Some brief highlights of the trip:
My trip to India took me to Varanasi, known as "City of Light," and one of the most important towns for Hindu pilgrims who come to bathe in the sacred Ganges River. Rowing along the river awaiting the sunrise was a perfect way to greet the magnificence of a new day coming alive.
In Sarnath, we spent the day at Deer Park where the Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment to the five ascetics with whom he had practiced. He gave a teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path and his five fellow seekers became the first monks of his order. We circumambulated the Dhamekh Stupa and saw statues and pillars dating back to the 5th century BC, along with remains of monasteries from the 3rd century BC. This was on the day that I turned 50...
We went on to Bodh Gaya to the site where Siddhartha Gautama reached enlightenment while sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree and become known as the Buddha, which means "one who is awake." We spent time at the Bodhi Tree, the Mahabodhi Temple, and then hiked through mustard fields to the cave in Dungasiri Mountains where the ascetic monk Siddhartha practiced severe austerities while searching for a way to reach enlightenment. In that same cave, we sat in meditation.
We moved on to Rajgir, where we meditated and had a teaching in the bamboo grove that was given to the Buddha by King Bimbisara, and where the first Buddhist monastery was established. We hiked up Gridhakuta hill to Vulture Peak at sunset, enjoying meditation and the reading of the Heart Sutra, relishing the space and beauty which the Buddha also loved. We visited the Monastic University of Nalanda, which was the major center of learning from the 5th to the 12th century AD.
In Kushinagar, we spent time in the Saal forest where the Buddha died and attained Mahaparinirvana at the age of eighty. We viewed the large golden statue of the the reclining Buddha at the Nirvana Temple, and saw the Nirvana stupa built over the spot where the Buddha died along with the Makutabandhana Stupa marking the Buddha's cremation.
We spent time in Kapilavastu where Prince Siddhartha Gautama spent his first 29 years of life before leaving in search of a spiritual path. We explored the remains of townships and monasteries along with the Stupa where relics of the Buddha were found. A pond with lotus blossoms reminded me of the Tibetan mantra of compassion: Om Mani Padme Hum: The Jewel is in the Lotus.
We ended our pilgrimage in Sravasti, the ancient capital of the Koshala kingdom where the Buddha spent twenty-four rain retreats. Monkeys jumped around the Jetavana Park, which was given to the Buddha by the merchant Anathapinkika. We saw the Old Bodhi Tree where Anathapindika planted a sapling, along with remains of monasteries.
If you are interested in a pilgrimage to India, check out the following websites: