By BILL MacMILLEN
Last month two other FCM members and I had the great opportunity to travel to India for a pilgrimage to a number of renowned Buddhist sites, including Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birth; Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s awakening and the legendary Bodhi Tree; Deer Park in Sarnath, the site of his first teaching, and Kushinagar, the site of his death, or paranirvana.
Our group, which included Diana Fish, Chris Gahles and me, had the great fortune of being led by Shantum Seth, an ordained teacher in Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition, and an extremely knowledgeable conduit of both Buddhist and Indian history. Our path covered 14 days of touring and being with these sites and their history, as well as the cities and countryside of the Indian state of Bihar, the poorest and most populous state in India.
As Shantum said, there is an inner and an outer pilgrimage.
First, a description of the outer pilgrimage:
The pilgrimage was aptly titled, “In the Footsteps of the Buddha.” We literally were in the footsteps walked by the historical person, Siddartha, 2,600 years ago. That aspect alone was very powerful, realizing that this was the land where his birth, awakening, teachings and death occurred.
With Shantum providing both detailed accounts of the history of each site, as well as daily opportunities to meditate as a group at these sites, it made for a very integrated and rich experience, melding the intellectual and the spiritual aspects beautifully. Millennia old stupas and temples, rich with the history of the Dharma were found throughout the tour, each with their own unique details that Shantum described.
Chris Kahles, from left, Diana Fish, Jagdish (the logistics assistant for the pilgrimage), and Bill MacMillan at Nalanda, the famous 6th-11th Century site of advanced Buddhist teachings.
Other than the initial flight out of New Delhi and a return flight there, the transportation from site to site was by bus, and the opportunity to experience the countryside, cities and people was a teaching in and of itself. The level of poverty is severe, with families living along the roadside in what would be considered abject poverty in the United States, with little or no infrastructure support. Cows, goats and dogs abound, mixed with bicycles, tuk-tuks and motor scooters carrying 3 or 4 people at a time, often with women riding side-saddle and carrying a child, with horns blaring constantly.
Although India is an overwhelmingly Hindu country, the Buddhist pilgrimage sites are significant attractions and we found large crowds at most of them, with hosts of street vendors and beggars ever present and desperate. Bodh Gaya in particular, with the famous Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi Temple, was a cacophony of sound as different Buddhist traditions chanted, often using amplified speakers.
Also in Bodh Gaya, we had a photo taken of us and Shantum with Basudev, a cobbler whom Fred befriended when he was in India in 1975. Basudev was begging in the streets at the tim
e; Fred bought him clothes and shoes and basically acted as his benefactor. Years later Fred encountered him again when he was working at his uncle's shoe shop. He is now the proprietor of that shop!
Shantum and Jagdish, Shantum's employee who assisted us, took us to the shop, where we presented Basudev with a gift from Fred after showing him a photo of Fred with Karuna (whom Basudev met around 2000 when Karuna was in college and studying in India) along with Metta and Leo, Karuna's children. Basudev smiled immediately upon seeing the photo -- a great moment!
The tour group watched the teeming scene along the ghats (steps) on the Ganges River at Varanasi.
We spent a fascinating morning in Varanasi, one of the holiest sites for Hindus, who come to ceremonially bathe as a ritual for a better life in the Ganges year-round, and also where loved ones are cremated along the river in funeral pyres. The ghats are the steps leading down to the river, which is lined with centuries-old buildings inhabited by both people and monkeys.
The walk through the streets to the ghats, even at 6:30 in the morning, had a street festival atmosphere – smells of street vendors cooking, cows meandering hear and there, music playing, teeming with people. After making it to the river, we hired a boat and watched the various unfoldings from the river, with an almost surrealistic feel to it all.
Bill, Diana and Chris, led by Shantum Seth, third from left, stopped at a Thai Buddhist temple in a rural area in India for dinner. Thai temples were selected as rest stops because of their restaurants and clean restrooms. In the rear are a Thai monk and nun from the temple.
A particularly meaningful time occurred for me toward the end of the pilgrimage at the Jetta Grove in Sravasti, the location where the Buddha’s itinerant sanghas often stayed during the rainy season and site of a large number of his teachings. Diana, Chris and I each renewed the Five Mindfulness Trainings in a ceremony Shantum conducted in the Plum Village tradition established by Thay. A number of the other members of the larger group with which we traveled also took the 5 Mindfulness Trainings for the first time.
We completed the pilgrimage with a drive to Lucknow and flight back to New Delhi and were fortunate to extend the trip one day to travel to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort before the 14-hour flight back to the States.
Yes, Shantum said it best: There is an inner and an outer pilgrimage, and the inner continues long after the return to one's home. It was a fascinating journey and one that I found has altered my views of life -- in ways I don’t understand yet.
Many thanks to Bill MacMillen of Tampa, Facilities Care Leader, for this wonderful article about the pilgrimage taken with two other FCM members to significant locations in the Buddha's life in India.