In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

As we practice Zen, we hope to become more open, compassionate, and responsive. But how to respond to the poor in India – especially the children – is a conundrum that confronts every traveller. Most sources advise against giving money to beggars on the street. We saw a woman almost fall from the rush of children who surrounded her when she gave to a few. And aside from our own comfort, we probably aren’t doing these children any favors by giving them money directly. But what to do? It’s easy to barricade yourself behind a protective numbness.

Here at the temple in Kushinagar where we are staying, we can see a different response in action. Rev. Thich Nu Tri Thuan, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun, came to India in 1989 and built the place from nothing. Through sheer determination, this petite force of nature created not just a temple, but also a school for some of India’s poorest children. There are 335 children currently enrolled in the school, and over 6000 have been educated since its founding.

Before our arrival, the Kwan Um School organized a significant donation to the project. After an early morning visit to the site of the Buddha’s death, we returned to the temple for a hurried ceremony with the children. They waited politely while we passed out new uniforms and packages of cookies to row upon row of eager hands. It’s a small thing, but it feels good to do something.

Then it was back to the bus for another 13-hour ride to Lumbini in Nepal, the final stop on our tour. As the hours went by, we passed from sociability, to boredom, to sleepiness, to silliness. The last leg of the journey was a push. We sat idling in traffic at the Nepalese border for two long hours while visas were sorted out. Carlos and George started dancing in the aisle. Finally, music was pumped over the p.a., and we belted out Simon and Garfunkle songs in exhausted and full-hearted 100%-ness.

We arrived at the Korean Temple during evening practice. The monks were chanting, and in the dark, the temple glowed with lanterns and candles like a huge jack-o-lantern.