travel

“Pilgrimage to Anywhere,” by Rijumati Wallis

Pilgrimage to Anywhere

As winter grips the northern hemisphere, many imagine heading south to warmer places. In this book, those of us unable to make a physical journey beyond our routine, can still make a journey of mind and heart alongside Rijumati; asking challenging questions of ourselves even if our bodies recline in an armchair or browse in bed.

Buddhism is quintessentially a journey of the mind and heart: an invitation to refine and purify our thinking and emotion, wherever and whenever we can build this awareness. It’s an inner journey, yet the metaphor of the outer journey remains as powerful for Buddhists as it does in theistic faiths. Throughout Rijumati’s accessible and very readable book Pilgrimage to Anywhere, he models a Buddhist attitude to our mental states which offers a chance to move beyond our habitual sense of ourselves and to imagine how we might be otherwise.

For those with the spirit to move, pilgrimage is a reflexive appointment with our deeper selves and our highest aspirations. Yet our familiar, habitual selves must fall away for new insights to take root more firmly. As Rijumati writes in his chapter, Falling Apart in Ala Archa:

“There was part of me that didn’t despair; it knew that I was falling apart and that in a way it was a necessary evil. The stories I was telling myself about my journey, my identity and even my life were crumbling and the little mind that tries to hold it all together was losing control. But I caught a glimpse of something deeper, something more, something unnameable. The sense of death was very present. Without any great feeling of concern I thought ‘Perhaps I am going to die up here in the Ala Archa’. Or perhaps part of me was going to die.”

Title: Pilgrimage to Anywhere
Author: Rijumati Wallis
Publisher: John Hunt
ISBN: 978-1846946752
Available from: Amazon.co.uk paperback or Kindle, and Amazon.com paperback or Kindle.

Rijumati’s book – like the man himself – is ideal company on the journey. Warm, open, moderate and steadily questioning, he offers a window on his outer and inner journeys in a quest to re-discover a life of fuller meaning. The life he left in England, as an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, already involved steady self- questioning in his spiritual practise, but the time came when, perhaps even surprising himself, he asks: “Why was I undertaking this journey, what was I doing with my life, who was I now apart from all I had left behind?”

I ought to declare an interest. Rijumati is a friend for many years. I even spent a couple of days on the traditional pilgrimage trail in India. I’d been robbed in the badlands of Bihar and left only with what I wore. Fortunately, I heard that he and a group of pilgrims were due to arrive in Sravasti, home of Anathapindika’s park, where the Buddha spent over twenty rainy season retreats and gave key mindfulness teachings. I remember the moment when a bus arrived, and he tumbled from the dusty steps along with other friends and my own journey could resume. Pilgrimage to Anywhere offers further enjoyment of his company in this very readable account. His journey has a twin movement. It is both true to enough to honour his dissatisfactions with life in the UK, whilst being inspired to leave his daily routine and seek deeper answers.

On the road he is a pleasant companion but don’t underestimate the gentle tone. His quietly persistent questions return the attentive to the central quest of a spiritual journey. It is this attitude of mind, allied with the resonance of Buddhist traditions in many of the places visited, that gives depth to this necessarily aimless journey of experience and inquiry.

The Buddha (in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta) recommended ‘clansmen’ to visit the four principal sights. Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinara are joined here by Rajghir, Sravasti and Vaishali. Rijumati looks for resonances in the Buddha’s stories from these places and his own personal connection to the teachings like an impulse to use work as a way of being generous.

One of the joys of Pilgrimage to Anywhere, is the unorthodox track of Rijumati’s travels, from India, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Japan, Cuba and the USA, Rijumati’s wanderings turn on outer and inner journeys of land and spirit. He embraces experience, from falling in love to falling apart: navigating the mysteries of ferry and bus routes in unlikely places. From Lake Issyk Kul to Irkutsk, it is the journey of a man looking for new meaning:

“My voyage into the Unknown had inadvertently called into consciousness mighty untamed creatures of the Deep… I was on a pilgrimage to find myself”.

The ellipses of Rijumati’s itinerary take a scenic route to spiritual questions. Sticking to an inner principle of why he is making this journey keeps it distinct from tourism or holiday. “The pilgrim looks for a way to express delight at life’s mysteries and devotion to people and places worthy of reverence” he says.

