2,600 years ago, a traveling prince named Siddhartha Gautama sat under a tree in northern India and meditated his way beyond all mental suffering. The six years he spent wandering as an ascetic before this occurrence, and his 45 years of itinerant teaching that followed it, are essential to Buddhism; but it is the actual event of Siddhartha's enlightenment - his great awakening under the Bodhi tree, thus becoming the Buddha - that is the dazzling gem at the center of it all. Thus the physical spot on which this happened, in the arid plains of the State of Bihar, is the most venerated of Buddhist shrines.
I have only the vaguest understanding of all this as I ride the Rajdhani Express out of Calcutta. An intriguing, superlative-steeped passage in my guidebook, however, convinces me to detrain in Gaya in the middle of the night; later that day, a poster in the Om Café convinces me to stay awhile. "Journey into Mindfulness," reads the flyer, as I work through a plate of steamed momo dumplings. A ten-day meditation and yoga retreat, exploring mindfulness - "in silence and in motion."
The retreat doesn't begin for a few days, so I settle into the distinctive rhythm of Bodhgaya. The first time I visit the Mahabodhi Temple, where a descendant of the Buddha's Bodhi is planted and revered next to an enormous conical stupa, or shrine, I wander the grounds in awe of the calmness, so rare in India. There are more monks than tourists, whose robes are a maroon, orange, and yellow splash amidst the pleasant greenery and shade. I snap a few photos and surreptitiously watch devotees prostrating or chanting among the smaller stupas; but ultimately, I feel like an outsider, almost an intruder.
The Offering of Robes
Two weeks later, I sit cross-legged on a cushion in the main meditation hall of the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture. Along with 18 other participants from a dozen countries, I have been silent for eight days, and am waiting for the morning's session to begin. But before we are guided into our minds; before we attempt once again to sit still and observe our inner Observer, Rita, a Buddhist nun and meditation instructor talks about this evening's field trip to the Stupa. Each full moon, she explains, a set of new robes is draped around the gold Buddha in the Stupa's inner sanctum on behalf of the Root Institute sangha, or community of monks and nuns.
"Offering robes to the Buddha," she says, "is the perfect gift; it is the only thing he needs."
We are welcome to participate, she says, but we need not believe in any of it. She only asks that, should we decide to leave the compound, we maintain our silence. "It's quite special to go to such a loud, big place in silence," she says.
As if to emphasize the point, she takes a long pause before speaking again, in which we hear birds outside and a barking dog, and in the distance, the droning Hindi announcements of the mobile eye clinic that is camped in the dry rice paddies outside the walls. Then, Rita begins our session as she always does, reminding us that "there is nothing to achieve, nothing to attain. That whatever happens in the next hour is completely good enough."
The Full Moon
A jumble of cycle rickshaws is waiting at the compound gate; the drivers quarrel and jockey with each other as we each climb in for the ten-minute ride. Walking the promenade that approaches the temple entrance, I am approached by the same hawkers of lotus flowers, postcards, and religious offerings, the same shrunken widows with tin rice bowls, as the first time I came here. Only now, instead of a stream of uncomfortable, apologetic no-thank-you's, I place an index finger to my lips, as Rita instructed, and smile, walking through them.
The November air is cool, the stone cold under my feet. The moon is brilliant, casting shadows behind hundreds of centuries-old statuettes of the Buddha. After more than a week inside the Root Institute walls, the energy of the temple crowd - a thousand chattering and chanting pilgrims from around the world - is not as jarring as I expect. A mood of relaxed bustle prevails; tranquil, yet filled with purpose.
Within the Stupa's sole chamber, I gently shoulder through a knot of white-robed Koreans and a couple of dreadlocked Westerners to find our group; I kneel with them, before a golden Buddha, as Rita delivers a reading above the din of the other visitors. She hands new robes to an attendant, who enters the platform and methodically replaces the month-old fabric that is there. All the while, tourists, monks, and vacationing Indian families (the Buddha is also revered by Hindus as a facet of Vishnu), take turns posing in front of the statue.
I, neither believing nor non-believing, only interested and present, observe the subtle tension between spiritual sobriety and flash-snapping levity. When the new robes are in place, I squeeze my way back outside.
