By Ugyen Gyalpo
VARANASI, India, 21 January 2017
After a gruelling 13-hour flight, with a brief transit on the deserts of Kuwait, my plane descended through the low-lying smoggy skies of New Delhi in the wee hours of dawn. My heart yearned to breathe the Indian air outside, even though it was as polluted as it gets, but my direct transit from within the airport prevented this, and had me waiting to reach Gaya. Sheer excitement started building when I boarded the connecting flight to Bodh Gaya and found many Tibetans and Buddhists from around the world, waiting at my boarding gate with happy expectant faces. Although for a brief moment I lost my nerve when it seemed someone had stolen my iPhone that I had dropped while I was taking a short nap on a reclining chair, fast asleep after the hectic trip.
After my enquiry to the police, followed by uncharacteristic swift action making an announcement at the gate saying that they would check on the CCTV for the incident, a person calmly comes and brings out from his pocket my phone. We will never know if this guy would have stepped up had the announcement not been made. A bad karmic deed of stealing by a person that affected my peace and the causal effect and its interdependence started off my quest for an answer.
When I touched down on the holy place where the Buddha — not Siddartha — was born, a sense of genuine happiness blushed my face. The last time I had visited this holy land was back in 1985 as a young boy with my late parents. Now almost 31 years later, I had but faint reminiscences of the place, except for the eternal presence in my mind of the Bodh Choten towering towards the heavenly abode.
As we motored on our way zigzagging through the dusty roads, with my brother who had come to the Gaya airport to receive me, I was compelled to see gross abject poverty juxtaposed to the world I had just left. We drove through small shanty towns littered with deprived subhuman existence, with aimless cows blocking the craziest traffic punctuated so often by varied loud honks. Every car, every bicycle, every truck and bus, every horse-drawn carriage, seemed to be paving their own way amidst the myriad chaos, wheeling their passengers to their own respective destination, like my own, at the Kalachakra Initiation bestowed and empowered by HHDL14.
More than two hundred thousand Buddhist devotees had gathered from almost every part of the world, to receive the blessing of the Kalachakra Initiation conducted for world peace. As I now entered the premises of Bodh Gaya proper, we were invited by throngs of Tibetan pilgrims from all walks of life, multiple welcome gates felicitating the auspicious occasion, flanking billboards of HH the Dalai lama with hands folded in prayer. His radiant heavenly face gleaming with light showed promises for people the way out of darkness, out of the cyclic wheel of suffering.
Our wheel found its way winding towards its destination, challenged by the dismal infrastructure around, but our spirits beamed with a purpose driven attitude at life, in the nature of an empty bowl ready to receive alms of Bodhisattva virtuosities, unlike the beggars strewn all around the streets of Gaya dying for a trickle of alms. The difference of course being that the alms I receive in Kalachakra teachings, if I am able to quantify manifold with good karmic deeds both in practice and thought, would benefit me not just in this lifetime but the next, whereas the beggars’ alms would be reduced to meet the day’s end.
At the heart of Bodh Gaya, where four roads meet, under a huge Bodhi tree from which roads led to every direction, are countless makeshift stores and blaring announcements from every imaginable Tibetan organisation. For some, I was taken by surprise at their existence, each blaring their causes onto open mikes hung up across tree branches and electric poles. I must admit that the TYC announcement centre, with their social service initiative and their role as an all-important announcement centre, in its vantage point was extremely effective. From child lost to purse stolen, from someone from US to Tibetan looking for someone in India or their long-lost school mates and relatives, from help for an aged person in wheelchair to helping someone find shelter during the teachings, everything they did was both commendable and appreciated. Their actions transcended what the organisation actually stands for and what they were capable of doing with such efficiency.
An early morning walk to the Choten was blissful as devotees queued up in long lines, often snaking well beyond the last turn on the horizon. As music to our ears, we would hear competing Tibetan vendors selling Tibetan breads, teas, thenthuks, laphings, lowas, making this spiritually magical moment festive, as I would transport myself to an imaginative world filled with only our people, in our land, and I wished this fleeting gathering of Tibetans would last forever as it would in a free Tibet.
