|I am honored that the University of Delhi chose to publish part of this story in one of their textbooks.
Travel Writing in India: Meditation and Life
in Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Varanasi, and Kathgodam.
by Tom Riddle, 2010, afterword 2022
touristing in Sarnath, India, just down the road from Varanasi
As I begin writing this travel log, I
want you to know that for the last year I have had my own apartment back
in Bangkok. This means that when I leave Thailand I no longer have to
put everything in boxes that I hide in someone's closet. These days I
just close the door and go. That's really nice.
A few years ago, for a while, I had a
very nice apartment in Bangkok that I moved into after returning
from a well-paid movie-making job. That apartment cost me 25,000 bhat a
month, about $600. It was nice—there was a swimming
pool down the stairs, a small kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom. When
I left that apartment, I kind of didn't live anywhere for a while but
then last year I started renting another apartment not for 25,000 a
month but rather 18,000 bhat (about $500), a
year. Considering the cost though, it isn't too bad. I have
a room on the third floor of a shophouse, what Americans might call “a
On the floor below me live a Burmese couple
and their 5-year-old daughter. On the ground floor the Burmese wife runs
a small garment factory while her husband manages a nearby warehouse for
a Bangkok publisher. On the floor above me lives a Canadian man, Victor,
his girlfriend, Miss Wow, and their dog, Tasco, who never leaves the apartment.
Everyone is happy to live there.
Now that I"m in India, I realize
that my life in Thailand is one of luxury, ease, convenience, and cleanliness.
In Thailand both the electricity and water supply are so reliable that
no one I know has an auxiliary generator or collects rainwater. Additionally,
the air inside and outside my building is not particularly dirty, and,
because this is in the suburbs, the birds are the noisiest part of the
morning. There are no cows, horses, or goats in the neighborhood although
a few people keep chickens.
Yes, thinking about it from here in Sarnath,
I now understand that everyone's life in Bangkok is one of incredible
luxury, ease, cleanliness, convenience, sophistication, and wealth. No
one thinks it's normal to have a constant cough or a life-long intestinal
problem. Additionally, I've never known anyone to defecate or build a
campfire in the streets of my Bangkok neighborhood. As far as I know,
no one in Bangkok cooks with cow dung, almost everyone can read and write,
and everyone knows how to use a flush toilet. If that isn't enough, everyone
knows that Michael Jackson is dead. How sophisticated can you get? It's
incredible. Down the street from where I live in Bangkok is a supermarket
with everything in the world, the taxis are all air-conditioned,
and basically the trains and everything else run on time. Is that paradise
But I'm getting ahead of myself and the
Before I go on, I should say something
about myself. I'm one of these American ex-pat types who has spent most
of his adult life, overseas. At 51 I've been an English teacher, a refugee
camp worker, a computer science teacher, and for the last ten years a
movie maker. Making movies is great fun. Usually I make movies for non-governmental
organizations about their projects. But now I'm on vacation.
On with the show . . .
|Click any of the pictures that I've taken to
enlarge them. Use the back arrow to return to the story.
Step one in coming to India was taking
a taxi to the airport. Every taxi in Bangkok is a Toyota Corolla, a fact
that has made the man in charge of importing Toyota Corolla's to Thailand
fabulously wealthy and equalized the city's taxis, none of which can be
more than nine years old. When I left my neighborhood to go to the airport,
my taxi carried a totem animal to give luck to the driver, the normal
citizenry of Bangkok, and, in my case, people going to India. This, I
immediately realized, was so incredible, and unbelievable to most Thais,
that I took a picture of the turtle.
With that I began my trip to India on
January 25, 2010.
First journal entry:
February 10, 2009, still alive after 16 days in India
Naturally, after so many trips to India,
I'm always alert and watching out for danger, tricksters, hustlers, and
everything else that can befall the naive and inexperienced traveler to
this country of one billion people, where 53% of the women can not read
or write, and 25% of the population lives below the poverty line.
So, always on guard, as I stepped off the plane from Bangkok and into
one of the poorest states in India, Bihar, I immediately asked the man
at customs how much a taxi into the village of Bodh Gaya would cost. “Four
hundred rupees,” he told me. There were no buses and the six other
people who had gotten off the plane with me were in a tour group; their
van, they said, was waiting for them. Thus I realized that I would have
to take a four-hundred-rupee taxi into the village.
A minute later, as the only passenger on the plane who wasn't with a tour
group, I was approached by a middle-aged man from the airport's only travel
agency who asked me if I wanted a taxi into town. “How much is it?”
I asked even though I already knew the answer. The travel agent looked
like he had slept in his clothes for a week and not washed his face in
“Five hundred rupees.”
“That guy told me it's four hundred.”
“Who? Which guy?”
I pointed to the sole customs man on duty.
“He knows nothing. He is not from this area. It's five hundred.”
“Okay,” I said, “it's five hundred.” Almost exactly
The travel agent then walked with me to just outside the airport building
where five or six taxis were waiting. He chose one of them and gave the
driver one hundred rupees, about two dollars and twenty cents.
Stopping me in the lobby of the airport
had just earned the travel agent, who no doubt had bribed someone to be
allowed to operate from inside the airport, in less than a minute, twice
as much as an Indian laborer, if he makes the minimum wage, earns in a
The driver looked suspiciously like someone I had seen before. “He
looks like Osama Bin Laden,” I said to the travel agent.
“Don't worry,” the travel agent said, “This man is Hindu.
You are okay.”
The taxi was the famous Indian Ambassador Sedan Car. The Ambassador was,
in the days when India banned all imports, India's most popular car. These
days, as more foreign-built cars appear on the roads, some nostalgia is
developing for the old Ambassadors. For me though, it is hard to imagine
a more poorly designed and poorly built vehicle. It is as if someone described
what a car should look like to someone who had never seen one before and
then that person had, with no previous building or engineering experience,
built the Ambassador in his garage. I got in, almost
knocking my head against the front window as I sat on what resembled a
park bench with padding. Osama shut my door, which could only be shut
from the outside. He then, with difficulty, started the engine, and off
As soon as we left the airport, I was overwhelmed by the poverty that
engulfs India's rural poor. People were huddled along the edge of their
fields, tending a few crops or their miserable animals. A few dark and
dirty shops stood clustered in run-down villages. Other villages didn't
have any shops and looked medieval with their crude brick, mud walls,
and thatch roofs. This has been a particularly dry year. Everything looked
desperate, worn out, and parched. Yes, I reflected, the Green Revolution
saved India from utter starvation and famine, but that's
all it did.
|On the road from the airport into
the village of Bodh Gaya.
Ten minutes into our fifteen-minute journey
into Bodh Gaya, our car ran out of gas. “One moment,” Osama
said, using what appeared to be the only two English words he knew. He
then disappeared with an empty beer bottle. He reappeared a few minutes
later with his beer bottle filled with petrol. After a few more minutes
of careful engine maintenance, Osama was able to re-start the engine and
we proceeded smoothly into Bodh Gaya.
Because this is where the Buddha became
enlightened the theory is that Buddhist pilgrims should come to Bodh Gaya
from all over the world. In fact though, at least at this time of year,
the overwhelming majority of pilgrims come from just one place: Tibet.
Thousands of Tibetans jammed the streets, restaurants, and temples to
pray for world peace. “Why can't you pray at home?” I asked
one of them.
“It's better to do it in this holy place. More power.”
I checked into a hotel that a friend had written me about, the Embassy
Hotel. Rooms there were 800 rupees or 11 dollars a night. I didn't know
if that was a good price or not, so I checked in and immediately left
to survey the other hotels in the neighborhood. The hotel next to the
Embassy wanted 400 rupees a night. I went back to the Embassy and told
the man at the desk that I was seriously considering leaving that very
day. “Up to you sir,” he said. “We charge a 40% early
departure fee, but you can leave as you like.”
“Other places are cheaper and just as good.”
“Five hundred rupees a night and no lower.”
“What about hot water?” I asked.
“Hot water no problem, sir. Turn on the left faucet and wait ten
minutes. If still there is no hot water, we can bring a bucket to your
“Sounds fine.” I had decided to stay. The bathroom in the
400-rupees-a-night hotel hadn't been cleaned in years.
My bathroom, like the rest of the room, had a tile floor. The room itself
had a broken air-conditioner and a broken TV that an irate guest had vandalized
by removing every control and cutting the power cord. It also had two
narrow wooden beds covered with four-inch foam mattresses, a tiny table,
and a small bureau. With both beds, if I put my head on the pillow and
stretched out on my back, my feet dangled off the far end; I am 5 feet,
six inches (168 CM) tall. It was far too dusty outside to ever open the
window, leaving whatever ventilation that would enter the room to come
in from under the door. As always with Indian hotel rooms, before I unpacked
my bag, I scrubbed the floor with the cloth that I carry for just that
purpose. The cloth turned from white to dark gray.
|Scenes around the main stupa in
Bodh Gaya. The author is in the far lower right.
had arrived just one day before the beginning of the famous “annual
ten-day meditation retreat with Christopher Titmuss.” Its fame comes
from the fact that Christopher has been teaching this retreat for 34 years.
