November 16, 2014

The temperatures have cooled and life has slowed down significantly here in Bodhgaya over the last week or two. Last Friday was the last day for teaching I’ve since enjoyed a few days of grading, paperwork, catching up with people, and a general, relieved sense of laziness. On Thursday I went out for Lhabab Düchen, one of the most important days of the year in Tibetan Buddhism, and made my way to the Mahabodhi Temple.

On that day it is said that one’s good or bad deeds are multiplied by 10 million times, so one would be smart to engage in as many virtuous activities as one can. And for most Buddhists, one of the great virtuous things one can do is to visit holy places, such as the Mahabodhi Temple, where one can ‘turn one’s mind’ most easily and fully toward the activities and qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Once there, I meditated, said prayers for Thich Nhat Hanh, and did rounds of kora (circumambulation) around the inner and outer circles at the temple. And, as I did last time I was here, on one round I took some photos to share:

1 rickshaw driver
My rickshaw driver and some of the shops en route to the temple from the Burmese Vihar. The ride is set at a fixed price of 10 rupees, or about 20 cents, US, for the 5-10 minute journey.
2 gandhi statue and market
The “Gandhi Chok” (statue), and main marketplace near the temple. Here the fruit sellers had mostly ended their day and were breaking down shop or were gone already. Above them, closer to the temple, are mostly goods-sellers (including shoes, locks, knives and other household/kitchen items) and a number of small shops.


3 front steps of the mahabodhi temple
This is the view as one first enters the temple (just passed the second security stop-point). Here one can stay on the outer kora circuit or go down the steps to the inner one.
10 stupa and gate
Moving further into the temple. This is the recreation of a gateway to the temple originally installed by the Emperor Ashoka.
12 redressing the Buddha inside the stupa
The inner sanctum with a 5 foot tall gilded statue in earth-touching mudra. Here he is having his robes changed by a Theravadin monk.
11 first side of the Bodhi tree
Here we’re at the West side of the stupa facing north toward the Bodhi tree (you can see a few leaves in the upper left) and the Diamond Throne (behind the railings), where the Buddha meditated at the time of his awakening.
6 Chinese group facing the Bodhi tree
Directly in front of the Bodhi tree, pictured here, there is a small passageway to this wide open area to the west of the stupa. This is the area used when large gatherings such as the Tibetan Mon lams take place. Here a group of Chinese or Taiwanese are chanting and prostrating toward the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
4 Theravadin side of the Bodhi tree
On the other side of the tree and Diamond Throne. Here the Bodhi tree can be seen much more clearly as it reaches out over the meditators. On the left here we see the start of the Jeweled Ambulatory, where the Buddha paced back and forth in the 3rd week after his awakening.
9 Mahabodhi stupa from the south
On the outer pathway facing the stupa from the south; here a monk circumambulates in a middle pathway.
5 East Asian corner women adding gold leaf
Here again the raised platform where the Buddha walked in his 3rd week can be seen in the lower right of the picture. At center is the north-east corner of the stupa where Chinese or Taiwanese women are adding gold leaf to the stupa as an offering.
8 Both stupas
On the outer pathway, facing west-north-west.
7 Second stupa
The stupa and either the Ratnaghar Chaitya (on the right), where the Buddha spent his fourth week – or  this is where the Ajapala Nigrodh Tree was, where the Buddha told some Brahmans that it is by deeds that one is called a Brahman, not by birth, in his fifth week.
13 offerings, flowers and lamps
And last but not least, an offering left inside a small meditation/worship hall on the east side of the stupa. The bowl on the left appears to have the Shaivite triple line, or tripund. This serves as a reminder that the temple is also revered by Hindus, who see the Buddha as the 9th and most recent avatar of Vishnu.


October 8, 2014

This full moon is an especially significant one in Buddhism, and we spent the late afternoon and moon-rise (around 5:15pm) at the Japanese Temple practicing Soto Zen. After the practice we emerged to see this:full moon in Bodhgaya

It must have been just the last moments of the eclipse.

