Truth is truth no matter what religion it comes from. ~Patricia Rotman
Moving to India, I had some expectations. I expected a lot of time to explore the inner workings of my soul and put to rest much of my inner turmoil. I expected to be exposed to a culture with an ancient, rich history that would confuse, confound, and astound me at every step. I expected to be exposed to Hinduism and a few of the million or so gods worshipped in this diverse country. I expected to feel the presence of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa people with attitudes and behaviors, I believe, we all should seek to emulate for, if we did, the world would be a much better place.
One thing that never entered my mind regarding my life in India was that I would have an encounter with the Buddha despite the Buddha being of Indian ancestry. Yet, an encounter I have had and it has helped me become a wiser man, a more human human being.
My first encounter was with a Buddha icon I purchased showing the Buddha Indian style, a version I much prefer to the Chinese depiction. My second encounter came when I visited Buddhist temples in Thailand and felt the ever present serenity. I now have daily encounters in the virtual world via FaceBook through Buddhist postings, in the practical teachings of the Dalai Lama, within the posts of the Buddhist Monk Gede Prama in his teachings on compassion.
I don’t claim to be a Buddhist. I am a Christian and will be until the day I leave earth and enter the heavenly realms. I don’t plan on becoming a Buddhist in the sense that I will drop my Christian faith and adopt the full spectrum of Buddhist teachings. Still, in my mind, I can be considered somewhat of a disciple of the Buddha because I connect deeply with his teachings on compassion, love, mindfulness. Not surprisingly, these same teachings are also fundamental to Christian faith (although the vile behavior of some of my brothers and sisters in Christ betrays these core truths and, understandably, turn the world away.)
I can be open to and learn from the Buddha because being a Christian does not mean that my mind is closed. Being a Christian does not mean that I cannot learn from other faith systems. I am strong enough in my own faith that the other religions neither threaten me nor frighten me nor chip away at the core of my faith. On the contrary, they enlighten me, encourage me, grow me, help me to more fully understand and embrace my faith.
God made the sun to rise and to fall on us all the same no matter if we are Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jew or any other of the faiths of the world. For this reason, I respect all peoples. For this reason, I show compassion to all my fellow humans. I don’t have to agree with their beliefs to love them as God has loved me.
As I read about the Buddha’s life, I was struck how closely my journey 2500 years later paralleled his. Where he was born to affluence, I was born to middle class America which is affluent by most world standards. Where his father sought to protect him from seeing the sick, aged and suffering of the world, my parents shrouded me in love which insulated from much of the evil infecting the life of mankind.
We both had our wilderness years. He left his father’s home and became an ascetic seeking to gain enlightenment by abstaining from worldly pleasures with the aim to become a more spiritual being. He also pursued other spiritual paths including yoga. All left him feeling unsatisfied.
I let my parents home and Catholic faith. I explored a variety of faiths seeking something, anything, even a crumb of spirituality that would feed my starving soul. My soul moved along that path from hunger to starvation because I had become my own god. I sought to indulge in worldly pleasures to achieve happiness. Similarly, the Buddha’s father ensured the Buddha was privy to all worldly pleasures ostensibly to keep him safe from encountering suffering. We both learned a life lived seeking worldly pleasures gives short term happiness but increases one’s fundamental dissatisfaction. The more that pleasure is sought to fill the void the larger the void becomes. The spiritual hole deepens, the emptiness grows. The dogged pursuit of pleasure is a battle that simply can’t be won.
Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating for 49 days under the Bodhi tree located in Bodh Gaya, India. He was 35 years old at the time. I found my own spiritual awakening sitting in the last row of section 102 seat number 3 at Willow Creek Community Church while listening to the inspired, biblical teachings of John Ortberg. I had been attending the church in seeker mode for about 4 weeks. At the time, I was 31 years old. The difference, Buddha found enlightenment in one burst of clarity. My enlightenment is an on going process which, I expect, will be a never ending journey.
Buddha In India
The beauty of being in India is that I am in close proximity to places the Buddha graced. For the faithful, there are four great pilgrimage places; Lumbini, his birth place, Bodh Gaya, the place of enlightenment, Sarnath the place he delivered his first teaching, and Kusinar where he died.
My grand plan for my remaining year living in India, which was inspired after my trip to Thailand, was to visit each of these sacred places during the course of one trip. I wanted to start at Siddhārtha’s (Buddha’s name before enlightenment) birth place and end where Buddha breathed his last breath with visits to Bodh Gaya and Sarnath in between.
However, my plans have been changed and I am being brought back to the US by my company 5 months short of the completion of my second year. The really bad part about leaving in November 2014 instead of March 2015 is that I will miss the Indian winter which is the best time to travel, weather wise, in this land. It was also the time I planned to undergo the journey. I may possibly go to Sri Lanka to see some Buddha temples because the weather in the part I want to visit is pretty much the same year round.
I have had to alter my travel plans. Instead of going to all four locations, I will visit just one – the one for me that is the most significant. We all are born, we all die, we all speak of our beliefs. However, not all of us achieve a state of enlightenment. I will visit Bodh Gaya where I plan to sit under the Bodhi Tree, which is a direct descendant of the tree under which the Buddha became enlightened, and reflect on my life. I don’t expect to achieve enlightenment but I do expect to feel the power of a sacred place and feel the serenity that comes with my faith.
Additional Buddha Photos from Thailand