Friday, September 11, 2009

Buddhist World's Arid Bioregions

Around Dhankar Gompa.

I am dismayed when people misunderstand the great beauty and appeal of arid regions in general, and high deserts in particular. After all, high deserts are the stage for some of Vajrayana Buddhism's most spectacular personalities, achievements, and institutions.

"Hot," "dusty," and "unhealthful," are some of the epithets usually hurled. People think the deserts are hellish and uncomfortable. There are all these stereotypical notions about grizzled desert characters, baking like lizards in the sun.

Well, if Al Gore is right -- and I have every reason to believe he is -- then you better get ready right now, because the whole planet is headed that way.

As far as my desert is concerned, I cannot argue too much about temperature. For about three months out of the year, I admit it gets a little warm -- but nowhere near Phoenix. It also gets a little chilly sometimes. The temperature is just about ideal during the rest of the year, but of course, that is a matter of individual preference. This is just my desert. If you are up on the Karakoram Highway, you have a different experience. In addition to warm arid lands there are also cold arid lands in this world. I am thinking of Ladakh, Lahul, Kinnaur, Spiti, and Mustang. Mongolia can get a bit on the brisk side, as well.

Dusty? I don't know how to quantify that. Most of the time, it just depends on where you are. The average town by the side of a freeway is a whole lot more dusty that the typical desert. People sometimes say deserts are "dirty," but that is ridiculous. Unspoiled nature is dirty?

Unhealthful? There I will beg to differ. If one has certain medical complaints, such as COPD or arthritis, there is no better place to be. Up where I camp, you can breathe the air as distinct from see the air. I have read studies to the effect that people tend to live longer in arid regions than in other climates, and I feel this to be true. In general, we can say that an environment either gives or takes. To a degree, this depends upon our somatotype. As magnificent as I find Muir Woods, for example, I find that it takes too much energy.

There used to be a tradition in America of visiting the desert for one's health and well-being. But, when Route 66 closed down, a lot of that died away. You used to see dude ranches, retreats, and so forth all over the place, but now people just speed down the interstate to and from the casinos. Maybe things will change back over time, as they often seem to do.

One of the chief beauties of the desert is its expansive solitude. I don't quite know how to capture that in words. There is a spacious, open possibility. I do not recommend this to everyone, but if you are a stable practitioner, the desert really is one of the best places to practice. Otherwise, the desert can be a little overwhelming. I see this with people who are generally afraid or distrustful of their own minds. They need distractions. It is like the difference between listening to a symphony of silence and listening to a ghetto blaster. If you want to cultivate renunciation, then the desert is the place to be.

The best way to live in the desert is as a nomad. If you wander from place to place, out in the open spaces, it becomes a very tranquil way of life. You can concentrate on your practice, and place everything else in its proper perspective. If you ask me which is better -- a three year retreat in a hut or three years wandering in the desert -- I would answer that either one is valuable. If you can manage to do both, that is even better. Although I fundamentally don't care very much where I am, that is just my personal opinion.

There is an enormous amount of diversity in the desert, but you have to slow way down to apprehend this. The animals and plants are constantly instructive, as are the land forms. The latter are carved by wind and time into a living history lesson -- and of course this history eventually becomes the supreme lesson in impermanence.

Many people have a sort of goal in the back of their minds. They want to achieve enlightenment in one body, in one lifetime, for the benefit of all sentient beings. So, this becomes a target. Out in the desert, you can of course have targets, but as time goes by, space takes over and naturally eases you into another way of thinking. Sooner or later, you stop thinking about the process of achieving goals as though it were something in which you do or don't participate.

Instead, one gradually permits kindness to rise from the ashes of one's experiments with participation.

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