BRM Pilgrimage 2016, April 6, 2016
|Shehan and his parents|
|Che and his family|
The plan for this pilgrimage began in 2014 in Bangkok with David. He had to go back to Canada for heart surgery, but felt sure that he would be strong enough for a pilgrimage in February 2016. Last year, we began planning and opened it up to everyone, hoping to gather a group of about 12. As the time drew near, we had six commitments, so we decided to go ahead. Then, two members withdrew, but it was too late to cancel. Then, at almost the last minute, David broke a tooth, and his doctor forbade him from traveling for fear of infection. That left Sam and Rich (two Zen Buddhists from Michigan), Jotiko, and us. As it turned out, it was a great group--five baby boomers with (Thank you, Sam!) arrested development in music and idealism from the sixties.
|Click the image to begin a photo review of the pilgrimage|
In Gaya, we were met by a twelve-seater mini-bus with a driver and his assistant, arranged by the company Rajiv most frequently deals with. The bus was not the most comfortable, but the driver was so competent and attentive that we decided to go with it, and we were very glad we did. How many times a day did we marvel at his skill in avoiding what appeared to be certain death on the highways and backroads! He certainly knew all the best roads, both for speedy movement between sites and for interesting travel. No one could guess why we spent two hours on a cowpath through thatched-house villages with no electricity (except for a few solar panels on thatched roofs!), between Kesariya and Lauriya Nandangar, but all of us were thrilled with the experience. It certainly proved the maxim, "Getting there is half the fun!" (Have you seen much of rural India?)
We stayed three nights at Mahabodhi Parahita Temple, where, three years ago, we held an Intensive English Course. At that time, we had stayed in the hotel next door, and the students had stayed in a temporary dormitory. This time, we had very comfortable rooms in a substantial (though not yet finished) building. There was a Vietnamese-American group staying there for a meditation retreat, so there must also be a meditation hall, but we did not see it. Construction will surely continue, but now, much more than before, you can feel where it is going.
The Mahabodhi Vihara is awe-inspiring! Though crowded and always bustling, there is peaceful meditation under the Bodhi Tree. A new group of Tibetans, Thais, or Sri Lankans assembles on either side of the Diamond Throne as soon as one leaves, but there is always room by the railings, and no one disturbs you, no matter how long you stay. There is a constant hum of chanting, but it is pleasing rather than distracting. One cannot help but react with mudita to the happy faces of the Tibetans as they circumambulate the Vihara with their spinning prayer wheels.
If the exception proves the rule, one particular group of Thais, with their prominently displayed photos of the King and Queen and a microphone and amplifier, seemed oblivious to their surroundings. They even jostled fellow meditators as they positioned themselves for selfies with the Bodhi Tree and temple in the background.
We visited the Meditation Garden twice, once in the evening and again in the afternoon to enjoy the beauty of the paths and the manicured lawns. It was hard to believe that the site had been a garbage dump when Ven. Pannasila envisioned it as the garden it became. We saw few other visitors there. Perhaps it is the nominal entrance fee, but we suspect that most pilgrims want only to circumambulate the Vihara and to sit under the Bodhi Tree. If you meditate in the garden, however, you'll appreciate the peaceful atmosphere of that secluded spot, still within sight of the majestic spire of the Vihara.
|Photo from The Sunday Times; click to read about the drought in India|
As we left BuddhaGaya, Ken was developing a fever, so, after checking into the Chinese monastery in Nalanda, he and Visakha let the others visit Vulture Peak and other sites in nearby Rajgir. Later, we met the driver from our previous pilgrimage, still doing the same capable job.
The next afternoon, we all visited Veluvana together. This park is very different from the sites of other ancient Buddhist monasteries. As you sit beside the beautiful tank, you are not surrounded by the ruins of monastery buildings and brick foundations. The paths are shady, and there are secluded spots for meditation. You don't have to imagine what the grove was like at the time of the Buddha; you can believe, or at least hope, that this is what it was then.
