Terranigma

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Welcome to our mysterious home – I would like to introduce all of you to a project of mine. This is an introduction, but also an attempt to raise funds, so if you are allergic to such requests, stop reading right now 😉

Terranigma (terra = earth, enigma = riddle, terranigma – the earth as an eternal riddle) is a project that I conceived of in 2013, inspired by a preceding visit to the Himalaya region of Spiti in Northwestern India and by conversations and work with fellow travellers, photographers and filmmakers. My goal is to create a platform to preserve and document some of the most remote, strange and culturally valuable places and traditions on our planet through photography and writing.

After seeing ancient monasteries and thousand year old traditions in the valleys of the High Himalaya I came to realize that much of this wealth might be – and probably will be gone from the face of the earth forever in five to ten years time.

The world changes at a breakneck pace. Change, as a matter of fact, is the only thing that is constant in our existence. I want to record and show the world in the way I percieve it while I am travelling: as a deeply fascinating, fragile place full of mysteries and riddles, full of life, of traditions and also of change.

Do you consider such a project worthwhile? If you do, I am asking you to seriously consider supporting it. I aim to create a platform for various photographers and independent documentary filmmakers to collect knowledge of disappearing things. This must – out of necessity – start with my own photography.

This is what I am asking you: If you think it worthwhile, go to my website (http://www.sebastianbuchner.weebly.com/terranigma.html) and have a look at the PDF file. I am offering all of these images for sale in various formats, from very large to very small, from expensive to really cheap.

All money raised this way goes directly into funding further travels and to help create an online platform for photography, documentary film and independent cultural or anthropological reporting. I don’t expect this will be easy or that anything at all will happen without a serious amount of work – I am thankful for anyone who takes enough time to look at it and perhaps is willing to share it as well.

Thank you,
Sebastian Buchner.

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Book Review: Patrick French, India

India, India

  I picked up Patrick French’s book on India with quite some joy, having read his excellent and disillusioned book on Tibet and the slightly dusty, but remarkably detailed biography of Francis Younghusband and come away with information that I had not held before and a new, if slightly darker view of his topics. At the time I held this thought to be more mature – after all I did not want to be one of the people who know next to nothing about the places they visit, travelling only out of a sense of hedonistic adventure.

  But India, French’s book, proved to be a massive disappointment to me. This time I knew the subject matter quite intimately and French struck me as unbearably posh and conceited. An ivory tower wannabe mover and shaker who, the one or two times he stoops down to touch something a little more low brow, comes across as prejudiced and completely uniformed about the nature of the people he writes about. There is no humor and only the most rigid self awareness in his writing. His gift to render history clear and lucid is still there, but his endless focus on politics and economy is very wearying to me, because he possesses no real human understanding of his characters…the book is called The Biography of a Billion people, but the only people French is interested in are the high politicos. Yet the allure of India is that these politicians cannot lead as separate an existence as their ounterparts might be able to in other parts of the world. One cannot write about the rulers of a country without understanding the motivations of the people that are being ruled. The myriad of common fates that make India what it is are simply being ignored by French because he finds the few people who move mountains of money and wield power much more interesting.

  He seems to treat them with the same disdain of invisibility that he employed to write about the Western visitors to MacLeod Ganj who seemed so much beneath his notice and beneath him when he had returned from Tibet, where he had worked himself into disillusionment. The tragedy that he described in Tibet, Tibet seems now much more his own illusion of grandeur, less the despairing realization that Tibet was, in a manner, doomed. French’s self-importance starts at little things – speaking about Christopher Lee acting in a film about Jinnah without having seen it as if the casting choice could only have been a political decision – to his unerring belief that his interpretations are the only true and valid that makes his writing a guideline, perhaps, but a very unreliable one.

  Overall French’s book is very disappointing to me. Highbrow and unpleasantly British – perhaps it would have been fun bedside reading for Governor General Curzon, but for me it was uninvolving and presented a very slanted and unrealistic view of multifaceted India.

A completely different perspective

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 How about a completely different perspective? Imagine yourself as an imperialist, as someone who pushes European values called democracy, free market, political self-determination on people whose national and cultural ways of thinking have no room for these concepts. Not, mind you, because they are – a despicable term – backward, but because their society developed along different paths. They simply have different values.

