Forest Sangha Newsletter Aril 1991

In Doubt We Trust; Ajahn Munindo
On Messiahs and Other Matters; Ajahn Sumedho
Why Did I Become a Nun?; Sister Sundara
Pilgrimage in India; Aj. Sucitto & Sr. Thanissara
Another Part of the World; Ajahn Anando
The Golden State: A. Amaro


Pilgrimage in Mother India

In the synchronistic way things sometimes work, it happened that two members of the monastic communities received invitations to visit holy places in India this past winter. Ajahn Sucitto is still there, in fact, on a six-month walking pilgrimage with Nick Scott; Sister Thanissara returned to Britain at the end of January, after travelling for two months with a laywoman. Here are extracts from their letters, and from Sister Thanissara an essay as well.

Ajahn Sucitto
Sister Thanissara

Ajahn Sucitto
    Vaisali, December 1990
My respects and greetings to the sangha from Vaisali.
We are staying at a small temple of Nipponzan Myohoji on the side of the ancient coronation tank at Vaisali. It is the only Buddhist establishment in this small, quiet village that was once capital of the Vajjian confederacy, the place of Mahapajapati's Going Forth and the site of the Buddha's last Rains Retreat. Here, he left his alms- bowl and announced his forthcoming Parinibbana before going to Kusinara.

We have travelled in the opposite direction to his. After making our way to the Nepali border, we walked to Lumbini and Kapilavastu, spending a week or so at those places, then turned back into India and in 5 days made it to Kusinagar near Kasia in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Subsequently we ferried across the Gandah river and turned South towards Vaisali.

Much of the journey has the predictable qualities of tudong: the great spirit and freedom of it, and the blistered feet, grime, sweat and fatigue. The route is not particularly strenuous, as from the Himalayas to the hills in the south of Bihar the terrain is flat and level. Paddies and sugar cane everywhere, broken by rivers, canals, clumps of mango and banyan/bodhi tree groves, temples, villages of thatched straw, mud dwellings and the maelstroms of the towns.

There is a profound regularity to it all that reminds me that from this cradle arose the vision of the endlessness of samsara and the cyclical dance of life. That's how it appears. Everything is out in the open - all life stages and conditions enacted like a morality play. And this human comedy moves to the regular passage of season, and harvest. Human rhythms adopt the same regularity - the trucks are all the same, going at the same speed with the same insignia and the same horns. Bicycles are the same, going at the same speed; the oxcart could be the same one brought out time and again.

But the pilgrimage is far from tedious: against this backdrop, the vivid actualities of people and incidents stand out. There are too many encounters to mention - everyone takes an interest and this is a very populous area, diffused to the extent that it resembles a vast city park on a summer day. In this image, we have the effect of an ice-cream truck!

To meet Buddha images and revere them brings an immediate bliss and sweetness to the mind.

Speaking some Hindi has been very helpful - one touches again and again the deep concern that people have to be of some service to us. Often it is to advise us again about catching a bus (but we are walking), often it is an exchange that can be very heartfelt if one responds to it, then there are the many offers of food and tea. Our almsfaring has been adequate - once people understand what is required. We have eaten alms ranging from the meagre to the abundant, mostly in villages, offered by Brahmin farmers or by poor workers. The spirit has been very touching. If Buddhism were to come back, I think it would be through the kind of contact that pindapada establishes.

My Hindi stretches to a few sentences of Dhamma and the response is always one of quiet attention and the request to stay or return. We have regular pujas on the roadside, and chant at the mealtime or on visiting Hindu shrines: I wanted to encourage the dharma that people have, so we have blessed many people and temples en route.

Devotion is quite fundamental. What is needed is the investigation faculty, and in some way the presence of Western pilgrim Buddhists arouses the innate Indian curiosity towards investigation. As devotion is a main theme of my practice at this time, the practices and reflections I have undertaken make the holy places shine. To meet Buddha images and revere them brings an immediate bliss and sweetness to the mind. I have sprinkled some of Sister Rocana's ashes, Luang Por Chah's hair and made offerings on behalf the Sangha members. In fact, I feel I am bearing much of the Sangha's aspiration, as well as its blessings with me and celebrate these in my acts of offering.

