I have lived in Asia now some 21 years, arriving here in the early 1970’s as a young American sailor stationed in the Philippines and South Korea. First impressions are strong things — my exposure to both southeast and northeast Asia left me with a hunger for more experience of this world so different from the so-called civilization of the West. I missed the Vietnam War, had a peaceful experience of the East, and returned home to the drug culture I had temporarily escaped from. It took another long stretch of ten years before I could manage to revisit the East and escape the illusory reality where I was born. I had grown out of trying to escape it through the use of drugs and turned to an Eastern teacher. My life changed after accepting the teachings of a world-hopping Indian guru. This time, I arrived in southwest Asia as a more mature individual, though yet a student — and at a ‘hippie’ college as well. I began what I now realize is a life-long pilgrimage to discover the ‘Heart of Asia’. Does such a thing — this experience of Asian Divinity — exist? Others have tried to identify it with a place, a culture, a specific geography or climate (mountain, beach, or island), or an ethnic identity. Some have even labeled it — Shangrila, for example. I finally put a name to it through my own studies when I wrote my Master’s thesis on ‘Developing Appropriate Tourism for the Central Himalaya’. In the writing of such a scholarly treatise, comparing Indian domestic tourism — the religious pilgrimage — to the eco-tourism of Nepal, I discovered where that mysterious feeling resides. Of course, it can only be in the ‘heart’ of the pilgrim — the traveler who leaves a ‘polluted’ social reality behind to reside within a space that can be labelled ‘sacred nature’. The beginning of my journey as a sailor — one destined to travel the earth and its seas of emotion — was a good symbolic start.
The first part of this journey involved studies of Indian philosophy and religion to figure out what my guru wanted me to realize as the ‘garbage’ out there polluting the world’s sea of emotions — ‘New Age’ gobble-de-gook. It has taken me a long time to leave that ‘crap’ where it belongs. In 1987 when I ‘graduated’ and ‘took to the hills’ of Garhwal in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh I discovered how hard it can be to leave it behind. It wants to follow you like a shadow and is ready to ‘kick you in the butt’ if you ignore it. I retraced the steps my guru had made to grow out of his culture and into another — in reverse. Mirror images (self-reflections) are reversed yet the ‘trip’ leads one on to the next destination — the next projection of something experienced inwardly. Why do we need the search? Is it to validate what we intuitively know? Or, do we create another ‘sacred space’ to reside within and look for it externally? This is the crux of the issue for a religious pilgrim. My search led me into the mountains and an isolated ashram where I was befriended by a swami and taken in to help herd cows. Here, I worked hard for six months developing a plan for further studies. What I finally learned was a hard lesson. Ending up in an Indian jail for seven weeks was not exactly on my pilgrim’s list of desired destinations. That is another story for this website. We can all be fooled into looking for something in the wrong places! I have finally figured out a few ‘ways of being’ in this world that make sense for me personally — if you want to understand where I’m coming from, start here.
By the time I had completed my Master’s degree in 1991 I had come to live half of the time in India and half of the time in Nepal. I finally chose Nepal to live in from 1991 to 1998. I came to realize that what western tourists would identify as eco-tourism was just their form of religious pilgrimage. I became a teacher and had many journeys up into the mountains with my young students. I have written about the most memorable one of these on the Nepal page. Probably the most torturous journey I undertook was the one with my Nepalese wife back to the U.S.A. I was able to survive this one for three years until the events of 9-11 happened and served as another ‘wakeup’ call. I was no longer home in America. I had only just recovered from the ‘culture shock’ of returning stateside after a 14-year hiatus. I didn’t need what this country was selling anymore. Again, in 2002, I left the U.S.A. and a wife behind, returning once more to Asia.
Since 2002, I have begun yet another pilgrimage. This one is more focused and not such a literal wandering over the earth’s surface. I have rediscovered the mountains, rejected the sea of sick emotion of the world’s masses after the Asian tsunami of 1984, and explored other countries in addition to Nepal and India. I have worked for the past seven years in South Korea, Mongolia, China, Taiwan, and Thailand. I recently discovered a third Korea in northeastern China. For some reason, I am attracted to the places that can be described as ‘along the edges of civilization’. I am not fond of ‘the masses’ and want to live a more isolated existence. So, my paths of travel seem to demarcate the boundary lines between contrasting cultures. I am interested in the spaces where they meet and mingle. Life is more interesting with people used to dealing with cultural differences and an ‘independent’ lifestyle. This hasn’t been an easy journey. Living in Thailand and dealing with Burmese-Thai issues was a challenge. I have gained many insights into local issues slowly over time. I can certainly identify what ethnic cleansing is and what governments will do to stay in power — including the American one. I feel drawn to the ethnicities struggling to find a safe space in a world that tends toward increasing levels of chaos.
Perhaps my journey will never end. My Shangri-la might not exist. It probably never has — except as a ‘sacred space’ only experienced inwardly by each individual traveler through life. That is what this web-site is about. It relates the stories of other travelers and mine. We are all seeking the same thing though we might not realize it or identify it as such. I welcome others to contribute something of their life experience here. We need all the teachers we can get. I do believe there is a ‘Divine Heart of Asia’ and I will devote some more time to rediscovering it before I come to rest wherever my travels find me from moment to moment. I am like the Buddhist counting the beads on that necklace around my neck. Each bead is yet another experience to learn from and encode into memory so it can be recalled and reinforced until all the space I travel through becomes sacred. I will endeavor to project that space until it includes all of Asia and becomes my home. That is a goal I feel might be worth the effort of reaching. Please join me. My latest trip was across China in search of this mysterious ‘heart’ and I rediscovered it in the smile of a child where it always has been and remains today. My next trip will be back to Chengdu to figure out how more than 10,000 beautiful children — students — lost their lives in the earthquake that happened there earlier this year at the same time so many children died in Burma from a hurricane. There’s a mystery in that somewhere — mysteries keep me interested in life!
April 19, 2009
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