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I was so excited to visit the birthplace of the Buddha. In my head I had this image of a romantic old Hindu kingdom, locked away and preserved, full of peace and tranquility. …yeah, I was a little off base with that image.
Lumbini is not so much a town as a destination, and it certainly retains no sense of being a once wealthy kingdom. Any sense of peace and tranquility was smacked away as soon as we came out of the hills and in the plains of the Terai. Suddenly, the only spiritual experience we were having was cruising along between two trucks and neither being hit nor dying from espixiation. Welcome to the Terai – the land of hot, dusty, and flat.
Lumbini itself was mostly a large, dusty park preserving the land upon which they believe Buddha was born. It now serves as a spiritual center and a magnet for Buddhist monasteries from all over the world.
Once in the complex, with the Terai safely outside, I stood amongst the ruined stupas in the wide-open field, felt the setting sun on my face, and just listened to the wind in the trees. I was standing in the grass barefoot (no shoes allowed). Off to my left was a young Nepalese girl, holding a Japanese tourist and blue camo covered policeman captive with her wit and charm. I closed my eyes, and for a moment could grasp a small sense of what it meant to be here — what it meant to be standing the exact spot where the Buddha was born. And there it was, peace.
As I opened my eyes and began to walk back into the hot, dusty chaos, I vowed to remember that feeling. To remember that if I could find that feeling here, there were very few places where I couldn’t find it again.
Later that evening the owner at our hotel put it best – the Buddha must have been chosen to be born in such a hard, hot place. “He needed to know suffering. How else can you let go of something, unless you have know it?”
We had one full day in the holy city of Pushkar. How did it go? As any good day in India should go, full of the unexpected. This morning, the unexpected was salty coffee. (Those super fine granules at the bottom of the sugar bowl that we thought were just crushed sugar cubes – not sugar.) This afternoon, the unexpected was a Hindu prayer by one of the holiest bodies of water in India.
I had a lovely encounter with an older Sadhu during my first visit to India, that time on the banks of the Ganges. Perhaps my memories of that experience made me a little softer with this white tank top clad Brahmin priest than I otherwise might have been. The Pushkar exchange started with a gentle suggestion from priest Carlo to walk down to the ghats along the water. I had already been and so was patiently waiting for the gentleman to leave before continuing my walk back to the hotel. This, apparently, was obvious, and soon I was, with little choice otherwise, following him down to the edge of the lake.
Ignoring the stairs covered in pigeon poop, I removed my sandals and proceeded barefoot. Ignoring the trash and plastic bags floating in the green water, I took a seat on its edge. Watching and listening to Carlo chant was magical. He filled my cupped hands with water and with minimal resistance on my part I began tossing handfuls of the holy water into the lake, wishing for the long life of my family: husband, father, mother, sisters, brother, and grandparents.
As I walked home later, vermillion on my forehead, a red string on my wrist, and 100 rupees lighter (a donation of course), I thought about my unexpected events for the day: 90 rupees for salty coffee. 100 rupees for a long life full of happiness and prosperity for those closest to me. Of the two, I knew which was the better bargain.
We almost missed this temple during our ride from Udaipur to Jodhpur. The temple closes at 5pm and we rolled into the gate at 4.20pm. We had one person in shorts (a BIG no-no in Jain temples) and cameras in hand, but we were in a stubborn mood. Not wanting to spend the money and time on camera passes (200 INR) and rented pants (100 INR/ pair), our person in shorts decided to stay outside the temple take care of the cameras. We thought this was a great idea until we got inside – the temple was breathtaking. By being stubborn, the only people we were hurting at this moment were ourselves. We rushed out, grabbed our shorts wearer and ran to the ticket booth. 300 more rupees spent. This place was worth every cent.
As we began our trek north from the southern tip of Kerala, we were planning to take a train up the coast to the backwaters at Alleppy. Fate, however, had a different plan. The night before our departure the train tickets didn’t come through, and we made a last minute decision to take the eight-hour ferryboat ride instead.
To break up the long boat journey, one of our now four-member group suggested that we stop half way and overnight at a well renowned ashram along the route. The Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission ashram is one of the few female run ashrams in India, has 2000 permanent residents, and is known for its international disaster relief work. Up to this point, I had never visited an ashram in India. If I wanted to mark that experience off my list, this was going to be a great place to do it. I decided to go along and try it out.
