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Journeys: A Humble Road to the Noble Truths in India and Nepal

May 24, 2009

By RALPH FRAMMOLINO
The New York Times
May 24, 2009

WE arrived in time for dinner -- rice soup,
cabbage and potato curry, roasted wheat and
cassia tora tea. Ladling our fill into
stainless-steel bowls, we joined the other
visitors scattered around the mess hall, careful
to keep a respectful distance from our generous
yet reclusive hosts: the monks and nuns of the
Dae Sung Suk Ga Sa Korean Monastery in Nepal.

Heads shaved and clad in gray robes, they ate
silently at their own small table near the
kitchen. Then they vanished, only to reappear
one-by-one in the upstairs shrine room, which we
had entered earlier and where they took the
meditation cushions closest to the three golden
images of the Buddha, lighted by strings of
electric lanterns overhead. We remained in the back.

When the head monk strode in, our worlds finally
merged. As he beat time on a wooden instrument,
we performed a Korean chant of the Heart Sutra, a
traditional teaching on emptiness. Yet what
filled the room was full and deep, the atonal
harmonies of a Buddhist ensemble — at once jarring, beautiful and transportive.

This was just one of the many spiritual moments
that marked our journey along the so-called
Buddhist Circuit in southern Nepal and northern
India. During eight days over New Year’s, my
partner, Julia, and I traveled by bus, rickshaw
and foot to the four original points of the
pilgrimage route, places declared sacred by the
Buddha himself: where he was born; where he was
enlightened; where he gave his first sermon; and where he died.

Over the centuries, the itinerary, which has
expanded to include other historical Buddhist
sites, has drawn monarchs and monks, relic-hunters and curiosity seekers.

Some travelers take a more upscale route, riding
on air-conditioned trains and luxury tour buses
and staying at full-service hotels. But as
Buddhists living on a Peace Corps budget, Julia
and I opted for a more authentic experience. Our
goal was to travel to the original four places as
the Buddha might, making our own way, leaving
room for serendipity, enduring minor hardships
and seeking refuge in simple monasteries.

A seven-hour bus journey from Gorakhpur, an
Indian city of 622,000 in Uttar Pradesh state,
delivered us to our first stop in southern Nepal:
Lumbini, Buddhism’s Bethlehem. The future Light
of Asia was born in a stand of sal trees around
563 B.C., according to recent Western estimates,
though there is considerable debate in the
Buddhist world over historical dates.

Staggering off the bus some 2,600 years later, we
walked through the gate to find a monastery
construction zone: an ambitious plan to convert
Lumbini, a Unesco World Heritage Site, into a
Buddhist version of Epcot. Forty-two monasteries
and meditation centers were planned; 12 are under construction.

The effort, 14 years behind schedule, has left
clusters of unfinished cement buildings brooding
over a landscape of untilled fields and a
half-bricked pedestrian walkway. Only 14 of the
planned monasteries are complete. Yet to our
surprise, the complex offered a satisfying
sampling of Buddhist diversity, ranging from the
peaked layers of the white Royal Thai wat, or
temple, to the orgiastic murals and kitsch lawn
dioramas of the new Tibetan school’s Drikung Kagyu Temple.

The best moments, however, came when we retreated
to the Korean monastery. Our donation of about $5
a night gave us a standard guesthouse room with a
view of a huge unfinished pagoda temple in the
courtyard. We slept on a futon over a cement
platform and used a squat-style toilet; we were
given a plastic bucket to fetch hot water.

But the ultimate luxury was monastic silence. Our
minds quieted, we drifted off to sleep to calls
of crickets and jackals. At 4 a.m., the monks
provided a wake-up call by standing outside in
the cold mist and chanting an invitation to an early-morning devotional.

Going back into India through Gorakhpur, we left
Lumbini for Kushinagar, a scruffy town 100 miles
east, where the Buddha died in 483 B.C.

We checked into the Japanese-Sri Lankan Buddhist
Guesthouse, an empty and somewhat spooky building
run by a single cheerful monk. Then we wandered
over to the Mahaparinirvana temple, a 1956 shrine
at a bend of the road leading out of town. The
shrine contained one of the biggest attractions
on the circuit: a 20-foot sandstone statue from
the fifth century A.D. of the dying Buddha, lying
vacant-faced on his right side.

