As you travel through South and Southeast Asia, an area of the world which I have dubbed Theravadaland, you can feel the gradual shifting influence of the two great civilizations of India and China. Starting our in India and moving in a southeastwardly direction, you go down to Sri Lanka, the island in Indian mythology where the evil demon Ravana held Sita captive, and where the Hindu gold Vishnu lives side by side with the Buddha (although somewhat precariously these days). Then you travel up to Burma, where the Chinese feeling begins to take hold, visible in the faces of the people and the architecture of the “pagodas.” You then cross over to Thailand, which is a little civilization unto itself but somehow appears as a sweeter and more innocent version of China. Unfortunately, your journey has to stop here in Thailand, but twenty years ago you could have continued on to Cambodia and into Vietnam, where, at the doorstep of China, the Theravada tradition finally fades out and the Mahayana takes over.
Unifying all of these peoples and cultures is the Buddha, whose half-lidded eyes refuse to see national boundaries. The monks’ robes may change color and temples take on different shapes, but all along this route, the path of the dharma is well worn, and the Buddha’s message is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the people.
Intensive meditation practice… there is nothing so difficult or so sweet. After four years without sitting a long retreat, here I am once again on my pillow, practicing loss and practicing dying, before it happens, as it happens, because it happens always. I listen to the static buzz of my brain as it begins to quiet down, only to reveal the loud and long-suffering voices of the monsters of habit hidden below. Once again I find that I am addicted to suffering, a stimulation junkie, a devotee of desire itself. And I am holding on tight to that heavy wheel of desire, as if it were an anchor to my very existence, which, of course, it is.
Then the practice begins to take hold, the samadhi gets stronger, the mindfulness kicks in, and the sweet release of vipassana begins to happen. I step back from the struggle with myself and just watch, and from this distance I begin to see the traps and how to step out of them. Like a fist unfolding, my mind relaxes. My body begins to feel light and comfortable. Finally, the time comes when there is nothing I would rather do than sit here bathed in this understanding, the wisdom factor arising from moment to moment to handle the bittersweet flow of existence. At last, once again, I experience the truth of the Buddha’s profound statement, “Peace is the greatest happiness.”
“Annicavatta sankhara…” Goenka’s chanting triggers my memory and takes me back to my first meditation retreats in Bodhgaya, India, 1970. A wild group of backpacking bodhisattvas and psychedelicized seekers, the first big wave of Westerners to hit the Hindustani Circus, we came to take a Buddhist meditation course from this new teacher, the one who was called the “singing guru.” Goenka thrilled us with his deep baritone, his dharma enthusiasm and this meditation technique that we called “sweeping.” We were going to sweep ourselves out of existence, and we were very excited by the notion. Ram Dass was there, and Joseph Goldstein and Daniel Goleman, and woman who later called herself Tsultrim Allione, and many others who eventually became teachers and translators, bringing the true jewels of the East back home with them.
The meditation courses were much looser then. There were only three days of silence during the ten-day retreats, and wild parties between sessions. People set up coffee shops in their huts, and there was a “bidi alley” where yogis would gather to smoke and talk about dharma and drugs and their mystical experiences on the road through the far out Far East. On full-moon nights Goenka would take us to the Mahabodhi Temple to sit under the very bodhi tree where the Buddha got enlightened. It was all so romantic and exotic, and we were fresh and eager, feeling like pioneers discovering a new land, a new truth, which we were certain would create a revolution in ourselves and perhaps even the world.
Back to Dhammagiri, 1987. Goenka often gives the evening dharma talk in Hindi, so the Westerners go off to watch him giving the same talk in English on a videotape. When we enter the hall where the videotape will be shown, there is a sign which reads, “Please do not point the soles of your feet toward the video monitor.”
Millions of Hindu pilgrims come every year to Madurai, the holiest city of Southern India, and primarily they come to visit the two-thousand-year-old Shree Meenakshi Temple. This four-block complex features two enormous Dravidian towers which are covered from top to bottom with sculpture of myriad Hindu gods and goddesses, painted in bright colors like some sort of Holy Hindu Disneyland. But what is most unusual about this temple is the legend behind it. According to the story, Shree Meenakshi was born with three breasts. Her father was a Pandayan king and at the time of her birth he was told that her third breast would disappear when she met the man she was supposed to marry. This miracle occurred when she met Lord Shiva on Mt. Kailas, the home of the gods. The two were then married and are living happily ever after. And just to make sure they are living happily ever after, every night the Brahmin priests hold a ceremony at the temple in which they take Shiva and his lingam (phallus) into Meenakshi’s bedchamber. The priests who perform this ritual seem bored and distracted. Perhaps that is because this holy conjugal mating has taken place every night for nearly a thousand years.
I am of two minds about Hinduism. Sometimes it feels so primitive to me; people praying to these monkey gods and elephant gods, and gods with multiple arms and faces; Krishna in blue, Kali with her necklace of skulls; people offering flowers and incense and prayers and adulation to these strange images. Meanwhile, most of the people I know do not have any image to which they attach their spiritual yearnings. They either believe in nothing or everything. For most of us postmodern existentialist, scientific materialists, our only notion of a first cause or higher power is some vague abstraction, an idea such as evolution or the cosmic consciousness. But seeing god in everything leaves “god” nowhere special. Give me some monkey god to bow down to, or a sweet Saraswati to love and adore, and let these images fire my imagination and connect my spirit to the wonder of all the forms that god has taken. In the specific lies the universal. Hare Krishna! Jai Hanuman!
