So why make the effort? Why spend a considerable amount of money and time to send a group of 17 year olds halfway around the world for three weeks in the name of compassionate leadership? What, in the end, is the point?
For me, as somebody who places a great deal of faith and belief in the power of travel to teach us, change us, open our hearts, and help us get to know ourselves and the people we share the experience of life and this planet with, there really is no better classroom than the great big world. No greater teacher than movement, the further outside our comfort zone the better. Somebody long dead once wrote, “the world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.” So in a very basic way we are helping these students, this small group, turn a page or two the book. More than that, we are showing them how to turn those pages on their own.
It is an effort to give them, through their own eyes and experiences the knowledge that while the world is big and often very different from what we know, our humanity and inner consciousness connects us all. A trip like this one is about learning the power a simple smile and an open heart possess, the value of eye contact from one human being to another and recognizing how fortunate we are while extending ourselves in the service of others. It is about learning from different teachers, many whom might just happen to be sitting next to us on the train or make the time to sit with us for a few minutes and answer our questions. Teachers who don’t teach in classrooms or write on chalkboards but nevertheless people we will never forget.
In the end, it is about offering experience. The thick and gooey kind of experience that stick with us long after we return home, the type of experience that leaves a heightened sense of our place in the world and our sense of self within in its wake. I believe this is a foundation of wisdom. While compassion and loving-kindness can be taught, practiced and in turn learned, during weekly training sessions and consistent contemplative practice, wisdom must be earned. It is my strong belief that travel, especially travel to a place as radically different from our own experiences as India, is one of the most effective and efficient ways to earn these small yet crucial bits of wisdom. Without the wisdom that comes from the knowledge of what it feels like to be an outsider, to not understand a language, to feel lost, bewildered, uncomfortable, detached from our comfort zones, all in the pursuit of selfless service, then all the compassion and loving-kindness in the world is pleasant but not powerful enough to incite change. The Buddhists call them the two wings of enlightenment, wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is the water that turns a pile of gravel, sand and cement powder into something moldable, solid, and eventually strong. It is the hand that swings the hammer, the electric current that makes a light bulb shine. Behind wisdom there is hard work, and the overcoming of adversity while challenging our mind body and spirit beyond our pre-established limits.
The next question is why India? Because it’s one of the original sources of these ideas, these ancient practices, like reading the original manuscript rather than one that has been copied and interpreted and copied again hundreds of times. There is a distinct lack of the dogma that is so prevalent currently in the western world. What better place to witness wisdom and compassion in action than from the place those ideas were formed, molded and have been practiced for millennia? In India, these ideas surround us, inundate us, and humble us in their magnitude and benevolent acceptance. The cement masons and carpenters possess it, just as Geshe La and Rinpoche Gandan Theepu do, the little kid on the bus and the stranger on the train can all teach us about love, acceptance and compassion. We get to meet women dressed in white devoted to service, boys dressed in yellow who have been given the warm gift of education, and old men dressed in orange show us what detachment looks like as they walk the thin line between wretchedness and enlightenment. I’ve never been to a place where compassion and wisdom, interdependence and spirituality are so tangible on a daily basis. Of course these ideas can be taught, but far better if they are shown and witnessed first hand.
It affects these 17 year olds in ways they are hardly aware of. The world, and the compassion and wisdom that are a distinctly receding necessity within it, suddenly become something more than words in a book or abstract descriptions. In India, they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste them. It is a place and an experience that they will tell stories about to their friends, their parents and eventually their own kids, a place that as they board that long flight home is a little less scary, a little friendlier, and a whole lot brighter than it was just three weeks before. Where once there was a group of kids full of fear and trepidation, they are now full of confidence, excitement and a heightened sense of adventure. The uncertainty felt so acutely before and often times during the trip becomes inspiration, and judgment turns into acceptance. It is this transformation that is one of the greatest gifts any young person can receive in today’s rapidly shifting world, and if we as a community can give this gift to them, just imagine what they are capable of giving back?
How lucky we are to live in a place where the community supports this type of transformation through travel. Where people understand the value of travel, and want to bestow the gifts we receive from stepping into the unknown upon the next generation. Where fear and hate are not synonymous with foreign and different and new experience is encouraged and applauded wholeheartedly. It is for all of this that I want to say thank you. To Ryan, the Flourish Foundation and all the Compassionate Leaders, but especially to all the donors who have passed along such an incredible privilege and opportunity.
Kitt Doucette, Group Leader