The renowned spiritual leader and socially engaged Buddhist monk Venerable Bhikkhu Sanghasena has recently returned from a week-long peace pilgrimage to some of the remotest communities in the union territory of Ladakh in India’s far northern reaches. Undertaken in response to the COVID-19 crisis that is gripping India and the world, as well as escalating military tensions on India’s border with China, the pilgrimage through the Changtang region of Ladakh was dedicated to peace, non-violence, and compassionate relief for local communities.
Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena is the spiritual director of the Mahabodhi International Meditation Center (MIMC) in Leh, Ladakh, founder of the Save the Himalayas Foundation and the Mahakaruna Foundation, and advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), among many other roles,*
“To give you a glimpse of the situation in Ladakh, COVID-19 cases have risen to levels we never expected considering the population we have. At present we have 5,081 total cases, 4,037 have recovered, 64 deaths, and 980 active cases in Ladakh, and the numbers keep growing each day,” Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena told Buddhistdoor Global.** “When we compare these statistics to other parts of India and the world it is surely better, nevertheless one must keep in mind that our population is much lower. Looking at India as a whole, the pandemic is breaking through all safety measures. The situation seems uncontrollable and might even overtake the United States.”
The seven-day pilgrimage was undertaken with six underlying Dharma offerings:
1. A special prayer for a coronavirus-free world and for the restoration of peace on India’s border with China
4. Healing mantras
5. Teachings on how to combat COVID-19
6. The distribution of COVID-19 relief supplies
“In addition, Ladakh has experienced several earthquakes over the past month,” Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena added. “This year has had a multiplying set of challenges and problems that we have had to face here in Ladakh.”
At the time of writing on 21 October, India, grappling with the second-highest number of COVID-19 infections in the world, had reported 7.65 million confirmed infections, with 115,914 deaths recorded and 6.8 million recovered. Ladakh itself has reported 5,695 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and recorded 67 deaths, having so far been relatively spared, at least in part, because it is one of the most sparsely populated regions of India, with just 280,000 people.***
Bhikkhu Sanghasena founded the MIMC in Leh, the joint capital of Ladakh, in 1986. He has since become an exemplar of socially engaged Buddhism, launching numerous projects, events, and initiatives, among them providing educational opportunities and refuge for underprivileged children, empowerment and literacy programs for women and other socially disadvantaged groups, healthcare for the sick and needy, and a care home for the aged and destitute. The MIMC has evolved into an expanding campus that has become the hub for a multitude of socio-cultural and community programs to share the Dharma through spiritual and community outreach.
“Besides the coronavirus pandemic, there are serious tensions on the India-China border, where huge military camps have been set up,” said Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena. “We have organized a campaign for a peaceful solution as the border conflict has almost escalated to a near-war situation. I have sent constant appeals to the concerned respected leaders and peace-loving people in the country and the world to come together to find a peaceful solution. I, along with my team from the MIMC, had a week-long peace pilgrimage to the India-China border and offered our sincerest prayers for de-escalating the border conflict and restoring peace and cooperation through peaceful means.”
Tensions in the Himalayan region first began to mount in late April, when China mobilized thousands of troops with artillery and vehicles in disputed territory along the Line of Actual Control between the two nations. In June, the political dispute was heated further when a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley—the first fatal incident in the disputed area since 1975—saw at least 20 Indian soldiers killed. Beijing has declined to reveal how many of its own soldiers lost their lives in the incident.****
The pilgrimage through Changtang, a region of the Tibetan Plateau that extends from western and northern Tibet to southeastern Ladakh, brought Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena and his team into contact with some of the poorest villages in Ladakh. On several occasions, the monk extended invitations to particularly vulnerable families to enroll their children at the MIMC’s boarding school in Leh, He also brought several destitute elderly people to a more comfortable retirement at the MIMC’s home for the aged.
“Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MIMC has been one of the few organizations working to help and aid the people at the grassroots level and restore their lives in this catastrophic time,” Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena explained. “To name a few examples of how we have helped during this pandemic: we offered our Charitable Hospital to the government and it has now been converted into a dedicated COVID-19 hospital. We organized a global prayer ceremony at Bodh Gaya, distributed relief supplies to affected communities in Bihar, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, and providing counseling to needy people.”
“May the peace and positivity of this pilgrimage pervade the hearts and minds of all,” said Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena. “ Make your vision a light for others’ welfare. Make you life a guide for others’ happiness. Make your struggle a fight for others’ peace.”
* Sacred Offerings of Compassion and Relief: Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena, the Silent Reformer (Buddhistdoor Global)
** Data at the time of speaking.
**** Buddhist Monk Bhikkhu Sanghasena Urges Peaceful Resolution amid Sino-Indian Border Tensions (Buddhistdoor Global)