that the finger is the object of attention. But he is doubly deluded, for not only does he not see the real moon, he doesn't see the finger for what it really is. Just as the pointing finger is not the moon, the language which is used to refer to or point out our inherent enlightenment is not itself enlightenment. One must be careful not to seize on language as ultimately true or real, of it is transcended by the fundamentally pure, clear Buddha-nature. --Hung Yo
I have a feeling I will keep these two monks and their journey in my mind and heart for a long time to come.

* An aha moment I had during this trek is that I have too much junk in my mind. I am increasingly growing disintersted in accumulating facts. At one point in life I thought being smart meant knowing the most facts. But there are so many useless facts in my head. Nowadays minimalism and simplicity are very popular design paradigms for physical and virtual spaces. I would like to take it one step further and apply minimalism to my inner space.  One of the most rewarding experiments I did on the trek was to completely empty my mind as I walked. For the entire five day trek, with the exception of a few hours here and there, we followed the Markha River through the valley that it had cut. The river was our loyal companion, and it Paras and I grew quite attached to it. I mentioned to him at one point that when we couldn't see it you could  sometimes feel separation anxiety. As I walked, I would try to concentrate so that my mind was totally empty of stray thoughts, and would try to fill my consciousness with the sound of the river and the feeling of my body as I moved. I found it deeply satisfying. What I got out of the practice was some experience in trying to be constantly aware and mentally still while doing intense physical activity. I feel that one ability I lack is taking deep mental stillness off the cushion and into daily life; this trek provided a good opportunity to practice in an intermediate context. I thank the Markha River for the help.

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