These are busy times, I’m afraid, so I’ll offer you just this image and a couple clippings from around the web to tell you more about Pavarana:

Pavarana is a Buddhist holy day celebrated on Aashvin full moon of the lunar month. It marks the end of the 3 lunar months of Vassa, sometimes called “Buddhist Lent.” This day marks the end of the rainy season in some Asian countries like Thailand, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. On this day, each monk (Pali: bhikkhu) must come before the community of monks (Sangha) and atone for an offense he may have committed during the Vassa. (wiki)

And thus kicks off Kathina, a time of offerings from the lay community toward monastics:

Kathina is a Buddhist festival which comes at the end of Vassa, the three-month rainy season retreat for Theravada Buddhists.The season during which a monastery may hold a Kathina festival is one month long, beginning after the full moon of the eleventh month in the Lunar calendar (usually October).

It is a time of giving, for the laity to express gratitude to monks. Lay Buddhists bring donations to temples, especially new robes for the monks. (wiki)

September 26, 2014

September is a strange time in Bodhgaya. It’s stretched between the hot and muggy monsoon season of N.E. India and the gradual onset of the cool season. Over the three weeks we’ve been here, the temperatures have gone up and down (highs ranging from around 95F/35C to a cool 85F /29C) but the humidity has steadily dropped from the stultifying 85+% to a merciful 65% during the day.

It is still low season for tourists, so we get the city and her 38,000 or so inhabitants mostly to ourselves. Life is slow.

People sit, work, joke, gossip, and play in the streets all over town. But just about every week, almost out of nowhere, a new festival springs up: music is blasted, people walk around town banging drums, kids dance behind mobile discos – trucks with speakers and lights slowly cruising the main streets, and we’re all reminded that we are indeed in India.

We have also seen an estimated 500,000 Hindu pilgrims come through town over a 16 day period known as Pitrupaksha:

According to Hinduism, the souls of three preceding generations of one’s ancestor reside in Pitru–loka, a realm between heaven and earth. This realm is governed by Yama, the god of death, who takes the soul of a dying man from earth to Pitru–loka. When a person of the next generation dies, the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God, so Shraddha offerings are not given. Thus, only the three generations in Pitru–loka are given Shraddha rites, in which Yama plays a significant role. According to the sacred Hindu epics (Itihasa), at the beginning of Pitru Paksha, the sun enters the zodiac sign of Libra (Thula). Coinciding with this moment, it is believed that the spirits leave Pitru–loka and reside in their descendants’ homes for a month until the sun enters the next zodiac—Scorpio (Vrichchhika)—and there is a full moon. Hindus are expected to propitiate the ancestors in the first half, during the dark fortnight.

And the last couple days have seen the city transforming, perhaps only temporarily, into something of a modern town, complete with freshly paved roads and lines on those roads (never mind that the lines are completely ignored by all traffic). There are signs apologizing for the inconvenience of sewage work in progress and a Bodhgaya Tourism Information center appearing out of nowhere, along with bus stops (though no known buses) and public urinals (which seem to be just walls built around places formerly used as open urinals). All of this is thanks to a government effort to sell Bodhgaya as a hot new tourism site to tour operators and officials from around the globe. I’ll see if I can sneak in tomorrow to get a peak at what is being promised (though the paved roads are already a major bonus and a fancy underground sewage system would definitely spruce things up around here – assuming it gets built).

Looking forward to October, I think we should see a few more Hindu festivals (Navaratri has just begun and will be in full swing over the next week or so), and perhaps an influx of Burmese pilgrims, followed by waves of Buddhists from various other countries – the biggest groups won’t come until late November though. For now, here’s a bit of what it looks like in Bodhgaya:

