Pilgrimage Happens

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I got back a few days ago from almost two weeks of travelling, not just travelling, but pilgrimage, and I’m just now recovering.

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The landscape of the journey is chaos. Picture clouds of mosquitoes and an endless stream of nappy-haired child beggars, tragic and frustrating at the same time, as all are suffering, yet almost none can benefit from offerings you would make because they live in basic serfdom, passing their earnings on to a bigger fish, Oliver Twist-style. Feel the washboard roads bumping your tailbone kilometer after kilometer. Hold your pee for hours and be shocked at your relief upon the sight of a urine sprayed, fly-ensconced squat toilet. Check your disbelief at the utter lack of regard for queues everywhere from ticket counters to temple entrances. Get used to meditating through three to five other schools of Dharma’s prayers projected over loudspeaker, not to mention the flash of cameras in your face as even the monks stop to capture on film the anomaly of Western Buddhists.

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Even in that chaos, there is beauty. Monks with skin every shade of tan and brown wander in groups wearing robes every shade of orange and crimson, with the occasional stroke of blue-gray painted in by a Zen roshi here or there. Amidst the nonchalant voyeurs who snap your photo in a quick walk-by or flash their phone cameras right in your face, there are gaggles of preteen girls who run up, having mustered courage in numbers, to ask, “Picture, madame? Picture?” To which you cannot help but oblige. And despite causing traffic jams in all holy places, the Thai pilgrims compensate by leaving flecks of gold behind when their clusters dissipate. They speckle every stupa, temple, and ruin they pass, with great devotion and without regard for the Indian Archaeological Survey’s wishes. You can hardly blame them, it is so beautiful and wrought with so much love.

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Amist all this, of course, there is practice. Sitting in a quiet group, listening to Khenpo’s – loudspeaker free – histories and life stories, his own and those of the masters who passed here. Singing aspiration prayers in a single voice through the twilight. Walking clockwise circles, repeating six syllables to purify disturbing emotions…Om Mani Peme Hung…Om Mani Peme Hung. Just sitting. Where the Buddha attained enlightenment; where he spoke the Four Noble Truths; where he taught about emptiness; where he offered his last truths and passed from this life. And just once, rising before the daytime to throw your body flat-out on the ground once, twice, four hundred and thirty times, all the way around the spot where a prince named Siddhartha became a being called Buddha, the Awake One. Every time your forehead taps the stone, you pray to think less of yourself and more of all beings, and by the end, you just might, a little bit.

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Along with this, there is the meeting of chaos and practice. Most people probably call it calamity; Buddhists call it purifying karma. In other words, experiencing challenges, but using them to work with the way we respond instead of just plain freaking out, so that we can carry on with better habits, or even less habits and more flexibility to a moment or an obstacle as it arises. It sounds very positive, and it is, but at the time it mostly feels like a shitshow. For instance: getting attacked by monkeys, getting swarmed by bees…twice, hiring a cab to take you 300 kilometers and realizing you have been taken 300 kilometers in the opposite direction of your destination, and, of course, the old standby: food poisoning. At every new absurdity, you work with anger, you test out laughter, you strive for patience. And when you have endured all this and done your best to be grateful for it, you collapse onto a fourteen hour sleeper train and arrive home at seven in the morning.

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And, if you’re me, you spend a week recovering, then wake up to realize you are flying to France tomorrow. Pilgrimage…it happens.

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136 thoughts on “Pilgrimage Happens

  1. Oh My Goodness…..
    By now you are (relatively) save in France. I have soooo much enjoyed your posts on your experience. You are an amazing writer and an amazing woman. I am grateful to know you,
    Love,
    Lauren

    • I made it to France! It is green and rustic and heavenly here. I cannot thank you enough for all your support. I’ll be writing so long as you’re reading. 🙂 So much love.

  2. So now you know why India is such a spiritual land for there you experience the reality of spiritual practice in the physical body. Congratulations on your pilgrimage and the blessings you received.

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    • It’s amazing how much it changes day-to-day life once you start trying to think about things that way. It definitely takes practice remembering to pause when unwanted things happen, but the space you get when you do is wonderful.

  4. Thank you for sharing this account with us all. I can’t even begin to imagine the congested life, and most of it in a state of poverty. From all of this experience, what lessons did you learn from it? Beautiful photos too!

    • Hm…I think the biggest lesson was seeing in action how when I pause to think about my reactions, I can really create space around an experience and something that otherwise might upset me or exhaust me can become a way to loosen up and sometimes even open up. Thanks for asking and thanks for reading!

  5. Just started reading your blog and I love your stories. I just moved to India myself and its really funny how your story here feels like the emotions, the madness I’ve been encountering raising my child here these past 2 months. There’s a parallel story here. A different kind of pilgrimage 🙂 but loving your stories of travel, pilgrimage and life on the road. I don’t know where you find that kind of courage. Good luck!

