the forever war

POSTCARD#307: Chiang Mai: The image here, was taken while we were on a visit to the holy Buddhist sites in North India. It shows a group of men involved in some sort of argument, viewed from the window of our tour bus, as it was moving through crowds of pedestrians and various kinds of vehicles. The sound of very loud angry voices and heavy blows got everyone’s attention, all I could see was the top of their heads because other passengers crowded the bus window. No room to squeeze in, so without seeing where to point the camera, I held it in a downward position and ‘click’. It was guesswork, thinking it’ll probably not come out, but it did – the group perfectly positioned in the centre of the frame. The bus made its way slowly through the crowd then accelerating along empty streets and we were gone in a moment.

Looking at the image now, the man in the green shirt is trying to do something with that pole and the other guys are preventing him or pushing back. The tremendous intensity coming from the green-shirted man is noticeable.  Murderous thoughts ready to explode on the surface. There’s another emotion too, he looks determined but tearful, as if he might start to cry. It was significant, I suppose because there we were on a tour of the Holy sites where the Buddha had spent most of his life, and now this 2500 years later, an example of Greed Hatred and Delusion. The Buddha must have come across many such disputes, and quietly observed aspects of the argument, or sometimes he would have been asked how best to resolve the issue.

Looking at what’s written about the three defilements, or three poisons, and contemplating these, I see that the natural human preference is that conflict be forgotten, and as long as no effort is there to keep it going, conflict falls away by itself. There’s all kinds of other stuff that engage the mind however, conflict is gratifying, feeding the base sensory driven state. We fuel the fires to maintain conflict in the mind; in our world media coverage and war-mongering, the opportunity arises to build up tension, involving narratives in the mind, peaking in justified outrage. If the political manipulation of circumstances were not there, we could just as easily allow the conflicted mind go, but we’re drawn in, and it gets to a point when engagement with the consequences of conflict is inevitable; this is always how it is.

I started up my laptop this morning Thai time, and discovered that the US led coalition had sent missiles into Syria. I wanted to write something about it, then found an old post titled ‘Conflict and Release’ that seemed somehow unfinished, waiting for events to be right for its conclusion. So that was all I could do, and here it is rewritten. Regarding the event itself, all sorts of things come to mind, mainly to do with cover-ups, otherwise the same as all other kinds of war and arguments forever unfinished. The Buddha offered a way to understand how the mind works and to see, through ordinary human experience, the way to bring an end to Suffering.


I seem to be rewriting old posts these days, rather than writing new posts. This is how it is at the moment, busy in the studio and not active in front of the screen. I hope to be able to offer up some examples of new Art soon.
Be well
T

 

a buddhist’s sense of suffering

IMG_2872bOLD NOTEBOOKS: CHIANG MAI: I’m lying with an IV drip in my arm and exactly why, I don’t know right now, but there’s also a laser beam directed into my vein along with the needle. So presumably, laser light is present all through the circulatory system as the chelation fluid enters my body. This special treatment may provide a cure in the long term for the PERMANENT HEADACHE I’m learning to live with… who knows, I’ll try anything, and at least they treat you well here. I’m laid-back in a comfortable soft TV lounger but instead of TV watching I’m looking out into a small garden with birds to watch and scribbling notes on a print-out from the first draft of this post… careful of the pain from the needle in my left arm.

FullSizeRender (7)I have to say, this is about my experience of headaches, discomfort and suffering so if you don’t like the thought of reading more about pain, click the button and get away from here now! But if you’re curious and interested in the buddhist sense of suffering, think of any kind of discomfort you have experienced and consider this: it’s the struggle to get away from pain that causes the suffering. The energy used in trying to get away from it just fans the flames and makes it what it is. And, because it’s habitual, maybe a lifetime of doing it like this, things just go on and on until I see the only thing that’s preventing me from letting go of suffering is that I’m still holding on to it.

