Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing – Part I, Trains, Pampas, and Automobiles

I boarded the Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner at the Santa Barbara Train Station. It was headed down the coast to LA’s Union Station, or at least that’s as far as I was going, on Southern California rails. The hills along the track, the foothills further beyond, and the mountains above them, were scarred from the very recent Thomas Fire. Blackened palm trees along the tracks were disconcerting, like hell hath engulfed paradise. It was touch and go for the week before, with being on the edge of mandatory evacuation and an on again-off again voluntary evac. Finally, I was able to safely leave my car in my driveway without worry of its incineration, along with my place of residence and all my most precious or important valuables going up in flames. The fire was now well past containment at a safe level to ward off concern.

So, with the lapping waves of the Pacific on one side, ash grey hills and half burnt palms on the other, I relaxed and read the intro to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Noble Eightfold Path. Why did I bring a book detailing the technical aspects of a religion that brings up suffering as one of its first tenets, on an excursion to L.A.? Well this was the beginning of a further trip back to my parents for the holidays, so in the quietude of a Michigan December this book works. Also, it is a petite, thin little volume that packs well, even if it packs a wallop in Buddhist exposition. Besides that, the ubiquitous L.A. travel guide was in the suitcase somewhere. And there was something else less demanding that one can cling to amongst the chaos of airplanes and airport terminals. A lot of people read mystery novels and Clive Cussler push-pass-the-limits-of-credibility adventures. I had Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums on my Kindle. Oh crap! More books about Buddhism you might ask? That first word sounds suspiciously Buddhist. But not really. The Buddhism in that book is a rather adolescent understanding of the concepts. It turns out to be an irreverent little romp through the late 1950s beatnik culture in and around San Francisco, Berkeley, and Marin County. They are all discovering Buddhism, along with jazz, drugs, poetry, yabyum sex (what I feel is a misinterpretation of tantric union) and miscellaneous taboos and lifestyles outside of the norm of the 1950s. There is a bit of mountain hiking and nature writing, through the spaghetti of Kerouacian poetic riffing. A small helping of sexism garnishes Kerouac’s vision, peering out from his Catholic upbringing into things risqué. A girl named Princess seems to be the target of the yabyum, passed between the poets. We only get one favorable female character in the second half, the Marin county homesteader’s wife Christine; still her most important contribution to the story is making good food out of poverty. But as I say, not too demanding, and a fun spot-the-real-people-behind-the-beatnik-characters game. Alvah Goldbook and Japhy Ryder thin pseudonyms for Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Oddly enough the book starts out with a train ride from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, in the exact opposite direction that I’m headed. Albeit I paid for my train ticket while Ray Smith, the protagonist of the story, rides the rails, avoiding the yard bulls on the lookout for hobos. Los Angeles doesn’t get much play in the book. It appears as a heavy smogged, weep inducing, hot, air stinking, regular hell, to paraphrase Kerouac. He does meet an honorable hobo Dharma bum in the rail yards of L.A., who provides some unrevealed wisdom from the Digha Nikaya, and a health tip or two. It’s that eclectic improvisation of spirituality Ray and his buddies were experimenting with, that Bhikkhu Bodhi argues against in his introduction to The Noble Eightfold Path. It’s measured, but firm advice.

I decided to quit at the end of Bodhi’s intro, after wrestling with the noise of anxious business class types on cell phones. One conducted the management of a film production company from his seat, the other worried about catching a flight. She apparently was not accustomed to the ubiquitous delays of Amtrak. We sat at a crossing in Carpinteria for about an hour while the police took affidavits from the conductors for an accident that, if not caused by the train, was likely inspired by it. I took a pass on Bums, and after eating a salad of leafy greens dosed with condiments in the commissary car, I stuck in some earbuds and dozed to the sounds of ambient music.

It wasn’t until we were pulling into the “horrible fog wire-fence country of Industrial LA,” that I awoke to the environs around Union Station. Finding the auto rental desks at the station was a bit of a challenge. People wearing Amtrak badges couldn’t direct me to the right spot. I finally located it and they hooked me up with a Ford Tackfinder or a Hyundai Accident. I can’t say I pay much attention to these things. It was a car twelve years fresher than my Toyota, so it seemed like a dream with all its bells and whistles. I told Google Maps Siri where I needed to be, then I just manned the wheel.