    • Wow, all the best to you in your journey; I can’t imagine adjusting to all the changes while also caring for another living being. Props, my friend. Every day is an adventure, isn’t it? Where in India are you living?

      Courage is a funny thing…I think that when what other people might call courage is happening to me it feels more like I have a choice to either make things better or make them worse. And though it might be harder to make a “brave” decision now, I’ll have less heartache later as a result. So maybe I’m just pragmatic. 🙂

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing. Good luck to you too!

  6. ‘ In other words, experiencing challenges, but using them to work with the way we respond instead of just plain freaking out, so that we can carry on with better habits, or even less habits and more flexibility to a moment or an obstacle as it arises.’

    As an intern doctor I face this every day. Great post 🙂

  7. Ahh France is beautiful! Can’t wait to go there..Maybe do a favorite non-touristy places there? Would love that 🙂

      • Same as me. I went around all the touristy places..But I feel like I haven’t really seen France. I was mostly around Paris as well.

    • Oh definitely! I’m so glad I was with friends. If we hadn’t been able to joke about it together, I’m pretty sure a crisis would’ve ensued. It was really only frequent chai stops that kept us from losing it completely. 🙂

  8. wow, I gotta say those photos are very awe inspiring I can imagine myself there, I specially like the one’s where you see the monks sitting. The Buddhist head was a very nice shot aswell!

    • Thank you so much! It always feels great to hear positive feedback on photos, as I don’t think of myself as photographer at all, and I only really started taking pictures so I could better share stories with people. Glad to hear it’s working. 🙂

      • I look forward to seeing some more nice photos. your photos do make the story look great. I thought they were very interesting. Must feel good to express that.

  9. I love how your adventure is particularly set apart from the mainstream descriptions of a pilgrimage to India. Your writing style is colloquial yet beautiful, and the pilgrimage itself looked like it was a trip of a lifetime!

    • Wow, thank you for your thoughtful comment and kind words! I don’t know what it’s like for others, but for me it was definitely a mix of bliss and madness. I hope I get to return again someday, but I also bet there’ll never be another trip quite like that.

  10. a very true depiction of the state of affairs – from the mosquitoes to the toilets to the lack of queue manners to the tranquility. Am hoping you will revisit the sub continent soon. good luck for france. congrats on being fp!

  11. I was struck by part of your opening sentence – ‘not just travelling, but pilgrimage, and I’m just now recovering.’ I was thinking that perhaps we hope to recover through pilgrimage, not from… but I understand exactly what your are saying, having traveled in India also which is, on most days, overwhelming in every way. Thanks for sharing.

  12. As someone who has traveled a lot and lived in several different countries, I can relate all too well! Bad experiences and less than ideal circumstances will probably be looked upon affectionately in the future 🙂

    • Thank you; I’m glad to bring back good memories. Sadly, Dharamshala is one place I didn’t make it to, but I’ve heard incredible things and would like to visit on another trip.

  13. I went to Nepal and India, and visited some of the most holy pilgrimage sites. I ended up writing a large paper about Buddhist pilgrimage and sacred sites in Nepal. Absolutely fascinating.

  14. The entrance to peace,of course, is to abide in the moment. That’s hard enough in a quiet room with no monkeys :). Others can say they will follow, but I shall enjoy your experience only vicariously.

  15. Just started blogging on word press yours was the first blog i have read .[have bloged with a diffrent blog service ]. I enjoyed your blog and the photos thanks for shareing brings back memorys of the Phillipines . see my New bloog im just starting to post on New Zealand home country Regards Max

    • Wow, very neat. Welcome to WordPress; it’s rad!

      The Phillipines, huh? That’s unexpected but cool. Can’t wait to see what you have to say about NZ. I lived there for a few months and have some good memories myself. 🙂

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  17. Personally I admire you as in the 40 years that I have been living here in India I myself haven’t seen all the places that you managed to do in such a short period of time, some of them I have seen and the rest will, one day, when the right time will come because dont want to go there as a tourist and carry the baggage of pictures, Souvenir and hardships of the journey, I want would like to empty my baggage my baggage as much as possible when I am ready to take such a pilgrimage trip.

    Mosquito’s, poor children begging on the street, lack of hygienic washrooms and intrusive people, yeah you are very much correct in your observation. India is all that, but it is much more than that. It is up to you what memories you wish to keep with you. if it was a pilgrimage then you’d be looking more inwardly, deep within yourself and trying to find the meaning of the questions which would have made you take such a troublesome journey which required a week’s rest.

    As an Indian, I don’t feel bad, what you said is complete true, India is still struggling as a country to provide basic amenities to its large people (2nd largest in the world) which are very basic and fundamental rights of people in France and other developed countries. I feel a bit sad because you said you were on a pilgrimage but what you did was to carry these images as a tourist.

