THE STORY OF THE AMAZING TRIP OF NALANDA'S SIXTEEN ARHATS

2006 Lama Zopa Rinpoche advice...

In 2006, while the new public monastery building was under construction at Nalanda, Venerable Jean-François Bergevin, who designed and worked tirelessly to complete the building, asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche for specific instructions for the altar of the new Gompa. Rinpoche advised that having the statues of the 16 Arhats would be very beneficial for the community, and after some investigations, it turned out that a set of 16 Arhats statues had been made two years earlier by Jonathan Partridge at the FPMT Tushita Center in McLeod Ganj, in Northern India. By bringing this set of statues to Nalanda, the Nalanda workshop would be able to make molds so other centers could acquire this artwork and it's blessings as well.

At that time, Venerable Yonten had been a part of the Nalanda's community for three years as a novice monk, and he also had been given permission to take the vows of a fully ordained monk (Gelong). The ceremony was planned for February 2007 in Dharamsala in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and so Yonten's part in this story came about from Venerable Jean-François' simple instruction, "Yonten, go to India, take the ordination and bring back the 16 statues!"

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Venerable yonten

The crumbled statues...

What Yonten discovered in Tushita Center was not really what he expected. The statues were there, but after two years of Indian mountain weather of heat, cold, and monsoon under a plastic sheet in Lama Yeshe's room, their hollow clay construction had started to crumble. They were so very fragile. Yonten understood that he was facing more of a challenge than he had expected, as there was not only the ordination of a lifetime to focus on, but the safe transportation of the 16 very fragile statues (50 cm in height and 5 kg weight each) from McLeod Ganj to Toulouse, France!

"How to start? was my first question" recalls Venerable Yonten. "I'm in the foothills of the Himalayas in the middle of winter, and no idea on how to get hold of materials for this sort of thing, or how the statues would survive such a trip". The timing was tight; with three weeks in India, and with the ordination in two weeks' time.

Transport arrangement...

First step was to arrange transport boxes that needed to be individually made to suit the individual statues, and to protect them for a 12 hour road trip to New Delhi in winter over unpredictable roads, as well as handling as air-cargo to France. Then of course, packing materials were needed to cushion them inside the boxes in the hope they wouldn't be reduced to crumbled pieces by the time they'd completed their journey.

Packaging the statues...

Fortunately, there are carpenters abound in India, so Yonten was assured that making 16 boxes in a week would not be a problem. A trip to a building supplier for plastic sheeting brought about the idea of using construction caulking foam to keep the statues cushioned and fixed in the boxes. However, 12 cans of that would have to be ordered from New Delhi and brought by courier . . . soon! "Then a walk through the village brought me to a carpet making shop, so I went in and found a room full of carpet cuttings they'd be happy to let me have. Perfect for packing the hollow spaces inside the statues."

However, India will always be a country of the unexpected. One week later, the carpenter had still not started the 16 boxes because of a family wedding; and by the end of the following week, he had just started. "Yep, that's when I started to get worried" recalls Yonten, "That and when the aerosol cans of foam arrived without any application nozzle, and no time left to order them with 5 days left in the trip and the rumor His Holiness might have to cancel the ordination in 2 days' time."

Departure to Delhi...

The night before departure in February, winter brought snow. Yonten, as a newly ordained Gelong, had the 16 boxes and packed them entire night, helped by three people. In the process, they discovered the only way to get the foam out of the cans was to use an old pen jammed into the top of each can, which meant it was more than difficult to get the foam in the small spaces of the boxes without creating a right merry mess. Another discovery being the sacks of wool scraps had a rather odd texture and odor about them. Closer examination revealed it to be the last resting place of several decomposing rats.

The following evening, the 4wheel drive jeep turned up on time for the 12 hour night trip to Delhi, but it turned out to be too small to fit all the boxes in the back. The only option was to strap two of them to the roof, and leaving the spare tire on the driveway.

