Two Englishmen on Foot in Buddhism’s Holy Land
By Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott
Published by Wisdom Publications
In this excerpt, Nick and Ajahn are welcomed to India by beggars, taxi-drivers, and some very noisy wildlife.
CHAPTER 1 PILGRIM’S WAY
AJAHN SUCITTO “Chomp, chomp, chomp! Slurp!” Something devilish about that sound, a deliberately provocative assault on my meditation. When your eyes are closed and your mind turned inward, you feel the world should leave your unguarded hearing alone—it doesn’t—let alone such lip smacking in the middle of the night on a New Delhi rooftop while I am seeking to contemplate higher things.
“Chomp, chomp! Slurp, slurp!” It must be just beside my left shoulder. A slow turn and opening of the eyes reveals only the brown-black murk of night sky, smoke, and dust; and a tree back beyond the roof whose branches extend overhead. In front of me beyond the parapet is the street, still half alive with a cycle-rickshaw driver rocking and aimlessly pirouetting his bike while chatting with someone squatting on the road; a few people on the pavement, children mostly, sleep in blankets; scraps of paper tumble spasmodically when the dull air rolls in its sleep. New Delhi’s Chelmsford Road, at night, half lit with yellow sodium lights, lacks the energy of a full-blown hell. No, the sound again comes from behind and above: something dark hanging upside down under the tree—beating leathery wings and chomping. “Giant fruit bat,” comments “Nick-Who-Knows.”
Eating upside-down is anyway no more contrary than sitting and pacing on a roof in the moonlight. It depends on your perspective. For us this full moon night of November 2, 1990 is the uposatha night. In the time of the Buddha, the monastic community would sit up on these moon nights meditating until dawn. In the forest monasteries of Thailand and Britain, we still carry out this observance. Or attempt to. Having arrived in New Delhi only yesterday at two A.M. after a flight from Heathrow, we’re jetlagged and in a time warp, but we might as well get used to it – disorientation is going to be a normal mind state for the next six months at least. If we survive. Our aim is to walk around the Buddhist holy places of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and then head for Kathmandu; avoid the main roads, wander across country living on alms food and whatever.
“I can arrange a car for you!” Ravi, an Indian guest at my home monastery, had exclaimed. “Bihar is very dangerous! Bandits, murderers – no one travels on foot in Bihar!” Or sleeps out in the open. However, Bihar and the eastern section of Uttar Pradesh were the “Middle Country,” the land where the Buddha was enlightened and wandered teaching for forty-five years. After the death of the Buddha, the Middle Country—then called Magadha—prospered as the centre of the empire of the Buddhist monarch Ashoka (268-231 B.C.E.). Some of the stupas that he erected over portions of the Master’s ashes still loom over the paddy fields of the Ganges plain. Even after his death and the dissolution of the empire, the wisdom of the Buddha continued to mould the culture: great Buddhist universities such as Nalanda, a light of learning unparalleled in the world in its time, arose in this region. And now? With a 26 percent literacy rate, there is some justification for Ravi’s comment that: “Only the Buddha could have got enlightened in Bihar; the people are the stupidest in India.”
Anyway, there was never any question in our minds but that we would be walking. We were going on a pilgrimage, not a sightseeing tour; so the logic was to walk and be absorbed into India as much as absorbing it. A pilgrimage has to be about surrendering oneself, to allow a new centre of being to develop. To realize, rather than to travel, is a pilgrim’s aim and momentum.
It’s difficult to keep that clear. Yesterday night as we were arriving above India in the tightly controlled space of a DC10, the fake detachment of soaring above it all had given me a last chance to recollect the pilgrimage in visionary terms. Below was the arena for spiritual development—the turmoil to be at peace with, the determined journey to no apparent destination. Then began the slow wheeling down from that lofty space. Soon I knew the mind would be wanting things to go “my” way, squabbling over petty inconveniences, hungering after trivia; according to Indian religious thought it was inevitable—forgetting one’s higher nature is an essential part of the spiritual journey.
There was a thud of wheels, a slow turning and then the clank of the stairs connecting to the hull. The midnight transit through customs offered a last moment to step back and cast a cool eye on circumstance. Then, with a friendly nod from a Sikh customs man, we were in and moving.
NICK It was when we got outside the airport building that we really knew we were in India: we were immediately in a crowd being hassled by taxi drivers, beggars, and young men promoting different hotels; it was warm although it was midnight; and there was that distinctive urban Indian smell, somewhere between spices, incense, and stale urine. Following advice we had been given by a friend, we escaped our assailants, skirted the yellow ambassador taxis and the shiny airport coaches, looking for the cheap option, the ex-servicemen’s bus into New Delhi.
There were four of them, battered oblong metal boxes standing side by side in the gloom some way off from the terminal. As we got close, we could tell which was going first by the two passengers and two crew sitting inside in the darkness. Looking closely into the others, as we passed, I could see they too had crews, but huddled asleep under blankets. We clambered aboard; inside there were two rows of simple metal seats with the minimum of padding between red plastic covers and the hardness of their bases, there was no door for the passenger doorway, half the cover for the oily engine was missing and no glass in the side windows.
The excitement of arriving and the nostalgia of being back in India made everything seem romantic. We shuddered along looking out on a country neither of us had seen for fifteen years; the empty streets bathed in the light of the moon giving our passage an extra sense of magic. Every so often the bus would shudder to a stop in the middle of nowhere to let strange characters get on or off: a fat man struggling down the steps with an impossible bundle and boxes tied up in string, or an old lady arising out of the shadows with a shopping bag. Each time a cry of “Chalo” (let’s go) from the conductor would set the bus off again like a spooked cow. Eventually it was our turn. The bus stopped and the conductor cried out, “Connaught Circus.” We clambered down with our bags to the pavement and with another “Chalo” it was our turn to be strange characters exiting into the night.
Bhikkhu Ajahn Sucitto is abbot of Cittivaveka, Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, and has published several books of his teachings. Dr. Nick Scott is a plant ecologist living in England. He now also teaches meditation retreats.
From Rude Awakenings by Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott; (c) 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.