Going Back: A journey of surrender, hope, love, and generosity.
(this is a transcript of Zilong Wang’s talk on 13th January’18, as part of the one-day Youth Retreat in Surat)
Zilong: I feel so blessed this morning going around in the circle - hearing the question what breaks your heart and what gives you hope - if you are like every time I hurt, it is a crack opened up within you, so that the hope can come in. There is a song called 'There's a crack in everything and that's how the light comes in.' So, thank you for breaking our hearts together so that the light can in and shine out. Dhiren sitting here, when asked what he is working on - he said he is working on a fusion reactor. By 2025 the fusion reactor would be ready. I feel like I am sitting in a fusion reactor right now and it's been ready all along and thank you for fusing our hearts and..... also hearing about the projects that Parth, Aarti, you all are working on... I am really so moved and so humbled. Even at age 22 even earlier, you are serving so many people and how that's changing you and like you said 'hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people' and in your story, I am also hearing that to heal others, heal yourself and to hurt others, we hurt ourselves too. And I feel like comparing, well not really comparing... But the journey that I am on is about first seeing the spirits of service in others that inspired me to go on an inner journey and how that inner journey can have ripple effects in other ways.
So just as a general information - for the past two years, I am on this bicycling pilgrimage, mostly by bicycle from US back to China. So, every day I would bike about 40 - 100 kms, then in the evening I would knock on the doors of strangers going into small villages and say "I am on a pilgrimage and may I set up my tent in your backyard." And every single night, someone has said yes. So, for 10000 kms, more than 200 different families, every single night I not only had a place to stay but also hot shower. And most of the times they would also invite me to come inside and join them for dinner and then breakfast. So when they open the door they are always a little suspicious and say "We don't get these kind of requests often especially from a foreigner." But by the time that we leave in the morning, we are like best friends, we are hugging, adding each other on Facebook, promising that if you come back to our country, you have to come back here. Everyday within sixteen hours of transforming from strangers to new-found family members - it just gives me endless hope. And for these past two years, some surprising statistics - one is I've met exactly zero bad person, not a single ill-willed person, or insult or any accident and there were also zero flat tyres (laughs). So, this shows me that it's definitely not me definitely not the brand of the tyre, it's the Guardian angels - the blessings of the so many families and friends near and far.
Because we are all in the same age, facing the same questions in life, I would love to share a bit of the inner journey on some of the themes - for example, work versus job, family - the support of the family and freedom versus the morality, the ethics that we would want to live by. I would start by saying that after college, I was working for a consulting company in San Francisco. They help companies to go green. They are really doing good work but soon I realized they are putting a band-aid on cancer patients. They have all the good intentions and the work is needed, but it's not really addressing the root causes. So during that time, I know that this is not the work that I want to do for life but I don't know what is the real work to do and luckily at that time, I met ServiceSpace - I started volunteering and started meditating. And slowly these activities changed the questions in me. Before the question was 'what do I want to do with my life' and after that, the question became 'if I give myself more fully - how can this body, mind be an instrument'. So, while holding those questions, and not knowing what's really my work to do for almost one year, it was very painful because I know the job that I am doing is not the real work, but I don't know what the real work is. What really helped me during that one year was the small practices - In the office, on my way to the office, I would buy some apples and then during the day, when I am in office, I would wash the apples, cut them up and then just go around and offer apples to the colleagues and I feel like that's the single most meaningful thing that I do during the day. All the other work is we say - Oh! I have helped produce this many tonnes of carbon-dioxide. It doesn't really matter. But for one, it's so far remote it doesn't create change within me. Second, for all the help that we are trying to do, it's really wiped out by the necessity to grow. The companies we are helping, we helped them to become 3 percent more efficient but the market required them to grow at 10 percent every year. So, it's those small practices that I feel has become my real work. So in the office during those times I've been waiting. Then one day, there's a calling – an inner voice that just says, “Go back to where you are from.” And it's not exactly the language but the knowing, it's just so clear, I almost got tears in my eyes and I know that this is it and the rest is detail. But then, that means I'll have to quit my job which means I'll lose all my insurance, green card and all the perks and things that my family have been expecting. So, the ego was really torn. But there's a saying in the Gospel of Thomas which is 'If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth, will kill you.' I feel like when the calling arrived, every moment that I do not surrender to this calling, it's like a slow suicide. So, I realized if I continue to play this game of ego, like what I want to do with my life, I can see the end of it - it's not very promising. Mozart or Alexander, the Great - they both died at around 32 – 33. I am 26. So, within six years, can I became Mozart or Alexander, the Great? Or even looking at people around. If I want to just play the game of ego, there's no point in it. But, if I surrender, let this drop go back to the ocean, then say that the life you can plan is very small for you to live. But if you surrender to the calling, life has brought me to meet all of you - to be in India. It’s so much more meaningful and even from the perspective of just the joy of life, fun of life - surrendering is a much better option than what do I want to do with my life.
