Archive for May, 2012

By Any Means Necessary

Tengboche Monastery resides at the lofty altitude of 3,867 metres above sea level.

Surrounding the Monastery is some of the most inexplicably beautiful scenery on Earth. Each mountain has an air of undefinable grace, as though each has been individually crafted and meticulously placed into position for the sole purpose of leaving humanity humbled. Understanding that their creation was born, not of individual creation, but as the result of trillions of tons of rock slamming together, propelling the summit toward the heavens does nothing to minimise this aura. Indeed, you ascend the Khumbu region constantly grateful that the Earth has managed to construct the Himalayan region, effortlessly colliding two continents together to form a region of unadulterated beauty.

It is from this throne of Earth that the Monastery rests. With a view to the highest point of the world, Mount Everest, the Monastery has further stood to encourage people to reach the height of their humanity. The Monastery has, for nearly fourth centuries, been an important element of Sherpa culture in the region. The Monastery is the largest Gompa in the region, representing an opportunity for people to study and practice their Buddhist beliefs. At the heart of Buddhism is the belief that, through self control and the removal of craving for the material world, humans may achieve liberation of the spirit and the mind. Such lofty ambitions could hardly be more appropriately placed.

As breathless and spectacular as the scenery may be, travellers’ souls leave touched moreover by the Nepalese people.

“Namaste,” accompanied by a beaming smile, – a greeting bestowed upon all travellers by countless smiling strangers, merely a symbol of the beauty of these people. Residing in unimaginable conditions, within houses barely larger than many Westerners bedrooms, these people greet you with the warmth of a raging fire, meeting your gaze with respect and friendship.

I couldn’t help but compare these encounters with those of strangers in my home city – where people would be more comfortable staring at the shoes of a stranger than their eyes.

The Monastery housed me for probably no longer than an hour. I had slipped my shoes off at the entrance, bid farewell to the view, and entered the strange building not knowing what to expect. I had endured religious encounters previously – essentially listening with a mixture of constant cynicism and boredom. Perhaps it was the novelty, perhaps it was the language barrier, but I was enthralled in the proceedings. I watched as men I would never meet engaged in a ritual that I assumed had been practiced for years. Centuries. Walking, chanting, kneeling, humming, lighting candles and praying, I garnered a respect for these men. For the passion that they embraced their religion, bestowing credit borrowed from the countless beautiful strangers I had met upon these men. They assumed a graceful, content aura. Each movement was precise, dignified, purposeful. As though they were each pre-ordained. There were about 40 Westerners in the room, but we may as well have been extra nails in the floor – this ritual would take place inside or outside. Rain or shine. Through good times and bad.

This was 4 days before my 16th birthday.

The Sherpa people entered the East of Nepal 600 years ago – possibly under military duress. Their souls seemed untarnished, learning only wisdom from the past and living with peace, hope, focus for the future. With a positive mindset and a pure attitude toward other humans, that their lives would be beneficial – internally and externally.

We had been relatively free of news from home for the duration of our trip. So isolated from anything we knew, any news would seem superfluous anyway. The only familiarity was the haven of your mind, though this is not always such a positive thing.

The news of the fall of Baghdad hit me as I expected it would. The war on a verb had raged for several years, only a few weeks before we left home shifting its focus to the ex-home of the great Babylon Empire.

Utter helplessness. Frustration. Confusion. Through misty eyes in a foreign land I considered the situation in another foreign land I’d never been to. Contrasting the wonderful people we had met, and the many friends in the trekking group, with the idea that powerful men would send young men across the globe to commit murder was, is, unconscionable.

Unsatisfied with the invasion of Afghanistan, troops would enter Iraq and defeat “terror” under the instruction to succeed by “any means necessary.”

By any means necessary.

In reflection, I can put my uneasiness at the situation to those four, calculated, cold words.

