World Travel with a Twist of Zen - Fields of Indulgence  
 
Arguably the most important concept in all of Buddhism is that of the 3 jewels - Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Each one embodies a different aspect of spiritual life. The Buddha represents the idea that a human can fully awaken to life in this moment. The Dharma is the teachings that help facilitate this awakening and the Sangha is the community that supports each other in their efforts. Often the sangha is more narrowly viewed as the people you practice with (i.e. the members of your temple), but in actuality it can be viewed as the whole community of man.
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The view from the slow boat on the way to Luang Prabang
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No holds barred water fight
Our time in Laos has reaffirmed our faith in this community, as we have never been more openly accepted into a culture than we have here. It started with our invitation to Dett’s village for the housewarming party and ceremonies (see previous post), but that was just the beginning. After two days on a slow boat down the Mekong River, we arrived in Luang Prabang, the capital of ancient Laos, where the whole country gathers to celebrate Lao New Year (Bi Mai Lao). A seasonal water celebration held prior to the rainy season, it originally focused on the ceremonial bathing of the Buddha, cleaning of one’s household, and the giving and receiving of blessings to one’s neighbors. It has since evolved into a week-long water fight on the streets where little kids and young adults pour buckets of water onto passersby while dancing and playing. Those old enough, drink copious amounts of Beerlao and jump into pick-up trucks with their friends, traveling through the streets, singing, playing makeshift drums and cymbals, and spraying water (sometimes colored bright red or blue) and cornstartch through the air.

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Hundreds of Sand Stupas are created on New Year's Day and line the banks of the Mekong. The cornstarch that tops them is also liberally thrown onto wet passersby!
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Impromptu Picnic
Our first day here was New Year’s Eve and we spent the day visiting the beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls, a multi-tiered natural beauty with azure teal swimming holes lying along its path. The waterfalls are also home to a Bear Rescue Center, a home for Asiatic and Malayan Sun Bears who have been rescued from poachers or Chinese bile extracting factories (read more about that by clicking link above and see a video of the bears playing by clicking here). As we walked amidst the falls, we noticed many Lao families sitting enjoying picnics as the swarms of tourists snapped photos. We wandered across a small footbridge for a photo and saw a family sitting around a table, beckoning us with their hands to join them. Unsure of what was happening, we tentatively walked over to the table only to be given a couple of cold cans of Beerlao and an invitation to sit. When they found out that we had learned a bit about Lao language, culture, and food, things really opened up as they encouraged us to sample delicious local delicacies like bamboo shoot stew, stir fried Mekong Riverweed, and fried pork bits with sticky rice and home-made chili sauce or “jaew mak pet”. What amazed us the most was that even with many tourists walking around the falls, this family didn’t just discount all of us as foreigners, but actually made an effort to connect. 

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The beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls
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New Friends in Laos!
Returning to the city, college age Lao kids were dancing on the street and drinking beers. We wished them a happy new year in their language, and were quickly offered a communal glass of beer along with a bucketful of water down our shirts! The last several days have been full of such experiences. Whether it be joining an impromptu Lao dance party or being invited to sit and try different local foods, we have felt overwhelmed by generosity and hospitality. It has made us realize how life in more developed countries may make us more guarded and less prone to such open sharing, especially with total strangers with which you can barely speak, like our Lao friends were doing.

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Neda looks dazed after getting water paint smacked on her face while driving in the back of a Thai pick-up that we hopped on for a ride ! Seeing that we participated heavily, we got some beers offered to us as well!
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Neda's watermelon and blessing bracelet
With this insight, came inspiration. How can we create community wherever we travel in the world, be it in faraway lands or in our own backyard?  How can we foster a spirit of inclusiveness that breeds generosity and love instead of isolation and self-focus? We decided that one avenue was to simply start being more generous. In this spirit, Neda carved a watermelon which we presented to the family who runs our guesthouse here as a New Year’s gift. We then found ourselves invited to participate in their Baci ceremony, where we exchange blessings and bracelets with their 93 year old grandfather. For that moment in time, a brief community had been formed where we connected past culture and language. We became a part of that family’s sangha. We believe there are opportunities in our daily life to constantly be creating community in this way, even if it is just for a fleeting moment. For the Buddha, the sangha eventually came to mean the whole community of man. Leaving Laos we feel we have better understanding of what sangha means and a renewed vigor to create it wherever we go.

What can you do today to connect with someone you might otherwise not – to create community where before there was none? To see our wonderful pictures of the New Year’s Celebration here in Laos, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjzuYKKt

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Women washing novice monks as they process through the city - a symbol for washing the Buddha and preparing for a New Year



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