When embarking on any kind of journey far from one’s homeland and into unknown territory, there is without doubt a certain amount of trepidation and anxiety surrounding the thoughts of what may or may not transpire. Moreover, the mind itself tends to work overtime with its imaginings and concerns. On this occasion the pilgrim, me, was already reasonably well travelled and at ease with Indian customs having previously spent a limited but insightful period working voluntarily in the Himalayan region of Northern India. This journey however, would unlike that previous one so well documented in 2009, be totally motivated by a deep appreciation for that sagacious teacher & His dispensation we refer to as the Buddha and the Dhamma.
By paying my last respects to the late Luang Ta Maha Bua (a highly revered and accomplished meditation master in the Forest Tradition of Northeast Thailand) on the day preceding the cremation presided over by Queen Sirikit, I was in a suitably gladdened state of mind to begin the trip to India; the land of the Buddha. On arrival in Delhi & following a sleepless overnight stay in the terminal for the connecting flight to Patna (the capital of Bihar) I was keen to make my way towards that place where, sat under a ficus religiosa tree around 2600 years ago, a great being penetrated the cloud of dust obscuring the sight of all humanity and beyond. That place is known presently as Bodh Gaya (ancient Uruvela) and is about two and a half hours or so south (depending on your mode of transport and pot luck) from the sprawling Bihar State capital of Patna. This particular bus journey took five hours due to various unforeseen circumstances such as a bag tumbling from the roof and causing a great commotion between local villagers and the distraught owner who was unable to retrieve it and also the untimely loosening of a wheel, no doubt due to the enthusiastic and adventurous driver. Nonetheless, I was in my element and the presence of a small TV playing local Indian music and the sights and smells of Bihar passing by were all setting the scene quite nicely.
Noting the dry, rocky hills at Gaya I started to feel that I was approaching or indeed passing right through an area that must have seen a great ebb and flow of human history over the ages. It just has the look of being well-used, rugged & almost severe in the baking sun of the Ganges plains. Taking an auto rickshaw for the final leg of the journey to the holy site proper, one is transported to a place quite unlike any other.
|Dusk & a full moon at the Maha Bodhi|
The Maha Bodhi Temple
The Maha Bodhi Temple marks the site of the enlightenment of the Buddha and is thus one of the main four pilgrimage sites recommended by the Buddha himself as a place of pilgrimage inspiring faith. It is built right on the spot where Siddhartha Gautama attained supreme unsurpassed enlightenment whilst sitting under the Bodhi tree. A descendant of the original tree grows directly behind the ancient structure, a cutting of which brought back from previous cuttings taken to and preserved in Sri Lanka centuries earlier. Here one can observe many devotional stupas, carvings, ancient remains from former pilgrims and all the identifiable sites mentioned in the suttas (the discourses of the Buddha and his disciples). It’s an awesome and deeply powerful place. To sit and contemplate those timeless truths and reflect in the same vicinity as Lord Buddha is beyond words in all truth. Just to observe and reflect on the many traditions represented by the various sanghas (Buddhist monastics) circumambulating the stupa, prostrating according to their particular tradition or just contemplating in serene quietude is really a most beautiful experience. Many are drawn to this place, well-known as the ‘navel of the earth’, its effect is profound and ever more so if one has a sound knowledge of the scriptures. Being the most sacred site for Buddhists on this earth, I felt an inclination to stay for a longer period (in relation to the full time frame for travel in India of one month or so) and I eventually parted after seven days. This was also partly due to the Holi festival celebrated by Hindus and thereby rendering all public transport out of service for its duration. My daily routine at the site consisted of rising early before sunrise to join the throng of pilgrims ambling towards the temple compound to pay their early morning respects and meditate in the cool, deeply peaceful atmosphere. At this time the moon can often still be seen shining down over the surrounding tree canopies and devotional structures creating an environment of serene piety. As the light of dawn appears, so do the sounds of birds and other animals dwelling within the sanctuary space; a haven for all creatures and, in many ways, an island of security amid the trials and tribulations of rural life in Bihar. By the time the sun is up, young Tibetan novice monks bring traditional Tibetan bread around to the monks, nuns and laypeople and is a welcome breakfast. Gradually, more and more people arrive at the temple; many residing in local temples or guesthouses whilst others are arriving by coach. The heat of the morning sun begins to warm the air and I found it quite comfortable to find a shaded spot to sit and read the discourses for a while. Often choosing a different spot within the compound I tried to sit in various places associated with certain events during the night of awakening and the aftermath. There is always ample opportunity to quieten the mind, reflect on the qualities of the triple gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) or observe the law of anicca (impermanence/change) within the body itself, out in the natural environment of the trees and weather patterns or just introspectively within the mind. I found it a very supportive place for these sorts of reflections. To know that it was within this vicinity that the heart of the realizations of all the teachings of the Buddha was established.