Not actually Bodhgaya, at all. This is from the plane as we passed over Afghanistan on the London-Delhi flight. The mountains were all pure brown in reality, but a polarization gave them this range of beautiful colors.
A stupa at the Tibet House in Delhi, thanking India for its hospitality to refugees over the decades.
The Mahabodhi temple as seen from my roof at the Burmese Vihar.
School-kids heading home from a day in Bodhgaya during Pitrupaksha.
Pitrupaksha pilgrims.
Busy times around the city center.
A rickshaw driver, one of the few with beards that I’ve seen around here.
City center market. The rickshaw there is completely electric and quiet and (judging from the one I took, also lacking a horn, which is really amazing for anyone who has spent any time in Bodhgaya).
A Pitrupaksha pilgrim visiting the Maha Bodhi Vihara.
Kids playing in Bodhgaya / the village of Pacchati.
A main street in Pacchati, on the ‘short-cut’ from our Burmese Vihar to the Mahabodhi Temple.
Also along the short-cut road through Pacchati.
Rickshaw at night next to the Kalachakra grounds.
I <3 NY in Bodhgaya.
Pitrupaksha pilgrims.
A local perhaps, or maybe a Pitrupaksha pilgrim.
From my own favorite pilgrimage site: the Be Happy Cafe.
More from that walk through Pacchati.
Cows, ducks, goats, pigs, you name it, you’ll find it in Pacchati.
This adorable young lady shouted at me to take her picture, so I obliged. Her smile got even bigger when she saw the pic on my camera’s screen.
Veg vendors and shops outside the Burmese Vihar.
One afternoon I walked through Pacchati with my colleague, Andrea. She went in to a small shrine where adults were chanting while I stuck around outside. Within seconds I was surrounded by kids shouting at me to take their pictures. (Does anyone with a background in medicine know what might be going on with this kid’s eye?)
Pretty soon it was clear that having a picture taken became secondary to ordinary playing around.
kids being kids.
En route to Tergar monastery (aka the Karmapa’s place), along the half of the road that hadn’t yet been improved as per the tourism expo.
A quick selfie at Tergar with Gaurav-ji, our extraordinary Hindi teacher and fellow philosopher.
Return journey from Tergar.

May 27, 2019

Nearly every week I encounter the idea that Buddhism should somehow be kept ‘pure’ and separate from our ordinary, mundane lives. For many, it seems, Buddhism must exist in an ethereal realm apart from the mess and muck of relationships, jobs, politics, the environment, etc, etc. Generally this seems to come from people who have lived comfortable lives of privilege. Buddhism for them is a little additional pillow of comfort. 
Part of this is likely due to the romanticization of modernist Buddhism. This “Buddhism” is largely a product of well-off, comfortable white men, “discovered” in ancient texts (the way Columbus “discovered” America). In contrast to these pure texts, ordinary people practicing Buddhism have been seen as disappointing, purveyors of “superstition” that must have been imported later, or “cultural accretions” that could be safely peeled away to give way to something truer. 
Another part of this is likely the ‘disembodied’ nature of many individuals today. How many of us work the soil where our vegetables are grown, or care for birthing livestock that provide our meat or dairy. We can, provided enough money, float like gods through the world (at least while we’re young). And yet again this applies most clearly to folks like me: white, male, at the moment financially comfortable. If I hadn’t been exposed to (and listened to) countless women, I might not know that few women feel this freedom. Recent abortion laws underscore this for some. Special restrictions put on women: women driving, women wearing certain clothes, the policing of women’s hair, the unfair scrutiny of women in politics on down throughout the whole workforce. People of color too face daily reminders in their own lives and in the news, reminders that the world has a hold on them.
Redressing the Buddha inside the Mahabodhi stupa, Bodhgaya, India (photo by the author, 2014)

For those of us free of such added burdens, Buddhism can help challenge our ‘god-like’ floating ignorance of this suffering around us. But that takes work. And it takes getting into uncomfortable spaces. But if we are serious about practicing Buddhism, instead of merely placing it delicately on our mantle this is the work we must do. In this practice, we inevitably come into contact with others, with their perspectives, their sufferings (structural, individual, etc), and as Buddhism teaches that ultimately, suffering is suffering, we engage in the work of alleviating that suffering and understanding those perspectives.