This insight into suffering comes about, not by choice, but by allowing yourself to be in a no-choice situation – or maybe it’s like that; there’s no other way, absolutely no escape. And, what I’m talking about here will be familiar to sufferers of chronic pain, usually you do everything in your power to not even think about this kind of thing, so there’s a kind of unpreparedness about it. Unknowingly you’re caught like the proverbial rabbit hypnotized by the circling predator. Helpless, you give up, go stumbling towards the pain and unexpectedly, a door opens inside that place and there’s an easing. You discover it’s a mind thing; the habitual action to get away from it is the cause of the pain… it’s this vortex you get to in the end that leads to the discovery of the moment of easing held in the center of pain. I feel the moisture of an eye-blink, the absolute physicality of being here.

There’s a strange kind of time shift about it, it’s somehow not until after it’s happened you notice time skips a beat. It’s somewhere around here that the realization happens; ignorance is displaced by the knowledge of it, awareness floods in and there’s an acceptance of this new direction towards pain; you let it in enough to somehow find a release from it. It’s an immediate understanding that somehow you know you’ve gone through it, so you can’t be ‘held’ by it anymore There’s a real sense of achievement, you are bigger than it; there’s motivation, energy, freedom.

How to apply this? A conceptual understanding of the release forms; it’s more than an acceptance of the pain, it’s an embracing of the pain – an expanding awareness that pain is not a thing you carry along with you. Dispose of all the heaviness; it’s something to be travelled through. It’s this that lets it go (frees it). The knot in the string is undone. Can’t be explained, not a conscious understanding… just that something is changed inside the thinking process, a felt difference – “felt” rather than “thought to be” – and the suffering is suddenly not there anymore.

‘We learn how to let go, in the process of observing the consequence of our grasping.’  [Ajahn Munindo, Dhammasakaccha]

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Note: excerpts from an earlier post: things not being right and special thanks to Pennycoho for our short exchange in the comments box long ago   –   G   R   A   T   I   T   U   D   E   –

the end of the line

IMG_4239 (1)Safdurjung station: Welcoming committee, red carpets and flower petals strewn around the platform, it’s the end of the line; the end of the trip. It’s where the train stops and we get off, but not really the end of the line. The line goes on from here and connects up with other lines in the network and links up with neighbouring countries then ultimately with the network that stretches out over the whole planet. It doesn’t start anywhere and it doesn’t end. There’s an interesting reference to this in the Hermann Hesse novel, ‘Siddhartha’, saying that time doesn’t exist in a flowing river, it’s everywhere at the same time, only the present exists, no past, no future….

There’s something about being on a train that imposes a kind of inevitability of circumstances on everything. There’s no deviation from the direction the train is moving in. The thought sequence, following an ongoing linking, travels along of its own volition, and takes shape as it goes; episodes from an anthology of short stories. It stops sometimes but that’s not the end; the stopping/starting of it is a characteristic of the story’s unfolding.

A particular event occurs somewhere in the process that suggests how the beginning might have taken place. Later this goes into ‘refresh’ and there’s a new possible beginning. Then another one after that and again, then it’s not important anymore. Mind links it all up or associates random parts of it in some barely satisfactory way and this is how the whole thing seems to sustain itself from moment to moment. It’s samsara; driven by some kind of underlying seeking-for-something that can never be found; there’s only the ‘seeking’. A slightly suffocating, enclosed feeling about it all – it can’t be “held” beyond a certain limit, and eventually I wake up. Everything still quite clear in the memory for a while then completely forgotten.