|Rugged hills close to Bodh Gaya|
Over the seven day period I was able to meet with local monastics, other visitors and even help feed the poor congregating at the temple’s entrance. My friend, a local monk, took me to the cave where, prior to the awakening experience, Siddhartha Gautama had spent six years undergoing harsh penance or asceticism in his spiritual struggle for liberation from the endless wandering from life to life that is samsara (going round in a circle/repeated birth, ageing, sickness, death, rebirth etc.). There was a presence in that cave I could not describe in words; the blackened interior and guilded statue of the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) created a solemn space to meditate. The conditions were arid outside and the jutting backbone of rugged cliffs arched round in a crescent moon shape with Bodh Gaya village visible across the farmland in the distance. A stop at Sujata’s Stupa was a pleasant experience nearby; the site supposedly was where she was living at the time that she offered the Buddha some nourishing milk rice.
My final night consisted of a potato dinner within the construction site of a grand new Tibetan monastery due to open in the near future. I imagine it will be a great place of learning for many years to come. The following morning I proceeded to Rajgir by bus.
|Vulture's Peak, Rajgir|
Rajgir (ancient Rajagaha) was the site of many of the discourses of the Buddha and the former capital of Magadha, a Republic of ancient India. The Buddha often spent the three month rains retreat (vassa) in the vicinity of Vulture's Peak (Griddhakuta) overlooking the city (now long vanished). The cable car up to the peak is an exhilarating if not unnerving ride. The view from the top of the ridge is just spectacular with visibility stretching over the whole valley surrounded by the famous five hills of Rajgir (now topped by gleaming white Jain shrines). To wander amongst the rocky outcrop where the Buddha used to teach alongside his disciples and even royalty was in itself a great honour. My special moment was sitting on the peak within a raised brick foundation of an ancient edifice (perhaps the exact spot were the Buddha once sat) and meditating a short while and reading a discourse delivered by the Buddha in that same place. To have that experience was incredibly moving and it touches my heart even to this day.
The horse-drawn cart, which brought me from the modern town to the foot of the hill, also stopped by many archaeological remains; I saw Bimbisara’s jail, the mangrove donated by Migara’s mother (Viśākhā) and various other remains scattered about the place. The whole city was surrounded by a colossal wall, the lower portion of which still exists today. It’s pleasant to wander around the Bamboo Grove/Squirrel’s feeding place (Venuvana), often mentioned in the scriptures as the place where the Buddha used to bathe and deliver discourses, and is a good place for reflection. Regretfully, I did not make it to the Satapanni Cave where the First Council was held (next time perhaps?).
|Ruins of Nalanda University|
The ruins of Nalanda, the ancient Buddhist university of India, are a short journey away and are a wonderful spot for appreciating the great centre of learning that it once was. There are some fascinating edifices here and expansive accommodations, classrooms, libraries and viharas as well as the stupa raised over the relics of Venerable Sāriputta, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha.
|Chunari Baba & I in Varanasi|
The mother of India, Gangaji or the Ganges in English, flows smoothly through the heart of Varanasi, the most sacred city of the Hindus. This is not the place for the faint hearted. It is a resilient place, a place that echoes the voices of the past, present and future like the seemingly eternal expanse of space and its unknowable worlds. In the modern era Varanasi is a window into the ancient culture of the Indian peoples and a living testament of their devotion and connectedness with nature, life, death and samsara. From the bathing pilgrims at dawn, the vibrant fervour of the evening religious ceremonies to the stark scenes of cremations on the water’s edge, this city is a continuous recycling process of what came before. From the time the Buddha arrived on its banks en route to the Deer Park at Sarnath (Isipatana) this city, often known as Kasi, Benares et al, has also had an intimate relationship with the legacy of the Buddha’s dispensation. However, this is largely obscured in modern times; absorbed into the agglomeration.
