Sangha Reflections on Buddhist Pilgrimage

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NOTE: In October 2018, 16 sangha members, including Shugen Roshi and Hojin Sensei, travelled to India and Nepal “in the footsteps of the Buddha.” Here are some of their reflections and photos. More photos from an earlier blog post here.

No Longer Abstract
by Rick Shozen Hamlin
I had never wanted to go to India: I was too daunted by the prospect of the suffering and poverty, pollution and crowds. But when the opportunity arose to join the pilgrimage I did not hesitate, trusting that the sangha would provide the structure that I needed to undertake this exceptional experience. I am profoundly grateful that I relied on that trust and took the leap of faith.

Sitting under the Bodhi tree, wandering in Deer Park, overlooking the land beneath Vulture Peak, chanting the Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo at Srvasti, we were in the land where the Buddha walked and taught, suffered and realized himself, and spent his last breaths. This was to transform words on a page, abstract ideas and conceptions into tangible places, no longer a story but something real. It was endlessly gratifying and profound.

Perhaps the most unexpected joy of this pilgrimage was the opportunity to get to know the other Sangha members. This common experience bonded us in a truly profound way and made me appreciate how much of a treasure this Sangha is.

Journal entry: BIHAR: Monday 15th Oct 2018
by Nick Suido Nash
(In the footsteps of the Buddha): Did the Buddha really walk through this country?

If he was leading us today he would see broken down trucks, broken down houses, rubbish strewn indiscriminately…a highway clogged with traffic for miles heading for Varanasi, as we head in the other direction in our air conditioned bus, towards Bodgaya…and the Bodi tree.

Out of the window we see makeshift dwellings made from canvas and plastic and sticks and reeds. A toddler stands on a two story balcony with no safety rail and gazes out at the passing traffic.

A history of corruption and mafia rule in the 1990’s, which our guide Nirage assures us has “changed completely”, but the average income is still only $500 per year.

We have wifi now, on the bus. We get a message from our daughter, with a photo of her and her baby looking so plump, so healthy…

This part of the world feels like another zone, a kind of war zone, another planet really, where fairness and collective care and attention as we know are is missing. Those who seem well off, and those who don’t seem to live precariously from hand to mouth, in whatever dwellings they can scratch together: bricks, sticks, mud, plastic, reeds, thatch, and corrugated iron.

Children pick through piles of rubbish that spill down the banks into the rice fields.

I’m upset and angry; find it hard to accept that this is the way it is. Where is the wealth of this state going? Nirage admits that the “middle man” still siphons most of the farmers’ hard work into his own pocket.

My daughter’s baby has so much good karma. What have most of  the babies of this state got in comparison?

Where is the love and care and compassion, in these, the footsteps of the Buddha? Where is my love and care and compassion as I descend from my air conditioned vehicle into the heat of every day, with beggars and hawkers and mothers’ holding their babies up to me in their arms, and pointing to their baby’s mouth…?

A lyric from a Paul Simon song haunts me: 

“I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, but it’s a mother and child reunion, only a motion away…”

How can I help this reunion I ask myself?

The Resolution of Contradictions
by Linda Shinji Hoffman
In my mind there is before India and after India. This line is not written with a permanent black marker, but it is indelible just the same. Indelible as the three women in purple and blue saris rising from the ground where they were combing the grasses to remove weeds to pose for a photo, and then, put out their hands for payment from us, the photographers. Indelible as the teenage boy with leg limbs angled in opposing directions so he could only pull himself with a short staff across the dirt road. Indelible as the scent of sandalwood, sweat, and filth and the nonstop beeping of the tuk-tuk driver as if it was the horn that was accelerating us through the multitudes. 

Along the Ganges River, scantily clad men carried litters of corpses wrapped in white cloth with orange and reflective Mylar decorations. One worker adjusted a head that dangled as if attached with only a piece of soft rope. The prepared wood was ready to ignite for this newest cremation. To the right smoke rose from one bier, while another body had already vanished, only the brush of a broom sweeping their ash. 

The hazy red ball of sun set over and over as we watched its descent from Vulture Peak, in Kusinagara, and in Bodhgaya. We traveled with friends, with Sangha, and with our teachers, 1200 miles following the footsteps of the Buddha through his homeland.  

Bumping along in our large bus, I painted one watercolor on each long ride. Usually on a trip, I would write, formulate my impressions, try to describe something I knew I wanted to share. But on this journey, I painted. Maybe India herself wanted me not to be too hasty to define her with words, only to open my heart to all her contradictions. I learned how capturing an image can bring wholeness and wonder, how the resolution of contradictions, the letting go, and choosing what to keep is the art, is our practice, is creating peaceful dwelling. 

Journal entry: Monday 22nd October.
Visit to Kabir’s Twin Tombs at Maghar.
by Gwitha Kaido Nash

In the 15th Century the Sufi Saint Kabir began life at Varanasi. He was claimed by both the Hindus and Sufis as a saint so both traditions erected tombs in his honor. On the way there in the bus, Diane read us some poems of Kabir:

“Are you looking for me, I am in the next seat.”

