Westerners head to Asia to feed their souls

India, home to all the world’s major religions and a world centre of spiritualism, draws tens of thousands each year hoping to nourish their souls in ashrams and other retreats dotted around the country.

Hundreds gathered earlier this month in the small town of Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges for an international yoga festival set against the backdrop of the Himalayas.

The town, made famous by British rock group The Beatles who visited for meditation classes in 1968, teemed with Westerners along with long-haired yogis and gurus who led classes and gave advice on the importance of self-reflection.
“I came here to be near the source of spirituality,” Christel Pierron, a French yoga teacher based in Cape Cod in the United States, told AFP. “So many great yogis came here to meditate that it creates a sort of energy flow.”

The International Yoga Festival began in 1999 when about 50 enthusiasts visited. Now in its 12th…

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edition, more than 400 made their way to Rishikesh for a week of intensive classes from daybreak to sundown.

“With the stressful lives that we have in West, we need to look after our bodies and our souls,” said Pierron, adding that the next part of her trip would be a visit to see the Dalai Lama.

Dharamshala, the home in exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, is a pitstop for many tourists seeking more than the beaches and ancient palaces which are the staple fare for most holidaymakers in India.

Audiences with him can be arranged through his private office and his public teachings held at the main temple in the hill town draw large crowds of devoted monks and star-struck visitors.

The other place of pilgrimage for Buddhists is Bodh Gaya in the northern state of Bihar in India where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment.

Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, who runs one of the biggest meditation centres in India, the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, believes he knows why so many Westerners come to the country in search of the esoteric.

“Everyone comes because they need peace and happiness,” he told AFP. “Immediately, they get connected because Rishikesh is the birth place of yoga. Here you learn how to become noiseless.”

Hunger for the simple and the opportunity for introspection has spelt good business for Eric Grange, founder of Oasis Voyages, which sells itself as the only French agency specialised in “spiritual travel.”

“People are suffering from the loss of their reference points in a world that is not doing well,” he told AFP. “More and more, travellers no longer want to feed their digital camera, but feed their souls instead.

“Asia is the spiritual continent par excellence.”

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To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron: review

There is a telling moment in one of Colin Thubron’s early films. He is travelling with a BBC crew along the Silk Road in China when he professes that he is tired of filming and needs to be alone. He turns aside and enters the desert for a moment of meditation; a moment that is recorded by the film crew, who are presumably still beside him.

The tensions between Thubron’s natural tendency to solitude and the travel writer’s need to communicate and share experience are what give his books their strength. He is never garrulous and when he does reveal something about himself, the reader feels that these are confidences hard won.

Title: To a Mountain in Tibet
Author: Colin Thubron
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 9780060959296
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

To a Mountain in Tibet is one of his most personal books. He sets off towards Mount Kailas, the mystical peak in Tibet close to the borders with Nepal and India. For centuries, Hindus, Buddhists and their predecessors, the Bon, have worshipped this mountain, which lies remarkably close to the sources of all four major rivers of the subcontinent: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Indus. Emerging abruptly from the flat western Tibetan plateau, over 1,000 miles from Lhasa, it is an iconic mountain of spiritual purity.

No one has ever climbed it – although Reinhold Messner made an attempt in the Eighties but was frustrated by Chinese intransigence. Instead, the devotees who come here circle around the mountain in what must be one of the toughest pilgrimages in the world, crossing a pass at 18,600ft and often enduring severe…

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altitude sickness.

Those who come from lowland southern India are often the worst affected, sold cheap trekking tickets by unscrupulous tour operators who make no attempt to give them the time to acclimatise properly. Thubron has a moving passage in which he describes meeting a group of these frustrated…

Hindu pilgrims turning back in disappointment and despair from their failed attempt.

Just as with his earlier In Siberia, Thubron’s sparse, lean prose is admirably suited for describing the barren landscape around Kailas, lit up only by prayer flags. A few monasteries still survive after the Cultural Revolution; the Chinese now allow a limited number of pilgrims access to the mountain, but by no means make it easy.

Thubron is also the perfect guide to the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism and is honest enough to admit that its elaborate numerology and pantheon of demons can baffle the spiritual seeker from the West.

Like Robert Byron in the Thirties, who complained about the dirt and autocracy of Tibetan monasteries long before the Chinese invasion made such criticism less politically correct, Thubron is candid about the conditions he finds: what he describes as “the fantasy of Tibet” is not for him.

His own sympathy for solitude means he is well suited to meet the monks and isolated farmers who live in the valleys on the high approaches to Kailas. He draws them out with tact: the slow lives of those on the very edge of subsistence living in Himalayan villages “whose idyll is a mirage”.

Much of the history of Kailas has already been told by Charles Allen in his pioneering A Mountain in Tibet, whose title Thubron echoes. What this book adds is a vivid sense of what it is actually like to be a pilgrim on the route – a journey that Thubron characteristically makes mainly on his own.

Thubron is now in his seventies and undertakes this arduous trek in a quintessentially English way, with few complaints and much tolerant good humour.