To experience this place is to feel it within and without and writing on a page barely does it any justice, so this will suffice until you’re there yourself.
|Frescoe depicting the conversion of|
the notorious murderer, Angulimala
Sarnath, (Isipatana or ‘the resort of the fallen sages’) is the deer park a short distance from Varanasi where the Buddha came to preach the first sermon, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, “The Discourse of the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Law”. It is one of the four main pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Today, in order to enter the site, one must pay an entrance fee thus restricting the pilgrims to a single visit in most cases and as a result the ability to perform ones religious observances at the site is very difficult. This is a great pity and the Indian government should be pressed to lift this charge on the Buddhist pilgrimage site. No other religious site of this nature is subject to such a charge in India so there is no reason why it should be imposed here. That aside, the remains of the Dhamekh Stupa are breath-taking. It is a powerful monument to the great teachings first expounded within the vicinity. It is indeed a great support to ones confidence in the Buddha and his teachings when seeing these sites. To observe the exquisite Japanese frescoes within the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar and pay ones respects to the relics bestowed there is an awe-inspiring moment. I was kindly invited to reside at a local Tibetan monastery during my two day stay. Sitting within the quietude of the deer park is a deeply peaceful experience and ideal for reading over and reflecting on the First Sermon.
|Ancient Buddha image depicting the mahaparanibbana|
Kushinagar (Kusinara) is again one of the four main pilgrimage sites as recommended by the Buddha. Here the Lord laid down on his right side between two sal trees blooming out of season and uttered his last words: “"Listen, Bhikkhus, I say this: all conditioned things are subject to decay, strive with diligence for your liberation". He then passed into meditational absorptions (jhana) and entered final liberation with no remainder (Mahaparinibbana). The dates differ between traditions but one date for this event is said to be between 544-543 B.C. According to one Buddhist text, when he passed away, ‘the earth shook, stars shot from the heavens, the sky in the 10 directions burst forth in flames and the air filled with celestial music.’ Whether or not this is true is unknowable to us but there is a special ambience here quite unlike any of the other sites I had visited previously. The breeze has a sweet, heady fragrance of flowers and calmness pervades the entire area. I spent many an hour in meditation amongst the crumbling remains over the few days I stayed here, always with a deep sense of reverence and peace which I found arose spontaneously.
|Site of the Buddha's funeral pyre|
Kushinagar is a small place at present, quite far out into the countryside of Uttar Pradesh. There is one main road which passes quietly through the village; at one end is the village centre with its adjoining compound of ruins and modern international temples whilst at the other is the revered stupa raised over the funeral pyre of the Buddha; the former crowning place of the Licchavi kings of this ancient republic.
I recommend going here whether Buddhist or not. A momentous event in human history took place amongst this simple farming community, the legacy of which reaches us today.
|Lunch with a Vietnamese nun at her orphanage in Lumbini|
I also express my deepest gratitude to the head nun at the Vietnamese Temple with whom I stayed during my visit and who so kindly drove me all the way across to Lumbini in Nepal. Thank you for inviting me to your lovely orphanage – the children are so well cared for and so happy!
|Serene parkland surrounding the Buddha's birthplace|
Lumbini, on the Nepalese side of the border with India, is the final pilgrimage site on my tour of the big four. This is where, 80 years or so prior to His passing away just to the south of here at Kusinara, the Bodhisatta was born into the warrior (Kshatriya) clan to Queen Maha Maya. At that time, it was a pleasure grove of the Mallas and following a dream of a white elephant touching her womb, she gave birth whilst standing holding the branch of a sala tree for support. It is said the new born child took seven steps, a lotus springing forth from each spot his foot touched the ground, and exclaimed "I am chief of the world, Eldest am I in the world, Foremost am I in the world. This is the last birth. There is now no more coming to be."
|Two Nepalese girls run through meadows |
Today the park is being heavily developed by overseas investors (mainly China) to attract ever larger numbers of pilgrims and tourists. There are temples, monasteries and retreat centres representing every country and tradition. Some ancient, some contemporary but mainly, all very grand! Nonetheless, the well landscaped parkland remains an inspiring and natural looking place. It’s quite possible to amble solitarily through the lush, verdant groves replanted as part of the development project. I found my early morning visits to the central archaeological remains particularly inspiring. A cool mist shrouds the delicate foliage of the Himalayan flora and wild animals abound. Soft light filters through the overhanging branches of Bodhi trees and creates shafts of smoky light upon the dewy tufts of grass. The place is so evocative of the scene of the birth it’s easy to imagine the scene rolling out two and a half millennia before.
After a number of very enjoyable days residing at the vast Korean Temple, where I met numerous fellow ‘seekers’, I left the traditional pilgrimage route towards the Himalayan city of Pokhara passing along mountain roads and isolated Nepali villages. I travelled here with my Norwegian comrade Karuna (Edvard).
|Local kids in Pokhara's old city|
Pokhara is a city nestled below the mighty backdrop of the Annapurna Range of mountains in the Himalayas. It is an ancient city with a modern heartbeat and a thriving travelers scene. I opted for a country guesthouse overlooking the Phewa Tal (Phewa Lake); a place I particularly liked as it was so reminiscent of the English Lake District in many ways. My week here consisted of mountain hikes, early morning meditation overlooking the beautiful lake and World Peace Pagoda and occasional descents into town for a few tastes of the international feel of the touristy lakeside area.