  A Westerner (a collective term that is just as racially bizarre, shallow and useless as the terms Asian or African), unable to recognize those different values, considers the absence of the only set of values he recognizes to be primitive. He exercises himself, huffs and puffs, schemes and oppresses until he has created a framework that he can recognize as culture. Of course it is, in many cases, a framework that because it is unnatural requires an inordinate and inhuman amount of effort to maintain.

  The prevailing feeling – and it is a feeling that most of us who are born in the “civilized” world of the West share – is that the world is something that has to be fought against, that there will be inhumanly strong resistances against whatever we do and that, in order to be properly human, we constantly need to be on our guard and constantly need to fight.

  So we fight. We fight against hunger, against corruption, against someone else, against ourselves if there is nothing else to fight. And we consider this constant state of paranoia and agitation to be normal – if it wouldn’t be there, we’d have to invent it. We create purposeless rules and declare them the law and then find ways to circumvent the law because after all the law is purposeless and cruel. But we cannot change it to something more humane, because that would be cheating and it would deprive the generations of people who have insinuated themselves into the law of their rightful income and livelihood. Just imagine if everyone could make up their own laws? What sort of world would that be?

  Yet that is exactly what happens. Every single person makes up their own laws, depending on their experiences and influences, their dreams and their frustrations.

  I wish that people would understand – and not fear – that we live in a complete and beneficent state of permanently fluctuating anarchy. That we need not fear those numbers (of debts or statistics) or those ideologies, but that we simply need to understand and adapt.

Maya and Karma – Two Endless Sisters

The Indian mind, if someone can make such a blanket statement, is certainly a fascinating thing. While Indians do not possess the other-worldliness that one likes to ascribe to them, they do possess an immense strength of spirit and an incredible flexibility when it comes to dealing with personal problems. Amusingly described as a fail-safe mechanism, Hinduism has one aspect that it shares with Buddhism and that proves immensely practical.

The concept of maya, which is the fundamental unreality and illusion of the world.

This concept does not come to bear in the way one would expect it – Indians do not consider the world in front of them, filled with all the dirt and filth and the nose-tingling and stomach churning mixture of stenches and the shocking poverty to be fundamentally unreal. They simply do not notice it because their focus is internal and completely self-absorbed. It has a completely different application in Zen and Buddhist-influenced thought, but this is material for another time.

I think we all know the state of running around completely preoccupied with something, a state of absolute exclusion of the outside world – it’s a state that some mistake with meditation or transcendence, but it is instead single-mindedness. Whatever happens outside, it is discarded because we hold a burning image in our mind. In conversations with Indians one will often find that it is almost completely impossible to interest them for anything that is outside of their immediate sphere of necessity. They are completely oblivious to anything that does not immediately concern them – distraction could mean missing an opportunity and could mean a threat to survival. To be fair, to have a chance in the churning day to day reality of India, absolute focus is a necessity. Simply to cross the road without dying requires a certain amount of focus and daring. Apparently that feeling is still deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, even if it sometimes comes across as utter callousness in those whose survival is already secured enough to open themselves up a little bit.

So, the prevailing sense of India is not absence of the self, but complete focus on the self.

How can these two things be mistaken for each other?

Or do the selfless doctrines of Mahavira and Buddha just stand out so much more in that context to be considered all-pervasive? This is where the concept of maya comes in.

Maya is eminently useful in situations of failure. Something that would seem a soul-crushing defeat in other spiritual circumstances is simply shrugged off and the fundamental unreality of the world is evoked as suffrage. This creates an immense reservoir of strength and spirit and makes it possible for people to live in difficult or even dreadful circumstances without giving in to despair. It is the universal panacea of Buddhism and is equally valid in Hinduism.

The other concepts of Hindu faith that are applied in day-to-day life are karma and the accountability of the gods and the possibility of their personal intervention. Just like maya, karma has the potential for healing. No matter how badly one fails in one’s endeavours, the wheel of karma is unpredictable and fortune might come, unpremeditated, at any moment. If not in this life, then in the next or the one after that.

