Buddhist Pilgrimage in India (26Nov-12Dec 2011)

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by Seow Phaik Im

A Buddhist Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites 30 Years later ………………………….

Thirty years ago (1981), I had the opportunity to follow Mr. Neoh Kah Thong (now Venerable Wei Wu) on a pilgrimage to the holy sites in India. It was an inspiring religious tour. Since then it had always been in my mind to make another pilgrimage tour to India again with my husband Koon Beng but the opportunity did not arise then or if it did, the timing was not right. When we were informed of this trip, I felt delighted as this was a chance for us to visit. Before going further, I wish to thank Venerable Wei Wu for allowing us to participate in this tour which was exceptionally beneficial to us. I also wish to thank Venerable Zhen Ru for leading the tour to Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves and Sanchi and also for translating Mandarin into English before Venerable Wei Wu joined us. I would also like to thank the other venerable Shifus, lay tour leader (bro Chan Kean Teong), photographers, nurse (sis Fong Seong) and fellow dharma farers for making this trip meaningful and an experience that we would always treasure.

What makes this trip which has an immense impression on me so special?

Our first stop was at Ajanta Caves and then Ellora Caves. I had read about these rock-hewn caves previously and had wished to visit them some day. The caves at Ajanta were excavated on a horseshoe-shaped cliff between the 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. I was touched by the skilful craftsmanship and the devotion to Buddhism then which would fall into obscuration and ruin later on. Next we visited Sanchi Stupa. The peaceful ambience here was conducive for cultivation. We paid homage to the Triple Gem and did circumambulation, led by Venerable Zhen Ru. Although we had to travel on long and uneven roads most of the time besides having to use the “open-air toilets” along the way, the experience gained in witnessing the monuments with our own eyes far outweighed the discomforts of the journey.

On day 7 i.e. 2Dec 2011 we started our tour to the holy sites which I had visited 30 years ago. Venerable Wei Wu and three other venerable Shifus joined us then after having attended a Buddhist conference in Delhi. We visited the holy sites in the following order:

(1) Isipatana, Deer Park in Sarnath - the place where Sakyamuni Buddha met His five companions who had earlier deserted Him, thinking that He had given up His spiritual practice. The five companions became His first five disciples after having heard the first sermon, called DHAMMACAKKAPAVATTANA SUTTA, from the Buddha.

(2) Bodh Gaya - After Sarnath we went to Bodh Gaya, a place where everyone anxiously awaited to visit. This is the place where Buddha attained Enlightenment. Mahabodhi Temple was erected at the site where Buddha attained Enlightenment. Thirty years ago, this place where some devotees from different nations came to practise was quiet and blissful. Now devotees from many parts of the world poured into this place to practise. On the second day of arrival, Venerable Wei Wu led the group with the Eight Precepts Cultivation. This place was so crowded that we had to squeeze in to do our prostrations. We also met a Vietnamese nun, Ven.Tu Tam, who had stayed here for 11 years. She started a free school named Siddhartha Compassion Trust High School and Vocational Centre for poor and helpless children. She appeared much younger than her 71 years of age, probably due to her cultivation and compassion. Hermant, President of Nagloka Foundation (Youth for Global Buddhism & Social Change), also came to pay respect to Venerable Wei Wu. Hermant had visited and stayed in Than Hsiang Temple, participating in one of the Amitabha retreats. He kindly arranged for us to visit the place where ascetic (Prince) Siddharta practiced ascetism for six years before attaining Enlightenment.

(3) Rajgir - We visited the ground where King Ajattasatu jailed his father, King Bimbisara. From the jail here, the King was able to look towards the Vulture Peak where the Buddha delivered several discourses. Among the several discourses are the Lotus Sutra and PrajnaParamita or the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. We then went to the Bamboo Grove, Velluvana, which King Bimbisara had earlier offered to the Buddha. Following this we made a short stop at the place where the King kept his wealth (the national treasury) before proceeding to the renowned Nalanda University. Finally we went to Griddhakuta Hill (Vulture Peak), where the Buddha spent many rainy retreats, meditating and preaching. The path leading to this peak had improved greatly as compared to thirty years ago. The blissful environment and the cool air made it very conducive for cultivation. We paid homage to the Triple Gem and did circumambulation. The atmosphere was such that I could visualize Buddha preaching and meditating here 2500 years ago. I had an elated feeling.

(4) Patna & Vaishali – This was the old Pataliputra, ancient capital of the Mauryan Empire. We visited the site where the Third Buddhist Council was held. We continued the journey to Vaishali, the place where the Order of Nuns was first established. This was also the place where the Buddha preached the last sermon.

(5) Kushinagar – We visited the Mahaparinirvana Temple where the Buddha left this conditioned existence. The atmosphere was tranquil with the statue of the Buddha lying on the right side. I visualized the Buddha lying down like this 2500 years ago and emotions built up in me. Sadness arose inside me and I thought what a wonderful world it would have been if the Buddha had lived on.

(6) Lumbini – We visited the birth place of the Buddha on the next day. The atmosphere was cool and tranquil. 30 years ago this place had just a small shrine with Asoka pillar nearby, in a big field of yellow flowers. Through archaeological work, the exact spot where Prince Siddharta was born had been located and a big structure was built over it. Now it is good to see many temples/monasteries from various Buddhist nations mushroomed nearby.

(7) Sravasti – Lastly we visited the Jetavana Vihara, a place where Anathapindika bought the piece of land from Prince Jeta and offered to the Buddha. This was the place where the Buddha spent several rainy retreats.

Personal feelings and perception

Each time I made the pilgrimage trip, I felt very relax and good, especially observing the Eight Precepts at the Mahabodhi Temple. I felt very happy to see so many pilgrims and so many temples from different countries being built now in these Holy Sites. Treading the path of the Holy Sites made me connected to the Buddha, especially the path that the Buddha walked 2500 years ago. I felt more tolerant and patient. I was not affected by the discomforts of the long and bumpy bus rides and neither was I affected by the lack of proper toilets at certain places. The twice or thrice daily chanting that we did also helped us spiritually. I hope to continue with this temperament now that we are at home and always to remember the advice of Venerable Wei Wu.