Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni’s
INDIAN TRAVEL JOURNAL
from the end to the beginning
It is very good to be back to the quiet peace and supportive container of our Vihara here. It is amazing that we have such a place in this world.
The trip was a very good one.
It was wonderful to sit near the Vajrasana –the "Diamond Seat"– the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and recite the Middle Length Discourses of the Majjhima Nikaya in the Pali language beneath the Bodhi tree for many days. The first year of the Pali Tipitaka Recitation 200 Buddhist Monastics gathered from around the world; the second year 400, the third year (this year) 1000. This year was the first year that there was not only participation from the Theravadan Bhikkhu Sangha, but also from the Theravadan Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha and samaneris as well.
This is significant as one of the main purposes of having the Pali Tipitaka Recitation in Bodhgaya on a yearly basis was to give support to the revival of the Theravadan Indian Monastic Sangha in its homeland.
Some prehistory of the India journey ~
Last year, I received news from Bhante Sujato, the Australian Abbot of Santi Forest Monastery, (a monastery associated with the lineage of Thai Forest Tradition Master Ajahn Chah), that he had participated in a founding committee meeting for the proposed Buddha Vision Bhikkhuni Training Center in Bodhgaya. He related that some land had been proposed for the training center site and recommended coming to India for the Pali Tripitaka Recitation the following year (2008) on my way to accepting an invitation of to visit Santi Forest Monastery in Australia.
From 10 years ago, i’d heard that 28 Indian women from the Indian State of Maharashtra had gone to Bodghaya to receive bhikkhuni ordination there, in the official revival of the Theravadan Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha, the records of which had disappeared entirely from the 14th century in its homeland. Inquiries during the past decade into their survival, whereabouts and wellbeing had yeilded not a single fruit. I wondered if any of them were still alive or not. Inquiry with the founding committe members of the Buddha Vision Bhikkhuni Training center about them again yeilded an unknown. I hoped to find them.
Although planning to use the frequent flyer miles awards ticket offered by a friend, in a twist of fate, it turned out that the only available destination for me in that area was to Mumbai (Bombay), India, the capital of the State of Maharashtra. In a second amazing cooincidence, i received my first ever phone call from the Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, President of Sakyadhita International, and one of the facilitators of the multi-national ordinations which included the Maharashtrian bhikkhunis one decade ago. She had an address. In a third stroke of amazing good fortune. Within 2 weeks of departure for India, Ayya Sudhamma referred me to Bhavana Society’s Bhante Yogavacara Rahula, a regular years visitor to India and meditating pilgrim to the ancient Buddhist caves of Maharashtra such as Ajanta, Ellora, Bhaja and Karle.
Bhante Rahula, just days before his own international departure from Bhavana was able to put me in touch with Bhadant Vishuddhanand Bodhi, an elder Indian bhikkhu from Aurangabad in Maharashtra, who knew of Indian bhikkhunis and samaneris in numbers both at his own Buddha Leni Caves Monastery in Aurangabad, as well as in Bombay, Nalasoppara and five further places in Maharashtra.
It was great good news. And not only did he know about the living bhikkhunis, he knew well about the ancient rock cut caves monasteries, many important in the history of the Theravadan Bhikkhuni Sangha in India from the 2nd century BCE through the following 1000 years. With the discovery of the Bhaja rockcut caves, we knew that the scholastic thesis proposed at the Hamburg Congress on Buddhist Women in July 2007 that "no remains of any ancient bhikkhuni monastery in India has ever been found" to be false.
Bhante Vishuddhanand Bodhi turned out to know Bhante Rahula well, as well as Bhavana Society’s Bhante G (in fact he has stayed at the Bhavana Society!) and to be highly interested in spreading the world amongst the Maharashtrian bhikkhunis and samaneris about the proposed Buddha Vision Bhikkhuni Training Center in Bodhgaya and the Pali Tipitaka Recitation (but he didn’t let us know this ~ we only found out later.:) He also organized a First International Bhikkhuni Parisad (Conference) at his home monastery in Aurangabad, in conjuction with the United Nations Observance of International Womens’ Day, to which he invited us.