Here is where I met my beloved travel companion for the next month or so, Georgia.
|Exquisite architecture in Patan|
Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, is a chaotic, crazy and cramped sort of place. It’s a crossroads of the new and the old, the tourist and the local, the sober and the intoxicated. A city where you can get anything but rarely have the official freedom to do so. The city proper has a number of satellite towns now well within its urban sprawl. UNESCO world heritage sites such as Patan and Bhaktapur whizz you back into a medieval world of temples, windy alleyways and tipsy wooden buildings. They are awash with ancient traditions, bizarre carvings and grizzly rites of animal sacrifice. The craftsmanship of many of the artisans in the humble workshops throughout these towns is sensational and the local culinary delicacies, such as curd, are perfected to the first degree.
The real crowning jewel of Kathmandu however, is the gigantesque Boudhanath Stupa in Bouddha. The ultimate symbol and verification that I was really in Nepal is this imposing structure of gargantuan proportions. The piercing eyes of the Buddha symbolically see all and gaze down at you from every angle whilst thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags flutter in the breeze emanating from the four cardinal directions around the stupa. All day long from dawn until dusk thousands of devotees religiously circumambulate this ancient dome just as they would have done throughout the ages since the early days of the Silk Route across Tibet, Bhutan, India and China.
I spent many a day visiting the Swayambhunath (Monkey) Temple upon the summit of another hill close by. There the sunsets and heart touching views across the Kathmandu Valley are a memory that I’ll cherish forever. My dearest friend Georgia endured much hardship for almost two weeks at this time. Happily this finally passed and we went on our way towards the Eastern border with India via Janakpur in the Terai region of Southern Nepal.
|Site of the marriage of Rama & Sita|
Janakpur became an unexpected gem for Georgia and me, as we made our epic journey across Nepal. Enduring many hours of cramped hot conditions, bus changes, high altitude roads and various dramatic events on the bus such as a Nepali girl passing in and out of consciousness due to an eye problem and with much distress from her family to local villagers clambering onto the bus intending to fight with a fellow passenger, we finally made it half way stopping in the sacred city of Janakpur. Happily, we met a couple of other stranded travelers who were as equally caught unawares when we learnt of an impending bus strike thereby rendering us all stranded in Janakpur.
Making the most of our predicament, we decided to explore the town and to our surprise we came across the site of the marriage of Rama and Sita according to Hindu legend and thus a great pilgrimage site with many colourful temples and postulants coming from all across Hindu Nepal and India. By the end of the day and after many mosquito bites we learnt that there would be a night bus towards the border town of Kakkarbhita so we braved it, against the advice of the travel guides, and with great relief, survived the night and crossed back into lush West Bengal in Northeast India.
When I used to think of Darjeeling, it would conjure up images of grand Victorian villas, stately tea plantations and high tea with English porcelain. Alas, those days are gone; the town largely engulfed by the standard urban sprawl seen in many Indian cities of the modern sort. Nonetheless, there are vestiges of those old days of Empire lingering among the modern conurbation. The Lloyd Botanic Gardens are a delight and the old steam railway linking the low hills with the hill station is still fully functioning. The town has many tea shops where you can sample the local brew and the standard of English spoken here is outstanding. Views from the upper parts of town are quite phenomenal and, whilst the weather and local architecture is distinctly English in many ways, there is a strong eclectic feel these days and the Indians are proudly claiming this charming, if not a little moth-eaten city, as their own. We watched the Royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton with a small group of fellow Britons; it brought a tear to the eye!Sikkim
|Tibetan ceremony at Rumtek Monastery|
Sikkim is a unique place. An independent kingdom until recent times the Himalayan seat has rendered her isolated for centuries and thus she harbours a unique culture more similar to those of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. Here I resided at the Tibetan Rumtek Monastery in a very congenial place for meditation. Fresh mountain air, lush Himalayan forest, the aroma of wild orchids on the wind and hearty Tibetan fair made for an unforgettable stay. A permit is needed to enter but, happily, this is free and just a formality.
|Victoria Memorial - Kolkata|
Rejoining Georgia, who I left behind in Darjeeling, we made our way by train towards Kolkata, the city of Mother Teresa. Whilst our visit was literally a whistle-stop tour of the gleaming Victoria Memorial en route to our connecting train station, it was well worth the effort to get to and really made my trip that bit more special (it had been a longtime wish of mine to someday see it).
