Treading the Path of Buddha in northwestern India and Nepal was not only a spiritual pilgrimage for Dr. James Mallett, but also an intellectual and scholarly journey filled with colorful contemplative visions every day.
He even attended a teaching by Dali Lama, living symbol of Buddhism for the world.
“The overwhelming mix of spirit and substance, sacred and secular was unlike anything I have experienced in my life,” said Mallett. “I cannot adequately describe it. Thank goodness my three skilled companions were focused on documenting the journey.”
Not surprisingly, he gained insight he knows he can use in Lynn Business Center classrooms.
The group spent the recent long Winter Break on the pilgrimage, identified by Buddha himself when he was near death. It’s a series of four sites: the place of Buddha’s birth, the place of his enlightenment, the place of his first teaching and the place of his death. The events took place some 2,500 years ago.
Mallett had wanted for some time to travel to India and Nepal, overwhelmingly Hindu countries, to follow the Path of Buddha. The wish evolved into the idea of producing a photo book of the four holy sites. Each of his companions, all from DeLand, was selected because of their specific talents for the project.
“Dr. Phillip Lucas, Stetson professor of Religious Studies, helped me understand the Hindu sites,” said Mallett. “Buddhist minister Morris Sullivan was an excellent spiritual guide, and photographer Gary Monroe of Daytona State College artistically captured the sites.”
Mallett will oversee projects coming from the trip like the book of Monroe’s photographs and Sullivan’s text. Lucas shot video to help create an educational website and DVD on the concept of pilgrimage. More long-range projects centered on Buddhism are contemplated.
Contrasts of the journey linger in Mallett’s memory – dogs and goats eat rotting garbage in streets soiled by dung as people wash clothes and bathe in water covered in floating refuse. Nearby, babies play and families live on dirty mats. Monkeys roam the streets. Processions of chanting pilgrims pray, and barefoot monks in red and saffron robes hold begging bowls against a backdrop of temples, sacred statues, holy ruins and groves within sight of worn tents and huts of sticks and plastic.
“I was overwhelmed by the poverty I saw and was very impressed in how resilient people are in dealing with the hardships they have to face,” he said.
The group of scholars was part of a host of more than 200,000 from 63 countries, according to news reports, who converged on one pilgrimage site, Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, when the Dali Lama visited and taught at the beginning of this year. Security was tight and competition fierce to enter the tent with the spiritual leader and Mallett became separated from his companions. They failed to gain entry, but he slipped inside by another way and saw the Dali Lama teaching to thousands.
“I learned that what I thought I knew about India from studying and teaching international finance did not prepare me to see the Indian economy work at the micro level,” said Mallett, who came to Stetson in 1984. “It made me very humble to realize that outside advice that experts give does not work unless it fits into the culture and religion of the local people. To see small shop owners and individuals struggle to make a living makes me appreciate how life works in a developing country.”
The photo book, to be titled “The Path of Buddha,” is expected to be complete in about a year, he said.
“It will take me a long time to fully process the amazing experience,” said Mallett. “I have no doubt it will permeate my thoughts for the rest of my life.”