– Me at the Mahabodhi Temple
Nearly 2,500 years ago in India, a wandering monk named Gautama was practicing severe austerities in the forest with five fellow mendicants. After 6 years, he had nearly starved himself to death and attained almost unimaginable states of single-pointed concentration. Yet, despite his herculean efforts, he was still dissatisfied with his understanding, for he discovered that even subtle bliss states lasting for days at a time were subject to the law of impermanence. After controversially accepting a bowl of milk from a maiden named Sugata, enacting with his own body the principal of the “middle way” he would someday propagate to the world, his five friends abandoned him in disgust.
Shortly after this incident, he sat down under the now famous Bodhi Tree, and vowed not to leave the spot until he attained enlightenment. Traditions differ, but the most popular one says he meditated for a week, observing himself with mindfulness and scrupulously inquiring into the nature of his own experience. On the 7th day, he saw the morning star and finally experienced his own True Nature. Then he said something like, “I am awakened together with all beings!” The monk Gautama had become the Buddha, or the “Awakened One.”
– The Ganges in Varanasi
Varanasi! How can I describe your beauty and your madness, your noble aspirations and your often chaotic reality? Oh city of Shiva, you remind me of life’s highest goal, and the futility of chasing worldly desires. You contain terrible poverty, but you posses the wealth of thousands of years of crystalized spiritual knowledge. You are the victim of global capitalism’s inhumanity, but you testify to the transcendent God that is called by many names and who alone exists. You are filled with modern pollution, but the fragrance of your devotion to God has blessed the world many times over.
I recently went on an amazing one-month pilgrimage to India, and stayed in the two holy pilgrimage cities of Varanasi and Bodhgaya. I stayed in Varanasi for 9 days. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is considered the holiest pilgrimage site for most Hindus, and is highly influential to Buddhists as well. The Buddha gave his first sermon just outside Varanasi in Sarnath nearly 2500 years ago. Shankara, a great sage who influenced nearly all subsequent branches of yogic thought, is believed to have once lived here. Tulsidass, Lahiri Mahasaya, Trailingaswami and countless other Yogi-Christ’s have blessed this city with their presence over the centuries.