    I think it was Dalai Lama who once said “As human beings we all want to be happy and free from misery… we have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace. The greatest obstacles to inner peace are disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, fear and suspicion, while love and compassion and a sense of universal responsibility are the sources of peace and happiness.”

    I am sorry for the hardships that you had to face during your journey in India, hope we will be able to bring changes in the coming days to make it a better place – no we are not trying to hide ugliness of realities from the views of visitors, we are trying to remove it from the society. It may take some time, maybe a long period of time, but it will happen one day. I am very optimistic about it.

    God bless you…

    • Wow, thank you so much for your deep and thoughtful reply. I can never hope to truly understand or even fully appreciate the complexities of any country, let alone one as dynamic and historically diverse as India, but I do always hope to learn from such places. Though I can’t deny that hardship is definitely a word that comes to mind for some of my experiences, I try to appreciate both their beauty and the opportunity they offer to grow. And when I can’t do that, I try to laugh and at least get a kick out of how crazy life is! Maybe peace is also appreciate that at least a bit of madness is part of the deal in this life, huh?

      All the best to you, and thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

  18. This is an interesting post, and the pictures are nice. I knew Muslims have pilgrimages but didn’t know Buddhists do as well. Now I know a little about Siddhartha and his spiritual journey. He grew up in a palace never in lack of whatever he wanted. Then he saw the passing sights, left home, and had a time of enlightenment. He never claimed to be god, or the one to trust for salvation though.

    Yes everyone faces difficulties in this life, and all to different degrees. Pain and suffering is real. The world is full of it. We experience it, and we are contributors of it, myself included. I cannot fix myself though by any number of good deeds, because the bad is still there, which leads a holy God to justly punish sinners to hell. This is why Jesus, the perfect God-man, in love for us, came to this twisted earth to cleanse and forgive our sins, take our shame away, heal our hurts, give us life, and bring us to God. It’s not about how good we can be in life; Jesus is perfect, freeing us from the burden of living under law. If you trust in Him, His perfection is over you, and you can have relationship with the God who made you.
    In saying this I don’t mean any disrespect to you, but just wanted to share truth in love.

    I am very glad to hear about your experience and see the pictures. I enjoy learning about all peoples, cultures, and practices. May God draw you to Himself in love.

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I appreciate your heartfelt sentiments and your interest in my story. Although, I’m not a Christian, I have great respect for what Jesus accomplished and for the teachings he brought into this world.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It’s very true that the experiences of India I described in this post are of a very particular nature. In no way did I mean to imply that this is the nature of the country as a whole. I could never hope to even begin to capture such a diverse culture and country in its entirety. My objective here was merely to share the landscape of my own journey and some of the humor and lessons discovered along the way. 🙂

      • I’m brand new to blogging, did some random clicking, and found the notification that you responded. haha
        Yea I know what you mean by not being able to capture all the experience. I’ve been to Turkey and China and pictures help immensely but you have to go to really soak it all in! Thanks again for sharing.

  19. I read your blog. Firstly I would say that many parts of your blog are true, including the mention of mosquitoes, beggars, etc. However one must realize that India is a growing nation having 2nd largest population in the world. There is another India which lives in the cities of Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi, Gurgaon & Pune which offers luxury, cleanliness and above decent lifestyle.

    If one is on a pilgrimage (as this blog mentions) one must be prepared to see the world comprising of humans from different races, socio-economic situations, religions, etc in a different light. One can cleanse oneself only after looking at the miseries of the world and trying to help others in every which way they can.

    Perhaps thats the reason many people from the ‘advanced’ west come to India to find solace and inner peace. And I am sure the path to inner peace cannot come easy 🙂

    • Oops…I accidentally double-replied to David’s comment. This was intended for you.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It’s very true that the experiences of India I described in this post are of a very particular nature. In no way did I mean to imply that this is the nature of the country as a whole. I could never hope to even begin to capture such a diverse culture and country in its entirety. My objective here was merely to share the landscape of my own journey and some of the humor and lessons discovered along the way. 🙂

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  21. Thank you for your amazing posts. I have been continually told not to go to India as it’s unsafe for a female traveler.. and that the India I am looking for no longer exists. You have proved them wrong, at least on the existence part! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    • Thank you for the great support! As far as travelling in India as a woman alone goes, I haven’t done it, and I’m not sure how comfortable I would personally feel, but I do have friends who have spent a lot of time travelling solo in India and other places, and the advice is pretty much always the same. Be smart, try not to go out alone at night, avoid places where people would be drinking…things of that nature. India is still wild and mystical and spiritual, even if a lot of modernity has been added to that. 🙂 Wherever your journey takes you, I wish you all the best!

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