March 07, 2008

Tricycle Pilgrimage to India, January 2008

The Tricycle pilgrimage to India was an eventful one, with so many sites visited we were all a bit winded by the end of it. This year, our unflappable Indian guide, Shantum Seth, took us down to the stone-temple caves of Ajanta and Ellora--truly spectacular.

Stephen Batchelor and Shantum led mediations and teachings, and most memorable for me--after Ajanta and Ellora--was our visit to Sanchi, in Madhaya Pradesh. Sanchi is the site of some of the most well-preserved stupas and examples of Buddhist architecture. Stone structures spanning centuries are perched high on a hill overlooking the plains below. The great thing about Sanchi is that it spans a period from the third to the twelfth centuries. The earliest structures show no representation of the Buddha at all, in keeping with the tradition's focus on the teachings, not the man. The appearance in later centuries of Buddha images almost feels like a loss--odd, since we ordinarily find them so comforting.

Which is perhaps an interesting point: I suppose it was inevitable we'd fill the void--in this case an empty throne flanked by deer evoking the Deer Park at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught--with something. Emptiness is a pretty big challenge.

Take a look at pictures our pilgrims took this year.
Especially notable are those of Craig Morton, from Austin, Texas, whose shots--especially his portraits--best capture the feel and tone of the tour.

Next year's In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimage is in the planning, so keep an eye peeled for news of it.

-James Shaheen
Editor & Publisher

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Gerald Ford's picture

Interesting quote by A.K. I guess the question would then be: what did the Buddha originally teach? I am not sure we'll ever know this 100%, given that we're relying on texts committed to writing 400+ years after he died. :(

Shankaracharya's picture

Buddhism as a religion has a unique history of assimilation and inclusion of cultural icons of the land into its fold. Buddhism in the west is becoming more of an ethical philosophy of rational empiricism. A.K. Coomaraswamy had said in early 1900's that “Buddhism is most famous today for everything it originally never taught”.

Gerald Ford's picture

Hi Phil,

It's interesting, but among the first people to build statues of the Buddha were none other than the Greeks. The Greeks of Bactria (now Pakistan/Afghanistan) carved lots of Greco-roman Buddhist art, which is among my favorite: a blend of the best the West had to offer with the wonderful teachings of the Buddha.

Interestingly too, some of the Greek figures end up being absorbed into East Asian Buddhism as minor, guardian figures. Reliefs from Bactria (and the city of Gandhara) show a figure that is considered to be Hercules, among the Buddha's guardians. Later, this figure appears in Chinese, Korean and Japanese art as guarding temples and such. In Japan, you'll often see a beefy-red-skinned angry statue guarding temple entrances. This is believed to be an influence from Greek art.

This isn't limited to Greek stuff though. The Hindu goddess Sarasvati was imported into medieval Japan as a goddess of luck and the sea named Benzaiten.

It's funny how cultures can translate religious icons from other cultures over time. Lord only knows how Buddhism will look here in the US in 500 years. :p