Klaudia pointed out a monk sitting with his back against a miniature stupa, petting a bird that had landed on his finger. I smiled, commenting that he was a veritable St. Francis of Assisi while we raced monks to leaves that fell from the Bodhi tree that is demarcated as one of the holiest places in Buddhism. After the monks had tired me out, I took a seat under the correct tree this time because we’d earlier taken pictures under the wrong one. “Aww,” I heard Klaudia sigh as a monk beat her to a leaf, confirming that this was the right tree.
It was difficult not to contemplate my life as I sat under the same Bodhi tree that Buddhists believe the Buddha himself sat under as he attained Bodhimandala, or enlightenment. My thoughts roamed to my past, present and future; for reasons unknown to me, I began to think about my cost accounting professor in grad school: he would assiduously attempt to apply ancient Eastern-philosophy adages and martial arts lessons to cost accounting, like David Carradine in an Armani suit. Whenever he’d espouse one of these, I could only shake my head irritably: personally I thought
his motives were more driven by ego than by his desire to teach us anything or have us think about things differently, especially when lecturing directly across from the amorous stares of the girls in the front row; and, more importantly, it was a cost accounting class. Thus, I realized when he asseverated that we needed to be “empty cups” (one of his favorites), he got it wrong because he didn’t fully comprehend what he was saying, even though he was routinely published in the Harvard Business Review.
I understood that he was endeavoring to instill in us an open mind; to have us discard all our biases and be “empty cups” so that new knowledge could be poured into us. But, he did not understand that that is simply impossible: one can never simply discard one’s biases. Moreover, why would one want to become an “empty cup” and discard the knowledge one already possesses, knowledge that can have intrinsic value? No, the point was not to become an “empty cup”. Sitting under that Bodhi tree (I promise I wasn’t smoking anything), I realized that the point was to become a “bigger cup”; the point
was to expand one’s reality so that new content could be added on top of the old; the point was to challenge oneself to grow, and not become a vacant mind to be refilled. If one challenged oneself to expand one’s view of reality – to change one’s context - the potential for growth, and thus new content, was infinite. And that small thought was the stimulant to my big idea. It was a huge idea… Possibly the biggest idea I’d had in my life. Sitting under that Bodhi tree, I had figured “it” out. I was just about to grasp it with my mind’s eye, when I heard: “Excuse me, Sir. Can we take your picture?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me…” I looked up and saw five Indian guys standing before me.
“Eh?” one of them mumbled.
“You want to take my picture, correct?” I was annoyed: I’d heard this question several times a day for a month and, depending on the mood I was in, I would sometimes acquiesce, sometimes decline. Lately, I was impatiently declining. Was I really that interesting?
“Fifty rupees,” I said.
“You want to take my picture, correct?” I asked again.
“Yes,” one of the men replied.
“Ok, fifty rupees.” They all laughed while I said, “No, I’m serious - fifty rupees for the picture.”
“Ah… Please, Sir. You should feel like a celebrity,” another member of the group said with a wily smile.
“Oh, sure, only I don’t have the salary of a celebrity…”
“Please, Sir…” another pleaded.
“Alright, but just one, seriously.”
“Ok… Is two ok? Then someone won’t be in the picture if there is only one…”
“Jesus… yeah, whatever,” I sighed impatiently. They took their pictures and walked off laughing.
“Now, what was I thinking about? Oh, yeah…” Suddenly, another group of men came over also requesting a picture. I shook my head incredulously and put my face in my hand.
After they’d left, a mangy stray dog came over to me and, lying down in front of me, it placed its
head on my feet.
“Ugh… You know I can’t pet you,” I said to the dog.
“Talkin’ to dogs now, are we?” asked F. in an Irish brogue.
“You know,” I replied, “I guess they don’t believe in neutering here. They’d get rid of the stray dog problem probably in like twenty years if they’d just neuter them.”
“Forget the dogs, man,” F. said with a serious countenance. “They need to neuter the people.”
We’d met F. on the train from Varanasi over to Bodhgaya. I was putting my pack up on his upper sleeper when he walked over saying, “Are you gonna leave tha’ there? ‘Cause that’s my place.”
I apologized and we ended up working things out by both sitting upright. We got into conversations off and on, mostly instigated by me: at no time is the English accent more mellifluous than when spoken by an Irish person - everyone should talk like them.
“What is this shite?” he interrupted me once. I looked over and saw some ornately dressed transvestites enter the train. Before the transvestites
could say anything, Indian male passengers began pulling out cash to give them. F., Klaudia and I glanced at each other, confused: much more than several beggars had already entered and exited the train - with palms up, many of them lacking an arm or even legs - in search of money, with not a single passenger bequeathing a single rupee.
