Colombo, Buddhist books galore

On my way from Chennai, India to Colombo, Sri Lanka, I had an auspicious start by having my Jet Airways ticket upgraded to Business class while I was about to board the plane. I had already eaten a sumptuous breakfast a Saravana Bhavan in Chennai and had another good Indian vegetarian meal on board the flight. I don’t recall ever flying business class before. I always fly economy. I was very comfortable in the big chair. I sat alone, while the seat next to me was vacant.

Colombo airport is also good. The only bad impression I gained was the Sri Lankan immigration officer smoking a cigarette in the male toilet. I complained to him and he said he had permission from the cleaners. I complained to his boss and his boss went to see but laughed – no visible consequence.  I got a taxi to Ranjit’s Ambalarama. Ranjit welcomed me and gave me a room with a shared bathroom. I hadn’t booked very far in advance. I went book shopping and spent about A$250 on a large pile of Buddhist books. I even got copies of the Majjhimanikaaya and Sa.myuttanikaaya which I had given away in Myanmar.

I have a very good impression of Sri Lanka so far. There are fewer people, there is less congestion, the streets are cleaner, there is less dust and smoke in the air, there are many more trees and the people are relatively friendly and relaxed compared with India.  I am glad to be here.

On arrival at the airport, I was given a 30 day visa. I extended this to 90 days so I have potentially longer for my meditation retreat.

I plan to take a train to Kandy on Monday, then go to Nauyana meditation centre on Wednesday to begin the samatha meditation retreat. More information on Sri Lankan meditation monasteries is here and here (pdf).

Delhi, Chennai, museums, book shops

On 26 December, 2009, I rode a Bihar Tourism Development Corporation bus from Bodhgaya to Patna. It took about 6 hours to cover 110 km along very narrow bumpy roads through many crowded smoky dusty towns. We stopped frequently and once we stopped for 30 minutes.  In retrospect, I recommend doing this journey by train. I stayed overnight in Patna at a very dodgy Bihar Tourism Development Corporation hotel for a relatively high price considering the conditions. I misjudged the time for my flight to Delhi and arrived at the airport at 7:30am when the flight was not due to depart until 11:30am. Then the flight was delayed another hour… I impatiently finished reading the novel version of the Ramayana. I didn’t like Patna airport and neither did I like the extremely sentimental Ramayana story.

In both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana there are many instances of unethical behaviour by divine beings. Even the apparently good deities lie, cheat and kill others. This doesn’t happen in the Buddhist Suttas. It seems to me that there is a vast difference between Brahminism/Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Some people say that there are many paths leading to one goal and so on. I disagree. I am confident that only Buddhism leads to Nibbaana.  Other paths such as Hinduism lead to further rebirth and suffering either in the long or short term.

I had a good impression of Delhi on arrival at the best airport I have seen so far in India. I later saw Chennai airport and was also impressed. These are much better than Kolkata, Gaya and Patna airports. It seems that Delhi airport is being expanded, I saw new terminals being constructed.

In Delhi I stayed at Eurostar International Hotel, which is located off the main street, down a couple of bumpy unpaved lanes. The hotel itself is undergoing renovations and is dusty, noisy, dark and doesn’t have a restaurant. They do room service food though. I went to Delhi specifically to see the National Museum and was very, very disappointed. I don’t recommend it to anyone.

Again, as a foreigner, I had to pay a higher entry fee than Indians. I paid 250 rupees while the Indians only pay 20. If I wanted to use my camera, I would have had to pay another 300 rupees.

Similar to other museums in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (and Chennai, Tamil Nadu), the labels on the exhibits were too small and had insufficient descriptions. Many exhibits did not have labels at all. The best exhibit hall was on the history of Indian ocean travel (navy and ships etc). It was not interesting to me personally, but I could see that a lot of time and care was invested in it. I wished that other displays for Indian Buddhist culture were so good. I speculated that these days it would be controversial to teach the history of Hindu and Islamic persecution of Buddhists in India, warfare on Buddhist communities and the destruction of Buddhist sacred sites. So now this story is neglected. The broken statues gather dust in the dark and all the history is forgotten in India. More tragic than the neglect of Buddhist history is the neglect of the true Dhamma in India.

