Dec 31, 2018, In search of enlightenment

Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 57

The Bodhi tree
The Bodhi tree

After many years of being partial to the teachings of the Lord Buddha, I finally managed to walk the path that he walked two thousand five hundred years ago. Well, it is impossible for a person like me to walk on the Buddha’s figurative footsteps, but I did manage to walk on the same hallowed ground where he attained Enlightenment. Sitting under the bodhi tree, after many years of practice, trying out different paths, following a multitude of masters, he finally saw the truth and became the Buddha, from just Siddhartha Gautama, the mortal human that he was prior to that auspicious day.

The plan in the morning was to visit Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda. We left early and were told that the roads were good and that the little over hundred kilometre drive to Bodhgaya would take about a couple of hours. The roads were in pathetic shape with potholes galore, the traffic was incessant, traffic snarls almost the entire distance. What is called a National Highway, cannot even be called a road inside a residential colony that has since turned into a ghost town. The suggested two hour journey took close to five hours. But at the end of it, it was all worthwhile.

Flower bedecked temple compound
Flower bedecked temple compound

There were literally thousands of people visiting the temple, from almost every corner of the world. There were more monks and nuns than tourists, the police presence was extremely evident, the security very tight. The entire temple complex was beautifully decked up and later I found that this was because of the visit of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. He is in town for three weeks and was staying at the Tibetan monastery next to the Mahabodhi Temple. Hence the tight security cordon and the colourful decor of the temple complex.

The Mahabodhi Temple
The Mahabodhi Temple

This is not the first time that I have found myself in the same city as His Holiness. However, I have not had the distinct honour of being in his presence. I have been a part of the crowds thronging the streets to welcome him though. What wouldn’t I give to be in his presence and be blessed by him. That is one item right on top of my bucket list.

Footprints of the Buddha
Footprints of the Buddha

The Mahabodhi Temple is situated at the very location where the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Right behind the temple is the tree under which he sat and meditated till he was Enlightened. The original tree was destroyed, and has been replanted three times over the years. The current tree has been grown from a sapling of the tree in Sri Lanka, which in turn was grown from a sapling from the original tree. The sapling was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka’s children Mahendra and Sanghamitra. There are currently two trees that originate from the one in Sri Lanka, the one here at Bodhgaya where the Buddha attained Enlightenment, and the second at Sarnath where he preached his first sermon.

The Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi Tree

Another view of the Bodhi Tree
Another view of the Bodhi Tree

The sense of devotion is the first thing that hits you as you enter the complex. Particularly due to the fact that almost everywhere you look there are monks and nuns from all over the world. Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Sri Lankan, and I suspect from a few other countries. There is a virtual sea of maroon and saffron robes. At every location there are groups of monks and nuns chanting and praying together. At other locations there are individuals prostrating incessantly. The exact location does not matter, though the crowds of praying monks and nuns are larger right next to the tree. I suspect for most of these visiting monks and nuns, this is a pilgrimage not unlike a Christian visiting the Vatican, or a Muslim conducting Haj, or a Sikh paying homage at the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Bodhgaya is arguably the most revered spot in all of Buddhism.

The sanctum sanctorum at Bodh Gaya
The sanctum sanctorum at Bodh Gaya

The more devout are probably removed from the distractions of the crowds, but for the lay person like me, it is a little more difficult to dive into a more serene sense of being given the noises, the crowd, the loudspeakers, the sheer magnitude of so many things to see. I would probably have liked to sit down quietly in some faraway corner and chant my favourite chant - Om Mani Padme Hum. But that was not to be, though I did find myself chanting softly under my breath.

There is a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that people more knowledgeable than me and more ardent practitioners have been trying to understand. The concept of Emptiness. From what little I know, it is a very profound concept, something that is quite difficult to fathom. I had given up trying to understand it some years ago. But today, browsing at a book stall put up by some monks I found a book on Emptiness and I decided to buy it, to read it and try and get a semblance of what that concept means. Maybe someday I will begin to realise its significance and what it means.

Then it was time to drive back. It took another five hours. According to Chandru, he has been twice enlightened today, once during the drive to Bodhgaya and then on the drive back. It was positively tiring and strenuous. The so-called National Highways and State Highways went through towns and villages, they are in a sorry state of disrepair, the people walking the streets or driving the vehicles have absolutely no traffic sense, and it was a nightmare. This challenge also provides the opportunity to practice Driving Meditation, to borrow a concept from the Vietnamese monk Thit Nach Hahn. Cursing the surroundings, or the condition of the roads, or the complete lack of manners of other drivers, will not change a thing, except make us a lot more frustrated and angry. This is a way to accept the challenge and live in equanimity. That is what I try to do while driving, and it held me in good stead today too.

Needless to say, there was no time to visit Rajgir or Nalanda. That is left for another day, another time.

One more item ticked off the Bucket List and it is time to hit the water again tomorrow.

By the way, Happy New Year. May you all be blessed with happiness and find freedom from all suffering.

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