I was born into a Jewish family on Christmas day, a fact that attracted a lot of attention from both gentile and non-gentile schoolmates in my early years. My parents, both gone more than two decades ago, got a kick out of the timing of my nativity as well. As I flew out of Toronto ‘s new Terminal One en route to New Delhi , I thought of my parents, my old schoolmates and my birthday. In the intervening years since December 25, 1949 , I have transformed from a Jew with a quirky birth date into a teacher of Buddhist meditation.
Guru means spiritual friend. Lama means teacher. Those of us who have connected with trustworthy beings willing to fulfill these roles have a choice: act on their advice and learn quickly, or ignore their advice and learn the hard way, by trial and error.
Some thirty years ago I started taking advice and have not regretted it. But sometimes the suggestions are surprising. A while back my betters told me to start teaching others. At the time it was a leap, since I thought of myself as a perpetual student. But I took up the job and, in the process, surprised friends, business associates and family.
I was taken aback once more when not one, but two of the senior Lamas in my lineage suggested last year that I to go to India to personally experience the sites where the historical Buddha lived, studied, achieved his awakening and taught. It was an effort to find the money and time away from ongoing obligations, but early in September of 2004 I found myself aboard a flight to India.
My flight was timed to coincide with the arrival of twelve other pilgrims travelling with our teacher from South Africa. The midnight rendezvous at Delhi airport happened as planned – the first of many smooth transitions. Within an hour we were headed to a hotel to pass the night.
Inside the hotel room, the marble bath and the swishy accoutrements were a stark contrast to the rough accommodations of the labourers camped out with their families on the meridians of the highway outside. (On our way to the hotel, at least one of the scrawny bodies curled up on the side of road had looked dead, rather than asleep.)
Inside, an air conditioner filtered out the scent of New Delhi, which has been described as a mixture of three thousand years of curry, death and enlightenment. An ancient expression sums up the nation’s horrible, endemic poverty: “There is no hell – just India.” The process of integrating the extreme social, emotional, and spiritual juxtapositions that are India had begun.
Strange though the transition would be, it was mitigated repeatedly by good luck and kindness. Our very able guide, for example, was a gem. Namgil spoke several languages and his thoroughness and friendliness smoothed our way all across India. During the time we spent together, it became endearingly obvious that he took great pleasure hosting a couple of Western Lamas and their students around the ancient sites.
We spent the next day in Delhi, but interesting as it was, it wasn’t big cities I had come to see. Early the following morning, we took a chartered a flight to Minali, a modest town a few thousand feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas. There we passed a quiet day beginning our altitude acclimatization. Innocent that I was, I had no concept of what was coming.
The next morning we gamely boarded a convoy of diesel jeeps and began the long ascent into the mountains. The roads across the escarpments and through the passes were mostly just one vehicle wide, carved by hammer and chisel from the unforgiving granite. And they were virtually empty, except for occasional, carnival-bright transport trucks. Encountering one of these vehicles involved microscopically precise maneuvers, sometimes with tires half on and half off the edge of the roadway. Our view typically was straight up the rock on one side, and straight down a gorge on the other, often thousands of feet in both directions.
The drivers were young and absolutely at ease behind the wheel. Our Western constitutions however, were not well suited to the fearsome height, the relentless jostling, the dust, the diesel fumes and the unfamiliar microorganisms just starting to colonize our digestive tracts. At first I was pleased that none of this was particularly troublesome to me. This changed around the 11,000-foot mark.
We exist on the prairies more or less at sea level. The air is thick with oxygen and we breathe easy with the expectation of endless energy. This was not the case in the Himalayas. My altitude sickness was a preview of old-age: shortness of breath, weakness in the legs, heart palpitations, nausea, aches and pains, relentless thirst and relentless urination.
Thirty hours in the jeeps plus a long night spent in a camp at 17,500 feet constituted the most arduous physical ordeal I have ever experienced. It took all the yogic control I could muster to stay mentally stable.
But enough of all that. The landscape was spectacular, lunar, exotic, soaring. Along the way my teacher pointed out a cave, just visible below the snow line, where he thought I might have spent a previous incarnation. Seemed reasonable to me.
Three days later we all made it to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, a Buddhist enclave nestled in the mountains. Leh is a market town with a spiritual spin. There, we shopped for hard-to-obtain ritual objects. Haggling was the rule in the shops with Indian proprietors. At the shops owned by Ladakhis and Tibetans, bargaining was not possible; in fact, the storekeepers were offended at the idea.
Leh was our staging point for excursions to several ancient monasteries and temples. Due to my altitude-related setback, I decided to forgo a two-day hike and recuperate. After some rest, I mustered my resources and hired a jeep to make a journey to a special location.
Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, brought Buddhism to Tibet. Many call him the second Buddha. About an hour north of Leh, Tashtok Monastary is built around one of Guru Rinpoche’s meditation caves.
When I arrived, I left my driver at the base of a steep stairway leading to the monastery. I inched my way up the incline, passed a stolid water buffalo immobile on the path and eventually reached the cave entrance. It was padlocked, but I rousted a monk who fetched an ornate old key.
I was able to meditate inside the cave for twenty minutes as the monk swept the outer vestibule with a broom made of twigs.
There are many kinds of meditators, but we all fit into two general categories: wet, and dry. The wet types have “psychedelic experiences.” I am a dry type. For me, things change – but subtly. Even so, I truly enjoyed my time sitting where Guru Rinpoche himself once sat. The emotional tone that arose was a wide, thoroughgoing optimism, underscored by something powerful, but unquestionably wholesome.
It felt like home. I made my way back to the jeep, sick as a dog, but happy as a clam.
Our next stop was Bodhgaya, the site of a giant pagoda – called the Mahabodhi Stupa – erected on the spot where the Buddha completed his investigation of consciousness and achieved his complete awakening.
Our second class accommodations on the night train from Delhi to Bodhgaya (also known as Gaya) were spartan, but sufficient. The view from the window was a luscious agrarian pastoral, interrupted periodically by the railside squalor of impoverished towns and villages.
As evening faded into purple night, we converted our wooden benches into bunks and settled in under heavy white sheets that I could swear were purloined from the CNR. The clack of steel wheels on steel rails sounded comfortingly Canadian as well – only the admixture of fragrances, some lovely, some not so lovely, located us many thousands of miles from home.
Our early arrival in Gaya proved an eye-opener. It was 5:00 am and a seamless crust of restless people slept and squatted and ate and bought and sold all manner of things across every square inch of platform, station, and the surrounding cement apron. We boarded our bus through a crowd of beggars.
A half-hour journey along unpaved roads lined on each side by sleeping humans and animals brought us to our hotel. We took it easy for a few hours before mounting a crazy rickshaw charge through aggressive crowds to the Mahabodhi Stupa compound.
There are not many Buddhists in the world, perhaps 400 million. Only a tiny fraction of them live in India; yet the historical sites are protected and respectfully maintained. Even in our stridently secular age, the places where the Buddha once walked are relatively quiet. The contrast to the grinding, intense activity of the rest of the country is delightful. Nowhere is this more true than at Gaya.
Outside the Stupa grounds, Gaya is a circus, a wild, vulgar circus. Mangy dogs and noisy beggars compete with hawkers forcefully offering gawdy religious trinkets. This scene orbits a less noisy army of dewy-eyed Buddhist tourists, uniformly middle-class, from every corner of the world. Interspersed among the chattering tourists is a reserved crowd of orange, burgundy and yellow-clad monks.
What the Buddha taught was not a belief system, but a system of mental techniques intended to lead to an understanding of the nature of consciousness. Over the ages there was a bifurcation: practitioners on the one hand and devotional types on the other. At the foot of the Mahabodhi Stupa (maha: ultimate; bodhi: liberation), these two groups are distinguished by sound level; practitioners are quiet, believers are not.
Even so, the scene is muted in comparison to the street. And the muting intensifies in a magical way as one draws nearer to the shrine.
At the foot of the Stupa, the term quiet does not apply to sound only: the noisy psychic milieu that we all take for granted attenuates automatically as one nears the spot where great concentration wrought great accomplishment three millennia ago.
Before he died, the Buddha instructed his followers not to make images in his likeness. He told them instead to erect a stupa, or pagoda. Now tens of thousands of spiky, conical structures populate the landscapes of Buddhist countries. Each of them is said to be a radiator of elevated consciousness.
The Mahabodhi Stupa is the progenitor of all of these. It has grown to enormous proportions over the centuries, as bigger and bigger structures have been built on the same spot – each new pagoda encompassing the one before, like Russian dolls with psychic powers.
Adjacent to the Mahabodhi Stupa is a fenced area. Inside is a descendant of the tree under which the Buddha sat. “I will not move from this spot until I understand the cause and the cessation of suffering,” he is said to have declared.
Inside the Stupa there are two shrine rooms, one below the other, one much older than the other. Inside the older shrine it is truly quiet.
Stepping away from the Stupa compound was a shock. We had travelled from the hotel in rickshaws, because anything larger would be dangerous to life, human or bovine, on the teeming streets. Within a second or two outside the gates this chaos was forcefully reinstalled in our eloquently tranquilized minds.
After the sublime Stupa, we made an excursion through the countryside to a cave the Buddha had inhabited for six years while undertaking yogic austerities. At the time he began his investigations, many spiritual methodologies were well known to serious seekers. Most of these involved subjugations of the body, a prerequisite, it then was thought, for spiritual insight.
A thousand feet below the cave it was hot, perhaps 35 °C. Gaining even this modest summit would require subjugation of my own reluctant body. On the way up, I also learned something about the nature of poverty, at least in this region of India.
Most of my companions were about half my age and had zipped up the hill ahead of me. Still depleted by the altitude effect, I laboured my way upward surrounded by perhaps thirty beggars of various ages, genders and degrees of physical deformity.
Everywhere in India, the arrival of Westerners attracts these low-end entrepreneurs. Westerners are seen to be godlike in our wealth and power. And so we are pursued for gifts of cash. Since this particular god was moving at a glacial pace, the supplicants focused on what they thought would be an easy mark. These beggars beggared me in physical prowess. Some did not have the use of their legs; some were women a decade or two older than me; a giddy hysteria enveloped them all as they skipped around me tugging at my sleeve and chanting their need.
I was fully occupied with the hill and, breathing heavily, had lost the ability to speak. The simple truth was that this sweaty god had a lot less energy then these oh-so persistent beggars. It struck me that what they lacked was not energy, but imagination and opportunity.
After a break for lunch some of us took another side trip, again by rickshaw. On the occasional hill the largest of us well-fed foreigners had to step off and walk (my driver was about one-third my size). Eventually we disembarked, then walked a mile or so on mud tracks between rice paddies, trailed by curious children to a simple shrine where brightly painted plaster figures sat ensconced inside a whitewashed shelter.
This was the spot, the sign said, where the Buddha finally broke off his austerities. By taking food from a compassionate milkmaid, he embarked on “the middle way,” the ardent pursuit of awakening from a position of health, rather than deprivation. It felt right that children had followed us to this spot where the master meditator had made a fresh, new start.
After Gaya, we travelled by day train to Varanasi, said to be the oldest city in the world. Varanasi is the prime destination for Hindu pilgrims who enthusiastically bathe at sunrise on the ghats, or stone stairs, that lead into the Ganges River. We took an early boat tour to observe these devotees – men, women, children and yogis, all completely uninhibited in their ablutions – all the while pursued by insistent vendors in boats. But these merchant mariners declined to follow us upstream past the burning ghats where, one after another after another, dead bodies were being cremated on great piles of smoldering wood.
To die in Varanasi is considered a path to Moksha, the Hindu version of liberation. Believers come here to die. After each incineration, the ashes are pushed into the river, the same river in which purification rituals are going on just a few feet upstream. Mind over matter, or maybe magic over mind.
Varanasi was interesting, just as New Delhi was interesting. But I was eager to get to Sarnath, a short bus-ride away. At Sarnath, the Buddha gave his first teaching.
The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths delineate the nature of human suffering, the cause of human suffering, the remedy for human suffering and the method by which that remedy can be implemented.
At the Sarnath shrine there is another tree, a descendant of a cutting taken from the original bodhi tree at Bodhgaya where the Buddha sat until he attained his enlightenment. The tree is surrounded by black polished marble slabs. The Four Noble Truths are carved into these slabs in all the major languages of the world.
A short distance from the shrine at Sarnath is a beautiful archaeological site, known in the Buddha’s time as The Deer Park. Here are the remains of the ancient monastery where the Buddha retreated during the rainy seasons, teaching and meditating. Now the place is a grassy field, populated with a few graceful trees and entirely devoid of modern structures. Barely visible are the remnants of very ancient brick foundations and a big stone stupa, built by the Buddhist king Ashoka in the third century B.C. When we visited, the place was absolutely empty of people and pervaded by a refreshing quiet.
Three signal elements combined to make this pilgrimage a significant journey for me. First, the sheer physical effort of travelling in India. Second, the seeming impossibility of negotiating a benign path through the destitution of the endless poor. The third element, the one that hints at transcendence, is the vibrational condition of the Buddhist sites.
Each place has its own mental flavour. At the mountain cave where the Buddha spent years practising austerities, the vibration is unrelentingly clear and sharp. Bodhgaya, where the Buddha awoke, reminded me of elephants and the powerful super-low-frequency vocalizations with which they communicate. At Varanasi, where the Buddha gave his first instructional discourse, the feeling was light, joyful, hopeful. At Guru Rinpoche’s cave in Tashtok, the vibration was irresistibly wholesome and expansive – a living indicator of the momentum that would ultimately carry the Buddha’s teaching around the planet to reinvigorate the desiccated Western mind.
And at The Deer Park: a deep, abiding calm.
I am glad I made the trip.