December’s Travel Article

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Photo  by Dirk V

YOU can happily trawl the Internet for hours looking for quotations to define happiness. 

All areas of the philosophical spectrum can be found there. 

Some of my favourites are: “Nobody really cares if you’re miserable, so you might as well be happy”; “Happiness is your dentist telling you it won’t hurt and then having him catch his hand in the drill”; and “I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse, I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” 

Another one, which is attributed to the American cartoonist Berke Breathed, and which could easily be adopted as the clarion call of the Disney corporation, is: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Disney believe that they can make your dreams come true and thereby attempt to cascade you in happiness. 

And recently I was able to experience the ‘Disney experience’, alongside a remedy for happiness which has been around for a lot, lot longer. 

As a practising Buddhist for many years, I have attended events in the UK and abroad and was somewhat surprised to find that Disneyland’s Paris venue was to stage an international festival. 

A few years ago I went to a festival some 40 miles east of Berlin in a lovely, secluded centre which boasted a serene lake and gorgeous woodland walks. It was the perfect place for contemplation.  Would the hustle and bustle of one of Europe’s biggest tourist centres be a distraction? 

The event was organised by the New Kadampa Tradition and during the seven day festival, some 3,000 Buddhists from all over the world listened to teachings from the NKT’s spiritual director, the Tibetan monk Venerable Kelsang Gyatso. 

Buddhists believe that happiness comes from finding inner peace – but could that be achieved in a setting which featured everything Disney had to offer including “well-loved characters, thrills, adventures and indulgence”? 

The complex, with its ring of large hotels and easy road and rail access from Paris, provided an ideal location to accommodate such large numbers but it did lead to a rather surreal contrast. 

Roll up, roll up was the Disney call with “awesome, sensational” theme park attractions offering “pure adrenaline, rock ‘n’ coaster rides”, all aimed at “keeping you buzzing all day.”  If that wasn’t enough, there were the 14 hotels providing “friendly, courteous service” (which they most certainly did), including luxury suites for those who could afford it, spa and fitness centre, outlet shopping village, 27 hole golf course, swimming pools, cinema, IMAX theatre, restaurant and bars. 

All this was taking place at the same time as the Buddhist contingent performed their daily routine of meditation, teaching and prayers in the massive conference marquee adjacent to the Disneyland village.   This included two meals a day (breakfasts were taken in the hotels) which in itself was a major logistical exercise feeding that number of people in two sittings.

Most of those dining were vegetarians and the irony was not lost on them as they left the conference facility at the end of the sessions to be greeted by the sight of a nearby McDonalds and a steak house! 

Disneyland tourists took a while to suss out who those strange people were who queued every day to get into the marquee, especially those dressed in saffron robes with close cropped hair but very quickly it was back to business for everyone. 

There was a rest day scheduled half way through the festival and many people took the opportunity to make the trip into Paris, either on organised guided tours or by themselves. 

Paris is a wonderful vibrant city but has probably never before in its long history witnessed so many Buddhist monks and nuns wandering its streets.   During our trip we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a tiny but very friendly pavement café in the Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district only to find ourselves seated next to two English Buddhist nuns! 

Our bus tour took us up towards the Eiffel Tower and we suddenly spotted the Dutch monk who is the residential teacher at our Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) centre strolling casually along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees.   He has given us many teachings on karma and everyone on the bus was praying that ours was well in credit as the vehicle took on the extremely frightening and dangerous task of trying to circle the Arc De Triomphe. 

Buddhists also place great faith in the virtue of patience which was certainly put to the test as we made the slow and very tedious journey back to Disneyland through the Paris rush-hour traffic (although it appears to go on for much, much longer than an hour).   But overall the trip to the city was very enjoyable as was the festival which was a very powerful, spiritual experience, enhanced by so many people sharing a common goal. 

In fact, Disneyland turned out to be a first class venue, especially for those Buddhists who had also brought their children along with them.   Although we never went into the actual theme park, it would appear to offer splendid entertainment, judging by the vast crowds.   

Whether you think Dharma or Disney is the route to happiness is up to you of course.  But for me, one Buddhist summed it up perfectly as we queued one day for a teaching: 

“This is the best ride – it takes you to Nirvana!”