Last year in October I had the privilege of taking five eager travelers from across the globe on pilgrimage to India and Nepal. I traveled with Dave from the UK, Anthony from Australia, and Kelly, Parmjeet and Ulrich from the US. Interestingly, we certainly had the medical field covered with Kelly being a licensed nurse and Ulrich a cardiologist! It was a wonderful trip and my fifth time going on a Buddhist pilgrimage. Going on pilgrimage, in general, is an extraordinary journey, but to take people along with me last year, was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Although Buddhism is in essence a form of mind-training, it doesn’t mean we’re confined to just sitting in one room and meditating all the time. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy the outdoors, the Buddha taught that going on pilgrimage to the four most holy sites is a way of creating significant merit.
Before we left on our pilgrimage I already knew that we were in for an adventure. I often think of India as being the place to ‘expect the unexpected’, which is one of the many reasons I love the country because it is continuously surprising me. As India and Nepal are still developing countries and our pilgrimage route travels through many rural areas, there is always a high chance of experiencing traffic delays from various religious festivities, roaming cows, or anything else unexpected. But the surprise for me this time was that our travel plans would be affected even before we had a chance to touch down.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, you can imagine that we were getting very excited and were busy with the preparations. It was at the same time though, that Nepal elected a new constitution after seven years of not having one. Unfortunately, the Nepalese with ethnic ties to India and living in the south of Nepal, felt the new constitution denied them equal rights, so they protested and blockaded the India-Nepal border. This meant all fuel trucks and many other food and cargo trucks were prevented from getting through from India to Nepal. As you can imagine, after a couple of weeks, this created chaos in Nepal, especially for businesses in Kathmandu. Queues at the petrol stations stretched for miles with many drivers not receiving fuel despite waiting all day; hotels had limited cooking gas to cook their guests’ meals. But most importantly, with a limited supply of aviation fuel, Nepal was forced to prevent non-Nepalese airlines from refueling at Kathmandu airport. Due to this constraint, some Chinese airlines started canceling their flights to Kathmandu, affecting one of our pilgrim’s travel plans.
Originally, our pilgrimage was meant to start in Kathmandu before flying south to the Nepal border where we would visit Lumbini. But facing the possibility of our flights in Kathmandu being canceled due to the worsening fuel crisis, we decided not to risk being stranded in Kathmandu and consequently changed our meeting place to Delhi in India instead.
In the end, it all worked out well. After meeting in Delhi we flew to Varanasi in the north-east of India, and traveled by bus to the India-Nepal border. Although there was restricted movement at the border, tourists were able to cross safely and we made it to Lumbini at nightfall in high spirits. Aside from keeping everyone safe and comfortable, my biggest goal of our trip was to try and ensure we visited the four most holy sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini (where the Buddha was born), Bodhgaya (where he attained enlightenment), Sarnath (where he first taught) and Kushinagar (where he passed away). According to the Buddha these are the four important sites to visit when going on pilgrimage. So I was particularly happy when we made it to Lumbini.
One positive outcome from our change in travel plans is that we got to spend an extra night in Lumbini. This meant we had time to make a trip to Kapilavastu where the Buddha lived as a prince before leaving his kingdom. We were able to see the Eastern gate where the Buddha – who after being moved by great compassion for the suffering in the world – fled the palace on his quest to find answers and attain enlightenment. Several pilgrims expressed how wonderful it was to visit the area where the Buddha grew up, and as a result we have decided to add an extra day to our itinerary so we have time to visit there on future pilgrimages. This will also give us more time to spend meditating in Lumbini Gardens, the very spot where the Buddha was born.
Although my mind was largely on the management of the trip and making sure everyone was enjoying themselves, I was still awed and touched by the significance of these places. There is something really special about being able to walk and meditate in the grounds where the Buddha himself had resided, practiced and taught. The spiritual energy of these places is quite palpable. For me, the highlight of this trip was definitely the happiness I got from bringing others to these blessed places, and seeing the impact these places had on them. Also, the lasting friendships that have continued, and the peaceful blessings that I have personally felt after returning are beautiful mementos as well.
Since it is hard to wrap 16 days of incredible memories into a brief blog post, here is a short piece from attendee Dave on his reflections from our trip:
India is an amazing country to visit and probably nothing can prepare you for the attack on your senses: the sights, sounds and smells that will come your way. Other words would be vibrant, ‘raw’, cows, elephants, food, spices, horns, traffic, dogs and chai, in no particular order, to name but a few!
Visiting the holy sites is an amazing experience. Being able to stand in the very sites chronicled in the Buddha’s life, and ultimately death, gives you visual references for the future and a mixture of thoughts and emotions.
Seeing the Mahabodhi Stupa for the first time was an amazing feeling. The scale of the stupa lit up against the night sky. And if you are lucky, the coloured lights adorning the neighbouring stupas and monuments create a magical atmosphere.
The temple complex opens around 5am, meaning that you can visit, should you wish, independently from the group. For me, sitting beneath the Bodhi tree to meditate at 6am and offering alms to monks before returning to the hotel for breakfast, was an amazing experience. Meditating under the Bodhi tree in those early hours, somehow the time flew by and I had a sense of being part of something much bigger, extended and connected.
For me the second most evocative place was the reclining Buddha statue at Kushinagar where the Buddha passed into Mahaparinibbanna. The significance of the site was very moving. There are many more sites of huge significance to Buddha’s life, teachings and travels along the pilgrimage route but too many to mention here.
The last few days were spent visiting the cave complexes of Ellora and Ajanta. Whilst not holy sites in terms of the Buddha’s life or relics, they are testimony to the incredible faith and devotion of the people who constructed them and lived and practiced there. It is mind boggling that they were built over 5 centuries. The amount of rock removed to complete the caves, the carved pillars and statues is extraordinary!
I had to laugh when Dave, Anthony and Ulrich came up with a theory that aliens must have created the caves due to their magnificent size and extraordinary detail. These caves really do take one’s breath away and fill you with a sense of awe and wonder.
As I sit here now, back in the comfort of my home in Australia, my recent travels could easily be mistaken as a beautiful dream if I didn’t have the photos as evidence. But taking a group on a Buddhist pilgrimage is definitely a dream I don’t mind repeating, because for me, it was a culmination of months of preparation and heartfelt aspirations. Already I cannot wait for the next one. Taking more people to these wonderfully sacred sites only increases my joy. If you have an opportunity to come, I have no doubt it will be a trip you will never forget.
You can view the photos from our trip here.
Read some testimonials from our lovely pilgrims here.
To find out details about our next pilgrimage, please visit our website, Enthusiastic Buddhist Pilgrimages.
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