Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Pilgrimage to the Holy Landby Jampal
"To destroy ultimately all fears and to aid beings to obtain merit,
You made many relics to appear as eight sacred stupas, I bow down.
(From the "Praise to the Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha")
Lama Choedak Rinpoche said this was to be the most comprehensive pilgrimage of the ten or more that he had led because it was to take in seven of the eight holy sites that the Buddha recommended those of faith visit. In addition we were to visit Ejanta and Ellora cave system. This meant however that we would not be able to visit Dharamsala and Rajpur, the seats of His Holiness Dalai Lama and His Holiness Sakya Trizin respectively.
I arrived in Bangkok in the morning on 15th December feeling very privileged to be undertaking this three week pilgrimage. I have been to Thailand a number of times in the past but this was the first time as a Buddhist monk and it was an interesting learning experience. The people are so respectful and I was always greeted with a deep and sincere bow. I soon learned that the women would not take anything out of my hand and that money or a boarding ticket had to be placed on a table if it was being passed. When I went to check in at the transit desk for my connecting flight the lady presented me with the interesting questions, "Are you allowed to sit next to women? Are you a strict monk?" I said it was OK, I could sit anywhere. Reflecting on this I wasn't happy with this answer and on my return flight I was asked the exact same two questiona again so I very clearly replied that I couldn't sit next to women. But I wasn't really happy with that answer either.
In Bangkok I noticed, while waiting at the airline transit desk to get served, one of the staff turned up to start her shift. She carefully went around to each of the dozen or so people in the office and greeted each of them with folded hands and a bow which was politely returned. I tried to imagine this happening in an office in Australia. Outside the airport on one of the motorways I saw a huge billboard, "Beautiful Thailand - Respect the Elderly" showed young people serving their grandparents. There is a social programme of honourable conduct that holds great importance in the Thai culture. To me, Thailand truly seems like the land of the Buddha.
We arrived in Mumbai and flew to Aurangabad the next day to visit the ancient cave systems of Ajanta and Ellora. Ajanta caves is mind bending in its scale and detail and antiquity. It sweeps out in a perfect horseshoe shaped wall of rock several hundred metres long. These are not really caves in the fact that they are actually carved and sculpted out of the solid volcanic rock. The 26 caves have some of the most recognisable devotional works of Buddhist art including the famous painting of Avalokiteshvara called "The Bodhisattva" and the sculptured reclining Buddha which is, appropriately, in the last cave. Our guide explained that all this work took place from 2 BCE to 6 CE and covered both Theravadin and Mahayana influences. The earliest caves were shrines (chaitya) where devotional rituals would have occurred while the later caves were monasteries (vihara), dwellings with meditation cells.
What was most striking about these second type of cave was that as soon as I walked into the first one it was like walking into an old Tibetan gonpa. There was the outer portico with the protector guardians on the walls. Many of the decorations on the architraves on the main door were of the exact same style as the Tibetan gonpas and there was the high step or sill across the door. Inside there was the main hall with the four columns and eight beams all exquisitely detailed. Then there was the actual shrine chamber at the back with the main buddha image flanked by Eight Bodhisattvas and other figures. I realised that there was nothing "Tibetan" at all about Tibet's religious architecture and this gave me further respect in the system of preserving the teachings.
Building places of worship is said to be one of the Ten Activities of a Buddhist Practitioner and we were to see many wonderful examples, both ancient and new of this noble work during our pilgrimage but the heart of devotion and anonymity of the artists seemed to be in every perfectly placed line and detail and stroke of the hammer and chisel. At Ellora, the next day, we saw yet more amazing caves. Here, the Hindus and Jains had been inspired and taught by their Buddhist monk friends and made some of their own shrines too. These caves are really worthwhile inclusions on any pilgrimage.