On one of the nights I was standing next to a small crowd facing an electronic store, where a documentary on Tibet was being shown on a small television set. Upon a scene of a monk being tortured by the Chinese police, a Mongolian devotee, a young female, standing right across me was all in tears and seemed totally shaken. My instant inclination was to make a conclusion for the tears, and I contemplated how our Tibetan plight and cause has become but an anvil for empathy and compassion and a symbol for injustice for the concerned, and nothing more.
A tea stall outside of a side entrance to the main temple, where the local post office stands, in the evening is a scene of bees swarming a beehive, as monks, not queue but crowd up, for the Indian chai, and this popular chaiwala, with burned, never-washed kettle, spouts tea to many reaching out all at once.
Funny as it is, Tibetans love to push and shove on the occasions of religious gatherings, on a belief that they would receive more blessings if they get it the hard way. And this trait seem to have extended to even simpler things in life just as for getting a cup of tea. And I must conclude how quintessential that tea is to us Tibetans, and how culturally assimilated we have become now with the infectious environment around, sugary tea is now what we love and drink more than our traditional salted buttery one.
A few days into the Kalachakra, on an evening stroll to a market on a corner of a street, I had spotted a butcher with a machete chopping meat, and three goats tied nearby, waiting to be slaughtered. I remember taking a picture of that moment, when I saw a Tibetan customer waiting with their carnivorous appetite to buy a piece of the meat, paradoxical enough for the teachings he had come to receive, where non-violence was being preached.
The next day we woke up at five in the dawn for a morning Kora around the main temple. While circumambulating, as I glanced at the temple I saw a white pigeon soar up and perch right on top of the golden minaret of the temple. I found myself at peace, in unison with the tranquillity of the bird soaring above, with the winds of altruistic harmony blowing beneath her wings, and at that very instant, my purpose in life saw an awakening. I saw a spiritual connection being drawn and I have never felt that peaceful at any other moment of my life.
As the Kalachakra Initiation came to a fruitful end, HH advised us that we all should go back home with an incubated peace in our hearts. He showed us a way for it to flourish outwards, and also to carry the one thing that we received from the teaching — to harness and empower the compassionate heart, altruism, loving-kindness within us and commit to change ourselves internally, since that’s the place where the potential to harness buddhahood resides and is identified.
The day after the Kalachakra ended, from the almost two hundred thousand pilgrims gathered, slowly many were seen heading back to their respective homes in packed buses and cars, often times strangers helping each other carry their luggages onto the auto-rickshaws. After His Holiness left Bodh Gaya with thousand onlookers wishing him farewell.
A vacuum enveloped us without his presence and an emptiness could be felt — as if the classroom was left on its own without its teachers. Hundreds left in droves soon after on buses with heads looming out and hands folded towards the Choten for one last prayer until their next visit. Hugs and goodbyes, wishing their friends and families farewell with Tibetan ceremonial scarves. Many wishing and waving goodbye to their fellow pilgrims, total strangers brought in unison with a common goal of obtaining the blessings of Kalachakra bestowed by His Holiness.
The closure of the auspicious event couldn’t have been better, with a TYC lottery where the winner was awarded 1 lakh rupees. To the sea of people gathered neck-and-neck to see the lottery winner, the announcement was made from the vantage point where TYC had relentlessly worked as an announcement center that had quadrupled manifold for other causes too and to the jubilation of a winner, who happened to be a local Indian from Bodh Gaya. Just as the Initiation of the Kalachakra by His Holiness enriched our spiritual lives, it also brought about lots of economic opportunities for the locals there, otherwise an impoverished district, with dismal infrastructure, destitution, and beggars strewn all around.
As I sit here at a hotel towards the end of our pilgrimage onto the laps of Varanasi, where the holy Ganges flows, just as my journey started off with my iPhone stolen that rattled my peace, this morning as we were preparing to board a train to Siliguri, uncertainty loomed one more time, as we were told that the train we were supposed to board from Varanasi to Siliguri had been cancelled. And now, having to spend one extra night, this pilgrim’s progress took me towards the ghats of Varanasi, where mind meets spiritual water, and where death meets liberation. I have become a calmer person as I progressed with this journey and learned to flow with the natural flow and not take all things for granted, just as in life uncertainties surround us, and being able to embrace uncertainty as it comes with dignified grace and spiritual wisdom.