Sunday, May 24, 2015

Golden Temple

Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar was the best experience I've had in my life at a religious site. The connection to the spirit and values of the place was immediate, natural, and complete. Nimo, who along with Jay was with me on the visit, mentioned that it was the first place where he felt completely natural and worry-free entering a public bathroom barefoot. Being around the temple felt like being home.

We spent two days in Amritsar, and visited the main tourist sites: Jallianwala Bagh, and Wagah border. But the main attraction, and where we spent most of our time, was the Golden Temple. The first night we arrived we did a cursory survey of the space, wandering around the outer area and meditating at the banks. The next morning we woke up early at 3am to get there when friends recommended it was at its peaceful best. We waited in line and did dharshan in the temple, and meditated there for some time. As we walked around, Nimo mentioned several times how the space felt so inviting. The universal love embedded in Sikhi felt embodied in the space. You didn't feel judged, coerced, bothered. Everyone came as they were and were accepted into the fold of the place in an effortless, respectful flow. Whether you wanted a place to eat, sleep, or pray, this was a clean, inviting space for anyone to come and be. No one ran, pushed in line, gave a dirty look, cramped your space. The rich marble floors and walls were spotless, the water pristine, soothing sweet live kirtan music played in the background to set a sacred mood 24 hours with large LCD displays in the corners translating in real time in English and Hindi, big healthy happy fish swam in the shallows and bobbed their heads up to say hello. It was a Spiritual Disneyland, but not in the ostentatious vein of Akshardham. Here the attractions were less flashy, more rooted. I thought several times of Guri, who carries herself with the same graceful, understated elegance. Just a pure experience.

As we walked out of the temple that morning, I heard a haggard old lady's voice asking for people to give her space to come through. She was an old shriveled rail thin woman, walking with a cane cutting through the crowd. She was violently hunchback, bent over pretty much 90 degrees. She hobbled gingerly on weak limbs and clutched the pant legs of passersby to keep balance, all the while looking straight down because of her back. Like everyone else, she had come to do her dharshan. And not just at the ground floor; as she clutched my leg and walked by, I looked back and saw that she was climbing up the steep flight of stairs I had just come from to visit a relatively minor part of the temple. Unbelievable. Only in places as spiritually charged as this do you see such miracles of faith and strength.

The level of seva at the Golden Temple was through the roof. I have never seen anything like it, and it was what stood out for me most about the place. Deep, humble seva was happening all around, all the time, in all aspects of the workings of the temple. It reminded of the spirit of volunteerism of Vipassana centers combined with the scale, complexity, and synchronicity of moving parts of an Aravind Eye Hospital. Visitors to the temple double as volunteers for its upkeep, slotting in to lend a hand at all hours of the day for all levels of work from large to small. One area is cleaning. Cleaning the floors, scrubbing the fountains, wiping down a wall or doorway as you pass with your dupatta or handkerchief. In the long dharshan line to the main temple, I saw one man on hands and knees with a wet cloth mopping the floor as the line slowly moved forward, cleaning inch by inch. In the morning, we saw men chest-deep in the pond, fully clothed, scrubbing the stone rim and floor with long rough brushes. They would slowly wade around the perimeter of the pond in peaceful lines, scrubbing inch after inch, one behind the other, stopping only to thoughtfully hand wash the signs for visitors. This is a part of the temple most people won't even see, yet these men very caringly left no pond floor area unscrubbed. Similar compassionate care was given to a tree in the temple grounds, very old and buckling over from age and weight to near collapse. An elaborate metal support system had been erected to keep it upright.

Many people know about the Lungar operation, which is famous for its huge scale with high quality. We were told 75,000 people are fed in the free kitchen every day. There are vats the size of several men slow cooking huge amounts of tasty black daal. Tons and tons of vegetables, there is a whole hall of people sitting on the floor silently peeling garlic. All day and night, 24 hours. The dining consists of two large halls side by side. You are led into one of them, where there are simple mats already laid out in neat rows. You sit with a steel thali and are served by people roaming around with buckets of daal and yogurt, and baskets of rotis. After all have finished a cleaning crew immediately comes in and starts rolling up the mats and wetting the floors and running huge mops back and forth. Meanwhile the other hall opens for people to start eating while the cleaning completes.

We marveled at the dishwashing operation, which is all done by hand. Four or five large long steel stations are set up side by side with troughs of water. Huge heaps of thalis are poured into the first station; either the all-lady or all-men station scrubs, and passes to the next trough where they are rinsed, then next for another scrub, and another rinse. Millionaires stand side by side with villagers to do the dishes at these stations. The MVP of the operation, though, are the poor chaps who carry huge cans of dirty dishes from the collection area to the dishwashing. Dirty dishes are literally flung into the cans and these chaps acts as backboards to collect the flying steelware. Then they carry these huge heavy cans of dirty dishes over to the troughs and somehow tip them into the trough. True invisible service.

For all the different areas of work happening, there doesn't seem to be a single sign-in or sign-out sheet. It all seems to happen organically. I sat in for some time at a water bowl washing station. As soon as I sat I was automatically integrated into the system, receiving bowls to scrub and passing them down the line for rinsing. Interestingly, we scrubbed the steel bowls with fresh bright black dirt. I watched an older man next to me spend five minutes on each bowl with total serene concentration, scrubbing every nook and cranny, rubbing his fingers into the tiny cracks and wiping back and forth vigorously until the steel shined. It reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh opening the door and Larry Brilliant serving tea. It wasn't about what you were doing; it was about what was happening to you as you were doing it.