This would be the fourth of those retreats for me to attend, the first
being in 1984. The retreats take place in a temple that the Thais built
for Thai pilgrims. It's a beautiful temple with luxurious guest rooms
for pilgrims. Unfortunately, though, Western pilgrims don't rate a Thai-pilgrim
guest room. Instead, they are asked to stay in barren dorm rooms, on the
open veranda, or under the main temple in what feels and looks like a
dungeon. If you hung a few skeletons down there, they'd be right at home.
|The Embassy Hotel, two views of
the Thai Temple and Christopher Titmuss teaching.
Rather than brave the dungeon, the tuberculin
dorm rooms, or the freezing veranda, I decided to stay in the Embassy
Hotel which, fortuitously, was just across the street from the Thai Temple.
About a hundred people used to attend the annual Christopher Titmuss retreat.
But this year, with the world in economic crisis, terrorists in India,
and the fact that India, tourists believe, is slowly melting down as the
infrastructure collapses and the population increases, only about 60 people
attended the retreat.
Things proceeded smoothly. Because I've
been to India so many times and lived to tell the tale, the retreat management
decided that I would be the medical officer. This meant that while other
people cleaned the toilets, swept the walks, or did odd jobs for thirty
minutes in the morning, my job was to tend to the sick. This meant sitting
beside a suitcase filled with medicine, reading Where There is
No Doctor, and passing out advice and drugs.
I took the job seriously and under my
care no one became seriously ill during the retreat. A lot of people,
however, got diarrhea, colds, flu, constipation, and coughs. Plus one
guy got scabies, probably after petting one of the temple dogs and not
washing his hands.
Along with everyone else, I did everything
I could to take care of myself. I was convinced that with yoga, vitamins,
massive amounts of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and by being extremely
careful with my personal hygiene, I would be okay. I lasted a total of
seven days at which time all of my hygiene, Western and Eastern medicines,
and yoga were useless in the face of this year's Indian cold, flu, cough,
and laryngitis viruses. But at least I didn't get diarrhea or scabies.
I did, however, get some kind of stomach bug that produced intestinal
gas that no human being should have to endure under any circumstances
especially while on a silent meditation retreat and sleeping in a room
with very little ventilation. That kind of intestinal gas would have shattered
even the strongest of male/female bonds. What a relief it is, from time
to time, to be living the life of a bachelor/monk.
Meanwhile, the Embassy Hotel went from bad to worse. On my second night
there my room filled up with smoke as someone built a campfire outside
and immediately below my third-story window. Then, on the third night,
just as I was entering deep sleep, I felt a rat crawling on me. Yes, a
genuine rattus. At that instant both the rat and I
jumped out of bed. I turned on the light just in time to see the rat running
under the door. Damn, I thought, the rat has come
for my chocolate! I should have known that my delicious filled-with-antioxidants
85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate that I had carried from Bangkok would attract
Indian rats. But what to do? I needed to think fast
and hide the chocolate from the rat. I opened the bureau drawer to stash
the chocolate and a second rat jumped out! Stay calm, I
reminded myself, he didn't bite on the way out! But
now what to do? I put my pants on and ran down three flights of stairs
to the front desk.
“There are rats in my room!”
“No problem, sir,” the deskman said. “The rats are not
living in your room, only visiting.”
He really said that.
“Only visiting? But the rats could bite me.”
“No sir, don't worry sir, the rats won't come back to bite you.”
The deskman proceeded to give me, as if he had been keeping it beside
him waiting for someone to ask for it, a towel to jam under the door of
my room to prevent the rats from entering again. He didn't think that
sleeping with rats was a major problem or anything to lose sleep over.
So I jammed the towel under the door, crawled under the two heavy wool
blankets in the cold night air, and soon was fast asleep. Like all sentient
beings, rats, if one can take a Buddhist view, are only doing what it
takes to find happiness. Everything is passing. In the material world
all attachment to things and wanting things to be any way other than the
way they are only brings suffering and sleeplessness. At times like this
the wise just close their eyes and drift off to sleep. Why worry? Besides,
I was tired and the bed, after a day of meditation, was very comfortable.
The next day I told the story of the rats to the managers of the retreat.
They were not impressed and indeed they all had rat stories of their own.
One man, Christopher, had once become entangled with a rat under his mosquito
net. Someone said that rats like to gnaw at people's heels because the
skin there is so thick there that the rats can get quite a mouthful before
the sleeping person wakes up. Rats, to paraphrase the deskman at the Embassy
Hotel, are nothing to lose sleep over.
Fortunately for me, the towel trick worked and I never saw the rats again.
Now, looking back, as far as I can tell, other than occasionally waking
up in the middle of the night and wondering if there is a rat on my bed,
I've had no long-term negative effects from my stay at the Embassy Hotel.
Until you actually do a ten-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat, it is
pretty hard to know what it's like. It's different for everyone, but lots
of people get all kinds of body aches and pains from sitting cross-legged
six or more hours a day. Other people get restless, bored, and think that
they are going crazy. Sometimes, when they can't stand the silence any longer,
they go to the medical officer, in this case, me, and ask if they could
have malaria, how long they should wait before treating diarrhea, or, they
just make something up so that they can exercise their vocal cords for a
few minutes and hypothetically verify that they aren't going insane.
Fortunately for me, I've been doing retreats
for so long that nothing surprising happens to me anymore. These days
when I sit on a meditation retreat, I occasionally find a place of great
peace and contentment, or, not finding that, I investigate what is stopping
me from having great peace and contentment. On this retreat something
that happened earlier in the year replayed in my mind again and again.
At that time I had said something helpful and wise to an old friend, but
that friend had taken it with great offense and anger, accusing me of
questioning her sanity and recklessly trying to interfere in her personal
life. (As if I gave two hoots about her personal life!) That movie played
in my meditation-mind/brain again and again. The strange part was that
every hour the movie had a different ending -- the person apologizing
for her anger, me confronting her about her hair-trigger anger, more soap
opera antagonism, me persuading her to try meditation, etc. Finally though,
for some reason it occurred to me to take the advice of the Buddha and
start to recollect some positive trait that person might possibly, if
one looked closely enough, possess. It didn't take long to remember the
tremendous kindness and generosity that she had always shown me. Then
the mind quieted down.
That was a relief.
|Breakfast on the retreat.
||The temple rickshaw driver.
||Vegetable market in Bodh Gaya.
||Traveling by motorized rickshaw in Bodh Gay.
I can remember just one other thing that
came up during the retreat. These days in Bodh Gaya, just as one enters
the vegetable market, someone has placed a baby girl on the concrete in
the hot sun with a small bowl nearby for passersby to place coins in.
The child's legs have either been cut off or she was born without them.
What to do? If one gives money, wouldn't that encourage more parents to
cut off the legs of their children or to place children with deformities
in the hot sun? Can a person just ignore her? It's something to think
about. If nothing else, it puts the problems one might associate with
a miscommunication, the common cold, intestinal gas, and visiting rats
in a new light.
For the rest of the meditation retreat I tried to ignore the packs of
skinny, barking, mange-filled-and-fighting temple dogs, the thickest mosquitoes
I've ever seen, the smell of burning garbage, and the other retreatants,
many of whom looked like they were not having much fun.
The retreat ended with everyone sitting in a circle and sharing their
experiences of the retreat. To my surprise, even the people who had always
looked like they were sleeping, bored, or going crazy said that it had
been one of the great experiences of their lives and that they were incredibly
grateful to the teachers and staff for everything.
So it goes. Often in life, I have noticed, things are not what they seem.
That afternoon, just after we finished cleaning up around the temple,
Christopher Titmuss took everyone over to the school that he and other
Western meditators started in the 1990s, the Pragya Vihar School. There
the children put on a cultural performance. These days popular Indian
culture consists mainly of over-sexed music videos and a type of over-sexed
music that they call Banga. Well, guess what? The older children
in the school presented us with a Bollywood-type over-sexed dance production.
It was fantastic.
Kind of sexy, huh?
|On the way to the school.
||Backstage at the cultural performance.
||To the right is one of the many street-based
I spent two more nights in Bodh Gaya. Everything went well. I found an
Internet cafe that had wi-fi, something that didn't exist in Bodh Gaya
during my last visit, three years ago. The cafe was the storage room in
the basement of a hotel that had been radically repurposed. I came to
like the place with its bare light bulb and dinginess. It was romantic
as anything — like a room where James Bond is almost tortured to
death before he makes a dash for the door and throws a hand-grenade back
inside blowing everyone there to smithereens.
And strangely, that's what happened, sort
of, in another part of India. In Pune, in a cafe that tourists frequent,
the German Bakery, someone placed a bomb that later exploded. It killed
17 people and injured 60. Last year terrorists killed 173 people just
north of Pune, in Mumbai. As India and its neighboring countries deteriorate,
more and more desperate people do more and more desperate things. One
terrorist wrote that before he became a terrorist he was just another
jerk on the street. After he started blowing people up, he got respect.
Yeah, whatever. Meanwhile, mothers are crying their eyes out, and everywhere
on earth people are dying in the name of religion and nationalism.
|On the train to Varanasi.
I'm writing all of this in Sarnath. Two
days ago I made the six-hour train journey here from Bodh Gaya.
The surprising thing about the train journey was that the train was on
time. That is, it was only 45 minutes late which is the same as being
on time in India. Friends had spent 12 hours on a tain platform in New
Delhi waiting for their train to Gaya. Those same friends told me that
if one wants any proof that India is dying, one doesn't have to leave
the capital, New Delhi. About a thousand new cars enter the streets of
New Delhi every day causing an almost constant traffic jam everywhere.
