Through rutted winding streets of Kathmandu
Dodging crowded humans, cows, dogs, rickshaws
Everything moves like slow fluid in this atmosphere
Thick as dreams
With sewage, incense, dust and fever
And the smoke of brick kilns and cremations
Tom Kelly’s bike rumbles down –
on the Tibetan side of town.
My intention was to sneak across the Tibetan border and travel in disguise among nomads in pursuit of the historical and geographical basis of mythology of Shangri-la. Even more than arrest and imprisonment in a Chinese gulag, my concern centered around the legendary ‘hungry ghosts’ – ethereal zombies that were said to roam the region. Locals insisted these stories were based on fact. Would I be in some kind danger?
Tom Kelly – a friend of my best pal Nevada Weir and a long-time Kathmandu resident – was willing to help a Nepal neophyte. There was a very wise Tibetan lama named Chokyi Nyima who could answer my questions. Jump on my bike, Tom instructed. And I did. (Years later, Tom took Bruce Cockburn on a similar ride resulting in the now-famous lyric.)
The monastery felt like ancient castle. Thick-walled darkness were lit only by flickering butter lamps. A monk lead us down cold corridors and up steep steps until alone in his quarters, Choyki Nyima stood and greeted us.
It was my first encounter with yak butter tea – tepid, salty and rancid-tasting. Choyki Nyima’s smile, however, could not have been warmer. Or sweeter. The lama sat motionless, enfolded in maroon robes while I blabbed my fears about encountering malevolent ghosts in the wilds and my quest for Shangri-la… the modern day version of the ancient Tibetan legend popularized in the West in the 1937 Lost Horizon. How, armed with both time and resolve, I would not relent until I had discovered some facts.
Chokyi Nyima shrugged off my fears of the hungry ghosts saying they were ‘energies’ that would not harm me as long as I kept loving kindness in my heart. What seemed to concern him more was my determination to find the birthplace of the legend of Shangri-la.
If you are determined to find it you will not, he smiled.
So Shangri-la does not exist? I asked.
Oh, Shangri-la exists. You see, but Shangri-la is not a place you stumble upon like in the movies. Shangri-la – as you call it – represents the end of all suffering. And since suffering is caused by desire, when you let go of desire then you find Shangri-la. Quite suddenly you are there.
So seeking Shangri-la is a kind of contradiction? I queried.
Not really. If you must go…then go have your adventures. You can’t stop desire. All you can do is just keep coming back to non-attachment. The whole point of Buddhist practice is to enjoy what is… and to be let go of what you think you want.
Delivering a blessing to my forehead with the palm of his hand, Chyoki Nyima looked deep into my eyes. Non-attachment. Non-attachment, he grinned. With wave of his arm we were dismissed.
It has taken years, but recently I have begun to understand:
Non-attachment is not detachment. Though similar, these words have little in common. Let me explain the crucial distinction.
Detachment is giving up. Non-attachment is giving up… the struggle.
Recently a friend and colleague expressed her fear about the current economic realities. Hers, in particular. In a matter of two years she had been reduced from speaking to different audiences every week in large auditoriums to addressing the same audience every day… around her small family dining table. Her worry was evident in her taut visage and tight posture. Her attachment to her specific vision of ‘success’ was ruining the very vitality, humor and optimism upon which she had built a career. Her attachment to a specific outcome was giving her blinders when what she needed was the floodlit, panoramic perspective of limitless possibility.
My suggestion? Why not let go of her expectations … and see what might be the unexpected gift in uninvited circumstances.
Maybe she needed to reinvent herself or even stop speaking completely. She would only find success once she opened and embraced whatever was next, unattached from her pre-conceived destination… but never, ever detached.
Detachment is the very opposite of non-attachment. Detachment is dispassion, disinterest. Detachment leads to cynicism, heartlessness, and diminution of life force. Non-attachment asks us to stop clinging, to let go of our fears and trust our interests and passions. Non-attachment is playful. Relaxed. Non-attachment asks excitedly: Hey, let’s see what happens next. Unlike the old black and white movie, the real Shangri-la is a full of light, color and laughter. It is a place inside us. Non-attachment is the spirit of adventure, the secret to joyful heart and boundless enthusiasm that will guide us up the mountain every time.