So Many Roads ~ BACK TO NEPAL

Have we not come a long way? So many superstitions and dogmas have been exposed and debunked, setting us proportionately free. We might have gone on believing that the Universe and everything in it was created in 6 days just over 4,000 years ago, and that the planet upon which we live was the center of that Universe. We might still be living under the illusion that our Earth was flat, and that if we sailed too far over the ocean, we would fall off the edge. We might now still believe that disease is caused by demons, and any number of other preposterous things. The process of discovery goes on, and is exciting. We cannot afford to make up our minds and arrive at final conclusions. Better to acknowledge our ignorance and say, "I don't know".

Unable to extend my visa anymore, I returned to Thailand, but not for long, and in February of ’74, flew to Kathmandu, expecting to stay with Lodro-Thye in his Tibetan monastery, but he didn’t welcome me, making some excuse about them having to cook their own food. This was really better for me, as they were not vegetarians anyway, and I had reverted to my vegetarianism quite a long time before. So I went to stay in Anandakuti Vihara, a Theravada monastery behind Swayambhu, where the abbot ~ Ven. Amritananda, a scholar of some distinction ~ welcomed and treated me kindly enough. They were vegetarian here, and I stayed several weeks ~ it was so cold at first that I had to go to bed around 6 pm to keep warm! ~ until I heard of an upcoming meditation-course especially for Westerners at a Tibetan monastery on a hill outside Bodnath, at Kopan, so I went to enroll and paid the fee. Starting-day saw about 150 people assembled in a big marquee erected for the purpose; they were quartered in rooms of various sizes around the place; I was given a small one to myself; toilet-facilities were quite primitive, as the monastery hadn’t long been founded, and bathing-facilities were either non-existent or it was too cold to use them anyway. This was the second meditation-course to be held there.

The course was conducted by a young lama named Zopa, under the guidance of his teacher, Lama Yeshe, who, even so, was lower on the hierarchical-scale than his pupil; Zopa was a recognized ‘Rinpoche’, or ‘Precious One’, a nomination found only in Tibetan Buddhism; I’ve never understood this, and have often wondered why, when all Buddhists, of any sect or school, accept the concept of many lives; it is obviously part of Tibetan culture, like so many things.

We’d been given a manual to help us to follow the course easier, as most of the participants were new to Buddhism and many had never practiced meditation before, so the first few days were somewhat hard-going and there was a build-up of tension until it became quite intense; some people quit and left after two or three days, and continued to do so throughout the month-long course; I myself left before the end, having had enough.

On the fourth day, the sky became overcast, and grew darker as time passed; a storm was obviously coming. In mid-afternoon, we were all sitting quietly, the lama on his throne, when suddenly, I began to shake, and wondered, “What’s happening?” I thought it was something to do with my meditation, as strange things can and do happen during it, but not necessarily so. Then someone called out, “Earthquake!”, and it was, the first I’d ever felt! People came out shouting in the valley below, but it wasn’t a strong tremor, and soon ceased. We continued to sit there and then it began to rain quite heavily, and when we came out later, it was dark, the rain had stopped, and the sky was very clear, with a full-moon floating in it; and, more startling, the tension that had been building among us had dissipated and gone.

I don’t recall anything of great value from the teaching during this course, but do remember Lama Zopa saying something rather silly. He told of a fly that flew from pile-to-pile of dung and refuse around the Great Stupa at Bodnath, as a result of which, it became enlightened! Now, it might be alright to tell Tibetans this simplistic stuff, but quite inappropriate for Westerners, especially those who know nothing about Buddhism and who are unable to recognize the distinction between myth and reality; they might take the words of the teacher literally ~ many people do ~ and get turned off ~ again, many people do ~ thinking Buddhism no better or different than their background religions.

