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Pilgrim's Tale

From February 3rd to April 4th of 2011 I committed myself to a pilgrimage tour of various Buddhist sites in India, Nepal, China and Japan. It was by no means exhaustive as such a trip would take years to accomplish, but it was overall a very positive experience and I gained much insight as a result. For some amount of time I had sought to visit India and pay respects at the major holy sites. I also had to good fortune to have sufficient time off and finances to do it. On the morning of February 3rd I departed Tokyo for Hong Kong. I was to transfer in Hong Kong and the airline allowed an extended stopover, so I decided to stay one week.

As fortunate would have it, a friend of mine named Venerable Huifeng was able to offer me a front-row ticket at Ajahn Brahmavamso's talk entitled “Buddhist Tales of the Supernatural” which was held at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I have enjoyed watching Ajahn Brahm's talks on I also have one of his books on meditation. In real life he is a superb speaker and skilled teacher.

While in Hong Kong I visited two temples worth noting. The first was the Temple of Ten-Thousand Buddhas 万佛寺 in the New Territories. You begin climbing the mountain and flanking both sides of the trail are countless statues of Arhats with various features and expressions. Some are even amusing to look at.

I was visiting the temple during China New Year, so there were a great many pilgrims paying their respects at the various shrines.

The other temple I visited was Po Lin Monastery (Jewel Lotus Temple) 寳蓮寺 on Lantau Island. To visit the temple I had to take a short ferry trip to Lantau Island which is a larger island to the west.

The monastery is famous for their great Buddha statue atop a hill.

Again, there were countless pilgrims visiting because it was Chinese New Years. It is tradition for Buddhists to visit temples and pray for good fortune and blessings in the coming year. The temple itself is well-kept and clearly connected to the tourism industry. There are a number of franchises including a Starbucks Coffee shop immediately outside the temple grounds. The temple also neighbours a cable car which offers a view of the airport on the opposite side of the island.

After spending a week in Hong Kong I proceeded to New Delhi, India. I will admit that I experienced a brief shock when I arrived. India is a nation with over a billion human beings and it suffers horrendous poverty. In the capital New Delhi one can see wealthy businessmen and turn the corner to see homeless cripples clearly dying of disease in the street. The lack of sanitation and heaps of garbage scattered everywhere you walk was also a bit unnerving.

Fortunately, I had a kind of refuge at Venerable Nakamura Gyōmyō's temple in the Kailash Colony area of New Delhi. It was there that we finished the last part of editing for his collection of short stories that I translated from Japanese into English. The book will be published sometime this summer hopefully. At the temple I met a number of visitors from different countries.

While in New Delhi I had the pleasure to visit Tibet House, which was founded by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Unlike other museums in India which charge foreigners more than Indians, Tibet House has a set entrance fee that is the same for all. The museum has a number of aged Tibetan tanghkas, statues and bronze pieces that were brought with His Holiness to India when he escaped the Chinese invasion.

Not long after I found myself in Bodhgaya, which is where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. To get there from Delhi Station one takes an overnight train and gets off at Gaya. From there one can hire one of many rickshaw drivers who drive to Bodhgaya in about twenty minutes or so. The core of the site is Mahabodhi Temple where the Bodhi Tree stands tall providing shade to the countless pilgrims from many nations who come to pay their respects and make offerings.

The temple grounds reflects the spread and extent of Buddhism in the world. In the evening when the heat fades the paths which circumambulate the Bodhi Tree fill with a sea of monks, nuns, lay devotees, tourists, touts and a few stray dogs.

In Bodh Gaya I had a very moving emotional experience when I first arrived. When I first entered the threshold of the temple my mind went silent and I became speechless. I wandered aimlessly for a bit in kind of daze before sitting down on a white stone bench and looking out towards the Bodhi Tree I wept tears for what reason I do not know. They were not tears of sorrow. I was overcome with a sense of accomplishment and finality. I felt from the core of my being that I had finally made it to the holiest site in the Buddhist world. It was coupled with a sense of relief and joy. I cannot explain it beyond that.

