By Bill Scheffel
Between 2004 and 2007, I traveled around the world and then returned to Southeast Asia. Saw a dream of sleeping by the Adriatic Sea with a lousy pillow become the reality of nineteen days of wandering through Istanbul and Rome. Sold my house. Wanted little more in possessions than a small suitcase. Threw the I Ching and left a twelve-year teaching career, believing my life had become a search to understand a metaphor: The King introduces him to the Western Mountain. I was living in Phnom Penh and had finally learned how to pronounce hello in Cambodian. Walked the same route to breakfast, swam in the Mekong River, made new friends. I seldom thought of home, and then realized Phnom Penh was home, was the Western Mountain. The following writings are fragments of how this happened and documents of what I saw.
One day, in 2002, I said, “Tell me what to do.” I wasn't talking to anyone in the room - I was alone. I wasn't exactly talking to my spiritual teacher, but just to the world at large. In a mood of reflection and ironic humor , I realized I was tired of making my own plans for my life. That moment - ordinary, unpremeditated and, for a time, forgotten - became a turning point. Something in me opened. Since then I've tried to encourage, cultivate and divine the instructions that have told me what to do. I have written questions, increased the practice of my meditation, consulted a psychic, supplicated each morning and month by month found my request being put into effect, running me.
. . .
Beginning in 1978 and continuing until his death in 1987, my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, periodically taught on drala - a Tibetan term which can be translated as beyond aggression. Drala, in part, is the experience of non-duality. Drala is perception, freeing oneself through something as ordinary as sautéing onions - noticing the shimmer, the translucency and scent, the way the onion bleeds when the knife cuts. Drala is how any moment, however ordinary, can become - is - an epiphany. Dralas are also the profound and benevolent forces of the invisible or intangible world. These dralas are the guardians and guides discovered (and typically lost) in all religions, especially those of indigenous people. We communicate with dralas through ceremony, offerings, ritual, prayer - any valid expression of the heart. In order to live properly on the earth and attain spiritual realization one needs a personal connection with the dralas (who, or course, go by many names).
Chögyam Trungpa not only taught his students about the dralas, he connected us to them - untold numbers of them! In frustration with our thickheaded intellectualism, our overdeveloped rational mind, the way we keep the dralas at a distance, he would say with childlike bluntness, “They want to meet you. Why don't you talk to them?” My intention on my travels was, if not to talk, at least listen. To be open to the most ordinary of moments. To be led.
. . .
Before my trip, I prepared my house for sale, under a vision - and guidance - that I should do the work myself; literally with my own hands, that it was necessary to complete my life of “living in a house,” that the “right people would buy it,” that I was fixing it up for them." My house sat empty for fifteen months, but I accepted the mortgage loss in the imperative that I simply could not accelerate the process, complete the work with stress or hurriedness, rush. Over many months I cleaned out a great accumulation (and I am rather minimalist) of old clothes, junk drawers, paper and stuff stuffed into the garage. I painted every room, sanded and refinished the hardwood floors, re-grouted tile, installed new lights, doorknobs, kitchen and bathroom sinks, cleaned up the yard, stained the deck. One day, nearing the end of the seeming endlessness of the project, I lay under the bathroom sink and struggled to secure pipes with a crescent wrench. Suddenly I felt the striking, intangible presence of the dralas, but this time cultivated through water, through literally becoming a plumber, but even more so by learning patience with tools. Instead of swearing at the crescent wrench and the ornery bolt it kept slipping from, I increased the moment of mindfulness such that the drala principle revealed herself (amidst faucets and basins from Home Depot). No amount of money - saved, earned or lost - could buy or equivocate such an experience of them, such a experience of myself.
