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Pilgrim Age

Updated: Apr 26, 2018



This is a slightly edited version of a text originally written for Pilgrim Age Showcase and Publication HIAS 2014.


Suffering is the beginning of the journey; begged by the gods not to keep his realization to himself, dukkha or suffering is the first of the noble truths that the Buddha taught after his enlightenment. The analogy for dukkha is a squeaky cart wheel, a pervasive dissatisfaction that is inevitable for impermanent embodied beings in a reality that is forever falling apart. The problem of dukkha tears at me. As a child with a headache I fantasise that I could combine and condense all the moments of pain in my life, experiencing them in the next seconds, thereafter forever free of suffering. Again as a child, lying on my bed toppled by emotional pain I watch a butterfly and wish desperately that I too was a butterfly.


Pain begets longing. At a point, theoretical physics was displaced for me as a possible route by the experiences of hallucinogenic liberty cap mushrooms which turned my world upside down,

overturning what I imagined possible, and gave me renewed interest in subjective experiences of mind. Living away from home for the first time we were in the habit of scouting the streets after dark for interesting objects that we could keep. In a bin sack outside a head shop I found a Buddha statue. Shortly after this I was lent the first of many books about Buddhism. I had just turned 18 and the meeting was extremely emotional, an invigorating sense of coming home and tremendous relief in the knowledge that I didn't need to search for method any more.


Ten years later, the honeymoon long since faded, I am more jaded as a practitioner, yet more deeply in love with the buddhadharma than ever before. For HIAS's event in Berlin, Anastasia has asked me to write a little about pilgrimage. For me there was a pragmatic, even unromantic quality to my many trips to Northern India and Nepal. After the Chinese invasion, and the resulting diaspora, many of the greatest Tibetan meditators were forced to make their new homes in the areas set aside by the Indian government for Tibetan refugees. Over fifty years later, due in part to the Tibetan people's aptitude for business, the refugee camps have become thriving communities. A fanatical program of monastery building takes place, funded mostly by the world's sudden hunger for Tibetan Buddhism and facilitated by the peripatetic motions of the lamas. Northern India and Nepal have become the best, and most affordable, places to study Tibetan Buddhism in the world.


Just months after I began my first flushed reading of Buddhist texts, a curious laminated poster appeared in my home town Hay-on-Wye, Wales. A strange robed figure, grinning, slightly chubby and young (not even yet 30!) sat on an ornate red and gold throne. Above him words that read something like 'A weekend of meditation with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche' and of course also the dates (a weeks time) and the price which, at something like £60, seemed a lot to me. As a part of the weekend we were allowed to ask Mingyur Rinpoche, with the aid of a translator as his English was not yet fluent, a single question in private. With great trepidation, and fantasising that he would let me join his entourage on the spot, I asked how I should continue my study of Buddhism. I was tremendously disappointed when he told me that there were many good teachers in England that I could study with. This of course has since turned out to be extremely pertinent advice.


The first of my trips to India, in my gap year before University, was a dirty haze of charas smoke. Later, a brutal depression through my third year of study left me longing more than ever to

devote myself to meditation and retreat practice. I have since spent almost two years (guided by seasonal weather patterns) between the Himalayan regions and the northern plains of India, a cross-hatch of teachings, retreat and pilgrimage. In the years since, Mingyur Rinpoche has become my principle meditation teacher. Three times I attended his winter programs of study in Bodhgaya, India, before he disappeared himself, almost without trace, on his own solitary wandering retreat.


Perhaps it is dreary that my own journey has been sparked by pain and carried forward by pragmatism. Nevertheless I feel it is good to share this straightforward account of religious pilgrimage. The journey continues with the paradoxical Buddhist caveat that the path is the goal, and still I am making my way as best as possible through the confusion to which we all relate day to day.

© 2018 by Llew Watkins.

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