Monthly Archives: November 2005

Today I am loving India

Today I am loving India again. Dwarko-ji took us to a plantation about ten miles outside of Bodh Gaya where, having been given 70 acres of land twenty-five years ago, he built a “school for life.” Here, the village children he takes are not poor “townies,” but rural, almost tribal foragers. The parents have no concept of upward mobility, and do not even see a reason to send their children to the school as boarders, the way the people in Bodh Gaya do.

However, these rural forest dwellers spend the day in the forests looking for food, and they have begun to see the school, especially the kindergarten, as a safe place to drop the kids for the day. So there are 90 “boarders” and many other “day students.”

This farm, which is large enough to be self-sustaining, uses biomass (cow dung) for cooking gas, exists without electricity, and doesn’t even have bathrooms. The plowing is done by a man walking behind a team of oxen with a wooden plow. I’d never seen this outside a book; it is an innovation from the Middle Ages.

On the farm, the children learn how to work the generator that drives the well, how to irrigate and farm, and how to take products to market. This is part of Ghandi’s program of “village development,” whereby you help the village by educating the children. India is full of this concept, on every level. On the higher levels, it’s why Bangalore exists: generations of Indian parents have educated their children to a better life. On the poorest level, in rural Bihar, it’s teaching the children to graduate from hunter-gatherers to farmers.

But the children also become literate in this school — at least the boarders do. Like all Indian children, they sit patiently waiting for the teacher, with their little chalk boards in their hands. They are wearing uniforms. Literacy, uniforms, farming — these are great steps forward for these children.

So the farm is self-sustaining, while the ashram school, in the town of Bodh Gaya, is not, because it is only two acres. This is why Dwarko-ji wants to start the cow project, to produce medicines (both Ayurvedic and allopathic) from cow urine.
So yesterday I bought him the first cow of twenty he thought he would need.

We went to the cattle market. I found it hilarious: the cows are wearing fancy decorative headpieces and leashes as they are paraded around for sale. They are brought from all over the region to this market. It’s like the cow prom. The Indian cows are different from the others, because they have big humps behind their necks. I think they are all ugly, but Dwarko wants one of these because they give better urine for medicine (supposedly). Just in case you think all this is crazy, I remind you that cow urine is a well-known antiseptic and antibiotic ingredient. Made into pills, it’s not recognizable 🙂

There are also Jersey cows, and Dutch cows at the market, some of which are much more expensive than the cow we choose. There are also lots of calves. The calves remind me of puppies.

The ashram people are not stupid; they pick a cow they think we will buy, put a deposit down, and come back the next day to milk the cow three times before consummating the purchase. We have our eyes on a gray cow; if they buy her, she will be named Francine. We hope she will urinate often, just like the original Francine.

Half way through the cattle market, I come to my senses and go back to the air conditioned car, realizing how unsanitary the conditions are, between the dust, the flies, and the animals. When I get back to the hotel, I take a shower (or rather I let the water run out of the wall in my bathroom into the plastic bucket, and then take the small plastic bucket, fill it, and pour it over my body. I use the Ayurvedic, non-foaming soap. I emerge new, and ready for dinner.

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Bihar is the poorest state

Bihar is the poorest state in India. I am here following in the Buddha’s footsteps, although I think I am more aptly following in the footsteps of Buddhist monks who come here from the major Buddhist countries of the world –Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Taiwan. India is not really Buddhist; it’s Hindu.

But the Buddhist shrines happen to be here, and yesterday we visited Rajghir, where the Japanese Buddhists have built a Peace Pagoda on top of the mountain where Buddha lectured, and Nalanda — the excavated remains of a university that is 2500 years old.

Walking through the campus of Nalanda, which the British excavated in the early 20th century,any visitor gets a jolt. The western world didn’t invent anything. Nalanda had lecture halls, science rooms, libraries, dormitories, and most of the accoutrements of the modern university. All this was built in the 5th century BC, and at the height of Nalanda’s influence, Chinese scholars came here and took the books and teachings of Buddha back to China with them. Guess who destroyed Nalanda? The Msulims. And a few earthquakes, which caused it to be buried under mounds of dirt.

The spread of knowledge so long ago is awe-inspiring, because of the lengths of the journies. Even now, a trip of 80 km roundtrip with a few shrine visits takes a day over Indian roads.

The towns in Bihar are strung out along the main roads, markets facing the street, homes and farms in the interior. Although Bodh Gaya is a tourist mecca, the nearby farming villages grow all kinds of vegetables that make up the largely vegetarian diet. Every town has numerous stores in which you can buy a phone card or a SIM chip for your mobile, and my phone worked continuously even in the most rural areas. Not data, just voice. For data, it’s still one line per town, and every modem connects to it. During the day, it’s impossible to get on the Internet from Bodh Gaya, although I’ve already optimized the hotel’s machine by saving the dial in password and downloading Firefox so I don’t have to struggle with Internet Explorer’s fat load.

