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Going Home to Buddhism: An Interview with Pilgrimage Organizer Effie Fletcher
THE PATH OF PILGRIMAGE
Effie Fletcher coordinates Dharma Journeys Pilgrimages (formerly known as Chasing Buddha Pilgrimages), which provides guided pilgrimages to many Buddhist sites in Asia. Effie has organized more than two dozen of these trips, which are led by FPMT teachers. She also is the director of Himalayan High Treks, a small San Francisco-based business that organizes environmentally and socially conscious Himalayan treks as well as trips to Southeast Asia. Mandala spoke with Effie in January 2013.
Part 1 of this interview appears in the print edition of Mandala April-June 2013. Click here to read Part 2, an online exclusive of fpmt.org/mandala/.
Part 1: A ‘Pukka’ Tour, the Meaning of Pilgrimage, Nuts and Bolts
Mandala: How did you get into organizing pilgrimages?
Effie Fletcher: I started Himalayan High Treks in 1988. Then in 2001, Ven. Robina Courtin asked me if I would organize pilgrimages for her. She said to me, “I don’t want one of these hippie treks. I want a real pukka…” – pukka is a word they use in India for “nice” or “first class” – “…I want a good quality tour with good hotels and everything just so.” Unfortunately, I can’t remember her exact words, but I thought, “Well, that is going to be easy because if I can organize treks, I can organize pilgrimages.” I had been to some of the pilgrimage places myself already. I also had been a student of Ven. Robina’s and had been on retreat with her. Organizing a pilgrimage seemed like organizing a moving retreat – that is how I visualized it – a retreat that was on the road.
We used to call them Chasing Buddha Pilgrimages and would raise money for the Liberation Prison Project. [See “Pilgrims’ Progress: ‘Chasing Buddha’ in Nepal and India” from Mandala October-November 2004.] Then a few years ago we changed to Dharma Journeys because Chasing Buddha was very specific to Ven. Robina. We have been doing pilgrimages with other leaders for some time now and are starting to raise money for other organizations like Dharamsala Animal Rescue and more recently for Milarepa Center in Vermont, United States.
Mandala: What are the sites that a pilgrim might visit on a Dharma Journeys Pilgrimage?
Effie Fletcher: The most standard pilgrimage that we do, the one that the most people have been on with us, is going to visit the traditional pilgrimage sites of Lord Buddha’s life in Nepal and India. The wonderful thing about the pilgrimage places in general is that they have been pretty well preserved. After seeing these parks and areas, it’s easy to imagine, even 2,000 years later, that Lord Buddha actually lived and was in these places. It hasn’t changed all that much, so that is pretty exciting.
We also do pilgrimages to other places. We have done pilgrimages to Tibet, for example. And we are planning pilgrimages to Sri Lanka and to Myanmar (known more commonly as Burma).
Mandala: From your point of view, what are the differences between tourism and pilgrimage?
Effie Fletcher: There is a wonderful, wonderful quote that I love from Lama Zopa Rinpoche: “Normally, when people go on pilgrimage, they are just like tourists. Maybe they take some pictures and that is it. They don’t use the places to collect merit or to meditate or to get some benefit for their minds. If it is just like sightseeing, then it won’t be that much benefit.”
That is the big thing about these pilgrimages: for people who are Buddhist, they are going home to Buddhism. They are not tourists in a traditional sense because they are going and practicing.
Some of the people that do the pilgrimages are not Buddhist when they go or they may just be interested in Buddhism. They may belong to another faith or they may not be Tibetan Buddhist. They may have other practices that they are used to doing, but they still come on the pilgrimages. So we don’t have a requirement that somebody has to be an experienced traveler or a certain level of practitioner or anything like that.
Mandala: As an organizer, how do you support people on pilgrimage? And how are the trips structured?
Effie Fletcher: We try to take people from wherever they are to a point where they feel competent for travel and ready to participate in the trip. We do that by helping them with the nuts and bolts of the travel: figuring out how to get visas if they are needed; helping with immunizations and understanding what the choices are in terms of taking certain medicines with them on the trip; explaining what they need to pack and carry – all of those simple things that add up to being a competent traveler.
