Friday, January 25, 2008


Mcleodganj, Dharamsala -- The following poem was written by a friend, Lhasang Tsering, who owns a bookshop here. Lhasang is a very unique and compelling man, he's an old timer who escaped from Tibet many years ago after an extended stint as a freedom fighter, part of a guerilla outfit who fought the Chinese occupation violently.

Upon his arrival in Dharamsala, he was a co-founder and president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a largely influential group (and voice) that advocates nothing less than full independence for Tibet, in conflict with HHDL's middle-way "autonomy' campaign.

I've known Lhasang Tsering for almost three years now, and as it was when I first met him, he cannot speak about Tibet without tears welling in his eyes and his fists clenching.


People; O People of the Free World;
Leaders; O Leaders of the Free World;
Please help free Tibet before it is too late;
Please help free Tibet before there is no longer a Tibet.
Please, please help free Tibet!

Tibet is not just about Tibetans --
Tibet is about the weak against the strong;
Tibet is about the few against the many;
Yes, Tibet is another genocide;
So please, please help free Tibet!

Tibet is not just about Tibetans --
Tibet is about an endless arms race between India and China;
Tibet could well be the flashpoint of the next great war;
Yes, Tibet is about the future of world peace;
So please, please help free Tibet.

Tibet is not just about Tibetans --
Tibet is about the permanent snow on the Himalayas;
Tibet is about the timely flow of the monsoon winds;
Yes, Tibet is about the source of Asia's great rivers;
So please, please help free Tibet.

Tibet is not just about Tibetans --
Tibet is where China is dumping chemical and nuclear waste;
Tibet is about the world you want to live for your children
Yes, Tibet is about the future of all our offspring;
So please, please help free Tibet.

People, O People of the free world;
Leaders, O Leaders of the free world;
Please help free Tibet before it is too late;
Please help free Tibet while there still is a Tibet
Please, please help free Tibet.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
And again, Thank You!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Husbands and Trees

In India, when boys and girls get engaged, their horoscopes are read by the family “priest” to see if they’re compatible. But astrological compatibility extends far beyond whether they’re suited for one another and the astrologers are searching for the wider significance.

“When this girl marries into our family,” the bridegroom’s parents ask the priest, “will she bring us luck? Will she bring us wealth, or cast a shadow over our home, perhaps shortening our lives or bringing us bad health?”

If the girl’s horoscope reveals a hint of such possibilities the priests shake their heads and inform the prospective in-laws of the bad news, telling them that they have chosen a monglick girl to be their son’s wife.

Happily for the monglick girl, there is a solution to this fate, she is not doomed to the fate of a frustrated spinster, a fate over which she has no control. All she has to do is marry someone else, and then her ill-fortune will be transferred to that husband. Then, purified, she can marry her intended bridegroom secure that she is bringing only good luck to her new family.

The trick, of course, is finding a man who is noble enough to marry the unfortunate girl first, absorb all the ill-fated destiny, and then release her, cleansed, into the arms of another man. For a monglick, as you might expect, this often proves difficult.

But not impossible.

Travellers to India, especially those who visit the forest villages, occaisionally see trees with withered flower garlands hanging from their branches.

Not mere decoration, these garlands denote the presence of a husband. Yes, the trees serve as husbands, and in a marriage ceremony as elaborate as between human beings the monglick girl garlands the tree, identifying it as her husband – to transfer her ill-destiny to the tree, thereby cleansing herself of the misfortune of her fate.

To anyone's knowledge, the trees do not object.

* * * * * * * *

The use of trees to receive evil is an idea apparently as old as India itself. The Arthava Veda, written a thousand years before Jesus, contains the prayer . . .

The sin, the pollution
Whatever we have done with evil
With your leaves we wipe it off.

At our Chenrezig Project meetings we use trees as a metaphor for non-judgmental thoughts, or equanimity, it is an example we have fun with and we smile as we use the phrase “See people as trees.”

So, it is not just fun, but deeply touching to be in a culture where trees are historically so revered.

I’ve read that the great Indian philosophical academies were all held in groves of trees --- an acknowledgment that the forest, self-sufficient, endlessly regenerative, combined in itself the diversity and harmony which is the aspiration of Indian spirtual belief. It is not a coincidence that the great body of India’s knowledge – the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, etc. as well as the medical studies of the Ayurveda all came out of the forests.

Indian cities have at their center a grove of trees from which the city streets emnate outward like branches. I have heard of one tree, in the center of a hectic traffic circle in Bombay, that bears a Christian cross, a ledge on which a Koran is placed and read as well as an image of the Indian deity Shiva.

It's also not by chance that the Buddha and Mahavira, the founders of Buddhism and Jainism, two of India’s great religions, should both have attained enlightenment not ina temple or in a city square but while meditating under a tree.

I've heard that throughout the country trees are worshipped as incarnations of the goddess Meenakshi. Stories are told that Shiva once appeared to a sage sitting under a mango tree, mango trees have been considered sacred since.

