Escapades in Bodhgaya, India -- Where Buddha Reached Enlightenment.
Encounters with Buddhist monks, the Bodhi tree, peaceful retreats,and temples upon temples.
ONE: Visiting the Totoro banyan tree, on the way to the Dungeshwari Caves. Arrive here by hiring a rickshaw, or talking to any of the friendly people with a motorcycle that offer you tours of the city.
“You shouldn’t climb that tree. It is a holy tree and you’re disturbing the spirits in the tree. Imagine if everyone who came here climbed it. It would be destroyed in a week!”
The Thai lady said this to us with a stern and slightly disapproving glare. The monk sitting on a platform next to her looked at us with a small smile, but disappointment in his eyes.
“Thank you for letting us know. We weren’t aware. We apologize for climbing the tree, we didn’t know it was wrong.”
Silently in my mind I was cursing our Indian guide who led us up the giant banyan, which had a Buddha statue at its base and local kids running around . As a local it seemed like he did this all the time, but now we had offended a forest spirit, a Buddhist monk, and a serious-looking Thai woman.
However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This small admonishment led to a beautiful and unique exchange, and another unforgettable moment in India. We started talking about Buddhism, and the monk gave some teachings on the way to happiness, right livelihood, meditation, and generally living in peace. We showed him a Buddha statue we had bought that day as a souvenir, and he gave it a blessing. And then we meditated together, sitting in silence by the place where Buddha spent 6 years as an ascetic in the forest.
This was my first experience in India really connecting with someone who had been following the spiritual path. Sure, I’ve talked to sadhus and yogis who have wise-sounding sayings and faraway looks in their eyes. But none have radiated a sense of calm and compassion like this monk. He gave us inspiration and energy to continue on the inner quest, and a lot of real concrete advice for living [see video of him below, and check out his youtube channel -- 3 kok bang]. Add to this the peaceful atmosphere around the Totoro Banyan tree, with no noise or pollution, and we left this mystery monk on a high, at peace and excited for further explorations.
TWO: The Bodhi Tree: The actual place where Buddha attained enlightenment. In the center of Bodhgaya. No cell phones or shoes allowed.
Pushing through the crowds of people outside the temple entrance is a Herculean task in itself, almost equal to the tasks of concentration Buddha endured on the way to enlightenment. Street children pulling at your shirt; vendors waving leaves from the Bodhi tree in your face; selfies everywhere; guides selling tours; groups of monks chattering about.
But as you make your way into the temple grounds much of the commotion disappears, and you're transported to a place of calm and reverence, in spite of the fact that there are still thousands of people milling about. There are statues and stupas everywhere, as well as individual prayer platforms, many of which are not in use and covered by tarps. In the center of the complex is the Bodhi tree itself, where Buddha was purported to have attained enlightenment. This ‘original tree’ idea is a small stretch though, as you quickly learn that it is actually the fifth generation of the tree.
Around the tree, as expected, there is an ambiance of unnatural calm and peace. This is partly due to the attitude of prayer everyone sitting here maintains, but also because of something different, as if you can tell an event of cosmic importance happened here a long time ago.
Leaving the temple complex is a gradual descent back into Bodhgaya town. On the way out there are people praying and giving offerings of flowers and food. Prayer wheels are spinning, and scattered about you can find the odd monk deep in concentration.
THREE: Root Institute. We stayed in this Tibetan Buddhist retreat center during our time in Bodhgaya. On the outskirts of town, in a gated complex. Monks and laypeople on serious inner searches. Healthy food and a nice library with some small shrines about.
“Donna, its 10 o’clock at night. You’re really going to spin the prayer wheel now?”
“Yeah, what are they going to do? Tell me not to pray?”
I was referring to the biggest prayer wheel I had ever seen, located in the middle of the idyllic Root Institute complex, and flanked by two enormous Buddha statues. The prayer wheel stood about 10 feet tall, and a loud bell rang every time the wheel made a full rotation.
We had just returned to the Root Institute, after hanging out at a guest house up the road and smoking a joint with its very friendly and slightly-spastic owner. Intoxicants of body and mind aren’t allowed in the Root Institute, so this fellow had made a nice little business of inviting travelers over to his house, selling them a bit of weed, and helping them to get into an even more relaxed state of mind.
At night, the Root Institute is like a scene out of a movie: lights are twinkling in the bushes; the Buddha statues are tastefully illuminated and watching over the grounds of the complex; and a light breeze rustles the leaves in the trees, the only sound in this silent refuge. This tranquility is especially heightened when you’re stoned.
I figured that I was going to be paranoid, that an irritated monk would come out and scold us for breaking the rules of silence of night. But instead, the sound of the turning wheel fit perfectly, a comforting touch and reminder that prayers were being sent out into the world. I like to imagine that people in their beds also heard that sound and it brought them a bit of solace and happiness, knowing that someone was praying this late into the evening.
In a way, this symbolizes our experience at the Root Institute. We didn’t quite fit the profile of most of the guests there, who seemed to be serious students of Buddhism, on retreats lasting for many months. But, after participating in the life there, it didn’t matter. We rang our own prayer bells, and added our individual dings to the collective symphony of notes that is the music danced to by the universe.