I was up before the wake-up call. It was cold. It was dark. The van would pick us up soon, and we were given food as we were half awake. We were told it would be a perfect day for ballooning, but it…
By George Andrews. Originally written 5/30/2019 (Coda 7/7/2019).
This is everything I remember from my conversation with Nishikawa.
I opened my eyes. I felt a profound stillness as I gazed out onto the lake and the misty hills behind it. Above a massive cumulonimbus threatened to bring the early monsoon rains. I looked at my watch. It was 5:10pm. I had to leave around 5:30pm if I was to make it back to the city by 6, leaving just long enough to check my watch while doing something else.
There was a temple tucked away at the entrance of the pagoda grounds. It was a small one room building, self-aware of its supporting role to the monument and garden above. I remembered hearing drums in the temple when I first arrived.
I had given myself the intention of answering the question, “why do I meditate?” so watching my breath in front of an altar adorned with Buddhist symbolism seemed an appropriate place to attempt to do so.
In the temple were a few meditators and an old monk who was banging a massive drum belting some mantra. He was covered in long white robes, with a yellow sash. I sat cross-legged in the back corner on a flat cushion and closed my eyes. The sound was forceful but the rhythm comforting. Like the serenity of violent waves crashing ashore. The man’s face only amplified the simile. He was a bald Japanese man with glasses and a very long neck. As he sung his Adam’s Apple protruded further than seemed anatomically possible. His voice was deep and powerful, showing off a mastery that must come from believing your soul is at stake. I couldn’t help but be intimidated.
3 hours prior I had drank 150 micrograms of the most expensive acid I had ever purchased, 2000 NPR per drop, from Daniel, a dreadlocked German hippy I met at a defunct guest house in the hills overlooking north lakeside in Pokhara. Daniel, Tom, Harry, Raj, Eva, Uki and Giorgios had all bared witness to the transaction. Giorgios was a barefooted Swiss Italian with tan skin, ruffled hair, and Tobacco stained teeth. We met when I approached him amidst hashish smoke in a cafe off a side alley in what must be the most vegan friendly neighborhood on the South Asian subcontinent. He seemed to be psychedelically inclined, and the prior 3 people I asked had neither LSD nor the means of procuring it.
As Giorgios led me through the forest, zig-zagging over a barely legible path to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help but feel a little on edge. What the fuck was I getting myself into?
The group sat on plastic chairs and straw mats on a dirty porch, playing drums, various acoustic guitars and a bamboo flute, with Daniel sitting atop his throne, at the center of it all. Daniel said he played music to escape thinking, to quiet those endless voices polluting our minds. The group reminded me of Peter Pan and The Lost Boys, or perhaps more accurately the abandoned love child of a group therapy session and the Manson family. Between them they shared a pipe of hashish, the dirtiest fingernails I have ever seen, a lukewarm pot of chai in a rusty tin teapot, and probably 3 showers in the last week.
But the music. The flute danced playfully around undulated finger-picked acoustic guitars, with harmonized Hindu mantras cascading overtop. I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol or any other illicit substance in almost a month, but I swear the music they played is the closest I will ever come to heaven.
I sat enjoying the sounds, waiting, looking at my watch for over an hour until my piece of business naturally came to the fore (I was cautious of scaring away the hippies with my prudish Protestant pragmatism and impatience). After a quick whisper from Giorgios in German, Daniel looked at me with sharp eyes and said “You can speak freely”. As we discussed the Schedule I Narcotic in question, Daniel offered sound elementary guidance for proper psychedelic protocol. I assured him I had sufficient experience with mind-bending substances to handle myself. He placed two clear drops in an almost empty water bottle. We shared the smile learned after walking the drug-induced middle path between self-transcendence and psychosis, and I was on my way.
I drank half of the tonic in my hostel bedroom, poured the remainder in an empty “Frootoo Mango Drink” bottle, and headed for the World Peace Pagoda.