With mindfulness of papañca (mental proliferation), the process of conceptualising is just a process – no person there doing it. The application of mindfulness, which puts an end to belief in the fictional ‘self’, is also just a process – no person there doing it. It sort of does it itself. As long as there is an intuitive notion of “wholesomeness”, the recognition that what I’m doing is ethically correct sila, then there’s an opportunity to sense if something is right, or it’s the right way to go about it and the process of mindfulness runs by itself. No self, anatta, nobody at home; just an operating system, Windows 8, MacOS Lion, and beyond. A determined and purposeful search to find out exactly where this ‘no self’ exists will yield nothing, of course, because ‘no self’ doesn’t exist. Follow this reasoning to its obvious conclusion and it’s a way of saying nothing exists. So, if there is no ‘self’, who or what ‘sees’ there is no ‘self’ and I asked Ajahn about it: ‘If everything without exception is “not self” including the “I” that’s investigating this – then where does it all lead?’ Without hesitation, Ajahn said “enlightenment” and looked at me with these grey eyes, waiting for the next question ….

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Many thanks to Khun Witit Rachatatanun for the photos in this series of posts

things not being right

121120121558Road to Gorakhpur: 18.00 hours, we’re on the bus, there’s an immense noise from the engine and the driver is pressing the shrill, twin-pitched, piercing horn continuously as if he were practising a Miles Davis piece on the trumpet, over and over. Three and a half hour journey and I’m getting thrown around all over the place on this unbelievably rough road. The bus makes a sudden lurch and overtakes a slow moving vehicle; then again, rapidly making our way past all these trucks, one after another. It’s a convoy of Diwali Lakshmi Puja pickup trucks, each one with a generator throbbing in the back: boom, boom, boom, boom. And there’s the Lakshmi shrine all lit up with flashing red, blue and orange disco-lights and Hindi dance music at max volume: thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud – followed by a long line of young people running and dancing behind it. The distraction of this holds my attention for a while. It’s really like being on another planet – after a day spent in the silence of Lumbini and minimalism of Theravadin Buddhism.

It wasn’t a good day, pity. I was in the park with the group doing a couple of 45 minute meditation sits on the grass under the Bodhi trees in that historical place and it didn’t come together for me – just one of those things. I spent most of the time tossed around in the samsara of mind stories and now here on the bus, the difficulty of this journey propels me further into a small vortex of thoughts that I failed something, hopelessness and… what to do?

Try deep breathing, keep it simple and allow the chaos to be what it is. See it harden into a grasping knot of discontent and stay with the focus on breathing as I tightrope walk across the raging inferno of things not being right, not being the way I want them to be. It goes on like that for a while and eventually the fierceness of it lessens. The fires reduce to smouldering ashes and there’s a moment of relief. The pain of it is not there now – wait to see what this change will bring and when I look for it again it’s like there’s an empty space where the suffering used to be. I realize it’s gone.

Now it’s later. I’m looking through various notes and there’s a reference to the Noble Truth of Suffering that I copied from somewhere and I can’t remember where: ‘…the disenchantment, listlessness that arises from familiarity with fearfulness, unsatisfactoriness and the comfortless nature of things.’ Hardly an inspiring statement and I can understand why people see dukkha as pretty negative – what is this… masochism? It’s not that, it’s just facing up to it, no avoidance behaviour. I’m saying this because there was one time I was in a situation of no escape from serious physical pain; just no way out, the only thing to do, the only way to go was towards it; no more backing off from it. I had to accept it, let it in. Immediately I notice a small easing, enough to somehow find a release from it – not hard to do when there’s no choice and there’s no other direction to go but straight into it. In hindsight it seems as if I didn’t know it at the time but this was an important part of finding the way out? That’s how it was in the end; I could see the suffering, identify it – it’s like, oh yeh! I see now… and seeing it dispels the ignorance of not having any idea what’s going on and being controlled by it. That’s what lets it go (frees it). Off it goes, bye bye and the suffering is suddenly not there anymore. [Link to: Homer & the 1st Noble Truth]

The struggle itself is what causes the suffering. It’s about the energy used in trying to get away from it just fans the flames and makes it worse. And, because it’s habitual, maybe a lifetime of allowing it to be like this, it’s chronic and things just go on like that until I see the only thing that’s preventing me from letting go of suffering is that I’m still holding on to it….