January, 2005. Last night I took my final walk in Rome. From Piazza Spagna to my hotel and then into the night, the city was a world of competing sounds, existence announcing itself, heard but unable to be found, terrific Om Ah Hums of two-cycle engines, porcelain driven into dishwashing machines, bus gearboxes and buzzing streetlights. The Forum of Julius Caesar was a pile of rubble but on the subatomic level also screeching. The history of the species sounding even as morning newspapers were printing. I turned left on Via Nazionale and came upon a dozen diesel busses idling near the Termini, angry and exhausted in the face of further driving. Miraculously, thousands of sparrows perched in trees above the busses were even louder, working their beaks in a fury, delirious cries approaching the stroke of midnight, screaming at the buses the way two thousand seagulls might scream at a dying blue whale. I'd finally had dinner with Luca, who chose a genuine Roman ristorante for our meal, where we sat elbow to elbow in a room the size of a train car. In order to hear we had to shout, only adding more decibels to the din; from a birds eye view we too were squawking, not at seeds, but at plates of veal chops and broken bread. Everything changes and at times, walking home, I could even hear my footsteps. At three AM, a final motor scooter seemed to play a form of Russian roulette, blasting back and forth through the neighborhood in a four block solitary drag race, the sound of a dentist drill boring into the city without Novocain, a final trumpet blast of anxious existence refusing to slow at the intersections. Sometimes that, sometimes just the sound of my sheets wrinkling as I turned in them.
Wandering in Florence. I knew nothing, remembered nothing. Only images from Mr. Dvorak's art class or the expensive books in the Hillsborough home where my Aunt Ruth was caretaker. Afternoons in high school or evenings at my aunt's, turning pages on collections of the Uffizi. Adorations of the Magi, annunciations, burgers counting change. The names grew imposing and profound as I read them: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrect Durer, Paola Uccetto, Caravaggio and Titian. Painting was my first identity, my entrance into adulthood. I learned the pleasure of autochthonic scholarship, walking in accidental dreams into Goya's Spain (and later the desolate countryside where Antonio Machado taught school). The violent campaigns and architectural triumphs of the di Medici's remained unmemorized and I snow skied, thinking of the ultramarine blue in the Arezzo altarpiece. Who can assemble a coherent narrative from random encounters with page 237 or 49?
I knew nothing, remembered nothing as I stepped onto the Firenze Stazione Centrale and headed toward the largest building I'd seen from the train. Then stumbled upon the Uffizi. Saw Piero Della Francesca's portraits of Urbino royalty. Saw Bottacelli's brazen women. Saw a masterpiece Albrecht Durer painted when he was only nineteen years old. I saw the paintings, but it is only the river Arno that I really saw. A greenish yellow that would take careful mixing from many tubes to approximate, and absolutely opaque, not a chance of seeing through it - the blade of a kayaker's oar lost to sight like a knife plunged into flesh. The single living artery of the city of Florence, of any city, sullied, abused; only the seagulls and rats find it hospitable. Yet the sky still reflected on its surface. The buildings and clouds were mixed from the same tubes of paint. A palette so aged, harmonized and perfected that I gazed and gazed upon it, spanned by perfect bridges, including the one I stood upon.
The Bosporus is not a river or sea or bay but a strait, its water dark and clear. There is concern an oil tanker will rupture and despoil it. Punctured balloons, orange rinds and cormorant feathers wash ashore. The Bospherus has gone by many names; in Turkish it means throat. Ulysses saw it. The Black Sea is shallow and the fish are small and it sends its water from the east while the Sea of Marmora feeds the Bosporus from the west. At 10:45 this morning we will drop tokens in the turnstile and board the Bostanci Ferry. We will be offered tea or bread by men shouting çay or simit. The Bospherus will take the boat like its billionth cork and deliver us.
Today spanned two countries, a plane flight and thirty-seven hours without any sleep. It began with a view of the Mediterranean Sea and ended with the sight of a steaming ceiling in a five-hundred year-old hamam. Istanbul. I entered the streets and kept walking, past countless niches of commerce. Stores selling ouds, drum sets and Fender guitars. On another block old gears, dynamos and electric motors for tugboats or barges, wedding band and trophy engravers, slabs of lamb carved everywhere and in a pedestrian tunnel men hawking batteries, toothbrushes five-to-a-package and umbrellas in a clamor at the top of their lungs... TO CONTINUE READING
Heat. The fan in my room is always spinning; on high speed during the day, low at night. It draws a bit of resource, adds a bit of noise, moves constantly. What does it mean to live in city of eleven million? Every night I wake up numerous times. How can one expect to sleep through so much movement, among so many people? Motors, insects, gears and plumes of diesel smoke all add their noise. And the voices: Thai spoken in a song of pitched tones, the language of a rare bird. Bangkok is a vast, moving river of noise. Traffic, noise and heat. A cataclysm inside a mirage. But the noise varies, the traffic ebbs and in places there is none.