The monk and devotee here (at the Japanese temple) have just started a week of food and water fasting with 13 hours mantra and drum every day: a practice I respectfully declined.

o o o 0 o o o

Greetings to the sangha from Nalanda, ancient Buddhist university town from 3rd-l2th century AD. We entered Nalanda yesterday morning, after a night under a tree, along a dirt road that a local farmer had indicated as a short cut (and one that avoided the honk and clatter of the asphalt road). We have had some success at cross-country routes, using the old detailed maps - from the time of the Raj - that Nick brought. Such routes take you into the benevolent simple heart of village India: water buffaloes and oxen munching straw from the rice harvest, goats capering through the huts, women carting huge bales of straw on their heads, people squatting to dry the rice, talk, weave baskets, cook, urinate; the earthy smells of buffalo dung, burning straw, soil being turned for the new crop to be sewn, whiffs of cooking.

Our entry to Nalanda, as to other holy places, is signaled by an ironic change of mood: from being interesting strangers who are responded to with hospitality, or Dhamma pilgrims who are seen with respect, we become tourists, sources of revenue. Everyone is out to sell - tea, food, trinkets, guidance. Someone rubs some ash from a Kali temple on our foreheads and demands 10 rupees. However, a burly monk in maroon Tibetan robes and blue laceless sneakers - a member of a contingent from Zanskar and Ladakh - indicates that the Thai temple is down that road.

...Most of the time we are on the road, in the huge plain of paddies and sugar cane and mango groves where the many villages of this region are situated. Unlike tudong in England, there are few remote or quiet places. It is like walking across an enormous farm in which everyone is working in the fields. There are a few groves.

Buddhist Indian people are very interested in us. It must be rather like having two Eskimos, one dressed as a vicar, turning up in the middle of the Fens. As their own routine is so unvarying, the seasons and the landscape totally predictable, the social and religious order established over centuries, we are a kind of challenge to normality and must be fitted in. 'Where is your house? Where are you going? Where have you come from?' are the continual questions.

Sometimes if we sit down - DOING NOTHING! - people will gather and just stare, trying to figure out 'What . . . ?' It must also be said that they are an immediately caring and hospitable people. Much attention comes from a kind of anxiety that we must be lost, and a common wish to be of help. So alms-food, tea and company have not been a problem. And when you think of it, it is only Westerners with their buzzing psyches who yearn to be alone. Indians look horrified or unbelieving when you mention sleeping under a tree rather than surrounded by people in a village. They are constantly fearful of our safety when walking at night, and one has encounter after encounter with saviours trying to get you to stay in some howling chaos of a town.

They are very bandit-conscious, too. Nick met some bandits - 10 of them, with rifles, bands of bullets across their well-dressed chests, fine waxed moustaches, and on push bikes. But they were very Indian bandits - rather nonplussed by this red-bearded smiling giant, fascinated by his binoculars, which they all took turns at looking through; and when he said they couldn't look in his money belt, accepted that politely and rode off.

With so many people and encounters, many delightful and touching (or humbling in their respect and immediate offers of service), practice of Dhamma has to be very expansive, a constant metta-bhavana and opening beyond one's own perspectives. So I am very grateful for all of this and for the Dhamma-faring that has brought me to this blessed place.

In due course we plan to be in Bodh-Gaya, and from there go on a long walk in the southern Bihar hills before turning to Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his First Sermon...

Burmese Vihara, Bodh-Gaya, December 28

After Vaisali, we strode very purposefully towards Patna. Our entry there was via the Gandhi bridge over the Ganges. It's very impressive and extends for about 3 km before it actually reaches the river. Over it trundles every kind of vehicle, and there is a pavement for pedestrians and ox-carts. We had a morning puja where the bridge began to soar over the river itself: in India it is OK to do a puja anywhere, though you may find an ox-cart ploughing through the middle of your devotions.

o o o 0 o o o

Throughout the pilgrimage the Buddhist teaching on emptiness has been very useful for responding to the ambiguities of the holy places. At these sites, one's mind perceives both the inspiration and the devotional savour of walking in the land of the Sutras and the Vinaya, and the less gladdening news on contemporary Sangha-pracrice and the commercial exploitation of these venues. More swift and insightful than reflecting on the cultural, pragmatic and sociological forces at play, is to contemplate and abandon one's own insistence that the inner metaphors of the spiritual world be enacted before one's eyes. After all, the Buddha lived, was enlightened and remained joyous and compassionate amidst a scenario of false accusations, corrupt monks, and attempts on his life. And what finer teaching can there be to not linger in expectation, bliss or despair than the ever-changing carnival of Indian life?

Wat Thai at Nalanda was an excellent place for recuperation, thanks to the ministrations of Maichee Ahlee. Maichee was ordained at age 13, studied Abhidhamma and Pali to doctorate level for 14 years, and then put that aside to manage the temple. She has been a resident for 17 years and is on the go all day; she admits that it is very hard, but no one else will do it, and she has no more interest in learning. Monks come and go as is Thai custom; she caters for them and for all the Thai travel groups, turning up at whatever time, with a high standard of service and good humour. Quite an exemplary being.

The monastery is a good place to rest after the effort and hardship of the walk; my feet have some minor infection from the abrasions of the tudong, and it's good to get clean. Rich food restores the energies and the tissues that get depleted on a long journey and the humble diets of village alms-food. It is also a chance to repair my ancient sanghati, though it is rather like trying to sew up the splits in an overripe tomato. I don't think it is going to survive the trip. I feel more optimistic about my feet.

o o o 0 o o o

From Nalanda it is only a morning's walk to Rajagir. When the haze is minimal, you can see the hills rising out of the plain. They are the first hills we have seen in 500 km, since we left the view of the snow-capped Himalayas in Northern Uttar Pradesh. The eye rejoices at having a finite horizon that doesn't keep moving away at walking speed; it explores the dimension of height, and the mind speculates on views, aloofness, and being above the teeming plains.

How the Buddha must have loved Rajagir! This was the place where royal patronage of the Buddha began when king Bimbisara gave him the Bamboo Grove, and where the Elders recited the Surtas and Vinaya after the Parinibbana.

I couldn't help recalling that it was also a place of treachery - Devadatta rolling down a boulder that shattered and drew the Tathagata's blood; and Ajatasattu beginning a family tradition of patricide by murdering that pious old king, his father, Bimbisara.

Rajagir had some fine moments, but never felt quite right. It is also a resort for Jain pilgrims with numerous temples on the hills; and, on account of its hot springs, a popular place for Indian holiday-makers. After a few days at the Burmese Vihara in the modern town, we decided to weave within the circle of hills and take up residence on Vulture's Peak.

We had a very fine evening by the Buddha's kuti on the Peak itself. As in the other holy places, whatever the commercial accretions that have accumulated around it, the kernel of the holy place always fills the mind with a sense serenity and poignant reverence, love and encouragement from the Buddha. The hills of Rajagir are truly lovely and have also been preserved (as much as is possible) as a Nature Reserve.

A dirt road runs through the forest that clothes the hills, so it was quite idyllic, but, with one of these illuminating changes of mood that tells you that all moods are mind-made - it was also the place where we were attacked by six men with staves and axes and robbed of everything we had.

Well, at the end of the whole crazy episode I had my sabong [lower robe] and angsa [upper robe/shirt] being used as a belt to tie it up - the bandage around my foot, an empty pouch and my sandals. Nick had his footwear, trousers (in tatters), underwear and a rosary along with a mass of cuts and a few bruises. But were very grateful and relieved to have each other alive, relative health and well-being, and a vihara to go to.

A strange elation sets in after one has been overwhelmed with violence, and even the loss of the bags was compensated by the lightness of having nothing to carry.

It is interesting to reflect on what kamma arises at such highly-charged times. I have had a strong inclination towards 'atonement', to accept what happens on the pilgrimage as a way of paying off karmic debts; it has had some helpful results. In this case, when the bandits threatened to kill me, I found myself offering them my head - one should repay willingly, it seems. That and some Refuge chanting seemed to calm them down, and they left me alone. Nick tried to fight his way out of it, escaped, realised that he couldn't abandon me, returned, got thrashed and pursued through the forest, eventually saving himself by jumping over the edge of a ravine and tumbling through the thorns and scree. Hence he was pretty cut up. As he ruefully reflected, if he had died, it would have been with the mind of an animal.

The mind reruns such incidents many times with 'If only. .' and of course the principal regret on my part is that all the lovely things that people asked me to keep have gone, and to no good end. Nick has lost some 15 rolls of film with memorable scenes of the pilgrimage, plus the list of people who have helped us so far and to whom we wished to write.

