Lam Rim on the Road: A Visit to Doi SuthepJan 16, 2022
Riding alone in the back of a songthaew, a pick-up truck taxi, feelings of red hot anger match the vehicle’s color. Righteous indignation flares in my mind; how dare the driver rip me off! Shame burns right alongside; it’s my own fault for getting in – I could have continued to negotiate or waited for another driver. Just another example of not speaking up for myself. I’m tired of this story – how long will the imprisonment last? As the wind blows through the open windows and back door, my mask conceals the odor of thick exhaust fumes, and I long for the happiness of yesterday. Pangs of craving. Then, I remember emptiness.
To paraphrase Geshe Tenzin Zopa: When you’re happy and things are going well, rejoice! When you’re unhappy and things feel challenging, rejoice! Right. This moment is an opportunity for purification; negative karmic seeds are ripening but I don’t have to kindle the fire. Taking a deep breath, I sense that this miserable state of mind is a blessing. Rather, the grace is the Dharma teachings, evident even in darkness.
The peace of equanimity is far-off. My moods are heavily impacted by pleasure and pain – by levels of comfort and perceived connection vs. isolation. Cumulative awareness resulting from the practice reveals that I’m still surfing the waves of samsara. The currents continue to pull me under, but at least I can see them clearly now. A stepping stone. With continued meditation, I’ll master the ability to stay centered, eventually.
Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was forced to descend a staircase into a mental prison that I had been to incalculable times before. Not again! Instead, I would lay down on the stairs and wait a very long time to disintegrate; annihilation seemed preferable to the familiar chains. The person I was with tried to convince me otherwise, “It’s better to descend than not to exist.” They seemed to know that it is only through facing the shadow, through living in samsara, that we can illuminate our awareness and be liberated.
Having passed myriad shopping stalls, the songthaew arrives at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Theravada Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai. The driver parks, and I walk towards the gate. Negativity continues to pervade my mind. Was it worth coming here? I visited this temple on my first trip to Chiang Mai, 9 years ago, and it seems much more touristy than the other temples. Alas, I climb the 309 stairs and reach the threshold.
My mood shifts as I quickly realize that most people are here to worship. In exchange for a monetary donation, a Thai woman hands me a beautiful flower and a thin, yellow candle – an offering for the Buddha. She is delighted that I will participate in the rituals – it seems I am the only Westerner there to practice. As I remove my shoes and cover my exposed shoulders with a scarf, all the worries, doubts, and anger dissolve.
Astounded by the beauty and energy of the temple, I’m not sure what to do first. Drawn to the glistening gold stupa, I observe devotees circumambulating while holding laminated cards. I pick one up, flip over to the English side and smile. The suggestion is to chant the Vandana in Pali. Who needs a card for this?! Transported back to our pilgrimage in Sri Lanka, I rejoice. Walking mindfully around the stupa three times, the quiet sound of the Vandana muffled by my mask beckons a piercing sentiment. Tears fill my eyes as I feel into a sense of belonging, joy, nostalgia, and longing. What am I yearning for? To be at one with the Dharma; to know the true nature of reality, to be free.
Afterwards, I kneel on the floor alongside several others to prostrate, make offerings, and pray. I dedicate the merit to the successful completion of the Tsum Valley Rachen Nunnery Service Project. May we have enough merit to manifest the pilgrimage next year, arriving safely in the Tsum Valley to share in Geshe Tenzin Zopa’s homecoming. May our journey across Nepal and India be fruitful as we continue to purify negative karma, accumulate merit, and awaken our minds for the benefit of all living beings. With sincerity, faith and confidence, I pray.
In front of another altar, I receive a blessing from a robed monk and then sit down behind a pillar to meditate. While I fully appreciate the Theravada temple, I cannot help but think of how incredible our pilgrimage will be – visiting places where Tibetan Buddhism is deeply embedded in the culture. I envision Lama Tsongkhapa, recite the heart sutra and reflect on emptiness.
Curious about the intermittent rattling sound, I head over to an altar where people are doing Kau Chim, a fortune telling practice. The human tendency to seek answers fascinates me – historic journeys to visit oracles in Ancient Greece, astrology, and other types of divination are evident across cultures and time. Subject to the same desire to somehow beat uncertainty, I watch for a few minutes and then take a turn. Shaking the chim bucket with two hands, a bamboo stick finally falls out. Number 15. After the initial sting of disappointment (what kind of message was I expecting?), I realize the profundity and personal relevance of my fortune.
“…Take care of yourself. Respect and pray every day, it will be lucky.”
After exploring the rest of the grounds, I head back to my driver – you remember, the guy who cheated me. On the way down the mountain, compassion dawns on me. I do not want the driver to accumulate negative karma for his actions. The payment will be considered an offering, an expression of gratitude for providing safe transportation to a sacred place. One of my favorite lojong slogans comes to mind, number 11:
“Transform all mishaps into the path of awakening.”
Erica Saccente After 15 years in NYC, Erica decided to pursue a lifelong dream to live abroad. Letting go of the fear of disappointing others, she is following the call of her own heart. As she continues to work remotely as a contemplative psychiatric nurse practitioner, she will practice the art of surrender - having trust, listening to her intuition, and embracing a path of uncertainty. She will express her reflections of the Lam Rim through her love of writing and photography. Join her on the journey!
On Instagram: @butterflyez
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