Namgyal Rinpoche
Student Memories

First Meeting

Pilgrimage - Part II

Pilgrimage - Part III

Pilgrimage With The Venenerable Namgyal Rinpoche
then known as Bhikkhu Ananda Bodhi

aboard the freighter Giessenkerk - to Ceylon, Burma & India
December 1967 - February 1968

The Ship of 'Ignorants' & One Wise Man
As remembered by Henri van Bentum

Part I - The Hunting of the Snark

In the autumn of 1967, Ananda Bodhi had asked students who would be interested in joining him on a pilgrimage to India (by freighter), to put their names on a list. I was asked to find a ship for the voyage. A few phone calls to Europe anchored a freighter of the Ned Lloyd line of Holland (KNSM) which could carry ten passengers, sailing from western Europe in late November or early December to India.

Meanwhile, twenty-seven students had shown interest. The Teacher scaled this down to eight, plus himself and Tony Olbrecht (Sonam), his attendant. To get to Europe, there was only one remaining transatlantic crossing available since it was late in the season - the Russian vessel Aleksandr Pushkin -

sailing from Montreal in November to Southampton. Freighters have unpredictable departure and arrival schedules. Ananda Bodhi had decided to sail on the Pushkin in order to arrive early in England and Europe and do some traveling there. The Atlantic crossing took nine days.

In Southampton, we hired three cars. Tony drove one, Ted Bieler and Irwin Burns the others. It was chilly and damp in England, and we visited Stonehenge in the rain. Also Stratford and Canterbury (to see the cathedral). We eventually wound up that evening in Lyme Regis, a coastal fishing village in Dorset. By now it was dark, foggy and cold. Everything was closed, but after some time we found a small inn and rang the bell. The kitchen was closed, so no warm meal, although the innkeeper made us tea, served with scones.

After touring England a bit, I arranged a booking on a Scandinavian passenger- ferry from Dover to France, which already in those days had a casino aboard with slot machines. The Bhikkhu wanted to visit the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux, so this was our goal. I was the only one in our group to speak French (also Spanish for that matter), so I had to function as guide in the leading car with Ananda Bodhi. He did not approve of driving after sunset, but since we had to reach Lascaux, we drove on into the evening and arrived very late at night.

Again, as in Lyme Regis, everything was shut for the night. After some time and waking half the village, I was able to find sleeping accommodation for us all, but again all kitchens were closed. Early next morning I inquired about access to the Lascaux caves. After some 'oui's, 'non's and 'peut-etre's, a guide was found who was given permission to take us on a private tour. Thus on a cool November day, the ten of us entered this ancient realm and came face to face with the art of the Paleolithic shaman- artists. Everything the guide said, I had to translate. He spoke very little English. However Ananda Bodhi for his part 'knew' the meaning of these works, and how they were had been created.

Paleolithic Cave Lascaux, France

One thing is certain - those who painted these images were definitely not the 'primitives' we think they were. Witness the grace and elegance of the animals, rendered with such confidence and directness of line & form. This is proof there was a refined mind behind the hand. We visited three caves over two days, plus a grotto filled with stalactites and stalagmites. In the grotto, there were no paintings, but the experience was uplifting in its display of natural wonder. We learned how it takes centuries for 2 cms. of stalactite or stalagmite to grow, so we were faced with a phenomenon, which had taken some million years to form. The visit to the caves and these natural 'cathedrals' stayed with me.

From Lascaux we drove through the Pyrenees into Spain to view the cave paintings of Altamira. We stayed in several paradors (restored monasteries and other historic buildings converted into hotels). Altogether we made an extensive tour of Spain, including Barcelona (to see the Gaudi cathedral), Madrid, Burgos, Seville, Granada - then crossed into Portugal, to the Algarve and the western shore at Sagres, the point from where Henry the Navigator sailed.

In Portugal we stayed at pousadas, equivalent to the paradors. Ananda Bodhi taught all the time, on any subject - history, religion, nature - as the occasion called for. We were even given a discourse on olives when we drove through Spanish and Portuguese olive groves.

Next we went to the tiny nation of Andorra, as all the while I had been keeping in touch with the Ned Lloyd Line about the departure date of our sailing. Initially the ship was going to leave from Rotterdam, Holland but we were informed this would now be leHavre, France. Already we had the impression we'd left home long ago, so much was taught and so much we had seen in England, France, Spain and Portugal. Yet, the actual purpose of our travels had not even started.