And just yesterday a group of friends and I hiked up the mountain from where we're staying, our destination is a small colony of stone mediation huts, populated by old Tibetan monks and lamas, cozily nestled in the calm, peaceful tranquility of the deep forest.

Is it any wonder that the tree is sacred to India? Or that forests are considered to be places of pilgrimage as holy as any temple?

* * * * * *

So, with all this adoration, all this history, all this sigificance, it seems beyond belief that Indians could have permitted half the trees of India to be cut down by the administrators of the British Empire to make way for railways and mines, and then themselves cut down half of the remaining trees in the past 50 years.

What has happened, and is happening to the subcontinent’s forest cover is shocking.

Riding the train from Behar to Delhi one travels through miles and miles of what were once forests and are now fields. It is beautiful in it's way, and very "India" with the goats and water buffalos and squatters and mud huts, but it is also very sad.

Of the thousands of miles of dense jungle that covered the great range of the Nepal Himalaya, virtually none of it is left. And logging and stone-quarrying have destroyed the forest cover of the Indian Himalaya with equal devastation.

As a result, the monsoon rains, which are life or death to the subcontinent, have each year resulted in increased incidents of flood and homelessness. And as glaciers retreat and topsoil washes away and waters evaporte because there is nothing to retain them, more devastation occurs.

In India intensity overwhelms, and, simply put, this country like so many others has replaced a deeply-felt veneration of the tree with a feverish consumption of the tree. It's been going on for a years, a short time actually in this ancient country. But now it is out of control, and it is no longer able to connect cause with effect.

There is a movement here called Chipko, which means “to cling” and throughout the Himalayaa villagers and conservationalists, students and ordinary people are attempoting to halt India’s deforestation by clinging to trees marked for felling by commercial contractors. They are also planting trees, fighting to replace the forests of fast growing trees, like the eucalyptus and pine, intended for the wood pulp industry, which provides NOTHING to the soil or the people who live off the soil. They hope to repopulate the forests with the great slow-growing trees on which so much of India’s ecological balance depend.

It’s all ironic. India has traditionally prided herself on being “Karma Bhoomi” – the Land of Experience – dismissing other countries as the lands of the consumer.

But if Indians persist in slaughtering their remaining trees, they will decimate more than just forests, and potential “husbands.”

In many ways, so sadly, they will have crossed the line of which they have no choice but to admit they really are no different than the rest of us.

(with thanks to Gita Mehta for information used above.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Notes from the Rails . . .

It’s 8:45pm on January 16th and I’m riding the Mahabodhi Express heading west from the Biharian town of Gaya to Delhi. We left Gaya, a nasty town, at 2:30 this afternoon and are due to arrive into the New Delhi station at around 5:30 am.

This is a high-speed train, as opposed to the many local and “mail" trains that ply the tracks of the Indian railway system, the world’s largest both in terms of track mileage and daily passengers. Like most things in India, the train system is chaotic, confusing, always delayed, over crowded and patience-trying . . . and it works perfectly.

The train is packed, we just picked up a bunch of passengers at a place called Allamabad Junction. I am riding in 3AC class, in which I have a sleeping pad (number 15 in car 1A-B) and the “AC” part of the ticket classification is a misnomer – there is no air conditioning.

The pads are narrow and short and are stacked three-high, they fold out from the compartment walls, so it’s pretty tight, there’s not a lot of room, perhaps three feet from your pad to the one above. (Claustrophobics stay away!) Everyone gets a bed sheet, pillow and little hand towel.

My friend Maya is asleep on the pad above mine, we are the only westerners riding in car 1A-B tonight.

I am fortunate, I have a “corridor” pad which means I have absolutely no privacy, but I do have a little fold-down table on which I am writing this. Privacy is something one learns not to grasp too tightly in India.

Traveling along with us is a large colony -- family? tribe? army? -- of cockroaches. I’ve never been in an Indian train without them, but this car is completely infested. They are everywhere; almond-shaped, brown and gold, brazen and confident and they give me the creeps, but they’re quiet, don’t bite, and no one else seems to take notice of them, so what the heck. (Nonetheless, it takes courage to close one’s eyes and try to sleep.)

Every 30 minutes or so the chai vendor comes through, it’s hot and passable and costs just five rupees (about 12 cents) for a cup. We also brought fruit (oranges, bananas, pomegranates, apples) and have a friend in the next car who brought biscuits. As the phrase goes, a moveable feast.

All told, for 600 rupees (about $16), a night on the train isn’t so bad: I get to Delhi and don’t have to pay for a hotel room, tonight Pad 15 is home-sweet-home. In fact, it’s better than “not so bad” -- it’s fun, another in a string of experiences in this country of intense conditions in which attitude is the knife-edge on which the mind is thrown into either misery or joy.