So, after deciding okay - I have to follow the calling and quit my job, the next big hurdle was how do I tell this to my parents because I am their only son. They have really worked hard, supported me, have high hopes. So, I called my parents on Skype and then told them that I'm going to quit my job and ride a bicycle back home! They were already a little resistant to all the volunteering and meditation. My dad said, 'Well, if you wanted to meditate and volunteer, you could have stayed in China. Why go all the way to San Francisco? You are in the heart of America!' and this and that. So, I told them that and they were pretty surprised and shocked and they raised their voice! So I said, 'Dad, I've to hang up the phone and I'll call you back in ten minutes.' So, I hung up the phone and cried for ten minutes straight because we've always been like best friends and I am afraid that from there on, our values shall part. We'll no longer be able to understand and support each other. I know the parents here, they are deeply supportive of all of your journeys and planting seeds. So such great blessings! I also know for some of us or some others, it might be more like a journey to bring our parents along. So, when I called back in 10 minutes, my dad - he has calmed down. He has to my great surprise, accepted the decision. Said, "Oh! You're young, you can afford to make mistake, if it makes you happy, go ahead and do it." So, I know he accepted but didn't fully understand and support. But, during the next year, when I went back home, one day suddenly, my dad said "Well, that 10-day meditation thing you've been going to - I think I would like to sign up too!" That totally surprised me because my dad - he is a very good person, but he also had habits - Like he has a fast temper. I would never expect him wanting to meditate or sit quietly. But he went for 10-day meditation and came back a changed person. He quit smoking, quit alcohol, became vegetarian. He is meditating two hours a day and has recently served a 30- day meditation course and is pretty much a completely changed person. He has quit his job and he and my mom - they are right now helping to start an eco-village in China. So, now it's their turn to explain to their parents what they are up to (laughs). But later on, when my dad went to more meditation courses, the teacher tells me and him that my dad has actually more affinity with this practice than me. So, either through me or through some other person, he will come back to this practice. I am so grateful to this universe that they let me to play a part in my dad's turning around. Now we joke when we call each other. We don't say dad and son - we say dharma-brother dad and dharma-brother son!
Before starting the journey, I went to Guri, Nipun's wife, for help, for advice and for homework. And she really asked me to sit with two questions -
one is why exactly are you doing this and other is how is it a service to others and not just a journey for yourself.
So, as a part of that exercise, I decided to pick a set of precepts both as a practice and also as a gift to the people who I meet. For our age freedom can be more enticing and I realized taking of these precepts for the last two years has given me more freedom than what the Hollywood or the Bollywood would define freedom as. So, these six precepts are very much inspired by the wisdom tradition - no killing, no stealing, no lustfulness, no intoxicants, no solicitation, commercialisation or no financial aid or asking for money or no profit-seeking and finally, no meat-eating. You might notice that I took out ‘no lying’, because after a few months, I have been thinking about it, I thought I wasn't ready because as long as I am talking, I'll be breaking / bending the truth all the time. I couldn't do that yet. So, for the past two years, I would regularly check whether I am keeping to these precepts. One biggest gift internally is that last year after one year of keeping these precepts, one day suddenly, I realized that I want to keep these precepts for the rest of my life and all lives to come. And also the realization in these precepts is much deeper. For example, no killing means of course, no killing beings - but in the past, if there's a mosquito at night, I'd just kill the mosquito, but now I realized that's breaking the killing vow. So, the mosquito comes, I'll just shoo the mosquito away. But then I read the story in the Buddha's life, when he was going on alms round with one of his disciples. When the Buddha walked by, all the people just closed their doors. But when the Buddha's disciple walked by, the people were all very happy - they were like opening door, inviting him, making him the alms offering. So the other disciples were confused and asked the Buddha, "What happened? You are fully enlightened and they are not making any offerings to you.” So the Buddha said, “Many many lifetimes ago, when my disciple and I were both practitioners, we were sitting under a tree. There was a beehive above us that was bothering us. So, I took out a torch and drove all the bees away. But my fellow practitioner in that lifetime, who is now my disciple in this lifetime, was very compassionate to all those bees and did not drive them away. Now all those bees have been born as those villagers living in the same village and that's why when they see me, they don't know it but, in our karma, they are just shooing me away while they are welcoming this other monk inside.” So now whenever I shoo a mosquito, I think “Oh! All the people who close their door on me, that's probably why!” (laughs) So that's the precept of no killing. The precept of no stealing - of course, I won't take things without being given, but I realized to sleep more than my share, to eat more than my share is stealing - I am stealing food from those who need it more. I am stealing time from the day from cultivating or serving others - the opportunity cost is high. So, whenever I am just lying or rolling around on the bed, I realize that I am stealing time and this is breaking Sheela.
And third, about no lustfulness - at the physical level, it's easy to maintain celibacy. But then I realize when I see a beautiful girl walk by, my eyes would follow her and I notice that a lot of other men do that and I realized that that's breaking Sheela, because it'll make the woman feel really unsafe with all these men are looking at her body. And I am also repeating the habit pattern in my mind, even if I said I am not doing anything or saying anything but I am just reinforcing that habit pattern of letting my senses go out to chase after beautiful forms. So, now I would train my mind whenever I am looking at a beautiful girl walking by - turn around and observe what's going on internally – just wishing her well, wishing I come out of my habit pattern and wishing there is safety for all my sisters in the world.
And with the vow of no intoxicants, it is easy to say no to drug or alcohol or tobacco, but now I am realizing more and more sugar is a major intoxicant. What it does neurologically in our brain is the same as cocaine or heroine. It activates the same part of the brain. The production of sugar also has a long history of colonization, slave-trade. So, can I slowly wean myself off the socially-licensed intoxicants? It's probably not a very popular proposition in Gujarat (laughs). But just seeing all the deeper layers of the vow, I am realising everyday if I am breaking the vow at much subtler level. On the surface level, it's easy work. But keeping these vows at a deeper level is the biggest gift that I am giving to others – the gift of peace of mind. And also give myself the space that I can know that at the more lower layer, the deeper layer, I am still breaking Sheela. So, these are some reflections on the past two years and there are many stories I can share from around the world that'll be more fun. But I just want to get the more “head” part of the reflection out. Thank you so much for walking your pilgrimage.
Nipun: For someone like Zilong, this is really the best way (to keep silence). If you applaud, it really feels so cheap though we all feel very touched. Thank you. People have thoughts or comments or questions for either one of us or for each other. This could be a nice time - we have 15 minutes to do that.
Question: What happened on the first day of pilgrimage? First night when you had to knock the door and ask someone to let you in. Was it easy?
Zilong: Even before the first day, it took me a long time get started. It was because I always kept delaying the departure date. A wonderful teacher said just do it one day at a time. You could do one day and then wake up to another. So that helped me to get started on the first day.