The town also hosts many other temples of different nations. There are Thai, Tibetan, Chinese, Bhutanese, Sri Lankan, Japanese and Burmese temples which provide lodging for visitors.

Unfortunately many professional swindlers and beggars also wander around the town preying on foreigners. I also had the misfortune of having my shoes stolen at Mahabodhi Temple. One is required to remove ones shoes before entering the inner part of the temple. I did this and later came back to find my shoes missing. They were far from being expensive shoes and the loss was of no consequence, but I had to walk barefoot to the market where a local boy selling second-hand sandals took advantage of my circumstances and charged me two-hundred rupees for a pair of used sandals! That he was selling used sandals also made me suspect the lot of them were stolen. Still, I was barefoot and needed some kind of footwear, so I bought a pair of beach sandals at the inflated price.

While in Bodh Gaya I also made use of the temple's pilgrimage tour package and was able to easily visit a number of significant locations in the area in a chartered van with a guide including the Shanti Stupa, Vulture's Peak, Nalanda University, Godakatora, the Xuanzang memorial and the Jeevak Mango Grove. If any reader visits Bodhgaya, I highly recommend purchasing this tour package. The package is provided for both tourists and pilgrims alike and is not for-profit. There are also no hidden costs and the vegetarian meals are included.

Vulture's Peak where Buddha once taught his disciples:

Godakatora, near the peak, is one place where Buddha spent time in meditation:

Xuanzang memorial hall:

Please visit the following link for more information:

While in Bodhgaya I was introduced to the local branch of Foguangshan 佛光山 which operates a free school and hostel for girls. I have some connections to the organization and it was a pleasure to speak with the venerable nuns who look after the temple and school.

One other thing worth noting about my trip is that I just happened by chance to encounter an old friend from a temple back in Canada. I was at an internet cafe and noticed a certain nun clad in maroon robes that looked quite familiar. Sure enough it was a friend from back home in Edmonton, Canada. We had no knowledge that the other was in Bodhgaya. Such a chance encounter was cause for joy and an afternoon spent drinking coffee catching up.

I departed Bodhgaya in the early afternoon and took a government bus to Patna, the capital of Bihar State. For various reasons the bus ride took considerably longer than anticipated and we arrived in the evening rather than afternoon. However, fortunately I was able to sit beside a young Indian man who was working as a guide for two English pilgrims who belong to the Triratna Buddhist Community which was founded by Sangharakshita. We had a long discussion on the bus about the state of Buddhism in India which I found quite educational and insightful. The bus also had a number of Tibetan monks on board who were in good humour and making the most of the trip by joking around. It was a long ride, but quite enjoyable.

I did not spend a lot of time in Patna and proceeded to the city of Varanasi. The city is famous as being a holy city for Hindus. The city is located on the Ganges River and beyond serving as a place where pilgrims bath it also provides designated areas along the river where bodies are cremated and then deposited into the river.

The city is also home to whole herds of cattle who roam around living on generous handouts.

One interesting thing worth noting here is that in India many people will collect cow dung, dry it into little discs and use it for fuel for cooking and heat. It does not stink when dried and interestingly when burned also keeps the mosquitoes away. Traditionally many homes were and still are made with cow dung smeared on the floor and across the walls.

The areas alongside the river are medieval and the narrow corridors and alleyways mean that besides motorcycles there is just pedestrian traffic. It is truly a maze of corridors, steps and buildings. It is also home to various monkeys who can and do terrorize both locals and tourists alike.

I was able to meet many backpackers and travellers around Varanasi. It is a popular destination for western youth travelling around India. Unfortunately there are a lot of drug users who enjoy visiting and the local drug dealers are happy to approach any westerner to offer them narcotics of all varieties. This is perhaps the one downside to visiting Varanasi.

While in Varanasi I also met a number of locals who were happy to sit with me on the street side and tell me all about the lifestyle and cost of living in the city. I found such discussions quite useful in understanding Varanasi from the Indian perspective. One shopkeep, a Hindu, told me he felt he was quite blessed to have been born in Varanasi and then commented that I as well must have done some good deed which allowed me the good fortune to step foot in the city. He also remarked on how generosity towards people and stray dogs is the utmost of virtues to be practised. He said he often goes out in the mornings to feed the many stray dogs in the city.