Back on the Chao Praya River, I took the ferry to whatever stop seemed appealing. Without anticipating it, I saw sunlight on the water and it corresponded immediately to the River Arno. I'd drank a large bottle of Singha with my lunch of steamed perch wrapped in a curried banana leaf and it was now 4:30, the sun low in the sky, broken into a million reflection particles in dance on the water's surface. Other passengers took the wind or looked about as I was. The planks of the boat supported my weight, a simulacrum of earth. Fire was abundant in the sun and however many knots the Nathanburi Ferry was moving promoted the experience of air. I imagined a realm of gills below the water's surface, immediate death and a bardo ticket. I gripped the handrail and felt my palms sweat in the heat. I stared at the river like a spear-fisherman at an ice-hole. The dancing sunlight spoke but I could put no words to it. Politics, history, real estate schemes and who won the 1987 World Cup bilged past like expelled crankcase oil. I surrendered to the Chao Praya planetarium. The sunlight moved with the boat as barges, fishing shanties and gated condominiums passed like whiffs of smoke forming names in the dictionary. My eyes breathing immense in-and-outflows of retinal images, sans names and labels, thousands of boats clamoring through the pupil of my Suez Canal.
I had taught classes and workshops in poetry, creative writing and meditation for twelve and twenty-five years respectively. In 2004, through a combination of mishaps, grace and personal decisions, all of the teaching venues that sustained me came to an end. What else to do but travel around the world? Now I am a writer, poet and wanderer with a vision of the Western Mountain. On my trip I visited Italy, Malta, Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao. I carried a quote by the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki. The quote helped remind me of the “purpose” of my trip.
As long as you depend on something special, something it is assumed you should depend on, you are not strong enough to go on by yourself. You cannot find your way. The questions is not which way you should go. If you try to go in one direction, or if you always depend on signs, you will not find you own way. The best thing is to have eyes to read various signs.
Although I taught private classes concurrently, my teaching career was centered at Naropa University, where I had taught the most delightful possible classes to the most inspiring imaginable students for twelve years. The termination was dramatic. One day, as I was pondering my work, I was struck, as if by lightning, by a sense that, “I had to leave Naropa, now!” It was a message from my spiritual lineage (though such things can never be made clear or comprehensible in words) and seemed to explode from inside my heart. Within two days I informed the administration that the current semester would be my last. Since I had no particular reason for leaving, other than my “message,” I felt like I'd killed myself when I was happy. But I never really doubted the decision; the experience that brought it about was a gift that couldn't be denied, only followed.
Western Mountain is a metaphor. It was part of the experience that called me to leave a fourteen-year phase of my life and begin another, to wander. I don't know what Western Mountain means. I don't know what it will become. It is an experiment. It is not a foundation that I will become president of. It is not a subject that I will be the expert of. It is not a copyright I will own or a book I will author. It is a vision I am exploring, a living metaphor I am studying, a potential I am sharing.
June, 2006. Walkabout. It intensified last June, when I sold my car. Then I was back in Bangkok, after walking all summer and into the fall. It was as if dozens of five or six mile walks over six months had merely prepared me to begin to learn how to walk. I experienced a bombardment of imperatives, more direct and far easier to understand than the last time I was here. To become less conspicuous, less the obvious tourist, the foreigner (obtainable only in my own mind) was my most cosmetic and vain imperative. Since everything here is arrayed for people of much less average height, to protect my eyes and forehead from clotheslines, rigging wire, tarp rails or the blunt end of a bamboo pole was the imperative of personal safety. To protect myself from tripping over the endless encounters of streetside irregularities was an imperative of safety and of not looking like a tripping fool. To synchronize with the movements of the people I walked among was the constant reminder simply to be. To realize that the walk of the Thai (or the Cambodian or Lao) was far less disconnected with the earth itself (and the various sub-imperatives that implied) was the confirmation of my deepest beliefs, conveyed simply in footsteps. The central imperative was to return. To return each time. To return each time I was walking too fast. To return each time I was walking too fast... to walking more slowly. "Walk more slowly" - that could be the One Commandment, the dialectic of history in four words, then put into action. From that most central and non-theoretical imperative, there were others, an entire scaffolding, a system and anatomy of walking: Don't stare all around like a gapping fool. Don't stare off into the distance like you are trying to get there. Don't stare at the ground or up at the sky. Don't become visually absorbed into yourself either, like a man reading Time Magazine on an exercise bicycle. Let your eyes soften into the immediacy of where you are, where your next step is taking you, where you have been. Be more like a candle and less like a halogen headlamp. Other parts of the body listen and begin to correct themselves. The shoulders drop. As does the belly. The hands swing without self-consciousness or the need for a pocket. The strain in the lower back is gone. The legs seem like they could walk forever. These qualities assemble, or are lost, block by block, step by step.
