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rumtek-monastery (photo by Wanphai Nongrum)The hallmarks of Sikkim are associated with the mystical figure of Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rimpoche (literally “Dear Master”). Back in the eighth century—contemporary with the great mystic Japanese Kobo Daishi—this extraordinary character spread the esoteric version of Buddhism all over the Himalayas.

Like Kobo Daishi in Japan, Guru Rinpoche is revered as a great saint in Sikkim. The presence of Buddhist monasteries in this region is therefore very old, and it was recently reinforced in number by the tragic exodus of Tibetans. One of those monasteries is Rumtek, located just a few kilometers from Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital), and the official residence of the “official” Karmapa. Unfortunately, he was on a trip and we couldn’t pay him our respects.

The armed guards stationed in turrets, and the sign with the prohibition of access to the temple carrying guns, were images that seemed totally inappropriate for a monastery. However, the confluence of the tension between the Indian and Chinese governments on matters relating to political asylum, coupled with the schism caused by the appearance of two nominations for Karmapa—which ugly controversy has underlying economic and political implications—explains the measures of safety.

Once past the first impression, Rumtek is welcoming. The many monk-children scurrying throughout its courtyards and terraces makes one quickly forget the shady business of adults. One of the children had a facial feature considered very auspicious (which until then I only interpreted metaphorically): a long white natural plume coming out of his brow. One of the few occasions I regretted travelling without a camera.


“How about visiting Nalanda in the afternoon?” said the motorbiker-meditator.

“You mean the university?” I asked, puzzled.

I hadn’t done my homework before traveling to India (and had also renounced to the Lonely Planet), so I didn’t know that the famous Buddhist university was that close to Rajgir.

Nalanda is considered the first university in the world (some of its buildings are from the reign of Emperor Ashoka, in the third century BC).  At its peak, it had as many as several thousand students and teachers. There not only metaphysical subjects were studied, but also philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy or medicine.

“Its ruins are open to the public,” he added.

I barely could eat some chapatti (flat Indian bread) and, despite still feeling weak, I jumped at the opportunity.

The archaeological remains are overwhelming, even though only ten percent has been excavated! Ruins of temples, stupas, classrooms, libraries, bedrooms, patios, all in red brick and colossal, revealed the spiritual and intellectual fervor that once existed there, until an invading horde destroyed it in the late twelfth century… things of humans.

Finally I left Varanasi and Sarnath and, an eternity later, arrived at Bodhigaya. But, unlike the Prince Gotama when he arrived to the same place twenty-five centuries ahead of me, instead of sitting in meditation under a tree, I collapsed in a rented room in one of the monasteries that survive with this source of revenue.

A pyramid temple built beside a descendant of the original fig tree under which the prince achieved enlightenment, forms the hub of Bodhigaya. The so-called Mahabodhi Temple sits in the middle of a plethora of other temples from all sort of Buddhist traditions, with the architectures and habits distinctive of each country.

After several days of swarming by the various temples, I felt I was ready to sit in meditation under the most sacred tree. Although I was used to meditate for at least an hour, in the place I thought I’d feel something special, I barely could sit for about ten minutes. There was no way to focus. I still don’t know why. I simply couldn’t. That was one of the most disappointing experiences of the whole pilgrimage in India.

But when I decided to resume my journey toward less crowded places, a curious chain of events tied me to Bodhigaya, as we shall see.

The day I had to stay convalescing in a temple at Sarnath, the young Japanese resident fasted and did a retreat. He recited the mantra “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” hour after hour while hitting the drum, but not as a healing ritual for me, but because it was forty-nine days since the old monk who had founded the temple had passed away (a date with a special significance in certain Buddhist traditions). I was impressed by his sincerity.

When I regained the strength, the Japanese girl and her dog (middle size and undetermined breed, brown) accompanied me to the train station. She was a slender young hippie with an appeal that was born from within. While waiting for the train, we chatted quietly.

“The most transformative experience of my life was to complete the pilgrimage of the eighty-eight temples around Shikoku island,” she said, and her words rang as heavenly music. “That’s when I broke free of the social role of complacent Japanese woman and decided to come to India.”

Her last words were, “Freedom and happiness are the same, synonymous.”

From the window of the train, already moving, I saw how she was giving a kick to a stout  man who had dared to bother her dog.

She still could turn and say goodbye with her hand and, especially, with her smile.

I left Varanasi—only physically, because emotionally that was impossible—bound to the nearby site of Sarnath, the forest where the Buddha explained his discovery to a group of five ascetics who would become his first disciples.

The forest of 2,500 years ago is now a park with abundant deer, and the exact location of that crucial meeting is signaled by a huge cylindrical stupa, quite impressive.

The local museum has two pieces that, in my humble opinion, make it one of the most interesting of India (despite being one of the smallest).