The site of the ancient Nalanda University is expanding every year. Much more has been excavated and restored than there was in 2012. On the other hand, many areas seem to be closed for future work. We noticed barriers on some of the foundations, and Rajiv informed us that these had been erected after a tourist recently fell from a wall. In many of the monasteries, workers were carrying out the renovations, and it was possible to compare the excavation with the restoration, and to appreciate how much work has been done. In one of the recently restored monasteries, an opening led to a hidden corridor. Following that, we discovered a completely dark cul de sac. Ken climbed inside and wondered whether it had been intended for quiet meditation, but he later read that it was probably a storage vault.
Toward the end of walk around Nalanda, we saw a rabbit, running like crazy to escape from some dogs in hot pursuit. He must have made it, as some very tired dogs returned, heads down. We also saw another rare site--Tibetan novices debating in a lively fashion, rocking back and forth and clapping as they made a point. A new addition to the park/university is that many of the trees have been labeled with their common names, for example, "Neem" (Azadirachta indica). (Toothpaste, anyone?)
According to Lonely Planet (not intended as a recommendation for the book!): "Patna only has a handful of worthwhile sights. Otherwise, it's a chaotic, congested city. . ." Nevertheless, the Patna Museum is one of the best in India and is well worth a stop. We began our visit by paying homage to the Buddha relics from Vesali, which are enshrined in a special room on the second floor. The attendant kindly allowed us to sit for fifteen minutes of meditation. It is gratifying to see the relics respectfully treated. The feeling inside the room is much more that of a temple than a museum.
The most important site in Vesali (Vaishali) is the Licchavi Stupa. Here, there are no bricks. This was a "pounded earth" stupa. All that remains are parts of a mound of earth and a space that would have been a relic chamber. When you see the brick foundations of other stupas, you are probably seeing renovations and accretions from perhaps the first century or later. Here, however, you feel that you are seeing exactly what the Vajjians erected over their portion of the relics. Wonderful!
Beside the large tank, which is reputedly the same Licchavi tank mentioned so often in the suttas and commentaries, we visited a small temple and open-air school administered and cared for by one of Ven. Pannasila's followers. The man and his wife, who is also a teacher, have plans to build a proper school for underpriviledged kids and a resthouse for pilgrims. A wonderful project that we would very much like to support!
Lauriya Nandangar is not an important Buddhist site, but it has the sole remaining Ashokan pillar intact and standing in its original location. The enormous stupa, of which the many-angled base has been attractively restored, is also impressive.
The stupa at Kesariya is the largest in the world, and only half of it has been excavated. The stupa seems to be emerging from the hill behind. If you are lucky enough to be there before the armed guards arrive, you can climb the hill, amble a bit on the exposed terraces, and get a close-up view of the Buddha images in the many niches. The significance of Kesariya is that it is probably the site of Kessaputta, where the Kalama Sutta, "The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry," was taught. As we were leaving, we met one of our Burmese monk students from a previous intensive course who was leading a group of pilgrims. He told us, "I wanted to come here because we learned about this stupa in your lesson." How gratifying!
For us, the most impressive pilgrimage site is Kushinara. This time, we had the precious experience of being alone, just the two of us, in the Parinibbana Temple for half an hour, silently meditating near the magnificent reclining image.
Later, when we visited the Burmese Temple, founded by the great Arakanese monk, Ven. Chandramani, we discovered that the gates to the inside of the pagoda happened to be open. Ken stepped inside and discovered that the walls surrounding the pagoda are covered with beautiful paintings of the life of the Buddha. The circular corridor was occupied with resting monks, but he was able to photograph all the paintings without disturbing them.
We shouldn't conclude our description of Kushinagar without mentioning that behind the Parinibbana Temple we found one of the cleanest toilets in all of India. It was being cared for by a middle-aged man who accepted a donation from those who used the facility and returned a smile.
On the road to Lumbini, and around the Sacred Garden as well, we saw in the distance quite a few large animals, seemingly a cross between a deer and a buffalo. We wondered what they were, and out of the blue, buried in a dark memory, sprang the word "gaur." We googled it, and, sure enough, that's what they were.