William Edelglass offers a compelling discussion of this practice, setting perspectives of Buddhism into conversation with Western philosophy:
“Buddhism offers a vast tradition of philosophical and moral reflection. But traditions endure only to the degree to which they address the experience and concerns of each new generation. Our contemporary concerns include justice and inequality, navigating difference in multicultural societies, climate change, and the pervasiveness of information technology. Discerning how to speak, act, and think skillfully in our contemporary context requires us to engage with these concerns. As Buddhists, we should not be afraid of drawing on Western thought when it can help with this engagement.”
Any “Buddhism” kept separate from contemporary concerns will be like a delicate flower transported to an unsuitable environment, attractive, but stripped of context, meaning, and purpose – and with an inevitably short life.
But the discussion must go both ways: not just applying Buddhist wisdom to our contemporary concerns, but also allowing Buddhism to critique those concerns. Edelglass writes:
To appreciate the ways classical Buddhist texts can challenge our thinking, we should be aware of the interpretive frameworks through which we encounter them. For many of us, that means the cultural and philosophical orientations of Western modernity. Western thought can help us understand why we might find appealing a form of Buddhism that de-emphasizes tradition, mythology, and ritual and valorizes psychology, creativity, nature, social engagement, and the affirmation of this life and the present moment. Classical Buddhist texts speak to us from outside our own discourse and challenge us to think differently; if we don’t understand our interpretive frameworks, however, we may just see a projection of our own creation.
For Buddhism to work, it must work in people, in our frameworks, in our lives. But for Buddhism to work it must be understood: historically, contextually, critically, carefully. This is the dialectic, the discussion. For the idealized “scholar” there is no personal life brought to Buddhism. What is found and examined and understood is as lifeless and cold as a cadaver. For the overly naive practitioner, Buddhism is twisted into the “projection” Edelglass mentions. Sometimes the scholar encounters the naive beginner and, having failed to live even an ounce of the subject matter, pounce with scorn on the naivete and misunderstandings of the human being before them.
Somewhere the two ends of the discussion must meet, often slowly but surely. The scholar “discovers” that some of this is actually meaningful, or correct, or useful in their life, perhaps humbling them to sit beside the newcomer in meditation or at a retreat. The newcomer likewise must realize that Buddhism has existed for 2500 years outside of their head – in the lives of other people. Perhaps, having calmed some of their own mental wanderings, they can sit down and read a book, compare notes of scholar, examine some source material, etc. The two come together. Perhaps the experiential insights of the practitioner can be used to guide the scholar in their own journey of introspection, just as much as the historical and schematic data from the scholar can help guide the student.
February 11, 2019

In “Life in Red – A Journey from Sydney Suburbs to Nagpur Slums” Tibetan Buddhist nun (or Bhikkhuni in Pali), Ayya Yeshe speaks of her journey into Tibetan Buddhism, her disillusionment with what she describes as “internalized patriarchy, [not] just our bad karma [as nuns or females]”, and her move to India, where she found it easier than Australia to live as a monastic.

In a beautifully filmed video, Yeshe offers us an insider’s view of what a woman might encounter as a Western nun. You can read more about her life as a “second class citizen” for Tricycle in 2017; that article begins “By paying lip service to female empowerment but not materially supporting Western female monastics, we leave them—and the future of Tibetan Buddhism in the West—in doubt.”

In the video, Ayya Yeshe notes the 75% disrobing rate and the institutional structures that limit women. Seeing this and having a “crisis of faith,” she asks, s “what is the true essence of your religion, and what is cultural baggage, what is cultural overlay? What is something that is transcendent, and what is something that is being used to keep the powerful in power and oppress the vast majority?”

In a particularly moving piece of the video, Ayya Yeshe recounts a time in Bodhgaya, seeing very wealthy temples filled with foreign Buddhists and tall walls topped with barbed wire living in a bubble. Meanwhile the local population lives in deep poverty, locked outside those walls. She asks herself, if the Buddha were here today, which side would he be on?

It is this kind of question that lies at the center of Engaged Buddhism, purposefully looking at the world and asking how the teachings fit in our real everyday lives. This is opposed to a tendency to individualistically consume Dharma (teachings) and practices.

Progressive Buddhism

Elsewhere, Ayya Yeshe’s move beyond tradition and clearly critiquing its failings (in this case the failure to widely support monastic women) is at the heart of Progressive Buddhism, a new trend in Buddhism to openly critique tradition where it is in conflict with helping the world today. This is not an ideological critique such as might be lobbied by Cardinal Ratzinger (see here or here) or Zizek (here or here); it is a critique based from firmly within Buddhist practice and ideals.

Progressive Buddhism, like Engaged Buddhism, isn’t a new school or sect. It is, instead, an approach to Buddhism which asks, in humility and openness, “what can we do better? What really needs to change in our own tradition to better serve humanity?” In a sense this must have been done throughout Buddhist history, as Buddhists have encountered new (to them) practices and ideas and adopted them.