"All I could think about was the reaction of Venerable Jean-François as I listened to the 2 boxes on the roof bouncing at every pot hole in the road, when suddenly the driver started cursing in Hindi." A flat tire! After taking off the wheel, the only words of the driver were, "Whatever you do, stay in the vehicle, and don't unlock the doors under any condition. I'm coming back in one hour." Yonten watched him disappear into the darkness. After at least two hours of worries and doubts, he saw the driver coming back rolling the tire down the road in front of him. Unfortunately, one hour later, the tire was flat again! Second repair, third start, and by the early morning Delhi appeared, direction cargo airport.

After 2 days and 2 nights of sleep deprivation, the blessings of His Holiness, and a whole heap of purification, worry and success, Yonten offloaded the boxes at a loading bay at New Delhi International Cargo Airport. First job was to find a cooperative porter with a large enough trolley for the boxes to be taken to Customs for checking, while the intrepid taxi driver was gratefully paid and free to leave.

Practice of patience...

Once inside the cavernous airport, the Customs officer's first question was, "Are they antique?" Despite assurances they were made 2 years ago by an Australian, Yonten now had to now prove with documents they were not antique! With the taxi driver now on his way back, and no way to get documents, the prospect of no way forward and no way back was looking like a possibility. The Customs officer advised him to go to New Delhi University with all the boxes, find a certified authority in antiquities so he could file the relevant documents, and then the boxes would be ready to leave Mother India! "Oh, what purification, yet another challenge I didn't know where to start!" recalls Yonten. After a great dealing of wandering around, he found himself at the door of the Head of Customs and Excise who, it turned out, was not having a particularly good day, and wasn't at all concerned about this very tired and worried English Buddhist monk now sitting on the other side of his desk. The power of prayer definitely didn't work in this case.

Desperation and hope...

In total desperation, Yonten explained the challenge to the Lufthansa cargo office during their kind hospitality of tea and biscuits, and by an amazing coincidence, the manager explained to him that if Yonten would care for more tea, the Head of Customs and Excise would be ending his shift, and be replaced by a someone he felt would be kinder and more understanding of the issue. So after tea, a few more prayers, and a very kind Lufthansa manager explaining the mission to a refreshed official, a flurry of red stamps on forms completed in triplicate took place, and the precious boxes could be moved towards loading. "Ah, the satisfaction of presenting the completed forms signed by the Head of Customs to the first officer was immense", reminisced Yonten.

But, then …"The Customs Officer played another card as he wanted to know where my ownership document was, after I told him I wasn't the owner". And so, it was back up the stairs to the angels at Lufthansa, who by that time were taking great interest in this variety to a regular day, to borrow a phone to call Nalanda for them to create some sort of ownership letter to fax to the Lufthansa office while more tea was being served. Again, great satisfaction presenting this to the customs officer, and to then watch the precious cargo bouncing along on another porter's trolley as they were carried off into the depths of the departure warehouse.

Arrival in Toulouse...

The 16 Arhats arrived in Toulouse before Yonten did and he still laughs a lot as he imagines the face of Jean-François when he opened a box, and took out a statue to find all of the strange carpet filling falling out. Thankfully after all that, the damage to the statues was repairable, rather than being reduced to a pile of biscuit clay in the bottom of each box.

Incredible as it may seem, the 16 Arhats stayed in their boxes until 2014! Lacking the necessary skills and money, they waited seven years for their restoration, until Cai, a Spanish woman, came into the picture. But this is another story,

Ten years after...

Even after 10 years Yonten is still moved by his adventure:
"This whole experience was something I remember vividly. Most definitely an intense experience of purification directly connected to my ordination, and giving me the perfect opportunity to practice patience in abundance. At that time, I was very familiar with travelling in India, but on this occasion I learned a great deal about what seemed like making the seemingly impossible very possible on each step of the adventure. I will never forget the huge kindness of all the people that helped me bring these precious statues to Nalanda."

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