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‘We learn how to let go, in the process of observing the consequence of our grasping.’  [Ajahn Munindo, Dhammasakaccha]

how it looks from here

Sravasti: These shrines and monuments stay the same, perhaps sunk deeper into the landscape than they were in ancient times; there’s a presence. The seasons revolve around them, rainfall, heat, sand storms and the centuries come and go. People from all over the world come to visit, pray, bow, apply goldleaf, string garlands, light incense, show reverence and take pictures of their friends standing next to them. A great shower of digital flashes lights up the environment like a fireworks display; camera phones, iPads held up like a tray, with an image as large as a small television, ‘and here is the place where the Buddha was enlightened:’ flash, click! Thus, a small piece of the outer world is captured; perhaps a small landscape showing the shrine, prayer flags strung across branches of a huge Bodhi tree and my friends standing below smiling for the camera. Everybody hurries to look at the picture just taken; camera device held by finger tips, the image never quite hits the spot. So we reach into the outer world and ‘take’ another one, a nicer one maybe, have a look, but it doesn’t hit the spot either.

Taking a picture is a reflex action, a simple curiosity; I want to ‘take’ a picture of it and there are hundreds of images in this camera memory we have to load somewhere else to make room for more. All of them are simply showing the passage of time: people get older. But it’s meaningful to us, a metaphor we’re deeply familiar with; consciousness of outer object meeting inner sense base and we respond to it in much the same way as sensory input, by way of eye/ ear/ nose/ tongue/ skin/ mind, is the means by which the outer world enters the inner being.

Receiving data from the outer world through sense organs situated around the face and head has the odd effect, somehow, of pushing the whole head into the bubble of the outer world and I can understand what Douglas Harding was saying when he spoke about ‘having no head’, and the rest of the body, seemingly connected. That’s how it looks from here. I can see all these other beings walking around too. Some of them seem to know what’s going on and some don’t know at all because they’re preocccupied with taking a photo of the event, or maybe they’re watching the video they made of it. Some believe it’s God’s world and contemplate experiential responses to outer stimuli, thinking God created this, so it must be okay. The idea that God also gave us the gift of insight to see for ourselves is not something they feel they need to take into consideration and just leave it at that. Others are walking around just browsing the options, hoping to stumble upon something soon. It could take eons for them to find it, stuck in the samasara of Search Mode. Other beings are in a historical time period but otherwise the same as what we have today and I am here thinking about the possibility that the Buddha was standing in the same place where I’m standing now.

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‘At Savatthi. Then the Venerable Kaccanagotta approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him… : “In what way, venerable sir, is there right view?”

“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.

“This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self.’ He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view.

“‘All exists’: Kaccana, this is one extreme. “All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ‘With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”’[SN 12.15(5)]

Photos from the Witit Rachatatanun Collection

the journey to get there

Nepal/India border: Trying to find a wet-wipe in my pocket to remove a food stain on my white T-shirt here in the hotel dining room (on the way to Lumbini). If you’re on the road, you have to carry all your possessions in your pockets and it ends up like you’re a walking bathroom cabinet, laden down with personal effects and bits and pieces from the journey. I start to unload things, a toothbrush, a shaver, a wrapper from a holy piece of gold leaf, a ticket stub that allows entry to Bodh Gaya shrine, a pack of tissues, a wad of 10 Rupee notes (US$0.18) for giving away to beggars and all kinds of coins in small denominations; heavy bulging pockets but no wet wipe, so I go to the bathroom to get some water to wash the stain out.