As Linda Heuman wrote in 2011 in “Whose Buddhism is Truest“, the Buddhist tradition(s) has always been one of a certain degree of flow and change and as we all come to understand this, it “may well blow away outdated, parochial barriers between traditions and help bring Buddhism into line with the pluralistic climate of our times.”

I’ve written about Sebene Selassie as a “hero of Progressive Buddhism”, and suggested a (very) rough outline of Progressive Buddhism for the Progressive Buddhism Blog. When Buddhists look seriously at historical critiques of inequality, even where they’ve occurred within Buddhism: they’re being progressive. When Buddhists take seriously the potential of Western psychologists and neuroscientists to evaluate and even scrutinize traditional techniques and practices: they’re being progressive. When Buddhists make dealing with climate change a central concern of their lives, they’re being progressive.

She writes:

At Bodhicitta foundation, we change hundreds of lives each year. We make 6000 meals per year, have a girls home and educate 300 children through our programmes, as well as helping women start their own businesses in tailoring, computers, beauty therapy and more!

Your small change could change a life!

Donations are tax deductible in Australia.

Ayya Yeshe is an Australian Buddhist nun, socially engaged activist, aspiring bodhisattva and mystic traveler. She is the founder of the Bodhicitta Foundation in India and splits her time between India and Australia. Her teachers are Sakya Trizen (the second highest Lama in Tibetan Buddhism) and Ven Thich Nhat Hanh, the Nobel Peace Prize poet and peace activist. Ayya Yeshe is the author of ‘Everyday Enlightenment‘ published by Harper Collins and is featured in the documentaries ‘life beyond the begging bowl’ and ‘Through the Eastern Gate‘. She is also made a Buddhist chanting CD with one of Australia’s top world music groups – India Jiva called ‘Dakini’.

She recently contributed the following to American Buddhist Perspectives:

Buddhists Need to Make More Room for Understanding Anger

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December 8, 2018

December 8 is the day that Japanese Zen schools celebrate Rohatsu, also known as the Buddha’s enlightenment day (Japanese: Jōdō-e, 成道会). Many Zen Buddhists mark this day often the week leading up to it with diligent practice, as James Ford (from Monkey Mind) did in 2013; and here’s his post-Rohatsu sesshin post from that year as well as his post from 2015 in which he recounts the awakening of the Buddha thus:

So, Gautama decides if there is truth to be known, it must be found in our human body, and it must be accessible. And he recalled from his childhood, how once he sat under an apple tree and in the quiet of the day was overcome with bliss.

Following this intuition he settled himself under the branches of a fig tree, and he just sat. His mind traced the course of his life. He experienced again all his hopes and aspirations, all his successes and failures, looked at the stories he had woven out of these experiences, and as each thought arose after acknowledging it, he let it go. He just sat.

Now, this is a story, so a lot went on around him. Angels and gods came to witness the birth of something special. And delusion, the deity of ignorance worried that the time of his reign over the world was coming to an end did everything he could to stop it from happening. He manifested in a hundred different ways, offering sex and power, the fulfillment of every desire, and the quenching of every resentment in just vengeance.

But Gautama, acknowledged each thing, and returned to presence. He just kept sitting. Some versions of the story had him pass through forty-five days, others three days, and some a single day and a single night.

But then it happened. As the morning star arose he glanced up. And he understood. [read more]

In the Western Buddhist world, it is probably the second best known Buddhist holiday after Vesak (Pali: Vesākha), which is still celebrated according to the lunar calendar, taking place on the full moon usually occurring in the Gregorian months of April, May, or June.

Borrowing from a post in 2011:

This week we celebrated Rohatsu, the Japanese Buddhist celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For Theravadins, he was born, enlightened, and died on Vesak, which falls in May or June in many places, or April in China, Japan, Korea according to wikipedia – which seems to mean that Japanese Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment twice. In any case, along with very nice messages from Shako Yuinen at the Buddhist Military Blog, James at the Buddhist Blog, and Uku at Zen – the Possible Way, came a very poignant story of redemption and acceptance through practice.

