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Lessons from Indochina: Of Temples, Caves, Monks, and Serpents

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The last time I was in Bangkok, Thailand in 1976, there was a government coup. Later in the nineties as Lena and I arrived in Nepal, an insurrection was in full force leading us to hole up in our hotel under government curfew.

On my first return to Thailand in over thirty years this April, there was again major civil unrest but fortunately it did not affect our trip in any negative way. I took advantage of Thailand’s excellent medical system and got myself the first major physical exam in over thirty-five years. I got my skin, eyes, and teeth checked and everything you could examine got looked at. The good news is that I was pronounced in great shape without any discernable physical problems. I am indeed a most fortunate human being.

After a couple of days in Bangkok Lena and I headed for Northern Thailand where the Indochinese New Year was being celebrated in the streets as a giant water festival. For three days everywhere we went we were doused with squirt guns, buckets, and hoses of water. We ended up very clean from head to toe and being over 100 degrees every day it was rather refreshing. On the other hand it got a bit old and thanks to the advice from our friend Lee, we sought refuge by crossing into Laos and floating down the Mekong River for two days, a strategy that worked well. The boat was crowded with travelers and there was nothing to do but watch the extraordinary scenery and observe the interactions of a variety of world travelers meeting and visiting with one another.

I found this to be strangely intense and after two days I felt I knew more than I wanted to about this colorful brew of humanity. There were the budding romances, the modern hippies, the lone wolves with the need for freedom, the old soul Swiss family traveling for eight months with their two little children, the Chinese and the British Sages entertaining everyone with songs and jokes, the scholars deep into their guidebooks, and the locals asleep all over the floor of the boat on sacks of rice. When the trip began everyone sat orderly in their hard wooden seats, but after two ten hour days on the river people abandoned their seats, regrouped, sang songs, swapped lies and adventures, drank beer, gobbled up snacks and generally became very informal. I found myself joining a rebellious few who, every chance we got, sat on the railings of the boat feet dangling out until told to get back into the boat. When the coast was clear we were back at it. Great fun!

The truly interesting part was reminding myself on a regular basis that this was a carefully orchestrated dream and these people were all projections of the One. It was odd to realize that although there was the appearance of travel to my senses and brain, on an essence level I wasn’t really going anywhere at all. Every time I checked inside, I had not moved, essence was at home in a state of pure being. What an odd thing this human experience is, such a paradox. What a good movie at times.

Now this is a part of the world that although I have not explored much, is very familiar to me due to many past lives in this region. In fact two thirds of my lifetimes have been in Asia so I was home in more ways than one. Everything looked and felt familiar, especially the green mountains, the foothills of the Himalayas, stretching all the way from Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan into Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. These are ancient lands formed when the two major plates crashed into each other forming the highest mountain chain in the world. Here lie some of the oldest rocks in the world. In these lowland ranges live a great variety of hill tribes, many of who have arrived more recently from higher in the Himalayas. There are now many communities of Tibetans in exile from Tibet. Most of these tribes practice a combination of ancient shamanism or animism and Buddhism. Elements of Taoism and Hinduism are present as well. The mix is mostly a happy one and people, although in poverty, smile readily and are most gracious.

Every Buddhist male child in these lands spends from three months to three years living as a monk, complete with begging bowl, learning the major precepts of this ancient spiritual tradition. This ensures that Buddhist philosophy is lived out in the culture at large and it works surprisingly well.

In our wanderings we were led or guided to a number of Buddhist caves where centuries of hermits and monks sought enlightenment. Some of these caves reached deep into the mountains and were filled with stalactites and stalagmites. In one cave, after winding nearly a half mile underground we arrived at a major Buddhist temple with carvings and stone images of all sizes and types; clearly a place of great reverence where many offerings were laid. In some of these caves it was clear to me that great human beings of the past had meditated and became self realized or enlightened. The rocks oozed their still strong presence and I found myself uplifted and inspired in remarkable ways. Some of these caves I found very difficult to leave and there was a part of me that wanted to simply sit and go into deep and long meditation but of course there were many pilgrims and this was not possible.