The next step is to help everyone be on the same page in terms of doing practice and the purpose of pilgrimage. We provide them with a prayer book, which is basically a collection of FPMT prayers and practices that were recommended to Ven. Robina by Lama Zopa Rinpoche when she did the very first Chasing Buddha Pilgrimage. Rinpoche did many of these prayers and practices when he went on pilgrimage in Tibet in 2002. We distribute the prayer book to people at a group meeting at the start of their pilgrimage.
If they start in Nepal, they go immediately to Kopan Monastery [on the outskirts of Kathmandu] and have a three- or four-day retreat there. If they start in India, they may go immediately to Root Institute in Bodhgaya or may take a couple days elsewhere and then do the retreat, depending on the itinerary. But usually they get together and have a short retreat close to the beginning of the trip. Then, that way, everybody pretty quickly gets to be on the same page about the prayers, practices and what makes for a meaningful trip.
Mandala: Tell me more about the nuts and bolts of this kind of travel. Where do inexperienced travelers encounter problems as they prepare for a trip like this?
Effie Fletcher: I think that one thing people do is they wait until it is almost too late to go on a trip. They see the dates and think that they can just call you a few weeks before and manage to get ready. But it is a big, big trip; it takes a lot of planning. We really like people to come on board about six months in advance. We give a small discount to people who do that just to encourage people to sign up early. It is for our benefit and their benefit, because if they come in at the last minute, they are going to be really hectic. It is going to be hard to do any of the pre-trip reading, so they are not going to have as nice of an experience. Chances are if they come in less than six weeks to two months before the trip, we are not even going to be able to accommodate them because of all the bookings that need to be made. So that is number one – sign up early!
Then the second thing is that I think people sometimes have a fear that holds them back from doing things that are new. If they haven’t done this type of travel before, the first trip is always the hardest. It seems that once people have gone on the pilgrimage, they will do trip after trip, often on their own. For example, they will go to a Kalachakra initiation with His Holiness and so on. I’ve seen that many times. The pilgrimage is their first trip, and people are nervous about it, but then once they get started, they get more into it.
The third thing is that a pilgrimage is a big investment. It is something that not everybody can afford to do, but again, if you break it down, if you plan early, there are ways to save money. You can spread out payments over time. You can sign up for your trip and pay your deposit, and then you buy your airfare, then you pay your balance. You can break it up over a number of months so that the whole expense of the trip isn’t hitting you all at the same time. There are strategies for making it more affordable. It is not an inexpensive thing to do, but it is possible.
Mandala: Money and budgeting seem really important to planning a pilgrimage as well as how one thinks about the trip. Because it really isn’t tourism that we are talking about, it’s a spiritual practice, right?
Effie Fletcher: Pilgrimage is a huge benefit in many ways. For the individual, he or she learns and does the practices and creates merit. Then on Dharma Journeys Pilgrimages, there is also the organization or project that we are raising money for. It is also a way for people to connect with the project or nonprofit organization and then they might go on and volunteer with them. For example, a lot of people became involved in the Liberation Prison Project after going on a Chasing Buddha Pilgrimage.
People tell me that it is life-changing to spend time with a pilgrimage leader who is a dedicated practitioner, people like Ven. Robina and Jon Landaw. People really enjoy the chance to have a good amount of quality time with a teacher in a place that is so special.
People also tell me that going on pilgrimage really helps them to get used to or get very serious and committed to a daily practice. A lot of people say they have had trouble with that before going on pilgrimage, and then during the pilgrimage it just became part of their routine, and when they came home, they were able to keep that up.
Mandala: What kind of physical abilities are needed to make these kinds of trips?
Effie Fletcher: We had somebody who was legally blind do a trip with us in 2011. These are pilgrimages, they are not treks. You need to be able to walk around the pilgrimage sites, but it is not hard hiking. Somebody needs to be ambulatory and be able to lift their luggage if need be. The pace is demanding, and some days you are in a vehicle for a long time. It isn’t particularly hard; but, it is demanding because it requires your attention and your time, and you are often sleeping somewhere different. You stay in one place probably two or three nights at the most, most of the time. You are moving and you are in the vehicles for periods of time. It is actually pretty enjoyable. I wouldn’t say relaxing, but I would say fun and not super strenuous.