Of the two, I found Lama Yeshe the most attractive; he was so warm, friendly and ebullient ~ his face always ready to burst into a wide smile, revealing his gapped-teeth ~ that everyone loved him; he was so full of life! Lama Zopa, on the other hand, was still young and had not the same degree of confidence. Both had picked up the slang and idioms of the hippies they’d been with for several years by then, and often came out with expressions like, “Groovy”, “Far out”, and “Too much”.

Returning to Kathmandu, I went to stay in another Theravada monastery nearer the town ~ Gana Maha Bihar ~ where there were several elderly Nepalese monks, one of whom, Ven. Sumangala, spoke English well, having studied in Burma, and because he’d spent some years in Japan, spoke Japanese, too. During my time there, I came down with amoebic-dysentery, which wasn’t much fun, and I lost 35 pounds (16 kgs) before I got over it; I’d been only 150 pounds to begin with, and so was down to 115 pounds, which I can hardly imagine now!

Visiting Lama Sonam at Swayambhu, I asked him if he could get me some more relics (those his teacher had given me two years before had come from Swayambhu). He asked me to come back in a while, and when I did, he gave me a folded paper, which contained over 600 of the same tiny, pearl-like objects I’d had before, but which I’d given away. I will have more to say of them later, but let me just mention now that I gave three of them to Sumangala, who acted with surprise: “How can this be?” He said, “I’ve lived here all my life and have never even seen these things; while you have been here just three months and can have so many!” I was unable to answer.

After the Wesak celebration in May, Sumangala invited me to go to Pokhara. We went by bus, on the newly-built Chinese road, going to stay in a temple run by a kindly and elderly nun. Pokhara was a small and quiet town then; only later did it become a tourist destination, with hundreds of hotels near the lake there.

A Japanese monk named Fuji-Guru-ji was building one of his ‘Peace Stupas’ overlooking the lake (he’d built a number of such stupas in various countries, but died before he could achieve his aim of building 108 of them) ~ and Sumangala knew some of the monks there (Fuji was not there at the time), so took me by boat across the lake, then up the steep hills to the temple. He had my food served to me separately, while he, not being vegetarian, ate with the other monks. In the morning, I took my leave of him, and descended to the road on the other side of the hills, and walked for the rest of the day towards Tansen. I should mention, before going any further, that the Shanti Stupa was apparently being built without proper authorization from Kathmandu, and not long after, the government ordered it destroyed, which it subsequently was. Several years later, the appropriate permission having been sought and granted, it was rebuilt, and now stands resplendent, like a beacon visible from afar; in fact, it is the first monument that comes into sight as people arrive from Kathmandu by road.

I obtained food along the way, but ate only in the morning, before noon, still following that rule, and when night overtook me, I lay on one of the flat-topped concrete barriers beside the road, and slept there beneath the starry sky. The next morning, I hitched a ride to Tansen, still some hours away, clinging to its hills, and sought out the temple there, where I was given shelter for the next night, after which I set off down to Bhairava, the town nearest to Lumbini. There was no paved road to Lumbini in those days, but just a dusty track, and no buses by the time I got there, so I had to walk most of the 10 miles. And what dust! I had never seen dust like it ~ so deep and fine that each footstep produced a large puff so that very soon I was covered in it! Halfway there, night fell, but I continued, and after some time, a tractor came from behind and gave me a ride, but it churned the dust up into a cloud, further covering me in it. I was so relieved to be dropped at Lumbini and shake off some of the stuff as I made my way to the Nepalese temple (one of two temples there in those days, the other was Tibetan). The resident monk welcomed me, and I bathed before settling down for the night.

Now, although UNESCO had allocated funds for developing Lumbini, it seems that these had been sitting in Kathmandu with the mice nibbling at them until finally, nothing was left, and it was many years before Lumbini saw any development. It was a dry, dusty place, with little to see apart from the Ashokan Pillar marking the place reputed to be the birth-place of Prince Siddhartha, a shrine with an image of his mother giving birth to him, a pool where tradition has it she bathed after the event, several bodhi-trees, a ruined, over-grown stupa, and a number of small monuments here and there. The people of that area are either Hindus or Muslims; there were no Buddhists at all; the winds of change had blown them away long centuries before.