For the longest time, days and days, miles and miles of rural roads, we searched for vultures. Actually, we saw very few wild birds of any sort. We did see hundreds upon thousands of domesticated animals--cows (many in their jackets to ward off the chill), goats, sheep, buffaloes, geese, ducks, and some really low-bellied pigs. In towns, squat, cramped cages were filled with miserable white chickens for sale, but, in the countryside, we saw good-looking roosters and laying hens running free. Made us glad to be vegetarians! When we saw a sad little calf separated from his mother, we respected Jotiko's vegan diet all the more. We'd grown up with animals, and Visakha was familiar with a neighboring dairy farm owned by Seventh Day Adventists, the very antithesis of factory-farmers, so we knew domestic animals didn't have to be abused.
At last, just outside Sravasti, Shila shouted, "Gijj!" and the driver hit the brakes! Sure enough, there in a bare tree were sitting five vultures, belonging to one of the two species of which 99.9% have perished, driven to the very brink of extinction by diclofenac, the NSAID, banned for veterinary use but still readily available for humans and illicitly used by many farmers to extend the working life of their cows, oxen, and buffaloes.
On the way from Savatthi to Sarnath, our driver pointed out a peacock and a huge stork sharing a field. There were also tiny honey birds outside the hotel in Savatthi, but nowhere did we see the wildlife and birdlife that enrich life in Sri Lanka. Much of the land we saw seemed so tired.
As we approached the border to Nepal, we passed thousands of big trucks laden with cargo, waiting to cross. We had heard various explanations of the embargo, but seeing the miles of parked, dusty lorries was heart-breaking. Nepal has not recovered from the devastation of the earthquake. How can it recover without the goods--medicine and construction materials, as well as the heavy equipment--contained in those trucks? We have to pity the ordinary people who always suffer from their leaders' power plays.
We had intended to stay at the Korean Temple in Lumbini, where we have stayed twice before, but the rooms we were shown were not suitable, and nobody seemed to be in charge. Giving that up, we drove into town, where Rajiv quickly found us comfortable accommodation in a guest house operated by one of his friends. With dining tables set up in an open courtyard, it was delightful. We were joined at lunch by the resident cat, who begged for cheese, but snubbed the bit of curry and rice we offered.
Lumbini has such potential. There were hopes that the UN "Master Plan" under the noted architect Kenzo Tange would produce a beautiful site which would inspire millions of pilgrims. Something went wrong. Beginning with the destruction of the simple Mayadevi Temple, through the excavation and the construction of the monstrosity on the site to the closing of the Sacred Garden to traffic, so that pilgrims must walk a great distance, nothing is attractive. Nothing on our previous visits, however, prepared us for what we found this year. Walking from the Temple, we came to a new statue of the infant Bodhisatta, pointing to the heavens. Unlike the serene image in Japan, which is a National Treasure from the Tempyo Period, this image reminded us of a Kewpie doll with bulging eyes! A short walk from there is a reflecting pool leading to a large stupa in the distance. At the side of the pool, which is reminiscent of the Mall in Washington D.C., are two motor boats ready, perhaps, to transport pilgrims to the stupa. Or are they used for boat races?
Another pause . . . Near the reflecting pool, just across the street from the Burmese monastery, there is a new and beautiful pavilion with a spacious and open courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard are two inobtrusive signs: "Men" and "Women" and another "10 rupees." These are the cleanest and most modern toilets to be found anywhere on the pilgrimage and put most hotels to shame. Were they part of the "Master Plan"? Just wondering.
Speaking of toilets, let us make a pitch for a new product--"PeeBuddy." This simple, yet ingenious, Indian invention gives women the freedom to urinate standing up. Given the deplorable condition of too many toilets in Asia, it's a great boon to female travelers. No more fear of UTI! The compact cardboard funnel suits female anatomy, is compact, easy to carry, disposable, and biodegradable. Having learned about it on FaceBook, we ordered several boxes and picked them up in Kolkata. They saved Visakha's day time and again. Sometimes it was a disgustingly dirty commode, other times, nothing more than a plank, or just a fallow field. Naturally, she refused to use the same open space where two men were taking showers, but, otherwise, nothing daunted. A gal could even pee and hold the door closed at the same time. How liberating!
|Click to read Ven. Dhammika's excellent entry in Buddhism A to Z.|
Still, the Indian practice of open-air defecation is a huge health and safety problem, of course, with women particularly vulnerable to abuse and rape. Yet another good reason to praise the Buddha's teaching: on Toilets and hygiene!