This is above all a story in which the author movingly reveals his reasons – indeed his need – to make the pilgrimage after deaths in his family have left him the only surviving member. Given that Thubron has shown himself over a lifetime’s work to be our finest modern chronicler of Asia, having covered great sweeps of it from China to Russia, it seems fitting that what is as much memoir as travel book should have as its setting the greatest spiritual pilgrimage the East has to offer.

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Monk’s enlightenment begins with a marathon walk

Anyone who has run a marathon knows that feats of endurance require mental discipline — a way to fuse mind, body and spirit. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, a monk at a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan has walked a great distance — roughly the equivalent of the Earth’s circumference — as a form of physical and spiritual exercise.

On the side of Mount Hiei, overlooking the ancient capital of Kyoto, the wind whistles around a part of the Enryaku-ji temple complex. Inside, a small congregation of Buddhists recites sutras.

Leading the service is 34-year-old Zen monk Endo Mitsunaga, who manages one of the temples in the complex. His hands flow powerfully and precisely as he wields ritual prayer objects and executes a series of mudras, or hand gestures, used in prayer and meditation.

Last fall, Mitsunaga became the 13th monk since World War II to complete the Sennichi Kaihogyo, 1,000 days of walking meditation and prayer over a seven-year period around Mount Hiei. He walked 26 miles a day for periods of either 100 or 200 consecutive days — a total distance about the same as walking around the Earth.

A Circular Pilgrimage

In his living quarters, Mitsunaga kneels on the tatami floor mat and pours green tea. Walking meditation is like sitting meditation, he explains. The participant must maintain a calm mind, good posture and steady breathing.

“As we walk, we recite the mantra of the Immovable Wisdom King, our principal deity,” Mitsunaga says. “We’re not supposed to be out of breath when we walk uphill. By reciting the mantra, we can first control our breathing and then control our mind.”

Fudo Myo-o, the Immovable Wisdom King, is an important figure in Japanese Buddhism. He is a wrathful-looking guardian spirit sitting amid flames, dressed in rags, and holding a sword and rope.

On his walks, Mitsunaga carries a fan and a rosary, representing the sword and rope. He dresses in white, the color of death in Japan. On his feet, he wears only straw sandals.

Robert Rhodes, an expert on Japanese Buddhism at Otani University in Kyoto, says the Kaihogyo tradition is unique because it takes a tradition of spiritual retreats in the mountains and turns it into a sort of circular pilgrimage.

“The people who are doing the Kaihogyo are not just walking around the mountains,” he says. “They’re actually doing a pilgrimage and giving prayers at … about 260 places on the mountain.”

The Kaihogyo is often described as an ascetic practice. Mitsunaga says it’s really not that hard. A lot of it is just learning to manage time.

“My walking prayers take up less than half of the day,” he points out. “Anyone can do that. But the rest of my daily routine is also a part of my spiritual practice. I have to take care of the whole temple by myself, and it can take forever. If I don’t do things quickly, I get no sleep.”

During the Kaihogyo training, Mitsunaga got up at 12:30 a.m. and walked from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. Monastic routines and household chores took up the rest of the day. He slept for 4 1/2 hours a night.

Death Of The Old Self

After 700 days, the Kaihogyo practitioner faces what Mitsunaga calls an exam. He enters a hall and prays nonstop for nine days, without eating, drinking, sleeping or even lying down. It’s a near-death experience, the monk says.

“Put simply, you just have to give up everything and pray to the Immovable Wisdom King,” he says. “By doing this, he may recognize you and allow you to live for nine days.”

The practitioner interrupts his prayers every night to come to a small fountain and get an offering of water for Fudo Myo-o. Toward the end of the nine days, the practitioner is so weak, he must be supported by fellow monks.

Finally, his old self dies, at least figuratively, and he is reborn to help and lead all beings to enlightenment.

Mitsunaga pauses, struggling to find the words to describe his transcendental experience. Finally, he says that his fast helped him realize this: He is interconnected with everything else; independence is simply an illusion.

“Everybody thinks they’re living on their own without help from others,” Mitsunaga says. “This is not possible. I really think that others have done something for me, and I have a feeling of gratefulness to other people.”

Training Yourself To Help Others

One lesson of the Kaihogyo is that in order to help others, you have to first train yourself. Rhodes says that dividing the Kaihogyo’s 1,000 days into 700- and 300-day phases is a way to determine how much time to devote to cultivating yourself and how much to spend to helping others. He says the 70-30 split is based on the different stages of becoming a Buddha — of which there are 10.

“The first seven are working for your own benefit, cultivating your own mental attitudes,” Rhodes explains. “And from the seventh, eighth and ninth stages, you’re not only working for yourself, but you’re working for everyone else as well.”

Now, Mitsunaga spends most of his time training younger monks and tending to the spiritual needs of his small and mostly middle-aged or elderly congregation.

After the service, a woman in the congregation remarks that in her frenetic life, moments when she can attain stillness are few and fleeting. But Mitsunaga’s whole life, she says, just seems like a continuous state of pure mind. She says she learns this and so much more just from watching him move.

[via Vermont Public Radio]
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