Harnham Buddhist Monastery (Or, “What I did for my summer vacation”

For the last few months I’ve been back at Harnham Monastery, nestled in the gently rolling hills of Northumberland, England. Sheep and cows graze upon green fields, and the sun plays hide and seek between the clouds (mostly hiding). The monastery is smaller in space than other monasteries, and the area around it is quiet (except for the cows and sheep).

I came here to support a friend, but I’ve been supported here in learning much about myself and Buddhist practice. While there were no great bolts of insight, I did see into a few things in a slightly clearer manner.

First was dealing with loneliness. A lot of time to myself initially left me seeking distraction to fill the time alone. Theres not much distraction available at a monastery: No music, no tv, no eating after noon. I started doing a lot of walking. While this helped some (and also helped me lose ten pounds in the process), being with the loneliness, feeling it in the body and offering compassion seemed to help the most. I’m still learning.

It wasn’t all loneliness, and interactions with others became another practice. It’s funny how even platonic relationships can throw a mirror in your face and show you where your rough edges are. Previously unnoticed aspects of yourself and habits are revealed. “Really? Have I been doing that all along?” It’s a process that never ends, I think. 

Also was the realization that there is no ideal time in the future when I’m going to “really get on with my practice”. The time is now, and the practice is happening right now, whether I “really get down to it” or not. At least that’s the feeling I have these days. To paraphrase John Lennon, practice is happening while you’re busy planning your practice.

Yes, there were other lessons as well. Some I’m still processing, some personal, and some that just don’t lend themselves to being blog topics. For as much time as I spent here, I suppose this blog entry is pretty short. Much of what goes on at monasteries doesn’t seem exciting in the standards of the world outside, but I assure you it was time well spent.

So enjoy some of the pictures below, and may your own lessons continue in a beneficial way.

Swan on Bolam Lake



Yup. It’s a hedgehog. Apparently their population is dwindling, so I’m glad I got to meet one up close.


Barley close up
Barley harvesting

Out with a Bang

Before and after the trip to Wat Pah Nanachat, I spent two full days out and about in Bangkok. My hotel was convenient for getting to and from the airport, but not so much for to and from the main part of the city. That being said, it was easy to find my way around Bangkok by way of the metro system.

Like metros in other cities, Bangkok’s system has handy maps at the stations, and arrows all over to help you on your way. The cars are clean and the lines take you to most of the major tourist and other stops. Other than rush hour, it’s pretty uncrowded. During rush hour is every bit fitting of the image one can conjure of a crowded subway car. But in a humorous way, since the riders are able to go with the flow.

During one ride, I watched more and more people climb on. Those of us that were standing close smiled at each other, and although we didn’t speak, conversed with our eyes, saying “this is crazy, na?”. At each stop, it seemed like there was no way any more people could fit in the car. And then five more people squeezed in. Again at the next stop, and the next one. I never saw anyone stay behind at the station, saying “oh, forget it”.

As we piled out like lemmings, I made my way to the Grand Palace. Instead of one building, it’s a combination of more, and has been home to the successive kings there. It’s also the home to Wat Phra Kaew, where the emerald Buddha is kept. Sitting upon a giant dais, the emerald Buddha is actually made from Jade, and is 75cm high. No pictures are allowed inside the temple, but there is plenty to photograph outside.

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The highlight for me that day was Wat Pho, the home of the reclining Buddha. Perhaps it was the absence of crowds, but even though I enjoyed the palace, I enjoyed Wat Pho even more. It was a peaceful, beautiful place one could get lost in, filled with all the ornamental gold and building finery you could imagine.

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As evening drew near, I was on my way to the exit when I heard chanting. I went in the temple to discover about two dozen monks chanting parittas, aka blessing chants. I sat down and enjoyed the atmosphere for a while before twilight approached.

After I returned from Wat Pah Nanachat, I took the metro again to the river taxi, and rode along the river to the northern end of town for less than 20 Baht. There is a tourist boat that costs 150 Baht to hop on and off all day, or one can take a few individual trips. I went up and back, so it wasn’t worth paying for the tourist fee.

img_1552img_1554img_1584At the north end of town is an old fashioned market with all forms of food, clothing, and various trinkets. It wasn’t too crowded, and I really enjoyed wandering around, taking pictures of all the things for sale.

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“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

img_1604Looking for another similar market, I ended up in two rather upscale malls. While the malls were unique, I found the market experience much more agreeable.

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Sculpture outside the mall. Ummm….what?

