Friday, November 28, 2014

Survival of the Faithless


India was... magical, as usual. We all made it back alive - not a single one of of us was even remotely deathly ill, a major disappointment overshadowed only by the shocking lack of foot-deep pot holes in Bihar. They've actually had the audacity to install proper highways since my last visit!

Us vs. them - our driver decided to turn around and
drive against the flow of traffic. This was the result.
Seriously, though, it was a great trip in pretty much every way. We saw more of India and Nepal than I've ever seen. Here's how it went down:

On the 12th, we (Me, Sandeep, Veera, Cindy) arrived in Gaya, a few hours late, which was okay because both the people (Chris and Riya) on the trains we were to meet were several hours late as well. We checked into a hotel and went to the tree for evening meditation.

Maha Bodhi Cetiya, Bodh Gaya
On the 13th, I was waiting at the entrance at 3:55, because I'd been told the tree opens at 4 AM. Hung out until it actually opened at 5 AM, watching as the crowd waiting for the gates to open slowly grew. Number of pilgrims has certainly increased over the years.

Maha Bodhi Cetiya in the morning light
Morning meditation, then off to the Dangashweri caves where the Bodhisatta underwent austerity. Met some small Indian kids and a nice Vietnamese group. A big part of this trip was the meeting people and exchanging smiles and well-wishes. I made friends with many young Indian kids, most of whom were much more friendly once they realized I had no money. Also exchanged pleasant conversation with many fellow pilgrims - the Buddhist circuit has greatly increased in popularity since my last visit six or seven years ago.

Throngs vying to get into the
tiny cave - torture in itself
13th afternoon visited the Sujata Cetiya, where we think the Bodhisatta ate his final meal before enlightenment. Evening back at the tree, and a tour of the seven places the Buddha stayed after enlightenment. Met a large group of young Chinese pilgrims, lots of pictures, delightful pseudo-conversations, and shared well-wishes. Before we parted, they gave me all sorts of things from pens to fruit leather.

Harmony under the bodhi tree
14th morning at the tree, then off to Saranath. Made it to the Mahabodhi Society for evening chanting, joined in recitation of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta with a large Sri Lankan contingent, followed by offerings to the Buddha by an equally large Thai contingent. Being an international monk is great - fitting in with so many different types of Buddhists and sharing smiles - I found myself smiling more on this trip than most other times in my life.

Sri Lankans in the Maha Bodhi society temple, Saranath
15th early morning trip to the Ganga river - I almost declined, given it's not really a Buddhist thing, but it turned out great. We spent the boat ride in deep dhamma discussion - turning a non-Buddhist event into a Buddhist one. Morning at the Dharmek Stupa, then the others went to the museum while I tried to shake a cold I'd caught somewhere (everyone would catch it before the trip was through). Evening at the Mahabodhi society again.

Panoramic view of the Ganga river ghats - Varanasi


Under the iconic Dhammek Stupa
16th morning off to Savatthi. All day trip, arrived late.

Smiling, Happy People
17th morning Jetavana, then Savatthi. Met our first large group of Cambodian Buddhists, ~300 sitting on the Anatthapindika Cetiya. Got coerced into giving an interview in pseudo-Khmer to a producer of some sort. Afternoon to Lumbini.

Lots of Smiling, Happy People
18th in Lumbini, visited the Bodhisatta's birthplace, met another large Cambodian group. Afternoon went to Kapilavatthu for the first time. Seeing the gate the Bodhisatta walked out of was oddly moving.

Pictures inside the Buddha's birthplace are forbidden for some reason.
This monk scolded me right after this picture was taken. Now he's on the Internet.
Those bricks on the bottom left are all that's
left of the great gate of renunciation.
19th to Kusinara, nice meditation at the Mahaparinibbana Cetiya. I took a long walk in the evening through the villages. The real India is quite different from what the tourist sees. Quite peaceful, really.

The peace of enlightenment
Kids playing cricket.
20th to Rajagaha, stops in Kesariya for the huge cetiya there - first time seeing this, it's pretty awesome; they're still digging it up and cutting down the full grown trees that have grown over it - and Vesali.

Kesariya Cetiya in the early morning mist.
21st morning went to Gijjhakuta. Full of Thai, Burmese, etc. pilgrims. Always nice to see so many bright faces. Nice meditation under the sun at the highest point on Earth the Buddha lived. We saw this remote peak behind Gijjhakuta on the map, and decided it was worth checking out. Walked up the steps to the new, somewhat ostentatious cetiya above Vulture's Peak and took a picture of the remote one - turns out there's something that looks like an old cetiya there. New goal for next year's pilgrimage. Afternoon went to Veluvana and the jail where Bimbisara died. Found a discarded walking stick in the jail. Brought the stick back to Thailand because what's more hardcore than that?

Somehow managed to snap a picture of Gijjhakuta without any
people. It was much more busy than this makes it look.
22nd morning climbed up to the Saptaparni caves of the first Buddhist council. Even our more senior members made the long journey. Nice meditation in the shade of the mountain in front of the caves, also an impromptu talk about the first council while resting. Afternoon to Nalanda, which is just so terribly impressive in its size. Also, the Sariputta Cetiya, which is worth the visit in itself. Found a neat spot between two Bodhi trees away from the crowds to meditate under the Cetiya. Definite 10/10.

The long and winding staircase to the Saptaparni Caves
Sariputta Cetiya
23rd lazy day, short trip to Bodh Gaya. Evening at the tree, the Burmese monks set up a tent chanting the Mahapatthana day and night from 20th to 26th. Listened, meditated, smiled.

24th went early to the tree, meditation, then almsround. Almsround in Bodh Gaya consists of circumambulating the cetiya with your almsbowl - two-for-one puja :) Got a full bowl of food, donated it to the Burmese monks, got a blessing. 25th another alms round, then flew back to Bangkok.

Random image of me with some kid.
He touched my face, I touched his back. Pictures were taken.
That's it. Already we're planning next year's trip, maybe do a line from Varanasi to Lumbini then fly to Kathmandu, skipping Savatthi. Would save both time and travel, though as it was, the trip was quite pleasant. Bihar has really changed from night to day as far as roads go.

Also, kudos to my fellow pilgrimees for being awesome; small pligrimagings made up of dedicated meditators are definitely the best.

Panorama of awesome meditators
Check out all the photos at https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/118014954414967440482/albums/6084138331261982417 - I've removed all the duplicates and put them in chronological order now. ~200 pictures with panoramas and photo spheres - best viewed in Google+ for android or on your desktop computer.

In Chiang Mai, heading to Chom Tong and maybe Mae Hong Son. Hopefully will finalize a means of broadcasting live audio talks to our meditation app soon and set up a schedule for talks. Would be a nice accent to our meditation sessions, I think.

Blessings all, best wishes, be well!