We are now in Rajgir, India. Internet access has been sparse on this trip. However, here at the Indo-Hokke Hotel we have pretty good WiFi for the next couple of days. Of course we’re thrilled.
When we last wrote, we had just arrived in Sravasti…
Day 5: Sravasti was once the large and wealthy capital of the Kingdom of Kosala. The Buddha spent 24 rainy seasons here at the Jetavana Monastery, and it served as his main centre. Today, most of the original land remains buried under the surrounding fields, and just a small area has been excavated. The main focus of our visit here is the Jetavana archeological park.
Early on our first morning in Sravasti, we went to visit the Jetavana ruins. It’s a lovely park that is well maintained. Here you can see the remains of the temple built over the Buddha’s original meditation hut. Each day fresh flowers are spread on the platform that marks the spot, and it’s known as the Fragarant Hut. It smells beautiful.
There is also a lovely old Bodhi Tree that legend says was planted by Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant. Whether it’s the original tree or not doesn’t seem to matter to the many monks sitting beneath it, chanting or meditating.
We are here in Sravasti before the busy season (October to March), so there were not many people in the park. Still, as we watch a large group of Sri Lankan pilgrims listening to the discourses of a monk as they move from place to place, sitting and chanting at various sites, and seeing monks meditating here and there near various temple ruins or under the Ananda Bodhi tree, we can imagine the thousands of people who came here to learn the Buddha’s teaching in his time.
After a couple of hours in the park, the sun had started blazing and we were cooking rapidly. It was not even 11:00 AM. We exited the park and returned to our car. Our driver strongly suggested going back to the hotel until 4 PM because it was a very hot day (even for him), with the mercury headed close to 40 C. We asked to make one stop first, to visit the local Vipassana Centre. When we pulled up, however, we were surprised to see the Centre’s entrance road and gate under a few feet of water. The late monsoon downpours that drowned Nepal’s highways also drenched this area of northern India. We couldn’t get close to the entrance to the centre and couldn’t tell if there was anybody there. We decided to call the centre from our hotel to see if it were possible for us to sit the next day.
We returned to our hotel, the only guests, for lunch in our room. We called the Vipassana Centre but the number was out of service, maybe due to the flooding? We gave up the idea of visiting the Centre.
At 4 PM we visited two other sites a couple of kms away. One is the stupa built for Angulimala, one of the most famous disciples of the Buddha. Angulimala was a murderer who had committed himself to killing a thousand people. After encountering the Buddha’s deep compassion, he underwent a radical change, renounced his life of violence, became a devoted disciple of the Buddha and eventually reached his own enlightenment. The other stupa is dedicated to the devoted lay disciple of the Buddha, Anathapindika.
As we approached Angulimala stupa we met our first of what would be many “caretakers” at the ruin sites we visit. A man wearing a white singlet and lungi and carrying a stick approached us as we entered the site. He slapped his chest and exclaimed “I am watchman!” Whether he meant he watched the site or us, we weren’t sure, but he cheerfully led us over the site showing us where to step and where not to step and provided us with the odd bit of information (sometimes very odd). He would periodically shout at boys climbing all over the ruins, or pick up a piece of garbage laying on the stairs, which he dutifully threw over the side onto another part of the ruins. Out of sight, out of mind…
Next he walked us over to the Anathapindika stupa as a bus load of Sri Lankan pilgrims pulled up. He flew off to “watch” them and left us to explore on our own. We met an Indian family that hoisted their baby son into Karen’s arms and struck up a conversation that included an invitation to visit them in their nearby home. Indians are some of the most curious, friendly and hospitable people. Anyone who travels here knows this hospitality well. After the requisite group photo(s), we said goodbye and made our way back to the car, making sure to hand the “watchman” — who had suddenly reappeared next to us — a 10 rupee note for his “service.” Ha.
On the way back to the car, we met an older monk who had been acting as a host to a young Burmese couple, showing them the stupas and explaining things to them. The couple were very respectful of the monk. Another younger monk accompanied him with a camera. As we passed them, Scott respectfully greeted the older monk who immediately said, “Hello!” Scott asked if he was Burmese and he nodded. He asked us where we were from and where we were staying. He told us the Burmese monastery was next to our hotel and we asked if we could visit the next day. He said he would welcome a visit from us. With this invitation we decided we would go to the Burmese monastery to sit the next day given that we were unable to sit for the day at our meditation centre.
Day 6- Because we were alone in the hotel, there would be no buffet breakfast. Instead, the management offered to make us anything we wanted. Excited, we asked if they could make us Karen’s favorite Indian breakfast dish: halva.