Just days before leaving the US for Bombay, we received the news that an Indian monk had been lynched there, hung from the ceiling fan in his Vihara by luxury housing developers (a kind of India Mafia) leading to riots of the very large number of former untouchables (Dalits) resident in Bombay, now liberated by Dr. Babasaheb Ambhedkar and Buddhism.
Entering India: Mumbai (Bombay) & Nallasopara
This was the invironment that we flew into. No reply had come to the last emails trying to confirm whether we were meeting anyone at the airport or whether our train tickets to Bodhgaya had ever been obtainable or not. We went in faith and trust that the "Dhamma upholds those who uphold it."
At the Mumbai Shivaji International Airport, Indian men appeared with palms folded in anjali, bowing, saying "Vandami Mataji" and taking my bags from me. The beamed and identified themselves with pride as fellow Buddhists. One after another appeared in the airport and as i stepped outside, saffron robed women appeared in front of me with flowers and garlands that i was soon to be covered in. Male monastic forms also appeared identifying themselves as the Bhadanta Vishuddhanand Bodhi Bhante with whom i’d had email correspondance and Bhadant Kitipiyo Nagsen (Nagasena), both of whom spoke English. The saffron-robed women were introduced as Nalasoppara Bhikkhuni Sanghamitra and her 3 samaneri disciples.
We were soon to discover that although Ven Bhikkhuni Daw Gunasari (age 75, originally from Burma, now resident at Mahapajapati Women’s Monastery in Yucca Valley, Southern California) and our upasika kapiya-karika had arrived well and safely, our third bhikkhuni companion, Ven Bhikkhuni Ayya Satima (age 72, originally from Sri Lanka, now associated with the Minnesota Buddhist Vihara)’s flight from Singapore had been cancelled and that she wouldn’t be arriving until 24 hours later. As we’d planned to be on the train to Bodhgaya by then this was a dillema, but as it turned out our rail tickets had never been purchased, we were free to wait the additional day for her.
When inquiring as to what to say in Maharashtrian language (Maharti) in response to people bows and "vandami!," we were instructed that the best words of blessing were "Jayabhim."
Situated in the nearby Railway Hotel, where we discovered a mysterious Western bhikkhu of Thai forest tradition has also stayed recently, we were invited for the next day’s lunch dana in Jayabhim Nagar and to visit the Buddha Vihara there. We were then left on our own, having affirmed that we would be alright to find the place ourselves the next day by lunchtime .
And eventually we did find it, the tiny, blue Vihara dwarfed and utterly surrounded by the construction of the enourmous lakeside luxury residential and shopping complex that had grown up around it. We had entered live into the news, for the Bhante Vishuddhand had been pressured by developers to leave, but was holding his ground, his Sangha and friends holding out hope that they would be able to keep and even develop the Vihara there, with the support of their local resident friends.
And we learned that "Jayabhim" means: jaya=victory, bhim=Dr. Bhima (Baba Saheb) Ambhedkar, the forth refuge of India’s former untouchables. This was the beginning of what was to be our ongoing education into the amazing life and dedication of Dr. Ambhedkar and the untouchable Buddhist movement in India.
Within the tiny blue Vinaya (not to be called a "temple" as that is for Hindu shrines) i was quickly introduced to photo albums with the familiar faces of Bhavana’s Bhante Rahula and the mystery monk now identified, Ajahn Jayasaro.
Moments later we were brought straight up and into one of the luxury condomium highrises for our meeting and almsmeal dana with the lovely, highly-educated and socially engaged Buddhist people who could never have previously lived in such a way under the Hindu caste system.
