It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell. ~Buddha
For more than a year, I have been trying to arrange a trip to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. I wanted to sit in the shade of The Bodhi Tree, the ancestor tree beneath which Siddhartha sat when he changed from an ordinary human to the enlightened Buddha. Every time it seemed the stars had aligned and the trip would happen circumstances conspired and the journey failed to materialize. Finally, in September 2014, I found myself sitting on a plane, the first leg of a three leg trip that found me in Bodh Gaya where I finally set eyes upon the Bodhi Tree.
The Bodhi Tree, like the tree formed into the cross that stood on Calvary, has cast a long shadow on human history. Both trees are actors in opening the gates to immortality. Both the Buddha and Christ died to the flesh and were born to the spirit. For the Buddha it was escaping the bondage of human suffering through enlightenment. For Christ, it was opening the gates to eternal life in heaven through his death and resurrection. Buddha and Christ, two of the largest figures in history, have impacted billions of lives pretty much in parallel for more than two centuries.
Bodh Gaya is another step in my tour of Buddhist holy places in Asia and my first trip to one of the four great pilgrimage destinations. The other three in the big four are; Lumbini, Nepal the purported birthplace of the prince Siddhartha, Sarnath, India the place of Buddha’s first teaching, and Kusinara, India where the Buddha died. I would like to have visited them in order from birth to death but such is not the case. Perhaps, in the future, I will undertake that adventure.
I harbored no expectation of become enlightened during this trip, at least, not any more enlightened than I currently am. My quest then? Simply to walk in histories footsteps from whence the Buddhist philosophy was sourced, to look into the tranquil eyes of the devout as they draw sustenance from the source of their belief, to bask in the monuments erected to satisfy yearnings for the ultimate mystery as sourced in the human soul, to wrap my being in the spiritual force emanating from the source of Buddhist history. In short, to take a swim in the source.
I met my friend, a former brother-in-law I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years, in Delhi. We spent a couple of hours catching up over tea and coffee before flying together to Patna. Patna is the most poverty stricken city I have seen anywhere in the world. Upon return, a colleague told me that many Indians are afraid of Patna.
On decent roads, the 128 kilometers could have been covered in under two hours. Decent being the operative word. The road between Patna and Bodh Gaya is very narrow, frequently potholed, and used by a slew of motorized contraptions, people, and animals impeding the flow of traffic in much the same way large rocks impede the flow of a river. Time to cover the 128 kms was 3.5 hours, a duration that was regularly punctuated by horn blasts, swerving, bouncing, and hard braking.
80 Foot Buddha
On our first morning, we set out on a walk to see the 80 foot Buddha. It wasn’t far from our hotel still the heat and humidity ensured we were sweating less than half the 100 meter walk to the shrine. The streets were in wretched condition with holes, puddles, and patches of mud requiring us to walk carefully to protect our shoes from the muck. Since we were out relatively early, the monument was nearly vacant providing ample photo opportunities. A bonus was that the vendors were just getting setup so we were not bombarded by requests to purchase trinkets.
A right hand turn took us onto the walkway to the giant Buddha. The walkway was tree lined and, at the end, gifted us a magnificent view of the iconic statue. Closer to the statue, the trees gave way for the final approach. This is where we were required to remove our shoes (something we were required to do frequently in Bodh Gaya).
Up close, the statue is magnificent. The Buddha sits high above one’s head in meditation pose and is seated on a lotus. It is flanked by status of 10 disciples, 5 on either side. Though the garden area around the Buddha and the Buddha statue are lovely aesthetically, there are high tension wires in the background which, by their visual ambiguity, bring grievance to the eyes.
Bodh Gaya Temples
There are temples throughout the town of Bodh Gaya most accessible by a relatively short walk from our hotel. It seemed that each Buddhist country erected their own temple in a style reflecting their interpretation of Buddhist symbology. Each was unique. In each, exquisite beauty abounded both inside and out.
Every temple we entered (after the requisite removal of shoes – next time I visit I will wear sandals) had a barricade just inside the doors preventing people from approaching the interior Buddhas. There was barely enough room for a few believers to prostrate themselves in that minuscule space. It seemed sacrilegious to keep the devotees separate from the object of their devotion.
The barriers really irritated me. I came all this way and I wanted to walk inside the temples, see the art up close instead of being held at arms distance, sit quietly in a little corner, sit reverently and absorb the essence of each temple. It wasn’t possible for me because of those barriers. Buddhism is supposed to be a religion of serenity. The setup is definitely not conducive to anyone achieving any measure of serenity.
Since the temples were not being utilized for the purpose of worship, it seems that each Buddhist country erected it’s own temple in Bodh Gaya to prove they were devout Buddhists. It felt like a, “look at us. We have a temple in Bodh Gaya. We are spiritual.” It felt resoundingly, “me too.”
Mahabodhi Temple is the pilgrimage destination, the reason the city of Bodh Gaya is on the map instead of being just another obscure city in the vast land that is India. The temple exists to honor the spot where the Buddha found enlightenment in the shade of the Bodhi Tree, an ancestor still flourishes to this day growing from the soil on which Siddhartha sat on his way to Buddhahood.