Hindu tradition with its strict caste system dictates that public toilets are cleaned by lowly scavengers, which persists, even if it is unconstitutional. The solution is, quite simply, the elimination of caste, as advocated by Dr. Ambedkar. What we've learned from Stalin K's documentary, "India Untouched," is that caste has penetrated Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity almost as perniciously as modern Hinduism.
Student demonstrations, Jat protests, and caste violence in the news at the end of our pilgrimage convinced us that fundamentalist Hindutva is one of the greatest problems Indian society faces today.
During the pilgrimage, we discovered that, rather than setting the day's schedule over breakfast, it is better to drive out and see where the tour buses are. Most pilgrims follow a fixed schedule, and it is easy to avoid the crowds (droves? hoards?) by adjusting your own. Most groups include monks, which means that they are not visiting the sites after 11 AM (when monastics must eat). By following this rule, we were able to enjoy the spacious park of Jetavana almost entirely on our own. Just as we finished our meditation under the Ananda Bodhi Tree, a small group of Indians arrived with their teacher and took refuge and the precepts there. It was lovely.
At breakfast at the hotel in Savatthi, we noticed a group of Sri Lankans serving their monks. We smiled at one of the women, and she came over to greet us. We gave her a namecard, and she quickly responded, "Oh! You wrote the book!" Someone had given her a copy of "A Pilgrim's Companion," and she was glad to be traveling with it. She asked whether we had more copies for sale. Unfortunately, we didn't, and none of the copies printed in India have yet been placed in any of the bookshops on the pilgrimage route. We are trying to rectify that problem. In Bangalore, we also learned that Ven. Ananda had used the book with a group of 300 pilgrims last year.
The ride from Savatthi to Varanasi is long, almost an entire day, but our highway travel in India was not unpleasant. There was virtually no road rage; drivers seemed quite civil, considering the condition of many of the roads and the variety of vehicles and animals sharing the highways. The towns and villages were full of activity. Shoppers milled around the fruit and vegetable stands; horse carts and bicycle three-wheelers patiently awaited customers; and barbers were busy in sidewalk stalls.
Meditating on the grass near the Dhamek Stupa is extremely pleasant. Groups of pilgrims quietly move around the Deer Park, pausing in front of each monument or set of ruins, listening to an explanation in their own language, and then moving on. Everyone circumambulates the massive stupa and then sits for meditation and chanting, but the grounds are so vast that it never seems crowded. What better place to silently contemplate that message of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the end of suffering; the truth of nonself; and the importance of being kind because others are also suffering and because we are all subject to change.
Surprising developments in Sarnath: The Archeological Survey now charges admission to the Deer Park, and, thus, it is no longer possible to proceed to the Sri Lankan temple, the Mulagandhakuti, directly from the park. Also, that temple closes for lunch, even preventing pilgrims from visiting the majestic Bodhi Tree while waiting to see the beautiful paintings inside.
We knew that noone is allowed to take photos in the Archeological Museum at Sarnath, but we were surprised when a guard asked us to check all cameras, telephones, and even purses and bags. We looked over at the chaotic deposit counter and saw that attendants were accepting articles with one hand and returning them with the other. It was being done too quickly to ensure that things were being returned to the proper owners. (After all, don't all foreigners look alike?) Furthermore, we noticed that some visitors, both foreign and Indian, were getting through with both bags and phones. Some were even talking on their phones in front of the guards. With this kind of laxity, we refused to surrender our bags, which, of course, contained money, passports, and credit cards. We left everything in the bus in the safekeeping of our trusty driver and his assistant.