The first is the capital of a pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, with four lions roaring towards the four cardinal points, and which became the national emblem of India, visible in the flag.

Due to historical vicissitudes, Buddhism disappeared almost completely from the land of its birth, and today India is predominantly an Hindu country, so it is still striking that their national emblem is a Buddhist sculpture of a foreign animal, a great example of the formidable power that symbols have to forge through religions and geographies.

The other piece is a sculpture of Buddha sitting in full lotus forming with his hands the mudra of turning the wheel of Dharma. The skill of the artist and the fineness of the material convert this sculpture in one of the most delicate ones of the Buddha, able to transcend the historical figure to reflect the innate perfection we all have inside.

I once went to Eiheiji Monastery, the main training center for Soto Zen monks. They live there for about a year and then return to the family temple, passed from fathers to sons like a business.

However, given the influx of visitors that each weekend try to taste the monastic life, I was unable to find accommodation. Not too disappointed, because the environment with regard to visitors seemed more like a spa than a monastery, I continued traveling by train along the North Sea coast down to the city of Kanazawa, where I just noticed I had lost the last train bound to where I lived, in Nagoya. Since there was not another train until the next morning, instead of going to rest in a hotel, I put my backpack in a locker and went out to walk under a light rain through the deserted streets.

At the edge of the main river, I came across a tiny sign with the name D. T. Suzuki and an arrow. With nothing better to do and full of curiosity, I decided to honor the unexpected indication. It got to a nowhere-place between fences and unsightly abandoned buildings, where the only thing that stood out from the rest was just a slip of about one square yard, cut to an empty lot with a small tree and a rock with a plaque. Despite the gloom, the rain and the Japanese writing, I confirmed that in that place stood the house where the person who had revolutionized my life with his writings on Buddhism (see post) was born and spent his childhood. Excited by the unexpected meeting, I sat down to contemplate the humble memorial to one of the most influential and genuinely spiritual figures of the 20th century.

My surprise did not end there, because the following weekend, on a visit to the peninsula of Kamakura, I entered one of the temples and I was confronted again with a sign of D. T. Suzuki, indicating that his ashes had been deposited there. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Unintentionally, in two consecutive trips and in so disparate geographies, I had come across the places of birth and death of that who I think with gratitude as my mentor, though I only knew him through his writings, for he died a year before my birth, at the ripe age of ninety-six  (1870-1966).

I found fascinating to observe the mechanisms of a society as complex and full of infinite subtleties as the Japanese, and that may be one of the reasons that prompted me to study diligently their language. Its grammatical constructions, with the verb always at the end, its elaborate variations depending on the degree of formality appropriate to each situation, and a writing form that combines two syllabic alphabets with characters taken from the Chinese are some of the pitfalls that await to the unwary. However, I considered worth the effort when I realized the freedom that it gave me while travelling, and especially by those simple conversations that I could engage with the locals. The visits to the family house of my friend Sogo (by the way whose parents, like mine, were schoolteachers, and they, like mine, had three boys of about the same ages) were quite memorable. Despite the cultural conditioning, the family atmosphere was surprisingly similar.

The frequent dinners and excursions with the colleagues were also remarkable experiences. Knowing my vegetarianism, wherever we went I always had ready in advance my own vegan plate and plenty of tea instead of their abundant beer and sake. I also discovered that the real purpose of going to the karaokes was not so much to have fun but to have an outlet to their oppressed creativity, a moment in which they could express themselves more freely than usually, a time when the invisible social barriers were blurred, and even the “sensei” (professor) was approachable.

At dinner with some Korean colleagues, I discovered the wounded pride of a people that is still struggling to forgive the historical abuses of its powerful neighbor. While writing this, I remember my grandmother, who never left Spain and I doubt she ever met any French, and yet she felt an undisguised antipathy towards them; the reason was that while talking during the cold nights of winter at her village they still remembered the outrages of Napoleon’s troops during the siege of Astorga, in 1810!

Every Wednesday I had a cup of tea with the secretaries of the department, which gave me the opportunity to know a world without so much testosterone, because in Japanese engineering departments most of the female presence is the secretaries. With one of them I had the fortune to know the famous Tea Ceremony, which combines a subject so ordinary as preparing a cup of tea with Noo dramatic aesthetics and transcendental philosophy of Zen. A prodigy. And thanks to another of the secretaries, of one the oldest families in Nagoya, I watched the ceremonies of a School of Buddhism called Pure Land. Her father was the last priest of an uninterrupted lineage that went back four hundred years! to a samurai ancestor who, regretting having killed several people, put down the sword and retired to a temple in which he lived for the rest of his days.

