A good friend of ours travels to India about once a year and has for a long time now. Now, we know plenty of people who have been to India for one reason or another—work, wedding, leisure—but we don’t know anyone who’s so obviously bound to the place like our friend, Justin. So we asked him recently to take a minute and tell us what it was that kept him going back; what he thought it might be that connected him strongly to the people, culture, and land that make up India. This is what he told us. Words and photos, courtesy of Justin. And Pico, Justin’s son, pictured in that last photo there…which I’m sure he’ll be psyched about.
The first time I ever really experienced India was in September, 1995. Back then I took part in a Buddhist Studies study abroad program through Antioch College; it was something that I had looked forward to with great enthusiasm, and it changed me forever.
I still remember very clearly the atmosphere as we exited Indira Gandhi International Airport. There was something about the late night smoky air, the dreamlike yellow tinged lights from the lamp-posts outside the airport that attracted swarms of hundreds of tiny diwali bugs, and the mixture of great bustling human activity and effortless leisure all mixed into a single moment. Needless to say, within a few short moments I was hooked.
Every minute of that trip, be it practicing Vipassana meditation in which our central instruction was something akin to “feel the mosquitoes bite you, and as they do, send them loving kindness”, exploring the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and its surrounding villages, wandering around Mumbai or Varanasi, or experiencing the amazing beauty of the jeep ride from Darjeeling to Sikkim, was an act of confirmation. Every second was an act of chipping away at any attempt of resistance; any act to separate myself from my experiences. In this way India has become a part of me, and through my relationship with its culture, geography, and even sense of time, I have become part of it- we have become interwoven threads of being that make up the larger fabric of my being.
Since that first trip I have returned to India over a dozen times. I mainly go to continue with my study and practice of Buddhism, but there is also a little time set aside for a pilgrimage to new places—generally a place with some spiritual significance. It’s these places that seem to further connect me to India as it exists within space and across time- through pilgrimage I feel that I have the possibility to create a personal connection with say, a Buddhist Siddha from the tenth century, as well as the lineage of practice that has trickled down from him. In feeling that connection within myself, tenth century India becomes very alive for me, and I feel that I can relate to it; we constellate, and a steady stream of meaning descends from that connection.
I relate to India as a Buddhist chaplain in the sense that it is a place that inspires and challenges me. It informs my theological ground as it is the present home to much of the lineage of Buddhism that I am part of; the Karma Kagyu Lineage. Born somewhere in the ninth century, it spread from India to Tibet, and there it distilled and matured. Now it is spreading to the west, and it is amidst this new wave of transmission that India offers me the experience, the wisdom and the connection to my lineage so that I may help plant it’s seeds here, so that it may distill here, and mature, here, in Brooklyn.
As a cook, I cannot think of any other country with the range and the sophistication that India offers through its cuisine. As in many places—and I hope this will always be the case in my home—the centrality of food, and the communal sharing of food is extremely important. People come together to share food; in doing so they share one another’s experiences, including their shared experience of the food that they consume together.
I pray that just as my relationship with India will deepen and become tempered over time, that the wealth that it offers me, as a Buddhist yogi chaplain, as curious wandering father, and as a cook will continue to percolate within me and offer clarity and depth in all that I do.