Inside the museum, there were many European tourists--the biggest contingent we had yet encountered on our pilgrimage. We felt sorry for one Italian group. They were standing in front of the magnificent Dhammacakka image, one of the most important exhibits in the museum, and their guide was trying to explain its meaning. He waffled one woman's question about the teaching mudra, just spouting nonsense. After they left, another group of Westerners came with their Tibetan monk teacher and chanted in front of the image. After they finished chanting, each pilgrim bowed, touched the pedestal, and moved solemnly away. We were glad to have been there in the museum with them. Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!! All merits shared, of course, with the long-dead donor of the image and her child, both portrayed by the sculptor along the bottom, to the left of the five ascetics, the disciples of the Buddha.
While Ken visited the Museum shop (nothing wortwhile), Visakha asked the in-charge at the gate. "Why do you only take bags from some visitors? When people reclaim their bags how do you know you're giving the right back to the right visitor?" At that moment an elderly Italian woman, hair done up in a bun, happened by. "You might give my bag to her?!"
"No, no!" the chief guard protested. "If we miss some bags or phones, security inside is responsible for that." He may or may not have understood, but he was obviously unimpressed.
Outside the museum gate. Visakha spotted a small booth with a sign "Tourist Assistance." Entering, she was promptly attended to by three older men with stern military bearing. She explained her concern. They summoned the in-charge she had spoken to, and clearly reiterated her complaint. They appeared to take the issue seriously and politely promised that it would be taken care of. Perhaps nothing will come of it, but Visakha was satisfied to have dealt directly with the officials rather than just writing a letter to the editor.
In Sarnath, we stayed at the same lovely meditation center where we had stayed in 2012, which, during the season serves as a pilgrims' rest. We'd hoped to be able to talk at length with the monk in charge, one of our former students, about the future of education in Burma, but he was simply too busy.
|Indian Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh|
We suggested the possibility of driving back to Kolkata. Rajiv disappeared again, and we continued waiting. Some time later, he returned and informed us our driver was returning for us. There had been some negotiations with the head of the company in Gaya. Our vehicle lacked permits to transport us to Kolkata, but the driver could take us to BuddhaGaya, where we'd pick up a similar bus and new driver. The assistant met us on the stairs up to the bridge, helped us carry our bags, and led us to our old coach.
About an hour from Mughal Sarai, we stopped at a roadside shop for breakfast. At first, it seemed that the place was closed, but the owner appeared and assured us that he could serve breakfast. It took quite a while, but big servings of puri-bhaji finally arrived with lots of tea. About noon, we arrived in BuddhaGaya and parked in front of the restaurant where we had lunched twice before. While we ate, Rajiv and Sumon took care of the transfer. Of course, all this would cost considerably more, and we doubted that Rajiv could get a refund on the train tickets, but there was nothing else to be done.
After miles and miles of miles and miles, a break at the Punjabi Gardens was a welcome break. The owner has created a wonderful place -- an oasis with fragrant gardenias, welcome tea and coffee, snacks, and full meals for those who eat in the evening.
Exhausted but much relieved, we finally arrived, safe and sound, at Bodhisukha about midnight. We never found out whether our train had indeed been cancelled, but we did read, with horror, of the communal violence that had thrown the schedule into confusion.
Our pilgrimage was over. Many opportunities to make merit, by giving, by being good, by meditating, by worshipping and being reverent, by sharing merit, by delighting in others' merit, by being helpful, by listening to Dhamma, by speaking Dhamma, and by opening our minds and correcting our views. We remembered absent friends and those long gone. It was a precious chance indeed. How could we not feel grateful to our Teacher, to our nobel friends, and to those who took such good care of us on the way.
The next morning the boys went all out for our breakfast, with a huge tray of fruit, including succulent pomegranate arils, fried rice, and vegetables. Shila made scrumptuous tofu nway, a Shan delicacy of yellow-bean tofu and noodles. That was worth trekking home for!
Good, too, that Rich had a chance to see what he wanted in Bengal before flying back to the States that night. Sam and Jotiko had time to visit Shanti Niketan, while we opted to shop for gifts to carry back to Kandy.
