In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimages with Shantum Seth across India and South Asia. Other spiritual journeys that transform. Mindful travel.
Chaos and Enlightenment in Bodhgaya
Most are propelled by their devotion. I was propelled by a vague sense of duty and very little effort—I arrived by plane. The effort came only once I stopped busying myself with the outside world.
Things happen quickly in Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. People say that karma cooks faster here. As if the Mahabodhi Temple is a hot plate and we pilgrims have just tumbled out of an egg carton. What has been hidden in the fragile shells of our egos comes sliding out. We fry. Our hearts are exposed. Another thing: Possessions disappear. The last time I came to Bodhgaya I was robbed blind en route on the night train from Varanasi. I arrived with no passport, no money, no practice materials. And the very day I arrived, my seemingly solid romance of one year ended. I’d been stripped of everything and sent back to the source. The navel of the earth. The Bodhi tree.
But I’m not thinking about that. I’ve got work to do. I enter the flood of pilgrims who cram the main mall outside of the temple. I call it the mall. It reminds me of the Pearl Street mall in Boulder, Colorado, with its brick promenade and open-air shopping opportunities. But where Boulder is fortified by Abercrombie & Fitch and Starbucks, here there is stand after stand selling dusty offerings—flowers, incense, gems, white ceremonial scarves (katas), Bodhi leaves, malas, everything a practitioner could need. Here there are beggars and hawkers, people with twisted limbs, blind men, sadhus, curious goats, everyone angling to impede us. A man is selling pomegranates covered in flies—a microcosm of the mall, which is crawling with red-robed monks and nuns who walk in clusters, all with black buzz cuts.
In the midst of all this, I stand a head above most others. I am pressed from all sides. I stumble over something on the ground. An adolescent girl lies on a piece of cardboard at the entrance of the temple, both legs amputated at the highest possible point. She is absorbed in the play of a twig she twirls; there is a single leaf attached, upon which she focuses her attention with the zeal that her Western legged counterparts might pour into texting. Maybe if she twirls the lopsided stick long enough someone will get the message.
I am body-checked by a hefty Burmese monk carrying a staff. Seven nuns dressed in white, faces behind masks, march by led by a monk chanting into a megaphone, one of the hundreds of megaphones cranked to the highest decibel level that contribute to the arpeggio of mantras and trumpets and “Madame! Flower? You need mala?” that surrounds me.
The Burmese monks wear rust-colored robes. Sri Lankan and Thai pilgrims come in bright white, their lamas in ochre. Zen practitioners from Japan, China, and Korea wear elegant gray, sometimes with a brown sash. There is a smattering of easy-to-spot Westerners, conspicuous in their funny pants, pants that billow, pants with a crotch that hangs below the knee MC Hammer-style, candy-striped pants. There is a sadhu in a patchwork quilt, a yogi with dreadlocks, pilgrims in traditional dress. There are robes the color of pumpkin and of neon plastic pumpkin. But today they are all a minority.
It is the Nyingma sect’s Monlam. The Monlam is a Tibetan Buddhist prayer festival “for world peace” that draws tens of thousands of pilgrims to Bodhgaya each year. It’s a rare congregation of the greatest living Buddhist masters, yogis, tulkus, and khenpos. They come, they pray. The gathering is also an opportunity for these great masters to meet and discuss the practical issues they face as lineage seat-holders and heads of ever-growing organizations. Each sect takes a turn reserving the temple grounds for their gatherings. Kagyü in December, Gelugpa in early January. The Nyingmapas are the largest gathering, the third week of January.