There was no job too small, too humble. One old man inside the temple stood at the doorway in front of a dharshan area, and as people entered silently gestured to those whose heads weren't fully covered to do so. One night it rained, and at the shoe deposit area where men collect your shoes, put them into a cubby and return a token, a line of ladies sat on the ground in the back of the cubby area. In the midst of those dirty muddy shoes, the ladies scrubbed shoes of complete strangers clean with hand brushes. They did this for some time, and then just as nonchalantly as they entered, anonymously left. Godliness in action.

What is the Golden Temple? At one level, an important and popular religious pilgrimage site. Below the surface, it's a high degree of difficulty ballet professionally coordinated with humble effortlessness and ease, powered by pure-intentioned service from an army of visible and invisible hands.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


I want to share three memorable stories from mine and Jay's trip to Dharamshala (technically we were in McCleodganj, which is upper Dharmshala where Dalai Lama's monastery is).

Lion Man Show

On the first day we were in town Jay spotted a flier for a "live tibetan culture show." It sounded worthwhile, and it was Rs.200, which is quite expensive, so we were intrigued. The show was held at a school in town. It turned out to be a one-man show called the Lion Man Show. It was performed by a Tibetan refugee who said his show was about Tibetan culture. It was his expression of Tibet and his way of sharing Tibet's message with the world, through song, music, and dance. It ended up being the best and worst thing I've ever seen.

Lion Man was not a particularly talented performer. He singing was terrible and he couldn't really play the guitar-like instrument he aimlessly plucked in one of his opening numbers. Ten minutes into the show we were questioning whether this was a scam or joke, and trying to figure out how we could get our money back. Then Lion started bringing up people from the audience (particularly the biggest and heaviest folks) and picking them up in feats of strength. He would get them into contortions, pick them up, spin around, run into the audience, and nearly crash before letting them down. At one point he had two people on his back, reached back and pulled off one shoe and sock of each, and started tickling their feet. A few people very nearly face planted. The crowd was partially laughing, partially in shock. None of us were really prepared for what was happening, and weren't sure what to make of it.

In the second part of his act, Lion did dances related to "freedom" of Tibet. One "dance" was him going into the crowd and getting face to face, sometimes lip to lip with every member of the audience as music played. It was funny and intense. Some ladies got up and left the room before they got to their face. I was ready and waiting.

Later Lion did some crazy dances spinning around repeatedly for 15-20 mins, covering his head and spinning, stripping down to his speedo, slamming his body into the hard concrete, kicking off his shoes out the window, jumping out of the window and jumping back in with his lost boot. He also would fart. It seemed like it was a part of the dance. He would repeatedly fart in different poses. In one "dance" he took a singing bowl and beat it repeatedly, putting it on his head and on his body and beating it hard until the knob went flying off. All while inserting farts here and there. For his finale, he unraveled a full roll of toilet paper and wrapped himself in it. Then he lit the paper on fire under a candle, and ate pieces of it. Then he lit parts of his body on fire. You can guess the body parts.

Lion said his performance was about Tibetan culture, but this seemed like nothing to do with Tibet. On the other hand, there were what seemed like a few people in the audience from Tibet, and they were totally into it. I couldn't make out if this was a joke or there was a deeper message to Lion's madness. After the show a couple from Oakland said they believed Lion was doing art and there was meaning behind the shenanigans. Deep message or not, I will not forget Lion for a long time.


We did a photo walk hosted by a young photo journalist Abhinav who had been living in McCleodganj for the last year. There were about seven of us who joined, some of whom like Abhinav were young transplants from metros to live in the natural beauty of the mountains. It was a lovely hike into the woods and down to a river. At the river we stopped and had Maggi. On the way back, I asked for a couple garbage bags from a snack shack owner and started picking up wrappers. All of us got into it. It changed the whole dynamic of the hike. Suddenly we started talking about pollution and waste and other global problems. It brought us closer together. Abhinav said he may make "waste warriors" a regular part of the walks. Everyone became hyper conscious of the trail and trying to pick up every last piece of trash. There was a lot, we filled up several large sacks. It felt a bit obsessive by the end, it is impossible to clean up the whole forest and yet you don't want to leave any small wrapper behind. It does take you out of the enjoyment of nature, but on the other hand you feel like you are a contributor to the place.

It was an example of how a small act can have a dramatic ripple and change the dynamic of a group, for better or worse.

Gift at Four Seasons

There are tons of great places to eat in Mcleodganj. The one restaurant we went to twice was a small family Tibetan restaurant called Four Seasons Cafe. The second time we got to chat with the very sweet lady manager. We discussed vegetarianism, since it's a passionate subject for Jay. We noticed that the restaurant had posted a notice that they will serve and consume vegetarian food only every Wednesday for the year of 2015, in honor of the Dalai Lama and his spirit of kindness. We told her we loved her food, Jay especially loved a Tibetan noodle and gravy dish that he said was the best thing in town. At some point I really wanted to offer her a gift to thank her for her hospitality. But I wasn't really carrying anything appropriate. I reached deep into my bag and pulled out a keychain we had gotten as a gift in Amritsar. It was from a server at Brothers' Dhabha, which happened to be our favorite restaurant in Amritsar during our visit there. I really wasn't thinking of it at the time, but it ended up being an appropriate gift, as I told her that it was from one favorite restaurant to another. She gladly accepted, and even appreciated the idea of a restaurant handing out branded keychains. Maybe she would do the same!

The desire to give was unplanned, but the intention was pure. What was given wasn't appropriate in the moment, but it ended up working out well. A lot of the time it doesn't, but I know folks who have spontaneous meaningful gifting down to an art. Radical generosity, like anything else, can only improve with practice.