Karmapa’s Monlam Retreat – Bodhgaya, India


Karmapa(From my recent trip in Dec/Jan 2013)

As we got closer to Bodhgaya, the roads became crowded and hectic. We were immersed into the chaos: Bodhgaya, at this time of high spiritual pilgrimage, is an assault on all the senses. Nothing is serene. In the road, I see hordes of people, cows, bulls, dogs, goats and boars mixed with a barrage of motored vehicles, bicycle rickshaws.

There are hundreds of formally dressed Buddhist monks and nuns – mostly in gold and maroon robes, the colors of Tibetan religious orders – and hundreds more rag-tag Indians, some filthy and ill, carrying their loads on their heads or begging or pushing to get by.

Horns and motorcycles and motored rickshaws blare the sounds of their machines (sometimes a little rap music, here and there) against shouting and grunting and demanding. The mix of smoke, noxious pollution, nauseating sewage, and sweet spices and human sweat assaults the nose. The taste of sewage and various kinds of carbon fuels and occasional fried foods sticks to my taste buds.

My body alternately feels hot, afraid or exhausted as we bounce along into the jumble of life and death (once we saw a stiff long corpse, wrapped in a black blanket, being held by three people sitting in the backseat of an open-air Jeep). My mind was sometimes overwhelmed by the misery and chaos and then overwhelmed by stimulation and then uplifted by dogs playing or beautiful silver cows with calm pretty faces.

When I fell into Ativan-induced sleep that night in our supposedly Western-style hotel (but more Indian-style) aptly named “The Royal Residency” because it promised heat and hot water (though it didn’t always deliver) along with marble floors and veranda-style lobbies, my mind’s eye flooded with all that had flooded my senses. I land upon the playful dogs and fall asleep.

Inside a couple days, we have repeatedly braved the road into the main temple marketplace of Bodhgaya, on foot or in motorized rickshaws – with an on-coming flood of traffic and children, even toddlers – that sluices off as we fly forward into their opposing flow. There are no traffic rules. You are hurtling yourself wildly into everything coming at you. It is a dream instead of being dream-like. This is Bodhgaya.

We make our way to the concluding session of the Karmapa’s Monlam retreat, a yearly pilgrimage in which mostly Tibetan monks and nuns, and other religious and lay Buddhists, gather in the thousands to hear the teachings of the handsome fresh-faced 17th Kagyu Karmapa (http://www.KagyuUffice.org/), the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, the beloved spiritual leader of Tibet who was well-known also in America and Europe.

“Karmapa” means “embodiment of Buddha activities.” Different from His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is both a political and spiritual leader, the Karmapa is dedicated to spiritual teaching. Born in 1985 to a nomadic family and identified as the reincarnated 16th Karmapa when he was 7 years old, this Karmapa is surprisingly practical and guileless.

I was in his first audience in America on May 16, 2008 in New York City – with 5,000 other people. Once again, I am in a crowd of at least 5,000 under this huge tent except now at least 3,000 are Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns — many of the monks being young boys.

We’ve all been searched and scanned in order to get into the tent on the grounds of the Karmapa’s monastery. His Holiness the Karmapa (HHK) makes his way into the tent with little ceremony. Immediately he tells us he is suffering badly from the flu. He wasn’t sure he could withstand the challenge of giving his talk.

I feel comforted by the fact that he speaks openly of his weakness because I have been feeling especially weak and white and fragile next to my brown brothers and sisters – Indian and Himalayan – who soldier on under conditions worse than I could have imagined.

HHK says he is weak and yet he is happy that the teachings for 2013 have concluded in a satisfying way because too often, he says, obstacles interfere with his plans. He wonders why. And then, he proceeds to give a clear and inspiring presentation about one’s attitude towards practice.

He begins by saying that one can do prostrations and mantras “because you see others doing them” and they are perhaps of benefit – better than doing nothing. But the true attitude of practice is to investigate your experience and see what happens:

If I do this practice, how does it benefit others and me? If I don’t do this practice, what happens?

In such a way, we become responsible for our daily practice with a sense of why we are doing it. We clarify our motivation. Until we have this direct awareness of why we engage in practices – meditation and others – we cannot get the full benefits they were designed to provide.

While he is talking, scores of old Tibetan people rise and do prostrations, saluting Buddha, Dharma, Sangha with prayer-hands at the forehead, throat and heart. I have the sense they are barely listening to the instructions of HHK. He concludes by encouraging everyone to investigate one’s own experience in practice and to be honest and responsible about what we are doing.

This is Bodhgaya. I love it.