These outdoor encounters—with the yellow jacket and snake—made me wonder about the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. In the library, I discovered that the Bodhi or Bo tree as it was known was actually one of more than six-hundred species of the Ficus or fig family; that its scientific name is Ficus religiosa, and that was also known in India as the Pipal, Peepul, or Ashvata tree. L.H. Bailey's The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, refers to it as "The beautiful peepul tree of India," but H.F. MacMillan, Late Superintendent of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Ceylon, and author of Tropical Planting and Gardening, writes, "The tree is practically of no economic and little ornamental value." In any case, the bodhi tree was sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, who believed that the deity Vishnu was born beneath it. Consequently, MacMillan wrote, "Devout worshippers will not cut or injure the smallest seedling or branch of this tree."
The present Bodhi tree, which grows in the Indian village of Bodghaya on the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment, is very probably a direct descendent of the original tree. The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka paid homage to the tree in the tenth year of his reign, 259 B.C.E. According to one story, the emperor's ardent veneration of the tree inspired his jealous queen to have it cut down in the night. Ashoka prayed to the tree and bathed it in milk, and the tree sprang up again within a few days. This time Ashoka built a ten-foot wall around it. Later in his reign, in 288 B.C.E., Ashoka sent a cutting of the tree to Ceylon, where it was planted with great pomp and ceremony in the capital city of Anuradhapura. This tree, according to Macmillan, is "supposedly the oldest historical tree known."
With time my curiosity grew into an obsession, and three years after my retreat in the Colorado mountains I boarded an Air India jet for the two-day flight to Delhi; then took an overnight train to the market town of Gaya, in Bihar; and hired a tempo—a threewheeled motor-scooter—for the final journey to Bodhgaya.
The trip had taken three or four days, depending on whether you counted the day lost crossing the international dateline. The setting sun cast a dreamy orange glow over the open fields at the edge of town. I left my bag at the Burmese Vihar, showered, and walked through the market, past the open-air stalls selling incense, candles, and red and yellow flowers floating in shallow clay bowls, in through the outer gate past the ragged line of squatting beggars and urchins, and on through the inner gate to the temple complex itself. There were many trees, at least for this part of India, and a series of stone walkways and broad worn steps descending to the entrance of the Maha Bodhi Temple itself—180 feet tall, with buddhas and bodhisattvas carved into every niche.
The tree I was looking for was, in fact, totally obscured by the temple. I came upon it, in the course of my circumambulation, behind the temple in a sanctuary surrounded by a stone fence, six or seven feet high, which could be entered through an iron gate that was now padlocked shut for the night. The tree was shapely and well-proportioned, with four limbs branching out from a smooth trunk which was wrapped, on that first evening, in gold and white brocade. As soon as I saw it, the temple itself seemed reduced to the status of the merely ornamental—nice enough, perhaps—but hardly necessary.
I returned as early as I could the next morning. I was not the first one there. Tibetan monks in their rough red robes were doing prostrations on shiny well-worn wooden boards pointed in the direction of the temple and tree, along with a scattering of Westerners dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Tibetans, Bhutanese, and Ladakhis wearing dusty chubas spun prayer-wheels and fingered beads; Thais, Sinhalese, and Burmese laymen and women walked in silent contemplation or animated conversation. Japanese in white shirts and dark trousers walked briskly and snapped photos.
The iron gate to the tree was open this time. Inside were twenty or so Burmese, men and women, wearing the white of pilgrimage. Three saffron-robed monks led the kneeling group in chanting the three refuges in Pali: "Buddhanam saranam gochammi ..." The oblong stone marking the diamond seat where the Buddha had sat facing east, his back to the tree, was strewn with flower petals, and shaded by delicate rice-paper parasols.