Thursday, June 15, 2006

Buddha Deconstructed

Because a piece I wrote for Tricycle remains buried somewhere behind their firewall (I have yet to find it despite the editor's statement that they were going to post it), I'm posting it here where I have monolithic editorial control. I had written it on assignment, but the magazine felt it wasn't suitable for the print publication. I think I know there specific objections, but I'll let it speak for itself. And, they paid me, so I can't really complain. Also, next April, I'll be traveling to Dharamsala with my bro to attend a private conference led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The conference will be exploring the the empirical effects of meditation on the science of the mind. Very cool.

Anyway, here's the piece.....

Buddha Deconstructed

By Cullen Couch

Night falls here in the cold/dry season of northeastern India. Dung fires and kerosene lamps radiate light and warmth into countless mud huts. The acrid smoke stings my eyes and deepens a cloying darkness no starlight can penetrate. Our bus, filled with 27 pilgrims following in the “footsteps of the Buddha,” bumps and lurches on a narrow dirt road. Its headlights barely illuminate the hundreds of cloaked figures, oxcarts, Tata trucks, cows, dogs, and rickshaws streaming by in the gloom. Far ahead, I see oncoming headlights burn a corona around the dark shape of a distant wagon.

The stream parts to our singsong horn – only one part in the larger road symphony of honks, toots, and shouts – and then fills in behind us. In this intricate dance of steel and flesh we avoid each other by scant inches. During the two weeks of our travel here, our bus kills just three dogs.

My brother invited me on this journey some six months earlier. It was a daunting prospect. India’s myth had never much appealed to me, and the thought of enduring typhoid and hepatitis vaccines, and downing anti-malaria and “traveler’s diarrhea” pills didn’t help. As a lifelong skeptic of organizations of any stripe – be they travel groups, corporate paradigms, or multi-mandala’d schools of Buddhism – and a devotee of single malt scotch, I feared having to endure too much of the former with too little of the latter.

That doesn’t turn out to be a problem. I smuggled some fine, peaty Ardbeg into the sangha and enjoyed a nightly wee dram. And our group turned out to be intrepid, gentle, and solicitous. In fact, these are among the nicest people I’ve ever met. But I didn’t anticipate the intense sensory overload India levels on the uninitiated, of which I truly am one. And I worried I would miss the Buddha in this addled state.

We had begun the pilgrimage in Patna, the run-down former capital of the ancient Maghadan kingdom and a two-hour plane ride east from Delhi. There, we met the bus and crew who carried us over the Gangetic plain to Rajgir, Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Kushinigar, Kapilavastu, Sravasti, and Lumbini just across the border in Nepal. We didn’t retrace the Buddha’s steps chronologically; that would have taken months in this travel-challenged land. Instead, we followed a tilde line across Bihar state, walking randomly on Buddha moments as though they were film frames on a cutting room floor.

But now the night is deepening and a bed many hours distant. I’m sitting next to Shantum Seth, an ordained teacher in the tradition of the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh. An elegant, endlessly patient man, he steers our group through the mysterious chaos of this complex country while telling the story of the living Buddha who walked here. Shantum’s bemused love affair with his own India shines through in his every interaction with it. “It’s not important what you do, but who you are,” he says, impish dark eyes glittering over a gentle grin. “It’s a miracle that it works.”


This is a squalid place, often revolting in its filth and detritus and the people scratching out a meager, crowded existence. I can’t help but wonder how so many can live together in such relative harmony. But that must be my own western conceit, because why do swarms of smiling, happy children crowd around us at every stop? How can shopkeepers in such makeshift booths make a living? Why aren’t they all beat down miserable?

My fellow pilgrims come from all over America; California, Texas, Utah, New York, and elsewhere. An arduous trip by western standards, it bonds us to a shared experience. We’re all holding up quite well, various ailments notwithstanding.

Stephen and Martine Batchelor help Shantum lead the group in the tour and the teachings. Martine, a former nun in the Korean tradition and author of a number of Buddhist works, dispenses her spiritual ministrations, not to mention her scheduling suggestions, with clarifying certainty. Martine leads our meditation sessions (which for our group can happen anytime, even rockin’ and rollin’ on the bus), and she’s delightfully direct and exquisitely funny when mirth sends her high chuckle into a Gallic growl.

Stephen’s smile hangs easily on his face. He is unhurried, deliberate, even-paced. His keen wit and intellectual lucidity commands a vast body of scholarship, from the Pali canon to 20th century existentialism. He unwraps Buddhism using a scientist’s logic, unrolling his sentences with droll aplomb and lyrical dexterity. When he says, “Buddhism is something you do, not something you believe in,” it resonates.

At each stop and after Shantum tells its story, Stephen helps strip away the allegory obscuring its historical and political context. As the sun sets on Vulture Peak and village fires twinkle in the hazy twilight below, Stephen riffs on the Heart Sutra. In the Bamboo Grove in Rajgir, he unravels the Buddha’s “soap opera” life and the political component to the Buddha’s “middle way.” Sitting snug inside the hotel on a chilly Nepalese night, the occasional scream of a jackal filtering through the stone walls, Stephen handles reincarnation theory deftly, turning this central tenet of Buddhism into a mere footnote of mild interest; and karma, its lock box, into a straightforward model for individual responsibility.

Some days we rest, meditate, or walk through ruins dating as early as 300 BC. Other days we ride the bus (or, rather, it rides us), for as long as 10-12 hours averaging at best 25 kilometers per hour. At every stop we climb down and a chorus of beggars humming like bees close in, angling for attention. Cow dung patties dry on sun-drenched brick walls, each a perfect circle carrying the imprint of the human hand that put it there.

From Rajgir to Bodh Gaya we follow a road along granite quarries below a tall jagged ridge line. Men, women, and children old enough to hold a hammer pound rock by hand into smaller chunks of gravel. Green fields of lentil and mustard stretch to a distant horizon. Cattle, pigs, roosters, hens, and children amble, squeal, crow, peck, and giggle amongst thatched huts, bodhi trees, and well basins.

In Bodh Gaya, we sit under the bodhi tree amid surging crowds, cacophony, and splendiferous statuary that saturates the Mahabodhi temple complex. Nearby, we cross the dry, wide riverbed of the Niranjana and trek several kilometers along rice paddies, climbing to the cave in the Dungasiri mountains where Buddha emerged to end his ascetic period. I sit on my mat high above the savannah, a sharp escarpment to my left. Gentle breeze. Bright sun. Hard rock. Soft mat. Clear mind. The beggars line the path below. Their hum and the wind-snapped prayer flags add to the discordant sound of India.

Inside the gates of the massive and beautiful ruins of Nalanda University, the center of Buddhist learning for 700 years beginning in the 5th Century AD, I sit on a rampart in a soft breeze, transfixed by the lone figure of a boy fishing the river rhythmically in the distance. Refreshed, I follow my fellow pilgrims outside to face the din of hawkers and beggars. I taste dung dust in the back of my throat. A bout with “Delhi belly” sphincters my tolerance; the fresh mountain air of my Virginia and the sweet taste of her clear water seem so far away right now.

And as the days go by, it becomes increasingly apparent that something is missing. Here in the birthplace of Buddhism, where are all the Buddhists?

For nearly 1,800 years after his death, Buddhism flourished in India, culminating in the magnificent Nalanda where thousands of monks studied and taught the dharma. But in the 12th century, invading armies destroyed this holy place, ripping the heart out of the tradition and leaving spectacular ruins that today only hint at its former grandeur. Without Nalanda, Buddhism withered in its native country. Today, it is all but forgotten.

Except for Bodh Gaya, Buddhist sites draw only modest crowds, often in spite of government efforts to boost them. In Lumbini, by most accounts the Buddha’s birthplace, a half-dozen nations working under UNESCO began constructing in the late 70s an international pilgrimage and tourism center using a “build it and they will come” approach. Only, they don’t.

Buddhist statuary appears haphazardly on the Gangetic plain, sometimes sitting lonely in a lentil field, sometimes housed in a makeshift shrine. Had the Buddha’s followers honored his wishes not to worship him as an icon, not even these modest shrines would mark his presence; just his teaching would remain, and only as a faint echo of chants heard from other parts of the world.

And my early worry is bearing out; I still can’t sense the Buddha. With the madness of India so much louder than its muffled reverence for him, and the scattered shrines bearing such forlorn witness, I haven’t been able to crack through the idolized facades that only hide him from me.

But then I do. He is here in the early morning quiet at Muktabandhana, the stupa housing his ashes. Mist shrouds its unadorned silhouette and limns its isolation. It whispers humility, transcendence, peace.

A lone monk emerges from the fog; just a man. Just like the Buddha.