After breakfast we headed over to the Burmese monastery to meditate for the morning. The temple was small but cooler than sitting outside in the sun at Jetavana. When we were coming out of the temple, we met with the monk from the evening before. It turns out he is the abbot, and he invited us to have some chai masala, cookies, and fruit. We asked him if he returns to Myanmar often. Thus began a very interesting story…
He came to Sravasti in 1986. He told us he was pretty unhappy here and wished to return home after a couple of years. However he got a nasty shock when he discovered the Indian government had made him a citizen of India (he never applied for such status), and given the military coup in Burma in 1988, he was refused entry back home. He was stranded. He’s been here ever since. He explained that he is unable to leave because there is no one to replace him as head of the monastery, and if he leaves without a replacement, the Indian government will seize the Burmese temple that is located a short distance away within the archeological zone. It was founded by Burmese monks in 1930 and the Indians want it gone. They also don’t like the Chinese temple next door to it. When that temple had no Chinese monks staying there, the Sri Lankans occupied it and claimed it. They’ve been fighting the Chinese over the land ever since. As the Abbot explained, when tourists or pilgrims come to these sites, they see the calm and peaceful atmosphere because they don’t know about much of the conflict that occurs between the various interests competing over these sacred sites. The Indian Archeological Survey and the Maha Bodhi Society have a lot of power and their own particular agenda with respect to the sites. Hindu religious politics are also at play. Then there is the competition and conflict among the various Buddhist traditions that vie for space here. As he told us of these things, it was remarkable to us that he was so accepting of a situation that was obviously very vexing. He longed to return to his home but was unable to. And there was no negativity in his description of the various conflicts, just a factual laying out of the scene. We couldn’t help but think what the Buddha would have made of all of this? He rejected the idea of sectarianism. The Buddha rejected the premise of religion and taught that truth was universal. He was famous for telling disciples not to forsake their former religious teachers, but instead to continue to pay respects while they practiced the Buddha’s teaching. It can be easy to get caught up in the ritual and devotion associated with these sacred places, forgetting that human misery is the same everywhere, regardless of religious tradition.
Day 7 – Today we traveled 270 km from Sravasti to Kushinigar. At home, such a drive would be relatively simple and quite fast. But in India it can take any where from 5 to 6 hours or more depending on so many unpredictable things. This is a crowded place, and India has nowhere near enough highway infrastructure to meet transportation demands. This means the roads are crazy places. We took long stretches along a brand new highway built to address the issue. But along with the mass of freight trucks and cars, the highways are used for walking, driving auto rickshaws, riding bicycles (thousands of them), driving bullock and horse carts, goats, and cows, and dogs line the streets. School children everywhere. We even encountered a hurd of camels. Yes, camels. And in India, if it’s more convenient for someone to drive their truck down the freeway in the opposite direction of traffic they just do it. Makes our journeys much more interesting than simply hurtling down the 401 in Toronto. That’s pretty boring with its lack of vehicular variety.
After a long drive, we arrived in Kushinigar. It was here that the Buddha passed away. It’s a very small place, and there isn’t much to see beyond the stupa that marks his remains (one of the eight original relic stupas) which has had a large concrete structure built over it a few centuries ago. There are quite a few religious pilgrims here, including a large group that was marching around the stupa carrying folded orange robes which they held up to it. Presumably they are carrying these robes here to acquire merits that will be transferred back home to adorn statues of the Buddha at various places.
We watched all of this with curiosity and were reminded that many people simply engaged in ritual worship of the Buddha even while he was alive. But he constantly reminded people that the path is a practical one, not a mystical one. His final words before he died reminded disciples to depend on nothing else beyond our own effort; that there is only one way to peace and real happiness — practicing Sila, moral conduct, Samadhi, mastery over our undisciplined minds through which we can develop Panna, our insight and wisdom through meditation. Nothing else can free us. No amount of ritual or prayer will liberate us from our suffering – we must walk the path ourselves. And that takes practice. There is no way around it. No shortcuts.
Day 8 – We drove to Patna, the capital city of Bihar and the ancient city of Pataliputra. One the way we visited Vesali and the ruin of one of the eight relic stupas. Vesali has little to recommend it given the effort to get there. But we very much liked the rough relic stupa (or what remains of it). In excavations in 1958, a small stone casket was found buried in the centre of the stupa containing bones and a few beads and shells. The Emperor Ashoka had opened this stupa to remove some of the relics for redistribution to other sites. The casket dates from the Ashokan period.
Because we have the luxury of traveling in our own vehicle, we get off the main roads and venture to some out-of-the-way sites that are located in remote villages. These villages look pretty much the same as they would have 2500 years ago. No joke. People living in mud houses with thatched roofs, growing rice and living off a few water buffaloes, goats and chickens. Many still use bullock carts to get around. We got stared at a lot as we passed through.