|View from the granary over the edge of Patna towards|
Finally, I said farewell to my trusty comrade Georgia and alighted at Patna Junction. My second stop in Patna, the capital of Bihar State, I knew that it would be a chaotic visit but, for me, it represented my relinking up with the official pilgrimage route I had embarked on two months earlier. I had come full circle, so to speak. After a long time wandering in the oppressive heat trying to find a hotel that would accept a foreigner (some local bureaucratic problem), I managed to find a place. The following day I toured the city, saw the British granary built to avert famine and the Patna Museum; a great collection of artifacts from the Ganges plains. The view from the top of the beehive shaped granary affords dramatic views of the sudden edge of the city and the immense stretch of flood plain alongside the Ganges which passes directly through the heart of this ancient city. Like Varanasi, Patna has had an illustrious history being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world and, as to be expected, has been known by many different names (Pataliputra during the time of the Buddha). The earliest mention of this city is in Jain and Buddhist scriptures dating back around 2500 years.
Before leaving, I paid my respects to the relics of the Buddha enshrined by H.H. The Dalai Lama in the new modern stupa in the city centre and made my way out by local transport to Vaishali (ancient Vesali) one of the first republics in the world.
|The Ananda Stupa beside the Asokan Pillar|
Like ancient Rajagaha, the city has totally succumbed to the laws of impermanence and is barely visible at ground level. However, since British archaeologists uncovered ancient remains here during the 19th century, there has been extensive surveying of the area revealing the layout of a city still quite hidden from view beneath the flat arable land tended by local farmers. At the ancient coronation tank of the Licchavi clan however, there are the remains of an ancient stupa which once contained the relics of the Buddha and further afield are the excavated remains of the Ananda Stupa where the relics of the Buddha’s attendant, Venerable Ananda, are enshrined. The Ashokan pillar marks the spot, with its impressive lion capital facing north towards Kushinagar, beside the mound. Recent archaeological digs are revealing so much beneath the surface. I peered into a number of the newly dug trenches and saw wonders I would expect to see in Rome or Egypt; without doubt a great civilization once flourished there.
|Amazing Bihari school trippers!|
At the white Santi Stupa in Vaishali I met a group of excitable Bihari school children on a trip to their local heritage sites, many of which had never met a westerner before and, much to my surprise and glee, were able to speak the most eloquent English. They were extremely friendly and hospitable and meeting the proud teachers was as much as an honour for me as it seemed to be for them. Their smiles and warm welcome made an unforgettable impression on me, such kind openheartedness amid the vastness of Bihar State (whose reputation is of being backward and undeveloped) was one of the most touching things I have ever experienced. I found, in fact, a highly refined people with natural intelligence and a look of real joy in their faces. This show of kindness extended to the local staff of the archaeological museum who offered to drive me out into the distant countryside to see the immense Kesariya Stupa.
|Meditation on top of the Kesariya Stupa|
The Kesariya Stupa is one of the tallest Buddhist structures in the world and stands half buried under a wooded hill. The other half having been excavated by archaeologists; it’s a sight to behold. The stupa was raised to commemorate where the dying Buddha donated his alms bowl to the Licchavis before going on towards Kushinagar. The structure is arranged in the shape of a giant mandala so it is layered on a circular grid with various geometric shapes encircling the central spire and surrounded by niches which once held stucco Buddha images, most of which are now broken or vanished. Nonetheless, it remains an awe inspiring sight.
I must also thank, at this point, all the other good natured people of Bihar who helped me find the right local bus or who gave me sound advice, directions or a friendly smile when I was wandering around like a lost firangi (European). I’m forever grateful and with a special nod to those humble villagers who invited me in and bought a huge watermelon and chai for the occasion – amazing people!
|Bahá'í Lotus Temple in Delhi|
I had always intended the final leg of my trip to have a special significance so I made it my prerogative to visit the National Museum of India where a portion of the Lord Buddha’s relics are on full display for all the world to see. There, at the foot of those whitened bones, I bowed one last time before taking my leave from Mother India and heading back towards the ‘land of gold’, or Suvarnabhumi as it was known in ancient times; the area of Southeast Asia presently known as Thailand where I live and teach. Just before I did this I greatly wished to sit in quiet contemplation in the Bahá'í Lotus Temple in Delhi: a place to sit with people of all faiths and religious persuasions, a place to unite and pray as one; Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists et al. How I love India!
May peace prevail in the world
May we have the clarity in our hearts to overcome the defilements of mind and may the light of truth shine forth
May all living beings be well happy and peaceful