In Bangkok I took long, long walks with only a vague sense, or none at all, of destination - the "about" part of the walkabout. Every time I left my room, even before I would reach the street, I was reminded to walk more slowly -the steep pitch of the stairs, the shadows and dimly lit halls, the barefoot walk of the employees of Shri Ayathaya Guest House. How civilized to park your shoes outside the house! (each evening, the employees collected the strewn about sandals and placed them on a rack). Putting your shoes on where they've been waiting for you is a slowing. Slow down, slow down, slow down - this is the White Man's burden now. It was only after I visited the mountain that is Phnom Penh's municipal dump (and saw the people living and working there) that I realized the cosmic particle-physics First-noble Commandment Quaranic truth that all the garbage we've created comes from walking too fast. Proved that if the earth becomes simply an entire rubbish heap of what we've hurried to make and throw away we will be forced to walk quite slowly amidst it.
Also to be discovered: It takes no longer to get somewhere, walking.
Defeated by the Metro and Skytrain in my attempt to find where Bangkok ends, I decided to try the ferry boat. North. Where I’d never been. The river widened, displayed just how much water it had, as if it could flood the city if it wanted to. Boys fished from the concrete piers, dove into it. Modern Bangkok had not yet invaded. Stretches of houses built in an old way, some in a colonial way. Behind and around them palm and leaf trees, here and there a wat. From the boat, the houses were almost unbearable to look at, as if they were gorgeous beings waiting on shore to satisfy your every desire. Porches, windows, balconies, roof angles all as if saying, Look this is a perfect way to live, it is warm, wet, abundant in fish and delicious fruit, here you can laugh and let the world take care of you. We will even help you become enlightened.
I had intended to ride the boat to its northern terminal, Stop #30 at Nonthaburi, but each stop looked more and more inviting, I couldn’t imagine paradise could improve so I bolted four stops shy of the end, a place called Wat Khema. It was if I was on a planet with a different atmosphere. Suddenly there little noise and few people. A courtyard with a car here and there, but mostly room for breezes to wind through it, to talk. A huge tree wrapped with old brocades and fabric, like so many belts tied at it waist. Flower garlands old and new strewn within it. Naturally a shine. It had several levels, like an elaborate tree house and was filled with stones carvings of ancestors, depictions of the king, toy soldiers, photographs, opened bottles of soda with straws in place, coins, amulets, and back in the corner a golden Buddha. It not only invited you to stop and pray, it invited you to add to it. The emptiness of the wind and open courtyard was enhanced by the shine, and they conversed.
I strolled around. Dogs so asleep and still they seemed to be lying there without gravity, as if they could just as well be floating. To the north a wat and inside its gates monks in their saffron robes wandered idly down a corridor. A section of house started at the edge of the courtyard, with the crisscross footpaths and people who were happy to smile. I had dressed better this morning, wore the black trousers I’d bought yesterday and tucked my new shirt in. There was zero probability of running into another tourist here, nor did I look quite like one. I felt like a schoolteacher or anthropologist, as if I would stay and make it my life’s work. As is was, I seemed destined for the other side of the river. I had come to the water again. Along with an old woman and a bunch of schoolgirls, I stepped back onto a ferry boat. Like an ice-cream truck, the boat made three stops, all in the neighborhood, then crossed to the other side. The pilot was a boy, silent, darkened by the sun. He greeted me without taking his eyes off the water.