Nallasopara Ashokan Stupa & Bhikkhuni Vihara
After lunch we were driven north along the Arabian Seacoast, out of Bombay, past the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (site of the Kanheri (Krishnagiri/Black Hills) Caves which are also important in Bhikkhuni Sangha history, and into an area called Thane and within that Nallasopara.
Nallasopara is the ancient area known to Buddhist history as the Sopara Seaport, from which Buddhism travelled abroad greatly in the old days. Nalla-sopara is the site of the (as yet undeveloped) 3rd century BCE Askokan stupa, built at the site where the Buddha’s contemporary the merchant-turned-bhikkhu, Arahanta Punna, enshrined the Buddha’s almsbowl in the Gandha Khuti built for him at the monastery there. The area is known to the older texts as Aparanta Pradesh. Those with knowledge of the Great Savaka Disciples of the Buddha might remember Punna Thera for his story which appears in the Mahavagga of the Vinaya texts.
He is said to have come from a rough area (Nallasopara, Maharashtra). After his enlightenment he thinks of returning home. The Buddha asks him whether he will be alright or not to go, as the people there are quite rough, in a series of progressively worsening questions, to all of which Punna Thera replies that, "i will abide with a mind of loving-kindness, grateful that at least they don’t do worse to me." Until finally he is asked how he will respond if the people go so far as to kill him, to which he beautifully answers, "then they will have saved me the trouble of it."
Driving into the area, a peculiar dejavu occured. The shape and formation of the hills seemed strongly familiar and i felt drawn to them. Questioning the resting Bhante about our location, he (opening his eyes and looking around) then directed the driver to make a u-turn as we had just missed our turnoff. The familiarity continued as well went off the main road through an old pass through the hills. I imagined having walked through there in the past and a sense of nostalgia arose wafting off the rising karmic fermentations.
First we visited the stupa, quiet, surrounded by trees, undeveloped. The nearby and surrounding land was hoped to be purchased to return the site to a Buddhist shrine, monastery and meditation center, but is owned largely by Christians and the price of land has skyrocketed with developments there. Still the site itself is a protected one, and Sanghamitra Bhikkhuni and her samaneris live with the dream that it may be possible. Apparently the area is part of the homeland of Ashokan emporer’s wife Devi and her children turned monastic missionaries to Sri Lanka, Mahinda Thera and Sanghamitta Theri.
There, i was requested to give the 3 refuges and 5 precepts to the local Buddhist people who had come and to speak a few words of Dhamma. We had a Dhamma talk then before the crumbling bricks of the stupa on the impermanence of all formations and on the quality of the Dhamma as being like a rock that never crumbles. Photos were taken which appeared later in the local Buddhist newspaper of our foreign Buddhist monastics’ visit to the holy site of pilgrimage, and we went on about 15 minutes drive away to climb the site of the modern bhikkhuni vihara, up Mahatheri Hill.
For those interested in supporting or contributing to Venerable Bhikkhuni Sanghamitra’s dream may contact her here:
Sanghamitra Gandhakuti Buddha Vihara Trust (Reg. No. K.E. 3602)
Founder President: Ven. Bhikkhuni S. Sanghamitra, Secretary: Ven. Bhadant Kirtipiyo Nagsen
Mahatheri Hill, Gandhakuti Buddha Vihara, Bhim Nagar
Nallasopara (E), Tal Vasai Dist., Thane 401 209, Mumbai, Maharashrtra, INDIA
Tel: 0250 – 3207707, Mobile: 9890477913.
Returning to Mumbai that evening we bid farewell to Bhikkhuni Sanghamitra, her samaneris and Bhante Kitipiyo Nagsen at the train station (as they had reserved train tickets to Gaya, and went to meet Ayya Satima’s night flight from Singapore at the Mumbai International Airport.
The following day, before boarding our own night train to Bodhgaya we were to learn much more about the phenomena of the Ambhedkar movement in Maharashtra.
Sanchian Gate built by the followers of Dr. Ambhekar
here ends the first chapter of our Indian journey.