by Miles Neale
At the conclusion of teaching the second iteration of Nalanda Institute’s four-year Sustainable Happiness Program, I lead a group weekend retreat and graduation ceremony at Ananda Ashram. All of the graduates expressed a hunger for more learning and adventure. In short-order, we collectively conceived of a group pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Buddhist India. In October 2016, I led sixteen students to India, along a route that is sometimes referred to as “In The Footsteps of the Buddha” as it traces the power spots associated with the major milestones of the Buddha’s own life. I called our odyssey the “Hero’s Pilgrimage,” based on the Altruistic Hero or Bodhisattva idea, the Buddhist archetype of the individual who strives to awaken others, and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the “Hero’s Journey,” specifically its narrative arc of leaving home, slaying demons, finding treasure, and return home with the elixir for others.
It was my fifth such pilgrimage, and marked a landmark in my life—my twenty-year anniversary since I first ventured to Bodhgaya, India as a young man, 20 years of age, where I first took refuge and committed myself to the Dharma.
The pilgrimage was an opportunity to share with my students the living source and inspiration of what we had been studying for the last four years in Nalanda Institute’s Program in Sustainable Happiness, but also what had saved my life personally decades ago and had been crucial in diverse ways in the development of each and every student. Through their eyes and experiences, I reconnected with that original wonder and awe I had when I was twenty years old meditating beneath the Tree of Enlightenment. My life had come full circle, a cosmic nexus in an unending cycle, of a student becoming a teacher, and of passing on a lineage, traced back to its infinite source.
Perhaps the most auspicious and memorable aspect of the entire journey was the presence of a living Bodhisattva, the real hero of our hero’s pilgrimage, Geshe Tenzin Zopa, a young dynamic teacher, the same age as I, but raised as a protégée of several Tibetan masters and spoon fed the Lam Rim since a tender age. I had met Geshe Tenzin Zopa a decade ago and was struck by his humility, presence, and devotion, and had invited him to confer on my students the refuge and Bodhisattva vows at Bodhgaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment, and he generously agreed. Geshe-la not only came for the three days I requested, but stayed ten, and as with everything in those two weeks of pilgrimage was emblematic of his unending generosity and kindness. Geshe-la showered us with a loving rain of teachings, blessings, and exemplary conduct.