Step inside and the floor is covered in water of dubious origin, splish splash across to the sink. Wash stain off T-shirt and I just know that if I start thinking, I don’t want it to be like this, I’m going to make it worse than it is already: ‘Feelings of pleasure and pain, like and dislike, arise from sense-contact…’ [Ajahn Chah, Timeless Teachings] So I focus, mindfully, on the task right now and, splish, splash, splish out into the sunshine. I suppose it’s just a different way of looking at priorities. There’s a whole lot of things going on here I just don’t know anything about – some of it is difficult to accept, all of it is richly vibrant. Another instance of it was when we entered the hotel dining room, white linen table cloths and silverware, and there was this absolutely deathlike chemical smell. Somebody said afterwards it was the disinfectant that’s used here. It was like something volcanic. The sensory cognition mechanism gets hold of something it hasn’t experienced before and attempts to identify it by retrieving files from the data bank. What gets conjured up is a series of exotic possibilities. After a while, it became less noticeable, then it seemed like it was completely gone – maybe it was still there but we just didn’t notice anymore.

I’m inclined to think visiting the Buddhist historical sites is mostly about the journey to get there; if you’ve done it, you’ll know what I mean. There are extraordinary and wonderful stories about this journey, some can be found in Ajahn Sucitto’s two volumes: Rude Awakenings and ‘Great Patient One’. And I’m wondering how things were during the Buddha’s time, less people and pre-industrial, but was this vibrant energy, that’s here now, present then? Could this have been, in some way, the context that played a part in and inspired the effort to find a way out of suffering?

All kinds of stuff going on. Some time later in the day, I passed a cow eating cardboard packaging from a wastepaper bin. It raised it’s head from the bin and there was a long strip of torn cardboard dangling from the mouth, chomp, chomp chomp. Then later I saw another cow tearing off a piece of paper poster stuck on a wall, using it’s long grey tongue with front teeth to trap the small paper scrap quite skillfully. It must be the paper saturated in paste made from some kind of ingredient like flour and the cellulose in cardboard is edible. Just snacking; they  looked like healthy animals. In the time of the Buddha they wouldn’t have been eating cardboard, they’d have been eating other things but allowed to roam around freely, same as they are now. And here I’m looking at things that are not much different. The centuries pass, industrialization arrives, and the cows wander into the 2nd Millenium AD in a rural environmnet that’s pretty much the same as it was in those ancient times.

Upper photo: view from the bus to Nepal, Lower photo: from the Witit Rachatatanun Collection

expecting the unexpected

IMG_3972Gorakhpur station: 21.00 hours, just got off the bus and we’re waiting for everyone to assemble and walk together to the train. There are security guards here with short lathi sticks as if expecting a small riot. Darkness, shadowy figures flitting around and trying to see what’s going on, I’m confused by something that seems to be heaped on the road beside some parked cars. It’s a shapeless mass I cannot identify; looks like a pile of brownish-grey sacks filled with something – no, wait, it’s alive. I saw it move! What is it? And for a moment there’s uncertainty… something I cannot recognize, no matter how hard the brain fathoms it. Eventually I see it’s a cow sleeping on the road. I forgot, of course, that they have to lie down and sleep at night. I’ve seen plenty cows standing about, but somehow I assumed they’d be rounded up at night and put in cow sheds. Of course not; they just sleep on the streets; as if the whole environment were fields and meadows. Surprising really, a cow sleeping in a car park is the last thing I’d have expected, but you can expect events and occurrences to be unexpected here. It’s that thing again, difficult to understand, a consciousness of a sense object that’s unknown and the subsequent search for something that’s not in the data bank inevitably causes the mind to invent an explanation that will fill the empty space.

Tour guide blows his whistle, raises his little flag. We have to follow him. So we set off walking through the station in a long line, headed for the train. It attracts attention; we are the Buddhist pilgrims, dressed in white and black costumes and flanked by uniformed guards who raise their sticks and shout at the local people to get out of the way. Seems to me people here are used to the idea of privilege, hierarchy and the sons and daughters of the Buddhist feudal lords in some distant country are passing through, so get out of the way. It’s not a good feeling but that’s how it is here. On to the train and into our little carriage – just Jiab and me in this cosy place, quite nice. Preparing now for an overnight journey to Gonda then Sravasti.