The next day I relaxed at the hotel before going to the airport a bit early. Having waited all day in Indian train stations, waiting here was a breeze. Clean, quiet, and with lots of stores and restaurants, I had no difficulty just hanging out. Once I got through security and customs, I was amazed and even a bit overwhelmed with the number of shops available.

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Available at the airport: your very own monk bank

And thus began my 24hour trip to get home. I arrived two days ago, and am still a little jet lagged. But I must say it feels good to be back. I’ll be staying in rural Pennsylvania with my folks for a while, then staying at a monastery in Canada for a few months (yes, I’m going to freeze my….off). While I enjoyed this trip for the most part, it’s been a bit long. Traveling can be fun, but long haul travel is an excellent opportunity for seeing the value in putting down roots.

And so I will trust in the universe to show me where to plant myself.

Bodhgaya: The Beautiful

Over 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama came to Bodhgaya after several years of study under various teachers, and self practice with austerity. Realizing that the extreme austerity hadn’t brought him to the end of suffering, he recalled a time of peaceful meditation he had experienced as a child. He decided to return to that practice, and after meditating for some time under a local ficus tree, he experienced enlightenment. At that moment, he became the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.

Great Buddha Statue

While the original tree was destroyed, a cutting from it was planted in Sri Lanka. The large Bodhi Tree that stands today has grown from a cutting of that Sri Lankan tree, and spreads over peaceful grounds where visitors all over the world come to visit. There is a temple near the tree that was constructed in the 6th century, at the site of a previous temple that had been demolished. Various stupas surround the grounds, and offerings are placed around the complex. Monastics in various colors of robes sit and meditate, chant, circumambulate, and perform prostrations around the temple. While I was there, there were Buddhist monks from all over the world participating in chanting the original Buddhist teachings. It made for a lovely space to meditate in.


Chanting under the tree
Stupa near the temple

 
Outside the temple complex are international temples built in the style of the countries which built them. I visited a few, although the main draw for me was the main temple with the Bodhi tree. Some of the monasteries here are really amazing to see, and are quite ornate, complete with all the finery.

The Thai Temple:


Tibetan Temples:



Japanese Temple:

Thousands of people flock here to Bodhgaya, and especially at the main temple, the spirit of devotion is palpable. Bodhgaya is still probably my favorite of the Buddhist holy sites, and I’m quite content to just sit under the tree as well.

However, there is another side to Bodhgaya beyond the temple walls and the paved main streets. And that will be the subject of my next post.

Yoga Teacher Training Week Two, or, Monkey Mayhem

At the start of training I was a little self-conscious about being a beginner. That’s now gone. I’ve thrown the self consciousness into the Ganga-ji and embraced my beginner status. As a result, I’m learning more, and feel more motivated. And I’m also more likely to stay within the limits of this body and protect it from injuries. I’m still pushing myself, but am now more likely to say no when the body needs some slack.

We get a few hours of self study time in the middle of the day, and along with studying, we’ve been entertained by the resident monkeys. We’ve been warned not to feed them, but I think they’re quite used to humans and have lost their fear. This past week we were studying on our courtyard when the troupe arrived and started raiding the garbage can. It was all fun and games until they started coming towards us. My friend ran and a baby grabbed at her before she got away. Another came for me and I fended it off with a chair until they ran off. They’re not quite as cute as they used to be. 


The other highlight of the week was a trip to Vashistha cave. According to Hindu philosophy, Vashistha was the son of Brahman and one of the great Seven Sages. The cave is where he meditated, and is a short 25km away. So nearly 60 of us piled into jeeps and rode out to the cave. In smaller groups, we took turns meditating in the cave, and then we all went for an extended dip in the ice cold but clean Ganga. It was great to do here where the water is tuquoise and lovely, but I fear I don’t have the dedication to repeat today’s adventure farther downstream in Varanasi. Here it made for a lovely day, and a great outing with fellow classmates.

Return to Rishikesh 

I’m back in Rishikesh for a month of yoga teacher training, and have arrived a few days early to see (and hear!) Rishikesh in the midst of Diwali.

Diwali is celebrated over five days, with the third day being the main festival. Many homes have rangoli (colored sand decorations) on their doorsteps, and have colored lights strung up on their houses. On the third night, there are also candles put out both in homes and on the water.

I was able to watch some rangoli being made, and henna being applied during some celebrations at a local hostel. And there’s been no shortage of fireworks since I got here, going off all day long, but mostly at night. I rather feel sorry for the animals – it must be terrifying for them.