So, tomorrow’ll be a day in Delhi, we’re going to throw our bags into a cheap hotel in the Parahganj, the “grand bazaar” area near the train station and then head over to the Tibetan settlement north of town where a travel agent is holding our bus tickets for the 4:00pm “deluxe” bus to Dharamsala, tickets arranged by Fred, Maya’s husband. (I’ve ridden these busses before, I think deluxe means there’s seats.)

Fred is in Dharamsala, he and Maya have been living there for the past year. In February they’ll be leaving India (visa problems) to move to a small town northeast of Amsterdam. (Fred is Dutch, Maya is Israeli.)

So tomorrow night will again be spent traveling, this time in a bus heading north from Delhi, through the Sikh-dominated Punjab (the Golden Temple of Armritsar is a magnificent sight at any time of day or night) and into the Himalayas.

When we arrive in Dharamsala early in the morning it will be cold and wet, likely snowy. The town will be empty; after I leave in ten days it will begin filling to overflow for the Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebration, immediately after which the Dalai Lama will conduct his traditional public teaching.

I expect to be happy to be back in Tibetan-culture-rich Dharamsala after an almost two-year absence. As many know, it was there that sitting at a candlelit table during a week of late nights with a refuge named Singhi (Sing-geee) and a Tibetan-English dictionary that my “dharma” experience sprouted wings and took off. And so much has happened in the time since.

While in Dhasa (as the locals call it) I’ll certainly enjoy time together with dear friends Fred and Maya, and of course I’m excited to see Singhi, who doesn’t know I’m coming.

I’ll visit the school where I taught conversational English to Tibetan refugees, and if Jigme, my friend who is the school’s director wants, I’ll be happy to do a special “What’s Happening Today in America” talk. Tibetans are very curious about how we live in the west.

I’ll visit the Namgyal monastery and the temples that are part of the Dalai Lama’s “complex” – having taken refuge as a Buddhist since I was last there I believe doing practice in that beautiful and auspicious place will be quite meaningful.

I’ll hike up to Bhagsu Falls, a splendid waterfall at the end of a steep canyon that bears very special emotional significance for me.

If it’s open, I hope to visit the Tibetan Archives library, and also spend some time at the terrific library at Tushita, the meditation center in the thick forest above Dharamsala.

I look forward to eating the delicious pizza at my friend Lobsang’s restaurant, perched on a ridge-top overlooking the Dalai Lama’s residence and the valley far below. And speaking of food, bring on the Tibetan momos (vegetable- and potato-filled dumplings)!!!

I think Fred, Maya and I will leave town for a day to visit the nunnery that Ven.Tenzin Palmo, a wonderfully inspiring English-born Tibetan Buddhist nun founded and is resident at. We’ll also likely take teachings from HH the Karmapa, a very special and radiant being, at his monastery.

There’ll be a lot to do, but here’s what’s most exciting to me: this all comes after almost four weeks in Bodhgaya, the last 10 days of which were spent in intense and wonderful Lam-rim meditation retreat.

In retreat we covered a remarkable amount of ground, both in scope and depth. We sat for more than 80 meditations and performed a diverse range of Tibetan Buddhist practices. We learned and reflected and contemplated, did circumambulations, motivations, dedications and purifications. And even though the retreat was conducted in silence, through shared experience many became friends.

Physically, it was demanding. We woke at 5:15 each morning and finished at around 9:30pm. There were prostrations. The food was good at times, usually just OK. Some days we took Mahayana precepts, which includes a fast from noon until the next morning. Hours of sitting in the gompa brought on stiff necks, sore backs and burning knees. Nights and mornings were cold and hot water was scare. The beds were hard and uncomfortable, especially for those of us with older bodies. The wool blankets were scratchy. The mosquitoes unending. Obstacles galore.

It was also emotionally difficult. Lam-rim meditations leave few stones unturned.

I, and I know I’m not alone, had realizations of mind arise that caused deep despair, sadness and regret. We became familiar with suffering, at times feeling trapped in it. But there were also moments of equanimity and compassion, and bliss, and the understanding from which strength and determination emerge.

It wasn’t easy, but it was precious, this path of the Lam-rim, and we knew it.


Not easy and precious. That seems to be the theme for this trip, through the arduous traveling and sickness and long hours and dusty air and sore body and beggars and mosquitos and cockroaches and the mind-melting energy of the Mahabodhi Stupa.

Buddha taught the middle path, experiencing such intensities it is hard to keep on it.

Tonight it’s the express to Delhi and then tomorrow into the mountains. And then, less than two weeks from now, home to work, family and friends. All of this with many new and beneficial imprints on/in my mind. I know they’re there, I can sense their presence. A dharma “toolbox” of insights just waiting for proper conditions to manifest.

And here’s what’s so exciting. There will be no end to the opportunities in which to engage mindfulness and proper intention. To be aware. To use wisdom. To generate merit. To develop bodhicitta. And to act accordingly. Starting right now.

All of this played out on the field of “disturbing and obscuring mind” as Rinpoche says.