I very much enjoyed my stay in the city. I would also recommend anyone visiting there to hire a boatman and go for a ride on the Ganges River.

After spending three nights in Varanasi I proceeded onward to Sarnath, the site where the Buddha first started teaching the Dharma and the existence of the sangha came to be. Sarnath is only a half-hour rickshaw ride away from Varanasi. I had no reservation ahead of time, but found out that the local Gelug-pa Temple provided inexpensive lodging for pilgrims and took a room there.

Interestingly, the sign out front warns the Shugden practitioners and anyone associated with them are unwelcome in the temple.

The town has a number of sites and temples. The city is particularly famous for the Dhamek Stupa which is 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter and was built in around 500 CE to replace an earlier structure erected by the Buddhist King Aśoka (died 232 BCE).

Down the street there is the Chaukhandi Stupa which commemorates the place where Buddha met his first disciples. The structure on top of it was built to commemorate the Mughal Emperor Humayun's visit to the site.

There is also a temple nearby built by Anagarika Dharmapala called Mulagandhakuti Vihara which is parallel to Deer Park and provides recitation of sutta every evening which is broadcast over speakers around the area.

The interior of the temple is decorated with various wall murals depicting the life of the Buddha.

While the town is home to various monasteries of various nations, by far the most impressive is the Kagyu-pa's Karmapa Temple. It is an impressive monastery decorated inside and out with exquisite art. When I was there I was able to sit in on a puja which was being conducted for Tibetan New Year.

Sarnath also is home to the Sarnath Tibetan University, which provides traditional Tibetan education to the Tibetan community of India.

After spending a few nights in Sarnath I made my way to Gorakhpur by train and then transferred to a government bus to get to Kushinagar, the site where Buddha passed away and was cremated. The town itself is somewhat small, having only a population of around 18,000 residents. This makes it quite easily walkable. The city is built along an L-shaped road and one has only to follow it to get to all the sites in the town. Naturally the cycle rickshaw drivers will be happy to offer their services to any pedestrian.

Again I was able to secure lodging at the Gelug-pa temple in town. The resident monk was all too happy to provide the room to me. They also provide the rooms by donation without a fixed price. It was a simple and spartan room, but it was cosy and warm.

Next door to the temple is Parinirvana Stupa and Parinirvana Temple, which mark the spot where the Buddha passed away.

The statue inside of the temple is about 1500 years old.

Unfortunately the back of the stupa, like other ancient ruins in India, has been vandalized with graffiti.

In the surrounding area one also finds many ruins of ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries.

On the far side of town is the Makutabandhana Stupa which marks the site where the Buddha's physical remains were cremated.

Kushinagar was well worth the visit. The locals are friendly and helpful. The town does not have the status or number of visitors that Bodhgaya does, but in the future this will change when the Maitreya Project comes to fruition. They intend to build a 152 metre tall statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, at Kushinagar.

I took an early morning government bus back to Gorakhpur. It was a long ride across a rainy Indian highway that seemed half under construction. At one point the driver honked the horn and the noise didn't stop. No matter how much he struck the wheel and cursed the noise continued. He pulled over to the side of the road, opened up the hood and stood there clueless as to what to do with his cell phone to his ear asking what he should do. He actually didn't fix it and just got back in and continued driving. The sound of the horn slowly subsided after ten minutes. I imagine all the pedestrians were wondering why the bus was rolling down the highway with a constant horn blaring.

Upon arriving in Gorakhpur I was approached by a number of men looking to hire their cars to take me to the Nepalese border. In India this kind of thing is common – you'll suddenly find yourself with half a dozen cab drivers shouting at you and arguing amongst themselves in Hindi. One driver, who was young and quite clean looking, offered me a fair price equivalent to US$14 for a two hour drive to the Nepalese border. I was originally planning to take a government bus, but suddenly the idea of a private car ride sounded quite appealing. It was a nice drive up to the border. As one goes out towards the frontier of India towards Nepal the highways become cleaner.