When I was there three years ago, I clearly remember that the sun couldn't
make it through the smog and pollution in such a way as to cause me to
ever use my sunglasses.
spent days and days on Indian and Thai trains. I spend my time on Thai
trains drinking beer and watching movies on my computer. I would never
do that in India. In India, the custom is to tell whoever is sitting near
you your entire life story. I know that that sounds strange, but that
is what happens every time. This time my traveling companion was a recent
university graduate who had come to India to find herself. I had met her
on the Bodh Gaya retreat. As the train moved through the darkness and
the smoggy Indian morning began, we revealed to each other our life histories.
Now we know the intimate details of each other's families, our love lives,
and how we've tried to solve our personal problems. Her main personal
problem in India is that, thanks to the incredible deliciousness of Indian
sweets like gulab jamun and burfi, she has developed
an addiction to sugar and, equally horrifically, she confessed with an
embarrassed smile, she is gaining weight. Gaining weight? To me she looked
like Raquel Welch in the movie One Million Years B.C. I
assured her that I knew a cure for sugar addiction, having once suffered
from it myself, and that I would help her over the coming days.
She, like me, will stay here in Sarnath for ten days--enjoying this quiet
small town that is, like Bodh Gaya, a place of Buddhist pilgrimage.
|The parks in Sarnath contrain the
remains of what was once an enormous center of Buddhist study and
It was here, in Sarnath, that the Buddha
preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment in Bodh Gaya.
At that time after walking, 211 kilometers or 131 miles, from Bodh Gaya
to Sarnath, he explained to his five old friends that, well, life had
an element of suffering in it, but one could still, somehow, find an end
to that suffering, and what we might call happiness and peace. Buddha
would spend the remaining 45 years of his life explaining in greater detail
and with more clarity than anyone had before or has since, how to find
that ultimate contentment and how to end all suffering. He started his
life's mission by telling his five old friends the Four Noble Truths and
the Eightfold Path. At this time, I can't tell you any more about the
Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path except to say that usually Westerners
think that Buddhism is only about meditation. I'm here to tell you that
the Buddha told people to follow eight steps to find ultimate peace and
happiness. Meditation was involved only in the last two steps. The Buddha
never said that any one step was any less important than any other step.
Two weeks later, February 24, alive in India for 30 days and
still in Sarnath
Raquel Welch ended up staying in Sarnath for 12 days. On day one of her
stay I revealed to her my cure for sugar addiction: simply eat fruit,
as much as you can, as often as you want, for ten days. A fruit fast,
I explained to her, would cleanse both the body and mind and give new
insight into food, eating, and the nature of addiction. Everything I said
sounded crazy to her, but the alternative, gaining weight and thinking
about sweets all the time, didn't have much appeal either, so she tried
The first three days were pretty rough
for her. Then her energy level picked up along with some mental clarity
and slowly she realized that she could actually live, and not die, while
eating just fruit. After that her skin took on a healthy glow, and, according
to her, by the end of her fast she had stopped having her usual sugar/food
cravings and had a new level of energy. Sometimes things go well, better
After Bodh Gaya, quiet and peaceful Sarnath, with its relative lack of
congestion, impressed everyone here as a kind of Shangri-la. Later though,
some people, including me, thanks to the dusty, smoke-filled air, became
sick again. They also started to get irritated by the various temples
that make it their sacred duty to wake everyone up at 4 am with their
low-fidelity, but very loud, Buddhist and Hindu chanting. That was on
the quiet nights. On the non-quiet nights, because this is the wedding
season, Buddhist and Hindu chanting were, by comparison, a calming relief
from the non-stop ear-splitting Indian rap-rock-pop-Banga music that is
played all night during weddings.
This time, after I fell sick, I was convinced
that I had either tuberculosis or a serious chest infection. I gave myself
the benefit of the doubt and bought a bottle of codeine. The opiate in
codeine helped me sleep, but it took away my brain. It was interesting.
I would begin to meditate and, after watching my breathing for five breaths,
I'd be, still sitting, sound asleep. When I would do this in a public
place the meditation teachers and everyone else assumed that I had lost
my mind. “Give me a break,” I told them when I heard my name
being slandered, “I'm on drugs. I am living proof that drugs are
bad. Don't you see? Drugs are bad!”
But I'm getting ahead of the story again.
|Christopher and Jaya teaching in Sarnath.
again to Christopher Titmuss, there was a meditation retreat, of sorts,
here in Sarnath. Christopher felt that if people were ever going to understand
the basic ideas of Buddhism they needed not just to meditate, but to talk
about Buddhism, especially how it fits into their daily lives. Does that
make sense? So every morning and every afternoon for a week, sixty or
so participants had discussions about things like “Living Simply,”
“Generosity,” or even “Successful Relationships.”
Because I was busy making movies, which I'll tell you about later, I could
only go to a few of the groups and never knew what to say or how I might
fit in. Every time I spoke I wondered if anyone could understand what
I was saying.
One of the groups was about renunciation. No one there knew anything about
renunciation. Someone said that they had to renounce their apartment before
coming to India. Other people had recently renounced their boyfriend or
girlfriend. Renunciation, I thought, goes something like this:
The Buddha said that the natural state
of the human mind is calm and clear. To reach that natural state he
asked his followers to let go of or renounce, greed, hatred, and delusion.
In meditation, that renunciation means standing back and just observing
the daydreams, fantasies, planning, worries, and anger that arise in
the mind. Get it? You're enlightened already, you just have to renounce,
or refrain from, what is standing between you and complete awakening.
Who knows if anyone had any idea what
I was talking about? I always feel like an idiot after opening my mouth
in those groups.
There was, however, one especially nice
thing about this non-retreat, retreat. The fact is that because this is
Sarnath and not Bodh Gaya, where the chances of getting sick are about
ninety percent, a few people, old friends from years past in India, stopped
by just to say hello and to socialize a bit. Many of those people have
done serious and intensive meditation for so long that they have found
some kind of inner spaciousness that, is, well, wonderful to be around.
I was glad to see them.
But, I was busy making movies. Christopher Titmuss, after talking about
it for years, finally, decided that the two of us should put together
an eight-minute slide show where he described the good parts of his 65
years of life. Starting in his late twenties, he had spent six years as
a monk in Thailand and India before finding his true calling as a father
and meditation teacher. He seems happy with the way things have gone.
What more can you ask for? Check it out on Youtube.
After that I made movies for two other meditation teachers-- Jaya
Ashmore and Gemma
Jaya had somehow survived the Harvard
Divinity School and was already teaching meditation when she met and fell
in love with a beautiful Spanish woman. Gemma, who had some kind of spiritual
insight as well. Now the two of them are married with a son (don't ask
me anything about biology). They teach meditation in India, Europe, and
the USA. They told me that they have a retreat center of some kind in
For two days Jaya, Gemma, and I talked
about the fifty ways to make a movie before deciding that the easiest
thing to do would be for them, one at a time, to simply walk down an Indian
street and talk directly into my camera. To keep the camera from shaking
I would be in a rolling dolly that would cost hundreds of dollars in the
USA or Europe to rent for a day, but which we could rent for about one
dollar in India. Our dolly was a bicycle rickshaw. It took us about a
minute, with Jaya and Gemma speaking broken Hindi, to train the dolly
operator. In their movies they say about the same things. The only difference
is that Jaya
is speaking in English and Gemma
||Filming from our rolling dolly in
Because Sarnath is, in its own way, a
center of the Buddhist world, someone set up an experimental school here.
Actually, it has been an experimental school for so long that now it is
no longer an experiment: it's a success, a proven formula. The school
is “The Alice Project” referring to in Alice in Wonderland.
The idea was, I think, that just as Alice
created a magic world in her mind, the students would create a calm world
in their minds by using the teachings of the Buddha, mainly mindfulness,
to help them with the problems of their young lives. So instead of telling
the students to fight like a man, or just ignore the problems of life,
which is what happened in my high school, they are urged to observe and
be aware of what is going on in their minds but not necessarily to act
on their anger, internal violence, greed, and hatred.
Besides the mindfulness training, and
an apparent excellent academic record, the school is well managed and
the spacious campus is designed like a garden. An Italian, (Italians are
widely known for their design skills) Valentino, set up and runs the school.
Four years ago I told a friend about The Alice Project. She came here,
volunteered, took lots of pictures, and later, with my help, turned those
pictures into a movie that Valentino saw and liked. Today Valentino remembered
me and graciously offered me a cup of tea when we met at his school. (http://www.aliceproject.org).
According to Valentino, India is heading toward a disaster of world-shaking
proportions. Here, he says, are 200 million people, the Indian middle
class, who want everything, and don't care how they take it from the other
800 million people who live here, the rural poor. (Unlike in China, the
rural Indian villages have not, by and large, benefited from urban development.)
By using the Western development model, and not the Mahatma Gandhi development
model, India, Valentino says, is quickly digging a deep grave that it
won't be able to get out of. He says, "I tell my students that we shouldn't
be teaching them math, science, and history because, first of all, those
things will never get them a job, and second, because what India needs
now is people skilled in disaster management."
|Valentino and the Alice Project.
||Two hundred million people are traveling by
car in India; 800 million are in the horse cart.
