Nov 072017
 

Bits and Pieces of Sarnath
November 2017

I had the chance to head into Varanasi and go to the Kriti Art Gallery. It is owned by Navneet and his wife Petra. I had met Navneet at the chanting ceremony, but this was the first chance I had to meet Petra as she had been traveling.

Navmeet runs an intern program for you artists. That is Navmeet on the right and one of his students from New Hampshire on the left.

Navneet runs an intern program for young artists. That is Navmeet on the right and one of his students from New Hampshire on the left.

They are a fascinating couple. Navneet regaled me with stories of leaving the fast pace of the investment banking world and joining the art world to open a gallery and how much he had to learn to make the switch.

He introduced me to an amazing number of Indian photographers through the books in his collection. It was very eye opening and such a pleasure to learn from such a passionate person. Navneet has ties all over the world, helping people create items in India, in particular, weavings. I bought a gorgeous scarf from him that had been made for a William Morris show at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

He had also worked on the Ramayana project that resulted in a boxed volume of books that would take your breath away. I am linking to them for your pleasure, should you be interested. Navneet was one of the researchers on the project, and his stories of begging private collections to share their treasures were hysterical.

A giant Buddha in Sarnath

A giant Buddha in Sarnath

My phone rang and Wangmo asked me to have the SINI driver take me to a building in town to photograph for possible use in the future.

As we were driving downtown Sarnath I saw this sign Buddha Theme Park and laughed, well, you guessed it, that was the building I was sent to photograph.

The best part was the drive back, the driver was so kind and indulged me in the old “OH STOP” as I jump out and take pictures.

A plastic version of Buddha and 5 disciples

A plastic version of Buddha and 5 disciples

There is so much “commercial Buddhism” in Sarnath put up by the various temples of the various countries, and a Giant Buddha is just one of them.

The thing that excited me was the Chaukandi Stupa. I had read about it but had never had an opportunity to actually lay eyes on it.

The Chaukhandi Stupa

The Chaukhandi Stupa

The Chaukhandi Stupa is thought originally to have been built as a terraced temple during the Gupta period between the 4th and 6th centuries to mark the site where Lord Buddha and his first disciples met traveling from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath. Later Govardhan, the son of a Raja, modified the stupa to its present shape by building the octagonal tower to commemorate the visit of Humayun, the powerful Mughal ruler.

Nov 062017
 

Sarnath and SINI
November 2017

We are staying at the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute.

The classrooms and lecture hall

The classrooms and lecture hall

SINI is an amazing complex built brick by brick, literally, by a handful of volunteers.

While the final product is the result of hundreds of people it was driven by one powerful and stunning woman, Tsering Gellek, Tsering (think Serene) is the leader, but more importantly the heart of what you see and feel here.

The Monks Dorms

The Monks Dorms

SINI has four buildings, the temple, the school, and then two wings of boarding. One for volunteers, and guests and the other for the monks that board here on a three-year program.

SINI has many purposes, but the one that I related to best is the English for Dharma purpose.

This program is a three-year long program, for both students and teachers and designed to provide students from Tibetan monasteries with complete English language immersion both residentially and academically.

These monks sit daily with the staff not only in classrooms but in the dining hall and out and about on field trips or daily errands into town.

The woman in red is Tsering, the woman next to her is photographer and India/San Francisco resident Briana Blasko and the woman in green is the head of LBDFI, Wangmo Dixey

The woman in red is Tsering, the woman next to her is professional photographer and India/San Francisco resident Briana Blasko and the woman in green is the head of LBDFI, Wangmo Dixey

This is where I ran straight into a western prejudice and more importantly a western privileged way of thinking.

When in Tibet, these monks learn by rote. They can recite the sutras beautifully in their own native language, and then many can continue to do so in Sanskrit and/or Pali, but that is where we diverge radically.

When you are taught by rote, you know the words, but do you know the actual meaning of the words? Do you understand what is behind the words that you speak?

When you learn by rote, do you understand that to question is the greater path to learning?

When you learn by rote do you really learn anything at all?

I have spoken to the teachers about how rewarding and yet difficult it is to teach in these circumstances.

This is NOT a discussion on the students, this is a discussion on the concept of learning and how we are taught effects what we are taught.

Khyenrab Wozher and me

Khyenrab Wozher and me

This is Khyenrab Wozher. Last night he asked what state in the United States I was from, and I told him California.

He instantly said Fire! We are just coming off of the worst fires in Northern California where so many people in the Sonoma/Napa area lost their homes and some their lives.

