Under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya Where the Prince Became The Buddha

Bodh Gaya — the place of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment under a Bodhi tree considered the most sacred place in Buddhism — is not much to look at upon arrival.  Flat, dusty – I could be in Haiti.  I was amused on the flight here when I realized that Buddhists come in two classes: business and economy.  The road to our hotel is lined with trees, each painted the first five feet in white to avoid night time collisions.  I look forward to seeing theMahabodhi Temple, the main monastery of Bodh Gaya, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Monks and pilgrims from around the world have flocked to Bodh Gaya to see The Dali Lama. Photo by the author.


Certainly there are monks everywhere, choking the road, on foot and on pedicabs.  Many seem to have nice watches and cellphones and I wonder how they deal with personal possession and money.  My thoughts return to history: With the decline of Buddhism in India, the Mahabodhi Temple was abandoned and forgotten, buried under layers of soil and sand.  It was later restored by a British archeologist in the late 1800s.  I cannot wait to witness the Bodhi Tree there, originally a sapling of a tree in Sri Lanka, itself grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree.

Where do monks shop for robes? On the streets of Bodh Gaya. Photo: author.

History is alive in Bodh Gaya.  I keep thinking, five hundred years before Jesus was walking around in the dessert, Prince Gautama Siddhartha abandoned his wife and child and roamed the countryside as an ascetic, seeking to understand what he had never comprehended in his palace isolation: why do people suffer so in life?  He ate little and almost starved, and there are many statues of the emaciated Buddha here.  When he reached the banks of the nearby Falgu River, he sat in meditation under this tree.  After three days and three nights of meditation, they say, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and insight: People suffer because they do and we just need to accept it and deal with it.

Colorful Tibetan wool for sale on the streets of Bodh Gaya. Photo by the author.

Several Buddhist temples and monasteries here have been built by the people of Bhutan, China, Japan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam in a wide area around the Mahabodhi Temple.  These buildings reflect the architectural style, exterior and interior decoration of their respective countries and I explored them with relish.  The statue of Buddha in the Chinese temple is 200 years old and was brought from China.  Japan’s Nippon Temple is shaped like a pagoda where the New Year’s celebration is said to be grand.  We pass the Thai temple and I see it has a typical sloping, curved roof covered with golden tiles.

Billboard on the streets of Bodh Gaya reflects India’s Hindu culture. Photo: author.

As much as this town sounds like the Garden of Eden, it is very dusty and about half the crowd – monks and pilgrims alike – wears face masks.  Asians more so than Europeans, I note.  I understand that Bodh Gaya has a literacy rate of 51%, lower than India’s average of 60%; with male literacy of 63% and female literacy a shocking 38%.  Although a Buddhist mecca, the population here is predominantly Hindu.

The monks here range in age from four to perhaps ninety four? Photo: author.

A thousand years ago Buddhists ran the largest university in the world near here – and I understand they plan to re-open it at long last.  Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura Hillyer, the spirited woman who invited me on this pilgrimage, has known the Dalai Lama personally since the 1970s.  She told me that he told her, when asked how she could contribute significantly, that they did not need more monasteries and temples – they needed schools.  Education, His Holiness told her, was the key to the future.

Police in Bodh Gaya keeping order during massive Kalachakra. Photo by the author.

Kalachakra – the event that has brought me here to Bodh Gaya – means Time-Wheel, or Time-Cycles.  “Kala” is time and “Chakra” is wheel in Sanskrit.  Much in this tradition revolves around the concept of time and cycles; from the cycles of the planets, to the cycles of our breath and the practice of controlling the most subtle energies within one’s body on the path to enlightenment.

Virtually every Buddhist population has built a temple in the birthplace of Buddhism.
Here is the Bangladeshi Monastery complete with ubiquitous cow. Photo: author.

Over the years, as I drink my morning coffee, walk our dog, read my e-mail, and begin my meetings, it has occurred to me that life is nothing but cycles – actually cycles within cycles because birth and death themselves are the cycles in which smaller cycles and sub-cycles occur.  The key to happiness, of course, is identifying and obtaining the cycles you enjoy.  If the cycle of your job or marriage stresses you, adjust the cycle — or find a new cycle.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama the14th has said:

The initiation to the Kalachakra is one of the most important… because it takes everything into account: the body and the human mind, and the whole external aspect – cosmic and astrological.  We firmly believe in its power to reduce conflict and we believe it is capable of creating… peace of spirit and therefore peace in the world.

The Dalai Lama’s image is everywhere in Bodh Gaya, even on giant LCD screens on rooftops. Photo: author.

The present Dalai Lama has given thirty Kalachakra initiations all over the world, and is the most prominent Kalachakra lineage holder alive today.  Billed as the “Kalachakra for World Peace,” they draw tens of thousands of people.

Inside the Kalachakra Pavilion with the Dalai Lama, Bodh Gaya, India. Photo: author.

This one, rumored to be his last, was expected to draw 130,000 but by the end of the week we will see almost 500,000 here.  A Buddhist Billy Graham revival.  Tantric initiations are unusually not given to the masses, but the Kalachakra has always been an exception.  The Dalai Lama believes that this tantra public – democratic – is necessary in to keep it relevant in this modern age.  As I write these words, the town echoes with the sound of Tibetan horns and drums and the streets vibrate with devotes.

Here the Chinese Temple, one of dozens built by Buddhist populations around the world.

Bodh Gaya, I grasp here, is to Buddhists what Mecca is to Muslims and Jerusalem is to Christians and Jews.  It is the epicenter of the Buddhist pilgrimage and the Kalachakra.  It is where the Dalia Lama is about to address the world.  It is where 130,000 pilgrims have descended from every corner of the earth — soon to number almost 500,000.  And I am here among them.

My young guide showed me the Bodhi Tree grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple. Photo: author.

Soon I meet an enterprising ten-year old Hindu boy on the street offers to serve as my guide.  His English is excellent.  As my first day in the city, and realizing this kid has got little in life, I am delighted to have some local companionship.  He promptly informs me that he hates the public school he attends because they don’t allow him to ask questions.  He wants to attend a private school.  This is an attempt to obtain funding from me – a lot – but I am tickled by his pitch.  Some days I wish my funds were unlimited.  At the end of the two-hour tour I give him some money to buy books or give to his mom.  He promises to look me up in a few days to see how I am faring.

Street venders populate Bodh Gaya, especially during Kalachakra. Photo: author.

Pilgrimage to Buddha’s Holy Sites
Main Sites: Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar
Additional Sites: Sravasti, Rajgir, Sankissa, Vaishali, Nalanda, Varanasi
Other Sites: Patna, Gaya, Kosambi, Kapilavastu, Devadaha, Kesariya, Pava


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