Valentino has seen the land available
for farming in this area shrink and at the same time the water table has
become lower. Now he says, and I noticed this too, the Ganges River is
lower and dirtier than it has ever been. If the mother of all rivers is
dying, what is the future?
|Scenes along the Ganges River in
Things, Valentino believes, are bad and
getting worse. Nevertheless, he says that he is happy as long as his students
are happy. Fortunately, just today his upper-level students were having
their farewell and good luck party, and I was invited to attend. I accepted.
The graduation party consisted of perhaps 50 speeches and songs by the
enthusiastic students who adore Valentino. When the speeches and songs
were finally finished, everyone was treated to a traditional Indian lunch
served on throw-away Styrofoam plates and washed down with Coca-Cola served
in throw-away plastic cups. The evils of development were one thing, Valentino
seemed to be saying, but who wants to wash the dishes?
|Bhikkhu Gurudhammo and Tom Riddle,
1983 and 2010.
Leaving the school, I walked up to Sarnath's
Thai temple to see an old friend, an Indian monk who, over a three-year
period during the early 1980s, spent many months with me in the same meditation
center in Thailand, Vivek Asom. At that time he, Bhikkhu Gurudhammo, was
a good-natured enthusiastic skinny young monk.
These days he isn't so skinny but he is still good-natured and sweet.
As I knocked on his door I heard him singing inside his room.
“Chanting? I asked when he opened the door.
“No, voice development.”
Some time ago he developed thyroid problems that required two operations
that damaged his vocal cords. Now he sounds like someone who has just
inhaled helium. But with his Buddhist equanimity he doesn't seem to care
and, after the initial shock wears off, neither does anyone else, although
he still feels that voice development is something worth spending time
For the last four years he has been helping
to construct the largest Buddha statue in this part of India. Construction
began, he told me, after the Taliban blew up the Great Buddha of Bamian
statues in Afghanistan. In other words, it is a tit-for-tat statue. It
is also very impressive and will be finished later this year.
|Sidewalk temple in Sarnath.
||Somehow the head of the statue will
go on top.
We had a long cup of tea together. Talking
to him I had the impression that one of the happiest periods of his life
was when he lived in the small meditation temple in Thailand where I met
him. Now that same Thai temple is in the middle of an industrial estate,
but in those days it was in a relaxed residential neighborhood. It was
also one of the more famous meditation centers in Thailand thanks to the
meditation teacher who lived there, Achan Asapa. One of Achan Asapa's
students was Jack Kornfield who went on to found one of the largest meditation
centers in the USA, Spirit Rock, which is just north of San Francisco.
These days Achan Asapa is 103 years old and Jack Kornfield has just released
yet another book on meditation, The Wise Heart, where, in
the acknowledgments he thanks Achan Asapa for everything he did.
Five days later, March 1, after saying alive 35 days in India, still in
Today is Holi, one of India's many festivals.
The festival has some deep spiritual meaning that no one can remember
well enough to tell me. These days, as far as I can tell, Holi is an excuse
for every man who can afford it to get drunk and throw a paste of colored
chalk on everyone he meets. In this part of India women and foreign tourists
stay inside during Holi. Going outside means being covered in paste
and, especially if you are female, being groped.
Once, many years ago, I went outside during
Holi and was seriously groped and covered with colored paste. This time,
I stayed in my guesthouse and, with the other guests, had a European breakfast
of tea and toast.
|Celebrants in the evening of Holi.
Holi lasted until noon. After that the
paint throwing stopped and everyone went home to change their clothes.
Yes, “to change their clothes.” In the late afternoon, when
I finally went outside, it was a new India. Holi, I saw with my own eyes,
is for many people the only day of the year that they will wear new clothes.
People looked over produced, with a preference for sequins, loud colors,
and embroidered denim pants, but everyone looked joyous. A few of the
well-dressed people were still drunk as skunks. For me, at least, that
only resulted in one man, after politely asking me which country I was
from, demonstrating his eternal love for all of humanity, including Americans
and especially me, by hugging me in the middle of the street, as his friend
looked on with embarrassment.
Every day it is a degree or two hotter. The nights are still cool enough
to require a blanket, but in the mid-day the sun is now scorchingly hot.
A woman told me that in two more months it will be 45 degrees Celsius
(113 Fahrenheit) inside and 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) outside.
Two days later, March 3. Thirty-eight days of staying alive in India and
still in Sarnath.
Thirty-eight days ago I flew from Bangkok
to Bodh Gaya. I have since learned that three times a week that same plane
travels not only from Bangkok to Bodh Gaya, but also to Varanasi, which
is just down the road from here, before flying back to Bangkok. Thus I
assumed that when I return to Bangkok I could board the plane in Varanasi
instead of Bodh Gaya. But when I telephoned the Thai Airways office in
Delhi to ask if this was indeed true, I was told, before the telephone
line gave out, that this was impossible. Nothing is impossible
in India, so today I visited the Varanasi International Airport to try
to make it possible. I made the 40-minute-each-way trip in a motorized
rickshaw, which in other places is called a three-wheeled motorcycle.
The trip cost me 350 rupees or about $8. In the open-air rickshaw I could
observe rural India close up. I once read that in rural India you can
actually see the population exploding like a bomb going off and it looked
that way today. Many of the cars that passed us were jam-packed with family
members such that everyone was sitting on or being sat on by another family
member. Buses, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, and other motor-rickshaws
were likewise packed like caricatures of public transport. The median
age seemed to be 14. Where, I wondered, would these people live? What
would they do? How will they ever get out of poverty? Valentino, I realized,
was probably right. This is the end. For all of its misery and filth,
this is the glory day, the apogee, of Indian civilization. No wonder the
Indians are always so happy and act like there will be no tomorrow—there
Let me ramble on a bit more. Here in Sarnath the city fathers have built
a sidewalk on both sides of the main road that goes through the historical
part of town. To keep people from falling from the sidewalk and into the
street, there is a waist-high fence. The locals, who are not city fathers,
have somehow decided that parts of the sidewalk are to be used as a public
toilet, others parts are to be occupied by vendors, and still other parts
of the sidewalk should be used for public housing or as a place to tether
the local goats and cows. That, looking at it with Western eyes, is the
|Street scenes in Sarnath. How can
everybody look so happy?
The good part is that this is India and
everything and everyone somehow fits in. There are beggars everywhere,
poverty is everywhere, and yet there is something festive in the air.
Violent street crime is virtually unknown in this part of India, even
if domestic violence and violence against women and children are described
daily and in gruesome detail in the local papers. So now, today, jerks
like me can walk on the streets with our expensive cameras hanging from
our necks in ways that we never could in Brazil or even in parts of the
USA. How, I've wondered again and again, can someone who looks like they
are starving, just turn away when they ask you for money and you say no?
Why are India's poor so mellow? Do they know something that I don't?
The next day,
March 4, 38 days in India, and still in Sarnath
As I said earlier, about 60 people attended
the non-retreat retreat here. As of today, I am the last of those people
who is still in Sarnath. The tourist season is winding down as the HOT-HOT-HOT
season winds up. When I came here I slept with two heavy wool blankets.
Last week that changed to one blanket, and two nights ago, that changed
to one bed sheet. Every day and every night it gets a few degrees hotter.
The heat is changing the way people live.
Today in the Internet cafe I was treated to the smell of baking human
excrement. The Internet cafe, my only contact with the outside world,
consists of four computers, two telephones, and one copy machine that
work intermittently. Today someone told me that the irregular electricity
supply is thanks to the Indian Government which gives rural areas, like
this place, electric power for just a few hours every day. The Internet
cafe has a battery which allows for one, and one only, of its computers
to keep going through most of the power outages. The guy who works there
tells anyone who stops by in the off hours, "No electric now. Electric
coming at half-past-five. One computer running."
Anyway, this morning someone used the sidewalk outside the Internet cafe
as the public toilet. By 11 AM the blisteringly hot sun was literally
“baking the shit.” Unlike say the smell of baking bread, the
smell of baking excrement isn't really something that anyone can savor.
Plus, it brought a sandstorm of flies into the Internet cafe. It was all
I could do to download a bunch of articles from the New York
Times and check my e-mail before being totally grossed out by
the smell which the man who manages the Internet cafe totally ignored.
What a relief it will be, in a few days,
to go to the Krishnamurti Center in Varanasi and be in a clean and comfortable
Four days later,
March 8, 2010, after 42 days of staying alive in India, and now in the
Krishnamurti Center in Varanasi.
I now have love and forgiveness in my
heart for the person whose baking excrement caused me such distress in
the Internet cafe. I'll tell you why I've had a change of heart, but first,
some background information.
In India there are three types of diarrhea.
1. Normal Diarrhea, 2, Explosive Diarrhea, and 3, the kind of diarrhea
that is everyone's worst nightmare: Surprise Explosive Diarrhea.
On my last morning in Sarnath, my worst nightmare, diarrhea type 3, happened
while I was walking down the main street of Sarnath in white pants. It
was a big surprise. I was on my way to sit in meditation in the very spot
that the Buddha himself used to sit in the early morning when disaster
struck. If that happens to you, it may help to know that it happened to
me and that I lived. Just stay calm. Everything is passing. It is an impersonal
event that could happen to anyone. No matter what happens a true gentleman
or a true lady never loses his or her dignity, even though it may not
look that way to the people around them. If, as they say, you “completely
lose your shit” you can remember me and imagine that, even if you
don't look it, you have some dignity.
