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Kushinagar

After Sarnath, I headed to Kushinagar, the place the buddha attained parinirvana after his death.

The town is small with a gate at the entrance.

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The parinirvana temple grounds were lovely and spacious.

Being inside the temple itself was powerful. I could feel a shift in energy immediately upon entering. It was like breaking out into a cold sweat while remaining dry. I felt an intensity in my cells, like they were near a cool flame. It was like the energy of being in a grandmother’s home, full of tender love, but also somewhat heavy and claustrophobic.

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I felt like I got a better understanding of sad joy. Its hard to describe, but it is as though both are existing at the same time, and its potent.

After Kushinagar, I took a 16 hour train ride to Dehli. This was the most hellish travel experience on my trip yet. The journey begins as usual at the end of a long crowded queue that bears the resemblance to the shape of a line. After getting my ticket and being told by the counter lady to go to platform 5, I was told by a few people on the platform that the train would be on platform 1 or 2 and it would come at 4pm or 5pm. On platform 1, another person, a train station employee, told me the train would be arrive at 12:30pm.

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This confusion prior to boarding trains in India is a typical pre-boarding procedure. When you buy a ticket in person, you are buying a standing space ticket in the “sleeping car”, the lowest class of ticket, and the only one available if you didn’t make a reservation. A man told me on the train that reservations should be made 2-4 months prior. I never boarded a train in India that wasn’t fully booked.

I boarded and put my things between train cars. The first several hours, were spent hanging out in this area shared with other people, but with room to walk between the cars and being ignored by the ticket inspector. Later in the evening, ticket inspectors changed. He approached, ask for my ticket, and with irritation told me I couldn’t stand there and pointed to go to the sleeper car.

At this point I wasn’t sure what all the different cars were, they all have sleeping compartments, so I stayed put as he walked off without letting me ask for clarification. He came back around sometime later, more irritated than before. I asked for clarification. He said to go down 2 cars and that there were no seats available. After he started tapping/hitting my back/butt with his clipboard to move now. I got my backpacks on, but I couldn’t get through the first doorway. He said to change cars the next time the train stopped.

When the train stopped. I went down as instructed. The entrance to the car was filled with people as was the next one down and the next. There was no room to squeeze in and the people would not make room or let me in. I hurried back to where I was before.

At that point, there were a group of policemen that were witnessing my interactions with ticket inspector. They were friendly. One advised me to offer him a bribe of 100-200 rupees for a seat.

The inspector came around again, and I explained the situation. He said to get off at the next stop and get the next train. He rejected my bribes.

There was no way I was taking the risk of not getting to Dehli on that train. The next stop was a prolonged one with many people getting out for food/water.

I used the opportunity to squeeze into a car some cars down. I managed to set my things down. The people around staring, with somewhat of an irritation, for making the quarters more crammed I imagine. I was by the toilets. The urine stench was thick but faded into the background after some time. There was lady next to me on the floor with her 3 sleeping kids, 2 being half naked. For the initial few hours, I had room only to stand and had to periodically shift positions for people to make their way to the toilet, most in bare feet.

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There were times I seriously considered getting off and waiting for the next train. There were no guarantees the next train wouldn’t hold the same situation. I held my spot. The intensity was glorious. My only option was to occupy my mind by practicing tonglen on those around.  Eventually there was space for me to kind of squat on my bag then squat on the floor. I was thankful to not have eaten after breakfast that day.

I eventually got to Dehli at 4am the next day, sleep-deprived, dirty, and disoriented. I was happy to get checked into my hotel.

 

 

 

 

Sarnath

After Bodh Gaya I headed to Sarnath.

Taken from Wikipedia:

Sarnath is a city located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. Deer park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. 

It was the site of the Buddha’s Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first teaching after attaining enlightenment, in which he taught the four noble truths and the teachings associated with it.

My motivation for going to Sarnath was to visit deer park. The park was peaceful. An interesting thing came up in my meditation at the park, I was bothered that there wasn’t an exact location to be at. There was no indication that “this was the spot the Buddha gave his first teachings.” Unlike Lumbini and Bodh Gaya which both had specific spots of significance, this was more spacious. I was left with a sense of grasping for some solid place in space and was left to rest in that groundless state.

My hotel manager offered to take me to a lassi shop down the road and showed me a nice park on the way back.

While in Sarnath, I headed over to have a look at neighboring city Varanasi. I headed over to have another lassi at a place that had come recommended to me by a fellow traveler in Bodh Gaya.