Khyenrab knew of the fires because they had held a prayer session during the fires, he then insisted that since I was from the area and could smell the smoke that I was very brave to have been in such a dangerous situation.

I attempted to explain that I lived far away but he still was very concerned.

We then had a discussion of the how and why of fire. It is difficult to explain to someone that comes from an area where underbrush is not the most prevalent part of your forest system, and where dryness is the definitely not the norm how a small fire can become a raging fire in just moments. Khyenrab spent a lot of time questioning me and trying to learn.

He asked, what kills fire? I tried to explain that water kills fire, but then one must explain the concept of giant fire hoses and even the idea that airplanes can drop water from the sky. If you had a video it would be simple, but over the dinner table, it is an entirely different skill set for both of us to understand each other.

I was so heartened by his kindness and moved by his intense desire to learn.

One source of income is the tailor shop. The make pillows and mats for prayer halls and many many other beautiful things.

One source of income is the tailor shop. They make pillows and mats for prayer halls and many many other beautiful things.

SINI is a very special place and my hats are off to each and everyone one that is here, out of the kindness of their hearts, to better the lives of others through their contributions of time and love.

My special thanks to Renatta for sharing her room, her knowledge and her kindness, to Patricia for her eagerness to help me understand the learning process at SINI, to Doug for his laughter and to Andy for his downright American wholesomeness and joy and Todd for helping me teach about fire.

Papaya was in season, and I did not get enough

Papaya was in season, and I did not get enough

They grow a lot of their own food at SINI

They grow a lot of their own food at SINI

The laundry service showed up as I was walking out the door.

The laundry service showed up as I was walking out the door.

Nov 052017
 

Sarnath Day 2
November 2017

Day two was a day of fun and relaxation. We rose at 5:00 in the morning to go for a river ride on the Ganges. I have done this trip before and if you are interested in photos and history please click here. This trip was all about the monks.

Ganges RiverIt started out quietly, the Ganges is foggy and smoggy in the morning, and the beggars are intense, so if you are not used to morning on the Ganges it can be intimidating.

We boarded two boats and headed out into the fog with the motors roaring loudly in a put-put kind of way.

The GangesIt is a long slow saunter down river passing many sites not usual to the western eye. It is very common for people to bathe in the Ganges and that is the hardest to understand when you look down and see how terribly polluted the river is.

Laundry on the GangesThere is the launderer’s, not only the men beating the laundry on stones in the river but the clothes and sheets spread out to dry.

Then, of course, there is the reason for present-day Varanasi, it is one of the most prominent sites for cremation. Varanasi is the place every Hindu hopes to be when he or she dies so they can escape the cycle of rebirth and death. If a person dies in the Ganges or has Ganges water sprinkled on them as they breathe their last breath it is believed they will achieve absolute salvation. I never photograph the cremation sites as I believe they are holy and should be honored when the boat passes by.

Grafitti on the GangesI instead love to find the graffiti, there is no graffiti in India to speak of, so to capture it along the Ganges is fun.

Tea consists of nothing more than fresh squeezed lime and masala. It was absolutely delicious

Tea is poured over fresh squeezed lime and masala. It was absolutely delicious

By the time we stop for tea we are intermingling a little bit more than when we started, but a turn to the other shore changes it all.

We get off on the other shore and there we put our toes in the sand, but more importantly, there are camels and horses for riding.

This may be the first time some have seen a camel, and two took rides, THAT is what really broke the ice. When we returned to the boats I instantly saw those that did have English begin to introduce themselves to others they did not know and strike up conversations.

 

There wasn’t a sea change, but it was a start.

prayer candlesWhen on the Ganges you can buy small candles, surrounded by flowers to place in the river to carry your prayers. The monks chanted, and we all placed our candles into the water.

candles in the riverThe monks then practiced a “Life Releasing Ritual” which involves releasing fish, (purchased onshore), into the Ganges. The main purpose of this practice is to save lives that are in danger and to pray for their ultimate Enlightenment as well as for that of all sentient beings.

fishAfter lunch we visited the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara Monastery I don’t know if this was an auspicious day due to the full moon, or they open the relic room once a week, but we had a chance to enter the relic room and gaze at a “piece” of the Buddha. I am rather certain there are as many parts of the Buddha around the world as there are parts of Christ.

Relics
The joy of traveling with the monks is we cut in front of the line, it appeared people had been waiting up to an hour to get in to see the relic.

The Tipitaka Ceremony in Sarnath was aided by two Buddhist communities in Sarnath, so the afternoon was spent visiting their temples and offering them rice and oil to thank them for their help. One was a Thai temple and the other a local Indian temple.

