Forest Sangha Newsletter
April 2002


Doubt and Other Questions
Where are you going? An Indian Pilgrimage (Chap. 8)




Where are you going?
In 1990 Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott undertook a six month pilgrimage around the Buddhist Holy places in India and Nepal, mostly on foot. Since then they have gradually written an account, of which this is an extract. We join them one month into the journey; the initial novelty and enthusiasm has worn off and they have realised just how difficult it is going to be.

To my mind at least, the walking was mostly not a matter of eagerness to get anywhere; everywhere we arrived at seemed to display the same characteristics as the place we had just come from. The movement was more irrational, a momentum coming from inner wheels that turned through me in phases of darkness and light. The dark phases were everything that pushed the heart forward to escape, the light ones were the times when the movement seemed more like being pulled onwards in faith.


With the possibility of uninterrupted attention, the mind, glowing with a mantra, flowed like honey.


Progress itself was more a psychological than geographical expression: the land always looked much the same, stretched out in paddy fields and scantily decked out with clumps of mango, banyan and bodhi trees; on its stage the events of pujas, walking, going for alms, and occasional halts for tea came round repetitively. The feet and pumping legs, underscored by a mantra, provided the reference point to focus on, but the real movement happened through allowing a dark or bright cycle to carry me along until things went still.

The rhythm of walking, particularly in the freshness of the morning, provided calm -- a source of energy and gladness that is a pilgrim's special food. With the possibility of uninterrupted attention, the mind, glowing with a mantra, flowed like honey. It felt good and natural to be at ease with the simple rhythms of the body, the earth and the day marked around us by village life.

The pivot of the day for us was the alms round, commenced by the ritual of adjusting my robes, and slowing the pace. Alms-faring makes you completely vulnerable to the unknown scene around you; it is time for realising humanity in a way that few people can. There was a kind of dignity in the humility of the lifestyle that the Buddha espoused.
They do not brood over the past,
They do not hanker after the future,
They live upon whatever they receive
Therefore they are radiant.
More than at any other time, on alms-round I tried to walk the balance between the palpable agitation of Nick behind me and the uncertain attention of the village ahead. I centred on the bhikkhus' rules for alms-gathering:
I shall go well-restrained in inhabited areas, this is a training to be done...
I shall go with downcast eyes, this is a training to be done...
I shall go with little sound in inhabited areas, this is a training to be done...
Sometimes we would get out of the village only to be called back; sometimes the movement would naturally take us to a centre point beneath a tree or beside a shrine and leave us there. Sometimes the movement turned into chanting before it left us sitting in stillness. It could take a long while for the mind to give up and go still, but when we did, the bright signs appeared, and the event happened: bustling, beckoning, a hut, elders, a burlap sack on the earth floor and plates of leaves. A new anonymous friend emptied flakes of some grain (chula) onto the leaves and then ladled curd onto them from a goatskin bucket with his hand.
I shall accept the alms-food appreciatingly...
I shall eat the alms-food appreciatingly...
I shall eat the alms-food with attention on the bowl...
After the meal, we gave the blessing chant and a few words on peace, generosity, or on what we were doing. It brought me again to brightness, to the place of belonging to what is good and recognising its universality; and a little more of the hide around the heart would wear away. Because of this, it got easier to rest for a brief period in the middle of the day with a bunch of children squatting around me exchanging loud whispers, pointing at my heavy leather sandals and occasionally venturing into a few inquiries: 'Where is your house?' Then we would just gaze at each other, though they could always stare longer than me: after all they had an answer.

Our daily alms rounds were a good learning experience for me. Day after day, I'd blow it. To begin with we weren't having breakfast as Ajahn Sucitto had wanted to try to live on one meal a day as the Buddha had recommended his followers to do when possible.

As we went on, that resolve slowly got worn away by my offers to stop at a tea shop in the mornings and then perhaps to have a little something with the tea, but to begin with that one meal was going to have to last us the next 24 hours. I would try to walk into the village, five steps or so behind him, slowly and calmly keeping my eyes on the ground. I would try, but in no time I would be looking over his shoulder trying to spot the best possible place to stop. I had quickly learnt that we got better food from the big brick houses in the middle of the villages with the T.V. aerials than from the mud huts on the village edge. My mind would start yammering and I would often end up trying to give advice. 'Ah, bhante, that looks a good place over there' mentioning a little temple or tree which just so happened to be next to some big houses. Afterwards I would resolve to show more restraint next time, but usually to no avail.