There is a statue of the Buddha in the lounge at the Colombo airport, a warm welcome for a pilgrim who has come seeking the roots of this dharma flower. In Sri Lanka there are images of the Buddha everywhere. Buddha statues are on the street corners and in the parks, Buddha pictures and shrines on the walls of the shops and restaurants. Instead of Saint Christopher medals, there are tiny Buddha figures on the dashboards of buses and cars. This is a Buddhist country and a country full of Buddhas!
And what a wonderful image it is. There you are, walking down this raw, teeming, Asian street, tired and disoriented, frustrated because you can’t figure out which bus to take to some obscure temple ruins, and suddenly there is a statue or a picture of the Buddha, usually depicted in the meditation pose, with that serene half-smile on his face. It’s almost like getting a sly wink from someone who knows a secret and is reminding you that you know it too. “This too shall pass.”
I think of the elaborate and often bizarre depiction of various Hindu deities in India, or the suffering body of Jesus on the cross displayed in Mexican churches, and then I look back at this meditating Buddha; a religious image that captures the essence of peace and transcendence. So simple, so warm, and so powerful. Good old Buddha, sitting with his empty mind, watching the whole show with equanimity and compassion.
I have never sat down to meditate in a more beautiful place. Nilambe is on a mountain top with a vast view of land rising from the southern coast of Sri Lanka toward the inland peaks. Here my consciousness seems to naturally expand to meet the far horizons. At Nilambe the daily meditation schedule even lists a time for watching the sunset. “6 PM to 6:30 PM: Sunset.” If you can watch it with equanimity, you are probably enlightened.
Nilambe is surrounded by coffee and tea plantations. Caffeine everywhere, and I have come to slow down my mind.
The center is run by a sweet, soft-spoken man named Godwin, who teaches in a very relaxed style with lots of expansive “big sky mind” meditations, appropriate to the majesty of the setting. One evening we are instructed to just listen to the flow of sounds. There is only the wind, the birds and the insects.
In Sri Lanka there are plenty of monasteries that teach meditation, but Nilambe is the only lay meditation center in the country. There were just Westerners around when I was there, but Godwin says that more Sri Lankan lay people are now becoming interested in meditation, largely due to the fact that Westerners are practicing. In the global village, as we exchange cultures, perhaps we will show each other the wisdom of our origins, “… and know the place for the first time.”
In 1957, marking the auspicious time of 2,500 years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, the Sri Lankan government commissioned a Buddhist Encyclopedia that would incorporate both Theravada and Mahayana doctrine and history, a vast alphabetized World Book of Buddhism. So far only three volumes, A through C, have been completed, and the work seems to have gotten bogged down in mysterious Eastern detours and delays. Luckily annica and annata both start with the letter “a”. Let’s hope they get through the letter “d” and dukkha before they give up on the project.
The most famous Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka is the Temple of the Tooth, which supposedly houses one of the actual teeth of the Buddha, although nobody ever gets to see it. My friend Albert Wittanachi at the Buddhist Publication Society says that the Portuguese supposedly destroyed the tooth relic in the sixteenth century, but that people believe a miracle occurred and the tooth somehow reconstituted itself. With a twinkle in his eye Albert says, “I really don’t think it matters whether the tooth is actually there or not.”
In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist shrines are called stupas, in Burma they are mostly called pagodas, but in Thailand the Buddhist Temples are called wats. The Thais are the Catholics of the Theravada lineage and their wats are like the Vatican, elaborately adorned and full of gold and precious jewels. There is a wat containing an Emerald Buddha and one containing a Golden Buddha. During a full moon puja at one temple, we watch the Thai worshipers paint so much gold leaf on the Buddha statues that the features begin to fade. The practice is something akin to buying indulgences. All this glitter and gold is to celebrate a man who renounced it all. Siddhartha left the palace to become the Buddha, but the Thais have put him back inside.
In Bangkok we visited lots of wats: Wat Po, Wat Mahatat, and Wat Me Worry. To get a feel for ancient Thai Buddhism we went to Wat Then, and for modern Thai Buddhism we visited Wat Now. We never did get around to Wat Else.
One of the best things to do before taking a trip through Theravadaland is to memorize a few Buddhist chants in Pali. If you meet some old monk who doesn’t speak English, or come across a backcountry monastery, all you have to do is start singing a few verses from the sutras, and after that you won’t need any language. You are family. Traveling through Theravadaland, I am often reminded of the fact that “sangha” is truly one of the triple gems, a society of those who share the same path.
Buddhism in Asia is not synonymous with meditation practice, as it is in the West. In Theravadaland, most lay people pray to the Buddha as a god, and often ask the Buddha for favors or merit. Buddhism in Asia is a religion. It feels alien to me, having rejected all that, but I am also touched by this lay worship, and sometimes wish it were more a part of my life. At the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, I stand in front of two enormous Buddha statues carved out of a mountain of solid rock, and I am awed by the artistry and devotion that went into their creation. The statues bring to mind the enormity of what the Buddha accomplished, and how much his hard-won wisdom has meant to millions of people over the centuries. No problem. I will bow down to that.