Maya comes to bear in moments of utter despair – your whole life might be in shambles and all your plans may have failed or were broken up. Don’t worry. It’s all unreal, a painted veil drawn and spun by the senses as they dance. Pick yourself up, move on. There’s still life in you.

That helps to explain the psychological resilience of people who have little to no possessions and little to no chance of succeeding in the material world and occasionally manage to succeed against those monumental odds.

Religion, in its original sense, is there to take people’s fear of death and the unknown.

For us, Westerners, this is hard to understand because Christianity works with heavy assumptions of power and guilt and is often little more than empty pomp. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer flexible and useful answers that allow a person to accept them without signing their souls away, so to speak. There is no personal contract or covenant with god as it exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no way to displease the crores upon crores of gods and if they mete out punishment it is because they follow a cosmic law not because they want to avenge personal displeasure. Guilt is not woven into the fabric of life.

Hinduism, however, offers a different concept of communality and social help. For a staunch Hindu one’s immediate and ultimate goal is always to save oneself. Another’s fate is not their concern. Various religious movements stress the ultimate acceptance of everyone, others have a strict concept of dharma or social duty, some are militant and fundamentalist, bristling with fury against everything that is not Bharat, not Hindu, not India.

It may come as no surprise that in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty many charitable organizations have sprung up. Some operate out of greed for influence or power (not unlike messianic institutions in Europe or America), but in almost all the cases the services provided far outweigh the hidden or overt intentions. If a party like the BJP, the largest right wing party, organizes meals out of political calculations, they will still have fed people for a day. This is an ill-suited point for any ideological lever.

Charity is certainly not a completely unknown concept in India, but as in any society the people who would willingly give up material rewards in order to help are few. And often, if they do, they expect spiritual rewards in turn. Christian missionaries who help with a sense of intellectual and social condescension or Buddhists who assume that the repetition of a ritual will raise their spiritual account balance. But this is another blanket statement – the history of Christian missionaries is, no doubt, as colorful and diverse as any history where, sadly, a few rotten ones stand out and for people who have no way of increasing their money, increasing spiritual currency gives them at least a sense of self-worth.

Those concepts, maya and karma aren’t considered to be particularly spiritual. They would be comparable to what we call conscience – it’s a religious concept that has found hold in day to day life in Christian areas of the world and is so much part of our lives that most would probably object to calling it a religious concept. Perhaps we are just as pragmatic when it comes to ordering day-to-day society, only we usually call the decisive factor our reason and common sense, which are results of an intellectual revolution almost religious in scope.

It’s common to assume that Asia or Africa are backward because they have never had an Age of Reason, no great revolution of thought that overthrew old structures and paved the way for industrialism and free economy. But perhaps their age of reason has come and gone long ago. Perhaps their age of reason never came because we enlightened Europeans stomped on it and cut it down with swords and shot it with Enfield rifles, so we could keep calling ourselves enlightened or industrious or advanced.

I do not believe that either East or West holds an advantage as far as the sheer volume of philosophy is concerned or that, viewed over a span of several centuries, the armies of one side have proven to be indisputably stronger. Different geological circumstances have created different social structures. Different social structures have created different psychological necessities. It is ridiculous to debate about something that boils down to the question if living near a river or near a mountain is better. Eastern thought is more flexible while Western thought has found strength in rigidity and linear progression. Those are well known commonplaces.

The challenge is – as always – to be open enough to begin to understand. Maya – illusion – and karma – consequence. The two sisters are a good enough place to begin this attempt to understand.

On Meditation

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What is meditation?

It’s a very natural state of mind.

The mind is “between things”. 

It’s a state necessary for change to happen.

 

Common misconceptions about meditation:

It’s agitation of or work for the mind.

It isn’t. It’s learning how your mind works.

“I should meditate each day. I want to get into the habit.”

Don’t even start meditating if that’s your approach. Meditation is an antidote to habit.

I need a quiet, peaceful room for it.

In the beginning, yes. For later on I recommend the back of an open truck or a schoolyard at lunch break.

“I will become a better person if I meditate.”

No, but you might learn how to be you properly.

 

Never forget this:

Meditation and spiritual practice are a big scam.

Becoming addicted to meditation is about as bad as doing none at all.

Have fun.