Work in Progress: Vulture Peak

June 24th, 2010

I’m working on a book that is, among other things, about my travels last year. Here’s a rough draft of a chapter from it that I think stands well alone. Enjoy

I hadn’t planned to travel to Nalanda and Rajgir by car. I’d been asking around Bodhgaya for bus options, but when Ali at the Hotel Tokyo Vihar heard about it, he said it was a bad idea. “There are bandits,” he said. The roads of Bihar are known for a kind of lawlessness, it’s true. I’d read the book Rude Awakenings by Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott, a story of a Buddhist pilgrimage that fell apart when the two men were robbed in Bihar–actually, on the exact road that I would be traveling between Bodhgaya and Rajgir. That’s why I ended up hiring Ali to drive me to Rajgir.

The land of Bihar is mostly flat, but there are a few dramatic hills and small mountains punctuating the horizon. I watch them go by from the window of Ali’s car. We listen to Bollywood music as we drive; Ali has a few collections of current Bollywood hits, and he switched the CD a few times.

One of these mountains is Vulture Peak. The scriptures tell us that Shakyamuni Buddha delivered some of his most pivotal teachings on Vulture Peak, including the Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. It’s a major pilgrimage point for Japanese Buddhists of the Nichiren sect for that reason.

It’s also in the poorest state in India, Bihar. This state has been known as the wild frontier of India for a while, though the lawlessness has subsided in recent years. Still, I’m aware. While my dad was afraid I’d die at the border of Pakistan, I was afraid I’d die in Bihar. But I’m relatively safe. Ali is friendly, but soft-spoken, quiet by nature. It’s actually a comforting presence, being in the car with him, like I don’t feel the need to fill up the air with chat. We’re just enjoying a ride together.

As much as I’m afraid of Bihar’s reputation, there’s also a deep love I feel for the place. I remember talking to Vineet back in Delhi, hearing his pride in calling Bihar his home state, the history and opportunity for greatness. There is a sign in Bodhgaya that says, “We walk on ground where Buddha walked. Wherever you go in the world, say it with pride: I AM BIHARI.” I take the sign’s advice and say it with pride, pile it on to the list of things I say with pride: I am Nebraskan, I am American, I am Detroit, I am Canadian, I am Bihari.

Vulture Peak Ropeway, Rajgir

We reach the foot of Vulture Peak, get out of the car and buy tickets for the ropeway. I’ve been on ropeways before, in Haridwar, but this is different. The Haridwar ropeway had carriages for six people. The carriage would arrive and stop, and people would file in. Then the door would be secured, and the tram would move on.

This ropeway was just a chair lift. The single chairs are constantly moving, and passengers must stand where the chair will scoop them up. We wait in line behind a large Indian family. Their teenage daughter is nervous. She steps to the line with the incoming chair, then jumps away at the last minute. They coach her in Hindi, but she still doesn’t want to get on the chair. Three empty chairs pass her before she gets the nerve to get on one. The rest of her family follows.

I step up. I’m determined not to make a nervous spectacle of myself. The chair pulls in, and I am ready. I hop on and it lifts me off my feet. As I make the steady climb, I reach for the latch that’s supposed to safely (or semi-safely) belt me into the seat.

I only find a broken hinge, a bent piece of metal where the latch should be. I glance at the chairs coming down; they all have solid bars against their seats.

Ali’s in the chair coming up behind me. I turn to him, and he smiles and waves. He doesn’t know that I’m in peril. But it’s a peril against a stunning landscape, like a James Bond movie, so I decide I need pictures. Still, at each moment I look down, I make a quick mental calculation. If I fell right here, I might get caught by that bush and not hurt too much. If I fell from here, I’d die. It’s not too far right now; I could cut my losses and take a fall right here.

To be honest, I’m probably not in much danger at all. The chair remains relatively upright, I have both feet on a rest and bars to hold onto if the ride gets bumpy.

But that doesn’t stop my imagination from running away with me. I’m going to die. Here in Bihar. Here on my way up Vulture Peak. Without seeing the Shanti Stupa. I’m never going to see America again. But then I get a sense of peace. If I die here, I die on ground where Buddha walked. Maybe I’ll be reborn here in Bihar. There are worse things that could happen.

Of course, I reach the top of the lift in one piece. There are a few steps to go up to the stupa.

Just below the stupa, there’s a field of gravel. Dozens of people are milling around in the gravel, drawing designs, moving gravel into little piles. I see a word written in the sand: AMERICA. I wonder who wrote it. Perhaps a pilgrim like me scratched it there, wishing for blessings for his homeland. Or perhaps it was written by a Bihari university student, hoping the Bodhisattva of Compassion would help him get an immigrant visa, a job at GM, a house in the suburbs of Detroit. To me it’s a reminder: this is your home.


2 Responses to “Work in Progress: Vulture Peak”

  1. MANJULA MANI says:


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