IMG_3901After some time the train sets off, speed increases and the track is rough and bumpy, we have to get used to being thrown around. Along to the little bathroom to brush my teeth and holding on to every handhold available along the corridor; mindfulness of rock-and-roll. Inside, there’s a tiny sink in the corner with a shelf above it and I have to bend down, lower the head under the shelf and brush my teeth quite close to the sink. The movement of brushing teeth: updownup downupdown updownup is in sync with the rhythm of the train for a while then there’s a sudden lurch of the carriage, down and up. I hit my head upwards on the underside of the shelf and whack my elbow sideways on the wall, simultaneously.

Getting shoved around and bullied by the train causes irritation to flare up, it shouldn’t be like this, then it falls away – easier to see that letting-go thing when you’re in an unstable situation like this on a moving train and all the rough and tumble. There’s an underlying awareness that I’m rattling along at about 70 mph, everything is moving past me, sorry can’t stay, got to go, bye!… and I’m in a long tube, penetrating stable realty. Back along the corridor jiggidy-jig jiggidy-jig, nursing slightly painful elbow and into the carriage. Jiab is in the top bunk, and I’m down below. It’s all very different from normal environmental conditions, where there’s stability and a tendency to sink deeper and deeper in the slow mud of thinking-about-things.

I’m asleep straight away then four hours later something wakes me; back in the world of bump, rattle, bang – rattle, bang, bump. How to get back to sleep? I try watching the inbreath, the outbreath, lying flat on my back and the extremely bumpy track becomes the object of attention. It helps to see the bumps on the line not as bumps but as downward movements; small steps going steadily downwards, some steps are lower than others and it’s all going down bit by bit; sometimes there’s a little upwards return but mostly it’s small incremental steps getting lower and lower. Then it seems to land on a much lower step and down into a place where consciousness seems to remain steady, smooth and restful. It stays like that. A space stretches out from here that seems to encompass all the small steps that have occurred so far and all the steps yet to come. It’s in this space I’m able to settle. Sleep returns and the train goes on through the night in a straight line across the moonlit landscape, jiggidy-jig jiggidy-jig jiggidy-jig….

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Photos from the Witit Rachatatanun Collection

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.

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

a sense of urgency

India-Nepal highway: more like a simple farmyard road than a highway leading to an international border crossing; rough surface and missing chunks of tarmac create an incredible, bump, crash and rattle in the bus that goes on without end. Too much vibration to be able to sleep and impossible because of the noise the bus driver is making with the horn, a high volume squeak-and-squeal alternating between two notes. Cows and goats wandering around scramble to get out of the way; people on bicycles scatter to make room. If there’s a traffic jam, he gets angry, leans out the window and shouts. There’s a co-driver in the cab and he’s sent out to bully, threaten and persuade the drivers of the vehicles to move to one side. Co-driver gets back in again, then another obstruction. I’m sitting at the front of the bus behind the driver, looking through the large windscreen and it’s like everything is held together in a makeshift, temporary way; no time to do it properly, we have to hurry on – what is it? I’m thinking along the lines of a war-zone or some kind of catastrophic event has taken place and this is an emergency vehicle; there is danger and we are fleeing for our lives. But it’s not that, it’s just normal.

The bus gets seriously stuck behind a buffalo walking slowly, with her calf, down the middle of the road; despite the driver’s trumpeting two-note horn, mother buffalo won’t move from her place in the center of the road. Co-driver is sent out to chase the buffalos to the side so the bus can get through and he whacks mother buffalo hard on the rump, an audible WHACK! I can hear above all the racket. Unfortunately, this sends mother and calf off into a frantic gallop straight down the middle of the road. The bus still can’t overtake and has to follow these galloping buffalos for some distance. The driver is getting worked up into a fury, bus lurches to and fro while he’s yelling like a wild man out of the window, and barely in control of the vehicle. Eventually the buffalos run off to the side of the road, the engine roars into life and we accelerate away. Co-driver climbs back into the cab, breathless from trying to steer the buffalos and for a few minutes he has to defer to the driver’s seething anger directed at him. It’s bizarre and funny, but nobody on the bus is laughing.