It was “sexy” news. It served to bolster the ego of many leaders. I suppose the West felt it needed to maintain the auspices that the democratic world was so far advanced of their Middle Eastern counterparts, that the right thing must be done – by any means necessary. Not that the “right thing” was available for conversation. Least of all the means of achieving it. What it meant, and what it entailed, was designed by few. Men, largely, who would refuse to strive for higher achievement. Who would rather reach for a weapon than a telephone.

Of course, by any means necessary meant the completely unnecessary slaughter of millions. Tragically; innocent men, women, children and soldiers have lost their lives in the name of war. War. A horrible, terrible plight for any civilization to endure.

However, the Western world has managed to exist parallel to the realities of war. Whilst our countries have been engaged in war for many years, the average citizen remains largely personally unaffected. As long as A Current Affair can remind us how scared we should be of Middle Eastern people, the larger public will believe that war is necessary to defend our rights.

War should strike fear and despair into the soul upon hearing it. It should be the very last resort of a detailed campaign for peace. Many, however, choose to analyse and rationalise this state of being. Potentially to make sense of the insensible. Perhaps to feel somewhat in control of the situation.

The fact is that a situation where one man is sent to kill another, for whatever reason, is community-destroying. For too long we have lived with it in the background.

For the first time in my conscious life, the West had declared war. 9 years ago and I can still barely come to terms with it.

Some loved it, some hated it, some couldn’t care less. Many Nepalese would simply shake their head at the concept.

In the future, I would become a teacher. In part, I think I wanted to teach right from wrong. In hindsight, I would learn more from a child than I could impart.

A child does not stand for justification of the wrong. An unaffected child will not agree with the murder of another human. A child would not accept the “shades of grey” that are required to explain to a population that war should be undertaken, murder achieved “by any mean necessary.”

A man may claim that they never loved a past lover. A problem gambler may ignore the lost $100 if there is a $15 to finish off. These are symptoms of man’s justification for failure, for not reaching our own potential. Adulthood brings about the realisation of such failure. That we are not as good as we had once hoped to be.

We should not settle for the destruction of another society as necessary. Ever.

I would hope that, in the future, the children I teach aspire to reach for great heights. In the mould of their Nepalese counterparts, to see positive human interaction as a requirement for fulfilment. To believe that suffering should be avoided, and that does not end with not suffering yourself.

To aim for something perhaps unattainable. To reach for the height of humanity – be that through scholarly endeavour, religion, sport, human interaction or by any other means.

To struggle for what is right for all people.

By any means necessary.


A Surprisingly Spiritual Experience

When reflecting upon the history of the land of endless time, a century may not be viewed a considerable length of time.

Within a century, over 45 centuries ago, the world’s then-tallest human-made structure, the Red Pyramid, was consigned to the after-thoughts of eternity upon the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza. A proud and majestic structure, the first “true” pyramid, the Red Pyramid signified the location where the Son of Ra would return to his father. After considerable hardship, Snefru had finally completed a structure worthy of transporting him to the Afterlife. Whether or not Snefru lay inside remains a mystery.

I am not a religious man. Nor am I a particularly spiritual one. Outwardly, I think I would be viewed as essentially a beer-loving, sport-obsessed larrikin who loves a laugh. Inwardly I’ve never been so sure.

As one tours through Egypt, it is near-impossible to not be simply overwhelmed. In 2 short weeks, I had seen some of the world’s most amazing structures, testament to the vision of a few and the hard work of a few million. From the glorious Abu Simbel, to the bewitching Pyramids of Giza and the once-hidden Valley of the Kings. To name a few. At each step, it was expected to be left breathless. The height of expectation stood tall enough to be disturbed by all-too-human factors. “Baksheesh, Baksheesh” disturbed my attempt to connect with the Pyramids of Giza, the utter freeze of a bus with air-conditioning on full throttle on the journey through the night to Abu Simbel left me sleep-deprived and nearly listless. An allergic reaction at Karnak distracted me from the vast wonders that abound in the world’s largest open-air museum. Food-poisoning and the lure of conversation also contributed to the reality of touring Egypt being different from the impossible, soul-shaking adventure I had imagined. This is not to say that I did not enjoy every moment of the trip. It is to say that, often, the imagination outweighs reality.