Google Maps Siri, sigh…how I welcome thee. I must say, it may be many things, where my mind has arrived at these days, the luxuries of the rental car, a certain maturity ripened by a meditation practice, or just an older age surrender, but I warm to L.A. now. I used to loathe it. In my late twenties I spent a block of years in Orange County, not quite but pretty damn close to the traffic congestion and urban sprawl of Los Angeles, seemingly part and parcel of the same metropolis. I seethed and boiled every time I got on the freeway. I certainly didn’t feel free. From what I recall even just going a few blocks was a relentless gauntlet of bumper to bumper traffic and a cacophony of sights and sounds. Everyone and their uncle advertising something to you. A barrage of reminders that above all else, you are a consumer “imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume,” as Japhy Ryder puts it. But now here I was, just a temporary visitor. And Google Maps Siri would be doing most of the navigating. She told me when congestion was ahead, so I didn’t get uptight when the vein of red stopped up and pooled around me. “You’re still on the quickest route,” she assured. Okay great, I couldn’t do anything else about it anyway. I stuck to turning the steering wheel, followed her instructions if I needed to get in another lane, and gazed up at the downtown skyscrapers. It was evening and they blazed like monolithic Christmas trees. I put in a CD of Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois on pedal steel guitar and it all started to feel like a decidedly cleaner version of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner Los Angeles. I wasn’t flying but I just as well could be. It felt enough like it in the new rental car.

I flew like that all across L.A. and before I knew it Siri delivered me to my Santa Monica motel. It was just a plain Comfort Inn on Santa Monica Boulevard. The reviews on the Internet were kind. It was all short notice, what with an attempt to escape the high particulate levels of smoky Santa Barbara air and a departure time from LAX in a few days that would prevent an Airbus ride. I thought it was ironic at the time that I was escaping to L.A. to avoid bad air quality where I lived. The car I own has its own issues that prevented a long-term parking at LAX. Of course, this is the kind of place most people stay when they are visiting L.A.. The first thing that might have popped in my head when I was young and someone told me they were going to L.A., would have been images of spotting movie stars while poolside at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. If that’s all just delusional imagery that starts the L.A. vacation pricing, the poolside bit is something I try to arrange, sans the movie stars. The review did mention a heated pool. I have a thing for pools. If I’m going to stay at a motel at L.A. prices, at least at some point, I’d like to splash around in a concrete lined hole of chlorinated water. And December in L.A. does require a little heating.

After checking into my lackluster but clean ground floor room without a view, I found a restaurant in walking distance. I was looking for something that had some sort of unique L.A. flair. Not that I know much about what constitutes L.A. flair. I wanted something other than an Applebee’s-type experience. I don’t go to L.A. often. I found myself in an upscale joint called Malbec Argentinean Cuisine on Wilshire. At least it was fancier to what I’m accustomed. I hadn’t properly reviewed the menu before getting seated at a tall table in the cocktail section facing the bar. By the time I sat down and was handed the menu, I looked at the prices with a gulp. But alas I couldn’t walk out now. I tend to carry out what I imply I’m game for, when I’m on the road. I ordered the $25 entree of the day from the suave young waiter and sipped a dark red. Maybe it was a Malbec, a grape variety of Argentina. I didn’t take note at the time. It had a real bitey tannin quality. The kind of thing you might expect from Argentina. Alcoholic grape juice even a gaucho out on the Pampas would be willing to drink. I faced a large screen TV running a food channel with the sound turned down; someone demonstrating how to cook fine cuisine. It’s a funny thing when I go out for fine cuisine. Maybe it happens only when I dine alone, but I tend to come down with a case of the imposter syndrome. Like I’m pretending to be a discerning fine diner. Like I do this on a regular basis and know what reds to order with lamb. Or why arugula salad is much preferred over iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing. There’s a scene in Dharma Bums where Ray Smith, Japhy Ryder, and another hiking buddy come out of the high Sierras looking all rugged and unwashed. After some resistance on the part of Japhy, Ray convinces him they can enjoy a meal at a fine diner with “dim cocktail-lounge light,” and happy families dining.  Japhy protests “I’m just an old bhikku and I got nothin’ to do with all this high standard of living, goddammit, I’ve been a poor guy all my life and I can’t get used to some things.” If that’s not the imposter syndrome it seems a kind of lower-class syndrome, as much as it is a self-denial syndrome. Ray considers it Japhy’s Achilles Heel. Japhy is concerned about what is proper etiquette when Ray grabs some glasses of port and brings it over to their stools at the counter. Perhaps it becomes the imposter syndrome when you suppress a lower-class syndrome and act like you deserve and can afford to live like this, at least until the credit card bill comes a month later.

But what of a self-denial syndrome? There’s a part of the Eightfold Path, specifically a facet of Right Intention called the Intention of Renunciation, that could certainly develop into a case of self-denial syndrome. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the Intention of Renunciation as a “turning away from craving and its drive for gratification, becoming the key to happiness, to freedom from the hold of attachment.” Is fine dining “seeking happiness by pursuing the objects in which they imagine they will find fulfillment”? If you’re a practicing Buddhist the pursuit of pleasures is held suspect. Even as you linger on in the contrails of “the way of the world is the way of desire.” Life is dukkha. We have a limited capacity to indulge, which so very easily entrap us in a pursuit of diminishing returns. It’s the First Noble Truth and a facet of Right View. If we are led around by the promise of the attainment of our desires we’ll be let down by the lackluster results of our pursuits. That is if we ever even get results at all. ‘Oh, just enjoy your meal,’ you might exclaim. ‘You’re on vacation!’ But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I ponder this aspect of travel. If you’ve been practicing Buddhism for a while, the truth of its realizations overshadows doubt. And you can’t put aside its tenets even while you are on vacation. A few years back I spent a week in Portland, Oregon. It’s a city of culinary adventures. When you’re not dining on novel and/or exquisite meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your sipping Stumptown coffee drinks and local brews and ciders. I grabbed some marijuana products sold legally across the border in Washington State, while hiking a trail in the Columbia River Gorge. It helped me maintain an appetite for the barrage of meals. At least until I got tired of the subtle but annoying ever-present paranoia, and gave the rest of the bud away to a young vagabond couple at Waterfront Park with a sign that read ‘We except donations, anything green.’ I liked the city, but I got weary of the constant culinary adventures and sights. As if I really was on a gerbil wheel of sensual pursuits. Next time I visit the region I’ll probably spend most of the time hiking in the Gorge, and one day sampling the offerings of Portland eateries. Gorge hiking is perhaps another kind of sensual pursuit. But it feels less indulgent.