Arriving at the border one is surprised to see there really is no official looking border crossing. The street just stretches into Nepal. The Indian customs office on your right is literally just a few old men sitting behind aged wooden desks stamping passports. Not even a single computer in the office. It seems quite optional whether or not you go inside to get your passport stamped. Likewise the Nepalese customs office seems like an optional visit. The border guards seem more like traffic police directing the chaotic congestion of people, automobiles and oxcarts through the narrow corridor.

To get a Nepalese tourist visa is quite straightforward, but the odd thing is that you need to pay in American dollars. Cash. There is no credit card option. They don't take Indian or Nepalese rupees either. The cash changers at the border are all too ready to provide American dollars for a price.

It took a half hour to get the visa as a whole busload of Burmese monks and pilgrims were having their visas processed ahead of me. While waiting I was approached by a young Nepalese man who offered a hired car to Lumbini for only US$10. Again, it seemed like a comfortable option and I did not even bother haggling.

Crossing into Nepal I was surprised by the relative cleanliness of the countryside and towns compared to India. I didn't see heaps of rubbish piled into ditches like in much of India.

In about an hour I arrived at my destination and spied a massive Tibetan monastery on the side of the road.

After a day of travelling I was finally in Lumbini. This is the place where Buddha was born. Today it is a protected ancient ruin surrounded by pristine parkland that also serves as fields for grazing animals. There is a fence surrounding the site and it is patrolled by the military.

After checking into a local guest house without any prior reservation I dropped off my backpack and entered the site. I will say that Lumbini is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life. The key location of the site is Maya Devi Temple which is nestled in the center of Lumbini Garden. Outside the garden is a man-made lake which encircles the garden like a moat. It is quiet, serene, clean and beautiful.

Maya Devi Temple marks the spot where the Buddha is said to have been born. Ancient ruins surround the site and countless prayer flags above provide shade to the many devotees who come to pay their respects.

I had the good fortune here to run into a monk of some great renown. As I was walking towards Maya Devi Temple I was greeted by a barefoot monk clad in a yellow robe. He asked me where I was from and invited me to join him and his group to pray for world peace. I was honoured by such an invitation and without hesitation folded my hands and agreed.

His name was Bhikku Buddha Dhatu. He has been called the beggar of the century. He travels around the world with nothing more than his robe, a begging bowl and meditation cushion. When I met him he was leading a group of pilgrims from Laos along with a few other monks. I was humbled in his presence and found him quite sociable yet modest in his temperament. The prayers were done in English, Laotian and Vietnamese. There happened to be a group of pilgrims from Vietnam at the temple who were delighted to hear his prayers in Vietnamese. Their humility and reverence in his presence was remarkable. It is also worth mentioning here that one of his devotees told me that whenever Bhikku spots a dead animal on the roadside he insists on stopping to provide a proper burial and prayers for it. It does not matter the schedule or location either.

Beside Maya Devi Temple is an original Ashoka pillar erected sometime in the 3rd century BCE. It is in good condition and the original Brāhmī engravings are still visible.

As Bhikku Buddha Dhatu's party went onward I stayed around the garden and had a private moment recollecting the significance of the site. This indeed was where the Sage of the Shakya clan was born. As the sun descended towards the horizon and the brilliance of the candle offerings grew with every moment I felt a deep sense of gratitude and reverence for the Buddha and his beautiful mother Māyādevī who brought him into the world. He was born a prince and died a homeless sage that changed the course of history in ways unimaginable.

Returning to the guest house for the night I had to stop several times to take in the scenery.

Outside the main gate I was greeted by a young man in a wheelchair. I said hello and he invited me to join him. His name was Rahul and he explained to me that he was suffering from polio. The same age as me, but looking much older. He really had no need to ask for money as most people freely offered because of his clearly visible condition. He had a travel guide for Nepal and explained to me some places worth visiting.