We flew to Delhi and had one night and a day there which included a visit to Tibet House to meet with Most Venerable Tulku Duboom, the head of the centre who explained to us about their activities promoting Tibetan culture. We also visited Majnukatila, the large Tibetan settlement before taking the overnight train to Lucknow. From here we were to visit the formal pilgrimage of the traditional Buddhist sites.
The Buddha was born at Lumbini, attained Buddhahood under the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya, at Sarnath he set the Wheel of Dharma in motion with the first teaching and at Kusinagar he passed away into mahaparinirvana; these are the Four Major Places of Buddhist pilgrimage. The Four Secondary Places are Sravasti where he performed miracles, Vaishali is where he received an offering of honey from a monkey, at Rajgriha he subdued the angry elephant Nalagiri and at Sankasia He descend from Tushita heaven after three months of teaching to his mother. Of these eight sites it was only Sankasia, which is north of Lucknow, that we were not able to visit.
Always moving, having gone from home to homelessness, the Buddha was not only able to reach a great number of people with his teaching but this also ensured that at the time of his passing away there was no one region or kingdom that could make any claim greater than another to the Buddhas relics. The relics were divided into eight equal portions for eight of the eight kingdoms that had made worthy requests. These were enshrined in eight different stupas designed and built in accordance with the Buddhas detailed instructions significant to the activities that occurred in the locations. The original stupas are long gone but the sutras with the instructions remain and still faithfully followed in the building of modern stupas.
Day 5 we arrived at Sravasti after about 6 hours drive from Lucknow. This was the first time Rinpoche had been here and he was looking forward to it as much as the rest of us. Sravasti was where the Buddha visited most frequently after gaining enlightenment. It is the site of Jetavana and was his most important monastery having been offered to the sangha by his chief patron, Anathapindika. He spent 25 rainy seasons there and delivered most of his sutra. It is where he ordained the first nuns into the Buddhist order and were Angulimala was subdued. Here the Buddha performed miracles over fifteen days at the request of many regional kings who felt threatened by heretical faiths that were opposed to the dharma. The Buddha had replied to Anathapindika's offer of a monastery, "The Enlightened One loves peaceful places". There is indeed a deep sense of peace here amongst the ruins, even more so than other places we went. It felt like we were walking amongst the thousands of sangha.
Ten hours drive and Varanasi at last! The view of the medievil holy city of Benares from the modern hotel window was different to what I imagined. From here we took in Sarnath, ten kilometers away, and the ancient stupas honouring the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. There is the beautiful Mahabodhi Society temple and the Buddhas relics. The famous images of the Sarnath museum are very well presented by the Indian Archaeological survey including Ashoka's four headed lion which is found on the Indian currency. Most special for me here was the exquisite stone sculpture of the first turning which had been recovered from the ruins. It is a most powerful image that should be kept in the centre of the Mahabodhi Society temple main shrine as a ritual object and not in a museum. Here Rinpoche took the auspicious opportunity to give a teaching on the lawn on the importance of Refuge in front of the scene of Buddha giving his first sermon to the Five Fortunate Disciples.
We took an evening boat ride up Virupa's Ganges to one of the cremation ghats. In this ritual the oldest son tosses the last remaining bits of the cremated deceased into the holy river and a couple of time we thought that these were going to land in our boat which Rinpoche found especially entertaining. Varanasi needs more time to explore if you are the curious, adventurous type.
Leaving Bodhgaya we visited Vultures Peak and Nalanda University on the way to Patna for the night. The distances that the Buddha and his sangha covered during his 45 years of ministry seem phenomenal. Hundreds of kilometres separated Shravasti from Rajgriha but the Buddha made these trips regularly. It is said that the Buddha and his assembly of arhats would fly in huge numbers so that the sky became clouded in vermillion. We were travelling by bus on poorly maintained minor road in Bihar, one of the poorest provinces of India. Bihar comes from the word vihara after the vast number of Buddhist monastic dwellings that once covered the region.
