Buddhist tourists

Angulimala stupa, Śrāvastī: The Buddha is gone from here, it’s like languages that become extinct; if the language is not used, refreshed and evolving continuously, it disappears in history. And there are no signs of Buddhism beyond the gates of these historical places, no characteristics of mindfulness, compassion, there’s not even an understanding of it. It can so easily fragment and we can’t hold on to these historical times, annica, impermanence; what’s left are the teachings and sati sampajañña (mindfulness and clear comprehension); a deep and thorough understanding of impermanence. This teaching helps me to understand impermanence in a way that suggests some other kind of temporality. It’s enough to know such a thing is possible and this helps me accept the fact that things are so completely changed now, in the places where the Buddha used to be.

Begging children gather outside the gates and as we are leaving, the tour guide gives us packets of sweets to give to them – intended as a gesture we can make, reflecting on the generosity of Anathapindika (“feeder of the orphans or helpless”), all those centuries ago. But when we start to distribute these small packets, there’s such a fierce clawing and snatching that most of us have to drop the gifts and make a dash for the bus, chased by beggars. Last thing I see is a scuffle amongst them fighting for the ’gifts’. It was a feeling so completely different from the generosity of the historical figure who covered Jeta’s grove with gold coins in order to buy it from Prince Jeta. The Prince was so impressed with the generosity of Anathapindika, he gave the rest of it to him for free and joined with Anathapindika in offering the whole grove as a gift to the Buddha.

Is it possible that the presence of Buddhist tourists has created a generation of beggars at the gates? Anyway, this kind of thing seems to be unavoidable in India; there are beggars in other tourist places also. But the giving of money and gifts is a bit of a shambles and it would be better for everybody if this could be properly organized. What I did see that seemed more positive was a couple of people giving money to the beggars with an honest generosity, joyfully sharing; they were very good at doing it. I learned from this, it seemed to me to have a quality of dignity and mindful generosity and I tried to do it that way afterwards.

So, I wasn’t expecting the presence of beggars to have such an impact during this visit to the Buddhist holy places. Maybe it seems so dominant because what else is there here to see? Only ancient mounds and reconstructed low walls that show the location. I doubt if the bricks are original. There are very old Bodhi trees decorated with prayer flags but not of an age that could be anywhere near to the Buddha’s time. Otherwise there’s the earth and the sky; the air, nothing more than that. What is present is a special kind of sensitivity; visitors are all Buddhists or persons that way inclined, respectful and sincere and what we’re all considering is something that is unseen. If you can focus on being in these places where the Buddha used to be, and allow space for mindful contemplation, just being here becomes part of conscious experience; there’s a reality of that ancient time that comes through, such a fragile thing, barely noticed. It triggers something about these events that happened here all these centuries ago – just knowing it’s possible is enough.

The light and warmth; coolness in shadows in the afternoon, sense impressions, the laughter of a child in the trees and I’m thinking, yes, there would have been this also. I can allow it to be present for a moment and I’m in the 5th Century BC. It’s a simple feeling of just being here. I know how it must be for all other beings to experience this feeling; just like this. Subjectivity; we’re linked like this. The feeling stays for as long as I’m aware of it then it falls away.


Photos – Upper: Bodhi tree with prayer flags.  Middle: Beggars at the gate [Witit Rachatatanun Collection]

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