Rijumati does not stick to a rigid pilgrim’s script. He notices what is happening in a travelling mind. It is not a journey of austerities and self-abnegation but (like the route of the journey itself) his reflections on spiritual development meander towards a broader goal. He rounds on consistent themes of happiness and exploration that refresh and build with a quiet persistence. If the existential questions are challenging, the practicalities of getting a bus ticket out of somewhere give him plenty of challenges to stay grounded. He says what he sees, however uncomfortable:

“At the temples of Koyasan and Eiheiji I was struck that in this faultlessly polite and welcoming country the only two places where I felt unwelcome were two of the holiest Buddhist sites”

The book is organised in short, bite-size chapters, with enough for travel enthusiasts and Buddhist pilgrims. In Takada, Japan, his own journey and those of lineage teachers inter-twine. “I was touched by the particulars of Shinran’s life: his courage in recreating himself after a spiritual crisis, his emphasis on surrender to the Buddha Amida and his abandonment of attempts to use self-power as a means of spiritual growth seemed to resonate with my own unfolding journey”.

At his London Buddhist Centre book launch, Rijumati says what every pilgrim will learn “Just visiting the places isn’t necessarily spiritually significant in any way – it’s about receptivity. The quality of pilgrimage is about opening yourself up to significance of what happened in these places.

In so doing, Rijumati describes himself as loosening the labels so often hung around us. He found himself less English than before; discovers some limits of a Eurocentric worldview and even embraces falling in love as going beyond the self. “We need a story to function in the world” he says “but any story can become a prison in the end. Letting these stories fall apart at the right time is essential.”

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“Zombies on Kilimanjaro,” by Tim Ward

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

‘”Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘snow-capped.’ But that’s just for the tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’”’

So begins Buddhist writer Tim Ward’s latest book, ‘Zombies on Kilimanjaro,’ an intriguingly and perhaps misleadingly titled memoir about climbing the highest freestanding mountain in the world with his 20-year-old son, Josh.

It’s a good beginning, plunging the reader straight into the ‘plot’ of this gentle travel narrative. Will father and son reach the top and will they reach it together? This question is both literal and metaphorical. Following Ward’s divorce from Josh’s mother, father and son have had a troubled relationship.

Ward’s description of the climb is very interesting. We travel in the company of guides and helpers, and meet some other climbers, some of whom reappear later on. Ward writes very well about the dramatic scenery and the physical effects of the climb on the body. He tells us something about climate change and its effect on the mountain.

There are also some wonderful reflections about his own father, and Ward is honest enough to show how he has inherited some of his father’s most difficult traits, and how these have affected his relationship with his own son.

So far, so good. But although the opening chapters of the book are gripping, a fatal flaw soon appears: a tendency to relay in direct dialogue things that would be better shown in the book’s action, or perhaps even omitted altogether.

Ward talks at length to Josh as they climb the mountain. What he says is interesting enough. He explains memes and makes some extremely courageous self-disclosures.

But the long, direct conversations come at a price. While they are taking place, the mountain disappears, Josh disappears and, ironically enough, the father-son relationship itself disappears. We are being told about events in the past instead of being allowed to witness how those events have informed the present and the living, breathing relationship between father and son now. Josh, largely relegated to the role of listener, becomes a shadowy figure. In contrast, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and how the father-son relationship is so strongly established despite minimal dialogue.

But there is certainly much to enjoy in this well-meaning and heartfelt memoir. A week after reading it, what remains with me is the compelling description of the final ascent to and descent from the peak, when there was no time or energy for conversation.

Tim Ward is the author of several well-regarded books on Buddhism and other subjects including the cult classic ‘What the Buddha Never Taught,’ an account of his experiences as a Theravadin monk in Thailand.

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Peace on the rocks: The Swami Vivekananda Memorial

wildmind meditation newsAgainst the backdrop of a tumultuous sea, the Vivekananda Memorial is an oasis of tranquility, says Ranjeni A Singh

The last few rocks of the Indian peninsula are special. It is where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet and merge, as though proclaiming India’s unity in diversity. Sanctified by Goddess Parvati’s footprints, the rocks now also symbolise the spirit of Swami Vivekananda, who, against all odds, ventured to create awareness of Hindu philosophy and ancient Indian culture wherever he went.