Many of the statues were not lit properly. There were lights installed but they were not switched on. This was very frustrating since many of the most interesting Buddhist statues were in semi-darkness while other non-Buddhist statues appeared relatively well lit. This was probably not intentional, just negligent. Maybe the Museum officials are trying to save electricity. They should install motion sensor lights that turn on when people are near the exhibit.

The male toilets on level 2 and 3 of the museum were relatively clean but the water taps for washing hands and the soap dispensers were broken. There were no hand towels or electric hand driers. There were no hooks on the toilet doors to hand jackets or hats etc, while doing business.

There is a brochure given at the ticket counter that is well out of date. It has a cheaper entry fee printed on the cover and an out of date map of the 3 floors in the museum. The map outside the cafeteria on level 3 is also out of date.

The thing which disturbed me the most was the display of Lord Buddha’s relics. It was good that the Delhi Indian Museum has not tried to the Patna museum’s tactic to extract more money from Buddhist pilgrims by charging a higher fee to see the relics.

All of Lord Buddha’s relics should not be in any museum anywhere in the world. The only appropriate way to store relics of Lord Buddha and other Arahats is in Buddhist stupas. Lord Buddha recommended this himself. These days, materialists want to see tangible evidence – but bones and ashes are just bones and ashes, could be anyone. A materialist would not be convinced these bones and ashes were the remains of Lord Buddha. A faithful Buddhist does not need to see the bones and ashes, only to know they are in a stupa. A faithful devotee can then donate flowers, candles, incense and then prostrate and circumnambulate the stupa to develop wholesome states of mind and recollect the virtues of Lord Buddha and other arahats.

I wrote my complaints in the museum’s complaints book and read a few written by others. There seemed to be none written by Buddhists… Maybe other Buddhists just accept the desecration as part of the global decline of the Dhamma, shrug their shoulders and try to develop equanimity.

I later visited the Indian Government tourism office on Janpath Ave and complained about the contradictory and racist policy for Indian government museums charing much higher entry fees for foreigners than for Indians. The staff were sympathetic but asked me to complain to the Indian Archeological Survey who set the fees. They understood my point that the higher fees contradict the policy to encourage more tourism and democratic principles but tried to say that it was not racist without being able to explain how it is not racist.

I was harrassed by several young men at various times when walking around Connaught, in central Delhi. They each claimed to be students who wanted to practice English. They also claimed not to be poor or seeking money etc. I tried telling them I wanted to be alone and didn’t need help, but they kept following me and trying to suggest this and that place to go. I had to be rude to them to make them go away. This was quite  irritating on top of being in a strange city and travel weary already.

I looked for book shops and was disappointed with most. The best by far was Full Circle Bookshop in the Khan Market area. There was an excellent cafe on the top floor above the bookshop. The bookshop and cafe had a very nice feel and I felt almost like I was in no longer in India. I should have stayed there longer. There were not many Buddhist books there but the Hindu book selection was better than the other bookshops I found in Connaught.

Again, I had good food in Delhi. I have really enjoyed the good Indian vegetarian food and had a good tummy every day except one day in India.

I flew from Delhi to Chennai on 30 December and stayed at Chandra Park Hotel opposite the main train station. The room was OK though more expensive than my normal budget. The service was not very good either. The staff were abrupt and spoke English quickly with strong accents. I did another book shop search and found the book shops in Chennai are average and at best have a few basic books on Buddhism. I found a Lonely Planet guide for Sri Lanka. I ate vegetarian dinner and breakfast at the excellent Saravana Bhavan. They have many branches in India and around the world. Good food and good service. I recommend them.

The Chennai museum is poorly maintained and has few Buddhist statues. It was not very interesting for me. Again the exhibits were not labeled properly or at all. It was all dusty and hap-hazard. It may be interesting for people who like bronze statues of the Hindu deity Shiva.