Vultures Peak is where the Buddha delivered many of his profound teachings and is particularly venerated by Mahayanists as the site where the Heart Sutra was taught. The ground is said to be so holy due to the countless numbers of bodhisattva the were there, seen and unseen, to receive teachings. In a cave where Buddha or Ananda or Shariputra would have meditated, Rinpoche appropriately gave a teaching on Buddha's Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma which accorded with the differing propensities of the faithful.
I had asked Venerable Thupten Lekshe if he could recommend a book that I could take on the pilgrimage that might further deepen and enrich the pilgrimage experience. He gave me an account of Xuang Tsang, the great Chinese monk pilgrim of the seventh century who spent 16 years and walked 10,000 miles along the Silk Road and traversed India in his search for authentic teachings and to honour the Buddha and his followers. He went everywhere in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan at a time when Buddhism was a prolific faith and he spent several years at Nalanda University when it was at its height. We found his records referred to at every site by archaeologists. Their detail give glimpses into not just the monastic lifestyle but society and the culture in general at the time. He is as well known to Asians as Marco Polo is to Europeans and in China his story became the stuff of legend, sprouting the ancient mythical fable of the Adventures of Monkey and his companions. He had unwavering faith and joyous effort and if I felt a little uncomfortable on my little pilgrimage I could bring to mind Xuang Tsang's devotion and in this way I was able to benefit from his merit and my discomfort would be eased.
The excavated remains of Nalanda University today are very impressive. There is an enormous stupa honouring Shariputra. Being the most learned of the Buddha's disciples, Nalanda is built on the site of Shariputra's birth and passing away. It was here that the great Dharmapala abandoned his abbotship to become the greatest of the mahasiddha's Virupa, Lord of Power. Here too, Shantideva, the emanation of Bodhisattva Manjushri, delivered his monumental teaching, the Way of the Bodhisattva. It is one of the greatest seats of learning the world has ever known. Xuang Tsang's account as well as modern archaeology indicate that the one kilometre that is exposed is less than 10% of the complete site.
Patna, the capital of ancient Magadha and modern Bihar was the seat of King Ashoka. It has an impressive museum which contains the actual relics of Shakyamuni Buddha which archaeologists excavated (or perhaps looted) from an ancient stupa in Vaishali to the north. We were fortunate to be able to view these relics and say some prayers. That evening we arrived at Vaishali where there remains one of the few intact Ashokan pillars with a life-sized lion still sitting on top after 2,300 years. Unbelievably, we were told by locals that this pillar used to stand in the backyard of one of the villagers houses until a couple of decades ago when the Archaeological Survey of India took some interest and they relocated him.
At Vaishali, in the morning, we visited a most magical scene of a beautiful and enormous white stupa shrouded in mist and skirted by a small lake. Built as a result of the vision and great faith of a Japanese monk called Guruji Fuji, we saw several similar stupas on our pilgrimage. He had been responsible for the erection of a total 40 such stupas of peace around the world. Rinpoche said that he had tried to build one somewhere in Australia but couldn't get it past the council.
Kusinagar was our last pilgrimage stop in India. This is where the Buddha passed away and his remains were cremated. None of Buddha's disciples understood why he chose to pass away here as he had never been to this place in the past and they regarded Kusinagar as a little unsophisticated and unappealing. But in the Praises to the Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha it is regarded as a pure land. We sat and chanted in the main temple in front of the big Buddha statue which is in the reclining posture of His passing into mahaparinirvana and which is said to be very ancient.
Next day, Day 15, we headed over the border, arriving at Lumbini where we stayed three nights at Tashi Rabten Ling. It seemed so familiar being put up in His Eminence Chogye Trichen's monastery that it was like the pilgrimage had been interrupted - we didn't feel like foreigners. Here, we were able to do Green Tara puja in the mornings and sitting amongst the young monks, most of whom have been ordained alot longer than I have, always gives me the very safe feeling of being one of His Eminence's children.