Since it was discovered in a temple ruin in 1876,
the iconic figure has drawn thousands of
devotees, who leave offerings of fruit, flowers
and candy. During our two-day visit, we saw
members of a Chinese tour group tearfully touch
their heads to the figure’s toes, long ago
covered in layers of gold leaf. In one surreal
scene, five Indian soldiers slowly circled the
figure in their stocking feet, guns slung over
their shoulders. Then there was Chimi, 38, who
claimed to have done prostrations over the course
of 600 miles of mountainous roads in his home
country of Bhutan. We found him circling the
shrine outside, performing the ritualistic
full-body stretches, wearing knee pads and glides
for his hands fashioned from roller skates and wooden blocks.

Affecting as they were, the devotional
demonstrations did little to distract from
Kushinagar’s dinginess. Peanut vendors, souvenir
purveyors and mangy dogs lined the street in
front of the shrine. There was even a satellite
dish atop the local Tibetan temple.

"If you didn’t have television," one resident
monk explained, "it would be so boring."

Eager to leave Kushinagar, we pined for Bodhgaya,
280 miles southeast in Bihar state. It was there
under a pipal, a fig tree, that the 35-year-old
ascetic Siddhartha meditated in about 528 B.C.
until he attained enlightenment, the state beyond existential restlessness.

Our goal was to be sitting under the tree on New
Year’s Eve. Since there were no direct buses or
trains, we hired a private driver. Twenty-nine
hours later — fog, a snapped suspension spring, a
cracked wheel bearing and many wrong turns — we
limped into Bodhgaya on Dec. 31, angry, tired and
in no mood for epiphanies. After stowing our
luggage in our room at the Karma Monastery, we stomped off to the tree.

What we found was something like New Year’s Eve
at the Rose Bowl. As beggar children tugged at
our arms for money, throngs of monks in their
“school” colors paraded toward the temple
grounds, where the tree is enshrined. There were
Tibetans in maroon, Thais in mustard yellow, Sri
Lankans in bright orange — many, oddly, wearing
surgical masks against the air pollution.

Subsumed in the giddy crowd, we were carried
through the entrance of the complex, also a
Unesco World Heritage Site, which is dominated by
an ancient 164-foot pyramid shrine called the
Mahabodhi Mahavivihara. Turning left, we swept to
the other side of the temple. Then, we saw it — the Bodhi Tree.

Mystical and familiar, it stood more than 50
feet, its branches thick with leaves and
extending over an ancient balustrade, its larger
limbs supported by painted steel poles. According
to historians and Buddhist scholars, the tree is
probably a fifth- or sixth-generation descendant
grown from cuttings traced to the original, which
was reportedly destroyed by the jealous wife of
Ashoka, the ruler of much of the Indian
subcontinent in the third century B.C. and widely
believed to be Buddhism’s most famous convert.

Yet the power of the tree, even by inference,
seemed palpable. Under streamers of colorful
prayer flags tied to its branches, some people
collected wind-blown leaves as sacred souvenirs.
Mostly, they sat in meditation.

So did we. We had come halfway around the world
for this moment. It didn’t disappoint.

After his enlightenment, the newly minted Buddha
walked 160 miles west to a deer reserve outside
Varanasi to deliver his famous teaching on the
Four Noble Truths. Our passage to the spot, now
known as Sarnath, came via second-class coach on
Indian Railways, topped by a short ride in a
tuk-tuk, a motorized three-wheeler.

Battling a letdown, I set low expectations for
this final stop of the circuit tour. But Sarnath
supplied a soft landing from the intensity of
Bodhgaya, adding a surprising lightness to the
trip. At the Indian Archaeological Service park,
groups of smiling monks took pictures of one
another while families picnicked on vast
manicured lawns just feet from 2,300-year-old monastery ruins.

