Varanasi to Kathmandu - A Synopsis
28th of April, 2008 - 11:27
The blog has been silent ever since my departure for the grand pilgrimage... I am withdrawing for a month's silent retreat to the solitude of the hills surrounding Kathmandu after posting this synopsis of the journey so far.
Sanchi and Onwards
1st of April, 2008 - 14:02
This is a summary of our visit to Sanchi and a note to let everyone know I'll be for the most part off the grid during the two to three weeks to come.
The Peak of Arunachala
1st of April, 2008 - 13:00
A visit to Arunachala, the sacred mountain of Tiruvannamalai, and the ashram of the late Ramana Maharshi of Advaita-vedanta fame.

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Varanasi to Kathmandu - A Synopsis
Posted: 28th of April, 2008 - 11:27
The blog has been silent ever since my departure for the grand pilgrimage... I am withdrawing for a month's silent retreat to the solitude of the hills surrounding Kathmandu after posting this synopsis of the journey so far. I assume I'll be writing more as I get back to the grid.

While I have some 300+ photos of the pilgrimage up to date, I don't have my laptop here to process them into proper publication shape. You can find some unedited photos at my Facebook albums.

Sarnath to Kushinagar

The first stretch of the pilgrimage was from Sarnath to Kushinagar, from the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon to the place of his departure, or parinirvana as we call it — the final nirvana. Some eight days of walking 30-40 kilometers daily brought us across many a small village with kind and hospitable people.

In Kushinagar, we were based at a small temple near the Stupa marking the place of the Buddha's cremation. The abbot and only monk of the place was Venerable Narasingha, and Indian monk in the ripe old age of 93 years but going on strong. "I am not dying soon. I am doing my tapasya now. I will live 150 years." His repeated advice, "Dhyan koro, Ananda, dhyan koro" -- "Meditate, Ananda, meditate" -- still echoes in my ears.

Our stop at Kushinagar was brief and didn't leave me with as much time as I'd have wanted for exploring the area. Something to get back to in the future... Five people and five minds inevitably means having to compromise one's wishes and ideals.

Kushinagar to Lumbini

Lumbini, the place of the Buddha's birth, is a short walk (some 20 km) off the border on the side of Nepal. A very serene and beautiful area with two monastery zones, Theravada and Mahayana, it hosts the ruins of old monasteries around the stone marking the exact place of birth. The vast fenced and undeveloped area around the monastery zones was a soothing sight. Finally someone understands the importance of trees and empty space!

Towards Kathmandu

Since we got 60 days visas at the border, a brief visit to Kathmandu was in place. The first few nights were spent at a Thai monastery, Sakya Simha Vihar, in the old town of Patan (a city grouped together with Kathmandu), and one at Kopan, the big daddy of the Vajrayana monasteries in Nepal. There are several caves of ancient masters and other sites of interest yet unexplored.

A casual trip to the surrounding mountains at Kopan is now turning into a 30-day silent retreat up at the hills. We've spent three nights at mid-way up the mountain, at the Nagaji nuns' monastery and around. Tomorrow morning we are heading up further on, to the solitude of the peaks.

People wishing to contact me after this message is posted — and as I start the walk back to the mountain — will have to come in with a notebook and a pen. You would find me in the cave next door, under the stump of that old pine tree, or in the belly of one of those jolly tigers that are rumored to be roaming around...

Closing the Circuit

Once the retreat is over, whenever and whatever that means, we return by bus to Kushinagar and start the longest stretch so far, covering some 900 kilometers on foot via Vaisali, Nalanda and Rajagiri to Bodh Gaya. From Bodh Gaya, I'll continue to Sarnath with another 400 kilometers to complete my pilgrimage (Dhammasaro and Cristiyana have already covered it) and pick up the excess stuff we left behind at the Chinese monastery there.

In other news, I will most likely end up staying in India until December — lack of finances cuts short many potential branches from my ongoing pilgrimage. I'm waiting for the heavens to open and rain in enough monies to get me a return ticket to the West by December, the deadline for getting out as my visa and passport expire.

Back on the road, I should be checking in randomly, but I wouldn't be expecting replies to e-mails for some eight more weeks from now. Internet just doesn't seem to be a part of the

Peace and joy to all! May all beings share the merits of this pilgrimage!
Sanchi and Onwards
Posted: 1st of April, 2008 - 14:02

Monuments of Sanchi

Sanchi, located in Madhya Pradesh some 50 km away from the city of Bhopal, is one of the remarkable places of old Buddhist relics in India. While the site post-dates the immediate times of the Buddha, this large area on a hill hosts many ancient stupas and monasteries, the earliest from emperor Ashoka's time. Some of the stupas are told to contain relics of the Buddha's important disciples, and according to some documents found in the nearby archeological museum one of the main stupas contains — or contained — the relics of Sariputta and Moghallana.

The monastery ruins were a powerful sight, invoking the mood of the olden days when the area was filled with monks, an active monastic centre. Some kutis were intact and open, so we took the opportunity for an hour of serene meditation, tapping into the ancient energies still vibrant in the atmosphere, surviving across the ages. Sanchi, even if it isn't included on the usual pilgrimage tours, is a place I would heartily recommend everyone to visit, should they be anywhere in the vicinity or passing by. (Bhopal is on the railway line connecting Delhi to South India.)