Once we had stopped and sat down I would calm down. There was nothing left to do, all we could do was to be open and wait to see what would happen. My mind, being so intent on the outcome, would be right there in the moment. Waiting, not knowing. It is a very powerful experience. Then when someone did offer us food it would be such a beautiful blessing.

The offering would happen in so many different ways that I could never predict how it would be. There was one infallible rule, however: whoever it was that first asked us, would then feed us. No matter if there were a hundred people around us, or whether the asker was rich or poor. No matter if all they did was ask if we had eaten and then others asked about whether we ate rice, chapattis, etc. It was now that person's duty -- and duty is a very powerful thing in India.

It was the fourth day after leaving Kushinagar that we tried walking on the bund by the Great Gandak river. That proved a good idea. The bund meandered through the paddy fields, its sides planted long ago with trees which gave us shade, and there was a well-worn path along the top which was used as a local highway by people on foot and bicycle. There were no noisy lorries or buses, no need to map read and there were even mile posts for counting off our progress. It was the best walking we had had. Ajahn Sucitto was obviously enjoying it, the simplicity of it allowed him to use the walking as a meditation. He would get so absorbed and reluctant to stop that he would even miss someone offering us tea.

We were some thirty feet up and passing through a vast flatness of chequered fields, villages dotted everywhere, with stands of trees, mostly mangoes, stopping us seeing far into the distance. Most of the villages were on the side of the bund away from the river and so protected from its flooding, and there were tracks coming up and over the bund to their fields on the other side. There were also occasional small communities on the top of the bund, which we would pass close to throughout the day. At first light there would be the pungent smoke of small fires lit outside the front doors with much of the family squatting around them warming themselves while their tethered animals snorted plumes of white vapour. The adult women were not there though, presumably they were preparing the first meal inside. Later we would see the people making their way to the fields herding their cows and water-buffalos ahead of them. Around 10.30 the people returned alone for their midday meal and they would be back again with their animals well before sundown. Each hut would then have at least one cow or water-buffalo outside munching and snorting at raised eating troughs made of the same grey mud as the huts and filled with chopped green straw mixed with water. The animals were such an integral part of their lives and so important in extracting the maximum from the land that I could see why the Hindus had come to worship the cow.

Walking on the bund may have been enjoyable but for me there was one problem. The idea of this big river full of wildlife, just out of site, was calling me and on the second day I could not resist it any longer. I suggested we try walking by the river; the excuse was that the bund took a couple of turns and by cutting across we might take a short cut. The suggestion did not go down well, but Ajahn Sucitto did agree and we set off across the fields on a path that was going just the right way. Or it was initially. After a bit it took a turn, and then a while later a couple more -- and slowly, creeping up on me, came this feeling that we were lost. It had not been a good idea. I could not find the river or our way. Unlike rivers in England, the river's edge was an undefined thing. There were wetlands, grassland and sandbanks but no path wandering along by the river as I had imagined. Ajahn Sucitto was not impressed and eventually, with me suitably chastened, we had to double back to the bund having lost half a day's walking.

On the third day, on the bund we stopped at sunset to try again to do our puja and meditation before it got dark. We sat on the grassed bank with a view across fields to some vultures which had collected around the carcass of a dead cow. They could not get at it yet because the village dogs were there and snarling at them if they came too close. Instead they stood, stared and waited, hopping backwards when growled at. Thus ends the lives of all the farm animals in rural India. In the same way that animals ignore their dead, no longer figuring as relevant to the living, Indians abandon their dead and dying farm stock to be recycled by the dogs, hyenas and the vultures.

Despite the interest of the distant scene we were facing and the sinking sun beyond it, I was disturbed as usual. As usual I began to hear the murmuring of voices discussing us and I knew there must be people behind us up on the bund. I stopped myself looking round but I could not relax.