Beyond the ancient ruins and Maya Devi Temple there are a number of recently built temples and monasteries. Just like in Bodhgaya one finds Buddhist temples from a myriad of nations. The west side is for Mahāyāna temples and the east side for Theravāda. There is a lot of vast empty land and forested area dividing the ruins from the recently built monasteries. I found a cosy spot and sat down to meditate in the afternoon amongst grazing goats.

I first walked through the Mahāyāna quarter and found a Korean temple next door to a Tibetan temple which is across the street from a Chinese monastery.

Down the way a bit is Great Lotus Temple which is a newly built Tibetan stūpa and monastery. It seems to have been built for world peace.

The stūpa contains a number of tantric statues and countless texts. The colourful wall and ceiling murals demand a good amount of time to adequately appreciate.

The east side of the park is where the Royal Thai Monastery is to be found. Incidentally, at all major Buddhist sites one will find a monastery built by and maintained by the Thai royal family.

A few minutes walk away one finds a Burmese stūpa.

One of the locals cooked me lunch and sat down with me to tell me how Lumbini is undergoing a lot of rapid development. There is significant investment being poured into the area to build good facilities for pilgrims and tourists alike. From the sounds of things ten years ago much of what I saw there did not exist. There are a number of hotels on the outskirts being built and cobblestone roads within the park are being laid down. Lumbini is destined to become a major destination for pilgrims and general sightseers. I think this will add to the atmosphere rather than take away from it.

I woke up early in the morning to catch the 7:00AM bus to Kathmandu. As I walked down the stretch of gravel highway from the guest house to the bus stop I could see the Himalayas to the north looking as if their peaks had been gilded by the morning sun. I arrived early and this was good because the bus actually left at 6:45AM instead of at 7:00AM! Nepal has no train system so people rely on the highways to get around. Buses are a commonly used form of transportation in the country. However, they only loosely follow schedules. They will also cram as many people as possible into a small bus, tie all the luggage to the roof and blast Hindi pop songs for the whole trip.

It was, needless to say, a long trip to Kathmandu. It was only supposed to take eight hours, but it ended up taking twelve hours for a few reasons.

The first was that the bus broke a wheel half-way to our destination and we needed to stop at a garage to have it repaired. The men in the bus stood around watching the repairs. I went to buy a plate of fried noodles from a highway merchant and enjoyed chatting with one of my fellow passengers who told me he works in Dubai at a hotel.

He told me all about how Nepalese often go abroad for work as suitable employment is scarce in their homeland. He also told me that he felt obligated to go overseas to make money for the simple fact that he is the eldest in his extended family and would want to support his younger cousins. I was quite humbled by such an attitude to life and work -- here is a man who is not even going to work to send money home to his mother or wife, but to his cousins and extended relatives. I told him that, unlike in much of the west, he will surely always be surrounded by loving family and as an old man will never know loneliness.

Travelling by bus through Nepal also was an opportunity to see much of the countryside. Nepal is a mostly mountainous country with some flatlands here and there.

The atmosphere of local roadside towns was quite different from Lumbini and Kathmandu which are well used to tourists. Nevertheless, I found the locals friendly and curious. The food was also tasty and fresh.

Arriving at Kathmandu's border you encounter a police checkpoint where they board the bus, pretend to inspect a thing or two and then leave. The inspector actually gave me a second glance probably because I was wearing an Indian style long-sleeve shirt and sported a long beard. I think I didn't look Nepalese, but then I also didn't look like a western tourist either. So he asked where I was from, smiled when I said Canada and then looked through my passport for a few seconds. The Nepalese on board the bus found this highly amusing.

The other reason for the delay was that there was a traffic jam in the single road leading into Kathmandu. One of the locals said a tree had fallen on top of a truck ahead and so the road was backed up a good distance. I was actually prepared to get out and walk, but it was late and not having ever been in the Kathmandu Valley I decided to just wait it out. Two and a half hours later we slowly made our way into central Kathmandu.

Kathmandu is a crowded city with very poor air quality and daily scheduled blackouts, but I found the people generally quite friendly and hospitable. My first few nights I stayed in the backpacker's quarter of Thamel, which is a tourist area filled with shops, pubs, restaurants and travel agents.

