Stephen Liben from Canada shares his reflections on our 2024 pilgrimage to the ancient Buddhist monasteries of India 

Fifteen days travelling with a group of 24 fellow “pilgrims”, together with Buddhist teachers Stephen & Martine Batchelor, Akincano Weber, Christoph Koeck, Shantum Seth and travel guide expert Ahmod  exceeded all my expectations (and they were pretty high to start with!)

We all met up in Mumbai and from our first meeting it was clear that this was not a “tour”, but rather a pilgrimage wherein we were going to bring practice “back” to what these stone cut monasteries (“they are not caves” as Stephen B. corrected us on day one!) were constructed for in the first place – As places to gather, practice and learn the dharma. These monasteries, from the very small to the much larger ones we visited as we wound our way through the western Ghats of India, are indeed “not caves”. Rather, they were constructed by hand (you can still see the chisel marks in many places) out of solid rock mountain faces. The time and effort involved to carve these structures staggers the mind and calling them “caves” diminishes the incredible architectural accomplishments that they are.

We all set out on a comfortable air conditioned & well stocked tour bus (that was more like a spaceship from the future compared to some of the small villages we went through). We visited a series of different stone cut monasteries every 2 -3 days, from small, out the way ones (Nashik), to larger very popular tourist filled places (e.g. Sanchi). What made this trip so very special was not only the opportunity to sit & meditate in places carved out of solid rock 1500-2000 years ago, but the interactions both within our group and with those we encountered along the way. The mindful, relaxed, reassuring tone within our group was set by the meditation teacher Shantum Seth who runs these pilgrimages along with other Buddhist programs in India. His morning on the bus announcements began with a gentle “Dear friends, today we ….”, then ringing a meditation bell to remind us to settle into quietude, and his gracious and embodied mindfulness of being, permeated our interactions and helped us to “be” with the expected unexpected bumps along the road (both literal and figurative)

Once at a new pilgrimage site we would have some time to ourselves to explore, and then we would meet up in one of the larger stone cut rooms for a sit and dharma talk by one of the teachers. This was often followed by a box lunch and then more time to explore either on our own, or with the expert guidance of Ahmod whose wealth of knowledge (both Buddhist and archeological) runs deep. Travelling between sites on the bus presented many fun unplanned interactions with locals as we moved to the rhythm of traffic, unpredictable road conditions, and our various bladder capacities (an interesting way to explore the countryside off the side road at the rare times no formal restroom facilities were available). My wife and I never felt anything less than safe, well fed, and cared for during the entire trip.

At one of the smaller less popular sites I had the opportunity to lie on my back, alone, in silence, in one of the monk’s mini alcoves off the main meditation hall. The felt sensations of the cool stone beneath my back was a perfect opportunity for an awareness of the body practice (body scan). As I lay in the alcove that was carved out by hand somewhere around the start of the common era I imagined how many others had done the same thing, in the same or similar ways,  and how my inner experience of being distracted over and over again and the practice of  returning to felt sensation as many times again, has essentially not changed in over a thousand years. The same questions I ask so many others have, and are still, asking; how to wake up to the way things are, how to see the interconnectedness of all things, and how to see the roots of suffering in greed, hatred and delusion?

Travel presents many personal and practical inconveniences. So why bother to travel and so far from home?  What is travel for anyway? Is it “to “get away” or “to take a break”?  Which raises the question “to get away or take a break” from what exactly? We travelled to India, we had some experiences, and then we came back to Montreal. So why go anywhere if we just end up where we started, why travel?

The writer Pico Iyer (“The Half Known Life” 2023) sees travel as an opportunity for transformation “And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

Travelling on long bus rides through rural India ones gets to see a lot of what we in North America might call “extreme poverty”. Life (at least the male parts of life, women were less publicly visible) is played out for all to see as there is always so much going on the sidewalks; animals sharing the roads with people, open fires with food cooking, men getting their hair cut, people sleeping, eating, urinating, buying & selling….and unfortunately, so much plastic trash on the roadside. We also experienced air pollution, even outside major cities, at levels that are extreme for North Americans. It is easy to pass judgement and label these as “the poor” and by association “unfortunate”. But is that the full reality? What do we know of the inner lives of those we saw? Are they as anxious as so many of us in the “richer” countries seem to be?

Pico Iyer again, “Many of us in the affluent world go to India or Tibet or Ethiopia or Cuba and feel that they are rich in the ways we are poor. There is a sense of community, sometimes a sense of faith, and a closeness to tradition that can sustain places more fundamentally than the checkbook”.

What else did we see? What we saw was groups of people including multigenerational families eating together at all times of the day. Many shops had groups of people including families simply being together while life went on all around them. These are things we almost never see in North America where people live out most of their lives in doors, secluded form others. Is it possible that (without romanticizing material poverty and while also recognizing the need for basic food security and shelter) their lives are richer in terms of what really matters, that is, in their social connections and interpersonal relationships?

Another writer (and activist- environmentalist), Rebecca Solnit, has written a counter argument to the idea that we need to “give up things we love” if we want to avoid the worst of global warming. She questions whether our so called “world of abundance” is truly that. She questions what we have already given up or renounced, in our race to accumulate and consume as much as possible. For the sake of fossil fuel, we’ve renounced so much. We’ve renounced clean air, we’ve renounced the future, we’ve renounced kids not having asthma in so many parts of the world. Because of fossil fuel emissions, about 8 million people a year die of respiratory problems related just to the particulate matter, not even to some of the other aspects. So what if we don’t live in an era of abundance, but doing what the climate requires of us, leaving the age of fossil fuels behind, could bring us to an era where the water is clean, the air is clean, the natural world is thriving, and we can feel more joy than anxiety when we look at it, where food is good for you, where people have more time for friendship, for joy, for time in the natural world, for creativity, or meditation, or cooking or painting or whatever gives us pleasure. And so how we tell the stories are so crucial, and not only the stories about the natural world, but deep down, the stories about human nature. What do we really want? What makes us thrive? What is the nature of our connections to each other? “

So, what is travel for? To be transformed?  There is something about purposively immersing yourself in the unfamiliar that heightens attention, that leads to asking new questions, and may lead to a new appreciation for what we already have. Pico Iyer again: “I travel not to leave my home but to leave my habits behind so that I’m not sleepwalking”.

My suggestion- If you get the opportunity to head out on a Bodhi college pilgrimage, if you can find the time and raise the funds needed to go, then do it! If you have concerns and hesitations (that are of course expected) talk to the organizers about them and or talk to one of us who have already gone on one of these pilgrimages.

May you be well, fellow traveller on the path…

Stephen Liben

Montreal, Canada