My first impression of the place – huge pinkish apartment buildings jutting out of the otherwise flat and palm tree lined landscape. Hmm.. This slowly manifested into a small pinkish city fully enclosed within its own crumbling walls. Walking through the grounds, the whole place seemed somewhat surreal and I was not quite as enchanted as I had hoped. But here we were, so onward we go. Within a few hours, rooms were assigned, an orientation was attended, clothing was changed, and that was it. We were part of the group.
The early evening was spent in the ashram’s “western café” listening to other religious seekers share stories about their time here. Apparently Amma, the Hugging Mother and ashram’s guru, became famous for selflessly giving away hugs to the distraught and inconsolable. I heard the two girls next to me discussing their own hug experiences with Amma. It went something like this: “How was it?” one asked. “It was… um… weird” the other responded. Even if I was lacking in enchantment before, I was definitely now at the least intrigued. Weird? How could something so natural and loving as a simple hug be weird?
We quickly learned that we were fortunate enough not only to be at the ashram at the same time as Amma, but to also be there on a day when hugging priority is given to those that just arrived or are just leaving the ashram. What does this all mean you might ask? It means that we were VIP’ed through the ticket line and quickly found ourselves waiting patiently on a packed stage in a line of squeaky plastic chairs for our own chance to receive a hug.
Slowly we scooted from one chair to the next, only stopping to read the plastic covered sheet listing rules and regulations and to wipe our face on the handkerchief provided. As I inched my way towards the front of the line, I watched follower after follower kneel before Amma and wait for her to embrace them. If my lack of enchantment had previously turned to intrigue, it now became an intense desire to flee. Unfortunately I was in the middle of a stage covered with what must have been 200 or so faithful followers and only one, now blocked by five new followers trying to fight their way onto the stage, exit.
Everyone but me seemed to be mesmerized by Amma’s presence. Was I the only person on that stage hyperventilating at my lack of a spiritual experience? I played out every scenario in my head and decided that escape was not an option. I resolved that I would take a few deep breaths and open myself to the experience. I knelt before Amma and leaned in for the embrace. Before I could process what exactly was going on, the woman to my right took my head and, with the confidence of someone who has done this thousands of times before, placed my left cheek square on Amma’s right bosom. Amma reached around, put her arm on my back, and leaned down to whisper into my ear. I stayed there for what felt like eternity but was in actuality only about 20 seconds.
As I walked off the stage, my husband came over and asked, “So. How was it?” All I could respond with was, “It was… umm… weird.”
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It is not titled this way, but this is without doubt a favorite find.
The birthplace of Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god), right outside of Hampi, was one of the more spiritually inspiring places I have been in a long time. Not only did the sheer magnificence of the scenery move me, but everyone else seemed to be genuinely happy just to be there. If I had to gauge a place on its spiritual credibility, I think that would be metric number 1.
Visit at sunset and expect to have every older lady you pass on the staircase to greet you with a “sri Sita, sri Ram” and a smile, expect to have the priests call you into the temple for prasad (a sweet offering/blessing of chai or sugar), and expect to be serenaded not only by the chanting priests in the temple but also by the guitar and drum players teetering out on the rocks for sunset.
The Sickness of Duality
It is important to become aware of interdependence by realizing that a phenomenon occurs owning to multiple causes and conditions. Reducing it to one single factor would lead to a fragmentation of reality. Awareness of interdependence eventually brings about a lessening of violence. All the more so because when one places oneself in a wider context, one becomes less vulnerable to external circumstances and acquires a healthier judgment. Non-violence is not limited to an absence of violence, for it is a matter of active attitude, motivated by the wish to do others good. It is equivalent to altruism.
Selfless love is often misunderstood. It is not a question of neglecting oneself for others’ benefit. In fact, when you benefit others, you benefit yourself because of the principal of interdependence. I want to stress the importance of enlarging your mind and bringing the suffering of others onto yourself. Altruism changes our temperament, our humor, and our perceptions and allows us to develop a more serene, more even temperament. The opposite of altruism makes us vulnerable to external circumstances.
Egocentrism is against nature, for it ignores interdependence. It is an attitude that closes all the doors, whereas altruism develops profound vision. We should develop the feeling of belonging to a large human family. The causes and conditions of our future are largely in our hands.
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama – My Spiritual Autobiography”
Pg. 107 – Transforming the World