“What we all love about Mongolia is the spirit of the frontier. I can gallop for a month here without seeing a fence. I’m trying to protect my freedom. Mongolia isn’t some fantasy; it’s about the art of living that we’ve forgotten. I go back to Paris and find everyone numb. They’ve lost their heroic aspect. We’re all living in hell, which we try to perfume with iPhones, vacations, the next fast car. Either you choose the path of liberation, seeking enlightenment, or of samsara, seeking happiness, which always depends on having something: the promotion, the job, the second home, … .”
– Hamid Sandar-Afkhami
I’m on my way to Utah, but only for a brief (i.e. less than 6 hours) stay. Then it’ll be time to turn around and drive 20+ hours back to Wisconsin. In order to get to Utah at a semi-decent time, I had to wake up uber early and take a 6am flight. I took the early flight in part because it was cheap, but also because it had a decent layover. My only other option had a 40 minute layover and I didn’t want to get stuck arriving later or rushing to the next flight, so I sacrificed a little sleep in order to make sure I didn’t miss my connecting flight. Had I missed that connecting flight, my schedule would have been really messed up, needing to get back to Wisconsin by Friday night.
Prior to leaving on my first leg of the trip I purchased a magazine, which had a number of quality articles in it. One of these articles provided the quote above by Sandar – an article on Mongolia and a two week trek into the Tuva wilderness, a wilderness I know next to nothing about. At the conclusion of the article we’re treated to a brief write-up on some rural Mongolian residents providing shelter and conversation for a group of some 25 people on the trek at a moment’s notice. The group who was the subject of the article had been traveling a bit too far into the wilderness and were turned back by Mongolian rangers who patrol the borders in those hinterlands. As the group turned back they happened upon a ger in the middle of nowhere (a yurt), and stopped in, as is the Mongolian tradition, for conversation and tea. As the yurt seemingly ballooned to hold all 25 people, the author of the article began to feel a bit uneasy about overtaking the yurt and overcrowding the residents. Whereas that is a relatively normal reaction for us westerners, who thrive on our privacy and solitude, these Mongolians felt the visit was something worth celebrating and wouldn’t have had it any other way. The above quote was the trek leader’s response to a query about possibly leaving and setting up camp elsewhere, and it’s a poignant thought.
As I sat in one of the common areas awaiting the departure of the next leg of my flight to Utah, I had a chance to sit back and observe some people for a few minutes. From the looks, actions and movements of those I observed, it seems as though we are a bizarre people, busily moving here and there, rushing to and fro, preoccupied with ourselves and our schedules. Cell phones, iPhones, newspapers and other forms of entertainment largely take up our time. Certainly today that was the case, and perhaps the setting had as much to do with that as anything, but I’ve seen similar stories play out elsewhere with little difference. Specialized people of all shapes and sizes are going here and there for business reasons, hoping to satisfy this or that client, which in turn will ensure their next paycheck. Perhaps this is the natural result of a people in search of some sort of samsara – living in hell, trying to perfume the stench of hell over with the perceived happiness that awaits us in and through our gadgets, gizmos, paychecks and rewards. All the while, we lose both our enlightenment and the opportunities to discover something far better.
We’re simply too busy, it seems, to engage in those heroic adventures Sandar referenced in his opening quote. No longer do we seek out adventures, instead contenting ourselves with the latest sitcom, iPad application and blog entry. Robert Heinlein once stated that humans should be able to do most anything – repair basic goods, change diapers, work most any job and figure things out for himself in most anything he did – and yet, contrary to Heinlein’s statement, we’ve endorsed the idea that specialization is no longer just for insects. We humans like specialization too – farming out the more mundane chores (small motor repair, cooking, cleaning, arithmetic, and everything else under the sun) to the experts, perceived or real.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
– Robert Heinlein
I’m not sure whether this is as bad as some suggest, though I do think we lose out on a lot when we remove ourselves from the equation of things we do. We lose the experience, the insight and the wisdom that comes with creating something by ourselves, wisdom born out of necessity. Some say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I’m inclined to agree. The more you do something by yourself, for yourself, even when you have no idea what you’re doing, from somewhere you gain wisdom on how to do that particular something. The universe rewards, it seems, the active and creative soul.
As I built my brick oven this spring, and repaired it just this past week, I was constantly surprised by some of the ideas that came into my mind on how to improve this or that aspect of the oven. Whether it was the application of the surface bonding cement, the mortar, the insulation, the trailer or some other aspect, many of those ideas were born out of necessity, trying to come up with the best idea when faced with a bizarre set of challenges. I can rather safely say that not all of those ideas came from me, as they were far too clever to originate in my rather mundane melon. Ironically enough, I think that is part of the path of liberation Sandara explains above – enlightenment from an outside source other than myself, a source the served to illuminate my mind.
This brick oven has, in turn, given me more lessons. Instead of sitting at a desk, working behind a computer all day, I’m in front of people, helping to provide them with something they enjoy. No longer am I three steps removed from public interaction, but rather am forced into the interaction. Sometimes this leads to conversations with the elderly (or others) from which I simply can’t extract myself no matter how hard I try, sometimes this leads to burning eyes and lungs from all the smoke blown in my face, but it’s most always interesting.
So, in your searchings for samsara, don’t forget to seek out some enlightenment. More is definitely better in this case. One interesting, if not a bit over simplified, discussion on samsara was this:
Samsara literally means “wandering-on.” Many people think of it as the Buddhist name for the place where we currently live — the place we leave when we go to nibbana. But in the early Buddhist texts, it’s the answer, not to the question, “Where are we?” but to the question, “What are we doing?” Instead of a place, it’s a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.
The play and creativity in the process can sometimes be enjoyable. In fact, it would be perfectly innocuous if it didn’t entail so much suffering. The worlds we create keep caving in and killing us. Moving into a new world requires effort: not only the pains and risks of taking birth, but also the hard knocks — mental and physical — that come from going through childhood into adulthood, over and over again. The Buddha once asked his monks, “Which do you think is greater: the water in the oceans or the tears you’ve shed while wandering on?” His answer: the tears. Think of that the next time you gaze at the ocean or play in its waves.
In addition to creating suffering for ourselves, the worlds we create feed off the worlds of others, just as theirs feed off ours. In some cases the feeding may be mutually enjoyable and beneficial, but even then the arrangement has to come to an end. More typically, it causes harm to at least one side of the relationship, often to both. When you think of all the suffering that goes into keeping just one person clothed, fed, sheltered, and healthy — the suffering both for those who have to pay for these requisites, as well as those who have to labor or die in their production — you see how exploitative even the most rudimentary process of world-building can be.
This is why the Buddha tried to find the way to stop samsara-ing. Once he had found it, he encouraged others to follow it, too. Because samsara-ing is something that each of us does, each of us has to stop it him or her self alone. If samsara were a place, it might seem selfish for one person to look for an escape, leaving others behind. But when you realize that it’s a process, there’s nothing selfish about stopping it at all. It’s like giving up an addiction or an abusive habit. When you learn the skills needed to stop creating your own worlds of suffering, you can share those skills with others so that they can stop creating theirs. At the same time, you’ll never have to feed off the worlds of others, so to that extent you’re lightening their load as well.