The typical dish in Nepal is actually not curry, but dal (lentils) and rice with a few pickles, fried vegetables and curd. In general the restaurant will fill up your dish until you are completely full leaving you quite satisfied.

When I was in the city I had also arrived at the start of Losar or Tibetan New Year. There is a large Tibetan community in the city and for their celebrations almost everyone was in Tibetan garb. There were also celebrations in the area of Boudha which is the main Tibetan area on the east side of the city.

The undeniable central point of the Boudha area is the ancient Boudhanath stūpa which as I understand dates back to at least the 5th century CE, though many legends surround it.

There is apparently a connection between Padmasambhava and the stūpa. There is reference to it in the text The Legend of the Great Stūpa of Boudhanath.

"Again King Trison Detsen spoke to the Lotus Born Guru, "Great Guru, in the kaliyuga, the age of decadence and corruption, when the Voice of Buddha is a mere echo, will this Great Stupa, this Wish Fulfilling Gem, be destroyed or damaged? Will it decay? And if it is neglected or damaged what will be the portent of its ruin? What vice will corrupt this area of the transitory world? When the signs and omens are seen, what must be done?"

Guru Rinpoche replied, "Listen, Great King. The real perfection of this Great Stupa is indestructible, inviolate and incorruptible: it is inseparable from the Body of Infinite Simplicity of all the Buddhas. But the phenomenal fabric of the Great Stupa is perishable, a transitory form in a changing world, and it can be damaged by the four elements. The damage will be repaired by the incarnations of the Lords of the Three Families - Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani - and the Wrathful Bhrikutis and Tara Devi." ... (continued)

Click here for further details and translation.

The stūpa is surrounded by numerous shops, restaurants and cafes.

In the immediate vicinity there are several major monasteries and shedra (colleges).

It was in front of the stūpa that I just happened to encounter an internet acquaintance whom I had never met in real life yet had been chatting with for some years on internet forums and then Facebook. I turned the corner on the walkway leading to the stūpa and there he was. If I had turned that corner five seconds later I would not have encountered him. I knew he was in Kathmandu, but we had yet to be in contact and he didn't know I was even coming. It was just like in Bodhgaya where I just happened to run into an old Buddhist friend from back home in Canada. I think this was more than mere chance. We had Italian food with his two colleagues and for the next week he told me all about living in Nepal and his experiences with Tibetan Buddhism.

On the other side of the city there is Swayambhu Stūpa which is famous for the resident monkeys who seem to own the place.

The stūpa is atop a mountain and it takes a few minutes to climb the stairs to the top.

The stūpa is surrounded by numerous smaller temples and shrines.

One also can find an aged Buddha statue of exquisite design:

There are also numerous merchants selling an array of merchandise:

Down the hill on the other side there are also three statues worth seeing:

Overall I found my stay in Kathmandu quite enjoyable. The Buddhist sites were of particular appeal to me and being able to meet some local monks was a memorable experience. Kathmandu is a large bustling city, but still has many places worth seeing scattered throughout the valley. The Boudha area is also notably different from Thamel. The latter is for general backpackers and tourists looking to shop. Boudha, while a popular tourist attraction, generally seems to attract Buddhist pilgrims more than anything else. Even the sign on the door in my hotel room made this clear:

After staying in Nepal for a few weeks I departed for China. It was a short flight past the Himalayas to Hong Kong. The Himalayas are quite tall even when seen from the plane.

I spent a few days in Hong Kong again to get my visa to enter mainland China. I had coffee with Venerable Huifeng again, wandered around for awhile and then repacked my bag for Guangzhou. Guangzhou is only a few hours north of Hong Kong by train. It is a clean and well organized city with a rather long history of commerce and trade, but unfortunately few ancient things remain.

Fortunately I know a local named Jennifer who was happy to take me to a few of the notable temples in the city. The first was Guangxiao Temple 光孝寺. Chan Patriarch Huineng 慧能 is said to have trained here in the 7th century CE.

The main shrine houses an exquisite statue:

The grounds are tidy with plenty of greenery and curious items to inspect.

Inside the art gallery of the temple one finds this stone tablet which says, "May the Emperor live one-hundred million years!" This is clearly a relic from a time long ago in China.

