On Pilgrimage to India

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October 23, 2018—As of this writing, Shugen Roshi and Hojin Sensei, along with 14 fellow sangha members, are nearing the end of their three week pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Buddha. They’re looking forward to sharing their photos and reflections with the rest of us when they return, but we’re getting a head start using some of the images and messages that have been sent back over the past dozen or so days.

Many of the travellers have expressed an overwhelming sense of gratitude at being able to undertake the journey, along with a life-changing awe at the scope of humanity, both within the culture(s) of India, and the panoply of fellow Buddhist pilgrims from around the world. Richard Kokuan Lawton passed along a journal entry summing it up this way: “Being in the Buddha’s homeland with our teachers, in the birthplace of the Dharma, with the Sangha from the U.S., New Zealand, and from other traditions and countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, Tibet and Korea feels like homecoming with extended family in a strange land.”

This adventure was made possible, in large part, due to the efforts of John Tosan McKinnon, an MRO student from New Zealand who has worked, volunteered and led many such trips throughout India over the years. (He even wrote a book on the topic.) Having attempted to entice Shugen Roshi several times before, he at last won out and is currently leading what he has called the last sojourn of his guiding career.

The trip began October 11 in New Delhi, India’s capital (and largest transit hub), before stopping off at the Taj Mahal, impressing the group with the scope and achievement of India’s cultural riches. From there, the pilgrimage began in earnest at Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, associated with learning as much as it is with devotion.

Next, the tour went west to Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching at the Deer Park, illuminating the Four Noble Truths. A number of temples and monuments mark this site. Shugen Roshi commented in an email that just being in that space, knowing how it impacted world civilization and many of us on a deeply personal level, was just a  breathtaking experience.

Then the group travelled to Bodhgaya where, some weeks prior to his first discourse, the Buddha achieved the deathless upon seeing the morning star at dawn. This is, unsurprisingly, the key locale in any Buddhist pilgrimage and accordingly draws crowds of devotees from all over the Earth. It is also the site of the Mahabodhi Temple and numerous other temples operated by different national factions.

Other stops included Patna, the capital of the Magadha Empire. From there, Renate Genjo Gebauer wrote in, “Yesterday we were at Nalanda University, one of the greatest learning centers of the ancient world. It’s still an amazing place. In addition to great masters like Shantideva, who taught there, Shariputra was born here before it was a university.”

The group also visited Vaishali where many sutras were recorded, including the Paranirvana Sutra; and Kushinagar (or Kusinagara), where we are told the Buddha took his last breaths. Today, October 23, they are crossing the border to Nepal to visit Lumbini (site of Buddha’s birthplace) and Kapilavastu, where he spent his formative years.

Then back into India, heading to Shravasti where the Buddha spent 25 rainy seasons in ango practice with his community.

Young Sri Lankan monks at the Deer Park.

As Zen Mountain Monastery completes the Harvest Sesshin on October 28, the American and New Zealand contingents will be starting out on their journeys home.

Tosan comments, “It is a truism that India alters the way people think about themselves and their lives. In that sense, any travel to India is a pilgrimage. How much more so, therefore, when your travel is directed to walking the same paths as one the world’s greatest teachers and more so still, when your intent is towards self-awareness.”

As these photos and reflections reveal, our teachers and noble friends are doing just that. We’re all looking forward to their safe return and to a full recounting as time goes on.

The Ganges at dawn.

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