Tuesday, 9 October 2012

In the footsteps of Buddha


I’m writing this, not from Thailand, but from India - so close, yet so far! Both countries, however, have something in common (apart from crazy traffic): they are both places of pilgrimage for those of the Buddhist faith.

The International Buddhist Tourism Conclave, held from September 29 to October 1 in Varanasi and Bodh Gaya in northern India, was attended by 133 delegates from 33 countries around the world, including a large delegation from Thailand (and a much smaller contingent from Australia - just two of us!) The conference highlighted the fact that not only is religious tourism at the very origins of travel, but it’s also a growth market as more and more people have the means to travel across borders. It also looked at ways to marry tourism with religious worship without compromising the latter, and how to improve infrastructure to make sacred sites more comfortable for tourists.

       (monks setting off on a 'peace march' from outside the Thai temple in Bodh Gaya, India)

There are 400 million Buddhists on this planet; and it’s never been easier for them to travel to venerated sites such as Lumbini in Nepal (the birthplace of Buddha), Bodh Gaya, where he found enlightenment, and Sarnath (near Varanasi) where he gave his first sermon. Every day, these sites are jam-packed with tourists - but unlike other monuments, these are not just ancient monuments made from bricks and mortar, but living, breathing places of worship, alive with the energy of those seeking guidance, peace and salvation. 

Sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bohd Gaya where Buddha found enlightenment, meditating to the sound of chanting monks, for instance, is a truly magical, compelling and soul-stirring experience, even for this non-Buddhist. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for devotees of the faith, to finally be walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. 

                                         (under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya)

While the focus of the conference was definitely India-centric, the challenges set during the five day event are just as pertinent to Thailand, with its many shrines and temples which attract tourists of every faith. Thailand has some of the most beautiful and venerated Buddhist sites in the world, including Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok,and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya ... but like India’s sacred sites, it’s important for Thailand and the Buddhist world that these places are not loved to death, and that pilgrims don’t destroy what they’ve set out to venerate. 

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