After, I went to the most unusual temple I’ve ever been to, Kashi Vishwanath. Its a sacred Hindu temple. Its domes are covered in gold. You have to make your way through a labyrinth of city alleys to get to it. There’s a security check, you have to remove your shoes, and you aren’t allowed to take anything inside. The happenings on the inside look like something from an Indian Jones movie. There are ritual rooms inside the temple where men, dressed only in white skirts, orange flowered necklaces, and body paint are crammed into. There are these stones on the floor that people make various offerings to, flowers, milk, curd, money, and other things, and touch the stone then touch their forehead.

After this, I headed to a nearby ghat, a cremation place by the Ganges river called Manikarmika ghat. This place is the definition of dismal. Again making my way through the city alley labyrinth, I emerged into a place by the Ganges that had heaps of large log piles, several large fires in a row, and people gathered in small groups by the river. There were famished, skittish puppies about. There were clouds of black smoke and a stench in the air I had already grown accustomed to. The air reeked with death. Its hard to say how long I hung around for. Time seemed to be suspended. I witnessed a few bodies being brought out by the riverside and cremated in the open air. Next to me, a puppy whose skeleton was easily visible, was eating what appeared to be a burnt stick on the ground.

I felt fortunate experiencing this atmosphere of death in its raw essence. I was happy to leave as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bodh Gaya

After Kathmandu, I took a 48 hour journey to Bodh Gaya back in India. The journey was long and involved changing transportation several times.

The periods of transportation between cities are characterized by cramped seating, lots of honking, aggressive driving, hot/ humid weather, and often unpaved roads.

I am met often with stares and approaches of all kinds, peddlers and others who just wanting to converse.

I am constantly bewildered with the atmosphere a native here grows up with. Its just heart breaking. It is a constant reminder to be grateful for what I’ve been given in life.

makeshift houses by the roadside

I was relieved to get checked into a hotel and get cleaned up.

Taken from Wikipedia:

Bodh Gaya is a religious site and place of pilgrimage associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Gaya district in the Indian state of Bihar. It is famous as it is the place where Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained Enlightenment (Pali: bodhi) under what became known as the Bodhi Tree.

For Buddhists, Bodh Gaya is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites related to the life of Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Lumbini, and Sarnath. In 2002, Mahabodhi Temple, located in Bodh Gaya, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I spent most my time in Bodhgaya either at the Bodhi tree or in my room. It was a significant time of self-reflection. The atmosphere around the tree itself is somewhat unbelievable. Its just like a constant state of being stupefied. Sitting in front of it is like, “am I actually see this?”

It was low season, and so it was not hard to get near the tree to sit. Most the other people sitting around me were monks.

This event happened while some heavy family issues were surfacing back home. There was much material to sit with. I encountered a kind elderly lady at a restaurant just next to my hotel the night before I left. She had an unidentified accent, maybe French Canadian. We had a good exchange. It was so good to have the listening ear of a seasoned meditation practitioner, to be able to get some things off my chest, without it coming off as anything other than what it was. It was an opportunity to communicate my present situation, simple and yet often difficult to find.

 

Pokhara and Kathmandu

After Lumbini, I headed over to Pokhara.

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Taken from Wikipedia: 

Pokhara Leknath (Nepali: पोखरा लेखनाथ) is a Metropolitan City and the largest city of Nepal in terms of area.It is located 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the capital Kathmandu. Pokhara Lekhnath Metropolitan City has become the country’s largest metropolis. It occupies an area of 464.24 sq km– nine times larger than Kathmandu. The altitude varies from 827 metres (2,713 feet) in the southern part to 1,740 metres (5,710 feet) in the north.[1] The Annapurna Range with three of the ten highest mountains in the world —Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu – is within 15 – 35 miles of the valley.[2][3] Due to its proximity to the Annapurna mountain range, the city is a base for trekkers undertaking the Annapurna Circuit through the Annapurna Conservation Area region[4] of the Annapurna ranges in the Himalayas.

Phew Lake in Pokhara
Boating at Phewa Lake is one of the popular tourist activities.

Pokhara Lekhnath is home to many Gurkha soldiers. It is the most expensive city in the country, with a cost-of-living index of 150,[clarification needed] and the most expensive place in Nepal after Namche Bazaar, in terms of population, and is often referred to as the tourism capital of Nepal.[citation needed

As soon as I arrived in the Pokhara bus park, I went to pick up my massive backpack and was besieged a mixed group of taxi drivers and other men asking if I had a hotel room.  It was a lot to process at once. Yes, I needed a room and taxi ride to that room, and I wanted it cheap. I managed to strike a deal for a room with a man there for $4 a night (its low seaon). He arranged the taxi ride to hotel, and after passing a long stretch of shops by the riverside, I arrived at a place that was way nicer than I anticipated. Delighted by my good fortune, I drop my bags on the bed and went across the street to French Creperie and there met 2 expat locals,  Kara (USA) and Amanda (UK).new-menu

These two are amazing.  Kara has such a good spirit and attitude towards life. She works at/ founded an organization that brings water filters to people living just outside Pokhara. Check out backpakingforbetty.org.  Kara’s joy is infectious. She is a hot fireball.