My trip to the southernmost tip of India was an unscheduled one but it turned out to be truly enriching. I was on a bus, travelling from Nagarcoil to Thiruvananthapuram, when an old friend called up to say she was in Kanyakumari and urged me to break my journey and join her. Since I had never been to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial before, I agreed.

Point of confluence
Kanyakumari and its surroundings are believed to be part of the land unearthed by Parasurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. I had heard that Kanyakumari signifies virginity of mind, body and soul. But the sight of crowds of tourists and noisy hawkers peddling seashells put me off. “This place is so commercial. How can anyone feel spiritually charged,” was my first reaction. “Relax! Be with yourself and forget the crowd. Try and experience the breeze, the mellow sun, the murmuring sea…” said Shanti, my friend. She was right. It took me just 30 minutes to feel what she said I would feel. It began to seep in — that Kanyakumari symbolises the confluence of not just the waters, but also the confluence of body, mind and soul…

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Next morning, we set out to witness the legendary sunrise. It was still dark. The cool air soothed and refreshed us as we sat there, waiting for the sun to show itself. And then we saw a red speck on the horizon. Everyone cheered as the Sun God emerged from the waters, now fully visible, a resplendent red. The waters turned crimson and for a moment, the dividing line between heaven and earth blurred. I have seen many sunrises but none as beautiful and relaxing as this! I am told that from atop a hill called Murugan Kundram, one can view both sunrise and sunset throughout the year.

Awakened soul
After a typical breakfast of masala dosai and kaapi (filtered coffee), we weave our way through a maze of shops selling seashells and more seashells, to reach the ferry that would take us to the Vivekananda Memorial, about 500 metres from the mainland. “Avar samiyar, avar neechal panni ponaru, unaku ellam thevai ille” — “He was an enlightened soul, so he could swim to the rocks. You don’t need to try to do that” — said the ferryman to a teenager who was bending over the railing of the ferry, poised as though he was about to jump into the water. He was right, it seemed impossible to negotiate the choppy waters — but Vivekananda had done just that in the December of 1892. His mid-sea meditation seems to have played a seminal role in his transformation from seeker to one of the greatest philosophers of the era. He dedicated most of his life trying to awaken the inner soul.

The idea of building the Vivekananda Memorial Rock temple was conceptualised by Eknath Ranade during Vivekananda’s birth centenary in 1962. The structure was completed in 1970. Its architecture is a blend of both traditional and contemporary Indian styles. We land on the rock after 10 minutes and take the flight of stairs to the huge, windy terrace. The view was fantastic — the end of the Indian sub-continent with fishing boats dotting the shores and the endless ocean on three sides. The waters appeared overpowering.

The rock has been venerated as a great place to meditate through the ages. It was originally known as Sripada Parai or Rock with Divine Footprint. According to legend, Devi Kumari, a manifestation of Goddess Parvati, stood on one leg in penance on this rock to get a beautiful husband, Shiva. The impression of her footprints can be seen through the glass enclosure.

In contrast
Inside the main Vivekananda Mandapam complex is an imposing statue of Swami Vivekananda. As I stepped inside after removing my shoes, suddenly everything was quiet. It seemed as if even the sea and wind had stopped roaring as if in deference to the monk’s presence. It did look as though the soul of this great philosopher was present inside the hall. Perhaps, empowered by the energy inside, many people were seated in meditation in front of the statue itself.

As you go farther and take a flight of steps down, you will enter a dark little room called the Dhyan Mandapam or meditation room. Inside a carpet is laid out for people to sit and meditate in front of an Aum symbol in fluorescent light — that compels you to focus. My eyes closed automatically to visualise the green Aum. I seemed to have lost all sense of time and space…but with my short attention span, I was soon back in my surroundings. Much as a part of me wished to sit there forever, there were other worldly engagements waiting that needed my attention.

Once I was outside, the contrast was stark — the intense and soothing quiet of the memorial’s Dhyan Mandapam and the loud crashing of waves against the rock face. Perhaps the thrashing waves are symbolic of our chaotic lives, and the need to maintain inner calm in the face of external disturbances, as was so evident in the meditation room.

