Postcard 47 from Robina: Kathmandu, Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nov 19, 2014

Our pilgrimage started on October 26 with dinner for the twenty-six of us at the beautiful Hyatt in Boudhanath, just outside Kathmandu.

How I LOVE going on pilgrimage, especially to the blessed places of Nepal and especially to the places in India where Lord Buddha laid his holy feet. There’s something about these places, you can’t put your finger on it. But every year people are deeply affected. Repeatedly they would say that it changed their life, or that they’d had special meditations, or special dreams, or special experiences.

All the lamas say that what makes a place so special is the presence of holy beings: it blesses the earth there.

The first pilgrimage I did was in 2001. My friend Peggy Bennington was in Santa Fe, where I was at the time. I remember our conversation well: she had taken me for a ride on her beautiful big Harley Davidson and we stopped for a cup of tea. She mentioned that she’d been on a Buddhist pilgrimage and she said, “Why don’t you lead one? It’s a good way to raise money for the prison project.”

Sure enough, I took her up on it. The first person I contacted was Effie Fletcher, my dear friend since the early 1990s, who runs Himalayan High Treks in San Francisco. She’s organized every one since.

I didn’t know what we’d do at these holy places, so I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who gave advice for each place. We put together a prayer book, and we still follow it.

We do special prayers and pujas at every place. Even the non-Buddhists enjoy this! Everyone feels that, as Rinpoche puts it, instead of just being like tourists, we’re all doing something special, something worthwhile. And we dedicate for world peace.

The full route of our pilgrimage, from Kathmandu to Varanasi.

But we don’t just do holy things. From the beginning I felt it was important to also have fun together, for people to enjoy themselves, and to stay in the nicest places. We always begin in Kathmandu and we always stay a couple of nights at the Hyatt. People arrive after 24 hours of flying, vaguely anticipating busy dirty Kathmandu but what they get instead is the pure land of the Hyatt: a gorgeous environment in acres of gardens, like a Nepalese palace. And from the back of the hotel you can see the holy stupa.

The holy Boudha Stupa at Boudhanath is near the center of this photo, and the Hyatt is the large building at the top.

One of the first pieces of advice Rinpoche gives us is that the first moment we lay our eyes on the stupa, even from the plane, to make strong prayers, and that such is the power of the stupa that the prayers will be fulfilled.

We saw a rainbow over the Boudha Stupa during prayers there after the passing away of the great Denma Locho Rinpoche. Photo Japheth Ko.

After a couple of days winding down at the Hyatt, we go to Kopan Monastery and do a four-day course. Such a good way to start: the place is full of energy, and so good to have some teachings to start with. And it’s comfortable. Kopan is amazing: it’s probably the best FPMT center in the world in terms of the quality of its accommodation and the numbers who can stay.

Teachings at Kopan Monastery on our first morning there. Photo Japheth Ko.

The next two days, still in Kathmandu Valley, we go to Boudha Stupa and the one at Swayambunath, both just bursting with blessed energy, and to the little village 90 minutes out of town called Parping, where there’s a self-emanating Tara in a rock inside a tiny chapel. We squeeze in there and sing the Praises to the Twenty-one Taras.

Boudha Stupa. Photo Japheth Ko.

The stupa at Swayambunath.

Self-emanating Tara emerging from the rock wall of the cave in Parping. Photo Japheth Ko.

Singing the twenty-one praises to Tara. Photo Japheth Ko.

Then up the hill to a cave of Guru Rinpoche and to the ancient little house where the famous Nepalese Pamtingpa Brothers did retreat on Vajra Yogini, having received the teachings from the great Naropa. It is said that the family that looks after the statue is the one that’s been doing so for centuries.

Just outside Guru Rinpoche’s cave in Parping. Photo Japheth Ko.

Inside Guru Rinpoche’s cave. Photo Japheth Ko.

The house where the Nepalese Pamtingpa Brothers did retreat on Vajra Yogini more than 1,000 years ago. Photo Japheth Ko.

By now, eight of our 23 days have gone by. Next we fly to Lumbini, where Lord Buddha was born, and our Indian bus meets us here.

Lumbini, Nepal, where Lord Buddha was born. Photo Japheth Ko.

These buses are great, and the drivers are wonderful: cool, steady, untiring: 15-hour drives are no big deal for them. They’re so easygoing, these drivers. And not a map in sight; no GPS; no iPhones. And virtually no road signs too! But they know the way. And they seem to really delight in the fact that we’re on pilgrimage.

Our bus driver, left, and his helper. Photo Japheth Ko.

The Indian border is not far away and getting from one side to the other always takes a couple of hours. We get our first taste of Indian sweets and chai here!