We arrived in leHavre the first week of December. Our ship, the Giessenkerk, was anchored next to nothing less than the legendary passenger ship "France". This colossal ship dwarfed the freighter. We were welcomed aboard by the Friesian captain and officers, and shown to our cabins. They were roomy, comfortable and all had large portholes. The woodwork was mostly oak and mahogany, to give you an idea of what the cargo ship was like in those days.

There was a spacious recreation area, complete with bar and bar stools. Ananda Bodhi and Tony were given the owners' cabin. The rest of us paired up in to our own cabins. Our departure however was going to be delayed for another 24-48 hours, which prompted the Teacher to suggest I take the train to Paris in order to see an exhibition there by the great master Henri Matisse. At first, I was not keen on the idea - 'what about if' the Captain decided to lift anchor earlier? 'What about if' I didn't make it back in time? All these 'what if' thoughts became alarming. However, I did go. Enjoyed seeing the works by Matisse, and returned in time.

The following day our ship lifted anchor for our long- anticipated voyage. Ananda Bodhi had instructed us to bring supplies such as construction paper, glue, crayons, sketchbooks, watercolour paints, pads & brushes, scissors, balloons, playing cards, games like chess, checkers and Monopoly. Also we ended up with only two records, LP's ("78"'s): the "Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky, "Afternoon of a Faun" by Debussy, and "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff.

A 'misunderstanding' had caused the meagre musical selection. Reading material included "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll which contains "Hunting of the Snark". This became a very important part of our journey. We discovered we were going to 'perform' this poem, and would have to memorize our respective roles. I was to be the Baker. But that comes later!

Our first port of call was Genoa, Italy. By then we had all been introduced to the crew, the cook and officers. We shared our meals with the officers in the mess which also contained the recreation area, although we had our own dining table. Our free time ashore in Genoa was spent mostly sightseeing and enjoying a seafood feast at a picturesque restaurant near the harbour.

We were advised that our next port of call wouldn't be until Colombo, Ceylon. No wonder Ananda Bodhi made us bring along all those arts & crafts supplies. In preparation for Christmas, the Teacher gave us an assignment to design a folding greeting card and to make one for each crew member and for our group. This kept us going for awhile. The captain and crew were very touched when they were presented with individual hand-painted cards on Christmas morning. We sailed by Cape Town on Christmas Day, 1967, sighting the legendary Table Mountain and, not long afterwards, by Madagascar.

The food aboard ship was wholesome, tasty and varied. Every day we played our meagre (but substantial in quality) selection of records, while in the evening we played chess, checkers, scrabble, monopoly and - oh yes! - bridge! The Teacher was a wizard in contract bridge, and woe to those who were partnered with him. To some a curse, to others a blessing. In the end, one was given a lesson in bridge and awareness! amongst other things.

Talk about mindfulness, memory, decision-making, and preventing doing anything stupid. The game of bridge is a discipline for awakening! Needless to say, Ananda Bodhi usually won - sometimes through sheer bluff! In the course of this eventful voyage, we were all given turns to be the bridge partner of the Teacher.

By now the officers and Captain had heard so much Stravinsky, Carl Orff and Debussy, that it was enough to drive them out of the mess room sooner than they would have liked, at times. And if that was not enough, how about the daily meditation sessions we had on deck at night, and very early in the morning? The days were always filled, what with the three classes given by the Teacher, doing artwork, crafts or giving our meditation and 'dream' reports.

At one time we were in a supervised LSD experience. A few had negative feedback, but since Ananda Bodhi was present, nothing nightmarish developed. Once the Bhikkhu and I were called to the Captain's cabin. Since he was from Friesland and spoke the language of Holland, he complained to me that one of the 'girls' in our group had been wandering about during the night in her nightgown, in the crew's quarters!

That was too much for our Calvinistic skipper. And while he was at it, he told us he was very satisfied with the way we filled in our time and didn't bother the crew or officers. But could we possibly stop playing that strange music for awhile? Also why did we sit cross-legged on deck, morning and evenings?

