Despite having to spend my final night in Delhi, I will always remember Bodhgaya as the place where I ended my journey. How to describe Bodhgaya? Peaceful, spiritual, colorful, chanting, monks, bowing, nuns, temples, prayer wheels, koras, friendly and connecting come to mind.
The details of Bodhgaya are easy – it is a small village in a poor province, with very little to offer for amenities outside of those built to house the pilgrims that visit year-round. Bodhgaya is located in the poorest province in India, Bihar, and signs of just how poor it is are everywhere. I traveled with friends Al & Nicole by train from Varanasi, arriving late but fortunately to a waiting driver who safely transported us the final 10 miles to Bodhgaya at 3am. An old guidebook we had said to be weary of bandits late at night, but luckily we didn’t encounter any! We checked into the simple but clean Shanti Guesthouse. The next 5 days blur together as they were all quite similar, based around spending time at the main temple, Mahabodhi. The Mahabodhi temple is a world heritage sight and the spiritual heart of Bodhgaya. Its here where the Buddha attained enlightenment and formulated his philosophy on life known as the Middle Way, over 2600 years ago. The story of Buddha in less than 220 words is:
Guatama Siddhartha, age 29, after living a protected and sheltered life as the son of a ruler, whose father went so far as preventing him from seeing old and sick people, one day ventured out into the world and was confronted with the reality of the inevitable suffering of life. The next day, he left his kingdom to lead an ascetic life and determine a way to relieve universal suffering.
For six years, Siddhartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices, studying and following different methods of meditation with various religious teachers. But he was never fully satisfied.
One day, however, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl and he accepted it. In that moment, he realized that physical austerities were not the means to achieve liberation. From then on, he encouraged people to follow a path of balance rather than extremism. He called this The Middle Way.
That night Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, and meditated until dawn. He purified his mind of all defilements and attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, thus earning the title Buddha, or "Enlightened One". For the remainder of his eighty years, the Buddha preached the Dharma in an effort to help other sentient beings release themselves from the endless cycle of suffering.
My arrival coincided with an international chanting festival for world peace. The Mahabodhi temple complex was filled with thousands of monks and nuns from almost every Buddhist country and sect. My memory of Bodhgaya will always first turn to the sea of different colored robes surrounding the temple. The Tibetans were the largest group, but I saw and met monks from India, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, China, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and more.
My typical day was quite simple – awake, stroll over to Mohammed’s restaurant, have a nice coffee and breakfast and then take a short walk to the temple through a lively side street, filled with beggars, shopkeepers and pilgrims. The constant sound of CDs playing chanting monks was ALWAYS on… as you passed by the speaker system and got closer to the temple itself, recorded chanting gave way to REAL chanting and I always felt enveloped in a sense of peace as I walked through the gates. I would take a short walk around the temple, meditate under the bodhi tree and then make my way to a small plot of grass on a hillside near the temple where I could watch and listen to the daily temple activities.
All around the temple, Tibetan pilgrims were doing their full-body prostrations. I learned from a monk that most pilgrims attempt to do 108,000! This will take anywhere from a month to three months depending on one’s fitness level. Every day they arrive, have tea, and spend the day prostrating, sometimes until late in the evening. Its unfathomable to me what that must feel like and understand the discipline required for such perseverance.
At some point I would get hungry again and would wander into the market for oranges and bananas, potentially go to the small Hari Om Cafe next to the guesthouse for its free Wifi and tasty chai. Then it was back to the garden for the late afternoon and sunset. It was then that the chanting became very intense, and despite multiple languages being chanted simultaneously, there was a sense of connection and flow. Thousands of birds would descend into the trees and sing as if propelled by the chanting monks. As darkness descended, monks and laymen alike would begin their kora around the temple, doing clock-wise circles around the temple. Some would prostrate, some would recite mantras, some walk quietly with their prayer beads. The complex was lit with beautiful lights that illuminated the main temple. I would use this as an opportunity to reflect on the day, pull the powerful presence of Buddha into myself and take joy in sharing this amongst these thousands of pilgrims. Eventually I would stroll back home, join Al & Nicole for dinner at the Hari Om Cafe and relax into the evening.