Like I said, it’s not easy, but it’s so very precious.

I will try to do my best.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dear Tathagata:

Note: India in 2007 celebrated the Buddha’s death 2,550 years ago. Tathagata is another word for Buddha.

Dear Tathagata:

Two thousand five hundred and fifty years ago, it is said, you died. As all that are born, do.

And you died not without suffering; you were in pain. You said to your faithful disciple, “Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Tathagata is kept going only by supports.”

Saying that, Tathagata, you died.

But before that you had seen the spectacle of human pain, of disease, of aging, of death – not by your eyes alone but by the totality of your mind. You had understood their causes, their behavior, their effect – and also the way out of there entrapment of suffering.

You saw in that pain a great truth, the truth of dukkha. (Dukkha is the deep dis-satisfaction, or suffering that is present in the minds of the unenlightened.) But the dukkha you saw was not just your own, but that of others. It was the dukkha of the human family. Indeed, it was the dukkha of all beings, not just humans. And you taught us how to respond to that dukkha.

So, as I said above, Tathagata, you died.

But as you were no ordinary being, we use the phrase “attained Nirvana” to describe your death. As you were phenomenal, many go one step further and even use a more elevated phrase: Parinirvana. And some still go even one step higher in the exercise of word-building and say you attained “Mahaparinirvana.”

Since you lived so long ago, you’ve moved into history, you’re a “topic” in high school world religion classes, an exhibit in many museums.

Your figure has become ubiquitous worldwide, we see your peaceful face on advertisements, your meditative posture on lawn statues and fireplace mantles everywhere.

We’ve become comfortable with your images, but not with your teachings. Why is that?

Because as wise as they are, they are not convenient. They are, in fact, mightily inconvenient.

Great beings in our times here in India, and elsewhere in the world, have read your teachings with absorption and some have trued to do their very best to do what you taught, to walk on the path you trod. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Teresa are three who come quickly to mind.

And simple humans, pilgrims from far and near, visit the places in India and Nepal associated with your name. For them you are not in the past, you are alive – every moment.

Between your birth at Lumbini and your death at Kusinara, for decades you walked on dusty tracks, on thorny paths, amidst beauty and squalor.

You mortified your flesh, fasted, meditated, and then after you became enlightened, as a wandering teacher you were a guest of the rich and the abject poor, the famous and the ostracized. Those distinctions of high and low, strong and weak, created by human ingenuity for the exercise of power and vanity, made no difference to you.

None at all.

How could they? For you knew that they were all – all those people – afflicted by dukkha and the causes for further dukkha, ignorance of self, ignorance of others, ignorance of reality.

But that was then, many many years ago, and the purpose of this letter is to say something about how I, a visitor, see life as it’s being lived in India by today’s people. And to ask you a favor.

Some of your words show that the beauty of India was not lost on you, and India is still an amazingly colorful country with many riches – material, cultural and spiritual. (And of course you’ve added your own color with your wonderful teachings.)

India today is a country whose material wealth is growing exponentially. But it is not spreading nearly fast enough “horizontally” because of tendencies to want to own, not share; to dominate, not cooperate. Exploitation is everywhere.

In your days there also were the exploiters and the exploited, and you spoke the same simple truth to all of them. You spoke as you felt, Tathagata. And you felt as you saw. And you saw it all.

I read in today’s newspaper a column in which the issue of “access” for the masses was discussed. The access is included in a parliamentary edict that gives the right of information to everyone, regardless of social, financial or cultural background or standing. It is a way those with the power are trying to close the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Many see it as just a token.

It reminded me of you, and how in simple language that all could understand you intervened to give women and the (so-called) lower castes a sense of their equality. And in so doing you also told them of their equal vulnerability to the fires of dukkha that could consume them.

You gave them both – women and the oppressed classes – access. Access to the causes of dukkha and the way out of it.

You wanted to spread the light of your wisdom and you did. You broke through the walls of the privileged priesthood, which kept wisdom concealed in Sanskrit. Communicating your messages in Pali, the more common people’s language, you did just that.

But here remain some very difficult contradictions here in your country, Tathagata.

Tensions persist between the Hindu and Muslims, there is always fear of a flare-up, triggered by terrorists or fanatics. Much blood has been shed. And whether in Delhi, Varansi, the Punjab or Tamil Nadu, it is always the innocent who suffer.

The Sikhs remain homeland-less and unsatisfied.

A state of “war” all but exists in Sri Lanka.

Firearms have spead across the country -- illegal arms are carried by violent men who motivate even women and children to use them. Here in Bihar there have been bombings of trains and train stations in the past two months.

Women and children, living on the edge of starvation and deprivation remain exploited physically and sexually.

We have the “highs” of power, of wealth, of intellect alongside the “lows” of squalor, deprivation, destitution. It is said that in India only one in ten has use of a toilet.

