I had to go. I had no option. We were in Chitwan—The Heart of the Jungle— right on the border with India, one hundred miles and a few torturous hours on the tortuous road away from Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.
So I had to go.
I prepared myself the same way I did before I visited Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican. I committed myself to ethical and mental self-improvement. I worked on resisting the pull of desire, anger and aversion. I tried not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively. I focused on compassion, on being the best person I could possibly be, so that if the Pope came out on his balcony he could spot the halo hovering over the brain of my spotless mind and bless me and only me. But as luck would have it, the Pope was not in Rome on that particular day; he was at Castel Gandolfo, his pontifical holiday palace. And so I stood in the middle of the Square along with thousands of equally misinformed tourists, all elbowing each other, tripping each other, being selfish and unholy, all of us wishing to be able to steal a gander from the pope and feel special.
This time would be different, I just knew it. Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who in order to become Buddha had to leave behind his material riches in favor of a path of self-sacrifice (starvation, isolation, sickness, nakedness, the list goes on), would have surely left a mystical aura at his birthplace. I was on a mission: to walk away from Lumbini with that aura tucked under my belt.
On my way, as the bus perilously negotiated wandering cows, cars driving against traffic, wrecked trucks left on the side of the winding, pothole-filled road, I trained deliriously. My mind and heart slowly melted into a peaceful continuum. I fervently focused my attention on my breath, and used each exhalation as a means of spreading kindness and goodwill throughout the bus (hey, you have to start small). I visualized each breath as one ray of light gradually sweeping over my body. I directed patient kindness from within to the world ahead. If I open my heart, I thought, Lumbini's holiness and Buddha’s aura will find their way into it.
Of course, I’ve tried that one before. Unsuccessfully. Once, many years ago, I saw the sunrise at Mount Sinai, where Moses allegedly received the 10 commandments. As the sun came up, I quieted my mind and waited. I waited for a moment of revelation, for thunders and lightnings, the thick cloud upon the mountain, and the biblical loud trumpet blast of the Genesis, so that I would tremble. I got distracted by a group of tourists taking pictures of the sunset, each other, and the monastery down below. There went my moment of transcendence. Nothing descended upon the mountain, nothing was set ablaze, and the earth, very definitely did not quake greatly.
Once at Buddha’s birthplace—a Unesco World Heritage Site—I kicked my sandals off, bowed as I entered the place, and braced myself for rapture. Instead of ecstasy, this is what I found: an impossibly long line of Asian devotees and tourists pushing and stepping on each other; a stern Nepalese guard with the meanest gaze I ever saw in Nepal enforcing the strict No Photography rule; a donation box right by the pillar with the inscription in Pali which states that Buddha was born right there in 623 BC. And a few plastic bottles because it was hot as hell. And Cheetos wrappers because even devout Buddhists get the munchies. And petals, rice, and debris from the offerings left at the site. And dust, and noise, and the inevitable desolation that fills your soul when you go around the world temple-hopping looking for that which has always been inside you.