Mandala: Looking at your website, it seems like you really do a lot to help people prepare both in terms of what they need to pack, what they need to do and also in terms of their expectations. Is this something that you focus on as part of the package?
Effie Fletcher: Yes, we provide pilgrims with a lot of pre-trip support. People call me or email me with questions; we are available for that. We also do give them a packing list and a reading list. We have trip notes that detail exactly how to go about getting the visa or whatever else is needed for the particular trip. We try to educate people about why it is important to have travel insurance, to get at least evacuation insurance in case there is an emergency. The last pilgrimage we did, someone had a calf sprain. The insurance upgraded the woman and her partner to business class for the trip home so she could be comfortable with her injury. She didn’t have to be evacuated – it wasn’t that serious – but at least the insurance was able to ensure her a comfortable trip home.
We also try to work with people to get reasonable air fares from wherever they are traveling from. We have people coming from all over the world going on the pilgrimages, not just here in the U.S. They may be, for example, flying out of Canada, the U.K., or Australia. Wherever they are, we are going to hook them up with either online or retail travel agent resources to help them get a good airfare. If you just search online and you are not sure, it looks incredibly expensive to fly to these places. If you fly round-trip to Delhi, for example, and then you add on one-way tickets to Varanasi, and then on the return, Kathmandu back to Delhi, it is going to come out tons cheaper than if you just did a search flying directly into Varanasi and flying home from Kathmandu. If you’ve traveled, you may know that, but if you haven’t, we are here to walk you through it.
Mandala: One thing that has come up on my radar is that there can be a lot of litter at pilgrimage sites. I was just wondering if you had a perspective on that or if that actually is an issue.
Effie Fletcher: In India, traditionally, everything was recyclable broadly speaking. They ate on a thali, which was a leaf, for example. Until recently you could still get tea in little chai cups that were made out of clay, and then when you were done drinking your chai, you would just toss them, and they would basically turn to dirt. They were completely disposable and recyclable, and litter was not a problem. Then all the Western products started being sold, and then of course, India makes products that are similar to the Western products: potato chips in their bags, little juice boxes, and so forth and so on, and basically people just throw them away wherever they are.
A lot of Indians are what we could call “litterbugs” in the U.S., but in the U.S. what we do is we take our garbage and we hide it away in landfills. They are starting to do that in India. That is starting to happen, but it isn’t as organized as it is here yet. You may have seen in places like Mumbai where there are huge landfill dumps where people go and pick through garbage, that sort of thing. Very poor people go there and recycle, looking for things they can resell because they are poor. If you are in a rural area, however, that is not happening.
It behooves us to be really careful with our trash and make sure that we are not leaving behind things like batteries or pesticide bottles. One of my pet peeves is that people carry pesticide with them because they don’t want to be bitten by mosquitoes, but then they just throw the bottle in the trash not realizing what really happens to it. You have to think about where you are and whether or not that trash is going to be disposed of properly. If you are not sure, it is best to not throw something away until you are sure you are in a good place, because they may be just taking that basket and throwing it outside the hotel fence or something like that.
Mandala: How do you feel about bottled water, which can create a litter?
Effie Fletcher: It is so funny because I have fought against bottled water! For 25 years I have been in this battle of trying to get people to carry methods for treating their water and not buy bottled water. To be honest, I am kind of giving up. [Laughter.] I know that is just so terrible, but it is really hard because that is just how it is done in Asia right now. We encourage people to bring a way to treat water, and there are so many now. But bottled water is just becoming the way of Asia. They distribute it in large containers by the truckload to restaurants and other places, so it is almost unavoidable. If you travel in Asia now, you are probably going to be drinking bottled water to a certain extent. I am very sad about it. The only good thing that I can say is that I have been told in some places they are starting to recycle the plastic bottles. If you bring your own water bottle to a hotel or restaurant, you can sometimes just refill that bottle from a larger container of either treated water or bottled water, and then you are at least not creating as many plastic bottles to be just thrown everywhere.
Mandala: How long in advance should someone start planning for pilgrimages in your opinion? Months? Years?
Effie Fletcher: I think you can start planning as early as you want. You have an aspiration to go to Mt. Kailash, right? Maybe you have a small savings account where you are putting money aside, even just 10 dollars a month. Some people tell me that they want to go to Kailash so they are starting to exercise more. That is something that I hear frequently. I’ll sometimes think to myself, “But, Tibet is closed right now, but what does it matter because they are just starting to exercise more which is a great thing?”