Marking the occasion this year I’ll be grading a large stack of student essays on Buddhism, a practice that is both enriching and humbling. Likewise, as I did back in 2013 and 2015, I’ll re-share some of my photos from Bodhgaya from 2010. Wishing all a day of peace, reflection, calm, and ease in all of our perfect imperfection.

Mahabodhi stupa at night
The Mahabodhi stupa at night.
East Asian Nuns chanting at the Mahabodhi Stupa.

East Asian Nuns chanting at the Mahabodhi Stupa.
Young Tibetan monks waiting for the Karmapa in Bodh Gaya.
Young Tibetan monks waiting for the Karmapa in Bodh Gaya.
Theravadin monks at the Mahabodhi Stupa.
Theravadin monks at the Mahabodhi Stupa.
One of the many Buddha images around the base of the Mahabodhi Stupa.

One of the many Buddha images around the base of the Mahabodhi Temple.

The Gotama Buddha image inside the Mahabodhi Temple.
The Gotama Buddha image inside the Mahabodhi Temple.

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October 26, 2017

Ring in the New Year in India

My friend Valerie Hellerman and I will be bringing a small group to India, starting Dec 28, for 14 days on a “Footsteps of the Buddha” and cultural/religious history of India journey with special focus on Buddhism’s holiest city, Bodhgaya. Our journey will be an opportunity to experience New Year’s Eve on the holy river Ganga (Ganges) in Varanasi before welcoming 2018 in Bodhgaya, and closing with a return to New Delhi to see the opulence of British Imperialism along with a final journey back in time to the Taj Mahal, a monument of superb architecture, serene beauty, and loving devotion from the days of Muslim or Mughal rule over North India.

Our goal is to see Indian history in comfort but not detachment or idealized romanticism. India is the home of over 1 billion people today and retains perhaps the world’s greatest diversity of deeply rooted traditions, cultures, languages, and religions. Together we will explore these and, in particular, we will experience the Buddha’s life and teachings, by walking the dusty roads and trails where the Buddha once walked and taught. We leave Lumbini and Kapilavastu, where the Buddha was born and passed away, off of our itinerary to allow for a deeper connection with the holy cities that we do visit. This isn’t a “rush and see the sights, take a photo and go” tour, but rather a pilgrimage and opportunity for personal growth and inner reflection.



I have lived in Bodhgaya twice (in the fall of 2010 and 2014) teaching Buddhist Philosophy for the Antioch Education Abroad program, housed in the Burmese Monastery.  In my time there I have visited Varanasi and Delhi numerous times, as well as other cities including Kolkata, Dharamsala, and Pune in the south. In my studies I have also visited Thailand, Burma, Taiwan, and Korea and embarked on three “Woodenfish” Buddhism in China experiences (once as a student and twice as teaching faculty).

My meditation background runs through numerous traditions, beginning with the FWBO (now Triratna), leading into Vipassana – with several retreats under Matthew Flickstein and one with John Travis, Tibetan study and practice, including attending teachings from H.H. the Karmapa in Bodhgaya and H.H. the Dalai Lama in his home temple in Dharamsala, and Zen practice with study-retreats in Taiwan and China along with a current practice in the Boundless Way Zen tradition.

As we travel, we’ll talk about the particular cultures and practices of each holy site, meeting practitioners, engaging in yoga and meditation ourselves and stepping out of the craziness of Western drama and news cycles. 

Valerie Hellermann and her husband Norman Rostocki are the founders of Hands on Global Travel, a fully insured travel service registered in the state of Montana created to provide alternative international trips  – travel with a purpose. Valerie spent over ten years as the project manager for the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation, a Montana based non-profit. A former nurse, she has turned her attention to organizing trips abroad. Valerie works directly with international NGO’s striving to build a stronger global community.

Valerie has organized and led MANY trips to India, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, Morocco, West Africa and Central America.

India truly transports you to a different state of mine, fostering deep reflection on one’s life and world. I look forward to co-guiding this journey for you, providing historical and cultural information as well as teachings on the Buddha’s thought and meditation techniques as we visit Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and other historical sites.

New Delhi, Sarnath, Varanasi

Dec 27 – we fly out of USA (or other place of origin) toward India.