The climate seems most unhealthy here. The damp mist that hangs in the air in winter in this part of the world is so thick and doesn't lift until the afternoon if at all. I had visited Lumbini before in July (summer) and found extreme heat to be the problem. During that previous visit I came away with a profound appreciation of the physical karma that gets purified by just being in this place.
The actual birth place of the Buddha is housed in a very plain looking shelter that has the feel of a museum and not as a place of worship. We sat and did prayers in the "other" monastery of His Eminence Chogye Trichen, the first monastery that he built in exile. It is only about 200 metres from the birth site of the Buddha. Rinpoche explained that in the sixties, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, U Tan, a Burmese Buddhist, visited the site and was shocked at the neglect of such an important holy place of worship and he initiated a programme to develop Lumbini. Early aerial photos from the seventies show His Eminence's monastery and the Nepali monastery next door sitting in the middle of farm fields in front of the birth site. Now all the Buddhist nations of the world are represented by magnificent temples in their national style but the "plan" threatens to demolish the original monastery of His Eminence at Lumbini. Here, within view of one of the four sacred Buddhist sites, our Rinpoche received his training as a monk, which included physically building the monastery. Later he would the complete the traditional three and a half years Lamdre solitary retreat with several of his fellow monks in the extremely difficult climate.
At this stage we had originally planned to travel directly to Kathmandu, but we were not able to get teachings from Most Venerable Khenpo Appey Rinpoche, so instead, a detour to Pokhara was arranged for a couple of nights where we would be able to meet with Rinpoche's family and visit the famous Himalayan tourist town. In the refugee settlement, where Rinpoche's family have lived for almost fifty years, we had tea with them and received succinct but sage words from Rinpoche's father. He acknowledged the strong karma that we must all share through our connection with Rinpoche and encouraged us in our practice. Personally, he explained to me the lifetimes of good karma that must culminate in order for one to take robes in this life, and he rejoiced for me.
The visit to Rinpoche's family followed with an invitation to the local Sakya monastery, Pema T'sal. Its newly appointed Khenpo heads a young and progressive team of lamas and lay administrative staff with much energy and plans for development of the Monastery. They have structured a curriculum that falls within the Nepali government education programme, with subjects such as modern science, and so they are able to receive whatever support the government may be able to provide. Our Rinpoche was invited to give a talk, which was very appropriate and would have been very inspiring to the young monks. Having grown up in that very village and progressed through his own diligence and devotion to his guru to become one of the great Sakya lama's, our Rinpoche's example is a perfect one for any young monk or nun. Khenpo kindly reciprocated with a teaching on the Four Noble Truths which was well translated by one of the senior monks, English language being part of the curriculum of the monastery.
From Pokkara we drove to Boudha, Kathmandu, our last destination. As one of the main centres where Tibetan refugees have re-established themselves, many great lamas have built monastic seats in exile here. Once again, this is not a place where the Buddha set foot but is nevertheless considered a very holy and important Buddhist pilgrimage site. At Boudha there is an enormous stupa. The legend of Boudhanath stupa is that in ancient times there was a very devout but penniless lady who had four sons. She pleaded the local king for a patch of land that she might be able to build a shrine to honour the Buddha. Her humble request was for land no bigger than the area enclosed by a small piece of fabric that she had. The king consented and she then proceeded to cut the patch into one continuous thin strip that had the very large circumference that is today the footprint of the great Boudhanath Stupa. Her four sons completed the stupa and, as a result of their great merit, three of them would be reborn as the khenlopchoe sum, Khenpo Shantarakshita, Loppon Padmasambhava and Choegyal Trisong Detsen, the great dharma trio that established Buddhism in Tibet. The fourth son who caused some headaches for the other three during the construction was reborn as the evil king Langdarma who nearly succeeded in eradicating dharma in Tibet.