Perhaps that recount has been embellished with the sense of memory and the curse of converting thoughts to writing. I only have fond memories of touring Egypt, yet thoughts may give way to unwarranted words to prove a point.

I digress.

Throughout our exploration of Egypt, the mind could not fully capture the magnitude of what the eyes witnessed. Dates of creation and construction would blur between learning the names of those in the touring party and the time we had to wake the following morning. I’m not convinced that my brain is adequately conditioned to view the Pyramids of Giza one day and the mighty temple of Ramses the 2nd merely days later. Regardless, I felt the trip had become essentially a taster – a first experience that would serve as a platform for future travel to the region.

Until we arrived in Dahshur.

The Step Pyramid at Saqqarra had long been on my wish list to visit. Djoser’s creation of the first pyramid is indeed a structure of immense beauty. Exploring the accompanying complex was another fascinating element, woven into the rich tapestry of Egyptian culture from the outset. I knew that there lay two further pyramids of note further to the South, but didn’t know too much about them.

One was the Bent Pyramid, Snefru’s second attempt at constructing a Pyramid. It derives its name from the dramatic change in angle of the Pyramid halfway up, a necessary alteration as the base appeared structurally unsound.

The other was the Red Pyramid.

We had hired a taxi driver from off the street in Cairo. A friendly man with a young family whose lack of credentials pointed squarely to his entrepenurial qualities. Through bustling streets comprising of makeship shops, donkeys and 1970s cars, we meandered our way through the southern outskirts of Cairo and onto Dahshur.  A bouncing kangaroo hung from the rear-vision mirror, seemingly the only familiar object in sight. The lush, green oasis ends abruptly as we are confronted with the Western Desert. The line of trees and greenery starkly contrasts the damagingly sparse, open terrain of the large expanse of sand and wind. We were close.

40km south of Cairo and 14,000 km from home, we arrived at the Red Pyramid.

After the constant bustle of 20 million people had rung in our ears for days, suddenly all we heard was the echoing wind of 20 million years. Our vision, so used to being inundated with an array of colour and sights, was immediately transfixed on a single structure.

The Red Pyramid stood where it had for over 45 hundred years. It had endured the sun and wind for over one million, six hundred thousand days. I viewed it with my 20 year old eyes, standing meekly on my roughly seven thousand day old legs. Each of the remaining stones that adorned the exterior of the structure were visible. A signal to the labourious task that long-since deceased humans endured to erect the gigantic structure. It had taken 17 years to complete, with work undertaken when farmers were unable to be of use during the flood season.

The sandy-coloured walkway weaved its way up the slope to the point where it blended into the rock, the entrance now visible a few metres up the rockface. Its presence in the seat of history immense when compared with the vast open-plain of sand that it stood on top of. Whilst we would not accuse the weather of being cold, pants and a jumper were probably a necessity.

Religious artefacts abound the Egyptian landscape. Be they in the form of mosques, Coptic churches or other, far more ancient structures.

While the pyramids are often-viewed as a symbol of the Pharaoh’s status within Egyptian religion, it is the view of this, possibly cynical, author that their purpose was at least equally as a means for the ruling class, and government, to assert their dominance over the essentially working class. That the ruling elite were able to flex their muscle and keep the workers under their control whilst underlining their own importance through the creation of behemoth structures and bequeathing future control by adorning the Pharaoh with divine heritage and right.

It is with this mindset that I entered the pyramid. A uniformed man with a sidearm and a devilish moustache sat reading the paper at the entrance, requesting a few pounds to aide in the upkeep of the complex (we assumed).

