En route to Kalindi Pass (5,900 meters) amid the Greater Himalayan peaks of Bhagirathi. The tough life here requires freedom from fear. Photo: Vipin Sharma

Beyond this shore
And the farther shore,
Beyond the beyond,
Where there is no beginning,
No end.

Without fear, go.

The Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha (Thomas Byrom translation)

“You are entering the zone of the bravest of the brave,” says my favorite Himalayan signboard, which I expect to see again on May 1. It greets me at the edge of the mountain road to Tapovan from Joshimath town.

I had unusual encounters beyond this special sign.

One winter evening 10 years ago, I chose to walk this 15-kilometer road. The usual shared jeeps had retired for the day. And a passer-by warned, “It’s too late to walk to Tapovan.” But I said “do or die,” and began walking past fallen snow.

I had no flashlight. It was getting darker, colder on the lonely, beautiful road. Snowy mountains loomed on my left. Suddenly out of the dusk two men appeared. With folded hands they said to me, “Guruji, help us.”

They walked away before I could reply. And I walked on in the darkness broken by faint wintry starlight. I was tired, having reached here after a 14-hour journey from Rishikesh. A weary hour later later I saw headlights of a car coming from the opposite direction. The car swerved to my side of the road, and stopped. Two men got out. “Do you need help?” one of them asked, “Narayana, Narayana.”

He kept repeating, “Narayana, Narayana,” another name for Vishnu, one of the trinity of three most known gods in India.

“I am going to Tapovan,” I told him. The man uttering Narayana like it was his breath offered me a lift. He drove the car. His companion in the front seat asked for my ID (any official identification card). “Are you a saint?” he then asked me. The Narayana-on-his-breath man shushed him.

We reached Tapovan, which had been plunged in the darkness of an electricity failure. I got out of the car. So did the two men. They had driven in the opposite direction to help a stranger. “I am very grateful, but why” take so much trouble? I asked.

“Don’t you know?” said the Narayana-repeating man with a note of impatience now in his voice. And he said,“Narayana, Narayana,” drove off, disappeared.

The only character I know – from Amar Chitra Katha Indian history comics and movies – who repeats “Narayana” like a stuck record is the celestial bard Narada.

My no-nonsense journalistic life in Mumbai gets hurled out of the “rationality” window in the Himalayas.

Here, the intellect that is the surface part of the mind – which the Buddha called paritta citta – gives way to the deeper part of the mind dealing with actual experience.

Gods, ghosts in cycle of existence

That other sentient beings exist has been clear to me since 1994-95. That was when I began my voluntary Vipassana service in Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri. But in the Himalayas the boundaries blur between realms of existence.

Five years ago a young Himalayan villager volunteered to show me a place to spend the night. He steered me away from an abandoned shed. Ghosts haunt that shed, he said, in a matter-of-fact tone with which a city dweller might have said, “A car is parked there.”

In a mountain inn below Chandershila (Moon Rock) peak, the owner stopped me from walking out at midnight. Djinns (spirits that possess humans) prowl the road, he warned.

Two experienced meditators in Mumbai told me they had returned from the Himalayas because demons tried to possess them.

The more aware mind notices a different world. With equanimity, it becomes a happier world.

After another such experience in Rishikesh about 10 days ago, I did a test. “The gods or samma devas sometimes assume human shape, to help us,” I told Keith Dympep that afternoon in the 60’s Green Hills café.

He was having a late lunch, the garden outside glowing under the 4pm sunshine. Keith is from a breezy Khasi tribal-Christian-Western culture of a northeastern Shillong town. I expected him to laugh or stare blankly at me saying celestial beings speak through humans.

“They do,” he nodded, and bit into his burger.

We are never alone.

c/o Mother Nature

In the upper Himalayan town of Badrinath (3,300 meters) that reopens after winter on May 8, gods (samma devas) seem normal. But they too are impermanent inhabitants in the 31 planes of existence. And they too are in a cycle of death. This is the suffering beyond which the Fully Enlightened Buddha found and shared the way of freedom.

I may again meditate in Badrinath 40km from Tapovan village; 240km away, a more familiar Tapovan in Rishikesh prepares for a busy tourist season after two pandemic years.

