After Varanasi, I came to Bodhgaya, and I’ve been lingering here for nearly a week, far longer than I had intended. My reason for coming here was that it is where the Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment, but it also turned out to be a great place to relax, get organized, and plan my next steps.
As the most important pilgrimage sight in Buddhism, Bodhgaya is a fascinating place to observe the practices of various incarnations of Buddhism from around the world. The centre of town is dominated by the Mahabodhi temple, built around the spot where it is said that the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and was enlightened in the fifth or sixth century BCE. A temple was built here a few hundred years later by Ashoka, a powerful ruler who did the most to promote Buddhism in India.
The temple has been rebuilt many times over the years, but it was one of the few sites to survive the Muslim invasion of the eleventh century in any form. A Bodhi tree still grows there, supposedly grown from a cutting of a tree in Sri Lanka which in turn was transplanted from the original tree.
The temple grounds are busy from dawn until dusk, and an absolute highlight of this place is to see Buddhists from all over the world worshipping in the temple grounds. A group of Tibetan monks keeps a constant vigil, alternating between chanting and drumming. Some large tour groups in identical white uniforms gather in song. Many monks clad in ochre or maroon simple walk the perimeter, while others engage in ritual prostrations, in some cases doing both at the same time.
Here’s an image of the temple grounds and a recording of the Tibetan monks:
The rest of the city is dominated by temples built by other countries. Each shows its own unique style. The Japanese one is simple and restained. The Bhutanese is ornate, with extensive carvings on the walls. The Thai is perhaps the nicest, with a golden roof and beautifully maintained grounds.
My other reason for liking this place so much is a fantastic guest house I’m staying at, called Mohammad’s House. It’s quite basic, but very clean and well-run, and every night from the roof I can watch a the sunset, as it turns into a perfect red disk against a backgound of blue and green.
Although it’s just on the edge of town, the guest house is essentially in the midst of a village. Farther out of town in the rice fields, it’s difficult to escape from the children begging for chocolate or money, but here the people seem to ignore the tourists, just as they do the monks who wander through. There are many families living in a fairly simple dwellings but overall it seems quite prosperous. The houses are mostly made from painted, plastered brick, most families have metal cookware and beautifully colourful clothes, and there lots of animals wandering around – ducks, pigs, chickens, goats, and dogs.
The alleyways are mostly full of women and children (there are a lot of children!) During the day, a major activity is making fuel out of dung, which involves combining it with a stabilizer (sawdust, perhaps?), forming it into patties, and letting them dry in the sun, either on the ground or stuck against a wall. In the evenings the women prepare meals in front of their homes, cooking over wood or dung fires. The kids like to play cricket, hackey-sack, and with the ever popular hoop and stick. I’m not really sure where all the men are, but presumably many are working in town.
The town is rapidly expanding, with ever more guesthouses, temples and meditation centres being built on the periphery, and it seems as though the village is slowly being surrounded. The biggest source of activity at present is that sewer pipes are being installed under the streets. It’s a big operation that seems to involve everyone. A backhoe does the heavy lifting, digging trenches about 10 feet deep, and filling the dirt back in, but the access points are more or less built by hand. Starting at the same depth, a large tapered cone is built up out of bricks to street level. The bricks are carried by the women on their heads, eight at a time. The finished cone is covered in cement, and a smooth rim is formed and allowed to dry. A pre-fabricated cement plate is then placed on top. Here’s an image of one in the process of being built:
Earlier, when staring at the ruins of a ancient Buddhist Stupa made of brick, I was silently lamenting the fact that no one builds such elegant, grandiose architecture anymore. Watching these sewers being built, it was obvious that this is by no means from a lack of knowledge or ability!
Buddhism, of course, more or less died out in India a ling time ago, but I have been interested in both Buddhism and meditation for some time now. I first learned about Zen through the likes of Robert Pirsig and Douglas Hofstadter, and it always seemed like a belief system that was relatively compatible with a modern, scientific worldview. The longer I spend here, however, and the more I read, the more I realize that the reality is much more complex.
Buddhism has developed like a river in many directions in different places and arguably demonstrates as much diversity as, say, monotheism. It naturally needs to be understood in it’s historical context, as it developed out of earlier Vedic religions, most of which believed in Samsara, or the wandering-on, the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. If anything, various forms of Buddhism seem to have become a great deal more complex over time, incorporating different rituals, relics, mythologies and philosophies in different places.
Nevertheless, it still seems like the core insight, that life is stressful because we cling to things which are impermanent, is a useful one. All sources of happiness are fleeting, security and stability can never be guaranteed to last, and life itself is sure to end (unless you’re Ray Kuzweil). That is obviously to ignore the extensive metaphysical debates over self-hood, becoming, enlightenment, and so on, but what the hell, Buddhism is, after all, the middle way : )