We crossed the border from Nepal into India at Sonauli in the morning of 11
December 2000, and arrived in Sravasti that evening, taking a room at a
monastery across from the Deer Park. In the morning we met a young american
woman named Melissa at the breakfast table, who was traveling alone through the
Buddha sites, on her way towards Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama, in north India.
Sravasti is the location where the Buddha spent 25 rain seasons tutoring the
first Sangha of monks, and we spent the morning walking through the many ruins
scattered among the peaceful trees in the Deer Park there.
Chris left Sravasti that evening to pursue his own adventure, which took him
through Varanasi for several weeks, while Melissa and I left early the next
morning and took the train back towards Gorakhpur. On the way, she departed at a
small town to catch a bus on her own journey, while I continued on to Gorakhpur,
where I found a bus to Kushrinigar, the site of the historical Buddha's physical
death, or Mahasamadhi.
I arrived fairly late in the evening, and found a room at the International
hotel, a relatively well-appointed place with some modern amenities. However,
shortly after unpacking and looking forward to a good night's sleep, a large and
loud Indian family arrived down the hall, and from past experiences, I knew they
were going to be very noisy all night, so wearily, I repacked my things and left
to walk around town, looking for another place to sleep. I came to an old gated
entrance marked dimly as a Tibetan monastery, and looking through, it was dark
and quiet, and very sparcely built in traditional Tibetan manner. The quiet
starkness and peacefulness resonated inside me, so after several calls of
"Namaste?", a Tibetan monk appeared and let me in.
He offered me a very simple unlit room in a small building, with one bed, and
several shelves built into the walls, and I quickly found anchor points for my
mosquito netting over the bed, unpacked all over again, and went to sleep.
I spent the next day visiting the various sights in this very small town, and in
the later afternoon, made my way into the main temple where there was a 20 foot
long statue of the Buddha in the lying position. It was quiet and peaceful
inside, and I decided to sit for meditation on the floor, against a wall. I fell
into a deeply peaceful space almost immediately, and sat for quite a while, as
Indian tourists and pilgrims made the rounds of the statue, some talking in
whispers as they quietly walked.
I stayed there the second night as well, and in the early morning, when I was
getting ready to leave, I asked what the charges would be. I was told it was by
donation, and asked what the usual donation came to, and when he told me 50
rupees a night, I gave him 100 for each night, as well as several extra locks
and keys that I was carrying, as I needed to reduce my pack weight.
Walking towards the bus stand, I noticed a tall white-haired westerner standing
there with a large dufflebag type of pack. Approaching, we recognized each other
from the hotel in Lumbini, less than a week before. He was heading for Sarnath,
for what was to be his fifth visit there, and since I was "following the
footsteps" of the Buddha, Sarnath was the next logical place for me to go.
Kushrinigar to Sarnath -
We traveled to Gorakhpur, where we found a private van to Sarnath leaving in
several hours. With the extra time, we searched and found a small internet
access point, and I left an email for Chris, detailing my plans.
Will was from a northern Canadian province, living up in the woods in
retirement; he said he was 69 years old - I was amazed he was carrying such a
large and heavy pack - and that this was his fifth time traveling India. He was
very pleasant and obviously very experienced in solo travel there in India.
The van carried us and about a dozen Indians, and it broke down about halfway to
Sarnath due to a slipping clutch. Everyone piled out of the van, standing on the
roadside, wondering what to do, when about 10 minutes later, a bus appeared down
the road, coming our way. I started waving to it to stop, and when it did, I
rushed the door, motioning for Will to come quickly. The other Indians
eventually noticed, and tried rushing onto the bus, but I held them off until
Will got on in front of me, then I was swept onto the bus with the torrent of
We reached a junction point with a major bus depot and everyone got off the bus.
At this point, it was after dark, and so, instructing Will to wait in the center
area, I found a bus going toward Sarnath, and waved him over. The driver didn't
want to take on any more passengers, but I jumped on anyway, pulling Will on
with me - after all, it was India and you have to make up the rules as you go.