Tragedy exists in the villages where several hundred farmers have taken their own lives, unable to bear the burden of debt.

Domestic violence continues to increase and child marriage, an old scourge, persists.

Your country has countless abandoned women, left behind not by seekers of truth as you were, but by self-seekers. Women are trafficked, girls abused, and yes, female fetuses aborted.

India’s leaders continue to take the physically, psychologically, socially, economically and politically voiceless for granted.

Leprocy, polio, tuberculosis, AIDS and other deadly diseases continue to run rampant among your people. There is great suffering in the villages, where most of your country’s 1.2 billion people live and time has all but stood still.

Even though you spoke out against animal sacrifice, practitioners of the major religions continue to slaughter animals with their sacrificial knives. A recent newspaper article quoted a statesman who said “Only goats are sacrificed, not lions.” I believe what he was saying is that those who are weak must realize that to survive they must become strong. Obviously he was not speaking of goats.

And all this in your country, the country of the Buddha!

India has nuclear weapons, Tathagata, and there remains great unrest in and with neighbors Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and China. It has been said that just 10% of the world’s nuclear arsenal is enough to create such a holocaust that nuclear “winter” will set in, with the light of the sun going out over the entire planet for an extended period of time. This is what the world has added to it’s arsenal since your time, Tathagata, the power to easily self-destruct.

It was recently written in The Hindu that Planet Earth is no longer “able to afford humans.” We are disemboweling the earth, heating its climate, removing its tree cover, making its creatures lives miserable. The Himalayan glaciers are melting, as a result some of your country’s eastern islands are sinking. Parts of Scandanavia, near the North Pole, had no snow this Christmas.

Steven Hawking has spoken about humans moving to other planets! I can’t help but think, Tathagata, “Poor Mars, what has it done to deserve humans?”


So, here’s the favor I am asking you, Tathagata.

Teach us how to conserve what we have inherited, not exhaust what is non-renewable.

Teach us, from wherever you are, to take others’ dukkha seriously, forgetting our own.

Teach us, so that we really understand, that self-grasping and self-cherishing are nothing more than paths to suffering, and that happiness may only be obtained by putting others’ interests in front of ours.

Teach us, from wherever you are, to see ourselves in others, others in ourselves.

Teach us to heal, not to hurt.

May I ask that of you?

You became a Buddha, and have attained enlightenment, but may I ask you to please take human form and return, if not as a Buddha, as a Bodhisattva at least?

While for some you remain alive, the vast majority of your people, and the world’s people, need you again.

But I can’t help but wonder, if you were to come to us, would we listen? Would we heed your words? Follow your example? I don’t know the answer to that, Tathagata, honestly I don’t.

We have all traveled a long way indeed, on a very degraded road from the time you spoke your last words to Ananda.

Being here in India, in Bodhgaya, where you found your enlightenment, I can’t help but feel we need you back again, so very badly.

Tathagata, my gratitude.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Rajgir and Nalanda

Hi all.

OK, this is a kind of look at my trip at almost the half-way point, a bit of a travelogue.

As I've mentioned in the e-mails I've written, I haven't been feeling so well ever since I got here about two weeks ago.

A pretty stubborn and deep-seated chest infection, seemingly immune to antibiotics, accompanied by periodic moments of fever, fatigue, headaches, etc. Just can't seem to shake it. Have taken to wearing a face mask when I go into town, the thick chocking dust makes my breathing really difficult, deep breaths sometimes painful.
This trip to India has been of a different ilk; unlike the previous ones when I came over and bee-lined to settlement in the Himalayas, this one has involved traveling through and being in some very difficult places - it is much more an "adventure" and boy do I feel it. India is never easy, and that's especially true the way I travel, close to the bone financially, trying to remain light and nimble, I think I may be beginning to feel my age a bit, so many aches and pains, deep fatigue, etc.

I am learning some wonderful dharma, so far being successful in "deepening my practice" as I said I wanted to do before I left. Beginning tonight (Sunday) I'll begin an intensive ten-day Lam Rim meditation retreat, led by an absolute master, an Australian monastic who is just wonderful - knowledgeable and articulate. It will be physically tough: long hours, a cold gompa, mosquitos, at times very emotionally rough subject matter . . . Am hoping my coughing ends by the time the retreat stops, we'll see.

I think the work we'll do over the next ten days is going to "rock" whatever remains "unrocked" in my little world.

But that's why I and others come to India, such an intense place: to pull the rug out, knock things around, shake us awake. And then, with the shake-up complete, and with the help of beneficial dharma realizations, we try to put it all back together in ways in which it's more intuitively natural to live lives that are less self-cherishing, more compassionate and wise, more joyful. The expression "you've got to break some eggs to make an omelet" comes to mind here.

I've done some writings about Bodhgaya, you can read the pieces on my blogsite at if you're so inclined . . . they tend to be a bit long, I could use a good editor. Sorry. There's been some reaction to the latest one I posted, I believe it was on 2 january and was fairly extreme.

