Namgyal Rinpoche
Student Memories

First Meeting

Pilgrimage - Part I

Pilgrimage - Part II

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 III
Pilgrimage to Burma, Ceyon (Sri Lanka) and India 1967/68

When the passenger freighter "Giessenkerk" lifted anchor at Colombo, we had a bonus of experiences and adventures behind us due to the lengthy strike. (Editor's note: see Henri's essays "Giessenkerk Part I and Part II.)

Now all the Teacher's focus was on our next port of call: Rangoon, Burma, the Shwedagon Temple and, of course, his teacher and mentor, U Thila Wunta Sayadaw.

Ananda Bodhi told us that we should watch for the golden dome of the Shwedagon Temple glistening from afar, no matter whether one sees it in daylight or at night.

Meanwhile the onboard classes concentrated on dream and meditation reports, interspersed with enlightening us on one special precious stone --- Burma being the realm for rubies. Ananda Bodhi stressed that only the pigeon-blood colour stones were the very best.

Also he told us to be aware of the difference between a spinel and a ruby, since at first glance they look very similar.

Interestingly, he did not speak much about his teacher U Thila Wunta, but we knew that he was looking forward to seeing him soon.

The Captain and crew by now had seen AB in his robes. And we his students were in great expectations of seeing the Shwedagon and Rangoon temples.

We approached the Burmese coast in the morning, and indeed the glowing dome glittered in the sun from afar. We all looked in awe.

After the usual formalities with customs and immigration, we went by taxis to
the home of Ananda Bodhi's patron and sponsor - Yogi U Thin.

A surprise, since AB hadn't mentioned this, but a pleasant one. We were all very warmly welcomed, and the Teacher was pleased to see his benefactors again. Likewise his patron was delighted to see AB, along with his students.

We were served a delicious meal - a traditional and elaborate Burmese breakfast of "Mohingar". Each one of us received a present in the form of a length of silk cloth.

Following this, we had our first visit of the Shwedagon. This enormous complex with many buddharupas can hardly be described in words.

We placed incense at several shrines, while AB explained to us in his unique way all the symbolic images and rich history.

Back in 1956, it was at the Shwedagon the Teacher received the Higher Ordination and was given the name Ananda Bodhi Bhikku.

Since our stop at the port of Rangoon was a short one (we were carrying on with the freighter to Calcutta), and we had spent quite a bit of time with the Teacher's patron, just a handful of students in one taxi accompanied AB to visit U Thila Wunta.

Yours truly missed out on this due to my wanderings about the Shwedagon.
"The camel that sleeps, misses the caravan!"


Back on board ship we heard all about this auspicious occasion of AB's visit with U Thila Wunta. Then not much more was spoken about it.

The next day after breakfast, we lifted anchor and sailed away from Burmese waters. Ananda Bodhi now began discourses on Budhgaya and also about Calcutta and India in general, preparing us for what to expect - although he deliberately sometimes left things unsaid, to test our reactions to the unexpected. Always teaching of course!

We sailed up the famous Ganges River en route to our dock in Calcutta, where bloated corpses floated past of cows, sheep, dogs and maybe even humans. Not to speak of raw sewage and whatever debris that can be associated with a city like Calcutta.

The colour of the Ganges was a drab grey-brown - not exactly the crystal-clear waters this holy river holds at its origins in the Himalayas. Not far from where we docked, youngsters jumped and dove for coins into these filthy and
cadaver-infested waters, which the crew members were throwing for them to retrieve. Not only our vessel "Giessenkerk" but all the other cargo ships we were alongside.

Some threw slices of bread, anything. These kids dived for whatever hit the water. What an introduction to India!

As is often the case, one gets very familiar and even attached to a ship, being a second abode. So too when we disembarked in Calcutta, having sailed all the way from Le Havre, France.

Coming from a lengthy ocean voyage with lots of fresh sea air and far from the hustle and bustle of human activity, the stops in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and Burma helped us prepare for the culture shock of India, in particular Calcutta.

Then, the more we travelled inland, we spotted skinny cows, white zebus, black water buffalos, three-wheeled rickshaws; also women clad in brilliantly- coloured saris, some with 2 or 3 copper pots on top of their head and beggars with or without limbs, often on little platforms with wheels so they could get around.

We were warned by AB not to give any 'baksheesh" since we'd end up causing an uproar as others rushed to get some coins. I mention this, because this exposed us to the facts of life in India.

In those days, 97% of the population was poor while the other 3% controlled all the wealth and were often fabulously and lavishly rich. It is different today in the high-tech regions where now India has a flourishing middle class, but it certainly wasn't the case in 1968.

How the poor accepted and still accept their adversity is a mystery. I guess what one doesn't know, doesn't hurt. And acceptance of Fate is a big part of their faith.

For those millions who ensure the circumstances Life offers, the reward is a higher rebirth and removed from the lower caste of one's birth - something like a raise!

AB was seemingly untouched by it all, but we knew that his compassion spread out to them. He didn't have to say a word. Of course too he had been in India before. For us, it was our first taste.

However, the true face of this harbour with its chaotic activity and never- ending sea of people going here, there and everywhere, soon brought us quickly to the reality of the "real" out there in the world - - - although AB had never let us fall into an imaginary to Maya state of mind during this historic voyage.

My first question was, "Where on Earth are we going to spend the night?"

But, as usual, he had planned this long before. How to describe a mind like that of the Teacher, who constantly made sure that all the circles were closed? That the chains had all their links?

