Ship of 'Ignorants' & One Wise Man
As remembered by Henri
Pilgrimage to Burma, Ceyon (Sri Lanka) and India 1967/68
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.)
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.
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.
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.
he told us to be aware of the difference between a spinel
and a ruby, since at first glance they look very similar.
he did not speak much about his teacher U Thila Wunta,
but we knew that he was looking forward to seeing him
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.
approached the Burmese coast in the morning, and indeed
the glowing dome glittered in the sun from afar. We all
looked in awe.
the usual formalities with customs and immigration, we
went by taxis to
the home of Ananda Bodhi's patron and sponsor - Yogi U
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.
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
this, we had our first visit of the Shwedagon. This enormous
complex with many buddharupas can hardly be described
placed incense at several shrines, while AB explained
to us in his unique way all the symbolic images and rich
in 1956, it was at the Shwedagon the Teacher received
the Higher Ordination and was given the name Ananda Bodhi
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.
truly missed out on this due to my wanderings about the
"The camel that sleeps, misses the caravan!"
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
were told that no matter how often we'd heard of the Black
Calcutta that there was an oasis, and this was called
the Maha Bodhi Society.
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
we arrived at the Maha Bodhi Society of Calcutta, rang
the bell, and were let inside.
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.
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.
a Namaste and having given a donation, we thanked the
abbot and caretaker and his humble staff for their hospitality.
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.
you don't know your ancestry ("who your grandfather
was") and place of
birth, you would never be employed.
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.
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.
you go out, everywhere you see the Holy Cows. We wondered
where were the bulls?
you see the first open cremation, it's a shock. Later
on this too becomes
part of the regular experience.
scents of spices, combined with every imaginable odour,
this too is your daily intake.
colour! The multi-spectrum pastel and bright coloured
saris alone was a feast for the eye!
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.
- 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
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.
and distraction, Henri", was his reply.
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.
Bodhi spat on the floor, expressing his disgust of it
rightly so, he had told me it was all phenomena and distraction.
what's so "colourful" about all that misery,
poverty and exploitation?
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.
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!"
in Delhi we had a meeting with the Maharaja of Sikkhim
and also the
Canadian High Commissioner.
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
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
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.
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
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!
would not be out of place to name Rinpoche, the "Hero
of a Thousand
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.
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.
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.
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.
You! "Hero of a Thousand Places!"
ends my recall of the 1967/1968 pilgrimage and journey
to Sri Lanka, Burma and India.
van Bentum Victoria, B.C. February 2008