During the first three months of 2004, an Indian man named Manu was part of the winter retreat support crew. I had been ordained for one Rains Retreat at the time and Manu had become a good friend over the past year. A newly ordained bhikkhu understands that he has made a five year commitment to the training under his teachers. After this, if his teachers think he is ready, he can go to other monasteries, study under other teachers, go on pilgrimage, in short, spread his wings. I was talking with Manu one day and said, “I really don’t know if I’ll make it to five years. That’s a really long time.”
“Well Tan Ñāniko, if you make it to five years I’ll invite you to India.”
“That’s way off in the future, how can you make an invitation like that now?” And thus it came about. In late 2006 I asked Manu if his invitation still stood and in 2007 we planned a two-month journey, my post-five-vassa wing-spreading. Manu happened to be experiencing some difficulties in his life; it was the right time to go. We travelled across India together, and the experience was as new for Manu, who had never “roughed it” before, as it was for me.
There were two levels to the journey: one was the basic act of traveling to different places. The other more profound level was that of friends looking out for each other, letting go of selfishness. The fact that the various pilgrimage places exist allowed this to happen. We travelled to ancient cave monasteries in Ajanta and Ellora, beheld the relics of Sariputta and Maha-Mogallana at Sanchi, walked in the Deer Park at Benares, paid our respects to the
Tree of Enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, saw the Buddha’s hut on Vulture Peak, and strolled the ancient ruins of Nalanda. Many hours were spent on trains, buses, and motorized rickshaws. The extremes of India surrounded us and washed through us. A detailed travelogue would be too much to fit into a single article, so the following are just a few reflections and observations.
The first thing that struck me in India was the traffic. After only a few days I learned the rules: A honk means you want to pass. If someone is about to hit you head on, flash your lights. Never drive defensively. The Indian driving style, I would learn, is a reflection of the culture. But how to describe this? Anyone who has been to India will know what I’m talking about, but it’s so hard to put into words. Everything is extreme, but also subtle. The criticism is extreme, but the praise is also extreme. Wherever people place their faith, they place it in an extreme way. The sickness, aging and death is right there in front of you. Life…it throbs here.
I got acclimated in Dehra Dun, a town in the Himalayan foothills, where Manu lives with his mother and the Nepali servant, Bhadur. I couldn’t speak much with Manu’s mother because she is hard of hearing and there’s a language barrier. One night, though, she wanted to question me, and Manu translated. She asked various meaningful questions about the Holy Life and was satisfied with my answers. She proceeded to give me encouragement: “You eat only between dawn and noon. You don’t use money. You are a very pious person, cultivating kindness. You live the brahmacariya (celibate life). Ordinary people find these things extremely difficult to do. Your parents are very supportive of you. You obviously have made a commitment to the training, having lived this way for over five years now. It takes a long time. Please be patient with yourself. If you don’t leave the training, you are bound to reach whatever goals you set for yourself. I am happy to have you here and think of you as I would my own son.” I found this encouragement very useful, since I am someone who habitually doubts myself.
We “sealed” the pilgrimage at Mindroling Monastery in Dehra Dun. Soon after I arrived Manu drove me there, and we circled a huge standing golden Buddha three times, turning prayer wheels and making aspirations. Manu was having some health problems, back pain in particular, so he determined that his health might stabilize by the power of pilgrimage. After traveling we went back to Mindroling and reaffirmed the aspirations.
Even before coming to India I had a desire to go alms round in some poor villages. I got this opportunity first in Sanchi then later in Bodh Gaya. My impression is that resident Buddhist monastics in these areas tend to not go almsround, at least not in the villages. Most of the monastics use money and there’s no need to go alms round. The villagers in Sanchi didn’t know how to react to my walking through the village but Manu was with me and explained to them what I was doing. One by one they came out with chapatis, fruits, steamed vegetables and biscuits. I went back the next day. In Bodh Gaya I did the alms round alone and the village children took me to their parents’ houses, ensuring that I got plenty to eat. One mother told her son, “It is a rare opportunity to give to a samana.”
The cave monasteries at Ellora affected me deeply. Huge monasteries and temples carved into solid rock provided shelter for real Buddhist monks in ancient times. The weather was not too hot or cold, with a slight breeze. The caves are located a few miles from the nearest town, with a waterfall cascading over one section and down into a gurgling forest stream. When I looked into one of the monk’s quarters (a small room carved into the rocks which contained a stone bed, complete with a stone “pillow” shaped on top of it), a saying of the Buddha came to my mind: “Secluded dwelling places frequented by cool breezes, these I praise.”
Due to an auspicious coincidence, the last day of our five-day stay at Sanchi was the one day of the year that the relics of Sariputta and Maha-Mogallana were put on display. Any difficulties while traveling, putting up with cold, heat, smells and discomfort became worth it, to gaze upon the real remains of the two great disciples.
Ajahn Jayasaro had told me to expect to get sick in the first week or two in India, but I had a delayed reaction. After a month in India I fell ill, and it was caused by my own foolishness. I had eaten some tamarind syrup, kept as a seven day tonic, but it had gone off after a few days. I ate a bit of the syrup one evening in Bodh Gaya, and by the next morning I was throwing up violently and had a fever. This went on for the whole day, and after that was recovery: lots of sleep, very little food (the stomach was too weak to hold very much), bananas and electrolyte solution. The food, at this point, seemed to be my enemy. On the day of my sickness I ate some rice which was full of sand, and the next day I discovered rat feces floating in my cup of tea. “Can you let go of that one, Tan Ñāniko?” Manu had asked. Sickness can wake people up. It can say, “slow down, be more careful.”
I had planned on doing a three-day walk from Bodh Gaya to Rajgir, but had to cancel it due to the illness. I had sorely wanted to do this walk and was distressed that it wasn’t going to happen. I was also unhappy that Manu and I had some rough moments in the past weeks. Now, my intention of going to India “to help out a friend” had become unclear and I was seeking answers. One evening after a quick cup-o-chai and watching two boys play soccer with an old sandal, I went again to the Maha Bodhi Temple, feeling lost. I did my usual three circles around the temple and tried to think of a way to ask the Buddha for advice concerning my own practice. I went to one of the stone-cut temple shrine rooms and sat.
I tried to formulate somewhat of a clear intention: “My standard of practice is low these days, and the mind is not clear. If, Buddha, you are present here, please give advice for my situation.” Right then, as if on cue, Manu came in to that room, bowed, and left. The answer was clear: My duty at this time is to learn how to be there for another person, to forget myself and be present for others. My job is to have no my way. A feeling of coolness arose along with a subtle kind of happiness and expansiveness.
The journey reached a climax for Manu when we visited the Buddha’s hut on Vulture’s Peak. Apart from Ajanta and Ellora, this was the only place we visited that was surrounded by wilderness. One could imagine the Buddha going for alms in Rajagaha then mindfully ascending Vulture’s Peak to his hut and quietly taking his meal. Then he would enter seclusion for the afternoon. The place was so powerful for Manu and, as I circumambulated the hut and did my bows, his tears flowed.
After twenty-five days of traveling and surviving, we’d had enough and returned to New Delhi, then to Dehra Dun. This gave a fortnight of downtime before my return to the US. Time to compile notes and digest things.
I could say so much more about each place, how we made a connection with some very special people in Sarnath, how there was so much sincerity of heart coming from the monastics in Bodh Gaya. I could say so much about the experiences in the train stations and on the trains, about how I got yelled at by a man in Benares, about how the servants at the rest house in Sarnath thought I was some highly accomplished yogi and had so much faith that the tears flowed down their faces. I could say so much more but it seemed that the whole point of the journey was not the adventure of going to many places, but to let go of my way of doing things. That was the real lesson I learned this time. And my gratitude for Manu sponsoring me on this trip is endless. He didn’t really know what he was getting in to, and reflecting back after the end of the journey, he said he was so glad that he didn’t decide to back out of it, and glad that he has a friend in the robes.
Ajahn Ñāniko currently resides at Abhayagiri.