Saffron-draped monks - from Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Cambodia, Nepal, Japan - sit in rows, reciting mantras near the fenced-off trunk of the Bodhi tree; then they take out cameras to have their pictures taken. They kneel, unsmiling, palms joined at their hearts while flashes sparkle, including my own. Who are the pilgrims and who are the tourists? I wonder, stepping carefully among prostrate people, foreheads touching this auspicious spot of earth.
I put my camera away and retreat to the farthest reaches of one of the tree's long, sinuous branches. The Bodhi's span is magnificent and I find I am more at ease watching people lionize a tree, rather than some statue or object; even though, as I learned this week, images of the Buddha are not representations of God. Indeed, Buddha was not a deity and his enlightenment was no miracle. In fact, the focus of Buddhist worship is the ability of any human being to find happiness, by practicing compassion and meditation.
The basic hope and optimism inherent in these views is quite different from the impressions of religious fervor I had last week, when I came and saw only people bowing before statues. Tonight however, I have a heightened understanding of the Bodhi tree's serenity (relative to my own recent ignorance, anyway), and this only adds to its natural beauty. Moonlight filters through its leaves and mixes with the glow of candles and floodlights; it beams silver shafts through columns of sweet incense smoke.
I sit, back straight ("a stack of golden coins," said Rita), facing the tree, concentrating on this moment, this past week - as my "monkey mind" strives only to play and swing in the branches above.
The Weeping Monk
A solitary monk appears and sits close to me, also cross-legged and facing the tree. There is not much idle chit-chat around the Stupa, so I am surprised when he leans over to ask, in nervous, struggling English, where I am from. I am confounded; what should I do? Do I really raise a finger to my lips and shush a monk? Of course not; yet, how can I break my silence right at the moment when it is all making sense, when the whole week seems to be coming together?
"America," I hear myself saying, "U.S.A."
In the short conversation that follows the monk tells me, in halting monosyllables and sign language, that he is from Thailand, and has been in Bodhgaya for four months. His enthusiasm fades however, when he says that he is leaving tomorrow.
I tell him I also have been in India for four months and am departing soon for Thailand, but he doesn't understand. He repeats himself, holds up his bedroll, and points to the spot where he has been sleeping. Camping under the Bodhi tree! He is excited to share this.
In the next instant, the entirety of the moon's light breaks through a gap in the branches, revealing that the monk is weeping. He points to the full moon, and sweeps his arm to indicate the Stupa, the people, the statuettes behind us, then back at the sacred branches and the sky.
"I am having tears," he says, his voice steady, silver streams widening on his cheeks.
"You are sad to leave," I say.
He nods yes.
The Perfect Gift
The monk produces a fallen leaf from the Bodhi tree and hands it to me. It is yellow and insect-eaten between its veins, but its form is entirely intact: the pointed tip, round-bulging bottom, nearly the shape of a heart.
I place the leaf between the back pages of my journal, then put my hands together and bow in gratitude. I hand him the book and ask for the name of his monastery in Bangkok. I ask him to write it in Thai so that I can show it to a taxi driver when I get there; but he is overcome by another wave of emotion.
I leave him to his final night in Bodhgaya, beneath the moon and the branches of the Bodhi tree. The Mahabodhi gates will close soon; only monks are allowed to sleep here and I must get back. I rise to walk away, re-entering my silence and the crowd.
A pilgrim, says the Oxford American Dictionary, is "a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons." But what if the reasons are nothing grander than a traveler's curiosity? And what if that traveler finds the sacrosanct in a wholly unexpected way? I wonder if it even matters, sitting atop my bag on the Gaya train platform; I am watching the sun rise, waiting for the Rajdhani Express to appear out of its orange light and carry me to Varanasi, the oldest, holiest Hindu city in the world.
Joshua Berman is the author of multiple guidebooks in Avalon Travel Publishing's Moon Handbooks Series, including Moon Handbooks Belize, which won a 2005 Lowell Thomas Travel Writing Award in the Best Guidebook Category. His articles have appeared in Outside Traveler, Transitions Abroad, Yoga Journal, and the Boston Globe. Visit his website at joshuaberman.net, or check in on his 16-month, round-the-world honeymoon at The Tranquilo Traveler
Photographs of the Mahabhodi Temple by Joshua and Sutay Berman
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