Clearly, I see now, that the person who
defecated in front of the Internet cafe a few days ago probably had diarrhea
type 3, which was unwanted, explosive, and a surprise. And no doubt I
was infected by the hungry flies who came to the baking mess that he or
she created on the sidewalk. So it goes. Now at least I can forgive the
person who did it. He or she simply lost control. Life can be that way.
No matter how much we try to protect ourselves, the unexpected and the
unwanted will happen. But after a shower, with detergent, water, and a
calm mind, soiled clothing can be washed and restored. If only all of
life was that simple.
After such a dramatic start to my last day in Sarnath, my departure, just
after noon, went reasonably well. I had been there long enough to know
the various motorized rickshaw drivers who hang out around the village's
central round-about. I asked a guy I knew there if he could take me for
the 30-minute ride to the Krishnamurti Center in Varanasi. He said he
“No, you can't,” I said when
I smelled alcohol on his breath “you've been drinking. You're drunk
and can't drive.”
“Not drinking sir,” he pleaded.
“Drinking at Holi. Holi finished. Today no drinking.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very sure. Please get in.”
I got in and instructed him to drive me
to my guesthouse where my bags were waiting. Once at the guesthouse, after
he was invited in, he greeted the manager and his wife, who are local
nobility, by pressing his hands to his chest and saying “Namaste.”
The manager and his wife nodded and smiled. Everything proceeded smoothly.
|My up-scale room in Sarnath and
the proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Agrawal who run the Agrawal Guesthouse.
Little did I realize, however, that with
her smile the manager's wife was sending a telepathic message to my driver.
That message was, “If Mr. Tom gets in that rickshaw with you
behind the wheel while you are drunk, like you are now, you are in big,
The guest house managers wished me well,
everyone smiled again, and the driver helped me put my bags into his rickshaw.
A minute later, however, just out of earshot of the manager and his wife,
my driver, now a reformed man, said, "Madame Manager doesn't want me to
drive drunk. My brother drives you." At that instant another man appeared
out of nowhere and off we went.
days later, Saturday March 13, after 47 days in India, still in Varanasi.
Life at the Krishnamurti Center is peaceful
and serene. I have my own cottage in a park-like setting not far from
the River Ganges. Outside my door peacocks strut and songbirds fill the
|The main building of the study center,
the view from the main building, river view, and one of the cottages.
|Krishnamurti as a child.
This is the Krishnamurti story. Jiddu
Krishnamurti was raised, starting in 1909, when he was 14, by the new-agers
of his day, the Theosophical Society, to be the new Jesus, the savior
of humanity, in the twentieth century. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiddu_Krishnamurti)
When he was 34, in 1929, he told anyone who would listen that the new
Jesus idea was crazy. There were, he told them then, and for the next
fifty years, no saviors. If you wanted to save yourself, no one could
do it for you. Only you, with a deep-penetrating self-awareness could
free yourself from the problems of human existence. The man had charm
and a commanding presence that even I noticed when I saw him in 1984 two
years before he died at 92.
Krishnamurti felt that if people were
going to save themselves they needed to be free of the superstition, fear,
anger, competition, and hatred that most of society tells them that they
need to survive. To that end he started a few schools around the world.
One of them is here, at the southern end of the city of Varanasi which
is, by the way, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the
planet. The school is a part of the 300-acre Krishnamurti Foundation of
India where I'm staying. Located on the banks of the Ganges River, the
setting is spectacular. However, you wouldn't know that by looking at
the pictures on their home page. To try to remedy that, this morning,
after proposing my ideas to the principal of the school, I took some pictures
of the retreat center and the school.
|Students in their dormitories.
||Cleaning the Ganges.
I began my day there at the morning assembly.
At the end of the assembly the music teacher, with the help of a sitar
and harmonium, got everyone involved in a prayer/chant that ended with
everyone in the room being calm and focused. It was amazing.
After that, walking around, I was struck
by how fluent the English of the students is, and by the fact that they
all seem to be open, calm, friendly, and exuberant. They told me about
the school dogs they had named, about their dorm rooms, their hobbies,
and how much they liked the school
|Scenes around the Krishnamurti School
and a scene from a nearby village. The villagers were also incredibly
The principal, and especially the vice-principal, liked
my pictures, so in the afternoon I was asked if I could accompany the
students on an outing to the banks of the Ganges where they would collect
the plastic litter that had washed ashore.
“This is the Holy River Ganges,”
one of the students told me as if I didn't know where I was. We were standing
on the banks of the river.
“This is a toilet,” I told
him. I knew very well where I was.
He looked at me in shock and told everyone
within earshot, “He says it's a toilet!”
“Look, the water is filthy!”
“There, in the middle, they are
fishing. The water there is clean.”
“Would you want to eat those fish?”
“No," he admitted.
Working on the banks of the smelly river
was hot and uncomfortable, but the students seemed not to mind. They told
me that eventually they were going to melt down the collected plastic
and make a statue out of it that would serve to remind people of the importance
of keeping the river clean.
The next day the vice-principal asked
me if I would take more pictures, a lot more pictures. He arranged, because
this was Saturday, for there to be a special art class, computer class,
chemistry class, and a special basketball practice. Everyone was happy
to be photographed and I got to meet more of the students and faculty.
Some of the older female students are, naturally enough, drop-dead gorgeous.
There is no corporal punishment here,
which is very exceptional for India. Also, exceptionally, the lower grades
have no exams. Krishnamurti felt that competition made losers out of everyone,
so he got rid of examinations where he could, which was only in the lower
grades. Even he understood that no Indian parent would send their children
to a school that didn't prepare students for university entrance exams.
After we had finished taking the pictures,
the art teacher, who had accompanied me on the last of my photoshoots,
and I were walking across the spacious campus, past the Women's College,
when he excused himself to look into the canteen that serves the college.
In one corner of the canteen were four intermediate school students. They
knew that they were not supposed to be in the canteen of the Women's College.
It is, I was told, strictly forbidden for the students to eat anywhere
except in the school cafeteria, where the food is excellent, and they
are likewise forbidden to drink sodas and colas because of what those
drinks can do to their teeth. But, because they are teenagers, who always
want to bend the rules that adults make for them, the four students had
decided to risk it. Now they had been caught and would pay the consequences
after the art teacher reported them to the teacher who was responsible
for looking after them. By the look on their faces, they had just been
sentenced to be shot in the morning.
Generally, the teacher explained, the
students at the school are very well behaved. They just needed a little
guidance from time to time.
Furthermore, after I asked him, he told me that in the entire history
of the school, not one female student had become pregnant. The students,
he explained to me, simply didn't think in those terms and if a girl ever
did become pregnant it would be “terrible, really terrible.”
I guess so.
Meanwhile, for one week, I have eaten
all of my meals in the dining room of the study center which comfortably
seats 15 people. There I was able to meet an interesting mix of locals
and tourists who were dedicated to following Krishnamurti's teachings
and who had come here to learn more. One man, an American who is exactly
my age, had somehow been awarded a scholarship to stay here for six months.
He told me that he spent most of his time in meditation. How, I wondered,
could someone spend most of his or her time in meditation at a Krishnamurti
center? Krishnamurti didn't like to talk about it, but he had had, from
time to time, mystical experiences for most of his life. In spite of that,
he always told people that they didn't need mystical experiences and that
just by being totally aware, by having what he called a “choiceless
awareness,” they could find the true meaning of life. He dismissed
gurus and all spiritual traditions as being founded on old, dead thoughts
and ideas. He never read any of the great literature of the East, studied
under a meditation teacher, or, as they say, “sat in a cave.”
Indeed, he liked nothing better than hiking through the woods or getting
in bed with a thriller or a mystery novel. Strangely, towards the end
of his life he and close friends tried to investigate his mystical experiences.
Those investigations have never been made public.
Krishnamurti's theory of meditation sounds
okay unless you've actually done intensive meditation practice with a
skilled meditation master. The idea of a meditation master or a “spiritual
friend” is that he can see when you, the student, is getting off
track and help you get back on track. For example, if the student is plagued
by a lot of anger in his or her meditation, a teacher might say, “Try
thinking loving thoughts about the people you are angry with.” Or
if a student finds that he has too much energy that is making him lose
concentration, a meditation teacher might recommend doing more walking
meditation. One of the great meditation masters of our time, Joseph Goldstein,
said that he had tried to learn meditation on his own and just got confused.
My experience at the Rajghat Krishnamurti Study Center is that the people
who try to teach themselves meditation without a teacher just get confused.
Without mystical experiences, we need teachers and spiritual friends to
guide us along the path. Mystical experiences are fine for those who have
them, but the rest of us probably need more than reading mystery novels
or daydreaming about meditation.
16 days later,
March 28, one day after leaving India. Back in Bangkok after surviving
India for 61 days.
