In the footsteps of the Buddha

Touching Peace in India

 

 

Meditating at the Bodhi tree. Photography Robert Walsh.

We are a rather odd group. Seven Buddhist monastics in brown ropes with shaved heads coming from France, the USA, Vietnam and India, an Anglican Priest from the USA and three lay friends from Canada and the Netherlands. Together we are walking around the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India. People are passing by, taking pictures, eager to reach the Bodhi tree at the back side of the temple. We are walking slowly, in meditation, to savor every moment of this experience, to be fully present here, at this sacred place.

There it is, the Bodhi tree, or at least a great great grandchild of the Bodhi tree. Together we touch the earth next to it. The same earth where prince Siddhartha once sat under this tree, and where he attained enlightenment. Touching the earth, I try to catch some of the energy of this place, of the Buddha’s wisdom.

We continue walking a bit further and I really feel as if I am walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. My left foot feels the cool earth underneath it, and I know the Buddha has felt the same. My right foot now steps onto the sand and I know I can walk in the footsteps of the Buddha wherever I am on this planet. I will be touching the same earth as he did.

We sit down together, facing the Bodhi tree, and we take this opportunity to meditate together for a bit. Following my breathing, I feel how I have the same Buddha nature in me as prince Siddhartha had. I feel so peaceful, grounded and spacious.

We continue walking around when the tour operator suddenly appears. It’s time to move on to the next activity in our very full program. Before I know it we are back in the chaos of Indian streets where people try to sell souvenirs or beg for money. We are ushered to a large, hot tent with all the other 130 delegates attending the International Buddhist Conclave on the topic of pilgrimage and tourism. Everybody is engaged in animated conversations while exchanging business cards. Shortly after arriving, the cultural program of the evening starts. It is rather difficult to keep the energy of the beautiful experience at the Bodhi tree alive while loud music is playing and colorful dancers perform a Bollywood style dance.

This is India: beautiful cultural heritage sites, a profound spiritual history, streets full of chaos, colors and smells, incredible hospitality and Bollywood-like performances.

 

Opening ceremony at the International Buddhist Conclave Varanasi, India. Photography Robert Walsh.

New kind of tourism

There are 130 tour operators, Buddhist scholars, opinion makers and media people from over 30 countries attending this conference organized by the Indian government to promote Buddhist tourism in their country. On the first day of the conference in Varanasi, during the opening ceremony and the panel discussion it becomes clear that there lays a huge potential in this kind of meeting. There are speakers from a wide range of backgrounds: different Indian ministers of tourism, the director of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), archeologists and Buddhist monastics. They all have interesting perspectives on the subject of tourism and pilgrimage in India. And this is the challenge that we are facing here: how to combine and bring together so many different ideas, needs and wishes?

Different ministers of tourism from different areas in India share how attracting more tourists to these Buddhist sites would be very well to increase economic activities in these places and create more jobs, thereby helping to alleviate poverty. In order to do this the Union Minister of state for tourism, Subodh Kant Sahai, shares about the importance of improving infrastructure, sanitary facilities and cleaning up cities like Varanasi and Bodhgaya.

On a more social level, Mario Favilla, UNWTO executive director, reminds us how (religious) tourism can play the role of a bridge between people from different countries and cultures to build understanding and tolerance amongst each other.

‘One of the challenges we face is finding a balance between social-economic benefits of tourism and preserving historic and archeological fabric and sites’ says prof. R. Cuningham, archeologist from the UK. ‘Buddhist sites are living sites, not dead sites.’ This means the sites are still used by monastic and lay practitioners for ceremonies, rituals and sometimes as living space. This makes it very difficult for the archeologists and other specialists to preserve the sites – its buildings, objects and surroundings – in the best way possible and protect them from degradation and overexposure to light, oxygen, other chemicals etc.  Prof. Cuningham highlights the question of how to find a balance between the desires and the needs around these sites.

In his address, a Buddhist monk from India calls upon the department of tourism to take responsibility for inviting so many Buddhists and non-Buddhists to the holy places in India. He urges the government to secure the possibility for all visitors to experience peace and practice at these holy places. Reminding us that India has the potential to teach the world about peace, tolerance, human rights and gratitude.

Finally, Thay Phap Dung, from the Plum Village monastery in France set up by Thich Nhat Hanh, shares that he hopes that the tourism sector can look into their purpose. What is it they want to spread into the world when reaching out to so many tourists worldwide? There are a lot of negative consequences to mass-tourism such as the destruction of villages and feeding greed in people. However there is also a lot of potential in the facilitation of cross-cultural contact. The happiness of actual human connection is what tourism can contribute. More than physical sites, Indian culture has a spiritual tradition to offer according to Thay Phap Dung. Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular in the West and people will come and look for that spiritual connection and spiritual roots. He continues: ‘Imagine tour guides know meditation. They will be able to actually make you stop to really experience the place instead of trying to rush you through it.’ In this way tourism could become a spiritual experience, both an outer and an inner journey that can be very transformative and healing for everybody.