Clearly these caves were used for what Tibetan Buddhist call the dark retreat, days spent in total darkness so that the senses cannot distract from the deep inner work. Dark retreats are the fast track to enlightenment. On the other hand being a hermit is not the be all and end all because the real test of spiritual awakening is whether one can maintain the awareness and peace upon emerging into the world.

In the orient every temple, including these cave temples, has two dragons, monsters, or serpents that you must pass between before you can enter the temple. Often these dragons are at the foot of a hill and as you climb the long set of stairs to the temple, the dragons bodies and tails go the full length of the long entry until you actually pass the gate into the temple. These monsters are sometimes huge and extraordinarily beautiful with intricate carvings, paint, and sometimes overlaid with gold leaf. There is a reason these dragons are so beautiful. They represent paradox and confusion, major distractions for human beings. In order to enter the temple one must pass through and master these two challenges and of course their beauty can distract you and deter you from ever entering.

Paradox and confusion are major ploys of the ego to prevent human beings from awakening and becoming enlightened. The physical plane is designed to keep us confused because it appears that everything is divided up into millions of parts and these parts seem to be at odds with each other. Thus there is the appearance of conflict and separation. How can I be in a state of union with the Tao when I seem to be separate from my environment? Thus we are left in confusion and paradox. I am strong, no I am so weak, I am so fortunate, no I am a miserable worm, I am awake, no, I am sound asleep and still dreaming and on and on. As long as the ego gets us to identify with being separate, with being alone, with being a physical body apart from everyone else we are prevented from entering the temple of truth, the temple of love, the temple of energy. The great masters and sages of old in the Orient knew all this and therefore chose a method of reminding people of these challenges. In this way everything was a teaching, a reminder, a path toward liberation. The dragons of paradox and confusion are thus illusory, that is why they are outside the temple.

After arriving at Luang Prabang, a beautiful French colonial city in Laos, we went up to an extraordinary and powerful Buddhist temple on the top of the hill in the center of town. It had the requisite dragons whose bodies followed the quarter mile distance to the top. From there the views of the countryside were stupendous. Many pilgrims were arriving, leaving offerings and praying. We noticed that many of them had little birdcages with finches inside and after praying they would open the cages and release the finches into the open air. They would fly off in every direction and the whole drama was very inspiring. We found that the little caged finches were being sold at a site nearby and we decided to purchase two of them and let them free.

We prayed over the finches and set out specific intentions regarding events that we would like to see happen. As I opened the first little cage the finch quickly flew off to a big tree and was free and I felt his happiness. So then we set the second finch free but to our dismay it fell to the ground and we discovered it could not fly. Perhaps it was a little too young or was missing a tail feather so it went hopping around the offerings, eating the rice and ants covering the ground. We tried to catch it and get it out of the way of the people but it was hopeless. Eventually we had to let go and give the finch over to Spirit. Now I felt really badly for the little bird and was concerned about what it meant for our prayers that the little bird could not fly. But Lena was philosophical and said that part of our plans were ready to go but the other part was not ready to fly and would have to wait just like the bird would have to wait to fly. This was of course obvious so I had to release my attachment to have everything like I wanted it in that moment. Spirit would have to look after the bird and our plans as well. I did my Ho-oponopono prayer and let it go. After that I was free to move on to other things. We rented a motorbike and cruised around the Laos countryside. The rest of that day was wonderful.

Now we had a big decision to make for we were flying by the seat of our pants. We could remain here in Luang Prabang and relax for a few days or we could fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia and see Angkor Wat, a totally different agenda. While Laos was wonderful we simply didn’t know what world events would bring about so it seemed important to see Angkor Wat while we could. This has definitely been on my bucket list for a long time so I was thrilled when we made the decision to go.