It was never revealed to him that we were fledgling Buddhists with a lama. This became apparent, however, when prior to the full moon, the Bhikkhu told the guys to shave their heads. All complied, except yours truly. We were to come into tropical waters, and I anticipated a burned scalp if we went bald. Not only did I rebel against that, but I was also absent for the full moon celebration which included fasting after midday.

Incredible as it may seem, this was the first time the cook had prepared an Indonesian meal! Ananda Bodhi had requested this before, and now was the moment. Great was the surprise and disappointment of Captain and cook alike to discover all his passengers were absent and sitting out on the deck under the stars and full moon, in the middle of the Indian Ocean! That morning we ceremonially cast overboard a "Durga" or Kali image we had created, made of cardboard and inflated balloons, all part of a ritual to mark the full moon. Some crew had noticed this weird action, so the day did not begin well for them and our stoic Captain.

Avoiding a total collapse of cordial relations, I sat in with the officers and crew for the Indonesian dinner. I did join the group later, but with all my Leo mane still intact, and a stomach of delicious Indonesian food. I was not exactly the 'welcome' lost son of the tribe! The Bhikkhu ignored me completely. Even when I mentioned the Chef had kept some Indonesian food for the group for the next day lunch. Little did I know that our 'fast' would continue into the next day until dinnertime.

We were thoroughly briefed and schooled on gemstones since we would be going to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where seventy percent of the world's diversity of gems are found at the river beds of Ratnapura.

Star Ruby from Ratnapura

The discourses were eclectic, always full of surprises and enriching. Now, many years later, I call these the 'honey nectar' or 'spiritual banquet' moments. Covering all those days at sea is not my intent, none of us kept a diary. All the talks were oral teachings, and none of us took notes.

One of the men got his head scorched by the sun. He'd been sitting on deck, freshly bald-headed, in the sun, and had a bad burn. Ananda Bodhi had told the men to cover their heads with a cloth or towel while exposed to the hot sun in the Indian Ocean. Myself, I still had all my hair. I never did go bald on that trip. Although now, while writing this memoir some thirty-four years later, nature and age take care of that slowly without the need of razors or scissors.

New Year came and went at sea. Now we all began in earnest to learn our roles for the upcoming Hunting of the Snark experience, for which we used the whole ship! As mentioned earlier, I was the Baker. In the end, after lots of rehearsing, we pulled it off; even Ananda Bodhi was pleased with the result, and that says something!

by Lewis Carroll

The creative ideas of the Teacher seemed endless. On one occasion, after dinner, the officers were gone and we were instructed to look for a precious item Ananda Bodhi had hidden. So this time, not the Snark or Boojum, but something 'real'. Now, if you visualize the object was hidden in the large mess room, with all the tables, chairs, the bar and supplies, cupboards, armoires, and more… we were in for some search and hunt!

Nine of us literally combed all over the place. The Bhikkhu only kept saying, "No", "Warmer", "Lukewarm", "No, cold again", to all of us. Finally the treasure was discovered, and believe it or not, it was yours truly who found the object. But this only was some hours after we started! Myself, I began a systematic search all along the ledge of the walls, moving my fingers along until 'bingo!', I touched something. "Hot!" the Bhikkhu said, and in my fingers I held a pendant, a tiny bronze Buddharupa. I still have it to this day.

Yes, we did encounter many flying fish, seabirds, dolphins, a few whales, spectacular sunsets and magnificent clear starry nights. Constellations were pointed out and elaborated upon by Ananda Bodhi on many occasions. For the week prior to arriving in Colombo we were on a half-day fast - no more meals after the Noon hour. Plus we had 8-hour meditation sessions. During that time we also crossed the Equator, with the traditional Neptune ceremony for "Pollywogs".

By then our supply of water had run low, prompting the Captain to issue the following request: "Due to a shortage of water on board ship we kindly ask you to shower with a friend until further notice. Thank you." The lettuce was now treated with a disinfectant, but the pantry still had apples from Europe. We were also keeping some apples aside. Ananda Bodhi told us they would be very much appreciated in Ceylon. We were now entering briefly the waters where the Indian Ocean and the Laccadive Sea meet before reaching Colombo. A surprise lay awaiting us - the Captain announced there was a strike at the docks of Colombo!

Pilgrimage - Part II

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