Meanwhile, I had my own meditation to
do. By chance, after one last phone call to New Delhi, I was able to change
my air ticket to get on the very last plane out of India that Thai Airways
flies at the end of the tourist season, March 27. After that day Thai
Airways is so sure that no one in their right mind would want to go to
hot-hot-hot India that they stop flying there. With a new departure date
I would be able to attend another ten-day meditation retreat, this time
with Jaya Ashmore, the woman I had made the movie for in Sarnath. The
retreat would take place in the Himalayan foothills which would take 17
hours by train to reach.
So after one week at the Krishnamurti
Center, which finished with three days of taking hundreds of pictures
of the students and then processing them in Adobe Photoshop, I left Varanasi
on March 14 for Kathgodam at the base of the Himalayan foothills.
Fortunately, I wasn't traveling alone.
By an incredible coincidence, on a shopping trip into chaotic Varanasi,
I recognized a woman I had seen on the retreat in Sarnath. We greeted
each other like long-lost friends and immediately went to a restaurant
for lunch where I learned that she was going to attend the same retreat
in the Himalayan foothills. I showed her my ticket and that day she booked
a ticket on the same train.
Unfortunately, however, during the train
ride I was not able to hear the complete life story of this beautiful
and fascinating woman, who, by the way, was the second African-American
woman I've met in India, the first being a woman on the Bodh Gaya retreat.
I didn't hear my traveling companion's life story because she was carrying
a mobile phone which was much more important to her than I was. As we
traveled, every time she would begin a story the phone would ring or she
would think of someone she had to talk to. As far as
I could tell she, her family, and her boyfriend kept a running dialog
going 24 hours a day. The rest of the world was just a minor distraction.
Fortunately though, in the Varanasi train
station, just before getting on the train, I met a Swiss man who was going
to the same retreat. Hans had been given a grant by the Swiss government
to study and produce art in Varanasi. He had decided to take a break from
his art and do a meditation retreat. As we told each other our life stories
we learned that we had studied with many of the same meditation teachers
and we had even once been on the same retreat. He tried to explain his
art projects to me, but I couldn't understand any of them. One of his
projects was about studying how time and space interact by asking gurus
to guess his age on his birthday as he took their pictures. Whatever.
Artists can do anything they want and the world will forgive them.
Getting to Kathgodam from Varanasi involved
two six-hour train rides with a five-hour stopover in Lucknow, about halfway.
For reasons that no one could explain, all of the trains were all exactly
on time. Someone told me that this is was a first in the history of the
Indian Railways, India's largest employer.
The train arrived in Kathgodam (pronounced
cot-go-damn) which is the last town before this part of the Himalayan
foothills, at seven in the morning. From there it was another 90 minutes
by land-cruiser to the Sattal Christian Ashram, high up in the foothills.
Strangely, when we got off the train we found that 12 other people who
had been on the train with us were also going to the retreat, including
two people who had been there before. They kindly arranged the transportation.
Soon I found myself sitting next to a young woman from Israel who was
kind enough to explain to me what it would take to bring peace to the
Middle East. She was a member of the small minority of Israelis who thought
that the Palestinians were actually human beings. Because of this, she,
and members of her peace group, annually volunteered to help Palestinian
farmers, who had the courage to ask them, to pick olives. She believed
that until the Israeli government developed a benign social consciousness
and abandoned the illegal settlements, there would never be peace. Interestingly,
she also told me that Christopher Titmuss had probably done more than
anyone else to help take the teachings of the Buddha, who helped erase
attachments to nationalities, history, and boundaries, to Israel.
When we finally reached Sattal, I immediately
understood why this was paradise to the Indians from the central plains.
A) it was cool. B) it was quiet C) there were crystal-clear lakes all
around us D) there were pristine forests everywhere. This was a great
If there were any problems, it was with
the wild animals. The local monkey population was sometimes aggressive
enough to steal food from people's plates as they (the humans) ate outside.
And one night when I was doing walking meditation at the edge of a dark
forest, I heard a large animal approach me through the brush. I got scared
and went back to the main building. The next day I was told that a leopard
had stopped by looking for food.
Another time I was walking back to the
main grounds, near where some cars were parked, and a troop of aggressive-looking
monkeys blocked my path. An Indian man, also a visitor, standing just
outside one of the buildings, saw what was happening and promptly threw
a rock at the monkeys. Unfornately, the rock missed the monkeys and broke
a car window. That was enough so scare the monkeys away and, I'm sure,
frighten the Indian man who had just broken the window.
doing at least one hundred ten-day-or-longer meditation retreats over
the last 30 years, I came to this retreat without a lot of expectations.
I got a big surprise, but first some background information.
Throughout the history of meditation in
the East one of the big problems has been sleepiness. Bodhidharma, the
man who brought Buddhism to China 1,500 years ago, is said to have gotten
so tired of falling asleep in meditation that he ripped his eyebrows off,
threw them on the ground, and from them sprang up the first caffeine-packed
green tea leaves that have been used ever since by Zen meditators to help
them stay awake in meditation.
Other people have meditated with a sword
propped up against their throats or while sitting on the edge of a deep
well. I haven't tried the sword or well trick but I've tried everything
else — from vitamin therapy, to double cappuccino, to standing up,
to breathing exercises.
Fortunately, there is Jaya Ashmore. This
former Harvard Divinity School student has, she claims, found the answer
to the millennium-old problem of sleeping during meditation. She teaches
that sleeping is not the problem, rather it is the solution. To that end,
when she teaches meditation every student is asked to bring, or is supplied
with, a light mattress to lie down on. Thus her meditation halls look
something like a kindergarten class at nap time. She asks that before
every 45-minute meditation period students decide if they want to sit
up or lie down. If they chose to lie down and they fall asleep, she lets
them sleep, even if they snore. The problem is, according to her, that
people are often not well-rested. It's that simple. She believes that
given enough rest, they will be able to develop deep states of meditation
while lying down. And because they are lying down and not worrying about
keeping their spine straight or anything else, letting gravity do its
work, they may even be able to go deeper into the meditation than they
could if they were sitting up. (See her website, Opendharma.org for
I had heard this theory from her enthusiastic
students for years and had dismissed it as new-age wishful thinking. But
there I was, on the retreat, with a wonderfully inviting thin mattress
in front of me. How could I resist?
For the first three days I was, just as
a previous meditation master had told me I would be, groggy and with a
headache from too much sleep. But then on day four something shifted and
I noticed that for one meditation period I stayed awake, on my back, for
the entire period. Another meditator reported that even though she had
suffered from insomnia for years she found that she could now sleep virtually
all day in the meditation hall and then sleep soundly at night. After
a few days though, she too started staying awake in the meditation hall.
Then, by day five, my headaches and backache
vanished to be replaced with what felt like a deep mental clarity and
alertness. Why, I wondered, hadn't anyone ever told me this before? None
of the “meditation masters” I had studied with over the last
30 years in the USA, Japan, India, Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka had
ever considered that perhaps one reason why people fell asleep in meditation
was that they were, on a deep level, tired.
Jaya taught that the proper posture for
lying-down meditation was to keep the knees higher than the hips and the
ankles higher than the knees with the head flat on the floor. To bring
more energy to the posture, she suggested that people could use a posture
from the Japanese art of Jin Shin Jyutsu. Here one hand reaches over the
shoulder and hangs onto the muscle between the neck and the shoulder while
the other hand rests on the joint between the hips and the thigh, almost
touching the pubic area.
With increased mental alertness, tensions
that I had been unaware of surfaced. Jaya taught that when anger arose
one remedy for it was to generate thoughts of loving-kindness (metta)
right there and then. (Other meditation teachers I have studied with urged
students to investigate anger and hold off on the loving-kindness until
later.) I found this useful and I started dedicating one meditation period
a day to doing nothing but trying to generate thoughts of loving-kindness
for, well, everyone. I hadn't done this since I had left the jungles of
South America where the psychotropic plant ayahuasca had made such meditation
wonderfully ecstatic. Strangely to me, I found that even without ayahuasca
my concentration was deep enough that I once found myself covered in a
stream of joyful tears. How about that?
Achan Cha, a Thai forest master, once
said that one has never really meditated until he or she has cried a river
The other big benefit of doing so much
meditation while on my back was that the element of pain was now gone.
Long-time meditators don't talk much about it, but one thing that they
are always aware of is pain in the knees, hips, and backs. Sitting up
all day, day after day, in the cross-legged position for Asians and Westerners
alike has an element of pain and discomfort that never goes completely
away. The pain was now gone and replaced by a general sense of well-being.
When the retreat began I was sleeping
from 10 PM until 4 AM, getting up two hours before the wake-up bell to
do a little yoga. By day four, 4 AM had changed to 3:30 AM, and by day
eight that had changed to 2:30 which gave me enough time to do 90 minutes
of meditation and some yoga before the first meditation period at 7:30
in the morning. Four and a half hours of sleep was enough now that I was,
as Jays says, “deep rested.”
How about that?
Meanwhile, I tried to ignore everyone
around me. Jaya has many strengths, but one of them is not disciplining
other people. A few people never realized that if they were going to get
anywhere with this style of meditation they had to put every moment of
wakefulness into the practice, into cultivating constant mindfulness and
attention. I tried not to notice the people who read books during the
breaks, who snuck off to be with their lovers in the woods, or who spaced
out studying the monkeys or taking pictures. If, one meditation master
said, you want the medicine to work, you have to follow the directions
written on the bottle. Even while lying down there aren't any shortcuts.