It seemed that the best thing to do was nothing. We returned to Nalanda to a quiet place for meditation. Maichee gave me a robe and some toiletries, and 2000 rupees (GBP58) for our use, enough for our immediate needs.

After that, everything has turned around. We filled in our reports for the police, and walked off to Bodh Gaya, travelling very light and meeting many good people on the way. We plan to go to Calcutta, where we should be able to get new passports and visas, and where Nick will probably renew his travellers cheques.

Meanwhile, the days unfold. I bor- rowed an almsbowl from the vihara to go on almsround in the morning. This is my offering to the holy places - to be a monk who goes for alms, just because the Buddha did, and established that as the norm. Any other motive apart from to offer an opportunity for generosity, any concern about getting anything, or self-consciousness as one stands by a fruit stall or snackbar with an open bowl; any time that I fall away from offering myself is suffering. How perfect, and how precious an opportunity this Dhamma-faring is!

Well, letters, unlike reality, come to an end and need conclusions; I don't know what to make of it all. We may very well meet Sister Thanissara and Nada [her companion] in a day or two, if their plans have come to fruition.

o o o 0 o o o

Greetings to the sangha from Calcutta, where we have gone to get new passports, travellers cheques, visas and airline tickets.

By and large, we are having a fortunate time and the pilgrimage is showering us with benevolence, compassion and insight. Even the robbery helped us to remember that nothing belongs to us. Everything was given, and yet gradually over time the illusion grows: this stuff is 'mine'! Then it all goes, and - well, here we are, and all the essential things - the sleeping bag, almsbowl, malaria tab- lets, water filtration kit, clocks, clothes, etc., etc., that we couldn't do without and had been carting around on our backs - we could do without. At a pinch.

Walking to Bodh-Gaya was easy, travelling light for 2 1/2 days. There at the Burmese Temple, Kate Mitchell and friends gave us sleeping bags, a Swiss Army knife, a water container and mugs. A stainless steel bowl comes from the 'Root Institute for Wisdom Culture', another robe from Wat Thai and financial contributions from many directions. So the forces of destruction and nourishment have worked together to keep us humble, open and seeing things as they are.

We arrived at Bodh-Gaya, having walked from Lumbini in 7 weeks, living mostly on almsfood and sleeping under trees en route. The bodies were a bit worn, but the holy places generally provide good facilities for rest, food and a clean-up. The walking has been a good practice; often we used a mantra to firm up energy and guard against the 'diffusion effect' of the high-contact degree of sensory impingement in India.

We walked generally from about 4-10.30 a.m., with morning puja and sitting at dawn; tea/snack at around 8; 10 a.m.-12.30 p.m. almsround, meal and chat with villagers. Then lumber off and find a place for a brief nap before being discovered by curious locals. Afternoon walk until about 4 - time for tea; 5.30, evening puja; at 6, it is dark. Then an hour or so, depending on energy, in the darkness; set up for the night. Meditate at will until excessive slumping signals beddy-byes.

People have been a major aspect of the pilgrimage - there are about 100 million in the area we travel through. It has been very wonderful opening to it all, and remembering Master Hua's advice to the Amaravati community: When you go to practise in the place of the Buddha, you must not find fault with anyone. As long as you find fault with anyone else, you have not found peace in your own heart.' It was a 'general' remark, but you can imagine how I pricked my ears up at that. And it has been a good theme.

India does not obey mind-wrought laws. It is under the sway of a female goddess who allures, nourishes, and destroys, in order to liberate the mind from having any views about samsara. (Once one has no views, there is no samsara!) Life obeys the same secret rhythms as rivers and moons: you have to follow. And all you can do is to keep cause-and-effect clear in the mind and come from purity. So I put my hands together in homage to the Triple Gem in all places and forget about holiness.