Amanda was also really cool. I was fortunate enough to practice a massage session on her, which I hadn’t practiced since Rishikesh. I felt like we were able to do some deep tissue work. I love working deep. It is so rewarding to see how people are after releasing long held stress.

They took me to their favorite places in town. Its great to have local guides.

On my first day wandering the city, I walked over to the giant white Japanese Peace Pogoda which over looks Phewa lake and Pokara.

On my way up the Pagoda, I stopped by Devi falls, and was followed around by  a homeless looking man who was telling me about the falls.

On the way back down from the Peace Pogoda, I bushwacked it to a main road that lead back to Pokhara. I took a mini van public transport bus packed with people down back to town.

The next day I headed over on a one day trek to the Austalian Base Camp to see some mountains.

To get there, I climbed 1.5 hours of stairs through a forest to a village, which I found out had vehicle access once I got there, then hiked another 1.5 hours to get to the  Australian Base Camp.

 

Amazing.

The night before I left, an old Tibetan woman chatted me up by the lakeside. She told me about leaving Tibet with her mom when she was a child during the Chinese invasion and about the economic hardships of living in Nepal. She had a great sense of humor. She ended up selling me a mala for a lot more than I would have normally paid for one.

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I felt humbled and very grateful for my fortunate circumstances leading me to my current life. The teachings on Transcedental Generosity come to mind.

“Transcendental generosity is generally misunderstood in the study of the Buddhist scriptures as meaning being kind to someone who is lower than you.  Someone has this pain and suffering and you are in a superior position and can save them—which is a very simple-minded way of looking down on someone.  But in the case of the bodhisattva, generosity is not so callous.  It is something very strong and powerful; it is communication.

Communication must transcend irritation, otherwise it will be like trying to make a comfortable bed in a briar patch.  The penetrating qualities of external color, energy, and light will come toward us, penetrating our attempts to communicate like a thorn pricking our skin.  We will wish to subdue this intense irritation and our communication will be blocked.

Communication must be radiation and receiving and exchange.  Whenever irritation is involved, then we are not able to see properly and fully and clearly the spacious quality of that which is coming toward us, that which is presenting itself as communication.  The external world is immediately rejected by our irritation which says, “no, no, this irritates me, go away.”  Such an attitude is the complete opposite of transcendental generosity.”       -Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche  (more here)

After Pokhara, I headed to Kathmandu.

Taken from Wikipedia:

Kathmandu (/ˌkætmænˈduː/;[3] Nepali: काठमाडौं) is the capital city of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, the largest Himalayan state in Asia. It is the second largest metropolis in Nepal, with a population of 1.4 million in the city proper, and 2.5 million in its urban agglomeration across the Kathmandu Valley, which includes the towns of lalitpur Kiritipur, Madhyapur Thimi, and Bhatapur. Kathmandu is also the largest metropolis in the Himalayan hill region.

The city stands at an elevation of approximately 1,400 metres (4,600 feet) above sea level in the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley of central Nepal.

The city was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Nepal and hosts palaces, mansions and gardens of the Nepalese aristocracy. It has been home to the headquarters of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) since 1985. 

Kathmandu has been the center of Nepal’s history, art, culture and  economy. It has a multiethnic population within a Hindu and Buddhist majority. Religious and cultural festivities form a major part of the lives of people residing in Kathmandu. Tourism is an important part of the economy as the city is the gateway to the Nepalese Himalayas.

In 2013, Kathmandu was ranked third among the top ten upcoming travel destinations in the world by TripAdvisor, and ranked first in Asia. Historic areas of Kathmandu were devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 25 April 2015. Nepali is the most spoken language in the city, while English is understood by the city’s educated residents.

I stayed just north of Thamel, the tourist district. Thamel is like a labrinth of tall buildings with loads of restaurants and shops.

Here are some of sites around the city.

Swayambuhnath (monkey temple): Swayambhunatha Temple is a vivid example of an  ancient religious pagoda style structure. It is situated at the top of a hill in the west of Kathmandu city. It is a Buddhist holy site. You can see most of Kathmandu Valley from here.

Swayambhu means self-created. It is believed  that Swayambhunath was originated by itself. It is also known as Monkey temple as there are many monkeys living around the jungle of Swayambhunath.

Durbar Square: This is the historic old town. It was devastated during the earthquake 2 years ago. Foreigners are charged $10 to walk through. I turned away from the ticket counter having not purchased a ticket. A man approaches me and tells me to go around the corner and enter the square through an ally. I go around the corner and enter the ally as instructed. When I emerge from the ally, I am near the center of Durbar square. I look over and see a police walking straight toward me. I snapped a picture of my surroundings and quickly went back through the ally not turning back to see how far behind the cop was. That was exciting.

