New Delhi, India – October 19-20 India is an assault to the senses from the moment you land– the worn enclosed walkway on the jetport as you deplane seems unchanged from the first days of jet travel, and the unmistakable acrid smell of insecticide and industrial cleaning solvent are the first welcome to the paradox that is India. But once inside the terminal, one must be impressed by India’s admirable attempt to create a modern world-class international airport; the lighting is soft, the marble corridors clean and well constructed, and the floor to ceiling glass offers unimpeded views of the pandemonium that awaits you outside baggage claim. My bags safely retrieved, and armed with my pre-paid taxi ticket, I venture out of the terminal into the chaos of night. A hot wind is blowing and the tall overhead halogens are lighting up the kumba mela of flying insects that fill the dark sky. Swirls of black crows make the night sky even blacker. As above, so below as seemingly thousands of lookalike touts call out “hello Sir” in their best seductive tone. “I take your bags for you” “You come my hotel” “I have cheap taxi” “No waiting- direct car” the myriad invitations forming one cacophonous chant as I waded through the crowd to find my cab by number. I forgot how terrifying the ride from Indira Gandhi Airport to Delhi can be– even for an old India-hand like myself. The dim street lighting seems to offer only moving shadows as the dilapidated old taxi rides the bumps on the makeshift roadway at blowout speeds. Giant piles of dirt and broken stone every few feet suggest you are traveling into Paleolithic time. The horn blares non-stop in a kind of primitive GPS system to alert the large lumbering lorries decked with flowers and krishna statues to the presence of a diminutive taxi in their midst. Passing thru intersections makes rush hour Rome look organized as tuk-tuks, trucks, taxi’s, cars and cows all manage to go their separate ways from every direction at once. Close calls, and sudden stops abound, and rare is the trip to town that does not pass an accident scene. Once safe and sound in my Delhi hotel room with the windows wisely fitted with frosted glass, I reflect on why I have made this extraordinary effort and spent 22 hours in transit. With one more flight the next morning on an airline curiously called Spice Jet, I will be in Banaras, scene of the oldest continuing urban culture on the planet, and reunited with Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) and Sister Chang Khong and their band of mindful monks and nuns for a journey on the “Path of Awakening.” My first trip with Thay was also his first trip to India in 1988, and our second was in 1997. This third trip to India, on the occasion of his 84th birthday, is the fruit of many years of preparation by Shantum Seth and a number of concerned social workers, leaders, educators, businesspeople and intellectuals in India. To them, having Thay here is tantamount to bringing Buddha’s message of awakening back to India. He still has the energy and breathtaking clarity to share the message of transformation and healing with not only the rich and powerful of India, but also the lowest of the low. Prior to my arrival, Thay gave a Dharma talk to approximately 300 000 Dalits (former “untouchables”) who are now Buddhists in Nagpur. The theme of this visit is “Peace in Oneself…Peace in the World” through “Mindfulness in Education”. The monks and nuns of Thay’s order have been here for a month visiting schools and guest teaching all over India. Tomorrow, we will meet in Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first teaching, and Thay will give a Dharma talk to over 300 people at the Dhamek Stupa amidst the beautifully landscaped ruins of 2,000 year old Buddhist monasteries.
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