My first sojourn in any Buddhist shrine happened two decades ago when on our Darjeeling trip, I found myself in front of the Peace Pagoda.
It was a cold wet Darjeeling evening with clouds and drizzle all around. After negotiating the stairs of the soothing white exquisite Pagoda with greenery and Himalayan ridges all around, we entered the sanctorium with an idol of Lord Buddha in a meditative state.
A few Buddhist monks were sitting on the floor and chanting religious mantras with simultaneous beating of a drum with small sticks. As myself and my wife entered, the monks smilingly gestured us to sit upon the floor and handed us sticks to make the music along with the mantras!
It was indeed an unique overwhelming experience for me as I got much moved by the liberalism of the Buddhist monks.
Neither are we Buddhists nor aware of the rituals and chants absolutely incomprehensible to us! Yet how casually they took "aliens" like us within their warm fold and encouraged us to participate in their proceedings!
What a contrast to shrines of many other religious groups which either bars people of other religions from entering the premises or insist on sporting any particular dress or head cover! Participation in proceedings, along with the priests, is out of question!
I envisaged that there indeed lies something special in Buddhism as far as simplicity and liberalism are concerned! So my curiosity and desire to visit Buddhist monasteries pagodas shrines attained a much higher level following the first pleasant experience in Peace Pagoda Darjeeling! What a peace indeed did the Pagoda showered upon my mind, heart and psyche!
So seven years later, on another trip to the West Bengal Himalayas, when I learnt that the main attraction of the tiny hamlet of Lava is its monastery; my joy knew no bounds!
The monastery hosts a huge courtyard with Himalayan ranges all around in hand shaking distance. During our visit, religious classes were going on featuring students and teachers of all possible ages right from 6 to 60. All were dressed in typical attire of Buddhist monks with hair either fully shaved or cropped.
They were scattered all around the courtyard in various groups. In each group there were 3-4 students in a sitting position with the teacher standing. The teachers were uttering any Mantra in a language incomprehensible to us ending with a thunderous clap which the students were repeating.
Indeed, it was a unique sight. But the matter worth saying remains that the whole process of teaching was going on in an extremely smiling and relaxed tone and that too right in the middle of hoards of tourists who are engaged in commotion and frantic clicking of pictures!
But without feeling least disturbed, the teachings were going on with the teachers and students even smiling at us! What a great education we received --- if we are indeed devoted to our job at hand, no external force can deviate us from concentrating on it!
Perhaps getting awe-struck by all things Buddhism, I ventured to the Himalayan Buddhist nation of Bhutan another four years later. Almost literally the very first step in Bhutan lands us in Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang - - a monastery in Phuentsholing on the left of the border gate with Kharbandi Goemba high above overlooking the Bengal plains, Jaigaon town and meandering Torsa river.
As the highway meanders towards Thimphu by crossing various villages and small towns; it was simply raining Buddha on various sides or hill tops! Choertens, Monasteries and Buddha statues of various size and shape possible continue to bless us!
And Buddha point in outskirts of Thimphu vividly reflects the sartorial tastes of the Bhutanese people. What a place to erect the huge statue of the Lord! Surrounded by the giant Himalayan ridges on all sides with the Thimphu valley down below --- indeed the place where Gods reside!
Not to forget the calm and serene Boudhanath, situated right amidst the hustle and bustle of modern Kathmandu! A beautiful golden-hued monastery with a lofty white Stupa bang opposite it. Got stunned to notice that all are allowed to approach the Buddha even with shoes on the feet with cameras in tow! In the same way, the Stupa can also be negotiated through the stairs! Just no prohibition, no bar on anything! As if the Lord is of our very own and he/she is simply observing us through the philosophical eyes embedded on the top of the Stupa!
Upper Monastery in Bomdilla, situated under the pristine blue sky and amidst the green mountain, cannot be described in mere words. It is not only an architectural delight, but extremely colourful also in appearance amidst the Himalayan ridges and under the unpolluted blue of the Arunachal sky.
In contrast, the legendary holy shrine in Tawang is not so shining and colourful due to its much older history ; but the monastery "compensates" it through sheer grandeur and massiveness. There also I remained witness to the sight of the students getting taught of the scriptures in the main temple where the Buddha resides despite deluge of tourists hanging all around them!
The South Sikkim township of Ravangla is famous for a gigantic Buddha statue towering over a large monastery complex(Pic attached). Perhaps even the most atheist person of the globe will feel the presence of God in such a heavenly environment!
Gardens and orchards of colourful Tulip Rhododendron and Magnolia all around the complex which is itself located on the lap of Himalayas, an yellow-orange hued monastery with the Lord meditating over it ---- Ravangla Tathagata Tsal is really beyond description!
Now the question that haunts my mind. Has the great humanitarian religion called Buddhism played a major role behind such heavenly qualities of simplicity? After all every Buddhist monastery and places I have visited are nothing but epitome of peace, tranquility, silence, gentleness and all things divine.
And in Bhutan, Lord Buddha is not confined within the walls of the monasteries only; but omnipresent in each and every aspect of the society and perhaps this has immensely contributed towards human and spiritual upliftment of the common Bhutanese people.
However it also remains the hard fact that despite dominated by Buddhism, neither Sri Lanka nor Myanmar is epitome of peace by any standard. Thus it is proven that the Buddhist nation of Bhutan and the monasteries located in India or Nepal do not pay mere lip service to Lord Buddha. Rather they have succeeded in imbibing the spirit teachings and ideals of Buddha and Buddhism so as to uplift their persona shrines and society as a whole.
Buddha had advised "Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without". Perhaps the real devotees of Lord Buddha have learnt the art of attaining peace from within!