Wednesday, January 22, 2014

India Adventure: Bodhgaya

I checked out of Hotel Shantiniketan on the morning of the 18th and took a bike-powered rickshaw through town, to the nearby train station. When you are in a bike rickshaw, you are sitting up high in the open air. I had a great view of the shops, but also knew I was quite conspicuous, and felt a little silly traveling through town with a large backpack attached to my back. My entire time in Shantiniketan, I had seen two other foreigners, an older couple also staying at Hotel Shantiniketan.

So when I began to worry about whether or not I had missed my train stop on the way to my final destination that day, and needed help, I just walked into the middle of my train aisle, and said quite loudly “Does anyone speak English?” It’s quite obvious there is a foreign traveler on the train car, right? By that point I’d been traveling by train all day, and hadn’t seen any other foreigners. My first train of the day, I had gotten on the wrong train car. Fortunately it was only an hour’s ride to the larger station where I would switch trains, so I just stood in the aisle near the bathrooms and the exit/entrance doors, where I had great views of the countryside. An older couple at the station where I changed trains taught me how to read the train tickets and find my train cars and seats, on future trips, to the amusement of the other Indian travelers around us on the crowded platform.

I have met so many kind people. When I stood on the aisle and pronounced I needed help, I was rescued by a middle aged Indian gentleman who is the Corporate Sustainability Manager for a French cement company. He was traveling from his place of work to his hometown of Gaya (also my destination) to see his family. So we exited the train together, and then because it was quite late and he was worried for my safety, he found and negotiated with a taxi driver for me, and sent me onto my final destination, The Root Institute for Wisdom and Culture, located in the city of Bodhgaya. He then had me text him when I arrived at my destination, so that he knew that I was safe. It was so kind of him.

I have been at The Root Institute since the night of January 18, staying in the dorm and exploring Bodhgaya. The Rough Guide describes Bodhgaya as “the world’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site”. Its big draw is the Mahabodi Temple and the Bodhi Tree, where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. The Bodhi Tree grows right next to the temple, inside of the temple grounds, which also includes a large, rectangular shaped lotus pool where Buddha bathed. An American monk that I met at His Holiness’ teaching, Tenzin Legtsok advised me to walk around the temple and Bodhi Tree, and see what other people are doing. That’s what he did, when he was first getting started. It is an incredible, incredible place. I have taken a lot of photos and recorded a short video, which I will have to upload to this blog post at a later date. I circumambulate the temple (walk around the temple) when I visit, observing all of the activity that takes place there, probably from the time the UNESCO World Heritage Site opens at 4am, and closes at 9pm. Most of the monks are facing the temple. There is a large group of young monks there now, sitting together in rows with their teachers and chanting. Many Tibetan monks doing their prostrations over and over again, with long wood boards shaped like yoga mats beneath them to support their bodies as they bend forward, roll themselves out, and then roll backwards to their feet and stand up again. There are people sitting in meditation, inside of small mesh tents to protect them from the large mosquitos in Bodhgaya. Tibetan women and men sitting on benches, holding and spinning prayer wheels. Tourists taking pictures. Monks doing recitations, sitting before altars they have set up in front of them. It is really outstanding.

I am here to take a 10 day course, which begins today, January 22 at the Root Institute called The Seven Points of Mind Training. I arrived a few days early to get settled and explore Bodhgaya. On the eve of my first full day here, I was walking at night along a muddy, dirt back road, which I thought would take me back to my dorm room at The Root Institute. Two monks stopped me, one of whom speaks great English. He told me it was unsafe for me to be walking alone, found an auto for me, and took me back to The Root Institute. People here are so kind.

The next day, I went to the International Meditation Center in Bodhgaya, to see if they were holding any events that I could attend, before my course began. The campus was peaceful, and looked like a monastery. I followed the signs to the office, and asked if I could come inside. The monk behind the desk was Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera, the teacher to the monks and visitors who come to stay at the International Meditation Center. I only walked in to ask about program offerings, but wound up staying all morning, asking him my questions about Buddhism.

Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera taught me that Buddha said to live in the present moment, so that I cannot know what will happen to Buddhism in future generations, if human beings are no longer on earth.
He said that sentient beings must live out their karma each time they are reborn. So you are not obligated to make use of every medical technology available to prolong your life (if you are in a coma, then your family can let you die), but you cannot take your own life, nor can you take the life of an animal that is suffering. You can just make the time until natural death more comfortable. If you hasten your death, or the death of another sentient being, then that sentient being will have to re-live this karma again in their next rebirth because the sentient being did not finish its karma in this lifetime. When sentient beings are born with troubles, those troubles are a manifestation of what the sentient being did in past lifetimes. So if a being is suffering in this lifetime, then that being must experience that. However, we are supposed to be living lives of great compassion for others, so I think we must do what we can to ease the suffering of others. (So I continue to feed the street dogs, pet them, talk to them, and give them my blessings. Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera said he could tell from the way I talked that I had great compassion for animals, and that was a wonderful thing. He also noted that I am “attached” to my own dog. Buddhists practice non-attachment because attachment brings suffering. This is something I need to work on.

Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera used to run the Vipassana Meditation Center in Santa Cruz, California. He told me about the Buddhist centers in the Bay Area that I should explore, and helped me decide how I can best live a lay person’s rebirth (life) in “the west” (USA). He told me the most important thing is to study the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and to develop my compassion for sentient beings, the core teaching to my understanding of Buddhism.

I kept mentioning my teacher, Venerable Bhante Wimala at the Nairobi Temple, but never mentioned Bhante by name until Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera mentioned while he is from Bangladesh, he did his studies in Sri Lanka. It turns out that the two teachers did not attend the same school, but where in school at the same time in Sri Lanka, and knew each other when they were students. I loved this. It meant meeting Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera here in Bodhgaya even more meaningful to me.

Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera noted it was lunch time, and invited me to stay for lunch, and then return to his office to continue our conversation. He later thanked me for coming, said I had good questions for him, invited me to email him, and said I should come back. People here are so kind.

One of his students, an Indian monk then gave me a tour of the International Meditation Center. I met an 80 year old woman from Vietnam who is staying at the meditation center. She doesn’t speak English, and none of us spoke Vietnamese, but we had a very nice time taking photos together, eating snacks she offered us in her room at the mediation center, and just enjoying the energy of the place, together. We were joined in our tour by a young Indian who works as “a servant” at the meditation center. He didn’t speak English. So there were 4 of us walking around the campus together, with very limited ability to communicate by spoken word, but had a great time.

My friend who rescued me on that dark, muddy street and I met up for dinner. We went to what is called a “tent restaurant” because the restaurant is housed inside what is sort of like a log cabin shaped circus tent. It was a Bhutanese restaurant. My friend Sumangala, a 35 year old monk from Myanmar who is getting his PhD at Myanmar Buddhist Academic Center, in Bodhgaya told me that due to the cold in Bhutan right now, Bhutanese travel to Bodhgaya for the winter season (right now) to escape the cold. It’s cold here, too – in the mid 60’s during the day and sometimes down to the low 40’s at night – but I imagine Bhutan must be much, much colder. Sumangala joined a monastery school at age 9 in Myanmar. He was considered “a novice” until age 20, when novices are ordained and become monks. He learned English in school in Myanmar, and now travels to Myanmar to teach teenage novices English. His parents are farmers. His family is Buddhist but out of his parents’ 3 children, he is the only monk.

Yesterday morning, I visited the big Buddha statute in Bodghaya with a Swedish man who is also staying at The Root Institute, and we stopped at a few temples. The major Buddhist countries here all seem to be represented by temples, as they would be represented by embassies in another city. Japan, China, India, Tibet at the principal countries where the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism is practiced (my tradition). Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and maybe some others are the main nations where the Theravada tradition is practiced. The Thai temple here in particular is gorgeous from both the outside and the inside. The first time I passed by it on the street, I just stopped and stared with my mouth hanging wide open. The temples are open all day to visitors, with the exception of a long lunch break. So you can wander in and out and explore.

After sharing a lunch table with a young woman from Singapore who is here with one of her Buddhist teachers, I was approached on the street by a Thai man in his early 20’s named Tee, who is attending Shakyamuni University in Bodhaya, where he studies physics. He’s here for a short while before going on to a campus in Varanasi, India. He lives in the housing behind the Thai temple. He taught himself English using a game. He also speaks some French and Japanese. His paternal grandparents are refugees from China, so he speaks Chinese as well. He doesn’t speak Hindi, the language that the teachers speak at his university, so he spends each day reviewing his text books which are written in English, teaching himself the material with the aid of a dictionary. Super impressive. We visited the Mahabodhi Temple in the afternoon, where we ran into Sumangala who had just finished his recitations. We then ran into Per, the Swedish man from The Root Institute, as he was also leaving the temple. We walked together to a guest house nearby to visit Sumangala’s friend, a fellow Theravada tradition monk from Mayanmar named Nyarna, who will finish his PhD in 2014. Nyarna also speaks English. Sumangala and Nyarna both must write 300 page papers in order to finish their PhD’s. I think I will get to read both of the papers. Sumangala is researching and writing about The Principle of Buddhism for Human Development. Nyarna is writing about Meditation in Daily Life. Nyarna is comparing and contrasting the ways meditation is taught in the principally Theravada tradition countries. We sat on cushions on the floor of Nyarna’s dorm room floor in the guest house, which seemed to be occupied principally by other monks. There were 5 of us in the room – Tee from Thailand, Per from Sweden, myself from the US, and Sumangala and Nyarna from Myanmar. And we were all making our best effort to understand each other in English. I was smiling to myself, thinking how very fortunate I am to be here, and to be meeting such interesting, open, kind people. So if you are worried about me, then please don’t – I am perfectly fine.

I’m writing this long post today because I’m starting my Seven Points of Mind Training course, taught by Gen Gyatso, tonight at The Root Institute. I will be living in silence, unable to leave the Root Tradition campus for the next 10 days, until the afternoon of January 29. If you need to reach me while I am taking the course then just contact The Root Institute and leave a message with the office. Thanks for reading my blog posts. Have a great 10 days. I’m off to a nearby restaurant that has wireless internet to publish this post, in addition to my posts about Calcutta and Shantineketan, and then if time meet up with Sumangala and Nyarna again so I can ask some of my pending questions about Buddhism, and back to the temple to circumambulate before my course starts this afternoon. Looking forward to it.

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