The suppressed chattering behind us and the agitation beside me became more turbulent; so we turned. Up on the bank a gaggle of youths and men were looking on with excitement. Two men dressed in the Indian 'Western' style were wreathed in smiles, one supporting a moped, the other jigging up and down in rapture:

'We are very happy to see you! We are very pleased to see such devotions that you are doing! It makes us very happy, very, very happy!' His cycling companion's smile widened into a beam spreading across his smooth bespectacled countenance. It was the dancer however who was the man of words; a torrent in fact, a rhapsody of delight:

'We are very much appreciating such noble activity and expression. It gives us such great happiness to see you!' He actually wriggled with glee; infectious stuff that brightened even Nick's tetchy reactions. We were onto a new dance, and another Singh -- Naval Kishore Singh, who introduced his friend on Hero-Honda motorcycle as Mr Teewali. Mr T. was silent, but affirmative smiles underlined his broad glossy brow. They were both schoolteachers. Mr Singh taught English and very much admired Shakespeare -- he was certainly too large in gesture to be properly savoured off-stage. Mr. Teewali taught Science and was, we were dramatically assured by Mr Singh, 'of very noble character. He has GREAT affection for his children! He is very, very affectionate towards them!'

Mr Singh's body seemed to operate in a different gear from his words -- although each sentiment was proclaimed with great emphasis, his body, head lowered and thrust forward, brows puckered, adopted the posture of someone imparting a confidence. But when I slipped in an enquiry as to whether he had a religious practice, whether he did pujas or worshipped God at some times, the covers came off. 'I am ALWAYS worshipping my Lord! All day I am praising my Lord!! I sing, I dance!!..' -- sympathetically, the body squirmed with consummate glee.

Fortunately his partner of glowing brow, whose beam broadened to the point at which the lower part of his face seemed in danger of falling off, imparted a moon-like serenity to the dance. In fact, it was Mr Teewali who by some slight gesture and inaudible phrase got us moving: myself, Nick, with Mr Singh importuning us to stay at his house, himself and the Hero-Honda (which turned out to be in some minor state of disrepair) and a dwindling group of lesser characters ambling along the bund in the evening. Nick kept declining the offers firmly and explaining with calm authority that we were pilgrims and that meant sleeping outside -- this only served to heighten the rhetoric which accompanied the invitations. Eventually Mr Teewali dropped off with the bike, and Mr Singh disappeared. We strode into the dusk looking for a tree to camp under; not very far before Mr Singh returned solo with redoubled pleas -- it was his DUTY, he must perform his DUTY otherwise he would be a disgrace. But we were bound to homelessness. Nick's ploy was adept and delivered squarely and with majesty. 'You have done your duty! We are very grateful. You have offered us your hospitality. You have done your duty very well! We thank you! Now we must go.' Turning back to the path and striding on he seemed to have stopped the show...

...until the next morning, as we passed through a village. Mr Singh was at the gate of his house, ecstatic and calling us in with siren songs of food. The love of solitude and homelessness capsized with the first few bars of the song. After all, we were alms-mendicants, and our duty was to receive offerings. On the veranda in the front yard of the large house was a group of Mr Singh's associates, fellow thinkers and philosophers, and a pot of milky tea. Here was Mr Singh's nephew, voluble but bitter -- a commentator on the political scene. Another seemed to be dozing in a chair until Nick began inquiring about plants and he reeled off, in a monotone, the name of every species in the surrounding landscape. Then entered the smiling wife ('We have great affection for each other! Great affection!!') bustling in from the kitchen area with two plates of hot, tasty parothas and mango and lime pickles ('She is very CUNNING!!') -- enough to give any homeless wanderer serious doubts about the alleged unsatisfactoriness of the household life. Down went those parothas four a-piece, and as the plates emptied before our appetites, the daughters, correctly interpreting the feebleness of our protests, appeared, to top them up with more even fresher and more succulent parothas straight from the pan; five, then six, and more tea, while the thinkers and Nick exchanged ruminations on plants and land and the state of India.

It was the transcendent Mr Teewali who appeared again with moped and smile to signal the end of the cycle. I never heard him utter a word, but whispers were made in the ear of Mr Singh, who realised, ecstatically, that he was late for school. Rather than precipitating action, this lateness seemed to be recognised merely as a state of being as worthy of celebration as any other. Perhaps it was Nick who brought down the curtain by having Messrs Singh and Teewali pose for a photograph standing on either side of the repaired motorcycle. Bringing the Hero-Honda into the picture turned the balance: devotion to the formless now turned into right action as, waving enthusiastically, the pair roared out of the gate and back up the bund.