I also found this jade incense cauldron quite nice.

In walking distance one can get to Liurong Temple 六榕寺, otherwise known as the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. This temple was built in 537 CE. The defining feature of the temple is the Thousand Buddha Stupa 千佛塔.

After visiting these two temples Jennifer took me to her favourite vegetarian restaurant in Guangzhou. The flavour was certainly different from Taiwanese-style Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, but was tasty nonetheless.

The dish on the left is a kind of fake meat dish made from ground vegetable roots complete with strips of fake bacon. On the right is rice gruel with boiled vegetables. I think anyone unaccustomed to actual Chinese tastes might not find this so appetizing, but I found it quite delicious.

Just near the restaurant in the jade market district is another temple whose name I fail to remember. On the wall outside in big letters reads, "Be mindful of the Buddha, become the Buddha."

The temple also has a hall of Arhats which is a common feature in most Chinese temples. Some have a garden of Arhats, others a hall.

Guangzhou has a good museum called The Museum of the Nanyue King Mausoleum 西汉南越王博物馆. It houses the actual tomb of the Nanyue King Zhao Mo (reigned 137-122 BCE). The Nanyue Kingdom was in conflict with the Western Han dynasty and was destroyed by 111 BCE. Besides the actual tomb itself, the museum includes a collection of artefacts from various time periods. It also has a collection of earthenware pillows.

Traditionally in China people slept with firm headrests which are nevertheless still pillows.

There are also a number of Buddhist items from the Silk Road.

Visitors can enter the main tomb and then go into the main gallery to see the contents. Judging from the height of the ceiling I will suspect that the ancient Nanyue peoples were generally much shorter than me.

One characteristic item of royal Han Dynasty burials was the jade suit. In this time period it was fashionable to wrap dead royalty in a suit of jade. Incidentally, they also sacrificed concubines and servants before placing them in the tomb. The seals and remains of the king's concubines were also found inside.

After Guangzhou I boarded a train for Shanghai and eighteen hours later I was on the east coast of China.

The Shanghai museum has a number of absolutely beautiful classical pieces of art both Buddhist and other.

One temple of note in Shanghai is Jing'an-si 靜安寺 which dates back to 274 CE, but was relocated where it is now in 1216. However, much of the temple is entirely rebuilt and new. On the outer wall facing the street there are also shops selling bags and other merchandise.

I did not spend as much time in China as I would have liked. Fortunately I had several friends I could meet with who showed me around both Guangzhou and Shanghai. I really only got a taste of China. I think in the future I would like to travel around China extensively.

From Shanghai I flew to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. I settled into a cosy hostel called UK Osaka. It is a small hostel, but the atmosphere made it feel like I was staying at a friend's apartment. I have stayed at many backpacker hostels before, but this was actually one of the best.

The next day I headed to Nara, which is less than an hour away from Osaka by train. I hadn't been back to Nara in about six years. Fortunately I arrived at the perfect time of the year when sakura or cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

Nara is famous for having been the capital of Japan between 710 - 784 CE. It is famous for having many old sites, both shrines and temples, as well herds of tame deer which wander the parks freely. Traditionally the deer were considered to be messengers of the gods. The locals sell shika senbei 鹿煎餅 which are baked crackers that are fed to the deer.

Kōfuku-ji 興福寺 is one of several notable temples in the city. It was originally built in 669 CE, but was relocated to Nara in 710 CE. When I visited a number of major buildings were undergoing extensive reconstruction. It will take several years for them to be completely refurbished and available to the public again. However, the iconic Tōkondo 東金堂 (East Golden Hall), which is a national treasure of Japan, and Five-Story Pagoda are still available for viewing.

Inside the hall are a number of aged statues and sculptures. The Nikkō-Bosatsu 日光菩薩 / Sūryaprabha (on the left with gold backing) dates from the 7th century CE. The other statues have various dates up to the 16th century.

The Nan'endō 南円堂 (South Octagonal Hall) is a site in the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage (西国三十三所) where pilgrims visit a number of temples and shrine dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon 觀音菩薩, otherwise known as Avalokiteśvara, Guanyin or Chenrezig.