Towards Lumbini

My planned brief visit to Mathura and the village of Radhakund, where I still have my kuti, was thwarted with misbooked tickets and a failure to get replacements in a timely manner. Then, the journey from Bhopal continues directly to Varanasi and onwards to Sarnath, where I and Ven. Dhammasaro will be joining Mae Chi Cristiyana and two senior monks from Thailand for a walk towards Kushinagar and Lumbini.

With an aim to travel as light as possible, I will be leaving my laptop behind. While I'll try and check in briefly on the road, it's unlikely that the blog will be seeing much new in the next two to three weeks to come — though I hope to catch up with reports from the journey once we are settled in Bodh Gaya sometime in the second half of the month.
The Peak of Arunachala
Posted: 1st of April, 2008 - 13:00
Tiruvannamalai, a city in Tamil Nadu, has the sacred mountain Arunachala as its divine hub. Its latest master of fame being Ramana Maharshi, the giant of Advaita-vedanta from early 1900's, this awe-inspiring mountain has been a home to countless jnanis and siddhas over the millennia. It is one of the pancha-bhuta-sthalas, abodes of the five elements, representing fire-element.

In the origin story of Arunachala, the old Puranic narrative tells of Brahma and Vishnu having a disagreement over who of the two was the highest divinity. Amidst the quarrel, a vast beam of fiery light sprang forth, a pillar of splendor penetrating the cosmic extremes. Both humbled before the insurmountable challenge, they concluded this cosmic splendor, the presence of Siva, to be the highest reality. This halo materialized as the mountain Arunachala.

We spent one night in the well-maintained guesthouse, and one night at the holy mountain itself. I suppose it was inevitable that I was to be drawn, as if pulled by a magnet, to the highest peak of this 2200 feet manifestation of cosmic radiance. The climb barefoot was a challenge enough, but having come so far, I wanted to spend the whole of the twelve hours I had, from dusk until dawn, at the sahasrara or the thousand-petaled crown of the mountain, as attaining sahasrara alone the supreme non-duality and integration is realized.

Soon enough after the sunset a thunderstorm set in motion. Sitting alone in the solitude of the peak atop a three-meter boulder, the fierce winds were rocking me back and forth even in the steadiest of postures. Rainfall was very minimal, but the atmosphere was very humid. Dark rainclouds were flying past me all around, both beneath and above, at a fierce velocity. It was as if Arunachala, this living mountain pulsating with an otherworldly halo, wanted to give the best of its shows for me.

The weather soon became too extreme to bear while sitting, and I found myself curled up inside the thick shawl I carried. There was little chance for conventional meditation. I spent the better part of the night, aside the few hours of rest, observing the rise and fall of sensations and feelings, their interplay, their intrinsically empty nature. Let no more be said of the night, a night that brought a certain objective to fruition, for some things are to be hidden in the cavity of the heart.

It was in a book by Swami Rama, "Living with the Himalayan Masters" (highly recommended), that I read a wise note of reconciliation on Advaita-vedanta and Buddhism, the two non-dual traditions that have been a source of much insight to me as of late. Narrating the story of his visit to his grandmaster in Tibet, he writes of an encounter with a wise lama:

"While in Gangtok I lived in a monastery, which still exists on the northeast side of the city. There I visited a lama who was a remarkable man. He was a genuine Buddhist yogi and a learned Sanskrit scholar who had lived for many years in Bodhigaya in India. Usually the scholars of Buddhism criticize Shankara, just as the swamis from the order of Shankaracharya criticize Buddhism.

But this wise man, citing references from many texts, taught me a synthesis of Buddhism and Shankara's advaita system. He said, 'There is no difference between these two systems of philosophy as far as the ultimate Reality is concerned. There are verbal differences, but no experiential differences. Cast off all sectarian influences and attain the highest state of consciousness or nirvana.'"

I heartily agree with the above message. It is in vein that scholars describe and criticize philosophies that are beyond their realm of direct experience obtained through application. Even the best expositions are only approximate estimations of experiential realities that transcend common levels of experience and rationality.

In the Buddhist theory, all of reality is characterized by three factors, anitya, duhkha and anatma — all objects are temporary, sources of discontent, and non-self. The root of existence is avidya or ignorance, and the continuance of conditioned existence arises from trishna, or craving. The concept of nirvana or final cessation transcends all non-self conglomerates and is indescribable. The liberating factor is prajna or wisdom, arising from vipascana or wisdom-perception.

In Advaita-vedanta, the problem is in adhyaropa or superimposition of illusory concepts on the nature of objects. Adhyaropa arises from avidya, or ignorance. Existence unfolds with the interplay of raga and dvesa, or attachment and repulsion. The agocara-tattva or ingraspable final reality is understood within the formation world only as neti-neti, "not this, not this". The liberating factor is jnana or wisdom, arising from nididhyasana or meditational wisdom-contemplation.

Contrasting Buddhism and Advaita-vedanta is a fascinating field, better explored on an experimental basis than in dry academic comparisons, or expositions by biased in-tradition scholastics. For the interested, I'd like to share a link to David Loy's Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?, an excellent essay comparing the enlightenment-concepts of Buddhism, Advaita and Sankhya, three classical traditions positing the basic three approaches to the matter-spirit dichotomy.

The visit to Ramanashrama and Arunachala left me with fond memories. I will, no doubt, be revisiting the place with more time at the opening of a suitable future opportunity. I can see why Ramana would have considered Arunachala the greatest of his teachers.

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