Friday, February 23, 1996
Today was the day we were to begin travelling together. Everybody had been absorbing the novelty of being in Bharat long enough to shake their jetlag and confidently begin exploring the new environment; even the late arrivals had two or three days to get a feel for the neighborhood, relax and meditate in Deer Park, take a boat out on the Ganges, to seek out some psychedelic brocade or celestial incense while moving through the indescribable bustle on the streets of Varanasi.
Padma Chökhor Ling, the Khenpo's new temple in Sarnath, had been consecrated the previous day. We were all to pack and load up after breakfast. We readied crates of bottled water, a painted metal sign which had been created for the land recently acquired in Sravasti, and a huge supply of white candles. At the last minute, the bus company called and said that the new bus we were promised for our pilgrimage fell through -- there had been a terrible accident on the road from Delhi to Varanasi. From what I'd seen on Indian roads so far, this seemed totally believable.
Carlos Maharaj and I were asked to go look at another bus to see if it would be suitable for our group to travel in. It was definitely a veteran cruiser. Someone had apparently tried to upgrade it about ten years back by customizing the interior with maroon and paisely velvets. If a friend had pulled up my driveway in this gypsy coach, I would have said, 'Cool!' But to pay money to take this group on the backroads of Uttar Pradesh and through notorious Bihar for a week? Maybe we should get a third opinion.
Carlos was with me the previous night when the man who owns the brocade shop in Sarnath read my palm; he accurately guessed my age and (aware that I had come to India for the consecration) predicted that I too would build a temple someday, a task that would take exactly three years. A woman (or is it two? he wondered aloud) who is not my present wife (but was in a past life) would help me financially. So with a future like that looming ahead of me, I thought we had better ask someone else about the bus. The fellow who delivered the machine tried to console us by saying that the vehicle was really only two years old, at which point Bill Hinman turned to me and said, 'Yeah, so's my Grandma.' Anyway, although uglified and substandard, it seemed roadworthy and there really wasn't any other choice unless we wanted to wait a few days, which we didn't. Besides, Karmal, our macho Sikh bus driver, confidently assured us this rig would make the trip with no problems. Hell, he should know, shouldn't he? It even appeared to have good springs, but in the end, I am not sure that really mattered.
As the bus cleared Varanasi, a jeep sped past us heading into town. On the roof, tied to a bamboo stretcher was a corpse wrapped in gold lamé fabric. Apparently on their way to a burning ghat where locals pay approximately 300 rupees per body for firewood and fees. I sat up front all day. The vision out the big windshield is spell-binding. I shared the space with an older man named Lärs and three young students from Moscow who had made their way overland by train. Lärs, a seasoned world-traveller, had originally arranged for the Khenpos to go to the former Soviet Union at the behest of Buddhists there. We talked about guru yoga at one point and the openness necessary to make use of this practice in the Vajrayana. Lars said, "What I realized is that you cannot make that gesture of surrender until you are at ease enough in your own situation to be able to trust yourself. Without that, how could you ever come to trust another? It simply won't happen."
All of us marvelled at Karmal's skill in negotiating these swiss cheese roads and could hardly take our eyes from the windshield for sheer curiosity. Most sections are only wide enough to accomodate a vehicle and a half. In many places where the local folks are apparently tired of sweeping up glass from the latest head-on, the passable surface has been widened by about a meter on each side with bricks. Even so, when vehicles approach, the situation is very similar to a game called 'chicken' where I come from.
The old bus groaned all day over roads which had been paved once or twice since WW2, but were now so full of potholes you dare not go faster than 30 mph. Green rice paddies and wheatfields stretched to the horizon on both sides of us; most plots are dug and walled with mud for water control. The road seemed to ride upon a levee about three or four feet above the surrounding plains for most of the trip. Huge piles of dirty bricks were neatly stacked in fields here and there, many of them slowly turning back to mud. Thatched mudhuts and trees cluster near the road now and then. Some of these villages even feature a sign with a name on it.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, we stopped in a small settlement across from a one story row of brick storage buildings with rolldown steel gates which appeared to serve as a market on some days but was currently empty. On the opposite side of the street lay an abandoned high school painted in tones reminiscent of the American southwest. Someone had put money into this place once, and then more recently again to judge by that six-garage mercado. Everything else in sight reflected technology common in Biblical times. Oxen turning millstones, a family seated in the shade of their house mixing herbs and flowers from a basket with remoistened cowdung and rolling it onto slivers of bamboo to sell as incense, women with babies on their backs balancing water jugs on their heads. Packed dirt footpaths running atop the grassy dikes between fields, trails that led away from the road off into the distant grey-green haze of the plains; clusters of houses, the homesteads of poor farming families, hidden within tiny patches of dark green islands which dot the plains and merge into hallucination on the flat line horizon.
