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Kris Yao's Passage to India
Seeing the True Essence of Life

Architect Kris Yao recalls the surprises, incongruities and moments of growth that happen while traveling in India.

Photos: Huan-Shih Yang

It has been said that first-time visitors to India leave feeling one of two completely different ways about their experience: either believing that once is enough, or falling immediately in love and wanting to return again and again. Kris Yao of the Artech Architects belongs to the latter variety. A renowned architect and recipient of the ROC Outstanding Architects Award, the Executive Yuan Cultural Award, and Far East Architecture Award, Yao has visited India eight times over the past 25 years, and those trips have changed his life.

 

When I was 32 I took a trip to India with two friends, entering from Nepal. In Nepal it feels like streets are filled with gods, while in India the streets are filled with animals.

If you choose not to take a critical view of India, you’ll find that India is full of bright colors, making it visually beautiful. We were all photography enthusiasts, and we joked that even an idiot could become a photographer here, because anything captured randomly under the lens would come out looking lovely.

The most unusual part of the trip was our unexpected side flight to Ladakh, known as “Little Tibet.” We went there with no previous understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, and the first day the three of us were taken aback. We had no idea this place would be so freezing cold – 30 degrees Celsius below zero in the thin air.

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, presented a desolate scene. We hunted for a restaurant, but couldn’t find a thing. Then we spotted a place with an arrow pointing to noodles served on the second floor, where under faint light we ate a bowl with only three or four noodles in it. We were almost ready to cry in desperation. Someone was selling vegetables at the bazaar, but they were as bad as the parts we discard in Taiwan when we wash vegetables. And the carrots were as skinny as my thumb. Materially, they were about as poor as you can get.

Purity in Unexpected Places

But everyone there seemed so happy, which gave me quite a shock. I saw the purest people in the world there.

We decided to visit Hemis Gompa. Snow was fluttering in the air, and the wall around the temple was run down and overgrown by nature. But upon stepping inside the gate, two of us inexplicably started crying, not out of sadness but for some other reason, just overcome with emotion that brought about tears. As we cried we looked at each other, aware how ludicrous it seemed. After many years, both of us who cried became disciples of Tibetan Buddhism.

A few years later when I went for a return visit, my schedule involved connecting from Bangkok to Patna, then taking a train to Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment. But the flight was unexpectedly delayed 40 hours in Bangkok, putting us in Patna way behind schedule. But guess what? When we got to the station, the train was still there waiting for us!

That trip impressed something deeply upon me: In India nothing you expect to happen will happen, and everything you never thought would happen will take place. If you are open-minded enough, India can impact you in great ways, cultivating a sense of humor and giving you the chance to re-examine the things you take for granted.

My master, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche , spends most of his time in India. He once said, that India still exists in the 21st century is something to be grateful for. One time when he was heading for the airport for a trip abroad, his car got stuck in a traffic jam on the highway. Before long people were running up onto the road selling things, then someone led out a monkey on a leash to perform. Only in India could this kind of scene happen. It’s far more interesting than the traffic jams in New York.

Many schools of thought originated in India. I have read a few books on related subjects and was so impressed to read about such concepts as Prasangika-Madhyamika and Yogacara (consciousness-only) Buddhism. That kind of thought was developed in India over 2000 years ago. Their minds were so good – they possessed incredible wisdom.

Indians are a very religious people. People still greatly revere sadhus. They respect their practice and their pursuit of the other world. Indians believe that the world isn’t exactly as it appears and that there is another world on a spiritual level. Western society holds that what you see is the whole world, with nothing else beyond it, which compels the constant pursuit of material things.

Many artists are very fond of India, because India is full of irrational things. One time Rinpoche was on a train in southern India, and the ticket taker came dressed in a clean uniform in a tie and cap, but with limestone powder on his face and barefoot. But that’s India for you, always throwing surprises your way.

Shattering the Parameters of Reason

The way we’re brought up is set within rational parameters that box us in and control us, but when you go to India you find that everything familiar to you is shaken up. To be truly creative, you have to break free of those shackles. A big part of the impetus for creativity is irrational, or comes from things that transcend rationality. India can give you a potent dose in this area, which can give you a jolt.

A lot of people are miserable in India, finding it dirty, messy or frightening, but that’s all mental. If you keep an open mind and a sense of humor, you can absorb so much more, plus you can learn about where your limitations lie. Rinpoche once told the 18 year-old son of a wealthy Hong Kong person to travel in India for three months, and said not to take an I.D. card, passport, or credit cards with him. That way he would have no “identity” to speak of – something impossible to manage in other countries, but possible in India.

India has allowed some old things to exist as it modernizes, which is something special and rare. India lets you see the true essence of life, clear and raw. Life and aging and sickness and death are so readily seen. In advanced countries you’re not likely to see sick people or dead people, but in India they are everywhere.

Within such backwardness, you can actually see the truth. India is an excellent tool to shatter our shackles. I encourage young people to go there.

 

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

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