In the Buddha's Footsteps

By Shantum Seth Thich Nhat Hanh, along with 12 monks and nuns from Plum Village and friends from the U.S. , Europe, and Australia, spent three weeks in February and March traveling through India and visiting many important sites of the Buddha's life.

On February 18, the group's first evening in New Delhi, the Attorney General of India, Mr. Ashok Desai, released the Hindi translations of Old Path White Clouds Our, Appointment with Life, Cultivating the Mind of Love, and The Stone Boy at a well-attended press conference. Nearly 20 newspapers and some television channels carried news reports of Thay's visit.

Thay and the Sangha visited our home in Noida the next day for a wonderful silent lunch in the garden with family and friends who helped to organize the trip . This is a lovely time of the year in Delhi and roses, poppies, larkspurs, dahlias, calendulas, and marigolds were all blossoming. On the morning of February 20, we vis ited the Jain Bird Hospital in Old Delhi. Although the Buddha and Mahavir, the founder of Jainism, were contemporaries and preached in the same areas, there has been some unease between the two communities for 2,500 years. Thay's visit was a symbolic healing, and the managers and doctors were very welcoming. After giving some medicine to a bird who had problems with its eyes, Thay and the other monks and nuns released birds that had been healed at the hospital.

That afternoon, Thay met with the Vice President of India, Mr. K.R. Narayanan. The scheduled 20-minute meeting extended to over an hour. It was the opening day of the budget session of Parliament and the Vice President is the Speaker of the Upper House, so Thay thanked Mr. Narayanan for meeting on such a busy day . The Vice President said he was always happy to make time to meet monks. Thay offered constructive and practical suggestions on how the affairs of Parliament may be conducted in greater harmony, and the Vice President was keen that he come back to India to address the Parliamentarians. Consequent to their meeting, the Vice President set up an Ethics Committee in Parliament.

Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and Sister Jina had dinner that evening with the Attorney General, who has been influenced by Thay's books for a few years. Thay also met with other respected leaders including Ms. Kapila Vatsayyan, the Director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the President of the India International Centre.

The following morning, the monks and nuns visited the Vasant Valley School, where they had lunch with the teachers and spent time talking with the children and teaching them songs and basic meditation. The children were enchanted and loved the nuns and monks. One man came for the Day of Mindfulness because his son was so happy after meeting with the monks and nuns. That evening, Thay gave a talk on "Worlds in Harmony" to a full house at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundati on, one of the most presti gio us institutes in India.

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On a beautiful Saturday morning, Tibet House organised a practice instruction at Buddha Jayanti Park. Flowers lined our walki ng path, and then we sat under a tree fo r questions and answers. In the afternoon, Professor Ramachandra Chandra Gandhi , the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, introduced Thay at the India International Centre. The lawns were filled with over 1,200 people. Thuy spoke about "Walking Lightly," the four mantras, and the relationship between father and son.

Three hundred people attended a Day of Mindfulness on Sunday, February 23, at a beautiful park and home of a local Jain patron at the Sanskriti Kendra. Thuy spoke about relationships. Sister Chan Khong led deep relaxation and "Touching the Earth," and we enjoyed a kino meditation (a kino is a cross between a tangerine and an orange). The day ended with questions and answers. The practice and walking mll1dfully touched everyone, and the usual Delhi pace had slowed down perceptibly.

Early the next morning, 29 o f us new to Patna and then were driven to Bodh Gaya. In good Bihari style there was a banner across the road we lcoming "Thich Nhat Hanh and friends." As we sat under the Bodhi tree the next morning, Thay offered the tree and the Buddha copies of the Hindi and English version s of Old Path White Clollds. We chanted and sat in silence while pilgrims from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Japan, and other countries recited sutras in their own languages and Hindi film music blared from across the street. The tree has been dressed up with many pieces of cloth as has the diamond seat, which has a gold canopy on it protected by plastic. Thay commented that this was so different from nine years ago when he visited and there was no decoration. We walked mindfully around the temple complex and then went across the Neranjara River to the village of Sujata and Svasti. We met the Headman of the village and Thay presented translations of Old Path White Clouds to the village library and school. One of the school teachers read a passage from the Hindi book telling stories of the village children 2,500 years ago when they met Buddha. In the afternoon, Thay gave a talk, 'The Earth as Witness," at the Mahabodhi Society Hall. The next morning, after another lovely dawn sitting under the Bodhi tree, we left for Rajgir.

Before sunrise the next day, we climbed Vulture Peak, the Buddha's favorite meditation place, and spent the whole day on the hill. Thay gave a Dharma talk, we ate lunch, then some of us rested on the hillsides and others of us in the caves of Ananda and Shariputra. In the early evening, the nuns and monks shaved their heads just as Sisters Chan Khong, Annabel, and Chan Vi had done nine years earlier when they were first ordained. After watching the sun set, we walked down the path that had been built 2,500 years ago by King Bimbisara when he wanted to visit the Buddha. Sister Chan Khong and the nuns cooked a wonderful dinner. Only the most enthusiastic nuns and monks went up for the sunrise at Vulture Peak the next morning.

We ate our breakfast at the Bamboo Grove, the first land given to the Sangha, and heard stories about the Buddha's life, the visit of Anathapindika, and how Shariputra came to join the Buddha. The children who were begging here soon became friends with Thay's gentle handling. He held their hands and slowly they relaxed. Later he and the others played games with the children by the Karanda Lake, and then we all ate lunch together. The children, who had been begging and grabbing only a short while before, passed food to each other with great dignity. After lunch we drove through mustard fields and mango trees to the remains of the famous monastic university at Nalanda, where the Mahayana school developed.

The next day we flew to Calcutta. Thay gave a touching talk at a large Hindu temple and visited the local market. In the evening, over 100 of us shared a silent meal. We ate slowly, enjoying many new tastes and textures.

On Monday, March 3, we boarded the flight for Madras, now known as Chennai. This beautiful land, with many old trees by the coast, was a perfect setting for a five-day retreat. Thay gave a talk every morning. In the afternoons, we had Dharma discussions, tea meditation, total relaxation, and "Touching the Earth." After dinner, we enjoyed presentations and sitting before going to sleep. Some of our morning sittings were at the beach where we watched as the sun rose over the ocean and the fisherman went out to bring in their catch. Flowers and leaves fell at our feet as we took our steps on the earth during walking meditation. On the last day, over 40 people took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and decided to continue to practise with a Sangha in Chennail Madras. Thay gave two well-attended public talks before catching the flight back to Delhi, where there was another packed press conference for the release of some audiotapes and two more books, including Being Peace. On the last evening in Delhi, our traveling Sangha had a closing circle and many recited insight poems.

Thay won the hearts of many people in India and offered his help in practical ways. We continue to hear stories of how people are putting into practice what they heard, and over 40 came to our first Sangha meeting in Delhi on March 16. At the first press conference, Thay had introduced himself as a son of India and said that his spiritual ancestor was the Buddha. We felt that Thay was very happy to be in India, and we would be happy to welcome him any time to come back and make his home here as his ancestors did.

Shantum Seth, True Path, organized Thay's visit in India and leads pilgrimages to sacred sites of the Buddha's life in India and Nepal. He is the coordinator of all inter-regional United Nations program/or artisan support.

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