The Monlam makes sense. In ancient Tibet, people didn’t register for teachings and book flights; rumor would spread that a lama had set up camp somewhere and pilgrims would gather, pitch a tent and spend a month receiving teachings. After the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the arrival of the Tibetan diaspora in India, there was chaos and a desperate effort at preservation. Prayer festivals were put on the back burner. The diaspora stumbled and struggled back to its feet. The first Nyingma Monlam, organized by Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche in 1989, was a sign that the exiles had regained their strength. Now tens of thousands of Buddhists come every year. These festivals have become the active and significant nucleus of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Monlam costs money. Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche tells me that thirteen thousand monks showed up for the free lunch the monastery is offering this year. Every day for ten days. Piles of offerings are given to the monks and practitioners who attend, thousands of dollars are given out in coin and in kind, tsok (offerings of food and drink for purification and merit), butter lamps, incense, food, dana (personal donations) and texts. Even Westerners find tea and biscuits and the occasional one hundred rupee note left on their cushions and prostration boards. The beggars watch hungrily, sometimes gathering in tribes and ransacking the tsok offerings while the security guards pretend to whack them with sticks.
The place is pulsating. It feels more wrathful than peaceful, not negative but not resting. It makes one wonder about the mechanism of bringing world peace. How do a bunch of monks sitting under the Bodhi tree affect the Middle East Peace process? Is their influence an abstract concept, or is there some global impact? I wonder.
I reach the gate that opens to the Mahabodhi temple and press through the pungent traffic of mala-swinging pilgrims circumambulating, four abreast, on the upper section of the temple complex. The main temple appears to be built on a sunken platform but actually the complex, which contains countless smaller stupas and temples, three levels of walkways, a lake, fountains and trees, is built upon the ruins of a once grand university. There is a debate about whether to continue Sir Alexander Cunningham’s excavation work. But most practitioners are against it. This is a living temple, not an archaeological dig.
That night I have dinner with Gene Smith, who has just been honored by the entire Nyingma sect for his contributions to the preservation of the buddhadharma. It’s to record the milestone of this ceremony that I have been summoned here. There is an entire story to be told, volumes of stories, about Gene alone. He deserves a great deal of attention. But the ceremony is over now, and in the morning Gene packs up the gong and is gone.
I have no return ticket, a last-minute decision that was made when I was otherwise engrossed and not thinking rationally. As I wave good-bye, I suddenly realize I am completely alone, with no real plan. I have been so focused on Gene—it was my job to accompany him on the flight over—for the past two days that I haven’t even said a proper hello to the temple. It occurs to me that perhaps I had no real purpose coming here. Instead I’ve been led to the temple by an egotistical sense of duty so that my ego could be struck down and given nothing to do but practice. A karmic trick.
I take one last good hot shower at the fake-fancy hotel where we’ve been hosted, watch some female professional wrestling on the television and eat some bonbons. An eleventh-hour luxury binge. I have a vague memory of what harshness the real Bodhgaya is capable of, like the memory of what lime pickle does to my salivary glands—powerful, but buffered by the soft quilt of time. I am about to get my first fresh taste. I check out of the hotel and find a place for a fraction of the price at the Burmese temple on the other side of town. I drop my bags in the cold concrete room filled with mosquitoes and head back out to greet the Mahabodhi.
One of the rickshaw drivers waiting outside the Burmese gate stares like he knows something about me. He gives me a look like we’ve got some shared history. Maybe he was the one who gave me a ride one night when I was sobbing with heartbreak. Maybe we had a moment about that back then. Or maybe he’s just a pervert. So I avoid his eyes by looking up. The sky is the uniform periwinkle blue of flat places, the plains and the sea. It’s the same color of the sky in the only photograph I have of my parents together, smiling on a windy day in front of the Statue of Liberty.
The Mahabodhi is a whole other kind of statue of liberty. It is breathtaking and simple, soaring into the sky from its recessed foundation. A monument of liberation. True liberation, no matter what color robes, at least we Buddhists agree on this. This is what we are working toward. And this is the best place to practice.
No one knows for sure who built it or when. King Ashoka came and erected something of some sort near a tree at this spot in the third century BCE. Most likely the current temple, intricate brickwork 55 meters tall, was built in the fifth or sixth century, during the Gupta period.