Moving toward the rear of the bus, we found some room to sit on the floor, and I
met a young German who showed me my first white LED flashlight. I was thrilled
and amazed, having never seen anything like it before. He asked me if I had a
razor blade that would fit his shaver, and since it was the same type as mine, I
rummaged thru my pack and gave him two, and explained to him how to make them
last longer by soaping up and rinsing his face under hot water twice before
lathering up to shave.
The bus let us off a couple of kilometers outside of Sarnath, around 11pm, and
we hailed a small tuktuk to drive us in. The town was dark and silent when we
got there, but Will headed for a particular monastery, and we waited at the gate.
Presently some officials drove up in a taxi, someone unlocked the gates and we
passed through along with them, and Will got us a room for the night, complete
with a bathroom. The next day, we found longterm accomodations at the Chinese
monastery down the road, and went out to explore the town.
We visited several important sites including where the Buddha had given the
first sermon, and then we went to the Archaeological Museum, which contains
2000 year old remnants of the Ashokan pillar, and many other objects from the
Buddha's time, all displayed beautifully with good lighting and documentation.
Several days later, Will's friend, the 'eggman', showed me into a special
school, set a ways off of the main road, built and run by an Italian expat. It
was nicely built in a beautifully appointed garden setting, with several two-
story wooden buildings. Many young Indian children were happily going from
building to building, busy with their day, when I encountered the Italian man. I
introduced myself, and after a short time, it was apparent to me that he was an
exceptionally brilliant and inspired man, with a solid spiritual grounding. He
explained to me that the children were being educated in a unique manner,
learning science, math, cooking, and other languages, and were also being
instructed in meditation, yoga, and mindfulness, with the goal of creating well-
adjusted, and well-rounded individuals who could think for themselves, and
hopefully go on to create a better world, as well as going on to higher
education. We spoke in his personal office for quite a while, and I felt really
comfortable in the space, and with this man. He was truly an enlightened
individual and dedicated to his school. The school is referred to as The Alice
Project in Sarnath, India, and I was left with a strong desire to return there
someday to help out in some manner, perhaps in a teaching capacity.
Also in Sarnath was a recently-built, very beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple,
part of a new monastery, where I began sitting every morning for meditation. One
morning, as I was sitting in the back, on the floor, there suddenly began the
loud rumble of drums, and the blast of several Tibetan longhorns, and a clanging
of a whole orchestra of smaller drums, cymbals, and horns. I awoke with a start,
and saw before me a magnificent assemblage of young Tibetan monks engaged in a
monthly musical ceremony, which lasted about a half hour. It was beautiful - it
was indescribable; it was just beautiful. I felt really priviledged to be there
witnessing this incredible event, as they had apparently closed the main door
without noticing my presence on the floor in the rear of the temple.
When it was finished, I spoke with some of the young monks, who expressed a
desire to learn more English, and showed me some books they were trying to learn
from. I helped them as best I could, and got the idea to search the town for
some English primers. I eventually found some at a small bookseller, and bought
several to distribute the next day to the monks. They were thrilled and insisted
I give them lessons right then. I ended up meeting with them for several
mornings, until Will and I were ready to leave Sarnath for Bodh Gaya, our main
and most important destination.
Early in the morning of our tenth day in Sarnath, we met a pre-arranged taxicab
in the main square, which took us to the Mughal Sarai Junction, where we caught
a train to Gaya, about three hours away. I found Will a seat in the crowded
train, and noticed a small space nearby, on an upper bunk where a European boy
was curled up sleeping, and climbed up, trying not to disturb him. At Gaya, we
found a tuktuk to Bodh Gaya, and arrived in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve,
Bodh Gaya -
Will found a room at his favorite hotel, and since there were no other rooms
available, I walked across town to the Bhutanese monastery, which had been
recommended to me, and found a nice room in the guest quarters building. I
returned to meet Will for a Christmas Eve dinner at one of the small restaurants
across from his hotel, then went off to bed. In the morning, I returned to
Will's hotel, where the London Gaia House staff were signing people up for their
25th annual month-long Vipassana retreat, held at the Thai Temple monastery
beginning in early January.
