A Memorable Place Spiritual generosity on the Ganges...


October 13, 2002|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Spiritual generosity on the Ganges

By Heidi Nevin


It is morning in Calcutta, India. Mist rises from the Ganges River -- holy to the Hindus -- as devotees begin their ritual bathing. On a ledge above the water, an old man sits praying, a perfect white lotus clasped between his palms. Six of us gather around him, awaiting the start of our day's work.

At 9 a.m. the trucks begin to arrive. Our small team of maroon-robed monks and Tibetan laymen (and me, the American woman) leap into action. There isn't a moment to spare, for the lives of half a million fish are in our hands.

"Chlo! Chlo!" we shout to the boatmen in Hindi, "Go! Go! Go!" Balancing precariously on the deck of the little wooden fishing boat, we clamp the lids on eight big plastic trash cans filled with frenzied, thrashing fish.

The haunting call of a conch shell rings out over the river, signaling us to begin the release. We throw off the lids and empty can after can of bhetki, rohu and koi into the water, reciting a Buddhist ransom prayer as we work. We watch as the fish swim away, and the sheer thrill of liberation fills my eyes with tears.

The old man blowing the shell is Kyabje Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, one of the most revered Tibetan Buddhist masters. Through his annual fish releases, he upholds an ancient Buddhist tradition of buying back creatures destined for slaughter, a spiritual act of generosity and compassion.

He buys the fish -- this year he has spent $40,000 -- from local fish farms. Over the course of 10 days, we release 95,000 pounds of very happy fish.

The sun glistens on the ancient holy river, gilding its filth in radiance. Hippos surface beside our boats, and every so often a bloated cow carcass floats past. This is the Ghat, the sacred site of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation.

I rest for a moment to drink some fresh green coconut milk and stare in awe at my teacher. His 90-year-old face is serene; his long white beard glows in the sun. With deep humility, I bow to this man whose love and compassion fill my life with inspiration.

Heidi Nevin, originally from White Hall, lives in Darjeeling, India.

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