Boudhanath: Boudhanath is one of the biggest stupas in the world. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its hard to describe the vast spaciousness feel of being near this stupa

 

Besides being dirty, having traffic problems, and a big air and water quality issue, Kathmandu is not that bad.

Lumbini

My first stop in Nepal was Lumbini. Lumbini is a Buddhist pilgrimage site in the Rupandehi District of Nepal.

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It is the place where, according to Buddhist tradition, Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama in 563 BC.

This is what the current location of his birth looks like. Also, there is the Puskarini, or Holy Pond, where the Buddha’s mother took the ritual dip prior to his birth and where he had his first bath.

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Inside are ruins, and the exact spot he was born.

I spend about 30 min in the ruins. There was a king scorpion just beside the marker stone and another one tucked into the rocks on the other side of the marker.

There was a sensation of being hot and humid and enclosed, maybe like what its like being in a womb. When I stepped outside the ruins, it was similar, but less intense, to stepping out of a sweat lodge.

Here is the area surrounding the Mayadevi temple.

Lumbini has a number of other temples, monuments, monasteries, and a museum.

The two that caught my eye were the Japanese peace pagoda and the German Monastery. It felt amazing just being at the peace pagoda. There was a freshness and vibrancy about the place.

That is all.

Dharmasala and the bus rides from hell

After Rishikesh, I took a 12 hour bus ride to Dharmasala which arrived at 2am. The bus was a local bus that would stop at every other village and had these sit-up-straight-only seats. The last 2 hours of the trip, where I could hardly stay awake, was of course riddled with constant sharp turns and bumpy roads, as the bus ascended in elevation. When I arrived, a fellow bus passenger offered to drop me off at the main part of the town where there would be lodging, but would have to go look for someplace that was open. I was exhausted and decided to pitch my tent there outside the bus station for a few hours and head out in search of lodging later. The plan worked out well and soon arrived in my hotel with this lovely view.

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The Dalai Lama’s residence and the headquarters of  Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) are in Dharamsala.

I wanted to come here to have a look at the Dalai Lama’s residence and to be in the midst of a Tibetan community.

I wasn’t able to see the Dalai Lama’s residence, but I did head over to the Dalai Lama Temple Complex. Being in this sacred place with hundreds of practicing monks was incredible. To add to that, the air was cool and the views from the temple were beautiful.

In the complex is a Tibetan museum that talks mostly of oppressed Tibet today and the atrocities committed toward the Tibetans since the Chinese invasion. Its really sad.

The next day, I had a look around the city.

After Dharmasala, I headed for my first destination in Nepal. It was a grueling 48 hours of bus travel with multiple bus transfers. The bus stops were frequent and unnecessary, who wants to eat at 1am and then again at 3:30am? On the first night bus, the driver was blasting music the entire ride, as if to keep himself awake.

The scenery changed dramatically after crossing into Nepal. I hired an old man on a bike to transport me across the border.

Eventually, I made it to my first destination Lumbini, only after having first falsely mistaken a previous city for Lumbini, and getting checked into a hotel, washing up (I was so dirty), discovering from a conversation down the road as I was walking this was not Lumbini, trying and failing at a hotel refund, and getting back on another bus that would indeed take me to Lumbini.

I want to make mention of the extreme poverty I witnessed during the long bus rides. Some of the images I saw will be burned into my memory forever. Its heart breaking to see people living in these situations.

 

 

Rishikesh

After Thailand, I headed to India. I’ve been in Rishikesh for the past 2 weeks doing a yoga teacher intensive class.

Rishikesh is known as a pilgrimage town and regarded as a holy place to Hindus. Hindu sages and saints have visited Rishikesh since ancient times to meditate in search of higher knowledge. Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world. There are many yoga teacher certification classes here.

The Ganga passes through Rishikesh. The Ganga is a trans-boundary river of Asia which flows through India and Bangladesh. The 2,525 km (1,569 mi) river rises in the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and flows south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. It is the third largest river in the world by discharge. It is a holy river to hindus.

The food is amazing, but the indian spice has definitely taken a toll on my stomach.

After doing some research online for a 2 week program, I came across a yoga teacher class that looked good, Hari Om Yoga Vidya.

The past 2 weeks have been amazing and full of challenges. The daily schedule was full.

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The teachers were knowledgeable and well practiced in their fields. My classmates were so lovely and came from all over the globe.

During one weekend, my classmates and I headed over to a nearby waterfall.

I am so thankful for my time and experiences in Rishikesh. Here is a poi offering for my time here: