My name is Ben Viatte and I'm just like you: I'm not quite sure how I got here.
My search started 12 years ago, at the age of 18, when I closed my eyes for the first time: I saw that I was free. I started travelling the world in search of a new mindset. My current pilgrimage has brought me on foot from Europe, through Northern asia, to Mother India. Here I am living in the Himalayas and learning Dharma - the path of happiness.
This blog describes my search for truth: my life travels since the start of my global pilgrimage in my 18's, and what I learnt from them.
Dharamshala, India. September 2022
The Dalai Lama's boundless heart
I had been dreaming of meeting him for so long... For 6 years actually, ever since I started the walk to India. Do you remember that the final destination of the pilgrimage, since the beginning, was Dharamshala?
This small town in the Indian Himalayas is the residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and I would have loved to come straight up to his door and say hi, after all that walking. But it turns out I arrived in the middle of Covid, and there was no way anyone could even hope to meet him. I decided to be patient, and settled down in this lovely Tibetan town of monks, monkeys, peace, and Dharma.
It took a whole 2 years before the opportunity finally showed itself: it seemed Covid rules had relaxed enough for me to take my chances. So I spent three days writing the fanciest letter in my life, including a hand-drawn map of my walking trip, photos, tibetan calligraphy, and a short biography of my pilgrimage. We could call it a love letter. I love the Dalai Lama as much as love can fathom: he is a role model for peace in the world, he radiates light and wisdom in every direction, and even after growing up with greater hardship than most of us can possibly imagine - a country torn apart by invasion and genocide - he holds true to his values: with his boundless heart he loves everyone in the world, without exception.
His Holiness and his office the Gaden Phodran really liked the letter, so much that they gave me an appointment within a week - which happened to be exactly on the date Mom and Yehudith would arrive in Dharamshala from Switzerland. So it came to be... that we all ended up face to face with him. Even forehead to forehead, as he affectionately embraced us by pulling us towards him. His words were direct, gentle, loving, clear... and so humble. One of the most esteemed figures in the world with one of the most humble souls. So humble that he brought my own hand to his forehead and started by saying "Thank you. Thank you..."
I couldn't believe he was thanking me. Hey, I should have been thanking him! But we could feel he was really touched by my story... He went on to say "You, me, the same. We are human. You have to tell all humanity... Keep doing what you're doing ...and the environment. 7 billion... you are one..."
A minute went by, in wonder, in peace... and he finished with "...and peace. Inner peace."
All that was beautiful. So beautiful... but words have very little significance beside to the depth of his presence, which pervaded our beings with joy, hope, and warmth. This was not a verbal exchange but a blessing from the beyond... They say the 14 Dalai Lamas were consecutive reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, who could've chose to stay in the heavenly abodes, to chill out for eternity and enjoy the infinite bliss of Nirvana, but instead decides to come back on this earth as a human being again and again in order to help all sentient beings find their own way to the celestial party.
His Holiness went on to bless and connect with my Mom, then Yehudith, and finally gifted us a weighty yet intricate brass statue of Tara, the female Buddha of compassionate action.
We were in shock, we were in awe... My whole being was melting and this marked the end of a 6-year chapter in my life: here it was, here was completion point, here was the real arrival, at the real destination... His Holiness' blessings.
So... what makes happiness?
A fine balance between material comfort, physical health, financial stability, political safety, family life, and livelihood all carefully equalized on God's turntable?
A simple but universal question that Yi and I naively set out to answer as we left our homes in the Indian Himalayas with exactly... none of those things. No money or bank card, no phone and not much at all really, other than a tarp to sleep under, a set of orange robes, and the stubborn determination to make it entirely on foot to the world's largest Hindu gathering, 500 km away. Named the Kumbha Mela, it's known to reunite the worlds most revered Babas and wildest Sadhus who have been embracing simplicity and homelessness themselves since the beginning of time.
If you like the story, I'm also pretty excited to announce I wrote a book that you can find here on Amazon. It's a day-by-day rendering of the hand-written journal I carried with me all along, spending an hour on it every evening to make sure I kept every detail: the experience was so valuable I felt it was my part to share it with you.
Haridwar, India. April 2021
The Walk to Kumbha Mela
Dear you, dear me, dear us as one, Ommmmm. We are one.
I may appear distant. I may appear to take months answering your messages. All you beloved friends who make the essence of life... I'm not too distant actually: we are one. And on top of being one, I am online again, after two months of phonelessness, netlessness, and Yogic connectedness. Back from the trip to Kumbha Mela, this sacred Hindu gathering that can't be described in words.
The trip there and back was 1000 km on foot. Not that big a deal... But what was life-changing was how it was done. We had never been moneyless for very long before... We had never taken the orange robes and abandoned the layperson's life to go into monkhood. That's what we were. Yi and I were wandering monks. And the fact it was temporary rather than a commitment for life didn't hinder the experience in the least: in fact, it enhanced both sides. Spirituality can't be separated from the material world - they are both expressions of truth.
Thinking they are separate is like thinking you need to be a hermit in a cave in order to find happiness or truth. Truth is everywhere, love is everywhere, in every one of our activities, in every lifestyle, in every rupee, in every smile, in every step of every path, in every breath. So don't forget to breathe. Sit down, breathe and feel the breath. It is our guide, always with us.
Love was in every one of the people who invited us along the road, from all scopes of life. Absolutely everything was given to us. Food, lodging, clothing, money, spiritual guidance, caring company, so many chai's we couldn't count, nights in temples, in ascetic Baba tents, in family homes that took us like their children, in smooth-rock river settings or forested havens under the moon, in the womb of mother nature.
We left with nothing and came back with everything.
Towards all of you reading this, Yi and I would like to express our deepest thanks. We owe it to you, we owe it to the world. You are the source of our happiness. Thank you.
Dharamshala, India. February 2021
Our first steps as Sadhus
After 6 months of sedentary life in the town of Dharamshala, northern India, I'm finally taking the road again. Or, to be exact, both of us are taking the road, and in a quite a different way then my experiences so far.
It's only 500 km to Haridwar, where the Kumbha Mela is being hosted. The largest Hindu gathering in the world... sometimes proclamed as the largest human gathering altogether. Quite an event. We know the destination will be memorable. But the trip there, maybe even more so: we're leaving home without a rupee, without any type of bank card, without a phone, and without anything more than what we can fit inside our humble bag - paper maps, water bottles, a blanket or two, a floor mat, an almsbowl...
Leaving without money means living off whatever is given to us. We may call it blind faith in karma, blind trust in the universe: I believe we'll get what we deserve. If we go hungry, we deserve to go hungry. If we get showered in offerings, we deserve a shower of offerings.
Yi and I, two momentary wandering ascetics, or Sadhus as we would call them in India, experimenting a lifestyle where instead of material gain, every breath, every step, is dedicated to awareness. Simple present moment awareness.
So if you are reading this message, first of all thank you friend, and second, please take an instant, however brief, to sink your shoulders, settle your spine, relax your gaze, and feel your breath... Let it flow in pure awareness and see how long it lasts...
Dharamshala, India. October 2020
Clouds of heavenly dew! Tears of joy! Buckets of fortune! Oxcarts of delight! Sacks of godliness! Treefulls of merry monkeys fill my uplifted heart! And meager metaphors fill my attempted introduction, but no language can come close to describing the blessed fortune I've been granted by the world.
I've reached the goal. Dharamshala, or specifically Mcleod Ganj, home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Countless monasteries of monks and nun who have graciously been given a new homeland by India after having risked their lives to escape Chinese prosecution.
Dharamshala has been the intended destination of my 4-year walk since day 1. It literally means school of Dharma, school of spirituality. So the next phase in my practice, after the longest walk, will be the longest sitting: learning to settle myself down, to challenge this nomadic spirit for the time being and stay put until my knowledge of Tibetan language, culture, and Dharma is sufficient to have a clear and comprehensive view on this wonderful path they call Mahayana.
Mahayana can be translated as the big boat. The idea is to build a ship large enough to take any being who wishes for happiness across the oceans of suffering. And actually, all beings wish for happiness. It's gonna be a pretty big boat. As big as the hearts of the sages who conjured such beautiful intentions. I think it's cool.
Dear world that I love. World undergoing a remarkable period of change.
My arrival into India, into a new chapter of my existence, was synchronized with the world's arrival into a new era. Can I be grateful enough for how these 4 years aligned? 14'000 km, 18 countries, and every step of the way seemed planned by the gods, every border crossing, every offroad, every space to set camp, every gift and human encounter. Every moment of raw aloneness, of endlessly vast spaces that have reset my mind and brought me experiences I hadn't even dared to dream of.
May I spend the rest of my existence in thankfulness. My path to the Indian Himalayas is soon to be complete, where I can dedicate my time to serving, learning and supporting the practices that lead to a better life and a peaceful earth.
Waggah border, Pakistan-India. February 2020
The border crossing was overwhelming. I fell into pieces at the wonder of actually being here. That line I had been dreaming of for 4 years, and always seemed to be more of a dream than anything else. Mother India... I hardly ever believed I would get there! But the world aligned for me. And did I really do anything? Let's hear it for the world!
Peace through Islam
It's been 5 months and it's been a lifetime. I am home. Every Pakistani dwelling is my dwelling, every man my brother, every kid running the streets my son, my daughter, my friend, but also my host. Yes, this culture has no age for hospitality. In no other country have I been been offered food by a 10-year old saying "it's on me, brother!"
But it was also a thrill, an unforgettable quest to cross the forbidden areas where I am told religious conflict lurks, areas controlled by the army and long closed to tourism. To my surprise I was given the greatest of honors and my mission for peace was revered by the authorities: they did everything to make my walk possible, providing men to escort me for a whole 18 days until I had crossed Chillas, Kohistan, and the entire region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Which, I might add, was of ethereal natural beauty.
It also meant 18 days of constant hospitality: being lodged, fed, and taken care of in every way, given a bed in police stations during the night and being invited to meals throughout the day. Now that being complete as well as my crossing of Pakistan, here I am in the city of Lahore, just kilometers away from the Indian border. India, the destination of this 4-year walk: my mission is on the brink of being fulfilled.
Northern Pakistan, December 2019
I didn’t know anything about Northern Pakistan. I didn’t know anything about anything Pakistan, really. And without actually going there, the misinformation many people get is some conservative Taliban-ridden country landlocked between Afghani terrorism and nuclear war threats with India. Luckily enough, I don’t dig that kind of news, so I stepped in with an open heart and open arms, ready to experience this thrilling new land first-hand.
In my arms came nothing less than paradise. The scenery, the people, the religion, the vibration in the air… every facet – paradise. I made my way from China through Khunjerab Pass – the highest international border crossing in the world – down to Hunza Valley, a place renowned for its peace-loving Ismaelis, so caring they wouldn’t hurt an ant, I swear! I fell in love with Hunza and stayed 2 months in one village – that’s as long as my visa would let me. Yes, the bureaucratic clock is ticking and I’m counting my precious days in this blessed land, how long can I settle down and how long do I need to walk the remainder of my way to India. So that led me to the current city of Gilgit, which I’ll have to leave quite soon as well.
So 3 months it’s been, a hundred villages, a thousand gleaming faces and even more cups of chai… yet it’s still paradise. Having camped all over the place, climbed all kinds of mountains, met people from every social class, background, and religious group, I now confirm with fervent conviction: the people are good! Nothing but good! Masha’allah!
The China less heard of
Xinjiang province is one of the most censored regions in the world. Very little information comes out. This is China out of China, it is Muslim, it is Tajik-speaking, and it's the most remote part of this giant civilization.
It is in fact so remote that in recent years the central government has radically decided to make it more... central. What's exactly going on here is hard to imagine for our western minds - apart from those of us who might have lived in USSR. Or occupied Tibet, or North Korea... but on top of that, technology is now at its peak, giving a whole new scope to the level of surveillance.
Travelling at foot's pace means I saw a lot, I learnt a lot, more than what I could possibly have hoped for... I lived a lot of crazy stories and had an awesome time. And for me the lesson was deep: to face every situation, no matter how complex, with all-encompassing love and clear vision, which is China's own ancient philosophy of the Tao.
On top of my parents towards whom I will always owe endless gratitude, I am a child of Tao. Tao brought me up, it made me who I am. It made me tolerant and peaceful, it gave me the gift of love towards all beings. It is thanks to Tao that I made it through such a place as Xinjiang province with open arms, an open heart, and the thrill of adventure - I loved every bit!
Xinjiang Province, China. September 2019
First steps in Western China
I've always loved China. Since my youngest years I had a special connection with this country and its culture. But this time I have to say, I saw another side. Quite a darker side, that we usually only hear about distantly in the news. Before stepping into Xinjiang Province, I had an idea what was going on, and so I took the firm resolution: no matter what happens, I will express love and love only towards the authorities and towards everyone I meet. This will transform what could have been a one-month unbearable struggle into a valuable spiritual practice.
And I passed! I still love the country in every way. I personally had a great time hiding from the police, sneaking behind security cameras and setting camp with no headlamp at midnight in ditches, eyeing police patrols from a distance. I had my healthy does of adrenaline! But I did go through the most oppressed society I've ever seen. What can I do, apart from bringing love? Adding a bit of light to the darkness and trust to the trustless. And hope. Because there is hope. A society based on a majority of unhappy people is bound to collapse, because no matter how glittery the top of the pyramid is, its base is flimsy. It's just a matter of time, it will all fall down.
So in the meantime, let's enjoy these 3000m high camels, let's wonder how the hell did they get here, lets bathe with yaks and breathe heavenly air in turquoise lakes surrounded by pristine white sand dunes, lets drink free soybean milk and eat bagfuls of fruit - because the locals, to be honest, are so amazingly kind-hearted that they invite you even with the risk of getting caught by the police. Yes, it's illegal, by the way.
Anyway I cannot describe the grandness of nature that no man can alter. Societies will come and go, but this will always be. Be blessed. So thank you for reading, and may you be as grand as the grandness of nature. I love you all.
PS: I should probably tell you I'm now finally in Pakistan, absorbing freedom by every pore and making my way through Himalaya's sacred beauty and smiling faces. I will be staying here a while - until I speak proper Urdu and become somewhat of a local.