Greetings from Sarnath, home of Deer Park, where the historical Buddha shared his first teaching on how to stop suffering. Traveling to Sarnath is inconvenient. It’s uncomfortable. It’s crowded, hot and dirty. Pilgrims often get sick or cheated or if you are like me, angry with their rickshaw drivers who change their fee suddenly in the middle of bumper to bumper traffic. I am often forced here to confront a side of myself that is less than gracious. And this in itself is reason enough to come—to see the progress I have made in managing my emotions, and more specifically, the lack thereof. It helps me see where I still have work to do.
My teacher, Thrangu Rinpoche, has a monastery here, and he offers a program for Westerners once a year. That’s why I come, to spend 10 days listening to Dharma teachings. This year we studied Buddha Nature—the unchanging, ever-present potential we all have within us to fully realize the nature of mind, which according to these teachings, is essentially empty, and yet displays as luminous clarity. This is the nature of all apparent phenomena.
What happens on pilgrimage is that you observe this feature of experience with a bit more clarity; you see a side of yourself that is less apparent when surrounded by the comforts of material convenience. Things appear in a more vivid way, both “good” and “bad,” if I may use those terms. Because there really is no such thing. There is appropriate behaviour, and skillful means. But good and bad are completely subjective. We can talk ourselves into, or out of, anything.
Fortunately, these experiences of confronting oneself (and dealing with daily life in one of the poorest areas of India) can be used as proverbial grist for the mill. Basic Buddhist philosophy offers a practical map for how to make peace when you are pushed to your limits: when your patience is tested and you want to scream obscenities at your rickshaw driver.
The Buddha’s 4 seals provide the foundation for that map:
- All composite things are impermanent
- All that is defiled causes suffering
- All phenomena are empty of a self
- Nirvana is peace
When you start to recognize the edges of this map, and to discern where you are on it, it’s possible to take things less seriously. You can actually see the humour in things that might otherwise drive you nuts. This for me is the biggest reason to go on pilgrimage: to learn to make friends with and soften my rough edges.
Where can you lean into your discomfort a little more to confront your shadow side? How can you soften your rough edges? How can you make peace with your inner rickshaw driver?
Footnote: no actual tuk tuk drivers were killed, harmed, cheated or beaten for this experiment. One or two may have been slightly insulted.