We were told that no matter how often we'd heard of the Black Hole of
Calcutta that there was an oasis, and this was called the Maha Bodhi Society.

AB had mentioned the Maha Bodhi Society and its guest rooms back in Canada (but when you hear a name of something so far removed from where you are, not much attention is given.)

So we arrived at the Maha Bodhi Society of Calcutta, rang the bell, and were let inside.

The routine and discipline of this Society is visitors may stay no longer than two or three nights, and payment is made on the basis of Dana.

An oasis alright! Inside the walls no city noise or smells penetrated. Our rooms were simple, clean and welcoming. Meals were also provided, and true to the tradition of the Buddhist order, no warm meal was served after mid-day.

With a Namaste and having given a donation, we thanked the abbot and caretaker and his humble staff for their hospitality.


We had learned about the five castes in the ancient system. Regardless of intelligence or education or effort, people would fall into one of these castes. A Brahmin is 'top class'; second class are lawyers, religious leaders, doctors, artists, philosophers and teachers; third class are artisans and farmers; fourth class unskilled labourers and servants, and fifth class, beggars, outcasts, slaves - Untouchables.

If you don't know your ancestry ("who your grandfather was") and place of
birth, you would never be employed.

Travelling through the Indian landscape by train, bus or car - large towns are just 10 minutes apart. Along the way you encounter uncountable scooters, goats, sheep, dogs, sometimes camels, white Zebus, cows everywhere, overcrowded old buses, rickshaws, bicycles, and lots and lots of movie
billboards and posters in glaring technicolour.

Life from birth to death can be seen on the street and roads - and everything in between.

In the early mornings, the first thing you hear all over India, and here in
Calcutta too, was the "Caw! Caw!" of the crows.

When you go out, everywhere you see the Holy Cows. We wondered where were the bulls?

When you see the first open cremation, it's a shock. Later on this too becomes
part of the regular experience.

The scents of spices, combined with every imaginable odour, this too is your daily intake.

And colour! The multi-spectrum pastel and bright coloured saris alone was a feast for the eye!

Other impressions: Roadside food stalls - chapattis, naam, samosas and papadam - mostly cooked using cow, buffalo or elephant dung. There were scents of spices, curries, garlic, vegetable displays, colourful spices at market, beautiful textiles.

Lahsi - a 'safe' drink, made from yoghurt. For beverages: tea, and beer. Water but only in very reliable places such as the monasteries or Maha Bodhi Societies, and preferably rose water. Of course there was pop, lemonade, coke or ginger ale.

At one time I said to the Teacher, "No need for a filmmaker to go through all the preparation and trouble of making a movie; he or she just has to hang a camera around their neck, let it roll and Voila! You'd have the most colourful, dramatic and exotic documentary.

"Phenomena and distraction, Henri", was his reply.

Much later on, back in Canada and when everyone had returned from this journey, I mentioned something about colourful India again in a morning class at Pauline Fediow's.

Ananda Bodhi spat on the floor, expressing his disgust of it all!

And rightly so, he had told me it was all phenomena and distraction. And,
what's so "colourful" about all that misery, poverty and exploitation?


The teacher had arranged that some of the students would join us in Delhi, so we set out for Delhi by train. Coming out of the train at the station in Delhi,

AB made a great impression in his robes and mala, head shaven, and barefoot with sandals.

And although they did not know him, soon people were hanging garlands of flowers around his neck. When people asked the name of our Guru and we told them "Ananda Bodhi", they said "Oh Ananda!"

While in Delhi we had a meeting with the Maharaja of Sikkhim and also the
Canadian High Commissioner.

Next on the agenda was Budhgaya. It was in Budhgaya where Leslie George Dawson joined the Sayadawa U Thila Wunta in 1956 and where he received his Novice ordinations Samanera Ananda.

The first leg of the journey was by train, then we transferred to cars. Shortly after we arrived in Budhgaya, AB gave a discourse under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha found enlightenment.

The group had now grown to maybe 28 or 30 beings. This would become a regular routine for the Teacher - to travel for awhile with the group, then be on his own for a few days, accompanied only by a very few students; the rest of the larger group would disperse and travel in smaller groups on their own.

Back in Canada, AB had spoken of the houseboats of Kashmir, and now I had a feeling that's where he was heading after Buddhgaya. This he did, with Tony Olbrecht/Sonam and a few other students, for a rest. Some students went back home or stayed on in India on their own like Astrid and myself.

To me, this first pilgrimage with our beloved Teacher will always stay with me, as the most memorable, educational and spiritual journey of all the travels
that followed - and there were many!

It would not be out of place to name Rinpoche, the "Hero of a Thousand

For it was at this time that the wheel was set in motion by the Teacher for all future travels to come, too numerous even to mention.

As an epilogue, may we say that it was a great privilege and honour (sometimes it seemed like a dream) to have been in the presence of the Teacher and to witness his compassion and wisdom in action.

Not only did he relentlessly and with almost 'ruthless compassion' share his wisdom and insight, but his ever-present humour and Irish impish side made him at once an Arahat and an 'ordinary' human being.

Yes, the word Bhikkhu means "wanderer". In the order, three months of teaching in one place (during the monsoon season), the rest wandering. This Namgyal Rinpoche did, but in the process of his wandering created numerous centres world-wide. Giving of his endless wisdom and compassion.

Thank You! "Hero of a Thousand Places!"

Thus ends my recall of the 1967/1968 pilgrimage and journey to Sri Lanka, Burma and India.

Henri van Bentum Victoria, B.C. February 2008


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