Very soon after our arrival, which caused quite a stir as not many “Western” tourists come to Maghar, the Head Priest joined us. Many locals gathered including two gentlemen from the local press and TV station who took notes and afterwards asked us all for our names and country of origin! We gathered under the shade of a huge tree and Shugen Roshi was invited up the front to talk with the High Priest. Our guide, Nirage acted as interpreter:

Pilgrims gathered under the tree

Offered tea and Jagary

Our teacher sitting beside their High Priest

Discussing questions of work and love.

Curious young men gather

Asking for photos.

“When you really look for me

You will find me instantly.”

Here, too
by Degna Chickei Levister 
I had a very mixed experience during our pilgrimage. I treasured the opportunity to connect with our wonderful US and Kiwi sangha members and I valued the ability get to know one another a little better. I cherished the apparent diversity of how dedication to the dharma is observed around the world and the physical truth of being in sacred places, but I was deeply saddened by the entrenched racism and sexism I experienced and was painfully moved by the rampant poverty and filth that seemed to characterize how most people appeared to live. I have a poignant memory of being intentionally excluded from a group photo at the sacred Maha Bodhi temple because, I suppose, the enthusiastic local photographer could not fathom that I might too belong in a group of white western Zen pilgrims. This, all juxtaposed with the affluent grandeur of the place and the beautiful colors of people, buildings, faces and clothing will have me working through my experiences for a very long time.  

The Whole Beautiful Catastrophe
by Richard Kokuan Lawton
As soon as I stepped off of the plane in Delhi, I stepped out of my comfort zone–and stayed out of it for the next three weeks.  A constant barrage of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells while immersed in a completely foreign culture created a constant feeling of disorientation within me.

While walking through the jam-packed streets and alleys of Varanasi, I suddenly recalled how Daido Roshi would often refer to the phenomenal universe as “the whole catastrophe.” Each time he did, the word “catastrophe” didn’t quite sit right with me.  But in India, it seemed entirely fitting.  Instead of having the negative connotation I had heard it with, I now felt it as an ongoing explosion of outer forms that overwhelmed all of my senses.

Within the constant stream of unfamiliar dharmas–some shocking, others beautiful, taking refuge in the three treasures took on a deeper meaning as well.  The Buddha felt closer as both a historical person and an awakened master when Shugen Roshi and Hojin Sensei offered teachings at significant sites in the Buddha’s life.  The Dharma became more vivid and timeless as a path of liberation, and I felt supported not only by our American and New Zealand sangha, but also by the many pilgrims that we encountered from other lineages and countries.

Since being back home, the familiar doesn’t look quite the same anymore.  And old habits and ways of seeing have loosened their grip.  While the pilgrimage continues to work within me in subtle ways, I’m left with a feeling of profound gratitude for the whole experience and for the good fortune to be guided by authentic teachers in the company of noble friends.

Million Nun March
by Jean Seisen Lewis
Throughout our visits to many important Buddhist sites, I clearly felt the presence of the Buddha and also of Mahapajapati who was to become the founder of the first order of Buddhist nuns. We actually stood in the place where Mahapajapati arrived in Vaishali with 500 followers, their feet swollen, tired and tearful. These were women who so wanted to be part of the sangha that they shaved their heads, put on saffron robes and walked 150 miles to beseech the Buddha to admit them into the society of Buddhist monastics. With the help of the Buddha’s attendant Ananda, it was here that they finally convinced the Buddha to ordain them. I too felt their joy and relief, their exhaustion. I celebrated their victory right alongside of them and felt deep gratitude for their perseverance and dedication to the Dharma. There in Vaishali, the stories and the places that I have heard for decades came alive and inspired me in ways that I never could have predicted.

Noble Resilience
by John Tosan McKinnon
Being fortunate to have visited India many times I am aware of how potent that country can be. Even the most casual or diffident visitor from a developed nation cannot visit without encountering aspects of human living which are shielded in their home environment. No matter how closeted your excursion on the sub-continent, no matter how luxurious, and no matter how faultless your journeying, India forces you to address very human issues. These, of course, are the age-old matters of sickness, old age and death. Our societies are rich enough to keep the most raw aspects of old age and sickness from daily view. And we have a culture which endeavors to deny even the possibility of mortality.  

If you take away modern medical care, live in a community where corruption and poor governance are endemic, and you are born poor in that society, then you will manifest the ills of humanity. The three ‘heavenly messengers’ were what needled Siddhartha to leave his comfortable existence and seek a solution. In contemporary India, if you add density of population to that heady mix, visiting India carries a punch. 

What always amazes and delights me though is that despite all the negatives, the citizens who live in the lands of the ancient Buddha are an extraordinary bunch. Human nature can manifest astonishing resilience in the face of hardship. That resilience is admirable—and is a source of hope for India and for humanity.

NextShuso's Letter Spring Ango 2019