India is an abstraction.
— Winston Churchill
This week I had the pleasure to join Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche and other Rangjung Yeshe Institute (RYI) students on a weeklong pilgrimage to holy sites throughout India. This was my first time in India, and honestly, I just have no words for this place. However, I think Churchill said it best that it is an "abstraction."
Check out my video from the trip and feel free to read on if you're curious. I hope you are captivated by the magic of India that I was entranced in last week.
Our pilgrimage kicked off with a quick 45-minute flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Varanasi, India. Upon arrival in India, we hopped on a 5-hour bus to Bodhgaya, the place where we would spend our week. When I first stepped foot in India, the temperature outside was 90ºF and this was just a normal day in October. The feeling brought me back to when I lived in Boston two summers ago bathing in the air-conditioned rooms of my work office. The problem here is that there is no air-conditioning in Bihar state—the third-largest state in India and one of the poorest places in all the world.
The city of Bodhgaya was just filled with beggars, street children, and cows. This was the biggest culture shock for me because I thought Nepal had it bad with these things. India actually takes the cake and everything else I have. What brought me comfort was that we quickly settled into the Burmese Vihar (Buddhist monastery), the place where we will be receiving the Rinpoche's daily evening dharma teachings for Antioch exchange students who study at the vihar.
Over the course of the week, RYI students got the opportunity to practice and meditate at the Mahabodhi Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site that marks the location where Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), is said to have attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree. This is an incredible place deserving of awe and wonder for the nearly 20-story tall tower that stands at the center of the enclosed space. The holy and incredibly vast-branched bodhi tree stands beside the temple at the back side and surrounding it are thousands of monks representing Tibet, India, Myanmar, and Vietnam to just name a few. It was hard not to get lost in the waves of people prostrating, chanting mantras, or circumambulating the tower. For the next few days, I got lost, or rather found myself in the midst of such a holy place.
Everything about this place was auspicious. Its really eerie how much good fortune unfolded around this place this week, but I am really blessed to have been here. This good fortune started with the fact that we were coincidently in Bodhgaya at the same time as Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche, a world-renown Buddhist teacher and award-winning filmmakers. I attended his public teachings, Tibetan mantra chants that he led around the Mahabodhi Temple, and a group refuge vow ceremony that he said were an "instant-noodle version of refuge vows". The most amazing moment for our group was that we actually got to meet him in person with the help of our Bhutanese friends! This was just the beginning of the good fortune though.On our last full day in Bodhgaya, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche gave his last teaching on the lawn outside the Mahabodhi Temple. After he did this, he gave us refuge and bodhisattva vows—a really special and unforgettable experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The last leg of our pilgrimage unfolded in Varanasi, home of the holy Ganges River—the most important and sacred pilgrimage center in the world for Hindus. We arrived there in the night with the plan of joining Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche on a boat cruise along the Ganges. When we first got to the ghats (area on the banks of the Ganges River), it was an overwhelming feeling for me. I could feel the incredible energy of the place with the masses of people all gathered for worship. Our group managed to grab a boat and I helped support the Rinpoche by the hand as we first entered the boat!
I happened to take a seat right next to the Rinpoche on the boat and this is a moment that I will never forget. The trip on the boat really capture the essence of my entire trip in India as something that has been inspiring and extremely auspicious.