Our group (40+) is comprised primarily of Khenpo students with a few other friends and family members thrown in to keep it interesting, almost all North Americans, the majority of us in India for the first time.
We disboarded and sat on low benches next to the road ordering food from one of those funky little open air kitchens. The cook was a friendly middle-aged man in a dhoti sitting on the other side of an adobe half-wall in a little terracotta tile roofed shed á lá Mexico. When someone in the group asked about restrooms, both of the Khenpos sort of laughed and pointed to a tall stand of pigeon peas in the fields behind the shop. It started to dawn on some of the crew just how far we were from Kansas. As if to say, 'You mean we're going to be eating food from places where they have no running water or toilets? Isn't this what they tell you to watch out for in all the tour books?' Right then and there, vows were exchanged by those who decided to subsist on soda crackers and bottled water while most of us continued to live dangerously. We soon loaded back up. There was still at least another six hours of road ahead of us today.
As the sun was setting, we crossed a river and saw the skyline of sacred Ayodhya. The peaceful look of minarets and temple roofs in the twilit sky contrast with the violent history of this town. The trouble started way back in the fifteeenth century when the Moghuls built a small mosque on the birthplace of Sri Ram. It eventually fell into disuse, and a group of Hindus began considering reclaiming the site. This led to communal violence and damage to many temples. The government ordered armed guards to keep the peace, but in 1992, Hindu gangs destroyed the mosque and built a small shrine on the site. Massive rioting resulted in many deaths in locations throughout India and neighboring Moslem countries.
Once, a very long time ago, King Prasanejit's sister ruled here. She was an advanced student of the Buddha and received teachings directly from the Great One in this very place.
After twelve hours of dodging innumerable asphalt-edged holes, oncoming traffic, primarily in the form of huge, invariably orange trucks which look like they were customized by the welders in Madmax, holy cows, dogs and goats, bicycles, scooters, rickshaws and pedestrian traffic, we rolled through the countryside and a few dusty towns before crossing the Ghaghara River by Ayodhya after sundown.
A few hours later, Old Faithful pulled into the compound of the Sri Lanka Temple in Sravasti, just a few hours too late; our accomodations had already been given to a crowd of tired Japanese pilgrims who were travelling in a nice new bus. I'll bet it even had a restroom! We were pointed to a spacious back hallway where we could lay out our bedding on a clean tile floor. I dropped my bag at one end of a long row of tired bodies. A concrete wall seperated me from the monastery's monster diesel generator which was only a few yards away. We were told it would be shut off at 10 pm. Most of what was cooked for dinner had also been given away to those upscale Japanese. I was beginning to suspect that there had been no accident on the road from Delhi, but that these clever orientals had bribed someone into hijacking that new bus which had been meant for us. Fortunately, a few of the compassionate young monks who had seen us straggling in, revitalized the kitchen and prepared another round of rice, peas and curry. Meanwhile, I wandered off into the dark, knowing I'd probably come across one of those dimly lit supper shops where I could get hot food and tea and sure enough, I found one in no time. Sitting there in candlelit silence with the young man who served me made me wish I knew more Hindi. Reduced to the simplicity of a smile and nodding my head, I tried to express my gratitude for the simple hot food.
When I got back to the monastery, I sat down with my Russian buddies. Conversation was still minimal but the light was much better and our attempts at communicating, extremely amusing. Contrary to what we'd been told, the generator didn't go off until long after midnight (although this may very well have been because of the extra dinner they'd fixed). Such is the nature of relative truth. The diesel started up again promptly at six in the morning . Luckily, I was equipped with two useful forms of foam which while minimizing, did not entirely eliminate either the noise or the chill and hardness of the floor. Highly recommended for travel anywhere: earplugs and a sleeping pad.
Saturday, February 24, 1996
Khenpo Palden came in at dawn as if to survey his troops and check the morale. He smiled and said this bit of hardship was our tapasya which is a Sanskrit word suggesting ascetic practices adopted to develop spiritual strength. I had been up since 4 am reading and after taking a cold shower, noted that it seemed to be getting easier to take one first thing every morning. The sky was overcast as I passed through the monastery courtyard where I spoke with a nun in our group who was very concerned about the lack of accomodations and worried about how everyone was doing. I assured her it was alright and just part of the trip. I told her what Khenpo Palden had just said. She smiled and seemed to think it was her responsibility to be troubled, but hey, this is India. Forget the plan.