It was late May and the clouds had darkened substantially, so the boats across Phewa Lake were no longer in operation. On the taxi ride up it occurred to me that this was perhaps one of the stupidest ideas I have ever had. But I reminded myself of the ground rules of tripping: bring positive energy everywhere you go and to everything you do, be open to the unexpected, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. 20 minutes later I was at the pagoda.
Back in the temple, I closed my eyes. My mind was filled with colorful fractal patterns as I tried to pacify my mind. I kept thinking that Buddhism was all about reduction. Letting go of all the noise of life until you hit the bare bone of experience. Just consciousness itself. It occurred to me that this was Nirvana. What’s left when you take away everything else. Letting the least common denominator of experience eclipse the whole of it. And in that void, I had been told, your very sense of being a separate self drips out of experience.
It’s futile to attempt to describe visualizations in words, but I’ll do so anyway. Imagine a kaleidoscope filled with the most radiant colors you have ever seen. Now imagine the image begins to rotate counterclockwise, each bead leaving a trail of color in its wake, tracing its past. The rotation speeds up, centrifugal force pushing the beads and their aftermath to the periphery of your visual field, leaving a lone orange bead of light at the center, perfectly suspended, immune to the laws or physics, surrounded by a profound blackness. It grows into a perfect circle.
The drums stopped. And I heard a soft “hello”. I opened my eyes and saw a smile. The room had emptied and the old monk had turned toward me, sitting on his knees. His glasses crooked on his face, the old man beamed at me.
I was on a fair amount of acid, so attempting to replicate the exact transcript is perhaps as silly an exercise as verbalizing multi-colored spirals. But I remember pieces.
He kept asking me how long I was staying in Pokhara and what I was looking for. I said I don’t know. He kept asking the same question with different hand gestures and intonations as I kept reiterating my uncertainty. It was hard to tell if he was trying to press me on a deeply insightful spiritual point, or if my answer suggested a misunderstanding of the question rather than the open-endedness of my trip.
I asked him how long he had been staying there. He had lived at the temple for 2 years, after his teacher had told him to stay there, and he would stay until his teacher told him where he should go next. He asked for my age. I told him I was 24. He had two sons. Age 23 and 25.
I asked him what he thought about when he sings. He shrugged and laughed.
He described his view of nirvana. The entire universe, all the good and the bad, as yin and yang; nirvana is diving into it and embracing everything. Finding transcendence by becoming one with it all.
At some point an Indian family walked into the temple. They seemed to be in a rush. The father described some long journey they were about to go on and why they wanted to see the monk before departing. The monk “ah yes yes” and continued sitting and smiling kindly, as the father looked on perplexed. After a few minutes of repeating this dance, the father became more and more frustrated. “We want your blessings!” he loudly belabored, as if speaking to a deaf grandmother. “Ah yes” the monk responded with comprehension.
In one of the more impressive costume changes I have ever seen, the monk stood up on his knees, centered himself in an auspiciously venerable posture, and bent over the now kneeling man, placing hand on his forehead, and chanted three times “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō”. The Indian family bowed several times in thanks as they exited through the door. The transition from friend to statesman was as abrupt and natural as its reversal.
I asked him for his name again. I, of course, had forgotten it. He motioned that it would be easier to write it down. I instinctively grabbed the notebook that I always carry in my pocket, only to see that he also had a similar journal hidden away to the side of the room. We both laughed as we exchanged our books and pens. His name was Dai Nishikawa.
I asked him about his decision to become a monk. He said it was simple. He didn’t need everything and that he was happier without it.
By this point, my friend Chlarissa had arrived. She came in and we all talked about the drums. Nishikawa told us the song he was singing was the Lotus Mantra. His sect of Buddhism was a small one, going to various parts of the world singing the mantra and banging a drum, attempting to spread peaceful vibrations around the world. The pagodas are permanent sanctuaries for them to do so, and exoteric reminders of peace and love for the world. I was struck by how beautifully simple of a practice this was. The same mantra. The same rhythm. Trying to spread a single elegant message as an escape from suffering throughout the world.
