Filed in Travel, History

Where the Buddha Woke Up

Chaos and Enlightenment in Bodhgaya

Noa Jones

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I wish I could travel faster than the speed of light, perch on a distant planet and look back on earth so that I could see back in time to the day when Siddhartha sat under a pipal tree in the sylvan fields of what was then known as Uruvela. I want to know exactly what happened, if there were witnesses to his enlightenment, what the weather was like, if there were wild hogs sipping from the river. Whatever the case, the place is saturated with thousands of years of practice. Think of a great cathedral like Chartres, then think of Auschwitz. These places have power because of what happened here. And what happened here is that a mortal man meditated very deeply and saw the true nature of mind. The exact spot of his enlightenment is known by Tibetans as the Vajrasana, the Diamond Seat. You have to come here to experience it.

“The Karmapa said that it’s a hundred thousand times more powerful to practice here than any other place. Zopa Rinpoche said seven times more powerful,” says Yogi Mike, who is my neighbor at the Burmese Vihar. “I don’t know, one doesn’t seem enough, one sounds a bit much.” Mike has been here almost continuously since 1984. If you’ve been to Bodhgaya, you’ve probably seen him, the American guy sitting in meditation in the same spot night after night, clad in white, long beard, topknot. “But in the context of the Monlam, when there are so many great realized masters sitting there, and a whole sangha; in those key moments, it could be a hundred thousand times. That’s why I’m here so many years.”
© Peter Adams/Getty Images
Yogi Mike also answers my earlier question about world peace: “If there is a relation between transforming individuals’ minds and the impact that has on the larger world, then there’s definitely something major going on here.”

In the incubating container of the temple, everyone can begin to seem slightly insane or needy or cross. I go to Mohammad’s—Bodhgaya’s most popular restaurant—to ground myself with some momos. A woman asks if she can join me. She begins forcefully signing and folding a stack of letters. She’s leading a passionate environmental campaign to stop the use of plastic in Bodhgaya. She is from London but lives in Bodhgaya full time. She speaks fast. I ask her what we should do if we don’t drink bottled water: can we trust the water fountains at the temple? “Drink hot water. That’s what I do.” Just as she finishes folding her letters, the waiter brings a plastic bag with two dinners packed in tinfoil and cardboard. She’s ordered to go, and I must practice nonjudgment.

International sponsors have donated several UV filtration systems at the temple. Upkeep is integral. Last time I was here I drank only from the fountains, but this year I’m afraid. I ask the Management Committee Office where the water comes from. I’m told it’s pumped from the river. The river is a drybed and polluted, as are many rivers in India. But the drinking water comes from 250 feet below the river and then chemicals are added, I am assured. No bacteria.

I will meet a beautiful swami who will tell me the story of that hidden river.

I go home and take a shower, after which I feel as though I’ve gone through a final rinse at the car wash. Slightly waxy. I dutifully fill my plastic bottle with the filtered water, and within a few hours I get sick. Really sick. I think I’m going to die here in my dark room. The mosquitoes sing. I am alone; I develop flu symptoms on top of everything else. Nobody knows or cares. I am not a survivor. Buddha was a survivor. How am I to follow in his path? I look at the Theravadins and I know I am not capable of the austerities they willingly endure. Nothing seems possible. Liberation is for greater souls than this one.

I am so incredibly congested, I cannot string two thoughts together. They call it Bodhgaya Blessing. “You must be purifying something,” says a man next to me at Mohammad’s where I’ve gone to get ginger lemon tea with honey. Here everything bad is considered good. Your lama is avoiding you? Mazal tov! You’re losing your mind? Excellent news! Everyone gets the blessing. With all the pestilent snot flying directly from nose to pavement, all you can do is a little side-step dance and pray.

Yogi Mike affirms the virtues of suffering. “Especially during the season, I have the impression that the amount of purification and wisdom is far greater than what you could accomplish on your own,” he says, stirring the embers of his smoke offering back at the Vihar. “The problem is, if you want to take the quick path, it means purification has to be quicker, which is inevitably harder. How can there be an increase in wisdom without purifying obstacles? Hardship is, I’m thinking, the greater of the two blessings. The purifying rather than the blissful, insightful ones that we all like. The ones that make it so hard you want to run away are perhaps the greatest blessing.”

Even though I’m sick, I go to the temple. I practice all day long. When you come to Bodhgaya, you will see. You can’t stay away. The tree is calling, the temple is calling. And once you get there, any direction you turn you end up bumping into a rinpoche or a drupchen or a five-thousand-person feast. So I just plop down somewhere, anywhere—I prefer dappled sunlight under the tree—and do my practice in the midst of it.

There is too much to look at, it’s dizzying, so I just look at the feet of the circumambulating pilgrims for a while. No shoes allowed. What we get is lots of dirty athletic socks, calloused feet, mosquito-bitten feet, henna feet that look as if they have been dipped in pink ink, feet in plastic bags, knitted footies, Japanese two-toed tabi, a pair of slippers from the Hyatt Singapore, old pedicures, new pedicures, paws. Yogi Mike calls this inner section “the washing machine” when it gets crowded.

