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Travel Story : Rebirth is Consciousness; Body is Karma : Buddhism in East Bengal : Traveller / Traveler in Bangladesh :: From the Planet Pilgrim World Traveller Series

Rebirth is Consciousness; Body is Karma

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Buddhist Ordination Ceremony, Shatpura, Bangladesh
Ordination and Robe-giving Ceremony
at the end of the Rainy Season (18th Nov 1983),
Buddhist Temple, Shatpura, a village near Chittagong, Bangladesh

Almost 1100 years ago a group of the Buddha's direct descendants migrated from southern Nepal to the country of the Bangla or Bengalis. Their lineage is traced to a Nepalese king's first daughter. The king conquered the Bengal region in the tenth century for the Pala Dynasty which ruled parts of northern India from the seventh to the twelfth century A.D. These migrants settled in the Chittagong area in Bangladesh where their Buddhist descendants live to this very day. One of their monks resides in the Nandan Kanon Buddhist Temple in the city of Chittagong.

Bhikkhu and Nandan Kanon Buddhist Temple, Chittagong, Bangladesh
Nandan Kanon Buddhist Temple, Chittagong, Bangladesh

He invited me to stay in the temple in November 1983 after a brief civil disturbance which resulted in a curfew on the streets of his city. While I was with a group of excitable Bangladeshis on the rooftop of the Safina Hotel, military vehicles cruised the streets. Soldiers with clubs and rifles were beating curfew-breakers cum demonstrators on the streets.

Rooftop Scene, Safina Hotel, Chittagong, Bangladesh
Rooftop Scene, Safina Hotel, Chittagong, Bangladesh

After a few days the curfew was lifted and I visited and then shifted into the Buddhist temple in this city of mosques and Muslims. The monk was a man of resilience and resourcefulness. Between huge doses of flattery, he read the palms of wealthy Muslim businessmen, seducing them into donating huge sums of money to the Buddhist church.

Sumangal Bhikkhu was a charmer who lived on his wits, having survived waves of persecution and the burning of his village of Buddhists located across the paddy fields from both Muslim and Hindu farming villages. We visited two small settlements like these, sleeping in a mud hut which served as a semi-alfresco place of worship and meeting for the villagers.

The Bhikkhu (or senior monk-teacher) was formerly Mangal Barua as a layperson. He had been a music director, politician and journalist. His father had been a lawyer. The rich cultural background of his family had deeply permeated his everyday life. He was expert in Buddhist texts and sutras, gemology, palmistry, and healing with pujas, mantras, stones and grasses. Mangal had specialized in Indian music, specifically vocal, harmonium and direction. Bhikkhu was also well acquainted with national and international politics, meditation, Pali, and problems of personal development and national economic development. He was a fifty-year-old Aquarian, who typically thrived on mystery and fascination. His education and experience displayed itself in excellent oratory and fluent Bengali, Hindi and English.

One day Sattyajit Barua, the Bhikkhu's nephew, visited the temple. Sattyajit was a second-year university student of logic, geography and maths. His mother worked for the Hoechst Pharmaceutical Company and his father was an engineer in the Middle East for four years - two years in Muscat followed by two years in Iraq. Sattyajit and I went to Betagi (about twenty kilometres out of town) to behold a 1400-year-old stone carving of the Buddha which had been found in recent times in a canal off the Karnaphuli River.

For the first sixteen kilometres we travelled by local bus, with our bicycle on the roof. As usual, the bus was grossly overcrowded after many passengers had scrambled in through the open windows and climbed onto the roof. We cycled the last three kilometres through thatched villages, finally arriving at Betagi Vihar (temple) standing alone in the moonlight as it reflected off the surrounding paddy fields. I was stunned by the regal treatment the sweet village people afforded me. They felt so thrilled and honoured and touched by a foreign pilgrim's visit that they served me on their knees. They had invoked the spirit of Maitreya, the future Buddha who typifies friendliness. I was offered cha, sweetmeats and preserved, crystallized cumquats on silver trays in a tiny, rustic stone and timber chapel blessed by an almost-full moon. I felt truly humbled.

After almost a week with Sumangal Bhikkhu, I awoke on Friday morning, tired and a bit sore after a bicycle ride back from Betagi in the middle of the night. I went across the road for a breakfast of cha, paratha and dahl at a little tea shop. On returning to the temple, Bhikkhu said that we were going to an ordination ceremony at Shatpura, a village fourteen kilometres south of the city on the Cox's Bazar Road. Dirt paths led to the village, set amidst paddy fields, with both Buddhist and Hindu temples.

Hindu Temple, Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh
Hindu Temple, Shatpura:
near Chittagong, Bangladesh
Buddhist Temple, Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh
Buddhist Temple, Shatpura:
near Chittagong, Bangladesh

The robe-giving ceremony was two days before the Sunday full moon to allow more guests to attend. These guests included the Russian Consulate Public Relations man (who supplied a patriotic propaganda movie) and two Russian sailors. We also visited the beginning of Rath Purnima (the car festival) of the Krishna sect at the local Hindu temple. It was an extremely musical occasion with over thirty musical groups from all over Bangladesh. We caught the exciting rehearsals with music supplied by dotara, bena, violins (bela), drums, cymbals, flutes, harmoniums and singers.

Krishna and Radha, Hindu Temple, Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh
Krishna and Radha, Hindu Temple:
Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh
In the Garden of the Buddhist Temple, Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh
In the Garden of the Buddhist Temple:
Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh

The extended lunch on saffron cloths in the temple grounds was a backwoods mixture of timeless ritual and simple gaiety. The villagers were generous and welcoming. I was even asked to give a speech on my experience with Vipassana meditation. This gesture was evidence of both their hospitality and their humility.

Shatpura near Chittagong, Bangladesh - The Author giving a Talk on Buddhist Vipassana Meditation at the Ordination Ceremony
The Author giving a Talk on Buddhist Vipassana Meditation at the Ordination Ceremony

That night we slept on straw mats on the floor of the temple in Shatpura. We left in the early morning to return to Chittagong. As the new day dawned, Sumangal Bhikkhu stretched his weary body and told me, "Rebirth is consciousness; body is karma. We can't say more; we can't say less."

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