After this, our intention is to walk south through forest and then west to Sarnath. I think of you all with metta;

Yours in the Dhamma,
Sucitto Bhikkhu

Ajahn Sucitto
Sister Thanissara

Sister Thanissara

Driving through the streets - amazement. I'd forgotten how mind- blowing India is. We pass a large dead cow, on its back, legs extended, mouth wide open as if the spirit had been knocked from its throat. It was in the middle of the main dual carriageway into Delhi. No one seemed bothered about it. Dusty sidewalks, rubbish strewn everywhere, people milling amongst cows, dogs, even pigs. Erratic driving with horns tooting: motor rickshaws, taxis, colourful but tatty buses and lorries crammed with people. Brown eyes staring at us with curiosity, need and sometimes bewilderment, sometimes friendliness and interest. Chai shops and whallas squatting, selling anything that's saleable, dusty grey-looking beings, thin and wrapped in rags, sometimes carrying bundles on their heads. Motor scooters with whole families perched precariously on top...

o o o 0 o o o

I feel a happiness well up inside and a smile transform my face. I'm just happy to be back in India, I really don't know why I love it, it's a total affront to my Western conditioning - our slightly uptight, neurotic, pre-packaged, tidy and neat and usually subliminally negative approach to life. It's hard for me to fathom why I feel so much at home here, but I recognise the feeling after a few hours. I realise how, on some imperceptible level, I find it a strain to live within the Western psyche, where somehow we've forgotten to be what we are.

o o o 0 o o o

The chai shop whalla sits at our table we're outside, two cows are sitting very peace fully next to us a man's chopping sugar cane and is surrounded by a group who can't help staring at us, a tiny puppy places himself at my feet. The chai whalla starts telling us about his guru and gives us some reflections on Dhamma (as we'd put it!).

It was extraordinary having this very pure-hearted man share his thoughts on spiritual life. We felt enriched and refreshed listening to him. I realised I should let go a little more of any ideas of how Dhamma arrives at one's doorstep, and also what I'm doing in India, and just be more open. I ask him if he has any children. He's married, but says it's not given to him to have children: it's God's way of teaching him to see all children as his own. He follows by talking very beautifully on unconditional love. He really seems to be trying to live it as he serves people in his humble little chai shop. We leave, saying he's made us feel at home on our first day in India. His 'don't worry, the world is ours!' certainly makes one feel less paranoid.

o o o 0 o o o

There are about 120 monks and a large group of nuns that live in Mcleod Ganj. Except for the market, the whole place is like one huge monastery. The maroon coloured robe is seen everywhere and from our room it's possible to hear the drums, trumpets and bells of the monks while they do their pujas. Also one can witness them debating in the courtyard of the temple, a very vigourous way of testing each other's insight. Almost all the lay people, whatever age, seem to carry mala beads and walk round saying mantras to themselves. It's good to see many of the old Tibetans wearing the traditional dress. Their faces are bright and friendly. There's no doubt they're a special people, they live and breathe Buddhism, it's very refreshing; one feels quite at home here up in the mountains in a Tibetan atmosphere.

Just going to town (a short distance), one passes a couple of lepers always calling 'anila' or 'sister' as we pass, a sweet-looking but rather gnarled man who has set up business with a bathroom weighing scale on the side of the road (have your weight told for a rupee or two). A family which seems to live on a slab of muddy concrete 3'x6' - the man's blind, a young baby and mother with a bundle of wretched looking clothes, a samosa whalla, a few groups of building workers shoveling mounds of mud with very primitive utensils.

Although it's taking a while to adjust, I value the experience immensely. Witnessing the terrible poverty makes one appreciate how much we do have in the West. Just to have a warm jumper and a roof over one's head . . . . can't imagine what that small family does when it's cold at night.

Today we're invited to have our meal with a neighbouring Tibetan lady. We sit in her small room: there are three beds (made into seats during the daytime) for herself and her two children. The most obvious part of her room is the shrine, which extends across the length of one wall. As all Tibetan shrines, it's ornate and colourful, with pictures of the Buddha, and the inevitable picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, statues of Tara or Manjushri, offering-bowls, candles, incense, food offerings (a little of our meal is offered) and various thankas.

It's nice to see the shrine as the most obvious thing in the room. Nada and I are amazed how neat, tidy and simple the room is, considering there are three people living in it. It was explained to us that as it's the moon day today, she'll fast after noon; she does this every week on the observance days. Her two sons are monks and her third young son also aspires to be a monk. She's obviously quite happy about this. She also shows us her handicrafts, very beautifully woven carpets and bead work.