Being April this was the hottest month of the year in Cambodia and the heat index hovered around 110 degrees but it was dry heat and we didn’t really mind, so interesting and wonderful were the ancient temples. Angkor Wat dates back over a thousand years when Hinduism and then Buddhism came directly across from India so the temples are richly decorated with limestone carvings of Hindu deities, mythology, and Sanskrit writings. The temple complex covers many square miles and requires a vehicle in order to see the various sites. The complexity of it requires a fair bit of planning each day to try to avoid the tour buses, get to certain temples early in the day before the heat, and be at certain places around sunset. I thought I would get bored of temples after a couple of days but my interest only grew and I became somewhat addicted to exploring what the different sites and areas had to offer. Each morning we were up at 5:30 ready to go and we didn’t get done until seven in the evening. Every evening we restored ourselves with a great hour-long Asian foot or body massage.

As always we followed our usual practice of asking permission to enter each temple but since they were Hindu and Buddhist there was none of the usually shamanic protection around them we have found to be the case in Incan, Toltec, or even Egyptian sites. Some temples had no juice any more since they receive thousands of tourist visits and have been extensively restored by anthropologists. While these temples are beautiful to look at they no longer have any or their original power. Some temples have been left more natural in their tumbled down state and these we found to have maintained their power and energy.

After three days Lena had to return to Bangkok for some personal business and I decided to remain in Cambodia for another couple of days and see more temples or revisit ones I had felt particularly connected with. One complex was a favorite of mine. At one time it had been a massive Buddhist University with over a thousand teachers and many thousands of students surrounded by a township of many more thousands of people. The minute I entered within its walls I knew I was on familiar turf. I had definitely been there before. However Lena and I had arrived there in the middle of the day and it was unbearably hot and there were a number of tours going on. So when I was on my own I resolved to return early in the morning to have the place to myself and explore further.

I got there early when it was still cool, only about 85 degrees, and no one was around. I headed straight in, past the entry dragons, down a long corridor of doors, each one successively bigger and bigger to symbolize awakening. There were many side openings into courtyards with ruins of temples and what appeared to be classrooms. Abruptly I got the urge to turn left into one of these openings to look into one of these side courtyards and as I began to turn my body to the left, a clear and distinct thought flitted through my brain, “Cobra Snake!!!” Before I could blink an eye a huge snake dropped out of the ceiling directly in front of me, uncoiled itself and slithered out the opening I was going to go through. The snake was big enough to make a heavy thud as it hit the ground and as it uncoiled I was amazed at how long it was, possible seven or eight feet in length. I could not tell if in fact if was a cobra since it’s hood was not deployed but it probably was.

Needless to say I was stunned and then my instinctive center opened and I felt fear. Immediately I went into my mantra, “Fear is never justified.” The truth is that fear was not justified because nothing negative had happened to me and I realized right away that I had been enormously blessed. I stood there contemplating the event for what felt like a long time and tried to understand its meaning but Spirit just told me that this was not an understandable event and that I should just accept it as a sign of acknowledgement from this place. At the same time I was told not to expect any intellectual type teachings in this temple complex but just absorb or assimilate the experience and it would bear fruit over time. Being a scholar this was a bit difficult for me but I accepted the teaching without question. I wandered down the original corridor until I came to the center of the complex and there sat an old Buddhist nun with a shaved head who smiled a giant toothless grin at me and the effect was to simply open my heart very wide. She handed me some incense sticks after lighting them and then motioned for me to touch my hand to the big ancient stone Buddha statue there and pray. I did exactly that and then she said in very broken English, “Good luck, good luck.” As I looked at her I recognized her as an old teacher of mine who was there simply greeting old students who were drawn back there like myself. I cannot put into words how happy I felt.

Strongly moved, I wandered onward and found an outdoor set of benches that I recalled being a classroom where I had learned the basics of Buddhist practice many centuries ago. Eventually tourists began to show up and I realized that I was not only full, but also done with being there. It was time to go.

As I ambled out of the ruins I contemplated the strange nature of reality, how in our timeline the temple is in ruins but in another time frame that appears to be the past in our minds only, the temple is vibrantly filled with teachers and students meditating, teaching and learning. The temple site continues to teach but now apparently through the tumbled stones and wrecked statues that remain. In the quantum field all is accessible and now that I am older and wiser than I was then, I can pick up where I left off and realize the advanced teachings, just by being around there and with the intention to do so. Anyone who desires to do so can. At the same time I realized that this particular style or form of teaching had had its day and now that we are in a different time frame there are newer living teachings to download. In other words we can’t really go back to old forms because we are constantly creating our reality and moving into previously unknown territory. To don Buddhist robes and sit chanting wouldn’t be right for me in this lifetime but it was the right thing to do back then and being reminded of the basics is always a good thing. I probably barely understood what I was taught back then being a younger soul. I can just see myself as a recalcitrant young monk trying to figure out how to get laid instead of paying attention to my teachers.

In front of most of the temples were groups of musicians playing traditional Cambodian music. On closer inspection each musician was missing one or more limbs or were blinded. Some of them had the bows to their instruments strapped to their forearms. This is the legacy of landmines of which there are still six to seven million in place in Cambodia. Each year they still kill or maim an average of seven to eight hundred people, many of them children and farmers and of course countless animals, even elephants. The evidence of this is everywhere. It seemed to me that about one out of every couple of hundred people is an amputee. They are everywhere and most are attempting to make a living doing whatever they can.

This situation is unacceptable and intolerable but exists nevertheless in our present dream of reality. Added to this is the fact that the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot killed one third of the population during the civil war of the 1970’s. This war followed the carpet-bombing of Cambodia by the United States near the end of the Vietnam War. With an army of fourteen year olds, child soldiers with AK47’s, Pol Pot exterminated all the educated people, professionals, and Buddhist monks. He then tried to run the country with farmers and uneducated workers, an experiment that failed miserably. In other words Cambodia has a recent history of horrible trauma and many in the present population have lived through it and yet they manage to smile, treat people with respect, and behave in a genuinely accepting way. This state of affairs gave me ample opportunity to practice more Ho’oponopono, apologizing for this particularly bad aspect of our dream and forgiving it at the same time. The prevailing practice of Buddhism, although banned under Pol Pot for a time, seems to be amazingly supportive to the people in helping them deal with their recent traumatic past. They appear to be quite forgiving of the past and more interested in living in the present moment.

There is a down side to this however as they do not necessarily see the need to protect their country from environmental rape brought about by their powerful neighbor.

Even so, in this difficult environment I saw more smiles and happy faces than I typically see wandering around the USA in countless airports and cities. Our young nation has much it can learn from these gentle peoples in this ancient land. On the other hand the prevailing goals there are acceptance and relaxation with a mode of reserve and there is an abundance of servers, something we are in short supply of in the USA. It is remarkable what a difference this makes in a culture.

On a final note, now that I have returned home for a few days, Lena and I find we are dreaming intensely night after night, much more than usual. When I wake in the middle of the night I find myself enveloped in an intricate web of light and energy from the temples of Angkor Wat and it is almost as if I am still there wandering around the ruins. This web like energy is remarkably similar to that which I have seen and experienced among the Shipibo in the Amazon jungle. Clearly there is a connection here. The ancient Hindus with their knowledge of Brahma, Shiva, the dance of life, and the Buddhists with their understanding of Buddha nature had the same information that the Shipibos have regarding the web of life, the unification of all things.

Obviously there was too much to assimilate for us and so it is downloading over a longer period of time. And Spirit was quite right; it is not an intellectual process but an energetic one. I have no clue OF all the things I am assimilating but it is big and I must say it does feel mighty good. Perhaps there will be more on all this in a later article.

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José Stevens

José Luis Stevens, PhD is the president and co-founder (with wife Lena) of Power Path Seminars, an international school and consulting firm dedicated to the study and application of shamanism and indigenous wisdom to business and everyday life. José completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol (Wixarika) Maracame (Huichol shaman) in the Sierras of Central Mexico. In addition, he is studying with Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and with Paqos (shamans) in the Andes in Peru. In 1983 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies focusing on the interface between shamanism and western psychological counseling. Since then, he has studied cross-cultural shamanism around the world to distill the core elements of shamanic healing and practice. He is the author of twenty books and numerous articles including Encounters With Power, Awaken The Inner Shaman, The Power Path, Secrets of Shamanism, Transforming Your Dragons and How To Pray The Shaman's Way.