Crossing the border nearby, I went to Gorakhpur, and from there to Kusinara, the place where the Buddha ended his days at the age of 80. As usual, I had to find a place to stay first, and went to the Burmese monastery (there were more monasteries here than in Lumbini, with several under construction). I greeted a monk there and asked how he was, and was rather surprised at his reply: “Fine, thanks; I’ve got smallpox”! I said I hoped he would soon recover, and quickly went elsewhere, ending up in a Tibetan monastery, where I stayed long enough to slowly visit the main shrines ~ a new building standing on the site of the Buddha’s demise, holding a large image of Him in the passing-away posture, and the ruined brick stupa on the cremation-site ~ and after meditating a while in each place, continued on my way to Sarnath, near Benares, the site of the Deer Park where the Buddha is supposed to have given His First Sermon. His audience were the Five Ascetics who had attended him earlier until he began to eat again so as to regain his strength, and had deserted him, thinking he had abandoned his search and returned to a life of sense-pleasures (I will tell more of this later on in my narrative). There, I obtained shelter in a Thai monastery for the few days I stayed in Sarnath, which became and remained my favorite of the four main Buddhist holy places; it had a sense of tranquility about it that the others seemed to lack.

My next destination was Budh-Gaya, and so, skirting Benares (its real name is Varanasi, ‘Benares’ being the Raj-era name for this holiest-of-holy Hindu cities), and crossing the Ganges bridge by foot again, I hitch-hiked along the Grand Trunk Road ~ the road which Rudyard Kipling described in his classic tale, “Kim,” as ‘a river of life’. Built by the Muslim rulers centuries ago, but is really much older than that, it runs from the Khyber Pass on the North-West Frontier, to Dacca in what is now Bangladesh, and for long stretches of its length is still shaded by banyan and other great trees, so that in some parts it seems like a green tunnel. Kipling would not recognize his ‘river of life’ now, as it is congested by crowded buses and lumbering, over-loaded trucks, many of which come to grief along its length; you often see them capsized at the roadside, their loads strewn about, or, worse still, mangled and crushed from head-on collisions with others of their kind as they failed to overtake something else; the drivers of these, and of buses, too, play games of brinkmanship, to see who will give way first and pull off onto the shoulder, and who will go hurtling past, victorious. Cyclists, pedestrians, bullock-carts, camel-trains and others had better heed their relentlessly-blaring horns and move aside as soon as possible if they don’t want to be knocked into oblivion; drivers here are merciless, considering the roads their preserve, on which to do as they like.

No matter what kind of vehicle you’re in or on, you cannot travel very fast in India because of the poor condition of the narrow roads and the slow speed of many road-users; you must resign yourself to this.

It was night, therefore, when I was dropped at the turn-off to Budh-Gaya. Walking the rest of the way, the sound of amplified music reached me, and I wondered what was happening in this, the most holy of Buddhist places; it was a wedding-procession, with elephants, horses and people gaily dressed. It passed, and I sought shelter in a Japanese temple, where I stayed overnight before moving to a resplendent Thai temple built for Buddha-Jayanti, the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s demise in 1956. I was given a room, but was disappointed to find that, even here, the monks continued to eat meat. At that time, there were still no butcher-shops, so in order to get meat, the monks had to go to the neighboring town of Gaya, about 10 miles away, but when Hindu taxi-drivers discovered why they were going, they refused to take them (I was told), even though they lost fares thereby. The monks stopped going, and got someone to go for them, still getting what they wanted, and were unwilling to do without. Many Hindus are vegetarians, and even those who aren’t know about it, and have little respect for monks who eat meat; their own monks, of the various schools of Hinduism, and the sadhus, are all vegetarians. I have heard of, and seen myself, Tibetan monks in Dharamsala buying meat in butcher-shops, and Indians ~ unless they are Muslims or Christians ~ really look down on them, wondering why they can’t give up this habit. I have also wondered, and never understood, why monks can go on eating meat and still talk about compassion for all beings; not that I’m the most-compassionate person in the world, but I see a discrepancy here, and feel that we should make a start, and that becoming vegetarian is the most-obvious way to do it.