While reciting mantras in Pemayangtse, I remembered my grandmother, who used to sit every evening in the same place, rosary in hand, softly murmuring Hail Marys. Unfortunately, the wisdom behind this ancient spiritual technology is in the risk of disappearing. The rosaries have fallen back to the extremes of the social spectrum; on one hand they represent the quintessence of intolerance but on the other they appear as a symbol of transgression. This curious effect, in which the symbols disappear on one side to reappear on the contrary, is quite curious.

At the end of the recitation week, I saw the arrival of a couple who I was sure I had met before though I couldn’t remember where. In the following interim, he approached me and asked, “Do you remember me?” Then I realized it. We had met in Japan, in the apartment of a mutual friend because we all shared a similar interest on Buddhism. He had recently been married to his Japanese girlfriend, and they were traveling in Tibet and northern India.

“It’s a small world,” I thought. But the unexpected encounters wouldn’t stop there, for just a while after, my friend, the Californian biker, arrived, and also in the company of a Japanese girl. Later on, he confessed me he felt something very strong for this person. “Love?,” I asked and his answer was a shy smile (apparently, the emotional trip was more interesting than hiking on the Himalayas, since he hardly said anything about the second).

The last day of recitation, the crowd gathered at the monastery was so large that we all were a little bit compressed. A monk approached me and said, “Come up on stage with us.” He meant the area reserved for the monks. I could not help blushing, but using unequivocal gestures with my hands, I refused, “No, no. Thanks, but I’m not a monk.”

“Not yet,” he replied, still laughing (That was actually a right prediction). At the end of the session, the Californian and I got to the stage to offer a kata to the venerable monk who presided over the meeting. I also bid him farewell, grateful for having had the privilege of sharing those days with the exceptional community of monks and laymen gathered at Pemayangtse. Just before I left, I approached the monk I had talked earlier with. “How many recitations we got?,” I asked. “We exceeded twenty millions,” he answered grinning.

That night, all the foreigners met in a terrace of Pelling to celebrate our farewell: two Japanese, one American, one Belgian, one French (the saxophonist) and one Spaniard (myself). For the last weeks, even up there, the news about the war in Iraq had arrived, so the topic arose.

“The war may be a solution, but it’s the worst,” said the Belgian. The Californian admitted, “I’m ashamed of my government. Those of us who travel without seeking the “McDonalds” or “Starbucks” at each place we visit, we know (he emphasized the word) there are more things that unite than divide us.” His Japanese friend said, “The love of the mothers for their children is the same all over the world,” and the other Japanese added, “Likewise the pain for their loss.” On the roof of the world, with a shameful war on our left, and an epidemic called SARS on our right, the only way to maintain sanity seemed to have been discovered by the French guy: he drew his saxophone and played a piece of jazz! Before parting, we all hugged wishing the best for a world, beautiful in spite of a few’s insanity.

A well-trained mind develops ethical behavior, not out of imposition, indoctrination or superstitious fear, but as a natural consequence of seeing things for what they are, i.e. as profound insights into causal mechanisms operating in the totality of the structures of life. The ethos derived from such wisdom steers life in a way that is conducive to the elimination of suffering.

The importance of cultivating the ethical dimension of our personality to make sound progress in our spiritual path cannot be emphasized enough. Any action of body, speech and mind volitionally introduced into the fabric of the universe will bring back an equivalent response when the conditions make it possible.

This simple rule of cause and effect -popularly known as karma- must be observed with fine attention if we do not want to be overwhelmed by all kind of difficulties, both external and internal, that affect our physical and mental health. The path is already difficult enough without the extra problems caused by unskillfully dealing with karma. Awakening does not mean complete elimination of karma, but thoroughly understanding its functioning.

Our recent history on the teaching of meditation for westerners has already left us with very revealing aspects to how this should be, or at least how it should not be, conducted. In the 60s and 70s, many westerners used the writings of D. T. Suzuki to justify a way of life diametrically opposed to the one envisaged by him. In talking about how to ‘uninstall’ the ego, Suzuki took for granted that the Dao would manifest, whereas it was the uninhibited assertion of self-willed instincts that occurred.

Zen expects that one must be rooted in virtue. This assumption might have been present in the social elite of some eastern societies, but not necessarily in western ones. Therefore, any responsible teaching about meditation must include virtue as an integral aspect of the practice.

Positive thinking is a subject that has gained popularity recently, yet it is an old and well-known spiritual technique. The emphasis in the embracing and holistic intention of traditional forms marks the main difference between a genuine spiritual approach and the more self-centered one of modern motivational methods.

The typical modern objective of positive thinking could be formulated in terms of boosting one’s attitude and of promoting self growth. This promotion and reinforcement of the self is also the main goal of modern psychotherapy. There is nothing wrong with this approach when it is targeted to the mentally disturbed, who may be lacking self esteem or be prone to apathy, but it should be noted that, for real growth, such approach is limited since it lacks a genuine spiritual dimension.