Across the street in the Archaeological Museum,
tourists listened to guides explain how the
artifacts of a religion now marginalized in its
birthplace continue to cast a long cultural
shadow. The most striking example of enduring
Buddhist influence was the pillar King Ashoka
planted in Sarnath — he left around 84,000
Buddhist pillars and stupas throughout his
kingdom — depicting four snarling lions, standing
back-to-back with veins popping from their legs,
protecting the dharma, or Buddhist teachings. The
lions are now the national emblem of India; the
dharmachakra wheel on the capital base is the
symbol in the middle of India’s flag.

But I spied a more interesting human tableau
working its way around the Buddhist artifacts. A
group of elderly Tibetans in musty clothes,
clearly mistaking the galleries for a shrine,
touched their heads to exhibition cases and
rubbed their prayer beads over light panels and
antiquities. One museum guard put up a mild
protest, only to let them carry on. Sensing my
amused stare, he smiled back. Then he clasped his hands in mock prayer.

Message understood: You have to admire the spirit of pilgrims.

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE BUDDHA: PILGRIM'S PREROGATIVES

GETTING THERE

It is best to travel the Buddhist Circuit in the
cooler months from October through February. Most
people start in Sarnath, India, near Varanasi. A
recent online search showed one-stop flights from
New York to New Delhi and then to Varanasi,
starting at $1,220 (Jet Airways, Air India,
Emirates and Continental). Or you can save by
breaking the flights into separate legs. New York
to New Delhi is $867 on a one-stop flight on Air
France; New Delhi to Varanasi is $190 nonstop on
Kingfisher Airlines or Jet Airways. Total: About $1,050.

WHERE TO STAY

Reservations are not necessary but suggested,
especially in Bodhgaya, India, because the season
is compressed, Buddhist groups have special
gatherings, and monasteries often host large tour
groups from their home countries. Bring your own toilet paper and towels.

The Dae Sung Suk Ga Sa Korean Monastery
Guesthouse in Lumbini, Nepal, also known as the
Korean Mahabodhi Society Monastery (Western
Monastery Zone; 977-7158-0123), has rooms for
three-night stays. Donations are voluntary, and meals are included.

In Kushinagar, India, the Japan-Sri Lanka
Buddhist Center (Atago Asshin Kyokai World
Buddhist Culture Association; Ramabar Road;
91-5564-2730-42 or 43 or 44;
venassajikushinagar@yahoo.com) has rooms for a
suggested donation of 300 Indian rupees a night
(about $6 at 50.6 rupees to the dollar), including breakfast.

The Karma Temple, near the Great Buddha Statue,
is run by the Kagyupa Vajrayana Buddhist
Monastery in Bodhgaya (Temple Street;
91-9431-2808-12; ktcmbodhgaya@yahoo.com). The
suggested donation of 350 rupees a night includes
the use of a communal bathroom; meals are not included.

At the Myanmar Buddhist Temple-Dhammachakka
Vihara (91-542-259-5199;
dhammachakkavihara@yahoo.co.in) behind the
archaeological park in Sarnath, rooms are
available for an unspecified donation; meals are not included.

WHERE TO EAT

In Kushinagar, the Yama Cafe (91-995-611-2749),
on Mahaparinirvana Path near the Chinese Temple,
is a mandatory stop for ample dishes and a
scrumptious thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup; just don’t look in the kitchen.

In Bodhgaya, the Tibetan Market, near the
Kalachakra Grounds, has Buddhist-themed food
tents serving Tibetan dishes like momos (meat or
vegetable dumplings) and other Tibetan
specialties. American-style breakfasts are
available at the Aahar Restaurant in the Embassy
Hotel (Dumhan Road; 91-631-220-07711), opposite the Thai Temple.

In Sarnath, the Shangri-la Tibetan Restaurant
(Dharmapala Road; 91-988-992-8289) serves great thukpa, as well.

TOURING

Not into monastic-style traveling? One luxury
tour is the Mahaparinirvana Express, an eight-day
excursion on Indian Railways (www.irctc.co.in)
that includes all four original circuit stops,
plus other historic Buddhist places in northern
India, before ending at the Taj Mahal. The tour,
originating from New Delhi, includes
air-conditioned sleeper cars, meals, hotels and
English-speaking guides. Tickets range from about
$665 a person for a three-tier sleeper to about $1,050 for first class.

Prices do not include airfare.
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