Almost any time of day or night one can see the Tibetans, monks, nuns and laity alike, doing prostrations. There's a strong sense of integration between Sangha and laity here (probably similar to Thailand). The refinement of Vinaya in not so much observed, however; one has to appreciate that different schools emphasise different aspects of Buddha-Dhamma.

One aspect that is strongly emphasised is the approach of bodhicitta: everything should be undertaken with the view of benefiting all sentient beings. This notice hangs over the entrance of the gompa, the main temple:
'All dharmas (existences) are like a reflection, clear and pure without turbulence, unsizeable and indescribable, purely derived from cause and action, without self nature, without location. You, by understanding the dhammas that way, work for the welfare of sentient beings without compare, and you shall be born as the son of the protectors (Buddhas).'

o o o 0 o o o

Haridwar is one of the Hindus' 7 holy cities. It's on the Ganges, and driving in on the bus, we pass over the river. Every third Kumbal Mela (a Hindu religious festival which happens every 12 years) takes place here; millions of Hindu people attend. The high point is the ritual bathing in the Holy Ganges at an auspicious time. Quite often many people lose their lives in the crowd. As it's nearer its source here, the Ganges has a purity to it, the colour is bluey turquoise and it flows surprisingly rapidly; also it's very wide. There are quite a few temples and Ghats on the river bank.

o o o 0 o o o

Arriving at the ashram at Jarharikal [recommended for a visit by an English Christian nun], a notice at the entrance says: 'Please leave your shoes and your ego here'! A good reminder to relax and trust. A sister shows us a simple room each and brings us tea and water for washing.

We attend the communion service, given by an elderly Austrian Father. The service is familiar to Nada and me with our Catholic backgrounds, though its mixed with prayers from the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. It's a very nice service, the Father and sisters make us feel welcome. We talk and they ask questions about my life in the monastery. One of the sisters also talks to us about her life as a missionary school teacher in Uganda.

That night alone in my cell, the presence of the Himalayas becomes all-pervading. The silence is most profound, overwhelming my little thoughts, concerns and anxieties. The silence rings and has a peace that I've rarely felt. Surely, the highest expression of transcendent reality is this silence and peace. It's clear to me at this moment that the Dhamma belongs to no religion. How can it? - it's everywhere, within and around, in all beings. It's immense and all- pervading, the pure, the immortal, beyond knowledge, beyond concept, the source of all, the ending of all:

Holy and Blessed Himalayas,
you are immovable
In your lap dwells the eternal Shiva
Through your peaks roams
the breath of Ram
From your heart gushes
the Holy mother Ganges
Descending to the valleys below,
she brings purity
Faith and hope to the suffering humanity.
You, holy mountain, are beyond grasp,
Inaccessible, you listen
to the sounds of the world
You see all things with an equal eye
All sounds are absorbed
into your immortal silence
By your divine grace, timelessness
Pervades my being, my mind
is rendered useless
Only can it look in devotion. . . how
could I forget . . . how could I doubt
Your everlasting Grace.

We have been offered these different spiritual paths so that we may know and not doubt the ever-present beneficent Dhamma. Don't get too caught in the distinctions it's a real pity to do so. All beings, all life is sacred, only our egos blind us and bind us to mortality. We should have no fear: haven't we been looked after so far? Why not put our total heart and trust in Dhamma, the source of purity? - it cannot fail us. Even at death, it cannot fail us. For my death is only a dying into true life.

o o o 0 o o o

Rishikesh is a special place. The river is not so wide here and it flows even more rapidly. In the evening we return to our lodging, walking amongst chai shops, lit, up bazaars, little fires cooking up this and that, occasionally treading round bundles of rags that hide a sleeping person.

We do a short puja and sit quietly. Images of the Ganges flow through my mind; the mind and the Ganges feel inseparable. I understand why this river is venerated, there's a power to it, as there's a power to the Himalayas. As it's flowing through my mind, I feel the consciousness expanding, leaving behind the narrow confines of who I think I am; flowing, loosening attachments and fears, the river courses its way to the sea as the individual consciousness must merge with the universal. Who am I when there's no identity with friends, family, nationality, sex, religion, status? Allowing ourselves to let go of each other is the holiest thing we can do. Because it means only then can we trust Dhamma. Faith is all important, with faith we can offer ourselves up. She flows on and on, this Holy Ganges, purifying all indiscriminately. I feel I know this river, these mountains.. .. .. ..