Eating in the Thai temple, therefore, was a bit difficult, and sometimes I would make an excuse to eat out; when I did eat there, I ate only of those without meat or fish, which were very few, but with rice, it was enough to satisfy my hunger, and I didn’t stay there long, anyway.

Of course, it was a thrilling experience to visit the Mahabodhi Temple, especially at this time, the height of the hot season, when there were few pilgrims, tourists, beggars, or vendors of trinkets. It was much more quiet and peaceful than at other times, and I was able to enjoy the tranquility and meditate undisturbed, either sitting in the shade of one of the several large bodhi-trees or pacing slowly and mindfully around the main shrine. It stands on the spot where Siddhartha ~ who, by then, had become known as ‘Sakyamuni’ (‘Sage of the Sakyas,’ his clan or tribe) attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha, which is a title meaning "One Who Is Awake".

Having stayed in Budh-Gaya long enough ~ traditionally, pilgrims stay a minimum of three days in each place ~ I caught a train in Gaya to Calcutta, where, crossing the Hoogli River by the Howrah Bridge, I got a room in the Mahabodhi Society. I didn’t see much of Calcutta, and therefore got the erroneous impression that it was ‘the end of the world,’ an impression which would remain with me until a visit in ‘98. I spent my time browsing through bookstores and stalls on the street, buying books to take back to Bangkok with me, having resolved to deepen my studies. One of the books I got there was a copy of the Tao Te Ching, which ~ along with some books by Krishnamurti, who I’d only recently heard of ~ was soon to be instrumental in liberating me from the narrowness of Theravada Buddhism.

At the meditation-course in Kopan, I’d met a Dutch guy who told me he’d spent some time in Calcutta, and investigated things that went on there ~ shocking things. It seems that certain people ~ perhaps I should say, ghouls ~ prowl the streets in search of poor people who obviously don’t have long to live, and approach them with offers to buy their bodies when they die. A deal reached, a down-payment is given, and the remainder paid to the family after the recipient’s death. The body is then taken to a ‘factory,’ where the flesh is stripped away and the bones boiled to clean them, ready for export. The stench from such places is said to be overpowering! India is the main source of human skeletons for use by medical-students. I didn’t come across such places myself during my several times in Calcutta, but did find this report confirmed in a book called “City of Joy,” by Dominique Lapierre.

I returned to Bangkok in June ’74, loaded with books, and stayed in Wat Pleng again, where I modified the kuti I was assigned by making book-shelves; I also painted a large mural on one of the plastered walls depicting The Blind Alleys of Avijja (Ignorance); it was still there, clear and fresh, when I visited ten years later.

Daily, I went for alms with my bowl, to receive the food-offerings of anyone who wished to give. Now, this is not begging, as is supposed, as monks are not allowed to ask, but accept whatever is given. This has been used, and continues to be used, as one of the excuses for eating meat; another excuse is that the Buddha never forbade His monks to eat meat, but that, too, is untenable today, as no-one eats 2,500-year-old-meat, and we have a moral choice.