After traveling slowly along the dirt roads that led through these rural villages, we came to a place known as Kesariya, at one time one of the largest stupas in the world. Archeologists believe this is the prototype for the massive Borobudur Temple on the island of Java in Indonesia. Half the giant stupa remains covered. From one side the site looks like a tree covered hill. The other half is an excavated multi-tiered stupa.
We entered the site and one of the “watchmen” rushed to our side. He followed us half-way around the giant stupa until a different “watchman” showed up. They exchanged a few words in Hindi and our new escort (this one in a tattered brown uniform) continued to follow us. Not two minutes later yet another “watchman” arrived, someone more senior, and he took over from our most recent “watchman.” Once we arrived back at the entrance, a hand went out with a smile. We forked over a 10 rupee note to him and to our original, non-uniformed “watchman.” We were confident they would all sort it out.
Day 9 – We headed next to Rajgir, the ancient capital of Magadha, the home of one of the Buddha’s most devoted royal disciples, King Bimbisara and his son Ajatasatru. The site we’re most interested in here is the Vulture Peak. On the way to Rajgir, we visited the ancient ruins of Nalanda University, at one time one of the largest monastic universities in the world, with 10 000 monks in residence. This place is definitely worth visiting. We took up the services of an elderly guide named Prasad. He had a lot of information to share about Nalanda, and though he walked very slowly due to obvious difficulty with his hips, he was very kind. We liked him a lot.
Day 10 – Rajgir is one of our favourite sites so far. There is a lot to explore here for those interested in the life of the Buddha. Today we went to the Vulture Peak, a place where the Buddha meditated frequently and the site of many of his great discourses. The walk up to the site is along a stone stairway past a Hindu temple (there is a Hindu temple near almost every Buddha site) that winds up a mountain side. After a half hour of climbing we were sweating profusely. It was only 9 AM, but already the heat was incredible. We paused when we reached a small platform outside a cave site that a group of Tibetan monks was using to eat their breakfast. We greeted them and asked the head monk if this was the cave known as the location where Ananda achieved enlightenment. He smiled gently and nodded, “Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows?” We laughed slightly and Scott said, “Maybe it’s better if we just choose to believe this is the place?” He laughed warmly and said, “Yes. Maybe it’s better for one’s inspiration.” It’s a theme repeating itself for us on this trip… These sites should serve to inspire you to practice, they don’t have special, magical properties in and of themselves. But humans have such a powerful habit, always searching outside of ourselves for something special.
We looked inside the cave for a few minutes and were surprised to meet a cow and a dog sleeping together in the cave. They looked quite content so we didn’t evict them.
Back on the platform, the monk very kindly offered us some Tsampa to eat. He proceeded to ask us questions and we spoke to him for a while. He was a teacher (monk) who lived in Dharamsala for 30 years until he retired recently to Deradhun. He seemed quite aware that the legend of these sites often outstripped what could reasonably be construed by common sense. But he accepted the fact that inspiration was the goal here, not verification. We continued on our way up the stairs to the next cave, one that they say was the meditation cave of Sariputta another of the Buddha’s great disciples. We paused for a few minutes, then made our final way to the top. It was a special place. Quite peaceful and the view of the surrounding hills was amazing. We found a shaded spot to rest and meditate for a while. Then we snapped a few photos and made our way back to Mata and our car.
Day 11 – Another day in Rajgir. Today we visited the Sotapanni Cave, reputed to be the location of the very first Council that met following the Buddha’s death in order to codify the teachings and preserve them for posterity. It is said that 500 of the Buddha’s disciples, those who had achieved final enlightenment, met here for three months to recite the teachings and the discipline. Learning from our experience of the heat the day before, we left for our visit at 7 AM in an effort to avoid the heat. Fat chance. By 8:00 AM we were half way up the side of a mountain on our way to the cave and we felt like we’d been put inside a convection oven. India is hot.
When we arrived at the penultimate stop before our final destination, a large Jain temple, we were met by a throng of school children and an Indian couple who called out to us. They struck up a conversation with us and then asked for a photo. The one photo turned into many as everyone in the crowd took turns posing with us. A few minutes later we were pointed in the right direction by the Jain priest who pointed down a stone path and said, “Satraparni 65 down.” We got the gist of what he meant.Within a few minutes we rounded a corner on the shaded side of the mountain and discovered the cave. It’d be a very tight squeeze for 500 monks to hold a council meeting here but, who knows, maybe people were smaller back then… After all, monks only ate one meal a day.
We spent an hour or so there taking in the magnificent views and meditating for a while. It was quiet and we were alone. When we finally start back down the mountain we were totally alone but for the remaining Jain priests at the two small temples along the way. Indians, smarter than we are, have wisely abandoned the hill during the heat. We follow their example and head back to our air-conditioned hotel room.
Tomorrow we leave Rajgir and head to the most famous place in the world for Buddhists — Bodh Gaya…