Full Moon of December at Bodh-Gaya

By the time we arrived, it was the morning of the 31st, a full-moon day. Nada and I had been travelling in India for about six weeks. As the bus pulled into Bodh-Gaya, we saw the obvious signs of a temple town: crowded streets with rickshaw wallahs touting for custom; market stalls selling mala beads, Buddha statues and religious artifacts; a colourful array of Tibetan pilgrims; Indians going about their daily business; a variety of shops, chai stalls and roadside vendors; a row of shoe wallahs squatting on the side of the road, plying their trade; beggars, lepers and a long line of widows beseeching a pittance outside of the temple compound.

In England, we'd made a tentative agreement to meet up with Ajahn Sucitto and Nick here on the full moon of December. That night we found them in the grounds of the temple to observe the Uposatha night, meditating at this tremendously holy and auspicious site.

The main Maha Bodhi Stupa is quite extraordinary; it reaches up to the sky, its flat sides housing images of the Buddha. In the soft light of the full moon I could hardly remove my gaze from its splendour. Backing onto the west side of the stupa is the renowned Bodhi tree, which sheltered the Lord Buddha on that significant night long ago. It is said that, out of gratitude for this remarkablc tree, he stood staring at it for one week with eyes unmoving. Between the tree and the side of the great stupa is the Vajra diamond seat, the place of Enlightenment - a most holy, and perhaps the most powerful spot on this earth. For me it is a symbol for the transcendent mind, where all time, all dualities and all concepts cease - totally leaving that unfathomable peace which is expressed so beautifully by the serene smile of the Buddha.

Surrounding the main stupa is a myriad of small stupas, and three walkways for the continual circumambulation of pilgrims around the central point. The whole site is saturated with an aura of devotion the result of faith and pure-heartedness, brought there over the ages by countless beings who come to pay their respects to the Tathagata. I felt such a power of attraction there, as an iron filing to a magnet.

That night the entire area was lit up by thousands of oil lamps - the work of that unique people, the Tibetans - giving the effect of a fairy land. We started our all-night vigil with a puja in the small shrine area inside the Maha Bodhi Stupa. Miraculously, all other pilgrims vanished, and the four of us were left alone to absorb the power of that spot. My thoughts evaporated. I sensed time had stopped. An extraordinary quality of devotion towards the Buddha, and awe at his accomplishment welled up in my heart. I felt him seated at the centre of the universe - the point where all time, all birth and death cease - with an infinite mind, unlimited compassion and surrounded yet unmoved by the forces of samsara.

After leaving the inner temple, we sat outside in the grounds. At about 11 p.m. it starred to pour with rain - the first rain we had seen in the six weeks we had been in India. I thought of it as a blessing on this fortunate night. We found shelter under some archways at the edge of the temple compound, looking out over a lotus pond, in the centre of which is a large Buddha-rupa canopied by Mucalinda, the serpent king. It marks the spot where the Buddha was protected by Mucalinda during a violent storm, after his Enlightenment.

As the night proceeded, we watched the rain lash down. Occasionally a streak of lightening would light up the pond, enabling us to catch a glimpse of the magnificent Buddha. Sitting, wrapped up in blankets, under the shelter, I felt a sense of other-worldliness: the misty pond, a mysterious atmosphere and, in the distance, the occasional call of night watchmen and the bark of a few stray dogs. From time to time, I'd circumambulate the stupa - feet splashing through the puddles, the mind drinking in the atmosphere, and eyes gazing at the beauty of the stupas - contemplating the dedication and determination that is needed to be free from ignorance. How can we ever express our gratitude to our teacher, the Buddha, for showing the Way so clearly? I saw that the Dhamma/Vinaya is like a map left for us; we may not always understand why the map is as it is, but I find that it's important to trust it until, through insight, one finds the truth of it for oneself.

We left the temple before dawn, feeling both inspired and fairly exhausted: we had spent the previous 36 hours just travelling to make it to our rendezvous with Ajahn Sucitto and Nick. As the temple was now locked, we climbed over the gates, feeling very reluctant to go. I was so tired that I was beginning to hallucinate, but walking back to our lodge I felt glad at heart to have spent the New Year and our first 24 hours in Bodh-Gaya in such an auspicious way.