Although I never asked her about wandering meditators, my guess is that
Jaya would say something about a caterpillar never becomes a butterfly
before it's supposed to. It might also be true that Jaya has more patience,
love, understanding, and compassion than I do.
|Just after the retreat, Jaya, in the middle
of the front row asked me to take this picture of her and some old
friends. On the left is Ajay. He, along with Jaya and Gemma, comprise
the core Open Dharma teaching team.
At the end of the retreat almost everyone
said that it had been a life-changing experience.
The retreat ended on March 25, exactly
two days before Thai Airways made its last flight of the season out of
India. I had 48 hours to cross the northern part of India to return to
Bodh Gaya and get on that plane.
Step one was easy. Because Kathgodam is
at the end of a rail line, the trains leave on time. My train, a second-class
air-conditioned sleeper, left on time at 9:50 the night the retreat finished.
It delivered me to Lucknow, about halfway to Bodh Gaya, at six the next
morning, which was the perfect time to have breakfast with Hans, the Swiss
artist who lives in Varanasi. We said goodbye at 8 as he hurried to catch
My train was scheduled to leave at 12:30
PM. But when I inquired about it at ten that morning, I was told that
at present it was five hours late! Would five hours stretch to ten hours?
Would it be one of those phantom Indian trains that are “lost?”
What to do? I went to the station master and was told that another train,
bound for Calcutta that would stop in Gaya, would depart at 11:45 that
morning and that if I bought a first-class ticket I was sure to get a
I hurried to the ticket counters. Once
there, it took me only a few minutes to find the first-class window mainly
because it was the only window that wasn't totally jammed up with people
elbowing each other to get to the window. The clerk seemed happy to see
me and a minute later the ticket was, in record time, in my hand.
I ran out to the platform and saw that
my train was already at the station. I found the conductor and showed
him my ticket. “There are no first-class seats on this train,”
he told me.
“Second-class air-conditioned is
He searched his computer printouts for
an available seat. As he did, I felt like someone on a reality TV show
who is helplessly waiting to learn if he is going to stay in the game
or get sent home. Was I going to be waiting at this station for five or
ten more hours?
“Nothing is available,” he
told me. He was serious.
“But I have a first-class ticket.”
“What can I do?” he asked
me sincerely. “There are no seats.”
“What should I do?”
“Get on the train; it is moving.”
I had never thought of that: “get
on the train; it is moving.” The train was definitely
Suddenly I was running alongside the train
pulling my luggage behind me. Just then, as the train started moving as
fast as I could run, someone appeared out of nowhere and helped me push
my heavy bag-on-wheels into the moving door of a non-air-conditioned sleeper.
I followed the bag into the train with a Tarzan-inspired leap. A more
dramatic departure has seldom been seen in India.
My worst nightmare had suddenly come true:
I was sentenced to ride in the lowest class of train in India at the beginning
of the hot-hot-hot season. Brace yourself, I told myself, this is going
As my heartbeat and breathing returned
to normal, my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light inside the train.
Where am I? I pulled my bag into the first of the nine open-ended compartments
of the car.
Indian “General Sleeper” trains
consist of compartments of two rows of three tiers of sleeping planks
(triple-tiered bunk beds) facing each other with two other berths facing
them so that eight people share a small cabin. In theory each car sleeps
77 people, but in reality they can get much more crowded.
I looked for a place to sit down. “That
seat is taken,” a man about 65 told me, “but you can sit down.”
I thanked him and sat down.
He wasn't doing any better than I was.
A few months ago he had booked a seat in an air-conditioned car and been
placed on a waiting list. He showed me his ticket for an air-conditioned
coach, which he had paid for. Unfortunately, he told me, he was still
on the waiting list.
Soon the conductor appeared. He explained
that we could sit in these seats for a few more hours until the train
reached Varanasi, at which time people who had paid for our seats would
board the train and occupy them. My new-found traveling companion, who
later told me that his name was Pierre the Great of Paris, told me that
during the previous night, he and his wife, for the first time in their
lives, had slept on the floor of the train. So things were going to get
rough, but just now I realized that this gentleman would look after me.
Things were fine. A few minutes later a vendor, who had somehow secured
the right to sell lunch to the passengers on the train, was passing through
the car. I requested a vegetarian lunch. He then shouted all the orders
from my cabin into his mobile phone. Those orders would be delivered to
the train a few stations up the line.
I bought some peanuts and listened to
the old man tell his story. He and his wife were, just now, returning
from Haridwar, where they had joined the largest religious gathering of
human beings on planet earth for a celebration that occurs every 12 years
to mark the auspicious deeds of Lord Vishnu. They call it the Kumbha Mela.
“Did you see the naked sadhus and
naga babas?” I asked.
“We did not go there to see naked
people,” he said with the same humor and seriousness that he said
everything. “We went there to bathe in the holy river Ganges.”
“There I think that the river is
“Yes, very clean.”
Now he was returning to his home in Calcutta
which would be, if things went well, require only one more night and one
more day on the train. I asked him how life in Calcutta was for him.
“Noisy, polluted, crowded, and dirty,”
he said. He was the first person I had ever met from Calcutta who spoke
“But,” I said, “I sense
that you are somehow happy.” He had a very serene way of carrying
“When I reach my home, my daughter's
children will come to see their grandfather. When I see them my heart
will fill and overflow with love and happiness.” He was serious.
He had arranged a marriage for his daughter.
“We are Brahman's,” he said, referring to his status as a
member of India's highest caste. “If I hadn't found a suitable Brahman
for her, the other relatives would have stopped talking to us.”
“Is she happy?”
“And your wife?”
He told me that before their marriage
he and his wife had never seen or talked to each other, but that now they
had been together for 45 years.
“And it's okay?”
“If she says something bad to me,
later she cries,” he told me. “She is always with me, looking
after me. Now you see who she is, but when we were married she was very,
“Of course.” She was fat,
gray, and wrinkled.
After lunch he told me that I should take
a rest, which meant that he was tired of talking and wanted to take a
nap. There was one berth, the top of the three berths, that was free.
I climbed up, somehow got comfortable, and read a book. It was, I was
told later, 41 degrees Celsius (104 F) outside. Inside, because of the
heat radiating through the roof of the train, it was probably much hotter.
But it was a dry and clean heat as rural India passed by outside the train. This
would be, I thought to myself more than once, the wrong
place to have surprise explosive diarrhea.
|The view from the top berth.
As the sun was setting, I put my head
down to look out the window and saw that we were crossing the Ganges River.
Our next stop would be Varanasi where the people with real tickets for
our seats would board the train.
Varanasi is a major stop, so I knew that
we would be there for at least 15 minutes.
As soon as the train came to a stop, I
climbed down from the top berth, ran out onto the crowded and confused
platform, and looked for the conductor in charge of the air-conditioned
coaches. He was easy to spot — he wore a black dinner jacket, black
pants, black leather shoes, a white shirt, and a black tie. I showed him
my ticket and again he looked through his print-outs of the seats in the
air-conditioned section. As he did this I wondered if I had recently accumulated
any bad karma by deliberately killing insects, by not giving to everyone
who asked me for money, or by being rude to any of the endless stream
of people who asked me every day where I am from.
A few seconds later the conductor silently,
as my heart beat at double speed, wrote on my ticket the berth number
in the two-tier, not three-tier, air-conditioned coach where a comfortable
and cool bed with white sheets was waiting for me. Thank you
Buddha, Jesus, and all of the saints and beings who have postponed ultimate
nirvana, Boddhisattvas, to help those of us stuck in the wheel of continuous
births, samsara. I promise to be compassionate to all sentient beings
for the rest of this birth and in all future births. Amen. Hallelujah.
I ran back into the general sleeper coach
where I had spent the previous eight hours. “My berth,” I
announced to Pierre the Great of Paris, “opened up in AC.”
“How many berths?” he asked
“I don't know, but you should ask.
I wish you good luck. It was very nice meeting you. I wish you well.”
With that I was gone. A few minutes later,
I plugged my computer into the 220-volt outlet that is, these days, available
in air-conditioned coaches in India, and watched a movie.
India, as so many travelers have said
before me, can be bad, very bad. Later, almost instantly, it can be good,
A woman sharing a berth near me asked
me where I was going. I told her, “Gaya.” She strongly advised
me against attempting the thirty-minute taxi ride from the rail junction
of Gaya to the village of Bodh Gaya that night. She urged me to contact
the station master in Gaya who, she assured me, would help me.
“Are you from Gaya?” I asked.
“No, never in many, many, births
would I ever be from Gaya,” she said seriously.
(Once, when I had called computer support
in India and told them that I was going to Gaya, the person was amazed
— why would anyone, he wondered, voluntarily go to Gaya?)
I thanked her for her advice. Shortly
after that a man who was actually from Gaya wrote down for me the names
of three hotels that were near the train station; he circled the “VIP”
hotel. I thanked him as well.
The train reached the Gaya station at
1 AM. As soon as I stepped off the train I was surrounded by taxi drivers
who wanted to take me to Bodh Gaya. I ignored them.
The Gaya station, at one in the morning,
resembled a scene from a war movie where the people of an entire city
or state are, to escape ethnic cleansing, desperately camped out in and
around the train station. Families, groups of friends, single people,
holy men, and every other conceivable collection of human beings were
sleeping everywhere inside and outside the station. I had once tried to
use the toilet in the Gaya train station. It was horrific beyond belief.