One of the transvestites began dancing in front of F., who was sitting closest to the aisle. F. tried ignoring him, but lost his cool a bit when the transvestite began touching his head and face. F. stood up abruptly to face his admirer when finally a local stepped in, said something we didn’t understand, and gave the transvestite a few rupees. The transvestite moved on.
F. turned to an Indian man sitting across from us: “Why did you give him money?”
The man shrugged his shoulders. F. repeated the question; the man, a bit embarrassed, replied something about the transvestite saying some “rough” words to F..
“Yea, but why did you give them money and not the poor people?” Klaudia inquired. The man shrugged again and hesitantly repeated
that “rough” words were being spoken.
“I get it,” said F., turning to me. “The lady-boys are connin’ them all. It’s a mind con.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, now catching on: “It’s actually pretty smart.”
“A total con… The men are so superstitious and embarrassed, they just give them money so they don’t get ‘love’ words or get touched. Forget the poor – don’t get touched by the lady-boy.” F. then looked at the man again and said, “You know, in America, gays can get married.” He looked at me to confirm.
“Umm… sort of…”
“Good enough… It’s no big deal. You don’t have to be ashamed to be gay in America. In Ireland, it’s accepted. You go out in Dublin and see gays in the streets – they don’t have to be ashamed. They don’t have to be ashamed in Poland either… Actually, forget that,” he changed his thought, smiling and looking at Klaudia, “they’d probably get pounded in Poland. But in America, they can get married.” The man just smiled as F. continued: “My brother’s gay – he has no problems. People don’t give
him money just ‘cause they don’t want him to come near him. They give money to the poor.” The man smiled again.
“You’ve got India figured out, man,” I said to him: we’d just had a discussion how Klaudia and I couldn’t understand a single thing.
“It’s not that hard: it’s all superstition.”
I liked F.. I stood, bidding the dog farewell, and Klaudia and S. – a girl from Morocco who F. had met in Varanassi – joined us as we were leaving the Mahabodhi Temple.
The temple, the most important site of the four pilgrimages Buddhists can make (the other three being the site of the Buddha’s birth in Nepal, his first sermon in India, and finally his death in Nepal), was technically begun by Emperor Asoka, who solidified Buddhism as a main religion in India, in 250 BC when Asoka built the Vajrasana, or Golden Throne, that marks the spot of Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The main temple structure, which is grand in its stature, was built with brick in front of the Vajrasana around the 5th
century. There is a
large, but humble golden seated Buddha statue inside the temple.
We walked the large temple grounds, with signs designating the various points Buddha sat, walked or rested as he contemplated reality before and after his enlightenment, and happened upon some Hindu devotees praying in front of a large pond. F. and S. joined them on the ground, while Klaudia and I continued to stand. Suddenly, a Buddhist monk tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Do you know what they are doing?”
“I have no idea,” I answered chuckling.
“Oh, I noticed your guidebook, so I thought maybe it explains.”
“No, there is no explanation.”
“Ah, ok. I’m just confused,” the monk said jovially.
The monk’s English was fairly good, which was a bit uncommon in the Buddhist clerical community in my experience up to that point, so I asked him if the number 40 symbolized anything in Buddhism. I was curious because it is the number of days Buddha spent contemplating reality before attaining enlightenment; as Christians know, it was also the number of days Jesus spent in the desert contemplating
his existence, so to speak. The monk responded by explaining that he did not really think there was any symbolism; it was simply a belief that they had about Buddha’s life.
“If you have more questions, we can sit and talk if you like?” I turned my head to Klaudia, and she shrugged “sure”. The three of us walked over to an open area and sat on the ground; shortly afterward, F. and S. joined us. As we exchanged initial pleasantries, we learned that the monk was from a monastery in Thailand and was, as expected, in Bodhgaya on a pilgrimage. Before long, the four of us sitting there cross-legged with a Buddhist monk had attracted a congregation. We discussed the ideas of desire, projection of reality and attachment as they relate to the Four Noble Truths; but those topics were a short-lived since the conversation quickly and naturally digressed away from the metaphysical and into the superstitious. Thus, I cannot say that my critically cynical mind walked away from that conversation with some sort of deeper understanding about anything, but the monk did make a moving comment that I believe is at the core of Buddhist
teachings; it was a small comment, but one which I will strive to keep at the forefront of my thoughts.
Once I had bored everyone with my questions on reality (which was a shame because I was just about to work in The Singularity), S. had asked the monk if a person’s Karma could ever be cleansed after bad actions had been committed. The monk replied that it was not possibly, but could be neutralized with good deeds. I missed the reasoning as they lost me at that point: my mind wandered to what Nietzsche would say about the whole Karma thing. The monk was finishing his sermon when he said: “But do not listen to me. Listen to what is inside you.”