Staying on at Bodhisukha gave us the chance to have some singing sessions with all the working students. These boys come to Bodhisukha from Assam, AP, and Tripura. They study hard at the school and, the rest of the time, work very hard, taking care of the monks, Burmese pilgrims, and us. The two we've known the longest, Kyaw Jar Ree and Kyan Thun have gone on to higher studies and are now employed by Bodhisukha. The boys are invariably helpful, so we wanted to give them more than some SL teeshirts! We chose singable songs--"Blowing in the Wind," "Ramblin' Boy," "Last Night I had the Strangest Dream," "I can See a New Day," "Where have all the Flowers Gone?" and, just for fun, "Autumn to May."
We were fortunate to have time to talk with Dr. Nandobatha about his vision for Bodhisukha, which now has accreditation and bright prospects. The goal is to have a thousand boys and girls, all local children, except for the boarders. Their studies should go beyond the standard curriculum to develop their critical thinking skills and creativity. Toward that end, he hopes to enrich the program with foreign volunteers. Maura and Rosalie joined us for a meeting with Dr. Nandobatha, and we discussed developing the library and drew up guidelines for volunteers.
At Bodhisukha we met another former student, traveling with a group of pilgrims. We talked a bit about Burma, which he said was unseasonably hot and dry, which raised serious concerns about the year's rice crop. "Thanks to your teaching, I know about global warming. That general knowledge is very useful to us." Indeed, we'd watched Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" together with Dr. Nandobatha years ago. Encouraging proof that our students really do pay attention!
As soon as we had decided that we would indeed go on pilgrimage this year, we realized that that was the perfect time to stop in Bangalore on the way home. We had first visited the MahaBodhi Society there in 2001 on the occasion of Acharya Buddharakkhita's eightieth birthday. On that time we had the opportunity of joining a meditation retreat with that great teacher at his center in Tumkur. We visited again in 2012, but, at that time, Ven. Buddharakkhita was in the hospital and unable to speak. He passed away shortly after that. Last year, when Ven. Chandakitti visited Bangalore, he mentioned our intensive courses to Ven. Ananda, the abbot of MahaBodhi Society. Ven. Ananda expressed his wish to hold just such a course in Bangalore. We had agreed in principle, but we were eager to meet him again to work out the details.
We had a meeting in the afternoon after we arrived, and everything was quickly decided. The First Bangalore Intensive Buddhist English Course will be held from November 28 to December 23, 2016. There will be about 130 students, mostly novices, 12-18 years old, all resident at the Society. The main text for the course will be Merit, but there will be components of critical thinking and other activities. We already have a core staff, but for that many students we need many more teachers. Accommodations will be at the temple, and the schedule will not be strenuous, with only two classes a day and some evening programs. Bangalore (now officially Bengaluru) is a beautiful and modern city. If you are an ESL teacher and would like to volunteer to participate in this course, please send us your resume (CV). Even if you have only one or two weeks free, you are welcome to join. For US tax payers, because Buddhist Relief Mission is a 501(c)3 organization, expenses can be regarded as a donation on the IRS return.
MahaBodhi Society in Bangalore is a beautiful center with many outreach programs, including schools, orphanages, and homes for the elderly. Twice a week, devotees and monks take lunch to the patients in the local hospital's cancer ward. (While we were there, Jotiko was able to join in this dana.) Many of the novices come from the states of Northeast India, but there are branches of the Society in many states, including Ladakh, where Ven. Sanghasena is the abbot.
In 2001, Ven. Buddharakkhita had shown us a mango grove outside the city that a devotee had donated. He explained that this would one day become a medtitation center. Ten years later, he asked Ven. Ananda about the land and was surprised to learn that nothing had been done. "What!" he exclaimed. "We have to do something!" They immediately drew up plans and construction began on a meditation hall and a residence for meditators. After his death at 91, Ven. Buddharakkhita's body was cremated at the site. On that very spot, a beautiful meditation pagoda is being built. It will be dedicated later this year.
First BRM Bangalore Intensive Buddhist English Course
November 28 - December 23, 2016
Call for Teachers
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