The blisteringly bright exterior gave way to near-complete darkness. Our eyes took a moment to adjust as the close chamber claimed us and took us in. It was tight and cramped on all sides. I hunched my back for the duration of the 50 or so steps, creeping forward through the ancient passage. Surprisingly, each step brought us closer to an increased degree of heat as a bead of sweat appeared on my forehead.

Finally, we arrived in an opening. The first chamber of the Red Pyramid was scantily lit by a light struggling against the immensity of 4 millennia of heavy air. We ventured on into seemingly warmer, heavier air into another constricting passageway. Bending down, taking ever smaller steps through the dim causeway, breathing became heavier as we moved away from every Western convenience we had known. Another opening appeared and as we arrived into the second chamber we came across a pair of fellow travellers.

It was not an occasion for conversation however, as the pair seemed studied in a pose of either prayer or relaxation. They sat atop a multi-coloured fabric, peaceful in their presence inside of stark history. Usually, I would view such a scene with scepticism. However, deep inside this feat of engineering and human ingenuity, I felt I knew them immediately. After briefly studying the pair, we turned and observed the next challenge. Approximately 8 metres across the chamber lay a ladder. With a sense of exploration and adventure we approached it.

Perhaps it was the realisation of a childhood dream, perhaps it was mild hallucination based on the seeming lack of oxygen, but I found at the top of this ladder, and another claustrophobic chamber, was my own version of peace.

Deep inside a structure that had stood for longer than I could imagine, standing underneath 100 metres and 16 layers of pure rock, barely observing a dimly-lit room that, somehow, reached 8 metres high with angled, pyramid-like walls, I found a rare calm.

At once I felt connected to a man I never knew. I thought I could make sense of what had taken place in a land I have no human connection with. I understood who I was, what I thought, who I loved and what I stood for. I cared not for the future. Was undisturbed by my past. All that mattered was my time in vivid silence, staring intently at an unadorned wall, lost purely in my own mind. Thoughts came, but for once in an orderly, calm, unimportant fashion. I couldn’t have cared if an hour past,or a minute. Gradually, I came to view it as a quasi-religious or spiritual moment, where I felt I could connect with the innermost region of my soul yet also view myself objectionably. Perhaps, I thought, people were able to reach a place in life where they could think, act and live with purity. The weight of more than heavy air, more than rock, more than thousands of years of history weighed on relaxed shoulders.

The vivid silence ended. A clamour of people, sounding more akin to a rock concert than an exploration into a pyramid poured their way into the passageway. I could feel my lack of consciousness drift away as reality returned. Frustrated, I stood as no less than 15 people entered the room, speaking continuously at the height of their voice, stopped for a moment in the room, took a photo, turned and left as quickly as they had come.

The faux-religious experience had ended. It was gone. These people had shaken this peaceful moment to the degree that it could not recover. It was a shame, but it wasn’t entirely.

You see, this is what happens on a daily basis in the world we reside in.

People are unable to recognise the state of strangers’ souls. To assess their needs and state of mind. In essence, people are not able to understand innately what another person is going through, and cannot transport themselves to view their perspective at any given moment.

These tourists could not know the state of my existence. For them, it was merely a day out to a pyramid. Ironically, it was probably the same mindset that I had arrived with. Had a arrived with a friend, instead of a soulmate, I may have spent the time talking, joking or laughing. I may have commented on inanity. The temperature change, the tight spaces. Yet, for whatever reason, I had entered the space with a frame of mind ready to be challenged and moved so deeply that I would write about it in this fashion nearly 4 years later.

I myself have no doubt been that tourist many-a-time. Making ridiculous comments at a place where a nearby traveller may have spent their life dreaming of visiting.

Essentially, the problem with a religious experience is that it has to deal with the rigours and inconveniences of daily life and other people who may not share that mindset.

The world would be a better place if all could realise that such experience was possible, and that anyone is able to reach their own moment of peace, at any moment, in any location.

All people deserve the freedom to reach for happiness and understanding.