Tapovan these summer nights is ablaze with new neon lights. New roadside food stalls pop up selling rolls, momos, noodles.

“What do you do for food?” I am often asked when I say I am off to the Himalayas to meditate alone.

“I feel like I am going home, so no worries,” I reply. Or, “I am going for a long-term Vipassana course where Dhamma (laws of nature) is the course manager.”

No worry, no fear. To say “Dhammaṃ Saranaṃ Gacchāmi” (I surrender to Dhamma) and be worried, fearful, becomes a contradiction.

Sampajañña – path beyond fear

Anxiety and fear arise in a wandering mind. “Living in the present moment is to live without fear,” the Principal Teacher of Vipassana Sayagyi U Goenka said in Belgium in 2002.

To live in the present moment at the deepest level is being with Sampajañña. It means objectively observing arising, passing bodily sensations, from moment to moment.

Sampajañña is for me the most important word in the human vocabulary. Why? Sampajañña leads to freedom beyond fear and suffering. It purifies the mind. Demons of impurities hide in its dark dungeons.

We take care of the body, giving it good food, exercise, daily baths. But the mind? And the mind too gathers dirt, gets hurt, or causes hurt.

Dangerous habit patterns of the mind control us. These are called saṅkshāras, the deep-rooted conditionings of the mind. Saṅkhāras have us blindly reacting to similar situations. We get trapped in suffering.

Like a blackmailer within, saṅkhāras of craving demand gratification. The blackmailer’s threats are unpleasant sensations. So we surrender again. The blackmailer gets greedier. Just as driving a car with faulty steering, we lose control. We repeatedly do what should not be done.

Sampajañña and sensations

The aim of Sampajañña or Vipassana practice is to eradicate saṅkhāras.

At the World Summit on the Buddha’s Teachings in Yangon, Myanmar, in December 2004, Sayagyi U Goenka said:

In Vipassana practice, we move from olāriko (gross) to sukhumā (subtle) realities at the level of sensations … to the subtlest reality beyond mind and matter. Therefore we start with paññatti, the apparent truth of mind and matter, which is gross, solidified truth. Then one analyses, divides, dissects it at the experiential level based on the wisdom of impermanence.

“The meditator goes beyond the apparent truth of mind (citta and cetasika) and matter and reach the ultimate truth of mind and matter. This is the ultimate truth of nibbāna.

“Sensation (vedanā) has a very important role in the Buddha’s teaching,” he told a rapt, house-full audience. “The Buddha made a ground-breaking observation: whatever arises in the mind is accompanied by sensations in the body – Vedanāsamosaraṇā sabbe dhammā.”

Then he mentioned the life-changing reality: “Every thought that arises in the mind is accompanied by a sensation in the body. Therefore, when working with sensations, we are working at the depth of mind.”

Be very alert, my teacher Sayagyi U Goenka often instructed. Focus immediately on arising, passing bodily sensations (sampajañña) when disturbing thoughts arise. Then we stop rolling in storms of negative thoughts and emotions. We stop suffering.

Beyond delusions, illusions

Sampajañña is why I am in the Himalayas. I have to make all efforts to maintain Sampajañña every moment, without distractions.

My only purpose is to share with all beings merits thereby gained. Those merits will help you leave the burning house.

Being with Sampajañña longer – without thoughts – takes the Vipassana practitioner beyond illusions, delusions.

“As you proceed from a narrow, partial view to a full understanding of truth, automatically illusions and confusions disappear,” said the Principal Teacher. “By remaining extroverted we see only one aspect of reality. Then partial truths mislead us. But through the practice of introspection, we awaken to the entire truth.”

So how does the process of introspection awaken in us a comprehensive grasp of truth?

The teacher explained in the article “Sampajañña: The Fullness of Understanding“:

“To understand this we must recall that every sensory phenomenon – whether a person, a thing, or an event – exists for us only when it comes into contact with our sense organs. Without this contact, the sensory object in fact is nothing to us.

“If we remain extroverted, we attach importance to external objects. By this we ignore the essential internal base of their existence for us, because we never examine the reality within. Thus deluded by a partial truth, we are led into folly.”

Sampajañña leads to the truth beyond misleading partial truths. This single word condenses the practical teaching of the Buddha.