Thay Phap Dung giving his speech at the International Buddhist Conclave. Photography Robert Walsh.

According to Mario Favilla, tourism is responsible for 5% of GDP worldwide. By the end of this year more than one billion people will have travelled across borders in 2012. And tourism continues to grow. This shows that there lies a huge potential in this sector.

I believe that the most fruitful outcome of this conclave would be the start of an interdisciplinary collaboration between tour operators, the ministry of tourism, archeologists and Buddhist teachers in order to bring together different needs and wishes. This is a chance to make a change in tourism and India could take the lead, showing the world how ethics, spirituality, community building and support and culture and heritage preservation can be the goals of 21st century tourism. Like the Indian minister of tourism shared: ‘The Buddha said: “If you do not know where you are going, any road can take you there.” If we know what road to walk on, we can overcome the obstacles. If we walk the road together, there is no reason we cannot do better.’

The outer and the inner journey are one

 

 

In a tuk tuk, on our way to the stupa. Photography Robert Walsh.

Our small group of monastics, lay friends and a few other participants of the conclave squeeze in a few tuk tuks. Zigzagging through Bodhgaya traffic we hold on to our seats in order not to fall out. After crossing the large river, that is almost completely dry at the moment, we arrive at our destination: the ruin of a big, round stupa. The dark red bricks it is made of contrasts with the natural environment and simple houses around. We find a shady spot where we can sit all together and start with a short meditation. This is the place where Siddhartha came to when he decided to stop his ascetic practice. He had been pushing his body to its limits by exhausting it and not feeding it enough. Arrived close to the village where he hoped to find food, he collapsed. A young girl, called Sujata, was going into the woods that day, carrying some rice milk to offer at a tree shrine, when she saw this man lying on the ground. So as to safe him, she fed Siddhartha with the milk and slowly he gained some energy. From that day on, Sujata came to the woods every day to bring some food and made it possible for him to practice meditation under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment and became the awakened one, the Buddha.

At the Sujata Stupa. Photography Robert Walsh.

While we are all sitting there where Sujata’s house used to be, we hear birds chirping in the trees and we enjoy feeling the breeze on our skin, cooling us down a little bit on that very hot day. These feelings and sounds are probably very similar to what the Buddha must have experienced 2500 years ago. We listen to a sound of the bell and Shantum Seth, tour guide and dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition, shares Sujata’s story with us and explains that he considers that what we are doing there, taking the time to sit in that environment and relate to its history, is exactly what makes the difference between tourism and pilgrimage. Being at a site and feeling the Buddha was a human being. Feeling that we also have the Buddha nature in us. This is possible by being in touch with the fact that the Buddha felt the same breeze, heard the same birds, saw similar trees.

Afterwards we are invited to visit the simple house of one of the villagers and we experience the wonderful hospitality of this lovely family while drinking chai together. Everybody has enjoyed the afternoon very much and by taking our time and stopping to reflect and looking into ourselves it gave the opportunity to everybody to learn something valuable and gain some insight.

Prof. Cuningham, British archeologist, shares how normally he visits these sites with other archeologists. They would discuss the patterns, the architecture, the used materials and so on. This afternoon he enjoyed it very much to become aware of the larger story around such places. He thought the site we visited a few days earlier at Sarnath was too sterile and the site where the Mahabodhi temple and tree are is too busy. The experience today however he thought was wonderful. The right balance of a living site where you can still experience peace.

The American travel writer, Deborah, who also joined us that afternoon, expresses how she came to appreciate her own life more both by getting into contact with the local people of India and seeing how they live as well as by meeting the people she was travelling with. She says she learned how to touch happiness through appreciating what she already has in her life.

Experiencing these sacred places and India’s culture is both incredibly intense and wonderful. Visiting a country in this way makes it really possible to experience actual cross-cultural human connection, humbling us, filling us with gratitude and opening our horizons and hearts. We learn about a country, we connect to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, we learn about ourselves, creating a human family. These sites, these pilgrimages have the potential of waking up people from more developed countries to the direct connection and consequences of their actions on their fellow human beings somewhere else. It has the potential to teach local people about the impact globalization has on them and what their own part is in this, and more importantly what incredible value their ways of life and their culture have.  Tourism in this way has the possibility to build and support communities, preserve cultures and heritage sites, and teach about ethics and spirituality. This is India’s chance to guide the world into this direction.

Although this conclave brought together many bright minds with good will and ideas from all over the world, it didn’t really create a space to bring together the different perspectives and start a constructive dialogue. I hope, however, that the seed has been planted for a collective brainstorm on this topic and that there will be a continuation of this discussion in order to redirect contemporary tourism into something wholesome that could be of benefit to society at large.

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