Yesterday for the first time I found I was not in love with India. The beggars are so obnoxious and omnipresent that they make the Chinese look like laggards. They paw and beat you, showing their missing teeth and their physical deformities, which they wave like badges of pride. They actually defeat their own causes with their aggressive behavior. I am told that the government has homes for these people, and they do have beds to sleep in at night, but they prefer to beg at the shrines during the day. I think the begging is the biggest deterrent to building a tourism industry in India.

That’s in Bihar, where I am. In Bangalore there are no beggars; because of the presence of worldwide commerce, the government has carted them all away. I don’t know whether that’s better or worse, but I know we faced the same issues in downtown Phoenix on a much smaller scale, and it led to the magnificent homeless campus that opened last month.

Another issue I have with India on this trip is the use of English. The British have been gone long enough that the Indians, although they learn English, speak Hindi or another local language for their everyday life. So although they can often form English words and speak the language, they don’t really understand what you say to them. Repeatedly they cheerfully answer the wrong question, telling me the date when I ask the name of the town. In Bihar, there is no real technology presence, and the people are helpful without being effective.

Nevertheless, I still see how eduation is valued even in Bihar; it’s exactly the reverse of the States. At home, the houses are opulent and the schools are falling down. In Bihar, the homes may be boxes, but the schools are clean and painted. And in every market town, there is the equivalent of the Princeton Review — a business that prepares students to take the exams for the IIT and the medical schools. There are Zoology centres, math centers, and physics centers in the middle of nowhere, coaching these kids for a better life.

It stuns me that Dwarko Sundrani, son of a wealthy merchant in India, chose to come here fifty years ago and dedicate his life to helping this village. What an amazing commitment. On the other hand, both the Hindu and Buddhist religions speak of dedicating one’s life to something besides the self, so it’s not as strange as it would be for a westerner. As Sri’s brother said to me yesterday: “The cow gives milk, but she doesn’t drink it; the river runs for everyone; the tree bears fruit only for others.”

I never thought of it that way!

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This morning Sri and our

This morning Sri and our guide, who has been taking people to Buddhist sites in India for forty years, went to the Mahabodhi Temple, the most important Buddhist shrine in the world. It was built in the 3rd century BC, and had to be excavated and reconstructed in the 1880’s. The shrine is called a stupa, in which all the little Buddhas add up to the big Buddha.

We had to take our shoes off at the entrance to the inner ring of the temple, which is mostly outside. There are seven places around the monument where Buddha spent time after receiving enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree. A tree still exists in the original spot, containing the DNA of the original tree.

At sunrise, the temple is almost indescribably beautiful. Monks from all over the world are softly walking around; many of the Tibetan Buddhists are doing their prostrations, as are elderly women.

This temple is a place where Buddhists from all over the world come; they seem to have a lot in common. Buddhism is a religion of ahimsa, or non-violence, and everyone in town is meditating for peace on earth.

We stayed at the temple for two hours, and then went to the eye camp that Swarko-ji’s ashram has sponsored for twenty-three years. Dwarko-ji showed us how they have set up a system to do 1000 operations a day with no infections, serving 21,000 people this year. The people from neighboring villages come to the eye camp, where they receive a preliminary screening that tells whether they need surgery, whether this particular surgery (Yag laser cataract surgery and the insertion of interocular lenses) will work for them, and whether they have any other health conditions that might affect the surgery. The next day, they wait in line to be operated on. They are given a local anaesthetic, and they lie on massage tables, with each doctor going back and forth between two tables at once. An army of volunteers, masked and with hair covered, supports the doctors — carrying equipment, sterilizing instruments, washing towels, etc.

After the surgery, the villagers stay at the eye camp in the tents for three more days while the dressings are changed and they are examined on a daily basis. On the fifth day, they are discharged with medications, glasses, new clothes, and instructions. During the five days, they are also fed three meals a day of healthy food.

This is all funded by a man who follows Dwarko-ji, and who is a diamond cutter by trade. He lives in Gujarat, buys diamonds in Belgium, cuts them in India, and sells them on 43rd Street in New York. His charitable trust funds the eye camp every year: 20 million rupees. And that’s just for the food and the hard costs; everyone else is a volunteer. This fellow, who has never married and has, like Dwarko, dedicated his life to service, believes this is his true work.

