Letter from Bodhgaya
Contemptible Dreams, Remarkable Rinpoches
“Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams. Now I wash the gum from your eyes .” – Walt Whitman
“Samsara is nothing other than how things appear to you.” – Patrul Rinpoche
Sometimes, when I feel a little braver than usual, I go to places that scare me. I’m not referring, dear reader, to far-flung blasted cemeteries with jackals baying for blood and naked levitating tantrikas. I mean something a little closer to home, namely the Ambedkar Hostel for Scheduled Castes (SC) in Gaya. SC is the dreadful name the government now gives to the lowest castes and the former untouchable communities in India, people I’ve referred to many times in past articles, many of whom have converted to Buddhism in recent decades.
Thinking to be a hero of sorts and to “help those whom you think you cannot help,” (advice from Machig Lapdron’s teacher, courtesy of Pema Chodron), I set out after nightfall on my trusty scooter. The hostel, which is situated near the town jail on the outskirts of Gaya, is not so very far from those hills where the Buddha preached the Fire Sermon, and where later, jealous Devadatta’s schismatic monks found a temporary foothold two-and-a-half millennia ago.
It was foolishness really. Phari Rinpoche, of whom more later, was expected the next day, and it was not necessary to go see the students in Gaya so soon after I’d promised them a visit. Indeed, I hadn’t gone far before I had an accident. Blinded by the high-beam lights of an oncoming truck, I slammed into the back of a south Indian gentleman strolling on the road with his comrade. I had slowed down, but still it was miraculous neither of us was badly hurt. I stood him up and massaged his back in a sort of nervous but friendly way. I had expected to be abused and beaten actually, or at least fleeced of a few hundred rupees, but the aforesaid gentleman, being from the land of the illustrious Nagarjuna, merely mouthed a few reproaches in his native tongue and I was soon on my way, chastened and bruised but glad to be alive.
The hostel was Dickensian in its squalor, like a scene out of Hard Times. A river of filthy water greeted me outside in the dark (there was a power failure throughout my hour-long visit, a regular occurrence in Gaya where 24-hour outages are not uncommon). Inside a first-floor room, six or more students were studying economics and science subjects. They always study late into the night, said Sunil Kumar, a student who’d said a few days before at a Root Institute course that he really wanted to study Buddhism deeply and become a monk. They have no real teachers, education in Bihar being a major long-festering scandal. I looked at the walls. Hanging garments, clothes, tatty pictures of the Buddha and the modern Buddhist hero Dr. Ambedkar, the alleged desecration of whose statue in a northern Indian town is currently causing arson, murder, and assorted mayhem in central India; old peeling paint, the marks of monsoon dampness still visible if one cared to look. It was a pitiful picture of neglect, a strained hope in the students’ faces almost violent in its intensity. Balliji, the only one with a mobile phone, had an honest, kind face, somewhat of a beseeching look, as if to say, “Are you the one who is going to get us out of this hell-hole, this endless dark tunnel our lives have become, are YOU the one?”
I left disheartened, since nobody had mentioned a teaching, or a visit to Bodhgaya. I’d had to prompt them. They were still bound up in survival agendas, the poverty looming if they didn’t get hold of their lives and get a half-decent living at least. Spending hours and the few rupees they possess on trips to Bodhgaya are understandably not priorities for them, most of the time. The few, like Sunil, who do make it out to Root Institute, often speak of how paradisiacal the environment there is, how conducive to good thoughts, how utterly unlike where they have lived all their sad lives. For a short while I’d really felt for them, felt the wounded quality in their existence, the lack of the precious human opportunity. All just twelve kilometers away from the Place of Awakening.
“Agonies are one of my changes of garments, I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.” – Walt Whitman
As if in a dream-like change of scene in a fast-moving adventure film, the next day saw your hero-hack receiving Phari Rinpoche at Patna airport. Over the next three days, this remarkable lama tirelessly performed many pujas for Maitreya Project’s success, and reminded me forcefully of the Bodhisattva’s way of life; precise, giving, kind, dauntless, impeccably crafted, powerfully warrior-like in its relentless forward motion, a revelation for lazy mortals such as myself. The Rinpoche had emerged as if from another world, done his holy works and uplifted us and departed, leaving frissons of joy in his wake. For me, however, this was not untinged with some vestige of uncomplimentary self-scrutiny. I felt myself to be lacking in my Dharma practice, as well as not having been solicitous enough of the departed lama’s welfare.
As Lama Yeshe says in the recent Ego, Attachment and Liberation, yet another great publication from Dr. Nick sahib and his team at Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives – let’s hear the applause now, ladies and gentlemen:
“For countless lives and from the time you were born until now, all you’ve done is play games and joke around. It’s a waste of your time and mine.”
Anyhow, we’re committed to helping the hostel students long-term, so there will be some benefit. Some may even ordain and form part of our rejuvenated Indian sangha, dedicated to upholding the glorious Nalanda tradition. Also our school gives reason to engender courage for the future. And today I am going to bed satisfied, because the Maitreya school children and staff, as well as the Project staff, recited Chenrezig and Maitreya mantras respectively, and seemed to enjoy doing so. In a world of darkened hostels and sad students, one learns to be heartened by small mercies.
“You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.” – Walt Whitman
Tags: root, service