I’m studying at Shiva Yoga Peeth, which is nearly next door to the ashram I stayed in during my visit in August. Imagine my surprise then, when I checked in with some other women and they showed us our rooms – in that same ashram next door! Sadly, I don’t have a balcony like last time, but the actual rooms are nicer this time around. They’ve definitely spruced up the place!

If you’re interested in what the class entails, click here. I’m including some pictures of the ashram, and the general area, and will include more in later updates.

In the meantime, shanti, shanti, shanti.

Inside the Sant Seva ashram courtyard

My room. Pretty spacious for a room in an ashram.
The main yoga hall

Winding Roads and Dizzying Heights: Gangtok

From Darjeeling I took another very shared jeep to Gangtok with ten other passengers. Actually 11. In the row in front of me there was a cute, perhaps five year old girl who I think had recently learned the word “uncomfortable”. She said it a few times during the trip, with great relish, pronouncing every syllable. I must say it was well-applied. At least unlike her, I didn’t have to sit on anyone’s lap.

We climbed into Sikkhim on winding roads, stopping, starting, speeding up, slowing down, and breathing in diesel exhaust fumes all the while. One poor guy in the back row with me had to lean out the window to be sick. Note to readers: if you’re prone to getting carsick, this is NOT a ride you want to take without lots of Dramamine. I have to admit I was even starting to get a little claustrophobic, and was never so grateful as when I had to get out of the jeep to register as a foreigner at the border.

That being said, the ride was beautiful. A good portion of it was along a river and various bridges crossing over it. Sorry – I couldn’t get pictures. But the scenery was enjoyable.

Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, and is a small city in the hills. The main thoroughfare is MG Marg, short for Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a pedestrian-only strip lined with shops, restaurants and sweet stalls, and is quite the busy but charming place. 


In Sikkhim, foreigners need at least two members to a group and a tour guide to travel to the outer areas, which gets expensive quickly. The solo traveler’s best bet is to allow lots of time and keep checking in with various travel agencies to find groups to join. Well, the time factor played against me, but I did manage to join a couple going to Tsomgo lake.

Tsomgo (pronounced Changmu) lake is 36km northeast of Gangtok and at an elevation of 3780 meters. The lake isn’t very large, but the surrounding mountains, views, and quiet make it worth seeing. Plus if Gangtok isn’t cool enough, it’s much cooler at the lake. It was 7 degrees C when we were there (that’s 45F for the U.S. Readers). 


As an added bonus there were yaks. One can even ride a yak, but I was content to see them and to touch their wooly locks as they passed by.


Back in town I wandered up to a park aptly named “The ridge”, in which one has great views of the mountains from either side. Further along, while looking for one monastery, I ended up at another one, but no less beautiful. High on a hill, with colorful murals and prayer flags, Serajhe Dopheling Gonpa sat in serenity. I sat in the meditation hall and watched my breath to the sound of deep toned Tibetan chanting. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

Mahaballapuram in motion

I arrived at noon, checked into a great (and cheap) guesthouse, had lunch, and then managed to see the town and its main attractions before evening.

Mahaballapuram is a bit like Hampi in the miniature. It’s got giant boulders and ancient caves and architecture, and in addition a beach on the Bay of Bengal. It’s also known as “Backpakistan”, as it’s a popular destination for western tourists near Chennai. True to a tourist town, one can buy plenty of “Om wear”: shirts and pants in bright colors with Om symbols and ganeshas (than I’ve yet to see on someone who lives here). Also available are tourist items from toilet paper to trinkets. No shortage here.

Wandering away from the stores brings one to the archeological sites, which seem much more interesting. 

On the beach, there’s the aptly named Shore Temple representing Pallava kingdom architecture. It was built in the 8th century, and per Lonely Planet, “is the earliest free-standing stone temple in Tamil Nadu”.


South of town there are the Five Rathas: monolithic 7th century carved structures devoted to various Hindu gods.


On the west side one will find the majority of structures and carvings. The crown gem is Arjuna’s Penance, carved out on two massive boulders depicting both mythological and mundane scenes.


Back in town, the guest house I picked out was peaceful and tranquil, with basic rooms set around a lovely courtyard filled with trees and jasmine vines. Especially at night, the aroma of jasmine was heavenly.


And this marks the end of my time in Southern India. I’m glad I finally made it here. I would say that the people have been very friendly here as well, and it has had more of a laid back feel to it. Or maybe it’s the sight of all the coconut trees swaying in the wind. But anyway, it’s been an enjoyable visit. Tomorrow I fly back north. Way north. I’ll leave it as a surprise for now. Stay tuned and be well!