Actually, on the first day of the first trip across the US, I didn’t have the courage to knock on the door so I went to sleep in an empty Boy Scout Camp. I found there is a Boy Scout Camp so I thought I can sleep there. But it was horrible. When I tried to take a shower from the hose, a flood of ants came up, because it had been unused for long and all the ants were crawling in the hose pipe. And then I got 30 mosquito bites and so much so that the next day helmet wouldn't fit because my head had swollen from the mosquito bites. So I felt that it's a sign from the universe that I have to do it. First day was not easy because I felt so awkward. I was afraid of rejection. But slowly, two things helped. One is I change the inner orientation. It's not that to get something. But, here's an opportunity where I can offer a silent prayer. It doesn't matter if they say yes or no. If they say yes, okay, if they say no I wish them well and silently move on. So if more people say no, it gives me an opportunity to offer silent prayers. With that, it took the nervousness away, and the yes rate also went up. But also, the other interesting take up point is, as you knock on more doors, you unconsciously become better and can tell who might be more open. For example, who grows food in their yard, would never say no. If they have made their garden growing tomato or pepper, and I go up to them they have always welcomed me. I don't know why, but I think there might be something about connecting to the land and the abundance of nature.
Question: Didn't you even have fears about your future? Like when we complete school and go to college and we have fear about what will happen to us in the future. We have questions about our marriage. You said very beautifully that you can take off your eyes from a beautiful girl, that it's not very easy for boys. But you are practicing it. Don't you have fear about what will happen to your family if you are on this path? Because you have to sacrifice a lot in service life. So, don’t you have any fears? What motivates you to always go ahead on this path?
Zilong: So one thing is, once surrender happens, there is no going back. The prayer I had in my heart is, if I give myself more fully. But when the calling came, there is no if. I can't say – no, no, no I take it back. I didn't want to surrender. (laughs). There is just no going back. So in that sense, it's not my future. So I can't worry about that. And the part about family and marriage, it did worry my parents when I told them about these vows I am going to keep for the rest of my life. They just told me if I wanted to practice no lustfulness, does that mean you will not get married or have no children. For a few years, I always thought family and marriages are a blockage for inner cultivation. But then, I met people like Nipun and Guri and all along the way, met many couples who are really spiritual partners. They are stronger in their cultivation. And really after seeing, they decouple their marriage and their physical attachment. I just know that it is also an option but that it is much more difficult. Now, I know my level is at the kindergarten and only when I get deeper in these practices and in the future, if Insha-Allah whichever is the higher plan, and I also know that marriage, family life, is not against cultivation. But it's the next level. It’s graduation.
Question: Over the past two years when you were cycling, what was the happiest and the most difficult moment of your journey?
Zilong: The happiest part is the time with nature. The parts that like the most is when I biked the whole day without seeing another human (laughs). Those were the best days because those were the days when I felt not alone, those are the days I feel so connected. I realized nature is the best listener. Each thought I carry, nature is a web. Sometimes nature would make it apparent, by sending serendipity signs like seeing the same bird, seeing the same butterfly, so I know that nature is aware. It is one. Those were the happiest times.
And the most difficult time is how the mind keeps turning the physical pain into mental affliction. As Nipun probably knows from their walking pilgrimage, which is another level, but on bicycle too, it's never comfortable. It's either too hot or too cold. And physically it's always uncomfortable. And the mind keeps turning the discomfort in pain. "Oh my! What was I thinking (when I started out on this path)." I think that was the most difficult part - turning pain into suffering.
Question: How did the whole journey help in discovering your calling?
Zilong: To go on this journey is a calling and so, it’s both a means and an end. It's end in itself as it is life. There is no purpose, or in order to get to somewhere. But, I also realise two years of biking is preparation of something. I didn't get to know what that something is, but I know this is the right preparation, and I am certain to get clues of what that something is, because by going all this way around it helps me to know that the grass is not greener on the other side. And the answer is not outside. Beforehand, I wouldn't have the patience and humility to look where I am from, or to assume that my work is where I am from. So, I was looking outside. But after going on around, it helped me to realize that there is nothing out there that you need to look for. All the work is already in there. Also, all the going around and connecting more strongly with the culture that raised me, helps me feel like the whole journey around the world is actually earning the return ticket to enter the home again.
