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Published: November 12th 2012
Marking the site of the Enlightenment of Gautama the Buddha. The Bodhi tree grows on the opposite side.
Leaving Sravasti, I set out for Bodhgaya – the place where Buddha became enlightened. It’s the holiest place in Buddhism and you can feel it. For over two thousand years, millions of pilgrims from the world over have made their way there to pray and meditate under the Bodhi tree. By the power of these combined blessings, it is said that all virtue is multiplied by eight in Bodhgaya – one prayer, one prostration, one hour of meditation is as powerful as eight prayers, eight prostrations, or eight hours of meditation anywhere else in the world. I had a few days before my pilgrimage began and it was my goal to complete as many prostrations as I could in this powerful place.
Generally, Buddhists perform prostrations to show gratitude for the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community of disciples). In many Tibetan traditions, including the one I had been studying in Nepal, prostrations are a preliminary practice used to purify pride. A practitioner must perform 100,000 prostrations to reduce the ego and purify the mind before moving on to the next stage of meditation practice. I was more than ready to shed some
As my focus in Bodhgaya centered around prostrations, I didn't take too many photos. Sorry.
pride, so I rented a wooden board from a nearby monastery and set it up on the edge of a group of Tibetan monks. I couldn’t have chosen a better spot.
Directly in front of me stood the
bodhi tree, while another one above me provided shade during the hot afternoon. And my monk neighbors were incredibly inspirational. Every time I thought that my tired shoulders couldn’t possibly lift my body from the ground one more time, one of them would start chanting in the deep, resonating way Tibetan monks do. It was obvious they were struggling too, but they put every drop of their faith and determination into their task and carried on. I, too, carried on, completing around 1,500 prostrations daily. In the pain I felt trying to find a comfortable position to sleep in each night, and the cramps that crippled me as I tried to climb out of bed each morning, I could feel my ego weakening. It’s veritable Goliath, however, and much work remains to kill it completely
Prostrating next to the monks also illuminated the nature of my attachment to possessions. Having traveled for most of my adult life, I’m used to
living without luxuries, without very many things
. What I cram into a backpack at the beginning of a trip is quickly worn-out and reduced to holey rags, but I don’t care. I easily give things away and quickly accept when things are broken, lost or (rarely) stolen. I had always thought that I didn’t really have an attachment problem when it came to possessions. But I’ve been living in ignorance. My attachment runs deep.
Owning nothing more than the robes on their backs (in most cases), monks live entirely on the generosity of others. And, yet, they are the most generous, non-attached people I’ve ever met. By the end of the first day, they had gifted me three pillows to lesson the impact of my knees and ribs against the hard board. Every morning, the monk at my side would share half of his donated bread and tea with me. One day, he even shoved five ten-rupee notes under my mat. There could be no denying his generosity – and as soon as they were gifted, these gifts immediately became mine
When a friend came and set up her board in front of me, I offered her one
of the pillows. It didn’t take too long before I started wanting my
pillow back. I watched her with a growing annoyance as she finished her prostrations and began her meditation practice. How could she be so selfish to keep
my pillow for meditation?Doesn’t she know how much my ribs hurt?
I repeatedly reminded myself that there was nothing intrinsic to the pillow that made it mine, that I wouldn’t even have it if not for the generosity of others. But, repeatedly, that sneaky me/my/mine
crept back into my mind and started agonizing again over its loss. Each time, I got quicker at recognizing the attachment, but it never went away. Maybe, if I complete the remaining 93,591 prostrations, it will finally fade from existence. There’s only one way to find out...
The area within the gates of the Mahabodhi Temple is essentially paradise. There are no monkeys to steal your food (as in Sravasti), no peddlers pushing their cheap wares (as in Sarnath), no beggars asking for one rupee (as in everywhere else in India). There are only monks, nuns, prostrators, pilgrims, a few stray dogs, and an incredible energy. It is shady, green and peaceful.
Leaving my prostration board, I’d always forget that there was a dirty, dusty, noisy town lying on the other side of the gates, made even more so at this time of year as the city prepared itself for the Durga Puja.
A ten-day celebration of the goddess Durga over the buffalo demon Mahishasura, the puja is one of the biggest festivals in India. Large pandals
(bamboo and cloth structures that are used as temporary temples during the puja)
were set up at intervals in the streets with life-sized effigies of the ferocious, multi-armed goddess and her entourage. Each pandal
had its own over-sized set of speakers that started blasting dance tunes at four in the morning – long before the sun or any of the town’s residents had risen from their slumber.
As far as I could tell, loud music and fires were what the puja was all about. One afternoon, I jolted awake from a nap. I’d been dreaming that I was caught in a blazing fire. My room was filled with thick smoke. I couldn’t even see my feet. I threw open the door for a breath of fresh of air, but even more smoke came
billowing in. My room was in a building that had a hole in the floor/ceiling of every level, allowing one to stand on the top floor and look through to the bottom floor (or vice versa). Through this aperture, I saw a woman stoking a fire below me. I knew she didn’t speak English, so I tried my best to mime my near death by smoke inhalation. She appeared unperturbed. Instead, she pointed proudly at the fire, “For puja. Few minutes.” My eyes practically popped out of my head. Waggling her head as only an Indian can, she made a more realistic predication, “OK, OK, OK. Few hours. OK?” What to do? I abandoned my afternoon nap and returned to the temple to prostrate until the anger I felt at her disregard for my safety dissipated.