[via Times of India]
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Burma: Bad government, great people

It’s not quite 5 a.m. as I push through the doors of the hotel and into the pre-dawn darkness of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. I am reminded by the nativity scene on the lawn in front of the hotel that it is almost Christmas. Though Burma (the ruling military junta would prefer it be called Myanmar) is 90 percent Buddhist there are still signs of Christianity and, therefore, Christmas as part of the legacy left behind by the British occupation before Burma’s independence in 1948.

Though it is winter in Burma, the daytime temps in Yangon will still push into the high 80’s or 90’s. At this hour, however, it is still relatively cool and I am surprised by the number of people out jogging, stretching, doing Tai Chi or, like me, headed to nearby Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most spectacular sites in the Buddhist world.

Over 12 acres in size, Shwedagon itself is a complex of temples and pavilions arranged around one central temple that is 322 feet in height and covered with gold. It is said that this central temple is covered with more gold than is in all of the vaults of the Bank of England. Images and statues of Buddhas and other religious figures number into the thousands. Nearly half of all visitors to Burma visit Shwedagon at least once during their stay in the country. To the Burmese, it is a place of great religious significance which most…

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Burmese will hope to visit at least once in their lifetime.

As I wait for the sun to rise, Shwedagon is a calm, serene place. Monks, nuns and lay people alike recite prayers, light candles or just sit in reverence in front of whichever Buddha or religious figure holds the most significance to them. Shwegadon is one of the first places where recently released pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was seen in public for the first time in seven years.

As I walk around Yangon it seems to me that Burma may be to Asia what Cuba is to Latin America and for many of the same reasons. One of the most corrupt and oppressive governments on earth and the economic sanctions against it by the U.S. and most countries in the West has retarded Burma’s economic growth.

Dilapidated buildings and vehicles are just some of the signs of British colonialism throughout Yangon and many other parts of Burma that create a feeling of melancholy in this otherwise lively city. Despite the brutality of its leaders, the Burmese people still exude a spirit that is largely rooted in their heritage as Buddhists.

Burma was first exposed to Buddhism in the 3rd century and its history is told even today by the incredible number of ancient and modern temples and monasteries found throughout this country comprised of over 60 cultural groups and sub-groups.

Nowhere in Burma is this history more evident than Bagan, which is home to more than 4,000 temples dating as far back as 1,000 years…all within an area just 25-square miles in size.

If you were to combine Tibet (monks and temples) with Hawaii (palm trees and papayas) and Moab (sandstone and red dirt) you would have a pretty good idea what Bagan is like.

Some temples and statues have been renovated. It is not, however, uncommon to come across statues and a few old wall frescoes that date back to the 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.

Some of the temples are massive and tower as much as 200 feet above the plains through which the Irrawadday River makes its way to the Andaman Sea. Many are much more modest. A variety of layouts and designs reflect different design influences that took place over approximately 300-400 years.

Around Bagan, horse carts and bicycle taxis transport locals and tourists alike. Most of the population resides in rudimentary structures made of thatched bamboo. Agriculture is the main livelihood.

Life is hard, yet the people exhibit a civility and modesty that is found in few other places.

Monks and nuns walk the streets and pathways in the early morning hours collecting alms. A newly opened meditation research center is testament to the spirituality and ethics that permeates daily life. Women and even some men wear a skin treatment made form the thanaka tree that is both decorative and a skin conditioner. Many men still wear longyi, a skirt-like garment.

Unfortunately, when speaking of Burma you cannot omit the element of fear and oppression that is also part of daily life. It may not be readily visible, yet it is there.

One business owner told me of a tour guide who was “taken away” for having been overheard speaking negatively about the ruling junta. His whereabouts is still unknown two years later.

Many say that encouragement by the government for people to openly participate in the democratic process is simply a way for the generals to more easily identify its foes.

The one institution that most Burmese put the most faith in is the monastic body of monks and nuns, of which there are over 500,000 residing in over 50,000 monasteries throughout the country.

It was monks that initiated the peaceful demonstrations in 2007 over a sudden doubling of gas prices by the government. The government responded with brutality by killing 31 and imprisoning nearly 3,000.

Paradoxically, Burma is also home to some of the most renown meditation schools in the world. At one time, the government even issued a special visa for meditation students.