The juxtaposition of pilgrims (monks and lay people) from around the world coming to this place where the Buddha achieved his enlightenment, contrasted with the unbelievable Biharian poverty and sentient-being suffering is intense, and it seems whenever I sit down to write it's directly to that local beauty-and-beastlike existence my mind goes. Clearly, things are being processed.

(There is a place I've discovered in town that is, as I perceive it, a direct porthole to a hell-realm. It's a spot unlike any other I've ever been to, or even imagined, I'm not sure I will (or can) write about it, if I don't perhaps one night we'll talk of it.)

On Friday I traveled about 80km north to Rajgir, the site of Mass of Vultures Mountain where the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma as he taught the true nature of reality (i.e., emptiness) and where the dialog between Shariputra, Avalokiteshvara and the Buddha as portrayed in the Heart Sutra took place.

I was with a small group of (eight) friends and we hiked up the mountain along the beggar-lined path until we finally made it to the top, known as the Gridhakuta or Vulture's Peak, the location of many of Buddha's teachings as well as the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, aka the Heart Sutra.

There, under soaring hawks, surrounded by rugged (still they say tiger-infested) ravines filled with ancient caves -- including a small one said to be one of the Buddha's favorite meditation places -- we sat and read the Heart Sutra together.

To sit on that mountain-top in the cool early morning mist, reading the Heart Sutra aloud with a small group of dharma-teers composed of an Italian, an Australian, a Tibetan, a German, a Dutch, a Canadian, an Israeli and an American (me), the eight of us connected together with all the planet's people who have read that seminal Buddhist text during the past 2,000 years - and all those sentient beings whose lives were affected by those who read and acted upon those words -- was deeply moving, a combination of spiritual, joyful, serious, dreamlike, huge, heart-warming and "hard-to-believe it's me". A grand, unforgettable dharma moment.

Afterward we visited some hot spings (too crowded) and then went to the excavated ruins of Nalanda "University" - the first residential international university in the world (sorry, Oxford), that during its flourishing years (between the 5th and 12th centuries) housed more than 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers at any one time. Courses of study included scriptures of Buddhism (both Mahayana and Hinayana schools) Vedas, logic, medicine.

According to the scriptures, the Buddha visited the site of Nalanda many times, it formed an important location for his activities. And for those Chenrezig Projecteers to whom the names of the ancient Buddhist masters are beginning to become familiar, besides Buddha, Shariputra, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Padmasambhava, Asanga and King Asoka also "slept" here.

To see Nalanda as the springhead from which Buddhism traveled far and wide -- including Tibet, Yalaha and all places between -- is not an overstatement.

Back to Bodhgaya. There's one place in town where the food's said to be safe to eat, it's a dirt-floor tent named Mohamad's and is very crowded with travelers and pretty much the local "meeting spot." The food IS very good, and "India" cheap. Mohamad's chai tea is delicious, but that's not unique, just about any of the vendors along the side of the road make good chai, and at 5 rupees per glass (12 cents) one drinks lots. (The coffee drinkers say it is impossible to find good coffee here.)

The weather has been fantastic, cold nights and mornings, sunny and warm afternoons. I don't believe I've seen a cloud for two weeks (except for those made of dust).

So, that's it for now, my finger stops here. I hope everyone who is reading this is well and happy. Special regards and warmest feelings sent to Karen and Rich, please know you guys are in my heart and mind everywhere I go and in all I do (except for the coughing, of course).

I look forward to returning home to you all and sharing what I've learned. I have some nice photos to share as well. I'm so glad to read how well the CP meetings have been going in my absence. We are all so fortunate.

Strive on with diligence!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Dispatch from Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya, Bihar, India -- New Year’s Eve, 2007

Just before a full moon day in (about) the year 528 BCE*, a young ascetic monk of noble birth, worn out after years of self-mortification, arrived on the outskirts of the small Indian village of Uruvela, which was nestled on the banks of the sandy Neranjara River.

Many years later he described the scene that unfolded before him, “There I saw a beautiful stretch of the countryside, a beautiful grove, a clear flowing river and a village nearby for support. And I thought to myself; “indeed, this is a good place for a young man set on striving.”

He settled himself under the spreading branches of a nearby tree and prepared to begin his meditation.

Just then a young woman named Sujata happened to be passing and noticing him and how thin he was, ran quickly home and brought him a bowl of milk rice and sweet honey. Strengthened by this nutritious meal the ascetic began his meditation. All night he sat there as the leaves of the tree quivered in the warm breeze and the moon shone bright in the velvety black sky.

Eventually the clouds of ignorance dissolved and he saw Reality in all its glory and splendor. He was no longer Prince Siddhartha or the ascetic Gautama. He had become the Awakened One, the Compassionate One, the Light of the World, the Buddha.

The Buddha spent the next seven weeks in and near Uruvela experiencing the bliss of enlightenment, moving to a different location every seven days. Then he set off for Isipathana (now Sarnath) near Varanasi to proclaim to the world the liberating truths he had realized.