I noticed that every tree in the compound had a number painted on a metal sign which was firmly fixed to the trunk. Just keeping track of the inventory I suppose. Trees are rare and precious in this part of the country; everyone burns cowdung. I head on over to Jetavana Grove, just a few minutes walk, and arrive early. The main gate which is still locked, so I shoot a few pictures of the sun chasing the mist off the fields before wandering across the street to the Mahabodhi Society Temple. A group of Tibetans built a small stupa in the front courtyard to commemorate the Society's efforts on behalf of the Dharma. It is too small to be very attractive, but the spirit of gratitude is palpable.
I am one of the first to enter the park as the white iron gate opens. A few troops of grey monkeys, some with black faces, move across the lawns but retreat quickly before my approach and scamper high into the trees. A few minutes later I come across a young man slingshotting at a group in the upper branches and understand why the animals seem so paranoid and hard to photograph. One of them keeps screaming down at the human attacker as if to say, "Enough already shithead!" The scene was a bit disturbing.
A large assortment of brick platforms which had been temples, stupas, cells and other monastic buildings, a huge Pipal tree surrounded by fences with concrete retaining walls around the base and an encircling walkway. This was the sprig originally planted by Ananda from a sapling of the Bo tree under which the Buddha had gained enlightenment. A young Mahabodhi Society monk was sweeping around it while his elder sat and meditated in perfect stillness on the eastern side. I gathered up some of the leaves which had fallen in the walkway and put them in my pocket before asking the young monk if I could photograph the tree. Immediately, he laid down his grass broom and sweetly posed for this picture.
There seem to be many more ruins buried here than there are reclaimed, but work slowly continues. I sat on a bench crowning a small mound on the edge of the grounds under which lay more unexcavated ruins. From here I could see through the bushes into the backyard of a Burmese monastery which borders the park. A young monk was washing his clothes. Through a gap in the vegetation, I see a group of park workers cleaning and remortaring bricks on a level below me. A turbanned, barefoot boy pumps a little water into a tin, spills the can on a ruin wall and then just stands still, perhaps giving it a moment it to soak in, staring at it for a few moments and then some, as if waiting to see whether the pump was going to begin offering water of itself. Then once again leaning on the handle and refilling the tin. Busloads of Buddhist pilgrims, many dressed in white, older people from other parts of India walk through this holy place with their teachers and a few monks with video cameras. Everyone offers incense, flowers, prayerflags or goldleaf at the main sites. To study the movements of these folks revealed that for many, this was the trip of their lives and not easily accomplished. I admired their faith and devotion, knowing Indian Buddhists were influenced to renounce the Hindu religion by the example of Dr. Ambedkar. Some of what I was experiencing here is simply the song of India, but Jetavana is obviously a special place and has its own subtle energy. Everybody who spends any time here begins to relax, slow down, loosen up and turn on to the inherent goodness and beauty of simply being here. The calls of tropical and song birds filled the air; a primordial variety of long-tailed parrots flew from tree to tree and occasionaly, low frequency waves of a deep bell or gong from a nearby temple rolled through the Grove.
I did my morning sadhana, wandered around these huge bathing ponds at the far end of the park where at different times, Devadatta, King Virudhaka and a woman who accused the Buddha of sexual misconduct, all supposedly fell directly into hell. After prayers and a few photos, I headed over to the Mahabodhi Society for a fruit and yogurt breakfast.
After lunch, I met with the pilgrimage group who were convening on the new piece of land west of town, a half mile from the blacktop in an open field of mustard greens. The Khenpos recently acquired this property and will eventually construct a stupa and temple here. Over a period of several hours, we managed to dig large holes in each of the four corners of the rectangular shaped field as local workers hauled bricks to begin building a wall around the perimeter. Khenpo Tsewang explained that if you don't build a good wall around your holdings in India, the borders gradually move inward, year by year. Khenpo Palden marked the dirt in the bottom of each hole with the imprint of a large double-dorje before we threw in cow dung, chanted prayers and planted poles with prayer flags in all four corners. We walked clockwise from point to point until the job was completed. In the northern end of the field, Khenpo Palden pointed to the northeast and explained; if we were standing on a five story building and looking in that direction, we could see the Himalayas. For a few moments, he silently gazed off into the direction where he was born. We were standing less than 150 miles (as the crow flies) from the actual border of Tibet.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Sudhata, an aristocratic merchant from Sravasti, who seemed to be something of a natural bodhisattva. His people called him Anathapindada, which means 'the one who cares for the poor and abandoned'. One day he was passing through Rajagaha on business and staying at his brother-in-law's house when he became aware that the entire household was preparing for some momentous occasion. He wondered what could be the reason for all the activity and figured they must be preparing for the arrival of someone such as King Bimbisara, Ruler of all Magadha. When he asked, it was explained that they were actually preparing to welcome the Buddha.
