I realize that many of my reasons for coming here to Asia for a year of travel were not conscious to me before I got here. As many of my friends know, however, the biggest conscious motivation for my journey was to experience “spiritual practice” (mostly Buddhism, but yoga/Hinduism too) in the old countries. I mean, it stands to reason that, if one wants the authentic, deep, true experience, one heads to the point of origin – amirite?
Gil Fronsdal – one of my main Buddhist teachers, who has decades of experience on the Buddhist path, many years of experience in monasteries in Asia, and a PhD in Buddhist studies – once said something interesting about this subject. He said, back in the fifties and sixties, when the first Westerners were coming to Asia to practice Buddhism/Hinduism (Gary Snyder, Richard Alpert/Ram Dass, Franklin Jones/Adi Da, Philip Kapleau, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Robert Aitkin, Richard Baker, and others), the situation was different. Not only could you *not* find authentic, deep, profound Buddhist/Hindu teachers and experiences in the West, but the societies of Asia were also more traditional, more rooted in those spiritual traditions, the lineages had more vitality. Now, however, you *can* find the genuine blow-your-mind’s-ass deal in the West, and, as Asian societies have modernized and Westernized, there has been, perhaps predictably, a correlated decline of genuine spiritual centers and teachers. So, Gil said, the depth that a Westerner used to have to come to Asia to find, now, we can usually now experience without leaving our home countries.
I heard something similar from a friend of mine who has been for years a big name successful world-traveling hatha yoga teacher, and who recently came to Rishakesh (one of India’s two “yoga capitals”, Mysore being the other) for a month of training. He told me that, although he liked and respected many of the teachers whose classes he visited in India, more of the yoga teachers he had encountered in India seemed to be more semi-charlatans just playing on Western traveler’s ignorance of what true yoga teaching should be like. When I asked him if their was a teacher training program he recommended in Rishakesh, and he replied something like, “Ehh, for teacher trainings, honestly, stick to the West – we’ve got programs like that set up in a more organized fashion.”
My experiences in Asia so far have me inclined to agree with these sentiments. Yes, Asians are grounded in thousands of years of history with Buddhism/Hinduism/Sufism/Taoism/etc, and yes they live in a culture that is saturated with the symbols and stories of these traditions. It has been interesting to me here in India when a barely literate taxi driver has brought up a Hindu story that he’d known since his mamma told it to him in childhood, a story that I found so illuminating when I heard it in my thirties. And I have encountered much deep and true spirituality while in Asia.
But it also seems to me that Westerner convert teachers and communities often approach spiritual practice with an enthusiasm, freshness, sincerity, and urgency that can sometimes be lacking in the old country populations. I was at one Thai monastery, and the grouchy old abbot said in a lecture that he preferred giving talks to Westerners over Thais. He explained that this was because Westerners listen carefully to his teachings and then seem to try to actually apply them towards making genuine life changes. In contrast, he said, the Thais mostly sat there attentively and piously listening to the master, as their culture tells them to, as they have since childhood – but then they acted like they never heard a word of the teaching the instant they leave the temple gate and go back to their daily, cigarette, beer, and drama-filled lives.
Perhaps my lack of positive impression is because I haven’t meet some super-dazzling spiritual teacher in Asia who is the real deal, and who I could have only have met here in Asia – some Hindu saddhu, Tibetan llama, or Japanese Zen Roshi with the infinite light of infinite infinity shining from his infinite eyes. But, I have to say, the most “enlightened” (by the classical Buddhist/Hindu definitions of the term – bodhi, moksha, satori) people that I have met so far in my life have all taught in the USA, and the temples and meditation that hall have felt the deepest to me have all been in the US as well.
Bottom line : after five or six decades of doing it ourselves, it seems to me there really is deep wisdom of Asian religious practice to be found in the West – maybe, possibly, “as” deep as in the old countries.
I may be having more luck with finding a truly deep teacher if I had been only visited lesser known, relatively private spiritual practice centers, places where one needs an “in” (a recommendation) in order to be let through the door. My visits to the off-the-grid places like that have so far been the deepest, most moving, and most positive ones that I have had here.
My experiences have been less fulfilling at the high-volume, introductory-level, Lonely-Planet-Recommended, popular “Have An Eastern Religious Experience!!” places that move tons of students through cookie-cutter programs each month. At those places, the food has been generally great, the instructors have been sincere, and I have greatly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the young people who were there to explore Eastern Religion for the first time – I have felt so much respect for their spiritual sincerity and openness to learn. But, in all such places I have visited, I have felt a grief and upset that the students were getting what felt to me like an amateurish, somewhat shitty level of instruction – it felt like a lost opportunity for people who were open to learn to actually get the most deep, useful instruction in the real value, benefit, and relevance of meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism, and yoga. I have been constantly wanting to grab the microphone at these places, in order to explain a concept in what I felt would be a manner more clear and more easily accepted by the newbies.
On a related topic – I think that there are different levels at which I (we) as visitors can approach spiritual practice in Asia. There is, of course, just wanting to have a feel for the place – like I have done at a number places in Asia – see it, feel it, be nourished by it, have a sense of the spirit of the place, but not necessarily sit down and do any intensive all-day meditation practice or puja or anything. Then there is arriving at an Asian temple and engaging in actual practice – but engaging just deeply enough to get a mind-opening sense of how it is done here, how it is different from practice in the West (i.e. “In Thailand, the monks actually do *walking* meditation for about half of their meditation time – and, when doing sitting meditation, they don’t really sit on cushions the way we do”), how it is the same, and letting that new perspective inform one’s practice back home.
And then there is, of course, the deepest level of engagement – seeking actual transformation, being willing to engage to the point of arriving at that sometimes frightening or disorienting mind-melting “self”-melting edge.
To be honest, I am wary of constantly hitting that final level in Asia. I consider actual growth-edge disorienting experiences ones that I would rather have back at home, with teachers and spiritual communities that I am familiar with and have chosen as my own, rather than in Asia, at places where the people may be good intentioned but where they are unknown to me, and where the language, customs, food, cultural assumptions, etc are also all unfamiliar. I mean, who wants to be cosmically freaking out about one’s place in infinity, only to have the teacher completely fail to console you with his enigmatic comment that “tomorrow Sun rise twice in West”, before heading to the dining hall for a bowl of pig’s brain soup (or whatever).
Which is not to say that I have not chosen to engage in genuine, challenging transformational experiences while here. I have now done four meditate-all-day intensives, with all the transformative challenges inherent in that – I have been “up against it” for real. And, I am happy to say, it all worked out, and I am glad for the experience. And I have some more experiences (for both meditation and yoga) planned that I imagine will be similarly intense. We’ll see how it goes …