Sarnath

It’s mid February 2008, and I am in Sarnath.

Formerly a deer park, Sarnath lies 10km outside Varanasi and is the place where the Buddha came after his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, to seek out his former companions who were living there in huts and give his first sermon, on the turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way.

This altar is still used by pilgrims for pujas – not just Buddhists, but also Jains, for whom Sarnath is also sacred.

A monastic tradition flourished at Sarnath for over 1500 years after the Buddha. Many monasteries and two great stupas were built, which survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team. Amongst these ruins were a stone column 15.25m high with four lions as its capital, erected by the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed in the 3rd century BC. This capital was adopted as the symbol of the modern Indian republic.

The Dhamekh Stupa. Built in the sixth century, this solid cylindrical tower, 33m high, consists of a stone base with the upper part made of brick, and was virtually the only building to survive the Islamic destruction, perhaps because of its sheer size and bulk. It marks the spot where the Buddha supposedly gave his first sermon. The five former companions, who became his first disciples on hearing him speak, had deserted him when he gave up his ascetic vows. On achieving enlightenment, he determined to follow the ‘Middle Way’, avoiding both luxuries and asceticism. This is the basis of its appeal to me personally – nothing to do with religion, but a sensible lifestyle avoiding extremes, with kindness at its heart. A philosophy of life.

Delicate carvings on the base of the Damekh Stupa.

Just outside the Deer park, there are a number of modern Buddhist monasteries, attracted to the site because of its history. This particular spot was a beautiful peaceful place, but I can’t remember exactly where it was! I think it was outside the Japanese Temple…

Inside the Dharmachakra Japanese monastery

Mulagandhakuti Vihara built by the Mahabodhi Society in 1931

Return To Tengboche…

…but not literally, unfortunately. I did say I would re-post another travel post from some while back, so here it is.

Four years ago I wrote four short posts about Tengboche. Here I’ve combined them into a single post and added some extra pictures and text to give a little more information about this lovely place.

Tengboche is a monastery complex and a couple of trekking lodges at 3860m on the route up to Everest Base Camp from Lukla, in Nepal. It sits high above the waters of the Dudh Khosi, the rapidly flowing river than runs alongside much of the Everest Trail.

The monastery complex. On arrival in the afternoon, the clouds are low. This seems to be the pattern most days – clear mornings and then the clouds coming in early afternoon. In a general sense, weather patterns in the Himalaya – certainly in some parts, and probably at certain times of the year – can be quite predictable. When I trekked the Annapurna Circuit, for example, we were told one evening that around ten o’clock the next morning there would be strong winds blowing in the valley we were to follow, because that was what happened every day. And blow they did. At ten o’clock.

From inside the monastery grounds. The monastery is a Tibetan Buddhist complex, liberally decorated with the pictures, statues, and symbols to be found in every such place.

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Inside Tengboche monastery following a puja (ceremony).

Rightly or wrongly, I don’t like taking photographs of pujas in monasteries. It feels intrusive and bad mannered. I would feel the same in a church, mosque or temple. This has nothing to do with any beliefs of my own, but is born of simple respect.

I noted in my diary: We have just sat in on a chanting puja, but my meditation failed dismally. I was completely unable to concentrate on my breath as all that I could think of were my freezing feet!

It was blooming cold!

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This view must have been photographed so many times, but how fantastic is it? Sunset on Everest (left) and Nuptse (right), photographed from Tengboche. This was taken on my third visit; the other two times the clouds failed to clear in the evening, so this was an unexpected treat.

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And this is the same view in the morning – but with the addition of Ama Dablam on the right of the picture. Ama Dablam is possibly my favourite mountain; the classic ‘mountain-shaped’ mountain, similar to the Matterhorn.

Close-up of window showing the dawn chorus orchestra.

We were awoken in the mornings by the harsh notes of conch shells and the clashing of symbols. This was part of the morning puja, rather than a summons for coffee and porridge. It does make for an excellent alarm call, though.

Leh Old Town

Fourteen years ago I went up to Ladakh, in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Crikey, fourteen years! Where did that go?

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This is a painting I made in ink and watercolours of an area of the Old Town of Leh, the Main Town of Ladakh. It shows part of a Buddhist shrine, next to another old building. Most of the buildings are a mixture of stone and wood, the wood frequently carved and / or painted.

Although there were quite a few new buildings in the town, the majority of them were old and the whole town had the feel of belonging to another century. I travelled in early April, before most visitors arrive and when Ladakh is still bitterly cold and wintry – certainly overnight. During the day the temperature just sneaked a little above freezing. This meant that I seemed to be the only Westerner there – I certainly don’t remember seeing any others – and I was never hassled by touts of any description, possibly because it was still too early.

But, above all, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.

Regretfully, I doubt I’ll get another chance to go there, but it is certainly a very special place!

Picture available on my Etsy shop site here

Sound The Retreat!

My reader will probably not be too surprised to learn that I have been on retreats a couple of times.

After all, someone who gripes about the rush and noise and pressures of the modern world, and who has anxiety issues, tends to spend quite a lot of time yearning for silence and solitude. Because there are, quite frankly, times when everything just gets too much to cope with.