Dec 28 – arrival in New Delhi. Our journey will begin in New Delhi, where participants will be given a short time to adjust to India. We will spend the night in the Lemon Tree Premier Hotel, not far from the international and domestic airports.

Dec 29 – fly to Varanasi (a short domestic flight, under 2 hours).

In Varanasi we will stay at the Hotel Temple on Ganges, just off the famous Assi Ghat along the Ganges River. The 29th will be another day of relaxation and acclimation. From our hotel you can venture to the ghats or local markets, to a host of nearby tourist shopping areas, or into and through ancient winding roads along the river. I will be available to offer impromptu classes on the history and life of Varanasi, also known as Kashi, city of light, as well as guided (or unguided) meditations.

Dec 30 – Activities in Varanasi. Explore Varanasi with professional guides, take an optional yoga class, and enjoy a private concert in the evening with the group.Dec 31 – Today we will embark on a  long day-trip to Sarnath,  where we will explore the stupa at Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first teaching. We will have time to visit the museum there as well as the Central University of Tibetan Studies where my old friend Pema Tenzin teaches. Returning to Varanasi, we will watch an Aarti (a Hindu religious ceremony) on the river.  Part of the significance of this ritual is to honor the life-giving force of mother nature (Mother Ganges or Ganga Mata) which has sustained this city and her people for countless generations.

Photos from Varanasi and Sarnath (Copyright Justin Whitaker, 2010)

Jan 1 – Our final day in Varanasi will be New Year’s day, where we can watch a morning Aarti on the river, ride up the river to the “Burning Ghats” where devout Hindus are cremated at their holiest site along the river.

What better way to let go of 2017 and open to the possibilities of the new year?

Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Vulture’s Peak

Our second morning of 2018 will be spent saying goodbye to Varanasi as we make our way to Bodhgaya by car (or private bus). These highways are relatively recently paved and have very little traffic (in fact, the most likely cause of a traffic jam would be a farmer bringing musk ox across the road in a particularly rural patch). It is a beautiful way to take in the sights and colors of rural India before arriving in Buddhism’s holiest city: Bodhgaya.

There we will spend FIVE days exploring the many temples and holy sites of the city, as well as venturing off on optional trips to Nalanda University (the world’s first university and home of many of Indian Buddhism’s greatest scholars, including Shantideva) and Rajgir, home of Vulture’s Peak, where the Buddha delivered many of his most famous teachings. We will also have a guided journey into the countryside across the Falgu river to Pragbodhi or Dungeswari Cave, where the Buddha is said to have meditated before his awakening.

Our housing will be at the Hotel Lumbini International and meals will be held there as well as the nearby Hotel Sujata and the Royal Residency (a.k.a. the place where Richard Gere stays). From our hotel it is a 5-minute walk to the 80-foot Buddha statue, to the Royal Bhutan Temple, the Japanese Temple and more and just 15 minutes to the Mahabodhi Temple or the Kalachakra grounds and the Be Happy Cafe (where they make amazing food and the best coffee in Bihar!).

Jan 9 – Free day:  we can relax or venture out on optional trips to to the Qutb Minar, Old Delhi, the National Museum and more. Cars will be arranged for a full day of sight-seeing.

Jan 10 – day-trip to the Taj Mahal. Flights out of Delhi to the US will be late this night, so we will pack our bags and leave them in arranged cars for the day as we venture to Agra for the day. The majestic Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of the cherished queen Mumtaz Mahal, will serve as our final place of respite and reflection in India. Though we will have seen signs of the Muslim presence in northern India, this building in many ways represents its height, built as an act of love and loss and combining Indian, Persian, and Islamic styles, and standing to this day as a testament to India’s incredible history.

From the Taj Mahal, we will take cars directly to the international airport.

Once registered, you will receive a pre-trip planner with information on travel immunizations you will want to check out, difficulties to expect, gear to pack, and more.

Cost: $3000 (plus you pay your own airfare to/from New Delhi). This will include all internal airfare, busses, taxis, hotels, guides, planned tours, and most meals – minimum of two meals per day, allowing some freedom for you to do your own thing at times. Registration deadline at current rate is Nov 15 – after that we might be able to take more people, but that is not guaranteed. 