"Doesn't that term refer to one who is awake?"
"Yes, it does," his brother-in-law replied,"and you'll have a chance to meet him tomorrow."
Anathapindada felt extraordinarily happy about this, even before inquiring any further. When his sister told him of the marvellous qualities of the Buddha, he was delighted. From the moment Anathapindada heard the Buddha's name, he could not stop thinking about him. He stayed awake the whole night. First thing in the morning, he made his way to the Buddhaâs seat to ask the Blessed One if he would come to Kosala to give teachings. With a silent gesture, the Buddha sent Sariputra to go along with Anathapindada to make preparations for the sangha to spend some time in Sravasti.
Located at the juncture of three important trade routes, the city of Sravasti was the capital of Kosala. Featuring high walls with towers, this was the fertile domain of King Prasenajit. Over 50,000 households lay within its precints, and just as today, wheat fields surrounded the town. The impermanence of all things is made evident through hearing that by the 5th century there were only two hundred inhabitants here and like today, the once great city has again became a mere village. By the 7th century, hundreds of surrounding monasteries were in ruins although Buddhist monks appear to have occupied certain buildings in Jetavana Grove until the middle of the 12th century.
The land originally belonged to King Prasenajit's younger brother Jeta who refused to sell the beautiful park to Anathapindada. The matter was soon taken to court where Jeta agreed to sell on the condition that Anathapindada would offer him as many gold pieces as it took to cover the entire park. Anathapindada started hauling in ox-carts full of gold coins and managed to cover about two thirds of the acreage before Prince Jeta, moved by the quality of Anathapindada's devotion, decided that he would retain the remainder so he himself could build a shrine and offer it to the Buddha. Anathapindada and Sariputra began laying out measurements for the first buildings. When the monastery was completed, the Master and his retinue were invited. As the Enlightened One entered the city gates, many people were miraculously healed. The blind could see, the deaf could hear. Afterward, the Buddha named the park in honor of the Prince, and Jeta was so moved by this that he ornamented the shrine with all types of precious substances.
Of course, the King soon visited the Buddha in Jeta's Grove to evaluate things for himself. He wondered how anyone so young and so recently in the world could claim to be enlightened when even the most renowned holy men did not consider themselves in this way. The Buddha replied that there are four things not to be taken lightly simply because they are young: a royal prince, fire, a serpent, and a disciple of the Buddha. Both Prasenajit and his wife, Queen Mallika, became devoted patrons of the Sangha.
Sravasti is the site of the Great Miracles performed by Buddha Shakyamuni. The story goes that when a grave epidemic swept through Magadha, the wealthy Licchavi family had sought out the most powerful magicians and healers from across the continent to bring these sufferings to an end. They had also heard about the Buddha, who had just recently awakened and sent their messengers to request his presence. The Buddha complied by sending Ananda ahead with instructions to repeat certain mantras. By the time the Buddha rendezvoused with Ananda in Vaisali, the epidemic was over. For the rest of his life, the Buddha and his teachings were always well recieved by the Licchavis. The six ascetics who had been unsuccessful in ending the epidemic felt that this incident threatened their reputations. So they challenged Shakyamuni to a public exhibition of logic and magical powers. When the King of Magadha, Bimbisara heard this, he wondered just what the Buddha would do.
"If they manifest magical phenomena, I will do the same," said the Awakened One. This surprised the King who asked, "Have you not forbidden the performance of miracles?"
"Great King, I did not create this precept for myself; it was intended for my disciples."
