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Monkey mind

A Passage to India

I'll be offline for half of February thanks to a ten-day trip to India and the time it takes to get there and back. (I may be online less than usual beforehand, as I pack and prepare for the trip, and also afterwards, as I wade through the email messages that will pile up during my absence. If I'm slow in responding to comments, please forgive the delay.)

I'm deeply excited about going to India. Conventional wisdom holds that India is one of the most beautiful, and also most overwhelming, countries in the world. Everyone I know who's been there tells me I'll be stunned by the number of people, the sounds and smells, the crush of crowds, the poverty. Secretly I think I won't be so overwhelmed as all that -- how could I be surprised by the sensory overload of the developing world after visiting Makola market? -- but maybe I'll be bowled-over anyway. I'm looking forward to finding out.

Though I won't be anywhere near Dharamsala (our itinerary calls for a few days in Mumbai and then train travel through Rajasthan), as I get ready for this trip I can't help thinking about the India book which launched my adult journey into Judaism: Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus, which my friend David gave to me more than ten years ago, and which tells the true story of a group of rabbis who went to Dharamsala to talk with the Dalai Lama about Diaspora survival. My essay "Up the Spiral" talks about how that book launched me in this orbit, and kept me (t)here, too.

I still remember finishing it the first time, lying on top of the crazyquilt on the futon in Ethan's apartment, and beaming with the deep realization that Judaism comes in so many forms -- and that it doesn't have to be insular at all. The rabbis who went to pow-wow with His Holiness came from every corner of the Jewish world, and though they didn't always agree (indeed, they often saw important things very differently) their respect for one another, and for their shared enterprise, shone through their differences.

The Jew in the Lotus opened my eyes to the existence of a Judaism that is multifaceted and open to interfaith encounters. I was especially intrigued by the description of contemplative and mystical Jewish practices, and by Rodger's portrayal of Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi -- though I didn't quite believe he could be as cool as he sounded. (Turns out he is.) The book does a beautiful job of bringing people to life -- from luminaries like Reb Zalman, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and the Dalai Lama to the many ordinary people at the intersections of Judaism and Buddhism with whom Rodger spoke. Some consider themselves Jewish; others consider themselves Buddhist. Unsurprisingly, where the two traditions meet, both strong emotions and opportunities for learning can arise.

Thubten Chodron -- born Jewish, now a Buddhist nun -- wrote eloquently about the experience from her perspective. And in What I Learned about Judaism from the Dalai Lama,  Rodger Kamenetz has written a lovely essay about that trip, his return six years later, and why he had to go so far away to learn something so meaningful about home.

Travel broadens. It opens the eyes. It shakes one up. It surprises. It requires one to be flexible; it involves leaving one's comfort zone; it demands awareness that one isn't actually in control. (I've already had a reminder of that, in my scramble to get my passport renewed fast so it would be suitable for a six-month tourist visa. For a while there, the fate of my trip was entirely in the hands of the Indian Consulate General of New York.) I can't wait to see how India changes me, and what it teaches me about the world outside my usual stomping grounds. And I suspect that, like Rodger and the rabbis who went to Dharamsala fifteen years ago, I'll come home with new insights about the place (physical, emotional, and spiritual) from which I left.