I’m with a Thai tour group, reserved, polite, quiet behaviour, small body movements and everyone is sitting straight up, dressed in white top and black trousers or sarong. Could be they’re in a state of shock, never having experienced anything like this before. Somehow they all thought (and I did too) that in India there would be vestiges of the Buddhist loving-kindness and the generosity of letting-go but instead of that the whole thing seems to be about blatant greed, hatred and delusion; a skeletal hell realm of holding on tight and mad with desire. India is discovering it’s identity in the media and advertising. The bus went past a poster showing the actor Riz Khan in an advert for whiskey and the slogan is: ‘I have yet to become me’. I managed to get a slightly blurred photo of it.

What happened to Buddhism in India? There were the Islamic invasions and what little remained was assimilated into Hinduism. It could be that, long before that, King Ashoka considered that one day Buddhism in India would come to an end because it has no built-in mechanism to withstand a forceful take-over; it’s fragile and light and doesn’t attach to anything. For this reason he erected simple stone pillars in places where significant Buddhist events took place; they function like markers on Google maps. The locations are verified and Buddhists coming to India, foreigners like me, visit the sites, Bodh Gaya, Sravasti, Lumbini, see these pillars and take a moment to consider that, yes, it happened here. And if it weren’t for King Ashoka’s sense of urgency that these places could eventually be lost in history, there might be no traces of Buddhism in India at all.

now as it was then

Bodh Gaya: 04.00 hours, this is where the enlightenment took place. I’m in a hotel not far from where it happened, early morning and the window is open, sitting on a cushion with mindfulness, watching the breath. There’s a sense of, it’s just over there, out the window and over to the right a bit; yes, it was there that the event took place. I’m near to the epicenter, ground zero. From here, it spread outwards to the people close by and dispersed among everyone who had a mind to listen. Then, in the course of time, reaching out to all parts of the world, so that visitors from Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, South East Asia and other places eventually came here to see for themselves. Ordinary lay people came, conversions from Hindu castes, bearded sannyasis with matted hair and white marks smeared across the forehead, and monastics came from all over Asia, robes in shades of ochre, maroon and grey; chanting … namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa … various intonations and melodic rhythms altogether in a pleasant discord.

How much of this is the same now as it was then, 2,600 years ago? The sensation of the breath is the same. The air gently touching the inner surfaces of nasal passages and throat and the consciousness that arises with that feeling. Through my own humanness and in a subjective sense, I can recognize the humanness of the bodhisattva. As well as the same blue sky, brown earth; green foliage, and even though the outer objects I can see may not be the same, changed over the centuries, the process of seeing is the same. The consciousness that recognizes this is the same for me as it was/is for everyone, and the ‘me’ and ‘mine’ I experience is not in any way different from anyone else’s ‘me’ and ‘mine’ who lived at that time, or now, or will live any time in the future.

You could say it’s just a sense of history that’s present whenever you enter a historical site, or a building or museum. It’s possible to know how the people, who lived then, felt and understood the world; the things they looked at and what they heard, smelt, tasted, touched and their mind responses; all of that is the same for me now, here in this place where the bodhisattva walked 2,600 years ago. I’m connected with the outer world by consciousness, in the same way the people at that time were; the conscious experience of what is seen is the same for me as it was for the bodhisattva – simply that function. And the environment I’m in, the outer world, may be different from how it was at that time, but the body/mind organism that receives the experience is universal. All beings are caught in this conscious experience. There’s no need to add anything else. The sense of ‘now’ that’s the same today as it was then could be the sounds I hear, the feeling of sunlight and the gentle wind blowing in my face; an awareness of the ever-present sensory data telling me outer and inner are the same and I’m an inseparable part of it all.

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Where there is the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there a being exists or the description of a being. Where there is no mind, no mental phenomena, no mind-consciousness, there a being does not exist nor any description of a being. [SN 1.65]

Photo: prayer flags, Sravasti