The usual ‘government sanctioned’ guides (no official ID available) were about offering to guide us around Mahabodhi for a small fee. We declined. I, personally, don’t like be told what I am supposed to be seeing. I like to see, experience, interpret, then have my questions answered later.
Once inside the complex, a young boy dressed in saffron robes, a student monk, started talking to us and explained that he wanted to practice his English by telling us about Mahabodhi. He actually carried his student ID and showed it to us to prove he was really a student.
He walked with us sharing his knowledge about the temple. Most of what he told us could be found on signs or in guidebooks still we allowed him to give us his tour. At the Bodhi Tree, I found a place to reach up and stretched to touch a tree leaf. It’s not allowed to pick them only collect them from the ground. In short order, our friend brought us a few of the fallen leaves to keep as souvenirs.
While standing at the Bodhi tree looking up at it’s branches and it’s heart shaped leaves, a man came up to me. He put his hand to his chest, a sign of respect, then bent down touched my feet several times then put his head on my feet, also signs of respect. I have become used to people staring at me in India and asking for pictures of me but had never previously had some touch my feet in this way. It’s typically done by followers to gurus or great teachers….of which I am neither. I asked our student monk why the man had done this but he had no idea. It still haunts me a bit.
As expected, after we had been guided us to the last of the seven places where the Buddha meditated for seven weeks, one week per location, he asked if we could help out with his schooling fees. I knew the request would come in some form. We both gave gave him some rupees. I had my doubts that it would be used for books.
After he left, I spent most of my time people watching at the Bodhi tree which had the highest number of believers of any place on the grounds.
Inside the temple proper is a golden statue of the Buddha wrapped in a saffron robe holding a golden bowl. I’m not sure if both were really gold or just painted gold. They could be real gold. The upper portion of the temple is covered with 290 kg (640 lbs) of gold, a gift from the government of Thailand.
A steady stream of people walked in to pay respects then walk out, many backwards facing the icon because it’s considered poor form to turn one’s back on a god. Buddha is not considered a god still a good number of people followed this practice. I stood in the small room for a bit to watch the procession of people and to enjoy the cooling of the air conditioner. Standing in front of the AC was the only cool place in the hot and humid weather.
Enrique had recently lost a Buddhist friend. He brought two prayer cards to Mahabodhi. One he left at the Bodhi Tree. The second he asked a Buddhist monk to put in the bowl being held by the Buddha icon. The monk touched the card to various parts of the Buddha before depositing it into the bowl. It was a moving experience. It was doubly moving for Enrique as this trip was truly a pilgrimage for him, a pilgrimage to place these prayer cards for his deceased friend.
Buddhism is a religion that seems to be obsessed with icons of the Buddha. Not only is the giant Buddha, well, giant. There are supposedly 24,000 bronze Buddha statues sealed within the giant Buddha. Everywhere one looks around the temple and surrounding structures there are Buddha icons in various poses. This is in stark contrast to Islam where images of the prophet are specifically forbidden and to Christianity where the most common figure of Jesus is nailed to the cross.
The various poses of the Buddha have meaning none of which I can readily decipher. Hand positions have specific meanings and there is a pose assigned to each of the seven days of the week. I was born on a Sunday so my Buddha would be Buddha is in the pose representing an Open-Eye posture.
In the Open-Eye posture the Buddha stands with hands crossed over his abdomen, in pensive thought. The right hand is placed over the left on the upper thigh. Here, the enlightened Buddha contemplates his achievements and knowledge, standing still for 7 days under the Bodhi Tree without blinking to contemplate the suffering of all living things.
The most common pose is meditating on a lotus of which I have a few. Whenever I go to a place where a deity is important I make sure to pick up an icon for my collection.
There were other places of homage at Mahabodhi, one for each of the 7 weeks Buddha meditated, however, none had the impact on me as did the Bodhi Tree. My second favorite was the in the Lotus Pond. At the approach to the Lotus Pond where Buddha spent his 6th week there is a pole. This place seems to be particularly attractive to Hindus who were seated in this area both times I visited the temple complex on the day. They throw coins trying to get them to land on top of the pole which is supposed to bring luck.
In the middle of the pond there was a meditating Buddha being protected by a cobra with it’s hood open. It represents the time when the Buddha meditated at the foot of a mucalinda tree. It began to rain heavily and a huge king cobra came out and coiled his body seven times around the Buddha to keep him warm and placed his hood over the Buddha’s head to protect him from the rain.
This trip Mahabodhi was all that I expected it to be. I walked in the footsteps of the Buddha, walked in the footsteps of millions of devotees, sat with the believers and listened to them chant devotions in unison. There is something about chanting that touches the primal in my soul.
The only thing I would have changed was to sit longer at the foot of the Bodhi Tree in an attempt to connect with the source and feel it penetrate every cell in my body. But, that would likely take a lifetime. I will be returning in a few weeks with my daughter. Perhaps, this time, I will find myself swimming in the source.
Bodh Gaya Miscellaneous Pics