Chlarissa later pointed out a small plaque on the temple door providing a brief background of the lineage. The initial idea was inspired by witnessing the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My mother was raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Her father, a Jew, had moved there to work as a safety engineer at the National Lab, after immigrating to the U.S. from Budapest in the 1930s. It was the same lab that was responsible for the creation of Fat Boy and Little Man. My grandfather had attended the Trinity Test.
We spent several minutes laughing together on the balcony. The language barrier led to incredibly expressive conversation with fewer than 4 words per sentence. We all seemed to successfully get our points across. The park had by then long since closed, so Nishikawa eventually escorted us down the steps and locked the gate behind us. Still laughing, we exchanged bows and went back down the hill.
In the aftermath, I tried to invoke sobriety. I can imagine fewer substances that increase suggestibility more than Lysergic Acid Ditryptomine (in my past experience, the drug had the ability to make strangers faces look like zombies and grass rapturous). I had primed myself, knowingly or not, for spiritual significance. And yet, completely aware of these facts, the connection we had felt valid. Our innate similarities seemed genuine. His temperament and vibrant energy seemed to be the product of a wisdom and patience I had never known. As they say: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
I changed my prior plans of leaving for Kathmandu the next day, deciding instead that I would return to the pagoda to stay with Nishikawa for one night. The next day I got sick and couldn’t get out of bed, so the following day I returned to the mountain to see the monk who had inspired such a powerful reaction in me.
When I arrived at the pagoda, the little temple was locked. I waited for a while, watching the monsoon rains travel toward me from the mountains. I found one of the groundskeepers who worked there and asked him where Nishikawa was. He said the monk was sick. Very sick. This has happened before and if he did not feel better soon, they would take Nishikawa to the hospital.
I spent the night thirty meters outside the pagoda gates in a small room in a building under construction. I woke up early the next morning. They were supposed to begin singing at 4:30am. When I arrived at the temple, the doors were locked and the air silent. I turned to watch the sunrise illuminate the Himalayas. The only clear peak was Fish Tail, also known as Machupucharre. Fish Tail is considered a holy mountain by the locals, the home of Shiva. Once a British climbing team reached within 150m of the peak, but then turned around and returned to the base camp. At 6993m it has never been summited.
I walked past a dozen open air restaurants and cold stores, down the steps to the gravel parking lot and found a Nepali shopkeeper who agreed to take me to the tourist bus park on the back of his moped. Sitting on the bus to Kathmandu, between a french girl wearing an entire REI catalogue but no deodorant and a western couple with more Ohms and Lotuses on their bodies and clothes than could be seen in most Hindu or Buddhist temples, I pulled out my notebook. On the page prior to Dai Nishikawa’s name, I read in acid-infused chicken scratch:
“Why do I meditate?
To be at peace with the universe”
I’m not veg anymore but I still couldn’t stomach the thought of eating this dead airplane fish bathed in an ambiguous cream-like sauce, let alone the thing itself. Its ghost’s eye is staring at me with the terrifying fury of a sloth at the zoo, too under-stimulated and overfed to move. The other option was pork, but a Nepali herbalist born in the foothills of Everest advised me to avoid eating pork. And dairy. Jokes on me I guess.
A Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu — filled with overpriced WiFi and lifestyle Buddhists; a week in the heart of the Himalayas — surrounded by Korean trekkers throwing back Guest House Nepali rum like enlightenment was at the bottom; spiritual steroids in Pokhara — accompanied by “sacred geometry” seminar flyers and a stomach virus; a meditation center in the Burmese jungle — focusing on the feeling of the breath between the tip of your nose and where the termites penetrate your skin after eating through your wooden hut; and many more weeks gallivanting around South Asia seeing as many monasteries, temples and fucking stupas as rebirths I am from believing in reincarnation.
The spiritual journey I’d been dreaming about for the better part of five years. And I finally made it. To here. Watching fucking Aquaman on a fully reclined seat 5 inches from my face. I liked the one with Vinny Chase better.
If you think you need something else to be happy, you’ll never be.
The loudspeaker comes on, “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be beginning our descent in about 5 minutes. The current weather in New York City is clear skies and 74 degrees.
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