During my four-months’ stay in Bangkok this time, I established quite a good alms-round by going down lanes and alleys where I’d noticed no other monks going. At first, no-one came out to offer anything, but as I continued going there day-after-day, people started to come out regularly. However, most of the food ~ apart from any fruit or cakes that might be offered ~ contained meat or fish, and such food I gave away upon returning to the monastery, not eating it myself. I often had to get by with just a plate of rice with a cup of milo poured over it (which was one-up on the milk-rice offered to Sakyamuni just before his Enlightenment; I had milo-milk-rice!), or with pickled vegetables; and during these months, to save time that I felt could be better spent on my studies, I ate only breakfast rather than the customary breakfast and lunch within 5 hours, with the other 19 hours empty; at least, my single meal was at the same time every day. It didn’t take long to adjust to this regimen and I felt alright with it. Then I began to ask my daily donors, in my broken but adequate Thai, “Please, if possible, could you offer only vegetarian food, as I don’t eat meat?” Now, although, as stated above, monks are not supposed to ask for anything special, saying, “I like this; I don’t like that”, I felt that I was asking for the sake of the animals and fish rather than for myself. And the people obviously didn’t mind me asking, as they readily complied with my request, and I was soon receiving as much food as I needed.

There was a young novice named Banyat in the monastery, and when he found out I had relics, he was very excited, and used to visit me quite often. He was Thai-Chinese, and I saw something different in him, and encouraged him in his studies.

One day, I was called to the deputy-abbot’s kuti; someone was on the phone for Alan, but he wasn’t there. It was a young Aussie named Tim (not his real name; I’ve changed it in order to respect his privacy). He was at the airport, and briefly told me that while he and his wife, Jill, had been in the south, she had freaked out from smoking dope. Returning to Bangkok, they’d tried to board a plane back to Oz. In this, however, they were thwarted, as Jill was still mentally disturbed, and they were prevented. Tim asked me for help, and I told him to give me an hour or so and I’d be there. Getting to the airport, I found them in the lounge, Jill quite distraught. Tim told me more of their story, and asked me to sit with her, while he went to negotiate with the authorities again. Opposite me, Jill noticed I had a wart on my right thumb, and seemed to fixate on this; she leaned over to touch it. I was in a dilemma; what to do? We were in public view, and because I was a monk, many eyes were on me. I had to decide fast, between withdrawing hastily to comply with custom and thereby risk alienating Jill, or allow her to touch me and thereby establish a connection. “Well,” I reasoned, “I came here to help her, and if I withdraw, I might lose the opportunity to do this.” So I sat there and allowed her to touch the wart. Guys began to circle around us, like sharks, glaring at us. I tried to tell them she was out of her mind and needed help, but of course they didn’t understand; I was, after all, going against their tradition.

Unable, still, to board their flight, we got Jill into a hospital, and Tim came back to the monastery with me. The next day, when we went to see her, we found that the hospital had transferred her to a mental-asylum; we were shocked, but could do nothing except make our way to the said institution, and were even more shocked at the conditions there; with loud-speakers blaring, I could imagine anyone becoming unbalanced if they were not so before being taken there! Poor Jill was kept there until she was deemed well enough to leave; they were then able to fly out.

The Rains’ Retreat came to an end, and I accepted the invitation of a monk to accompany him to stay in his countryside monastery several hours out of Bangkok for a few days. The day after we got there, I joined the other monks for alms-round in the nearby town, and was third or fourth in line as we paced along mindfully in single-file. Reaching the market, some people were waiting to offer us food, so we stopped and turned to face them as they came down the line, starting with the lead monk. While standing there, with eyes downcast, a fish jumped out of a tub at a fishmonger’s stall, and wriggling its way directly towards me, and stopped at my feet. Again, I was in a predicament: should I follow the rule and remain silent on alms-round, not speaking even when people kindly placed food in my bowl but mentally blessing them instead, or should I say to the fishmonger, “Please keep this fish for me, and I will come back later and pay you for it, and put it in the river”? I am sorry to say that I followed the rule. I followed the rule, but I didn’t do the right thing, and after the people had completed their offerings, we turned and went on our way. I was only two years as a monk then, you see, and unsure of myself, but if such a situation arose now, I wouldn’t hesitate to disregard the rule and save the fish. But, you might say, “Why do you remember this, so long afterwards? It was only a fish.” And I might reply: “To you, it was only a fish, but to the fish, it was its life!” I felt ~ and still feel ~ that it came to me asking for help, and I failed it.

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