Giving gifts of thanks to the Thai Temple

Giving gifts of thanks to the Thai Temple

Giving thanks at the local Indian Temple

Giving thanks at the local Indian Temple

At the Thai temple, I saw a very small building set on stilts, I asked one of the monks what it was (after he had peeked in the door). He said it was a monks room, and how this is what they should be like. He commented how time had given monks many advantages, I don’t think he wanted his small luxuries taken away, but he did acknowledge that they no longer lived as spartan as the Buddha.

A monks room at the Thai Temple

A monks room at the Thai Temple

The evening wrapped up back at SINI with an incredible ceremony consisting first of a female chanter, chanting in the temple, followed by a sitar concert in the outdoor courtyard.

The Temple at SINI

The Temple at SINI.  The walls are completely covered with murals by Kaveri Singh.  Each tree is different and represents a period in Buddha’s life.

An amazing cultural day filled with very surprising moments.

Everywhere we go there are more cameras than you can imagine, and the words GROUP PHOTO are uttered constantly

Everywhere we go there are more cameras than you can imagine, and the words GROUP PHOTO are uttered constantly

When I took the above photos I said 1-2-3 and then said they must all teach me 1-2-3 in their language.  So far I have learned it in Burmese and Thai, fortunately, Hindi is similar to Thai.  I am trying to learn one word a day in one of the three languages, my brain is mush already and I only have numbers done at this point. – Wrapping my tongue around southeast Asian languages is a real challenge.

At the Indian Temple the monks explained to me how there is one of these gongs in every temple, and they demonstrated how they hit it with their fist

At the Indian Temple, the monks explained to me how there is one of these gongs in every temple, and they demonstrated how they hit it with their fist

Birdhouses along the Ganges

Birdhouses along the Ganges

I found it fascinating that a beggar would ask a monk for money

I found it fascinating that a beggar would ask a monk for money

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Nov 042017
 
The day begins with a walk from SINI to the Stupa. The Chatra (umbrella) and the Buddha, as well as Buddha's words are all carried with reverence and respect to the ceremony.

The day begins with a walk from SINI to the Stupa. The Chatra (umbrella) and the Buddha, as well as Buddha’s words, are all carried with reverence and respect to the ceremony.

Day one in Sarnath was spent chanting the Dhammachakka Sutra in the shadow of the Damekh Stupa, where it is thought Buddha delivered his second sermon.

Walking through the town of Sarnath to the Stupa

Walking through the town of Sarnath to the Stupa

On day one we were very separate groups all divided by language with only the common thread of any group that has just been thrust together.

Lay people carrying the words of Buddha

Lay people carrying the words of Buddha

The morning opened with a gathering in the courtyard of Sarnath International Nyingma Institute for a walk to the Stupa. The monks gather, wrap the words of Buddha in golden cloth and carry them to the site proceeded by the umbrella, another sign of the Buddha.

The Dharma Wheel, the words of Buddha and much more

The Dharma Wheel, the words of Buddha and much more

The site is decorated with the Wheel of Dharma, or the Wheel of Knowledge, flowers, especially the lotus; a symbol of Buddha, water (a typical Tibetan offering) and then the statue of Buddha and the holy texts.

Tipitaka Chanting

Lunch is graciously provided for all the monks and lay people by the local Buddhist community

Lunch is graciously provided for all the monks and lay people by the local Buddhist community

The Chanting covers the entire day, with a break for lunch. There were over 500 monks and lay people at the event for the day, a feat for all involved to carry off not just the crowd at the site, but lunch and tea as well.

dsc_3784The evening ended with a Dharma talk explaining the Buddhist Monk’s summer retreat. It was given in English as best the students could, with a constant pressing by the moderator to ask questions at the break of each speaker. It was difficult for me to understand the whole lecture due to the heavy accent and language difficulty, but it was fascinating to sit in a room and learn a small amount of information.  I can not imagine how difficult it was for the monks that have very little English, but that is all part of this experience.

The monks in attendance

A few of the monks in attendance

Monks and lay people, my camera lens was not big enough to capture all of the attendees, this is just one third.

Monks and lay people, my camera lens was not big enough to capture all of the attendees, this is just one third.

The nuns of the group

Nuns also participate in the chanting

As the began to set the green parrots, known throughout India, began to cover the Stupa

As the sun began to set the green parrots, known throughout India, began to cover the Stupa

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The Buddhist flags, and the young man charged with their care.

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I am not sure I will ever get used to monks on cellphones