So Boudhanath is held as very sacred to Tibetans and it really is unique, a most magical and timeless scene. It is a wonderful place to visit and this time of year it is very popular. The tide of people doing kora (circumambulation) rises every morning and evening. Some of the most devoted and colourful among them are the people from Mustang, with their identical traditional dress, taking refuge here from their harsh winters. I sensed their excitement and trepidation experiencing the big city, especially the younger ones who had never seen so many people. Amongst all the strangers they stuck close to each other in groups and they tucked their valuables deep inside their thick coats. They could gawk, with mouths wide open, at a tall, pale hairy westerner in monks robes. but they still could flash you the most unforgettable smile.
In Boudhanath we stayed the first few nights at Most Venerable Khenpo Appey Rinpoche's IBA (International Buddhist Academy) which is run by Lama Jampa Losal. There is a new training programme for Sakya College graduate monks which includes advanced English language. They would finish their morning prayers early so that we could have use of the gonpa each morning to do the Sixteen Arhat Puja. During the day we visited Jamchen Lakhang, the monastery of His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, which is primely situated right on the kora circuit of the great stupa. In the courtyard of the monastery premises is the new mahabodhi stupa of His Eminence on the site where he was cremated. Upstairs, above the gonpa, in His Eminence's actual room is the exquisite silver and gold miniature reliquary stupa containing more relics. It is powerful to visit places where His Eminence's noble activities left their most tangible impression and we have good reason to feel well connected with the authentic Tsarpa lineage. I come away from such places aware and grateful that in Australia we have everything that a dharma practitioner needs, we receive the blessings equally from His Eminence and the Triple Gem in places such as Tsarchen Choeling (SIBA) where we can come together and practice and we are most blessed with one of His Eminence's most precious relics, Tsarpa Lochen Lama Choedak Rinpoche.
Nepal is one of the poorest nations of the world with a great deal of political uncertainty. We were fairly untouched by the problems with very comfortable accommodation and exclusive tourist districts of shopping and restaurants. Power shortages are a chronic problem which had deteriorated since the last time I was there. There was barely eight hours a day of electricity which could be at any time of day or night which must be crippling to industry. Petrol pump queues could take hours and political street demonstrations could make travel across town impossible. The Nepalese maintain their humanity admirably considering all these difficulties. For us westerners these inconveniences become as important a part of the pilgrimage experience as anything. Imagine the headlines there would be if a cow wandered onto the highway and held up traffic in the middle of Melbourne. Seeing the patience of the people in dealing with these difficulties you come away recognising how unwilling we can become, in the so called developed world to be presented with any obstacles to our "progress".
In Boudhanath there is a galaxy of high lamas in residence. We had the honour to meet the young and very dignified Asanga Rinpoche who is under careful training in Tharlam Monastery and carrying a big responsibility of the Phuntsok Podrang of the Sakya Khon family. We also had an audience with Choegye Shabdrung and Ga Shabdrung who have the responsibility of heading Choegye Trichen Rinpoche's monasteries. Most Venerable Khenpo Appey Rinpoche was also able to receive us which is a highlight of any visit to Boudhanath. He reminded us of the worth of our effort travelling to the holy sites of the dharma and suggested if we would like to influence others back home to make a similar pilgrimage in the future we could do this more effectively if we leave out recounting the unpleasant bits.
I have already forgotten the unpleasant bits. I have come away from pilgrimage inspired to see the erection of stupas for the benefit of all and paint murals of the life of the Buddha on ceilings and walls and carve OM MANI PADME HUM on every flat bit of rock. Travelling under the guidance of Lama Choedak Rinpoche, his insight into the teachings brings a dimension to the experience that makes this trip unique. The eight holy sites of the Buddha are not just the sanctified ground where this historical Buddha walked but are actually the same sites where all the Buddhas of the past and those who are yet to come perform their noble great deeds. The merit of visiting just one of these places purifies vast amounts of negative karma. Completing a pilgrimage is a wonderful thing to do at least once in a lifetime.