The station manager told me that everything
Fortunately, the best hotel in Gaya, the
VIP hotel, was across the street. I crossed the street and asked for a
room. The clerk told me that all of the air-conditioned rooms were full,
but there were a few non-air-conditioned rooms available. Did I want one?
“Can I have a look?”
Immediately there appeared a bell boy
dressed like a clown. Well, not exactly like a clown. A clown's clothes
would have been cleaner. This man's uniform should have been washed a
month ago. He walked me up two flights of stairs and opened the door to
a room. Entering the room I made a lunge for the window — it was
“If you open the window,”
the bell boy, who looked 50, calmly told me, “the mosquitoes will
“Do you have anything else?”
A few minutes later he came back with
another key and showed me a room with an air-conditioner. It would cost
50% more than any other room I had paid for in India, but I decided to
take it. Before I paid for the room, the clerk at the front desk explained
to me that as the electricity would go on and off throughout the night,
taking the air conditioner with it. Fine, I said, I'll take the room.
The best hotel in Gaya did not, in its
air-conditioned rooms, offer its guests hot water, toilet paper, a clean
floor, or towels. But at least until I fell asleep, the air-conditioner
worked. I was soon fast asleep.
|Gaya rickshaw parking lot.
I had thought about having breakfast in
the hotel, but the restaurant didn't open until 7 AM. At 6:30, with the
electricity long gone and the room heating up, I was ready to go. I stepped
outside where there was a motorized rickshaw parked at the curb; it was
jam-packed with passengers. The driver immediately asked me if I wanted
to go to Bodh Gaya for 150 rupees, about three dollars, which was 30 percent
of what I had paid two months ago to go a distance a third as far, from
the Gaya Airport into Bodh Gaya. I said yes, at which time he instantly
evicted his passengers and I sat down.
This time as we traveled I was determined
to take pictures of what I had described two months ago as “desperate,
worn out, and parched.” But now, after two months in India, things
didn't look particularly bad at all. They seemed, well, normal. This was
simply how people lived and they made the best of it and were, as far
as I could tell, happy with that. India, we can say, takes a while to
get used to, then it seems normal.
I left my bags in the lobby of my old
hotel, the Embassy. Now the dining room was closed, but the hotel was
still open as the season wound down. The man at the front desk remembered
me and told me everything was “No problem.”
These days in Bodh Gaya things were much
quieter than I had left them six weeks ago. Now almost all the foreigners
and Tibetans were gone to be replaced by a much smaller crowd of Burmese,
Sri Lankans, Thais, and Cambodians. Everything seemed peaceful.
The hot season, I was told, had gotten
off to an early start and people were worried that things might get incredibly
much hotter than usual when the hot-hot-hot season arrived in another
few weeks. Today, the waiter in my restaurant told me, it would be 41C
(104 F). As I walked through the heat to visit the stupa and to sit in
meditation for an hour under the Bodhi tree one last time, I thought that
the temperature seemed more bearable than Bangkok which doesn't get much
hotter than this but which has incredible humidity.
The morning quickly passed and just after
noon I spent another 150 rupees to take the 15-minute rickshaw ride to
The spacious airport was wonderfully air-conditioned
At passport control I somehow forgot to
fill out the exit form. “Why,” the official asked me, “didn't
you fill it out?”
“I didn't fill it out, because 50%
of the Indian population cannot read or write and that is a national disgrace!”
I really said that.
The clerk looked at me in shock for a
minute and then said, “Some people in your country cannot read or
“Yes, if they were born deaf and
He then filled out the form for me.
“So what,” he asked me, “is
“Start with fewer bombs and more
This airplane, I was told, was the very
last plane of the season out of the Gaya Airport. After today, airport
employees would be rotated to other airports in India or do “administrative
“Goodbye and good luck,” I
“To you too.”
Later that same clerk walked by me and
saw that I was reading a book by Krishnamurti. He said that he would try
to buy it in Gaya. I told him that it was worth the price.
The airport was, for one reason or another,
spotlessly clean. It was so clean that once I was in the waiting room,
for the first time in India, I took off my shoes and walked around the
huge, largely deserted lobby. Off to one side of the huge lobby was an
escalator that had the power turned off. Beside the motionless escalator,
which was probably the only escalator in a state of 80 million people,
was a poster that consisted of the 13 rules that everyone should know
for safe travel on escalators.
Those rules, especially rule 9 through
12, I think are a fitting close to this travel journal and sum up my advice
for anyone considering a trip to India. With a most gracious bow to you,
my beloved reader, I present them to you now wishing you good health and
a pleasant journey to wherever life may take you.
9. Do not walk up if an escalator
is moving in down direction.
10 Do not walk down if an escalator
is moving in an up direction.
11. Do not get panicky if escalator
stopped or handbag fallen on steps.
12. Do not try to disentangle by force
if any belonging get caught.
Epilogue, February, 2022
I didn't realize it in 2010, but in 2010
my movie-making career was ending. By then free movie-making software
was becoming available, the price of movie-making equipment was dropping,
and Youtube was becoming popular. I shortly became the village scribe
after everyone in the village had learned to read and write. Now, in 2022,
everyone is a movie maker.
Looking back from 2022, 2010 was “the
good old days” in India. Things have changed dramatically since
Let me begin with Bodh Gaya. Christopher
Titmuss eventually decided that conditions in Bodh Gaya were becoming
unbearable because of the noise and pollution. A few years after the 2010
retreat he moved his annual retreats to Sarnath and, because fewer tourists
were coming to India, he canceled the program of discussions after the
I continued my relationship with the school
in Bodh Gaya until Monday, March 12, 2018, at 12:30 PM. Up until then
I had made movies for the school, helped with the annual newsletter, helped
with fundraising, and things like that.
Earlier that March 12 morning I arrived at the school's computer lab at
about 9 AM to get ready to teach the first day of a one-week class in
Adobe Photoshop that the school's principal had encouraged me to teach.
By 11 AM, only two people had shown up to take the class, two old friends
who weren't even students at the school. I walked out of the school for
the last time at 12:30. Later I learned that the principal had said stopped
students from entering the lab while I was there. She had said "Yes" to
my teaching the class because it was easier for her to say yes than telling
me the truth. The truth was that neither she nor the regular computer
teacher (who, as far as I could tell, didn't teach anything) wanted an
outsider teaching in the school. Thus my decade-long relationship with
the Prajna Vihar School came to an abrupt halt.
When I first visited Sarnath in the early
2000s people would sometimes take a local rickshaw into Varanasi for breakfast
at a riverside cafe. By the end of the decade that same trip became much
longer and dramatically more unpleasant as the roads became more and more
jammed with vehicles.
There was a lovely guesthouse in Sarnath
that I liked to have breakfast in. It was quiet, had a garden, and the
food was excellent. A few years later houses started to appear in the
rice fields surrounding the walls of the guesthouse. The city of Sarnath
supplied those houses with electricity, but not a sewer system so the
people living in the new houses used the fields surrounding the guesthouse
as their toilet. By noon the smell of baking human excrement was overwhelming.
I tactfully mentioned this to the proprietor who responded, "What can
The huge Buddha statue that Bikkhu Gurudhammo
was working on in 2010 was finished in 2013and it is magnificent. You
can see it here_and here.
In 2022, my Sarnath hotel operator, Mr.
Agrawal who ran the Agrawal Guesthouse, suddenly died from complications
of Covid-19. He had once told me, "Death and guests can arrive at
any time." I was sorry to hear that death came for him. Mr. Agrawal
was a real, old school Indian gentleman. He told me in 2018 that at one
time he made weekly shopping trips to Varanasi. Now, he said, the traffic
and congestion was such that only went once a year. He found the way India
was changing to be very depressing.
I would end up going back to the Sattal
Christian Ashram almost every year until 2018. I always enjoyed it but
over the years things changed.
The Wesleyan minister in charge of the ashram did not appreciate non-Christians
using his church for meditation. To keep the meditators out of the chuch,
a special hall was built for the meditators and, above that, three guest
rooms. Everyone seems to like the new hall and rooms.
Other things, however, changed for the worse. Every year, as India rapidly
developed, more and more Indian tourists visited the area which led to
the amusement park bordering the ashram to occasionally host rock-and-roll
bands. Some of the Indian tourists visiting the area were young men who
had too much time on their hands and too much alcohol in their brains.
They began wandering into the ashram to harass the Western women who were
walking in the woods or swimming in the lake. That problem was partially
solved by making sure that no western woman walked alone in the forest
or went swimming in the lake without a western man present. Once I volunteered
to be a chaperone. When we reached the lake, I felt as if the Indian men
there were wolves waiting for sheep.
Forest fires, thanks to global warming,
have become more and more regular. Last year the fires almost reached
the ashram buildings.
Jaya and Gemma continue to teach and the
movie I made for them is still on their
web page; now they each have their own web pages. Jaya's is https://www.jayaashmore.org/
and Gemma's is https://gemmapolopujol.com/
As of this writing, as the pandemic rages,
my Western friends who traveled in India with me and I don't know if we
will ever visit India again. But we all miss India. In spite of everything,
we always felt a unique sense of happiness there.