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Asian Travel Accounts from the Higher Heights

Review by Trevor Carolan

Houseboat on the Ganges & A Room in Kathmandu
Marilyn Stablein
Chin Music Pub
132 pp. U.S. $16.95

Some time back when writing letters to friends and family was a virtue, not a burden, and setting forth on a long journey to distant places was an adventure with a degree of risk, not a canned package holiday option booked online—well, there was Marilyn Stablein, dusty backpack and pen in hand. If you’d been drinking tea Asia-side with Allen Ginsberg and the Krittibas poets in College Street, Calcutta, or shopping for tangkas at Durbar Square in Katmandu, you might have seen her wandering past—a genuine dharma bum, if ever there was one.

Raised in the San Francisco area, Stablein grew up exposed to the Pacific Coast’s early East-West hybrid culture. Her new book is a rich reminder of the avatars of the early and mid-1960s who were engaged in the consciousness-raising efforts of those memorable times—Alan Watts and his Sunday lectures on KPFA, Paul Reps with his little anthology gem Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and Suzuki Roshi who was popularizing Zen meditation and Buddhism in the Bay Area. Add watching The Apu Trilogy films of India’s Satyajit Ray, and reading Kerouac’s On The Road, and you have the basic formula that inspired a determined cohort of young Westerners to get beyond what their own culture and head out for Mother India.

In 1965, Stablein landed in London as a young woman in her late-teens. In quick time she acquired a liking for the city’s old Indian affiliations—the curries, the jewelry, the harvest of books available there on Indian philosophy and on women travelers who’d ventured way off the grid in Asia—Alexandra David-Neel, Freya Stark, and others. By ‘66 she decided to make the long journey that was then evolving among long-distance travellers. There was a vivid precedent: unconsciously or otherwise, most followed in the footsteps of the American poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. In 1962 that trio accompanied by Ginsberg’s boyfriend Peter Orlovsky had met in Bombay and set forth on an epochal adventure throughout the sub-continent. Four years after them, The Beatles emulated the Beats in heading for their meditation teacher’s ashram at Rishkesh in the Himalayan foothills. In doing so, they further broke trail for a steady stream of trekkers who’d follow, your agent here included.

It’s helpful to remember that it was a different world back then. The London-Delhi-Katmandu run was a long, slow, culturally informative route; it led through the Balkans, Turkey, old Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. You took the fabled “Magic Bus” from London all the way, or freelanced. The rage and anger against the West of our present times was not a factor: Kabul during the long, peaceful reign of the much-loved King Mohammed Zahir Shah, for example, was a favourite honeymoon and rest spot among travellers, renowned for its hospitable people and its intoxicating recreational possibilities.

Stablein recounts washing ashore in Bombay for some reading in The Upanishads. Repairing to the Himalayan hill-station of Dalhousie, she began cultivating an interest in the spiritual and artistic traditions of India, Nepal and Tibet. When her three-month visa expired, she simply stayed on and the years ticked by; it would be seven years before she returned to North America. House Boat on the Ganges & A Room in Katmandu is an epistolary record of those years, crafted from the letters she wrote home, 1966-’72. Consider: you’re a very young West Coast woman who gets to live apart from the turbulent, countercultural Sixties Revolution, effectively missing it all here, by living over there in one of the entire generation’s incubatory, spiritual seed-pods.

Not that Stablein “missed it” exactly: one of the fundamental spiritual exercises of the Sixties period was a pilgrimage to India. Accordingly, Stablein’s letters report news of a flow of important Sixties insight seekers who arrive along the same dharma trail that Stablein and a small cluster of other pioneers had been inadvertently establishing. Her book details fascinating anecdotes where the young American girl who’s gone troppo is meeting and hearing about Ram Dass, Bhagavan Das, Timothy Leary, Tsultrim Allione, and many others. Her Ram Dass tale alone will keep Stablein dining out with friends for years.

