The Train

The imagined horrors of a two day train ride in India far out-weigh the actual discomfort of the journey. There are endless hours of footage of the desperation, grime, and poverty of the Indian railway sleeping somewhere in news stations the world over. These were the images I couldn’t shake when our tickets had finally been booked, but the reality was not so bad. We booked 3AC, which is the cheapest of the “luxury” travel options, 1AC being the highest. With our booking we were provided bunk beds, a sheet, and a blanket. 3AC is, however, the most crowded of the high-end options, so our journey was fairly noisy. 

The noise bothered me at first, especially the loud belching of the woman below me, whose burps I can only describe as “chewy.” 

How could I stay angry, though, when at lunch time she and her family offered us bread, butter, and sweets? 

So, outside of the burps, the journey was smooth. I mostly just read and slept. Had I been in the cars with no beds, however, I’m sure I would be whistling a different tune. There is undoubtedly a group of people who would claim I have no basis upon which to judge the train experience in India because I didn’t go with the roughest sleeping option. I’m not trying to generalize the Indian railway experience here; I’m just relaying what I got out of the endeavor. 

We were supposed to arrive in Varanasi at noon, and I had read online that the train is typically delayed ten minutes at the final terminus, not, as it turned out, two hours.

Billy handled this delay with his usual tact. I, on the other hand, was seething. The anger came from my fear that I was now delayed in letting my loved ones know I was safe. I absolutely hate the idea of them worrying about me, and I felt completely helpless with no way to get in touch with them, surrounded by people who spoke no English who couldn’t communicate the situation to me. That feeling of helplessness quickly transformed into anger. 

This, they say, is one of the benefits of practicing mediation: that in a time like that I would have been able to calm myself and sooth my racing mind. I don’t doubt the truth of that assertion, but I want to preserve all of my emotions, even if they’re occasionally good-for-nothing or damaging. If I’m a poor Christian than I’m an abysmal Buddhist. I want to keep my “monkey mind” that constantly clatters out ideas and reflections. I want to not just feel emotions but to act upon them too. I want to have opinions and principles that I am willing to uphold. I want I want I want. 

But I will be free from suffering if I dedicate my life to surrendering desire. At least that’s the claim, anyway. Nirvana. Total enlightenment. Supreme mental clarity. 

Sounds boring to me. I will endure suffering if it comes at the price of actually living a life, as opposed to withdrawing into some pallid cloister where one may never taste the disposition to love and hate, or indeed acknowledge any of those passions that make us human. 

“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” says Shelley in his famous “Ode to the West Wind.” Better to have fallen and bled, and to have taken that two-day train ride, than to have sat at home, trying to ignore my human impulses.

One thought on “The Train

  1. oooh, I am that Billy! The one described as full of “tact.” I remember this stance of yours on Buddhism vs. desire and its implications on what it means to be a flesh and blood human. Its been several years since then and I can’t remember if you’re opinion/understanding has changed. But I think I should respond to it.

    Around the same time Elliott left India for Morocco, I took a tuktuk just outside Sarnath to spend two weeks at a vipassana center. That’s the kind of place you hear about people meditating for 10 hours a day, waking up at 4 AM, not allowed to talk or journal or drink scotch. Even eye contact with your fellow meditators is slightly frowned upon since it can be a tool of communication.

    I remember on the first day we were told to walk to Building B and somehow I was in front leading the pack. The problem was I had no idea what Building B was — so I turned around and shrugged my shoulders at the bald russian behind me. His eyes grew wide like I had violated a sacred contract. Like we were going to be thrown in a prison cell. That’s ridiculous. Or there were plenty of times where I’d walk past a group of men standing around our communal pot of boiling water — clearly talking to each other. Once they sensed me, they’d hush up and and get a little nervous like I was going to rat them out.

    I really did have a great time meditating the day away but there was one question that kept bugging me. Its the same issue that Elliott raises: If one truly gives themselves over to the ideals of a controlled and empty mind, then doesn’t that take the life out of living? I admit I never truly believed this, but it bugged me that I didn’t have an answer.

    So towards the end of my two weeks I decided to approach the teacher. Everyday after lunch the teacher sat in the meditation hall and anybody could sit with him and ask questions or address concerns. This was the one time and place that the ban on talking was routinely lifted.

    I sat in the hall waiting as he whispered with several people. Finally he motioned me over for my turn. “Is something wrong?” he asked with his face growing very worried. He was so used to the same westerners approaching him day after day either because they were using this retreat to deal with mental illness or because they convinced themselves that “they just weren’t feeling anything” and had to know what they “were doing wrong.”

    His whole body relaxed when I assured him everything was great. I just had one question: “Let’s say I LOVE garlic naan. And I go to a restaurant and order garlic naan but all they have is bland, normal naan…. And I get upset that I can’t order my favorite food. Am I supposed to shed my love for garlic naan?”

    I watched his face go from confused to incredulous. He swept his hand to the side as if he was scrubbing away the problem. “We can like and we can dislike. Feeling is not bad. That is no problem. The problem is when you stray from the middle-way.”

    I wonder if our Christian upbringing (of good/evil, heaven/hell, bible/blasphemy) in the West predisposes us to fit religious philosophies into stark lines that cannot overlap. We hear “empty mind” and we imagine a stone because that is the absolute and eternal equivalent. But the Buddha talked about taking the middle way! Its in these extremes that we lose ourselves — whether that is extreme constraint or extreme impulse. We take a vow of silence at these retreats not because it is a law ordained from High but because its a (temporary) tool to go deeper. And when I needed to find Building B, I used my tools and communicated. That’s no blasphemy. I can bemoan my garlic naan without creating karmic knots within me.

    I’ve written way too much here but let me close out with a little Tibetan story: When the young guru Patrul Rinpoche tracked down a wild yogi named Do Khyentse to receive teachings, the drunk yogi grabbed Patrul by the collar, dragged him by his hair and pelted him with rocks shouting, “You old dog — your head is still stuffed with concepts!”

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