Buddha accepted their challenge and agreed to meet the six ascetics in the shade of a mango tree in Sravasti. King Prasenajit, who had become a great patron of the Sangha, was very excited, and had a great hall built for the event. Apparently insecure about the outcome of the contest, the logician - magicians had all the mango trees in Sravasti cut down. No matter; when the Buddha arrived, he simply cast a mango seed on the ground and instantly a great tree arose which shaded the hall, while he explained the logical flaws in their doctrines. Personally, I would have thought that would be sufficient to settle any doubts about the Buddha's abilities, but apparently not, as he went on to levitate in the air at the height of a palm tree while flames twisted around his lower body and 500 jets of water shot from the upper part. Then he reversed the effects and had the flames shoot downwards while water sprayed skyward before transforming his body into a bull with a quivering hump. He appeared above the eastern horizon before vanishing and reappearing far to the west. Vanishing in the west, the bull reappeared in the north, etc., After displaying twenty-two variants of these 'pairs', the Lion of the Shakyas appeared as if strolling nonchalantly along a jeweled boardwalk in the sky. Then he seated himself upon a lotus and multiplied his form to infinity so that it filled all of space. Thousands of people witnessed this display and became ecstatic.
Jetavana Grove is said to be as 'level as the palm of one's hand'. I found it to be the most attractive of all the sites we visited on our circuit for many reasons. Primarily, because it was very peaceful, and the park itself, unlike some of the other sites, has the feel of a sanctuary. The town is still small and the drive for the tourist dollar has not infected the locals here the way it has at other locations. It is far enough off the beaten track that there has not been much cause for development. But that is probably changing as I write. In 1996 the entire area around Jetavana was surrounded by acres of undisturbed mounds which are believed to contain many kinds of ruins, primarily of monastic origin. The Blessed One spent 23 rainy seasons here, in the Gandhakuti Vihara, the Hall of Fragrance, his Residence Temple, where one can see the stabilized remnants of lower walls of the actual building the Buddha is believed to have occupied when in residence here. Many teachings were given in this place. Three quarters of the sutras preserved in the Pali Canon and 1O2 sutras preserved in Tibetan translations were delivered in this tranquil little park. This photo shows what may well be the remains of the shrine offered to the Buddha by Prince Jeta.
At the end of the day, we lit hundreds of candles and placed them around the entire edge of the structure, chanted Mipham's Liturgy of the Buddha and made prayers to Amitayus, the Buddha of Long Life. Khenchen Palden explained that the Buddha had given teachings on Amitayus here in the Jetavana Grove. He also noted that Sravasti, being the site of Buddha's miraculous activities, is associated with the phurba or mystic dagger carried by many Tibetan yogis.
Namo Buddha Amitayus
Amitayus, liberator of all sentient beings
destroyer of death and all obstacles to the force of life
sole protector of all suffering sentient beings
I pay homage to Buddha Amitayus
By this virtue
May I quicky achieve Buddha Amitayus
And may all sentient beings without exception
Attain his glorious state
The sky darkened and the candles burned low. When we finally moved to depart, it was discovered we'd been locked into the park and had to find the gatekeeper to let us out. We were also informed that the Sri Lankan Temple would not be able to feed us this evening, so again, I headed off into the dark in search of peasant fare. The Russian boys had no desire to follow me down the dark streets of unelectrified Sravasti, so I took off alone, knowing from experience that you cannot see the little stalls until you are virtually upon them; due to the style of their construction, nothing would be visible looking down the length of a road. I soon came upon a small booth with a candle where I bought the last three somosas and was generously offered a few handfuls of crumbs before another young man showed up and led me to lentils, chapatis and better chai. Most of my gringo compadres were not as fortunate in their foraging that evening.
Sunday, February 25, 1996
I entered the park early again and hid among the scrub surrounding some partially excavated ruins on the southern edge of the grounds to do my morning practice. By ten we were all back on the bus and riding through Maheth, the ancient section of Sravasti, which is largely abandoned and overgrown although some of the original high walls surrounding the old city are still visible. We stopped and offered prayers at the stupa commemorating the miracles as well as the cave of Angulamilya, the ritual murderer who was converted by the Buddha in the midst of an attempt to kill the Blessed One. Although he was afflicted by his past karma, Angulamilya persisted and became an arhat.
Sources used for information on this page:
Holy Places of the Buddha, research and preparation by Elizabeth Cook, edited by Tarthang Tulku, Crystal Mirror Series Volume 9, Dharma Publishing, 1994
Light of Liberation, a history of Buddhism in India, compiled by Yeshe De and edited by Elizabeth Cook, series edited by Tarthang Tulku, Crystal Mirror Series Volume 8, Dharma Publishing, 1992
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