Stablein is no mere name-dropper. She was in Asia to learn. The number of precious Himalayan teachers, especially Tibetans, she was able to meet, study with, acquire wisdom and inspiration from, is breathtaking and she delivers meaningful reports of her encounters with H.H. the Dalai Lama, Kalu Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku, Sogyal Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa, and others—an intellectual regiment of towering accomplishment. As a painter motivated to understand and practice religious mandala painting herself, she also meets the deeply admired European converts to Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Lama Anagarika Govinda and his wife Li Gotami, who provide her with depth instruction. The transmission lineage doesn’t come any better. And there are other personalities who make appearances: Joseph Goldstein of the Vipassana/Mindfulness worlds, Robert Thurman, Tenzing Norgay the first Sherpa climber of Chomolungma/Mt Everest with Edmund Hillary, novelist Kirpal Singh, founder of the Hare Krishnas A.C. Bhaktivedanta, and Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba.

While not yet twenty-one she writes, “I learn more by just living here and travelling than I did in a crowded Berkeley classroom watching a professor’s lecture via short circuit television.” You bet! Throughout her journeys she packs in the core information and concerns that are the basic conditions of existence for any long-distance voyageur and pilgrim. Landscape portraits, health concerns, details of where you can stay, what the festivals are like, the living conditions in local flats, dak bungalows for travellers, and so on. It’s her human portraiture that really works though. A quick sample from Varanasi, 1967:

Yesterday we met an ex-surfer from Malibu, a tall long-haired blond guy who wanders around India dressed as a sadhu. He was bathing in the river, eyes closed deep in meditation when I first spotted him, the only fair-skinned bather in a mass of fanatical Ganga worshippers. I invited him in for tea which he readily accepted.

We reminisced about home and the pleasures we missed: jazz, coffee shops in North Beach, foods like avocados and artichokes. His Hindu name is Bhagavan Das.

Be Here Now devotees of Ram Dass, who gave us that wonderful phrase, will recognize Das as the wanderer who introduced Ram Dass to his own root teacher Neem Karoli Baba, who emerges as Ram Dass’ guru, Maharaj-ji.

Those eager to learn more about Indo-Tibetan insight traditions will find a harvest of knowledge worth having in this book. Stablein writes with an unaffected authority. After travelling with Tarthang Tulku and his wife and receiving instruction, she offers crisp, enlightened remarks on meditation and mindfulness—not “McMindfulness 2019”, the industry, but the real deal. A few chapters later, she offers a visiting Zen monk’s perspective on the same topics: both instructive, yet subtly different. Balancing the wheat with the chaff, readers will also learn in a letter to her mom of the difficulties in finding decent ladies knickers and bras in the Great Motherland. Next, she’ll be discussing the human mechanics of the mighty Kumbha Mela religious festival at Hardwar, the largest human gathering on the planet. What is surprising is how often her writing will resonate with the same woman’s authorial perspective on such events that the late, great poet Joanne Kyger offers in her Big Strange Moon, the India Journals. It’s a wonderfully refreshing, sometimes quirky, slant on travel territory that has customarily been dominated, when covered at all, by male writers.

By 1970, Stablein relates that she has been given a Tibetan name. She comments on the growing number of foreign students in Delhi who have come to learn traditional disciplines such as yoga, dance, or meditation. They live like her, frugally, respectfully. Ironically, “The Indians, on the other hand,” she writes, “are the opposite. They’re interested in modernizing and buying televisions, refrigerators and motorized vehicles.”

Perhaps as a result of what she has now grown capable of seeing and interpreting, Stablein’s letters to her parents begin to convey a heartfelt, compassionate nature. Her world-view expands to include their thoughts about her mission, for that’s what it has become. By the time she is living in Katmandu, she is ready for deeper initiation into Tibetan art, and also love with her Columbia scholar who enters the tale. After some teaching, then marriage, and the expected arrival of her first baby, the wheel of the dharma has fully turned for her and it is feasible for her to think of a return to the U.S.

This is one of the most engaging travel books about Asia in years. Stablein has previously given us a number of excellent books recounting various aspects of her years in Asia, and both her Sleeping In Caves and The Census Taker are unique explorations of life along what has come to be known as ‘the dharma trail’ in Asia. If you love reading about travel in Asia; if you have interests in the development of Buddhist and Asian insight traditions in the West, Stablein’s latest is as authentic and unpretentious an account as you’ll find in the shop. Recommended.

Trevor Carolan’s new work is In Formless Circumstance: Poems from the Road and Home (Ekstasis).

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25