Baksheesh or gift moneyit is recommended that you bring an additional $100-150 to be offered to guides, holy people, offerings at temples, etc in small amounts along the way. This is by no means required, but Indian society is very much one of giving to the poor, to the holy, and to those who offer service and guidance. We will help you along the way so that you understand the Indian etiquette of generosity.

*Possibly the Imperial Hotel,  an oasis in the busyness of New Delhi just off of Connaught Place.  Or the Metropolitan.

 If you are interested in joining us, please contact me at or Valerie at Hands On Global Travel.
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October 19, 2017

The post, which was taken down after circulating for around 24 hours, caused anger, sadness, and confusion as supporters discussed the immaturity and inappropriateness of the supposed joke. However, as a public posting it was archived and can be found elsewhere online.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, often addressed with the honorific “Rinpoche” and also known as Khyentse Norbu, is a well known Buddhist teacher, writer, and filmmaker from Bhutan. He caused ripples in the Tibetan Buddhist communities in August when he wrote a rambling 10,000 word-long letter both defending Sogyal Lakar’s abusive actions from within the Vajrayana context and questioning the very credentials that Lakar claimed to hold.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche - Bodhgaya 2014
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche – Bodhgaya 2014 (photo by author)

Tendencies to play victim

On Tuesday he posted a 16 page contract (linked below) with this introduction:

I thought this might come in handy for Rinpoches like myself who are not omniscient, not omnipotent, and not well trained; who don’t give enough preparatory training on the prerequisites to their students; and who get carried away by their own self-agendas and, from time to time, by their hormones.


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One response to the contract read, “Do you realize you’re associating this with Buddhism and kids are viewing this with confusion. Not as a joke. If this stays up I’m done man.” (emphasis added) Another commenter elsewhere suggested that for abuse victims, seeing such a thing publicly posted by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher might set them back in their healing process.

Is there Consent?

Another wrote, “It is none of my business. After all they are having sex with adults who are capable to give their consent. There are some students who do anything to get some favors or privileges out of the Rinpoches. And if they don’t get what they want, they turn against their

However, in a White Paper on Clergy Sexual Misconduct and Misuse of Power, Katherine Wiedman, Ph.D. and Leslie Hospodar of An Olive Branch write:

… Since clergy have a responsibility to set and maintain appropriate boundaries, those who are violated by clergy’s inappropriate sexual behavior are not to be blamed even if they initiated the contact.

The term ‘consenting adults’ also reflects a misunderstanding of sexual behavior between clergy and congregants. It is assumed that because two people are adults that there is consent. In reality, consent is far more complex. In order for two people to give authentic consent to sexual activity there must be equal power. Even if the congregant or student may initially be a willing participant in the faith leader’s misconduct. The fallacy is that he/she is a consenting participant because consent is not an option in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power.

A problem that has arisen, time and again, in conversations around this matter is that certain Zen and Tibetan teachers have convinced their students to give up their critical thinking faculties and to ignore their own sense of appropriate boundaries. Currently there are no checks on Buddhist teachers to prevent sexual and physical abuse. Given that Sogyal Lakar’s abuse goes back decades, with one student settling a 1994 $10 million lawsuit out of court, it is likely that other prominent Tibetan Buddhist teachers knew or had reason to know that he was an active sexual predator and abuser.


The Dalai Lama recently spoke out about courageously toppling certain “rotten” institutions including “some Tibetan Lama” (namely the leader of Rigpa):
In the wake of #MeToo, it is all the more important to call out men who create jokes like this that normalize rape culture and toxic masculinity. Currently, many of the promulgators of this toxic culture are hiding behind terms like samaya, guru devotion, and Vajrayana. But a growing number are clear that student-teacher relationships must have boundaries, codes of ethics, and that consent is not a joke. Tenzin Peljor, a fully ordained monk living in Europe, has compiled a growing list of teachers who have ethical and/or legal claims out against them along with helpful articles for understanding various potentially controversial topics in Buddhism.
With his social media reach and global following, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is in a great position to push forward serious proposals to listen to women, first and foremost those who have been victims of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and to eliminate structures of violence.
The full “contract” posted at the Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse facebook page can be downloaded here (warning, language is graphic and not appropriate for children).
[11/01/17 UPDATE: The file(s) now can be found here, for the 17 page “contract”]
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