It’s said the Buddha returned just once to Uruvela, now named Bodhgaya, a few months after turning the wheel of dharma for the first time at the Deer Park near Varanasi.


Bodhgaya is located in the Indian state of Bihar (Bee-har) in the economically challenged north central “belt” that runs across the width of India from Delhi to Calcutta. Bihar’s northern border runs along the Nepali border, a porous border through which Nepal’s Maoist influences seep south.

Bihar is known to be the poorest state in India, and it carries the reputation of being the most dangerous. Those from Bihari are said to be “crazy” in the ballsy kind of way those from Brooklyn were said to be crazy when I was growing up in Queens, and there are unending tales of Bihari’s highway robbers, thieves and pickpockets. Travelers here are warned to travel in pairs and stay off the roads after dark.

There is violence between neighboring Bihari regions; a passenger train bringing rice-pickers from one part of the state to another was blown-up not too long ago. Only five people died, a Bihar man shrugged the other day. That same day I saw an old dead man lying in the dirt on the side of a road. In Bihar not even life is worth very much.

Agriculture, mostly rice, is the staple product here. There are rice fields everywhere and the countryside is quite serene and beautiful.

Running neck-and-neck with rice in terms of Bihar’s economy are the visitors, primarily the pilgrims who come to Bodhgaya; to be in the place where the Buddha awoke.

This is nothing new. People have been traveling to Bodhgaya for more than 2,000 years.

Ancient Buddhist maps were drawn almost always showing either the mythical Mount Meru or Bodhgaya at their center. There is knowledge of a guidebook to Bodhgaya written by a Tibetan scholar in the 14th century. In the 11th century a Sumatran made a pilgrimage here. The Chinese pilgrim I Tsing, in the 7th century met a monk here who had come all the way from Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union. Vietnamese have been coming since Buddhism was introduced in their country in the 6th century. The first evidence of a Sri Lankan arriving here is an inscription by a monk in the 1st century BCE. The Tibetan scholar Dharmasvamin arrived here in 1234.

Today, as ever, the main attraction for pilgrims is to worship or practice at the Mahabodhi Stupa and the famous Bodhi tree that sits directly behind it.

The tree, likely the most famous one on the planet, is a descendent of the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. It is located in the same spot as its famous ancestor. It is beautiful, with thick branches that spread far and wide.

The Stupa (some refer to it as a temple) is believed to have been built during the 5th century, although no one is quite sure of the date or builder. By the middle of the 19th century it was in serious ruin, and was extensively restored in 1880. Today it contains statues of the Buddha that date back to the 7th century.

The stones around the Stupa upon which pilgrims walk were laid in place in the 14th century. There is a large flat stone at the base of the Bodhi tree marking the place where the Buddha sat and became enlightened. It was set in place by King Asoka in 260 BCE. More than 2,260 years old, it is the oldest antiquity in Bodhgaya.

To be in this place is to connect with the vastness of the past and it is enormously powerful. Sitting in meditation with others from around the world in the shade of the Bodhi tree on a warm afternoon is an experience that brings one to the brink of pure spirit, a combination of humanity, love, gratitude and awe that manifests in a serenity and calm that flows outward from the deepest part of the heart. Feelings so light and pure and completely felt . . .
People from around the world, Buddhist and non-Buddhists alike, continue to travel to Bodhgaya. Some come to do practice, some to bathe in the deeply satisfying energy, some to simply see the place for themselves.

And for all who come here a very special industry awaits.


Mummilal is a 15 year-old boy who lives in Bodhgaya. He doesn’t go to school, never has. His work day begins at around 6am, as people begin to arrive at the Stupa, and he works until it gets dark.

His workplace is right outside the entrance to the Stupa grounds. Even though his job is very people-intensive, he never had to learn English or French or any of the other languages one hears at this world pilgrimage site. Hindi is sufficient for Mummilal as his communication with his clients is mostly visual.

Mummilal’s career training apparently began sometime before his second birthday, when he had his hips dislocated and both legs broken at the knees and ankles. As they began to heal he had them re-broken, over and over again. Once his legs were sufficiently “pliable” they were allowed to set, with one leg bent at a bizarre angle backwards and up behind the back of his head, the other a tangle of impossible angles out, back and up.

None of this was his idea.

It was done to prepare Mummilal for his career as a street beggar, a professional whose job it is to wrench loose rupees from open-hearted travelers in this place of the dharma’s birth, the dharma that teaches, among other things, compassion for all sentient beings.

His career counselors were his parents, who saw financial benefit in having a son who could horrify peoples’ hearts into breaking.

Today, the final day of 2007, Mummilal is working. He is filthy. His hair is matted, there are clumps of dirt and snot all over his face, his beautiful rich brown skin is gray, his legs and arms are as thin as a little league baseball bats, his eyes contain the essence of his trade – pain and suffering.