It’s interesting to note that Buddhism would not exist here – in its land of origin – if not for its resurrection by other countries. Buddhism in India began to decline in the 8th
with the Muslim Invasion led by Muhammad bin Qasim
and had all but vanished after the powerful Hindu Sena Dynasty of the 12th
century. Before its disappearance, however, it
spread to many countries throughout the East. These countries protected the Buddha’s teachings and brought them back from virtual extinction in the 19th
century. But amongst Indians today, Buddhism still holds little influence. Less than 1%!o(MISSING)f the population are practicing Buddhists, while 80.5%!<(MISSING)b> follow Hinduism, 13.4%!I(MISSING)slam. The remaining percentage is made up of Christians (2.3%!)(MISSING), Sikhs (1.9%!)(MISSING) and Jains (0.4%!)(MISSING).
Names and numbers aside, Bodhgaya’s residents seem to have lost much of their faith. They perform all the rituals of their religion, but they have become nothing more than a routine, lacking in spirit. For example, in Istanbul, the call of the muezzin
is pure music. It’s one man in direct communication with Allah, his lyrical melody drawing you to the prayer mat to join in the dialogue. Here, it sounds more like a goat being led to slaughter. Even the dogs that howl along put more heart into it. Praise Allah (Peace Be upon Him) that they don’t do it the requisite five times a day. But perhaps the pained sound of the muezzin
is only a result of the season – maybe the Muslims were just upset about the puja.
Every year, at some
point during the festival, violence breaks out between the Hindus and Muslims. This year, four people were killed, and many more injured. Shops were looted, and women molested. Again, it’s interesting to note how much Bihar (the state Bodhgaya lies in) has changed since Buddha walked the land. In ancient times, it was a center of power, learning and culture. Now, having forgotten the Buddha’s lessons on honesty and nonviolence, Bihar is listed as India’s most corrupt and violent state.
Bihar also ranks as having the lowest GDP per capita in India – and a proportionately elevated population of people living in the streets. The dispossessed accumulate in places like Bodhgaya where they can take advantage of the fact that people coming on pilgrimage are bound to be generous. Indeed, most pilgrims have to establish some sort of system regarding charity or risk becoming overwhelmed by it all. My policy was to share any food I bought to the first three people who asked – a piece of bread was split it into four; a bag of peanuts poured into four hands, etc. One day, however, I wanted to do something more for the kids. I bought a box
of chocolates and biscuits and went to the temple entrance, where they liked to hang out. But the city had been transformed; I couldn’t find a single beggar anywhere.
It was the last day of the puja, the Hindi version of Christmas, and everyone had polished up. They’d pulled a clean pair of festival clothes out from hiding somewhere, scrubbed their skin and oiled their hair. Those with homes and those without mingled in a single large crowd – distinguishable from one another only by the look of exhaustion and resolve in the eyes of the street-dwellers – as they weaved through rows of plastic trinkets and sweets that had been set up in the streets. I finally found a congregation of the most destitute (those without a spare pair of clothes) standing outside a monastery. A large donation of essential provisions was being distributed to the first 100 or so beggars that had arrived. Those who came late were whimpering at the gate, their hands held hopefully through the bars.
Into this crowd, I arrived with my box full of sweets, happy that I’d be able to provide the smallest, most momentary comfort. I pulled a chocolate
out of the box and handed it to the nearest child. In less than a second, I was surrounded by grabbing, grasping, snatching hands. Within another second, the box had been torn to shreds out of my palms. Three seconds after I had arrived, I walked away again, empty-handed but for a few scratches from dirty nails. I laughed to myself as I reviewed the scene I'd imagined it would be – a calm and courteous single-file line of malnourished street kids approaching one-by-one to receive a measly chocolate. I was obviously living in a different reality.
Another of my acts of generosity took a weird and unexpected turn, this time involving the street dogs. During a morning meditation under the bodhi tree, a dog crawled into my lap and quickly fell asleep. She didn’t have any oozing wounds, visible skin diseases or vermin, so I let her be, hoping that the merit of my meditation would pass on to her. She must have been in heat and she must have left her scent on me because, walking by a well-fed Boxer later in the day, I was sexually assaulted. He grabbed my leg with all his force and
I imagine the text reads something like: Evil Monsters Don't Come Out of My Poo Because I Do It In The Bushes!
started going at it, until a healthy stream of ejaculate showered my trousers. With the help of several strong men, the hound was pried from my leg and held at bay as I made an escape (the bruises stayed for over a week). In a slight variation of the normal, it was the male dogs that followed me throughout the town until I could change my trousers. Even in clean clothes, many of the dogs I’d passed that day continued to give me a Hey Baby
look throughout the week.
On the last day before the pilgrimage, I watched, riveted, as a group of Japanese women took vows to become Buddhist nuns. Ranging in age from mid-20s to late-60s, the women kneeled before the bodhi tree, chanting with their eyes closed as a senior nun passed a razor over their long and dark (or short and white) hair. It fell in swatches on the ground below them. Their tresses gone, they opened their eyes and beamed. The pure joy visible in their smiles brought tears to my eyes; I was so moved that I almost got on my knees behind them. The monks I prostrated with egged me on. Heartily laughing, they mimicked passing a razor over their heads and pointed at me. It was only the thought of my upcoming job with the dance company that stopped me. If I hadn’t left Bodhgaya early the next morning, it’s highly likely that I would have departed with a shorn head.
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