As one author wrote about Tibet, the supreme irony for a culture in which compassion and kindness are valued above everything else is that it should be so easily dominated by brute force.

I hope that Burma finds a way to realize its true potential economically and spiritually. It is an incredible place to visit and one I hope to return to again.

For reference, the Lonely Planet guidebook on Myanmar gives a great overview of politics and religion in Burma. Also of interest is the NPR program “Speaking of Faith” from Nov. 1, 2007, called “Burma: Buddhism and Power.” Documentary film, “Burma VJ” available from Netflix. More photos at www.bobwinsett.com

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Julia Roberts’ new film inspires meditation tours to India

Julia Roberts much-anticipated new movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has inspired tour planners to offer a package that gives travellers a chance to dine in Italy, meditate in India and fall in love with Bali.

Roberts recreates author Elizabeth Gilbert’s year-long cultural and spiritual trip to India, Italy and Bali in the movie. And the film has inspired a large number of merchandise, which includes tie-in items from furnishings to jewellery.

Producers have given various companies rights to link new products to the film, which will release in August, reports the Daily Express.

Bosses at STA Tours will soon be offering the ‘Eat, Pray, Love Experience’ – the chance to dine in Italy, meditate in India and fall in love with Bali.

US chain Cost Plus will offer exclusive furnishings, replicas of those featured in the film, Dogeared jewellers are offering ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ bracelets and necklaces inspired by the film.

[via Indian Express]
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Get meditative with Korean Air

Maybe it’s because air travel has become so stressful: Korean Air is now offering meditation, chanting and a Buddhist temple sleepover as part of a new “Templestay” tour.

Korean Air and Hanjin Travel have teamed up to offer travelers a peek – the tour lasts 24 hours – into the traditional culture of Korean Buddhism and let them relax and rediscover their “true selves” amid peaceful surroundings.

Visitors will get tours of five Korean temples, live the strict life of a Buddhist monk — wakeup time is 4 a.m. sharp –- and take part in a formal monastic meal (no talking or wasting of food allowed) and ancient tea-sipping ceremony. There is also time allotted for making beads and lanterns, doing community work, and taking walks in the forest.

Tours start at around $175, excluding airfare.

[via New York Times]
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Virgin Atlantic Offers Passengers Inflight ‘Meditainment’ to London (Yahoo Business News)

Virgin Atlantic Airways is to offer passengers Meditainment, the world’s first inflight meditation programme, from 1 February as part of its extensive inflight entertainment package. Meditainment Ltd, a company which specialises in guided meditation experiences, has produced a series of meditative journeys for the audio inflight entertainment system.

Meditainment blends traditional meditation techniques and audio entertainment.
The meditative journeys available are specifically tailored to aid relaxation and sleep and to overcome stress and anxiety. Passengers can opt for meditative journeys to a Desert Island or Summer Meadow or, for the more adventurous, the Moon or the Arctic!

Katie Marks, Programming Coordinator for Virgin Atlantic, commented:

“Virgin Atlantic is really pleased to be able to add this great new way to chill out onboard our flights. With people leading such busy lives and the growing interest in yoga and meditation we wanted reflect that trend onboard. So now our passengers can travel to New York via the astral plane!”
Richard Latham, Producer and Script Writer for Meditainment Ltd, said:

“Long haul flights can be a major mental challenge for some travellers, especially if they are unable to sleep. With Meditainment, passengers can enjoy the time bending effects of meditation, while awake or sound asleep.”

Meditation can have a number of psychological benefits including increased calm and happiness and reduced stress and anxiety. Physical benefits can include reduced blood pressure and an enhanced immune system.
Meditainment will be available on all Virgin Atlantic aircraft which have the Vport inflight entertainment system onboard. All Virgin Atlantic aircraft are fitted with personal seat back TV’s for every passenger.

Vport is the most advanced inflight entertainment system offering passengers up to 200 hours of video and audio entertainment on demand along with a wide range of games to choose from. Virgin Atlantic also offers an audio session with Flying Without Fear’s psychoanalyst David Landau, for passengers who have a fear of flying. This consists of relaxation techniques, soundscapes and constructive hints to calm and de-stress. Passengers who simply want to relax will also find this highly beneficial as 30 minutes spent in deep relaxation is worth six hours of sound sleep.

[Original article no longer available.]
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