His entire teaching was published in 146 volumes in a historic Vipassana Research Institute project. Those volumes with 7,448,248 words boil down to one word: sampajañña.

Sampajañña is like a rope to climb a difficult Himalayan peak. The climber loses his grip on the rope, he slips down. Fierce storms of cravings lash him. But he fights to hold on. Falling rocks rain on him. And he struggles, falls down the abyss. Yet he never gives up. He remembers the Most Compassionate Teacher saying: “Start again.”

He rises from the pain and climbs again. Moment by careful moment he reaches the peak of the tallest mountain. And he shares the way.

Universal laws applicable within

The Buddha did not teach “Buddhism” – the sectarian word that keeps many away from experiencing the benefits of a universal, self-dependent path. This misconception also has most of the scientific world ignore the intricate depth of his teaching.

Sayagyi U Goenka wrote in Glimpses of the Buddha’s Life: “2,600 years ago, this super-scientist of the spiritual world realized the truths of nature. He did so without the aid of modern scientific devices, and solely by means of his mental power.

“He found that there is no solidity in our apparently gross body and in the entire material world. This solidity is only the apparent truth, the manifest truth. It appears to be so.

“The ultimate truth is that everything in the material world is made up of innumerable tiny little subatomic particles. They cannot be seen with the naked eye. He termed them kalāpas. Even this kalāpa is not permanent, not solid. Every moment it undergoes combustion-oscillation.”

I have no doubt that kalāpas are the “God Particles” that quantum physicists search for as their “Holy Grail” for the ultimate building blocks of matter.

The ultimate building block of the mind the Buddha called as “mind moment.” In one mind moment, the Buddha said, trillions of kalāpas arise and pass away.

Mother Nature’s laws are universal. The same law of impermanence applies to stars, galaxies, and this “I.” Likewise this mind-body structure too is made of continuously changing, combusting, vibrating sub-atomic kalāpas arising and passing away.

In subatomic quantum reality, we experience a death every micro-moment. It’s a deeper reality of suffering hidden by ignorance of the reality within.

Hard work to change habit-patterns

Only the piercing, penetrating work of sampajañña with strong determination can crack the inner walls of ignorance. Then we free ourselves from addictive habit patterns.

But words, questions and answers have limited effect. They give short-term solace.

How much have inspiring words actually changed our life? So we need the actual practice. Mere words are like unused medicine in the forgotten cupboards of the mind.

Only very hard, correct work – beyond pain barriers – can change deep-rooted habit patterns of the mind.

“Be brave, be strong,” the Teacher said in the 30-day Vipassana course. “Fight out your battles. Be victorious.”

Near my solitary tent I saw a flock of parrots that reminded me of my favorite story. I last heard it during a 60-day Vipassana course (The Snare of Māra) in Dhamma Tapovan-2, in December 2019 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world:

A parrot repeats the warning from a hermit: “O parrot, be careful. The hunter will come. He will throw sweet grains. You will be attracted to the grains. He will cast the net. You will be caught.”

But the parrot falls into the hunter’s trap. And it repeats the words while being carried away in his net, “O parrot, be careful. The hunter will come …”

Be careful.

Those leaving the world to serve the world need to be more careful. The hunter has cunning tricks. His lethal snare is the delusion: “I will enjoy the sensual sweet grains without getting trapped.” Sampajañña protects against the hunter’s tempting lures and net.

After April 30 I will reach my first destination amid towering Himalayan peaks. There the nights are very cold, survival an adventure. Life will be short, but fruitful.

“I have given you a name,” the lone food-shack owner near Deori Tal lake (2,438 meters) told me in 2010. “You are Himalaya Putra,” son of the Himalayas.

The writing cost of this article is donated by  Satish Shankar, a past pupil of Don Bosco, Egmore, 1984. Special thanks to 60’s Green Hills, Rishikesh. This series is dedicated to all children of the Himalayas, Abhishek Mahar, Giselle Dympep, Harry Pundir of Tapovan. Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu, and others.

Caution: Vipassana cannot be learned through articles, books, videos. This ancient practice is an intricate, deep operation of the mind. Beginners can take free of cost 10-day residential courses in Vipassana centers worldwide.

This is the concluding article in an eight-part series. To see previous “Postcards from the Edge” articles, use this link