Mummilal’s world is the 30 inches above the dusty, grimy walkway. His head bends sideways at an odd angle as he is always looking up, trying to make eye contact with people who are rushing by, trying not to look at him. He moves on his hands and one shoulder, dragging his broken body along, his back twisted and distended, his legs flapping and flopping as though made of rubber and balsa wood.

His arms and hands and fingers haven’t been destroyed, they’re needed for shuffling from person to person and gathering the change that sometimes falls, dropped by people who are then gone, rushing off to the Stupa. No one waits to hear him say “thank you”.

Sit and watch him at work, as I did this morning, and you’ll see maybe one in 300 people, always a westerner, give him anything. When something drops for him it’s usually a coin, probably two rupees, worth about five cents. He takes the coin and puts it in a shirt pocket, he wears cloth around his hips and upper legs; there’s not many tailors who could make a pair pants that would fit Mummilal..

The coins come very slowly today, perhaps cash flow is hard because there’s so much competition for the visitor rupee. Like I said, in Bodhgaya this is an industry, cash-only, supported by those who come here.

Walking the streets is not easy for a visitor.

There are mothers who approach, holding one or two usually naked babies, filthy and crying, demanding money for milk.

There are blind people stumbling around mumbling “namaste” to anyone who can hear them.

And there are people of all ages in various stages of leprosy. We don’t see leprosy very much in the west, here it’s commonplace.

Want to know how challenging it can be to act on your compassionate urges?

Try to give some coins to a leper who has no fingers on either hand. It’s awkward and difficult as they press the coins between their palms, or wrists if their palms are too disfigured, and then try to drop them into their begging bowl. If they miss the bowl and one of the coins drops on the ground they can’t pick it up. So you do it for them, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable about handling a coin that has just touched the fingerless hands of an active, raging leper. (Oh God, what if it’s contagious? )

Trying to talk to or make eye contact with these poor people is also difficult, frequently the leprosy has advanced to their faces, robbing them of noses, chins, jaws. It’s hard to look.

Bodhgaya’s streets are also home to polio victims, hopelessly sick and broken. I heard of a woman with polio who used to roll/push a five-rupee coin on its edge across the filthy pavement toward her begging bowl with her nose. One or two of her helpers would stand and watch, and then out of curiosity a crowd would form. Her reward for completing this obscene act would be coins dropped in the bowl by the spectators. She hasn’t been seen in a while. Perhaps death has rescued her.

The buzz around here is that the place is being cleansed of the beggars as the Mahabodhi grounds have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and there’s some big international money coming to town, resulting in a clean-up. Reports are an area of three kilometers around the Stupa will be cleared of the undesirables.

That may be so for the days ahead, but today there’s hundreds of these sick, mangled, needy people along the road to the Stupa. Most just sit or lie in the filth, sharing the gutter with the dogs and goats. The ones who approach visitors are the children who are very aggressive, and the mothers, who are children themselves. The men just sit and watch, empty bowls on the ground.

No matter how many coins one comes to town with, pockets are soon empty. One never has enough.


Bodhgaya and Buddhism and beggars.

Can you see the juxtaposition of beauty and horror? Can you imagine how completely and totally alive one feels when here?

Experiencing this place, where such extreme suffering lives in the shadow of the Buddha’s realization of unimaginable bliss is physically exhausting, intellectually fascinating and emotionally un-processable.

The beggars are overwhelming, when in their presence it’s hard to know what to do. This uncertainty provides motivation to develop the wisdom to act skillfully with the confidence of knowing one is doing the absolute best thing for them, while generating proper compassionate intentions.

Equanimity, probably the last state of mind one would normally manifest in this situation, is what is called for. And to be joyful in what we do, actually rejoicing as we do it.

What a lesson in overcoming our own self-cherishing! I have such gratitude to be here in this incredible human atmosphere studying and practicing dharma where it began so many years ago. It is all so intense, and so very precious.

Tonight one year is passing into another. An event calling for revelry and over-indulgence for many, but I can’t help but think of how a new year means absolutely nothing to Mummilal. For him it’s just another night; tomorrow there’ll be a whole new flock of visitors with coins in their pockets. For him there are no year-end resolutions to lose weight or exercise more. I don’t believe there is a happy ending here.

In our Chenrezig Project meetings we talk about the suffering of cyclic existence or samsara. This suffering, or “dukka” as the Buddha called it, remains abstract to some, understood a bit by most, realized in brief flashes by a few.

If you want to experience samsara at its most intense, really want to get smacked in the face with it, come to India. Come to Bodhgaya. There is ecstacy and agony here, day after day. So much to learn. So much to process. So much occurring.

It’s 11:45pm. Tomorrow’s meditation begins at 5:45am. Time to stop the fingers.

Thanks for reading. With love.

(*) BCE – Before Common Era, the non-denominational alternative to BC and AD, commonly used throughout Asia.