The spin cycle. So many people. A Thai tour group in matching outfits and Mind Vacations baseball caps moves in with a megaphone, and the silence is pierced with call and response followed by a long nasal chant. It sounds like they are saying: “Someone no can pee pee so caca, why…” over and over again. I move around the corner and another group is chanting to the exact tune of the Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” which immediately imbeds itself in my brain.

It gets overwhelming, so I go back to my cool dark room and sit, febrile, amid the shadows. The mosquitoes describe the air above my bed with manic scribbles. Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage replaying in my mind. The blood drinkers. They hover, hide, cling to the walls, lie in wait. A debate people here like to abbreviate and avoid is whether Mortein brand insect repellent actually kills them or just stuns them. Even the most devout Buddhists I encounter seem content with the connivance that despite the obvious derivation from the Latin mortuus, “dead,” Mortein is harmless. I hear an Indian guide tell a tour group that Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree for a week without blinking. He demonstrates what that looks like. He looks like an Indian Don Knotts. And I think, if Buddha did that, he probably didn’t swat away mosquitoes. So I try it. I sit, and I let them bite me. I feel the intensity of their bloodthirst. I feel sorry for them. And then one bites me in the ear and I think screw this and purchase some Mortein. I’m careful to plug it in only long enough so that the mosquitoes start to fly drunk, which makes it easier to catch them in my hand and release them outside. But then I accidentally kill one and freak out. And so in one afternoon, a lifetime passes.

I go to the temple with a question about this episode in mind, knowing that I will find someone with an answer. The question is: If I need this precious human body to attain enlightenment, then why should I sit and let mosquitoes who might have malaria or Dengue fever bite me? Why not swat? I understand ahimsa [nonharming]. But why the perfectlystill part?

The all-knowing rickshaw driver is standing outside the gate; I slip by him, deciding to walk the long way through the Indian village. There is a plot of land next to a school, covered in garbage, and in that garbage there stands a spavined mule crippled by disease and about ten geese. The geese have been painted fluorescent pink. “You have like this in America?” asks a man wearing a vest that looks as if it has been hewn from the pelt of a slain Muppet, Fozzie Bear, perhaps. “Sort of,” I say. “Like this size or big size? Big size, or small size?” He shows me different sizes and I say, “Yes. No. Yes.” He seemed very pleased with this answer. There are wild hogs, baby goats, naked children with lice leaping from their heads as garbage burns in small piles.

It is said in sacred texts that Bodhgaya is going to be the last place left on earth when the universe is destroyed. Even if I hang around here, I will be a goner. But these families living in tents, cooking with motor oil as fluorescent pink geese crap in the drinking water, might not even notice. Life is an apocalypse. I bow down to them. I am in awe. They have so much more than I do because they require so much less. I am probably painfully wrong about all of this.

I cut across the traffic on Bypass Road, wheezing against the particulates that fill the air, skirting past the mala sellers and beggars. I am speedy and then I come to a full stop, slammed back into practice mind by the sight of the temple. As always, magnificent, inviting.

Instead of finding an answer to the mosquito question, I find a swami. Just one look at his graceful stride and I realize how much pain I am in—the fever and chills and rickshaw rides and prostrations. I need yoga. He looks like he does yoga. I ask for an introduction. Swami Santoshananda of Gaya says he will teach me. I spend the next five evenings receiving his glowing instructions and start to feel like a human again. He tells me about the Niranjana River, how it was punished for lying. He shows me how to breathe. He tells me that if one is in meditation, one won’t feel the mosquitoes. And anyway, they aren’t doing it on purpose. They don’t see me as a human, I’m just dinner. Have some sympathy.

It’s a nice concept but difficult to put into practice. There is one Thai nun who comes with solar regularity and sits in what looks like mosquito-repellant deep meditation. Immoveable, even when the UV rays are burning down with midday ferocity. I ache to slather some SPF 30 on her. Instead, I take a photo of her covered in flies.

I start to feel better, and then I have to leave. I’ve lost ten pounds, I can see it in my face. Why is Buddha ever portrayed as chubby? I leave Bodhgaya in the middle of the night. A taxi to Gaya and then the Rajdhani Express. On the way to the station I feel an extreme shift. A pressure release. A too-heavy quilt lifted. But like when a quilt is lifted, the heat is lost. I could go on.

Noa Jones writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She is from New York and Colorado and is currently working on a novel while traveling.

But-Sou Lai’s photographs are reprinted with permission from Khyentse Foundation and Siddhartha’s Intent. The images appear in Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s book What To Do in the Holy Sites of India (2010), downloadable free of charge upon formal request from

Image 1: Photograph by But-Sou Lai, 2009, for Khyentse Foundation

Image 2: Photograph by But-Sou Lai, 2009, for Khyentse Foundation

Image 3: Photograph © Peter Adams/Getty Images

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RDBoucher's picture

Great article - evocative, and I've been there.

iamuami's picture

May all be suspicious of auspicious

davidhykes's picture

We mostly think emptiness is the tough issue, and form will take care of itself...but form-- form! Noa Jones can really write-- real form is emptiness. And to become a master of form...