Obviously there are many ways this might be achieved; perhaps I could commit a serious crime and then misbehave in gaol – that would probably lead to a good long spell in solitary, although I can think of several reasons why this might not be the ideal solution.

I could lock myself in a room and refuse to come out – from experience, though, that just leads to unpleasantness and tears. It worked tolerably well when I was a child, but as an adult I can see why it might not look so good.

Whenever I get the opportunity I go for a long walk. Unfortunately, if it is near my home I tend to be surrounded by dogs and dog walkers – not that’s there’s anything wrong with them, I hasten to add, but it’s hardly peaceful. There are several dog owners around here whose voices can not only be heard several counties away because of the sheer volume, but can also smash windows by pitch alone. And I soon get back to roads and so-called civilisation, no matter which route I take.

Then there are lots of other walkers bellowing into mobile phones: ‘Yes, it’s lovely and peaceful out here! Now, let me just yell a few personal and private details at you and anyone else within earshot! What? Yes, I’m still a complete tosser! Why do you ask?’

Going further afield takes more time, and that’s no good if I need a quick fix of silence, so generally I’m stuck with the dog walkers and the tossers.

So, retreats. Other than the meaning of legging it from a superior military force, a retreat is defined as withdrawing to a quiet / peaceful place. There is also the implication of it being a place to indulge in contemplation.

Yes, that’s exactly what I had in mind. Don’t mind if I do.

My first retreat was at an abbey not terribly far from where I live. Although I am not a Christian, I enjoyed a short week of taking quiet walks in the grounds of the abbey and the countryside beyond, reading, rising early and taking a silent breakfast with the monks, and even attending one of the services each day.

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Some of the time I spent painting watercolours which I have long lost. Since at least one was of foxgloves, here’s a photo of some just so you can imagine how incredibly good the paintings were!

The other retreat was in the North of England, and consisted of a week-long period of meditation with a Buddhist group. This was very hard work, but I did finish the week feeling refreshed.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to organise one’s own retreat by finding somewhere quiet and secluded and staying put for a week or however long one fancies (a year, perhaps?).

Perhaps I should do that soon.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 3

At Manang, we pitched our tents on the flat roofs of the buildings…

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…essentially, it is the only flat area in the village that doesn’t either have someone living on it or crops growing on it.

 

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A Buddhist temple in Manang. We took care to visit the priest and receive his blessing for the crossing of the pass in a few days time. The high pass- Thorung La – is at 5416m and  is the highest pass in the world, and who knows what the weather and fate might decide to throw at us.

 

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A view of Annapurna I (I think!) from Manang. Annapurna I is the tenth highest mountain in the world, but also one of the most dangerous. The reason for my uncertainty is that the route of the trek takes us around some twenty or so peaks, including Annapurnas I – IV, Gangapurna, Tara Kang and Khangsar Kang, all of which can be seen from the Manang part of the trail.

 

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Nomadic herders’ camp above Ledar, at about 4300m. Theirs is not an easy life.

 

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Bridge across the Khone Khola, near where we camped before crossing the pass. The bridge is covered to protect it from snowfall.

 

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The porters at Thorung Phedi, where we camped before crossing the pass.

 

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A couple of hours later…

 

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We were snowed in the next day (and you can get very bored stuck in a tent for a day), but the following day we set off at dawn to cross the pass (Note the small figures passing the first rock).

 

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Some of the rocky, icy, snowy, lumpy bits beside us as we crossed the pass.

 

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After several hours hard slog through the snow, and the pass crossed, we began descending the western side down towards the village of Muktinath.

Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is found. As they flutter in the breeze, they use this wind to send blessings out into the world. Through many parts of the Himalaya they adorn monasteries and humble homes, chortens and bamboo flagpoles. They are tied in their hundreds and thousands to bridges, above mountain peaks, and in the courtyards of every conceivable building.

Elsewhere, they are to be found wherever exiled Tibetans live, and wherever their school of Buddhism flourishes.

The makers of the flags intend the prayers and blessings that adorn them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.

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Prayer flags in the Yumtang Valley, Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India.

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Prayer flags outside a monastery in Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags adorn a pair of chortens and walls of prayer wheels in Khumjung, Nepal.

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Prayer flags at Tengboche, Nepal.

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And adorning a bridge of the Dudh Khosi, again in Nepal.

Tengboche – 1

Tengboche is a monastery complex and a couple of trekking lodges on the route up to Everest Base Camp from Lukla, in Nepal. It sits high above the waters of the Dudh Khosi.

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Inside Tengboche monastery following a puja (ceremony).

Rightly or wrongly, I don’t like taking photographs of pujas in monasteries. It feels intrusive and bad mannered. I would feel the same in a church, mosque or temple. This has nothing to do with any beliefs of my own, but is born of simple respect.

I noted in my diary: We have just sat in on a chanting puja, but my meditation failed dismally. I was completely unable to concentrate on my breath as all that I could think of were my freezing feet!

It was blooming cold!