Right, I thought, I agree with that. The monk continued: “You have all the answers inside you. There is nothing else required but to listen to yourself. You will know whether a teacher is bad or good; it is up to you to choose who is telling the truth; and the answer will be clear if you listen to yourself. But as you listen to yourself, frame
your thoughts around compassion. Frame your thoughts about changing lives for the better. I have made it my goal to change at least one life for the better before I die; you should do the same. Just one life… Just make one person’s life better… And if not somebody else’s life, then your own…”
A tender reminder when surrounded by the poverty of Bodhgaya, a city found in one of the poorest regions of India. After he’d let the thought sink in, the monk inquired if we had any other questions as he needed to be on his way. We asked him how he’d become a monk, to which he smiled and said that he’d only been a monk for two years now.
“Two years!” Klaudia and I simultaneously exclaimed, laughing: the way he preached, I thought he’d been a monk since childhood. He then elucidated that he’d been married once, and even possessed a “real” job, but his wife left him, at which point he decided to enter the monastery to release himself from his Karmic cycle. “I hope this is my last life,” he said with a big smile. We smiled and
stood, bidding our farewells to our new monk friend.
There are various other Buddhist temples sponsored by the countries in which Buddhism is a major religion, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, etc, so we spent the remainder of the day visiting those. When we left the Royal Thai Temple, we walked by a hotel that was making preparations for a wedding ceremony. F. began talking with some of the hotel employees and, before we knew it, we’d been invited to attend later that night. We left the workers to their preparations for the time being to attend a Buddhist sunset Puja at the Root Institute, which is a monastic dharma center.
As I entered the institute, I immediately took note of the ground rules: “Please refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual activity, taking intoxicants, and playing music. Please dress respectfully”. Man, the Buddhists are tough…
The grounds of the institute are pretty, but most apparent were the white tourists residing there: one receives free temporary residence if you partake in the daily ceremonies and chores of the monks. One also receives meditation training while there. I debated it for a
moment when I found out that you can also receive residence and Buddhist theory studies in exchange for English lessons, but the obligation in time was a month or more. Following the Puja, I was glad I didn’t have time. Perhaps I’m just not one for ceremony, but mostly I just don’t get anything from chanting.
When the Puja ceremonies had ceased, we walked back to the hotel for the wedding. It hadn’t taken place yet, but we were greeted with open arms and learned that it was the hotel owner’s daughter who was to be married. Everyone was cordial and eager to chat with us, inviting us to eat and drink to our heart’s content. As I was reviewing the drink selection at the bar, I turned to S. and asked her if this was a Muslim wedding. She said that it indeed was.
“Well, no booze is one way to make a wedding boring,” I mumbled to myself. We sat down outside in front of a large fence that was separating the hotel courtyard from the rest of the street. The fence had large purple and white sheets draped over it, but
I could hear the poor children out in the street begging us for some food. I slipped them some cookies while no one was looking, which was when I noticed that no one was looking. I turned to my group and said, “You know, this is the most awkward I’ve felt since I’d been in India: I’m dressed horribly, I’m unshaven, I’m at a wedding and don’t have a drink in my hand, and not a single Indian is staring at me. I’ve been getting nothing but stares and requests for pictures for a month now, but here, not a single person is taking interest.”
“It’s because of your beard. You fit right in,” replied F.. Perhaps it was the beard, but I loosened up and reveled in the anonymity. We sat around for an hour, but the wedding still hadn’t actually taken place and we were unsure when it would, so we left. As we walked back to our guesthouse, F., same as the night before, would yell to people and tuk-tuk drivers, “Halo! Where are you going?” It was fun to turn the tables on them, but even more entertaining was the fact that sometimes
they’d actually answer. One Indian, in earnest, told us he was on his way to pick up milk at the store for his grandmother, then he was going to head over to his friend’s house. The tuk-tuk drivers would drive off flustered and annoyed. I was having fun with it all: it was always interesting to see how different tourists react to the hassling and touting; I’d seen one tourist try to sell a hotel tout a car. The only downside in this case was that F. was attracting some serious attention and we were constantly being followed by kids begging for money. To this day, I cannot forget the face of one four-year old who followed us for more than a kilometer. We had to walk him back home and I was reminded that India is not for the faint of heart.
The next day, we’d finally secured a train ticket out of Bodhgaya: we’d been semi-stranded for a couple days because the one Internet server for the whole city was down and we couldn’t purchase train tickets ourselves or in any tourist agency. I thought this somewhat portended the day when all of technology fails,
but we were also partially being lazy: we could have gone to the train station; we just didn’t feel like it. I liked Bodhgaya and not having Internet gave me another day to visit the Bodhi tree. But that darn thought never returned.
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