Dwarko thinks his own life’s work has been to reclaim two acres of land for the children. Although he is 84, he seems to have endless energy for organizing projects. He reclaimed the two acres of desert land into a farm for the children so they can learn the principles and technologies of farming, and he is now growing a new tree, Jatropha, that he says produces a fruit suitable to make bio-diesel. He plans to contribute his bio-diesel to the state. He already reclaims cow dung and makes it into cooking gas for his kitchens, and he is planning to buy more cows because he has been told that cow urine can be made into medicines, both for humans and for animals (it is used in antiseptics) and he wants to put his children into the pharmaceutical business. In his words, “it is a clean business with very little work.”

He is moving the children along with the times.
But lest you think India is all made of Dwarko-ji figures and Tibetan monks doing prostrations, Sri was pickpocketed on the way home from the ATM machine this morning — by a group of women, two of whom had babies with them.

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It is an all day

It is an all day flight from Shanghai, which seems now to me like San Francisco, and Gaya, India, where Buddha received his enlightenment. I can see why enlightenment might happen here. It’s a remote, dusty village where cows have the right of way on the road.

Everyone on the second flight, from Bangkok to Gaya, is a pilgrim but me. We arrive at the airport, and I can tell I am in India. We get off the plane on the tarmac and are met by a rickety bus. We are told to board the bus, and I do, but then I find that the bus rise to the terminal is only about fifty yards.
When we get to the terminal, we are asked to identify our bags outside. But once we identify them, we still can’t claim them; we have to go inside and wait until they are put on a conveyor belt and come to us. It’s a process they learned somewhere, and even if it’s inconvenient and makes no sense, they follow it.

We then stand on a long line to go through Immigration; the monks go first.

At the hotel, the electricity goes on and off randomly, plunging everyone into darkness. In a moment, a generator will come on. Better save your files here!

At the ashram, Dwarko-ji sits in the gathering darkness anyway. He talks about the eye camp, where twenty doctors from Gujarat have done 16,000 cataract operations already this month on children blind from birth. He is proud that there has not yet been one infection, although the surgeries are done in tents by the side of the main road. I will see the eye camp later this morning; the doctors still have 5000 more surgeries to do. There are a million people in this province alone who are blind, mostly from poor nutrition. This is the poorest province in India, and Dwarko-ji chose to come here fifty years ago because of its poverty.

His education program here is, as he says, revolutionary. He teaches village kids in a dormitory setting. They are all children whose parents can’t afford to feed them, much less educate them, and he prepares them for life. He teaches such subjects as hygiene, gardening, and parenting; math and English are taught in the context of the other subjects.

While he labors, others who come to Gaya visit the Buddhist temples and shrines. There is a monastery here representing every form of Buddhism: Tibetan, Japanese, Thai, etc. Today I will see them, too.

I think of my life in the United States and how difficult it is to communicate to my friends and family what I see on these trips I take. In some ways, it’s the same world — one with children to be raised, cell phones to be used, and computers. But the climate of uncertainty is so much greater here. Not even a question of will your child get into college. More a question of whether you can feed him till he grows up.

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Shala Yoga Shanghai



The yoga studio in Shanghai is in an old remodeled building that is part of the French Concession , and the Taiwanese owner, Cecillia, has spared no expense. The building is three stories high, with four different classrooms, and dark wood flooring throughout. It has many private toilets and showers, rare for a building in China. The last toilet I visited was a row of stalls with a canal running through it. You peed in the canal, and every so often the entire row was flushed and the water ran downhill. Not quite as clever as the Toto toilet in Chantal’s house down the lane from the studio, where the powder room toilet refills itself from a faucet on top of the tank, at which you also wash your hands.

Our instructor, Meg, has just moved to Shanghai from Beijing, and is Australian. Her voice is very soft, and I think of Ian barking out the cues over a rap song in Arizona.

Here in China, we are given mats and towels, water bottles and fruit, tea and juice before and after class. We don’t pick up our mats and towels; someone does it for us, and wipes the floor between classes as well.

I lay on the floor during savasana thinking once again that I am blessed. It is a beautiful sunny day in Shanghai, China, and I am here. It is a Communist country, but I don’t suffer from the lack of regard for human rights. I simply visit, take the best, and am free to leave. Namaste.

After yoga, we visit the wonton soup restaurant. It has three rows of picnic tables at which about thirty people can eat lunch simultaneously. Nothing is served but variations of won ton soup, which are delicious. Then we grab one of the ubiquitous taxis and head off to the fabric mart, where we pick up the jackets we ordered hand tailored yesterday. We stop then at the antique market, where booth after booth displays both authentic and faux pieces of Chinese tradition — Buddhas and jewel boxes, jade and ivory, vases and novelties. Unlike in India, where tourism has made it necessary for all the stores to take Visa and offer shipping to the US, in China there’s no such luxury, and although I find a Tibetan chest that I’d love to have, I can’t figure out how to pay for it or ship it home.

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