Conduct and observance

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday in Shanghai

This morning I spent some time walking through the older parts of Shanghai again. I was in neighborhoods that tourists do not go to, surrounded by hundreds, in fact thousands, of ordinary Chinese people.

These are not the beautiful Chinese people who stroll along the Bund in Shanghai wearing designer clothes and sporting designer sunglasses. (I saw them today, too.) These are the people who wear the same clothes several days in a row and eat a bowl of fried rice with a little bit of pork and some vegetables at lunchtime. The neighborhoods are tear-down neighborhoods (see the picture); all around them, the brave new world of expensive apartment buildings is encroaching, and in a few years they will be ousted so that rich beautiful people can live where they are.

Where will they go? The rich, beautiful people do not care about such things.

These people strike me as a rich and beautiful too, but in a way that has nothing to do with designer clothing and expensive real estate. They are living their lives, and have an earthy honesty to them; no pretensions to designer grandeur would find a comfortable home here. The faint smell of urine from chamber pots wafts through the streets in the morning; fingers are red and chapped from peeling vegetables, and coarse cottons in shades of blue and black make the garments of choice. I walked past women chopping scallions, holding babies, selling flowers. A moment of eye contact and a smile over bundles of daisies transcended every language barrier. The flower seller and I knew what we were feeling, we were feeling it together, and that was all that mattered.

That was wealth. The small joys of life are the same in every language.

It amazed me to see that I was completely comfortable and relaxed in this essentially alien environment. I have been coming here for so many years that to walk down a foreign street in a foreign city filled with people of another race seems totally normal. There was no fear, no apprehension, no hesitation. There was just me and all these other ordinary people doing their ordinary things.

Tonight I am back at my five star hotel surrounded by technology, widescreen TVs, computers and voice dictation software. I am looking out over the People's Square from the 35th floor; a vantage point these people are unlikely to ever have. And yet they are here with me, in me.

How to explain that?

Somehow, in this act of consciousness, we all contain each other; everything blends into one harmonious whole in a manner we are unable to see and cannot even faintly taste most of the time. And now, a little tiny bit of them is in you, for as you read this, the chain of experience is transmitted, traveling from one organism to another through impulses magnetic and electric, ephemeral and yet completely material.

Mysteries abound. We are vessels into which the world flows.

Once again, on this trip, I am struck how the important moments are the ones where there is a bit of human contact. The woman who served me at the restaurant twice and recognized me, for example; she is not like the younger girls here at most of the hotels. She is a bit older, you can see it in her eyes. She understands the value of a bit of personal contact and she gave it to me. I really appreciated that; when I left we said goodbye to each other and to have a nice day, and we really, really meant that.

What kind of substitute is therefore an exchange like this, where there is heart and soul in a single sentence?

I contrast that with some of the more depressing human contact I had today; on Nanjing Road, at least 10 different young girls no older than my daughter must have approached me with the suggestion that we "spend some time together." The time, no doubt, to be spent with me paying for their sexual favors.

It was so sad. I wondered whether their parents knew what they were out doing this afternoon. I was tempted to give some of them money and ask them to take the day off without having sex with strangers. But of course that would have done no good. This reality that we shared together was their reality, and no wish of my own was going to change it for them.

Nonetheless, this was real contact that had an impact. Sobering, disconcerting, enough to jar me for a moment and take me out of imagination long enough to see where I was and what was happening.

All of these contacts, all of these moments, remind me of something my teacher said to me a number of years ago. "Life is so daily," she said. "So ordinary."

Certainly that has been the theme of this trip for me. I dwell within the ordinary. No matter where I go, no matter how exotic a location appears to be, it is still ordinary. What makes it extraordinary, if anything, is my relationship to it: the way that I receive it.

As Henri Trachol once said while I was present, "Life is an experiment. If we wish, we are invited to participate."

In this endless blending of impressions and molecules and energies, how miraculous it is that this thing called consciousness appears. How privileged we are to share it.

Be well, my friends, until tomorrow.

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