Question: You met a lot of people in your journey, practiced compassion, discovered about yourself a bit more. You talk about giving. How do you plan to do that? In what manner? Some people practice in terms of jobs, some in terms of social work. How do you plan to do it now?
Zilong: The whole pilgrimage is a rehearsal for real life. I go on this pilgrimage so that I can maintain the spirit of pilgrimage when I go back. I don't know exactly or in what form of delivery system of service. But I know the practice. I can see the growth in inner practice. Even within the pilgrimage, I feel like the biggest gift I can give people is the listening – non-judgmental listening. So many families that I go into, I just listen. Asking them questions, I listen to the stories. Then the husband would look at the wife and say, “You never told me that!” It happens almost every time. I feel one of the biggest scarcity is deep listening. Each one of us are so rarely being deeply listened to without being judged. I feel like you are gifting me that right now, so thank you for that gift. Or how can I offer that as it gift to each family that I go into. Now that has become more like a habit. I know I can now carry it into my normal life.
Question: Any stories when you had an unpleasant experience?
Zilong: Honestly, I can't think of any one unpleasant experience. I think there are probably two parts. One part is the universe is very kind in giving me what I can take so I have a strong faith that everything that comes to me is because the universe knows this is something that I am ready for. The universe won't assign me tasks that I that I am not up to. I don't feel like I have been with those challenges that is really beyond my range and also, the universe is really a mirror. If I don't harbour any ill will, not even a flat tyre will happen. I've never been sick, or felt like I faced any hostility. And I tell this to all the families that I visit that the best way is for the family to switch off their TV. Because of the news that they receive, they have a picture of the world that is so negative. But I have met exactly zero negativity all around the world till date. All the families who were hosting me so generously, were so careful with outsiders.
Question: What were some of the countries?
Zilong: The countries were US, Mexico, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, and in Europe / Western Europe, England, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and in the Middle East - Turkey, Iran, Dubai. And the most hospitable country is Iran - just the culture and hospitality, it completely shattered all the prejudices. In USA, I would knock on 5 doors on an average for somebody to say yes. In UK it is one in 8. In Western Europe, it is 1 in 3 or 4. But in Iran, it is 1 in 1 or sometimes even before I ask, I am not even ready to knock yet, people wave me down on the street. They wouldn't speak English but they say "Oh come home, have food and stay." They really rose in my mind and heart and I have deep gratitude for them. And also, when I go back to China or USA, I told all my friends don't believe the news. I didn't stumble upon any nuclear bombs. The people are kind.
Question: Where does India stand?
Zilong: Even before I ask, I have been invited in the house. So, 1 in 0! (laughs)
Nipun: Thank you so much. Zilong – it’s not just about the fact that he is a wonderful human being because he is on this pilgrimage. It’s interesting, but it is about how he is doing it. And just the kinds of things that he is practicing, the depth with which he is practicing and the way in which he listens – it happens to all of us, that if Zilong is listening to you, you start sharing very different things. It’s just something you can’t describe but you can observe. Ultimately, it is not just about one person, but about all of us practicing in our own ways. So, the idea is where do we find our calling of practicing compassion – may be we can’t go all the way, but can we help each other? Behind each person, there are other people. So, can we bring their spirits into the circle. That is the hope, we all start to be like brothers and sisters and support each other in failing in our experiments in love and surprising ourselves in how we can succeed. May be we hold a minute of silence in the spirit of how deeply Zilong has shared. So, thank you so much.
[In gratitude to his being and all the gifts Zilong shares with the world, Service Space volunteers have come up with a 21-Day Pilgrim's Challenge. Each day of the challenge is one quality of Zilong that has inspired us. With each day there is also an anecdote or a story that he had earlier shared!]