Another temple of note in Nara is Gangō-ji 元興寺 which was founded in the late 6th century and originally called Asuka-dera 飛鳥寺. It is said to be the first Buddhist temple to be constructed in Japan. The original temple was built in a different location during the Asuka period (538 to 710 CE) and in 718 it was relocated to Nara. Unfortunately, none of the original architecture remains, though the main hall dates back to the 13th century. Interestingly, the original temple was crafted by craftsmen and artists from the kingdom of Paekche on the Korean peninsula. They accompanied a group of monks who brought Buddha relics and were received by the court. Early Buddhism in Japan did not actually come from China. In reality it came from Korea.

The temple also has a small museum on site housing a number of artefacts. I found this statue of Acala rather impressive:

The almost symbolic Tōdai-ji 東大寺 was founded in the early 8th century. It served as a kind of university and center for Buddhist studies throughout the centuries.

The central figure inside the temple is Vairocana Buddha 毘盧遮那佛.

Earlier I wrote an entry about all the statues inside the temple, so if you're interested please click here.

After visiting Nara for the day I retired back to the hostel in Osaka. The next morning I made my way to Kōyasan for the first time in this life. It takes about two hours by train and cablecar. The train takes you to the foot of the mountain and from there you take a cablecar to get to the top.

The Kōyasan station is still some distance from the town itself. I decided to forego the bus and took the long route which was very rewarding given the near silent roadway, beautiful scenary or fresh mountain air.

On the west side of town you approach the Daimon 大門 or Great Gate.

From there you proceed into what looks like an otherwise normal mountain town.

After walking for a few minutes you arrive at the Danjō Garan 壇上伽藍 temple complex which was designed by Kūkai 空海, otherwise known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師 (774–835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. The central point of the complex is the Konpon Daitō 根本大塔 stūpa.

Inside a statue of Mahāvairocana 大毘盧遮那 / 大日如來 is enshrined. Mahāvairocana in Shingon Vajrayāna is a symbol for the dharmakāya.

Another pagoda at the site is the Saitō 西塔, which while originally built in 887 CE was reconstructed in 1834. Japan traditionally built with timber which unfortunately has meant that many buildings throughout Japanese history have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt again and again.

A short distance away is the head temple of the Koyasan Shingon sect. Kongōbuji 金剛峯寺 as it stands now was built in the 19th century.

The temple also has a rock garden:

Onwards to the far side of town I stopped in for lunch and enjoyed a bowl of udon with mountain vegetables.

Oku No In 奥之院, the mausoleum of Kūkai, is in a vast graveyard which is home to countless gravestones and memorials for such famous Japanese figures as Oda Nobunaga, Shinran and Hōnen among others both old and recent.

It is a rather calm and serene place shaded by tall trees. I was surprised to see that modern companies have their own private plots presumably arranged for their employees. The graveyard, though quite ancient, is still used and being expanded upon.

Finally after walking the long stretch of pathway I arrived at the mausoleum of Kūkai which is surrounded by a kind of moat. Out of respect visitors are asked to refrain from all photography once crossing the bridge.

It was here where Kūkai's bones and ashes are emtombed that I finished my two month pilgrimage. I had visited countless temples in Hong Kong, India, Nepal, China and Japan. I made an offering of three candles to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, commiting myself to purifying body, speech and mind. I also paid my sincerest respects to Kūkai, the founder of Shingon.

It was a long trip of over sixty days and worth it. I have absolutely no regrets about the trip. In fact, I would say it was the greatest and most beneficial thing I have ever done in my life so far. I learned a great deal about myself, life, Buddhism, other cultures and history all the while meeting both old and new friends along the way. It was the generous people along the way that I owe the greatest gratitude toward. I made many new friends and had the good fortune to meet several old friends.

It was truly a positive and rewarding experience. The merit and good fortune I must have to be able to make such a journey was only possible because of the blessings of my teachers both past and present. To them I owe immeasurable gratitude.

Buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Dharmaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Saṃghaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.