Gary Snyder, the real persona behind Japhy Ryder in Dharma Bums, lived in friends’ shacks doing odd jobs and translating the poems of Han Shan, a 9th century Chinese poet and recluse with Buddhist and Taoist inclinations, who lived in a cave in the Tientai Mountains. Snyder sat zazen daily and was about to travel to Japan to commit a year or more to Zen study in a monastery. He would have been well aware of the Intention of Renunciation. Even if he was less adept at it when it came to his intimate relations with women.

Alas I am not a ‘rucksack wanderer’, as Japhy called himself. Even Ray got Japhy to chill out and enjoy “the baked potatoes and porkchops and salad and hot buns and blueberry pie,” in the fancy diner after their wilderness experience. Imposter syndrome or not the lamb shank at Malbec fell of the bone like butter and the cream cheddar polenta had the taste and consistency of a grainy custard. Let’s ignore the fact someone killed the animal for me to eat. One of the other aspects of Right Intention is Harmlessness. At some point holding the Eightfold Path to the letter is too daunting for a lay practitioner. Especially one on the road. If my gut could handle all the starch and fiber of a vegetarian diet, I’d be happy to align myself more accurately with the Intention of Harmlessness. But even the bhikkhu with his empty bowl held out accepts and eats whatever kind of food is given to him. Maybe that’s a little the Middle Way of travel. Be modest with your appetites but open to whatever lands in your bowl. Besides, I wasn’t likely to find a vegetarian entrée in an Argentinean style restaurant. Gauchos didn’t muster up stray soybeans on the Pampas. The meal was so good it made the cheaper Chili’s-type fare I opted for the next night a significant let down. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even that much cheaper. If you’re going to dine out, and you rarely do it, don’t be too concerned about the budget and keep the Intention of Renunciation in check, so your friends aren’t calling you “an old anarchist scared of society,” as Ray put it, teasing Japhy. I decided to extend the imposter act and continued with a pursuit of diminishing returns. I ordered a digestif. That a sweet liqueur after dinner is going to improve digestion is doubtful, but it is what fine diners do, I guess. I gave away my imposter identity as I pointed to the drink I wanted on the dessert menu and carefully read out the long name in my best I-know-how-to-pronounce-Spanish-words voice.

“I’ll have thee Jerez de la Frontera Amontillado.

“Oh, the amontillado,” the waiter casually responded. “Yea sure, but I’ll have to check the bar. I’m not completely sure we have that on the shelf.”

He came back smiling, holding a glass of it, to confirm they had it for this special connoisseur. While I sipped it, I turned away from the food network on the screen and split my attention between a man demonstrating a spoon balancing trick to his lady companion a couple of tables over, and a bartender testing drink samples on a couple of bored waiters leaning against the bar. I don’t usually drink sherry. As a matter of fact, I don’t drink much at all. The amontillado was sweeter than I remember sherry tasting.

It was Poe, as one of his sadly malevolent alter egos, who entombs a frenemy after leading him deep into some catacombs with the promise of “a pipe” of this stuff. The victim was already good and tipsy, dressed in his Carnival costume, when he was tempted with the sampling of an amontillado. It was his self-identification as a connoisseur that did him in. The protagonist dangles a potential search for the opinion of another man named Luchresi, on the quality of the liqueur, over his victim’s assumed expertise. “He is an ignoramus,” replies the victim Fortunado. I’m neither a Fortunado nor a Luchresi, so I couldn’t tell you the quality of my syrupy concoction. I would only endure a slight financial setback for the evening’s extravagance, not an entombment.

I finally signed the credit card receipt with a wince at the total, then headed out into the cool L.A. winter night. I walked down a mostly empty Wilshire against a chilly wind looking for an ATM. I remember maybe a decade and a half ago walking a rather trendy and bustling Wilshire Avenue with a friend. Maybe that is still going on somewhere along this street, perhaps in Beverly Hills, near that Four Seasons. I soon returned to my viewless but comfortable hotel corner room. I watched a little Antique Roadshow and fell asleep.