I spent the next two weeks exploring Bodh Gaya and the MahaBodhi Temple, visiting
the Bodhi Tree, and meditating on the temple grounds in the presence of Tibetan
monks and visitors and pilgrims from all over the world. After 4 days, it was
necessary to find other accomodations, and I found space in a Thai monastery
(different from the Thai Temple monastery, where the retreat was held) for
several more days, then I found a small boarding house off the main run, and
settled in for several more days until the retreat started and I moved to the
The Cafe OM restaurant in Bodh Gaya -
In a large field near the town center, about a dozen large tents were set up as
temporary restaurants by Tibetans, to serve the pilgrims and travelers who
arrive for the various celebrations and retreats held in town for the winter
months every year. The most popular of these with western travelers was the Cafe
OM, a pleasant and inexpensive place, where people met and shared travel
experiences from early morning to late night. A bulletin board inside the
entrance was posted with notes to and from incoming travelers to their friends,
as well as retreat announcements. You could eat three good meals for about 200
rupees a day there, and the family who owned and ran the restaurant were very
friendly and popular with the western travelers, and took great care in
preparing and serving the traditional Tibetan foods in a clean and sanitary
Chris arrived in Bodh Gaya on New Year's day, having wanted very much to make it
by New Years Eve. He went directly to the Cafe OM as per my email, found my note
on the board, and was recognized by everyone there as well. When I arrived later
on, he was there chatting with the others, and glad to see me. Chris stayed with
me for several days in the Thai monastery, then an afternoon at the small
boarding house, and then left for a solo journey to south India to attend the
Shivananda Yoga course that had been highly recommended by folks at the Cafe OM.
Before he left Bodh Gaya, he took many nice photos on the temple grounds as well
as several at the Cafe OM.
The Vipassana retreat -
The Vipassana retreat was held in total silence, with short group sharings every
several days, where questions could be asked for about a half hour. The days
began early, with a long meditation in the hall, followed by a good breakfast of
porridge and condiments and chai, then an hour where showers could be taken, or
laundry done, all in silence. A short instruction talk followed by another long
meditation sitting occurred, then a full lunch was served in silence. After
lunch, an hour of walking or sitting in the garden followed, then another silent
sitting til evening. A light snack with tea was offered at 6pm, then an hour's
break. The evening dharma talk began at 7:30, followed by a sitting til around
9pm. An additional optional sitting was offered after 930 til late. All of these
activities took place in silence. We slept in a basement space underneath the
Temple, where it was dark and rather tight accomodations. Every other day, the
body of people were divided up into small groups,each with a moderator, and a
half hour meeting was held where people were free to ask questions about their
meditations and experiences. Needless to say, there were many intense
experiences shared at these meetings. There was no discussion at these meetings,
just short exchanges between the moderator and the individuals asking questions.
I had originally signed up for the first session, lasting 8 days, but when it
ended, I was not ready to leave, and signed up for the second 8 day session,
along with most of the original people, and an additional group of new folks.
There were about 60 people in the first session and about 85 in the second. In
this second 8 day period of silence, I experienced profound insights and intense
Leaving Bodh Gaya -
When the second session finished, I found a room in the small boarding house again,
and went over to the internet access place to email and call Chris, who was in
southern India, taking the Shivananda Yoga course. He told me how to get there,
Where to stay in Calcutta on the way, and where to meet him. I found a reputable
travel agency in the town marketplace, and booked a ticket for Calcutta on the
Jodhpur Express out of Gaya.
All in all, I was in Bodh Gaya for a full month. I lived on about 250 rupees
(US$5.50) a day, and had deep and memorable experiences there that I will remember
for the rest of my life.
Reunion in south India -
I left Bodh Gaya several days later for Calcutta, where I stayed for four days,
checking out the famous instrument makers' shops and eating five-star Indian
cuisine at luxury hotels. I also had many rolls of our films developed in order
to catch up with that task.
In the fourth evening, I boarded the Trivandrum Express at Howrah Station in
Calcutta, and began the two-day journey to Kerala state in south India, and a
reunion with Chris in Varkala, a beautiful tropical resort town on a cliff
overlooking the sea.
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