If this were fiction, I would have woken on our last morning with some new insight that tipped all the pieces into place. I’d have something clear and simple to report about what my time in India taught me, or how it changed me. But reality doesn’t usually work that way.
The Four Noble Truths tell us that human existence is necessarily characterized by suffering; that our suffering has its root in ignorance, attachment, and delusion; that the way out lies in our minds and hearts; and that the way to effect transformation is through the Buddha’s eightfold path. That made sense to me in India in a way it had not before. At home I have the luxury of forgetting about suffering. In India, even when I felt most joyful and uplifted, evidence of somebody’s poverty or pain was never far away. Facing that suffering made me desperately want to believe that there’s a way out—especially an emotional and spiritual one, because I don’t have the vision to imagine a physical one. The Buddha taught that through wisdom, ethical conduct, and appropriate mental development we can transcend the suffering that’s an innate part of incarnation; in India, as I tried to confront real dukkha, I found the eightfold path resonant in a whole new way.
But India strengthened my sense of my Jewishness, too. It aroused compassion and anger and wonderment in me, and I frame those feelings in Jewish terms. The obligation to love our neighbors, our “others,” as ourselves is called mitzvat ha-borei, the commandment of the Creator; extending compassion toward others is the way we enact the commandment to be holy as our God is holy. India gave me ample opportunity to try to put that into practice. And India gave me a million tiny opportunities for blessing. Every new taste and encounter was a chance for a bracha, a chance to call myself to awareness and experience the moment Jewishly.
More than any particular religious feeling, though, India heightened religious feelings in general. One of my early meditation teachers once quoted Reb Zalman as having said, “The mind is like tofu. Its taste depends on the brine you pickle it in.” The brine of India is religion. It's everywhere: in the crenellated steeples of Jain temples, the language of forehead-markings, the nuns in white with screens over their mouths. This religiosity isn’t unique. The Vatican’s soaked in religion, too; so is the Old City of Jerusalem. But because the religious manifestations of India aren’t in a language I speak, I had to let them wash over me. I couldn’t claim to be making sense of what I was encountering; I had to just let it happen. That turns out to be a great way to circumvent my natural tendency to overthink. In an unexpected way, it kept me more aware of the possibility of encountering the presence of God.
Pieces of the trip flash through my mind now at the strangest moments. In the corridors of the hospital where I spend one day a week, I think I hear the call of the chaiwallah on the long slow train to Jodhpur. In the country roads of my Massachusetts town, I smell the diesel scent of the Jaipur air. I do my best to name what arises, to acknowledge its presence without judgment, and to let it drift away again, but even when it drifts away, something in me is enlarged. Travel always leaves one with memories, but for some reason, my experience in India reverberates more strongly than others do. Maybe it's because the mental path connecting here with there was so well-trod before we even bought our plane tickets to go in the first place.
What affects me most, months after the trip, is the depth of feeling that arose in my encounter with other religious traditions. What does it say that I got more “juice” out of a visit to an incomprehensible Hindu temple than I sometimes get from all-too-comprehensible American Jewish ones? Maybe it’s easier to overlook the flaws in a religious system I don’t know intimately (or at all). I’m sure there are Hindus who grapple with the familiarity and predictability of their rituals, but from my vantage point as an outsider the offerings at Sachia Mata were baffling and beautiful. And because I understood them so little, I return to them in my mind repeatedly.
Maybe the most important realities of religion are those that extend beyond labels and dogma, and are thus most easily visible precisely when the words is indecipherable. And if so, maybe what matters most is not how “well” or “poorly” I navigated our brief few weeks on the subcontinent, not how “good” a Jew or Buddhist I proved myself to be according to the scriptures of either tradition, but that I continue to allow myself to be changed by the experience of going there and back again.
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