As we went on that morning I thought over what had been said by one of the teachers, the one we later agreed was the dormouse in this mad hatter's tea party. As he had recited the names of every plant, I was struck by how he could also say what everything was used for. I realised that we were walking through an entirely man-made landscape. This was some of the most fertile land in India cultivated since well before the time of the Buddha, perhaps for 5,000 years. As a result everything I could see growing was there for a purpose. That was why there had been so little wildlife. In nearly two weeks of being outdoors every day and night, we had seen just one small group of chital and a mongoose. I would see much more than that walking anywhere in England.

I had noticed on the map, however, that just before we left the bund, after four days walking, we would at last be next to the Great Gandak. Sure enough, an hour after leaving Mr Singh we came round a bend and we were suddenly on a cliff being eroded by the river, trees behind, for once no one in sight and the Great Gandak slipping slowly and mightily, full of silt, past us. It was the time of our normal morning stop and Ajahn Sucitto agreed that this would be a good place to take it. So we sat there overlooking the great river. Downstream were sailing boats hauled up on a wooden jetty and across the river, on the distant bank, were flocks of grazing ducks and greylag geese. This is what I had been looking out for four days. My heart trembled. At last. I was sitting there by the river feeling at one with it all, the view, the wildlife, when...

'Shall we go on?' We had had our standard fifteen-minute stop it seemed and my companion, as ever a chap of unwavering application, felt it was time. I could have asked to stay but that kind of thing is never the same if one tries to hold on to it -- so we got up and went on. After a few hundred yards we turned inland, never to see India's Great Gandak again.

Writing it all down helped to keep the events experienced within some wholeness, some continuum. Without something constant to refer to, we'd all go crazy. I suppose most people use their homes, relationships, or self-image as the stable reference point. For a pilgrim, a meditator, all that shifts -- becomes just so much flowing process. Feelings, thoughts, moods are unstable. The only fixed reference is letting go. But how? You have to go through the cycle of acknowledging dis-ease and that it is connected to holding on, until it gets too painful to keep holding it -- then to abandon the cause of dis-ease, to realise the stillness and to let the path develop from there. These are the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, the foundation of his teaching.
A path to where? For me, I have to keep dropping the ideas and focus on the manifest human show. Otherwise I get stuck. If I give up on why and who and where, there is the wholeness in my meditation. I would ask that this walking extend to include all the people that I had contact with, that something in us would move together on this journey for a while. As I wasn't always quick enough or sure enough to take part in their play, I could write them into my diary. My way of engaging with these people could be to take them into my mind and heart and record a few images in the little ochre-silk bound book. That act connected them to the circle of Sangha that I was writing for. In a way it hardly mattered how accurately anyone else could receive those images; at least the cycle of watching and connecting to Sangha encouraged my heart.
Here are a few fragments that still remain:
'30. Meal with Naval, + nephew + dormouse. Saw Gandak. Bike Mob. Devata Bakhra Vaishali.'
The day's events hit us in different ways and brought up contrary responses. I'd slow down and talk when Nick felt like speeding up and getting away, he'd sit and linger when I felt like moving on. We were like a bike whose wheels were turned by different gears. But in the evenings the gears had stopped whirring -- there was less happening and we were tired out. The road had worn the two of us into a kind of dumb unity, again it was just the darkness and the walking. Yes, the evenings: the feeling that the challenges of the day were nearing an end, and the possibility of finding a place to stop and re-centre ourselves. And this end-of-November evening, as the pilgrimage came towards another full moon, Vaishali hoved into the reach of our fond expectations of peace and reason.
Another man with a bike, a scooter this time, was waiting where the road wound through the ruts, crumpled straw and buffalo dung that signified a collection of human lives called Bakhra. Probably another Singh -- but we were too dim to ask. All the initiative was his. At the sight of duty to be performed, he turned his scooter in the opposite direction to the way he had been going and insisted on guiding us, accompanying us for the best part of an hour, taking us to a chai shop for tea, and setting us on the good road to Vaishali. 'Here there will be no bandits,' he proclaimed, and turned back again, leaving us to the ongoing way. The moon glowed like Mr Teewali's brow, surely growing fuller by the minute.

The account of this pilgrimage is now complete and Ajahn Sucitto and Nick would like to see it published, either commercially or by sponsorship. If anyone can help with this they can contact the authors at Chithurst Monastery.