Therefore, an authentic positive mind must be imbued with wholesome thoughts that anticipate happiness, joy, health and a successful outcome of every situation and action, not only for the sake of oneself but for all living beings.

A few days ago it was my birthday, today is that of my youngest brother, and a few days before it was also that of our brother in between. Tomorrow we will have a reunion to celebrate that we are getting old. Somehow, I recollected the episode of a text, the Shurangama Sutra, that I translated into Spanish while living in a monastery at California. The title of the episode could be: “Not everything gets old.” The following is a translation into English by the BTTS available online. There is a newer version, also by BTTS, that you can order online at this site, highly recommendable.

Then King Prasenajit rose and said to the Buddha, “In the past, when I had not yet received the teachings of the Buddha, I met Katyayana and Vairatiputra, both of whom said that this body is annihilated after death, and that this is nirvana. Now, although I have met the Buddha, I still have doubts about their words. How much I wish to be enlightened to the ways and means to perceive and realize the true mind, thereby proving that it transcends production and extinction! All those who have outflows also wish to be instructed on this subject.”

The Buddha said to the great king, “Now I ask you, as it is now is your physical body like vajra, indestructible and living forever? Or does it change and go bad?”

“World Honored One, this body of mine will keep changing until it eventually becomes extinct.”

The Buddha said, “Great king, you have not yet become extinct. How do you know you will become extinct?”

“World Honored One, although my impermanent, changing, and decaying body has not yet become extinct, I observe it now, and every passing thought fades away. Each new one fails to remain, but gradually perishes like fire turning to ashes. This perishing without cease convinces me that this body will eventually become completely extinct.”

The Buddha said, “So it is.”

“Great king, at your present age you are already old and declining. How do your appearance and complexion compare to when you were a youth?”

“World Honored One, in the past when I was young my skin was moist and shining. When I reached the prime of life, my blood and breath were full. But now in my declining years, as I race into old age, my form is withered and wizened and my spirit dull. My hair is white and my face is in wrinkles and I haven’t much time remaining. How can I be compared to how I was when I was full of life?”

The Buddha said, “Great king, your appearance should not decline so suddenly.”

The king said, “World Honored One, the change has been a hidden transformation of which I honestly have not been aware. I have come to this gradually through the passing of winters and summers.

“How did it happen? In my twenties, I was still young, but my features had aged since the time I was ten. My thirties were a further decline from my twenties, and now at sixty-two I look back on my fifties as hale and hearty.

“World Honored One, I am contemplating these hidden transformations. Although the changes wrought by this process of dying are evident through the decades, I might consider them further in finer detail: these changes do not occur just in periods of twelve years; there are actually changes year by year. Not only are there yearly changes, there are also monthly transformations. Nor does it stop at monthly transformations; there are also differences day by day. Examining them closely, I find that kshana by kshana, thought after thought, they never stop.

“And so I know my body will keep changing until it is extinct.”

The Buddha told the great king, “By watching the ceaseless changes of these transformations, you awaken and know of your extinction, but do you also know that at the time of extinction there is something in your body which does not become extinct?”

King Prasenajit put his palms together and exclaimed, “I really do not know.”

The Buddha said, “I will now show you the nature which is not produced and not extinguished.

“Great king, how old were you when you saw the waters of the Ganges?”

The king said, “When I was three years old my compassionate mother led me to visit the Goddess Jiva. We passed a river, and at the time I knew it was the waters of the Ganges.”

The Buddha said, “Great king, you have said that when you were twenty you had deteriorated from when you were ten. Day by day, month by month, year by year until you have reached your sixties, in thought after thought there has been change. Yet when you saw the Ganges River at the age of three, how was it different from when you were thirteen?”

The king said, “It was no different from when I was three, and even now when I am sixty-two it is still no different.”

The Buddha said, “Now you are mournful that your hair is white and your face is wrinkled. In the same way that your face is definitely more wrinkled than it was in your youth, has the seeing with which you look at the Ganges aged, so that it is old now but was young when you looked at the river as a child in the past?”

The king said, “No, World Honored One.”

The Buddha said, “Great king, your face is in wrinkles, but the essential nature of your seeing has not yet wrinkled. What wrinkles is subject to change. What does not wrinkle does not change.

“What changes will become extinct, but what does not change is fundamentally free of production and extinction. How can it be subject to your birth and death? So you have no need to be concerned with what Maskari Goshaliputra and the others say: that when this body dies, you cease to exist.”

The king believed the words that he had heard, and he understood that when we leave this body, we go on to another. He and all the others in the great assembly were elated at having gained this new understanding.

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"José Vega has written an extraordinary book. He has turned history upside down. I strongly recommend Sailors of Stonehenge."
–Gavin Menzies, author of 1421 and The Lost Empire of Atlantis

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