Actually, Tibet isn’t closed right now, but it was closed last fall and on and off last year at different times. Who knows what it will be like by the time they are actually ready to go, so the fact that someone might be putting a little money aside or exercising more, making an aspiration, that is a great thing.
Mandala: What about Tibet? Have you gone on pilgrimages in Tibet or organized trips for Tibet, and what is that like?
Effie Fletcher: I have been to Tibet; I have been to Mount Kailash in Tibet, and I love Tibet, but it is a love-hate experience because it is very hard to visit in many ways. You need to have a really open mind and be very flexible if you are going to attempt to travel to Tibet. Some of the sites that you think are going to be just the most amazing sites because they are the most famous sites in and around Lhasa may not be the most interesting places. It might be somewhere a little more out of the way, which you have never heard of before, which isn’t as locked down as some of the older, bigger monasteries around Lhasa are now.
Also, I think if we do go there, even there as pilgrims, as meaningful as that is, it behooves us to really try and understand the political and social situation before we get there. People really owe it to themselves to get educated before they travel, because there is not going to be information readily available once you’re there. This all could be changing; I hope it changes.
I feel a responsibility for our hosts in Tibet when we go, so I encourage people to follow the rules even though they may not agree with them. It is a difficult decision that each person has to make for themselves about whether they will go to Tibet and how they will go to Tibet. I think that it is a place that really deserves some serious thought before you go.
Mandala: Tell me about your recent travels to Burma or Myanmar. That is another country that has had a repressive political climate. What is it like to travel there now?
Effie Fletcher: Ven. Robina is leading a pilgrimage there in September 2013. My visit in in December 2012 was my second trip. It was with a group. It wasn’t a pilgrimage, but most of the people in my group were Buddhist, and we went to mostly Buddhist sites because that is what you do there. I was just checking out some of the places and logistics for the upcoming pilgrimage while I was there.
If you go on my Himalayan High Treks Facebook page, I have a picture posted of Aung San Suu Kyi. We were really fortunate to be able to go to a rally of hers. It is like Tibet in the opposite direction. They are opening up politically, so sanctions have been eased against them. For example, when I was there two years ago, no one would say Aung San Suu Kyi’s name out loud. They would refer to her as “the lady.” Also, there were no public rallies when I was there two years ago. Rallies were illegal.
So, I go back two years later, and not only do people say her name, but I brought home a calendar with a picture of her. One of the pictures includes her and President Barack Obama on it. We went to a rally with just wonderful, wonderful friendly people. We were the only foreigners there. There was no sign of military or police or anything, just a couple of ambulances in case somebody got hurt. It was a very light security situation with just thousands of really friendly people who would say things like, “Thank you for President Barack Obama!” The first time I didn’t know what to say, and then the second time I said, “Thank you for Aung San Suu Kyi!” It was just absolutely the opposite for me of going to Tibet right now.
This is not to say that they are not without problems, but they have amazing pilgrimage sites. One of the places that will be on Ven. Robina’s itinerary is Golden Rock, a rock that is supposedly balanced on one of Buddha’s actual hairs. It is a golden rock as big as a house with a little stupa on top. You can walk all around it, and it is up on top of a mountain that you can either hike or be carried to get to the top of. There is just a wonderful, wonderful atmosphere. It is very family friendly with lots of children and happy people excited to be there, mostly local and some foreigners.
Another place that we go to is Bagan where they have hundreds of Buddhist stupas. There used to be thousands of them at one time and now there are still hundreds left—many, many stupas all over the plains. It is along the Irrawaddy River in Bagan. That is a fabulous pilgrimage place.
It is just wonderful! You can go inside the monasteries and the nunneries. Some of them are huge. I feel like I’m on the campus at Stanford Univeristy or something; they are so big. They have so much going on, but they are also really strict and tough in their monastic life. They live a very hard life full of prayer and practice and very little food. It is just an amazing place to go.
Read Gwen McEwen’s reflections on the recent Dharma Journeys Pilgrimage with Jon Landaw.
Watch a video from Milarepa Center promoting their recent pilgrimage trip.