My time in the garden was unforgettable – I befriended a couple of young Indian monks who would often come over to talk with me. They could practice their English and I would learn about their practice and the day to day activities of this temple. Several times Tibetan monks offered me an orange or some cookies and I was taken back by this generosity. It should have been the other way around! In addition to my friends, I had numerous conversations with various monks who would take a break in my garden, and the old man who appeared to be doing readings or healings for people one time grabbed me by the shoulders and said “very good, very healthy, you will live a long time!” Nice!
I took a couple of excursions, the first with Al & Nicole out to the Mahakala (Dungeswari) caves. We hired a auto-rickshaw driver for a few dollars and he did an impressive job navigating the traffic and dirt road with his 3 wheeler. After inhaling more dust than I care to remember and hitting my head on the roof four times, I was happy to step out when we arrived. It was in these caves where Buddha spent his six years as an ascetic and did severe penance that resulted in the image of him as a skeletal, emaciated figure. After years of extreme self-denial at Mahakala, he realized its futility and walked down to Bodhgaya, where he eventually achieved nirvana under the Bodhi Tree. Inside the cave I met a Thai Monk who was planning on spending a few nights sleeping here. He took us through a guided meditation, trying to help us tap into the incredible energy emanating from this place. Its there, and you just need to be quiet and will feel it.
To this point I’ve spoken little of the poverty and destitution that I witnessed in India. The walk to the caves was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I’ve ever had. The walk was about 20 minutes uphill and the road was lined with beggars, cripples, young and old. They were just lying on asphalt in the burning sun, hoping to gain a few rupees from the occasional tourist that comes up here (not many by my calculations). Vendors sell cookies and 1 rupee coins and some tourists buy these and pass them out to the beggars – we unfortunately had to witness this scene where the people were reduced to animals, begging and fighting for anything they could get their hands on. I felt very helpless – giving them anything perpetuates the process but you know there is no one else helping them. Not the government, not NGOs, not even fellow citizens who barely have enough to survive themselves. In Bodhgaya itself, there was a large Dalit population (untouchable caste), seen sleeping on the streets and begging during the day. There were groups of children that would always approach you, the best English speaker of the group recruited to ask “where are you from, what’s your name, how long have you been in Bodhgaya, do you like India?” in order to gain a few rupees or some food. Many of the temples in Bodhgaya would have a resident cripple- for those who saw Slumdog Millionaire, you will remember the scene where an orphan boy is intentionally blinded to become a beggar. This is real, and I saw blind people, cripples who had their knees bashed in as a child, often accompanied by their ‘pimp’ who manages the money these poor souls bring in. Watching someone pull themselves across an asphalt or dirt road with only their hands is not a pleasant experience. I found myself giving whatever food and small change I had to these people, who are enduring some of the most unimaginable suffering a human being can. Travel to India is all about heart and compassion work. You do have to find a balance however, as being fully open can just be overwhelming. An interesting thing I read while in Bodhgaya was about doing 4th chakra work by focusing on a person, sending them compassion and love and then moving on. Moving on is the hard part, and the mind gets involved and starts wondering why the world is this way or that way and how human beings can allow other human beings to suffer in this manner.
OK, back to Bodhgaya – the last thing I want to talk about is a half-day trip I took around the outskirts of town, visiting the many monasteries representing countries and forms of Buddhism. I enjoyed the Japanese temple the most, as here the monks practiced Soto Zen Buddhism, as do I, and I sat with them one evening for service. I also caught a talk by Karmapa, head of one of the major branches of Tibetan Buddhism. It felt great to just get out of town and wander in the farmlands, something I hadn’t done for some time. Eventually tiring, I hired a bicycle rickshaw for 30 cents and had enjoyed the slow ride back into town.
As I said goodbye to my friends and prepared for an overnight train to Delhi, I sensed that this would not be my only last visit to Bodhgaya.