Then it’s ten hours to Sravasti. Rinpoche says this place is so special, that meditators say it’s easy to meditate here: it’s where Buddha and his disciples spent the three months of the rainy season in retreat, every year for some twenty-five years.

The first pilgrimage we did, we’d do what is typically done and stay one night in most places. But I found it was so rushed. Ten hours of driving and you arrive in the afternoon, rush off to the holy place, and then have to depart at dawn. From the second one onwards, we spend at least two nights at every place. Much more relaxed.

We arrived at our hotel in Sravasti, then next morning went to the holy site. Acres of beautiful grounds and the ruins of little houses where Lord Buddha and his disciples meditated. In the afternoon many people went back for their private sessions, sitting quietly under the trees, meditating.

Sravasti, where Lord Buddha spent many rainy seasons meditating with his disciples. Photo Japheth Ko.

A dawn departure the next day, heading to Kushinagar, where Buddha passed away. There are two sites, and the one I love is the little rough-looking stupa where, as Rinpoche says, “where Buddha’s body was offered to the fire, a very beautiful place.” We always go in the late afternoon and often recite Pabongka Rinpoche’s Heart Spoon, a fierce reminder our impermanence and death.

The stupa at Kushinagar, where Buddha’s body was offered to the fire. Photo Japheth Ko.

Lord Buddha passed away in this position. Photo Japheth Ko.

Next is Rajgir, to the beautiful Vulture’s Peak where Buddha gave so many of his teachings. We always read The Heart Sutra here, and one year we read, at a record pace, The Sanghata Sutra! It’s such a small place. When you read in The Heart Sutra that Buddha was there “with a great host of monks and a great host of bodhisattvas,” and you wonder where they all fit. I asked exactly this question of Geshe Dakpa at Tse Chen Ling in San Francisco one year, and he said, “Oh, in the sky of course!” So we always visualize this.

Reading The Heart Sutra at Vulture’s Peak, where Buddha gave so many of his teachings. Photo Japheth Ko.

Although more and more, I’m seeing, so many groups of people from all over the world, fellow pilgrims, come to these places. If you wanted to be there on your own you’d probably need to come at midnight! If not, you’ll happily be reciting The Heart Sutra in your language while it’s simultaneously being recited in Thai, Japanese, and Korean.

The next day we went to the ruins, the amazing, beautiful ruins of Nalanda Monastery, that existed between the 4th and 12th centuries AD, which at its peak had, apparently, some 10,000 monks studying there. And, I like to think, a few nuns sneaking in as monks! If you wanted to study the Dharma in depth, that was the place to be. It’s the place where our greatest lineage lamas studied: Shantideva, Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and the rest. It’s said that to gain entry you needed to debate your way in with the gatekeepers. And, such was the respect for the use of logic and analysis in the discovery of reality that the loser of a debate would naturally be won over to their partner’s position: it must be the truth: the winner proved it.

Ruins of Nalanda Monastery, where our greatest lineage lamas studied between the 4th and 12th centuries AD. Photo Japheth Ko.

Then on to Bodhgaya, the holy place where Lord Buddha achieved his enlightenment, where finally all his hard work paid off. We stayed at the FPMT center there, a haven: beautiful Root Institute. We’d go to the Great Stupa every day, and finished there with a special Lama Chopa and tsog offering. Especially in the winter months the place is absolutely packed with practitioners doing their prostration retreats. Very inspiring.

We met His Holiness the 17th Karmapa in Bodhgaya! Photo Japheth Ko.

Lama Chopa and tsog offering at the Great Stupa in Bodhgaya. Photo Japheth Ko.

Finally to Varanasi and to nearby Saranath, where Buddha first taught after achieving his goal. Varanasi is said to be among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities with evidence indicating that it was settled some 3,000 years ago. Among the Hindus it’s considered their most sacred city, and their Ganges River the most sacred. Our pilgrims always love to go to the river, and we did on the first evening here. At sunset the priests make offerings to the goddess Ganga, seen as the river itself. And the ghats are there where Hindus like best to be cremated.

Priests make offerings on the bank of the Ganges River to the goddess Ganga, seen as the river itself, in Varanasi.

A few miles northeast is Deer Park at Sarnath. Again, such a special place—I find it hard to decide which place I like best.

Deer Park in Sarnath, where Buddha first taught the Dharma, teaching on the Four Noble Truths. Photo Japheth Ko.

And then it was back to Kathmandu—to the Hyatt and our final meal together. Every year, so special. I never tire of these pilgrimages! We have another in February.

Our last meal together, in Kathmandu. Photo Japheth Ko.

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