The Buddha was born long ago and far away. He grew up in a world without writing, in an ancient civilisation that is no more. The buildings of his childhood, the trees under which he sat in meditation, and the dusty roads down which he once walked have long since vanished from view, buried deep beneath concrete and steel. Even the course of the mighty River Ganges has changed.
And yet something remarkable remains. Over two thousand years later his words continue to resonate and his teachings continue to inspire. Buddhist statues and shrines, temples and meeting houses can be found in almost every corner of the world. More than 500 million people alive today call themselves ‘Buddhist’ and look to him as their spiritual forefather. Never has interest in Buddhism been greater or more widespread.
How is it that a man with no home, no money, and no worldly possessions came to be one of the most influential figures in the history of humanity? What does his life-journey teach us today? Why do his words still speak to us so directly – even in our age of consumerism, cars, and computers?
The answer is simple: the fundamental questions raised by the Buddha long ago remain as salient now as they were in his day. Why? Because, for all our ‘stuff’ and self-importance, we, like the Buddha, remain nothing but the sum of our relationships with the world, our family and friends, with our communities, with each other, and, fundamentally, with our own inner selves.
That’s why, although circumstances change, the core Buddhist tenets have stood the test of time. The Buddha’s diagnosis of our spiritual malaise and his prescription for our well-being and happiness are no less powerful and relevant now than they were 2500 years ago. Finding a meaningful response to the challenges of our lives seems even more necessary and urgent than ever.
Since this book first appeared in paperback, five people named in the text have died: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Colonel Gadaffi, Leonard Cohen and Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s worth reflecting on which of them enriched our world – and why.
My father had an embarrassing habit. He would unexpectedly break into poetry at odd moments, and, more embarrassing still – his own poetry. He wrote colourfully, but mostly didactically, insisting that his methods add spice to learning. Since he taught homeopathy, his poems were embellished (or encumbered) with anatomical parts, bodily functions and psychosomatic turns of phrase – topics I rarely touched, especially over the dinner table.
Imagine my concern when I found myself following in his footsteps.
Teaching mindfulness to students is a blessing of a job. My classrooms are full of people who actually want to be there. There’s no marking, no exams, and we follow that most engaging of curriculums: the human heart and mind. And as I hear about my students’ mindful journeys, it inspires me to follow my own. I’m sure I learn as much or more from their insights than they ever do from me. Then again, my approach is never to teach, but more to share. Forty years of tumultuous inner life comes in handy – so I have been spared the imposter syndrome that plagues some teachers. That is … until I started sharing my poems.
One of my greatest pleasures in meditation is to take time afterwards to write. I search for a way to describe to myself what went on. Can I find a way to express even the most humdrum meditation let alone the most profound? I play with words and metaphors; and feel an exquisite pleasure when they fit ‘just right’. Often they tell me something about myself that I did not know.
The occupational hazard of all this is the way it lingers. I’m liable to turn up for a class with a poem still in mind, and when a hapless student unwittingly asks a question that touches on the same theme, I can’t help myself. ‘I wrote a poem about that this morning!’ I proffer. The words are out of my mouth before I know it. ‘Oh help,’ I mutter, turning red, ‘I’m turning out just like my dad.’
Possibly more forgiving of me than I was of him though, my students encourage me. They like the poems (they say); it helps them understand their own meditation. And so my Gentle Guides to Meditation came to life, including both poems and prose. If my poems could help me learn – might they also help others?
Journeys to the Deep is the first of three slim volumes, each exploring different aspects of meditation – in this case Setting Out, Curiosity and Enjoyment, and Listening Within. I hope you enjoy the book. Who knows? Perhaps it may even inspire you to write, or draw, or sing about your own inner journeys too?
Travelling is my life – and Buddhism is my compass.
My very first expedition took place when I was only twelve months old: a journey by train from my birthplace in Milan to Aalborg in northern Denmark (my mother and grandmother are both Danish). From the age of three onwards every holiday would alternate: one summer in Denmark with its windswept, green flatlands and wide skies; the following summer far to the south in the remote heartland of Basilicata, with its chirping cicadas and sleepy ancient villages perched on the top of steep hills. Most of the time we would travel in my father’s small car – three full days to reach Denmark, another three days to get to Accettura, his native village …
At the age of 16 I took my first solo trip abroad – to Norfolk to work in an international Summer Camp. It was a momentous experience. For the first time in my life I felt I was a citizen of the world, surrounded by young people like me from all over Europe, Asia and Africa.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered Buddhism through a book I came across by chance in the small library of my secondary school; but it was a further ten years before I started practising meditation.
Aged 27 I left a teaching job in Italy and spent several years studying and working in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. I continued to take every opportunity to travel: to Japan where I managed to see the giant Buddhas in Kamakura and Nara, to North Africa (Morocco in particular), to the Middle East and to Cuba.
It was when I got a university post in Brunei on the Island of Borneo that my fascination with Buddhism really took off. I had maintained an interest in Eastern spirituality through reading and meditating twice a day, but it was travelling through Buddhist countries that brought up the urge to write and document my various encounters.
After leaving Brunei and before starting my present teaching and research activity here in Malaysia, I embarked on another epic journey: a five-month backpacking tour of Southeast Asia and China. Many other travels followed (including the sites described in this book). All the time I was immersing myself in the world of Buddhism, thanks to the many Dharma talks and retreats I attended in this wonderful multi-ethnic and multicultural country of Malaysia, where the presence of Buddhism is so strong.
Travelling and living in so many countries has been not just a discovery of places, languages and cultures; it has given me a deep sense of connection with the planet and the people living on it. Whenever I have found myself in a different Buddhist country, it has made me appreciate Buddhism’s social, spiritual and artistic achievements even more.
At some point it occurred to me that I could combine travel writing and my interest in Buddhism: hence Buddhism and Pilgrimage. My hope is that readers will feel at least part of what I’ve experienced during my pilgrimage in India and Nepal to the four key Buddhist sites – Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. It is a pilgrimage that the Buddha himself recommended:
‘Ananda, there are four places the sight of which should arise emotion in the faithful. Which are they?
“Here the Tathagata was born” is the first.
“Here the Tathagata attained supreme enlightenment” is the second.
“Here the Tathagata set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma” is the third.
“Here the Tathagata attained the Nibbana-element without remainder” is the fourth.’