“Who are your inspirational hero’s?” I asked a friend.
“Dunno. King David, I guess, would be one.”
“Awesome answer,” I said impressed that he hadn’t picked a modern actor or, worse, a footballer.
“How about you?”
“My grandfather, Ghandi and the Buddha,” I said quickly.
“You’ve obviously thought about this!”
“Lots. My grandfather is easy; fighter-bomber pilot in the Second World War, boxing champion, and gentile but courageous Welshman. He died before I became old enough to truly know him, but I carry one of his service uniform buttons with me everywhere.”
“How about Ghandi? A bit pacifist for you?”
“Ghandi was anything but a pacifist. He was very strong and he used his strength, not of his body, but of his mind; his soul. His belief was in the Indian people and of leading by example. Not using violence was far more effective than using it.”
“And the Buddha?”
“I became a real fan of him when I visited Bodh Gaya and the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’…” I began.
India’s relationship with Buddhism is strange and unique. Although its home country, and a place deeply involved with religion in almost every aspect of life, India is not particularly Buddhist. Of course in a country of over a Billion people you are going to find large enclaves of almost any religious group imaginable. I had come across a few outlandish ones already, especially the Jains, who take the vows of poverty to the extreme and wander the world naked or the (literally) cannibalistic Aghori who eat the remains of bodies they fish out of the river and only drink from human skulls. For all that fervour Buddhism flounders unexpectedly. My first impression of Bodh Gaya was that the Indians were almost wondering what all the fuss is about. For they the reign of Buddhism is long since passed and all these foreigners coming over to see a tree is a little like people visiting England only to see the round table of King Arthur in Canterbury.
We got off the train quite excited. I had long been a fan of Buddhism and Cesca was interested in it as well. We had spent many nights in New Zealand discussing it and this was a chance to experience one of Buddhism’s “special places” for the first time. Like a newly converted Christian on his first visit to the Vatican. The train stops a good hour by road from the temple complexes and it is necessary to hire transport to the site. I expect that in the summer people walk it over a few days as a sort of pilgrimage, but we weren’t about to do that and so off we went by tuk tuk. The sun was just rising over the far horizon as we pootled down the very dusty road that wound its way through crop fields and small collections of muddy houses.
The journey felt great. This was us back in the countryside of India after the horrifying municipal nightmare that was Kolkata.
As we drew closer Buddhist iconography became more evident. We started to see priests and monks along the road. This was off season by Bodh Gaya standards, but there were still a significant number of people. What it is like in the summer, when all the Buddhist retreats are open, is anyone’s guess. Bonkers I expect. We then passed a collection of closed cafes and restaurants that formed a sort of shanty town that lined the road for the last few miles in.
This obviously grew and shrunk along with the seasons and I for one was glad that our time here was going to be as un-commercial as this place ever gets. We pulled into town and the tuk tuk stopped at a roundabout that acts as a sort of general drop off point and town centre. To our right was a large and ancient looking temple surrounded with parkland for a hundred yards on each side and a high wall. In front and to our left was a collection of hotels and guest houses. Behind us the road bent right, but a path continued on into an enormous collection of various temple complexes. In the distance I could make out the head of a Giant Buddha poking over the many roofs.
We went looking for a hotel.
Trying to find one in off season was hard. The prices here were double of those of the rest of the country and our months spent paying very little for accommodation meant that we were reticent to pay a high surcharge. Eventually we bargained a deal off a hotel manager that took all the haggling skills Cesca and I had learned in our 8 months away. We got into our room and the last few days exertions caught up with us; we went to bed. The view from our room was of the main temple over the road and after we slept we looked out at it. We enjoyed ourselves so much in bed that we stayed in it for the next two days.
Eventually we decided to actually go take a look at this ‘Tree of Enlightenment’.
The very first thing in the morning, we woke and made our way to the front of the temple. Lining the pedestrian precinct that leads up to the gates there are a thousand street vendors selling all sort of Buddhist knick knacks.
Bracelets and bead necklaces were the most common item. All made from some locally growing nut. Others sold CDs of monks chanting or priests giving out sermons. Many were offering “guided tours” of the site and an explanation of all there was to see. We declined them all. Eventually a break in the wall formed into a gate that led into the temple complex proper, here we paid the rather high fee and went in. At first there is a sort of stone garden that leads up to a number of small grotto’s. In each of these sits a figure in the classic Buddhist pose of crossed legs, hand in one of the mudala positions and a vacant expression of its face. Each of these was guarded by a Brahman.
It was then that something occurred to me.
Only the other day I met a new guy at my workplace and he was clearly of Indian descent. On his wrists were string bracelets reminiscent of the one’s I had been given by Buddhist priest in Thailand.
“Are you a Buddhist?” I asked.
“No, I’m Hindu,” he said smiling.
“Oh,” I replied, “I saw the bracelets…”
It was then that one of my other work colleagues cut in with,
“He’s an Indian, Basho. He’s from India!”
“But the Buddha was Indian!” I pointed out.
I was not surprised that she hadn’t realised that fact, for the Indians have left Buddhism in the past. After the religion was formed, and the Buddha travelled, the world started to turn to his way of thinking. Buddhism spread far across India and eventually became the state religion under a great king known as Ashoka. It was he that built many of the Buddhist temples in India and formed the society that today calls itself Indian. In honour of this the symbol of India, which is on all its bank notes, is Ashoka’s national emblem of four lions back to back and looking at the cardinal points. Buddhism then moved on from India to conquer the East, but in its home country another faith was rising, an all encompassing faith that spoke to something deep within the Indian psyche. No so much like a religion in the west, something different: Hinduism. Against that power rising simple Buddhism – and it was only the simple form known as the lesser vehicle that existed then – was enveloped and sublimated. Hinduism simply appropriated Buddhism in the same way that Buddhism did back to Hinduism in Thailand and Cambodia. So the Buddha became a mere avatar of the God Vishnu, sent to Earth to have a word with us regarding Vegetarianism. I am underselling this “honour” of being an avatar, but it was clearly a way of pocketing Buddhism and taking it over. Something seen all over the world and in all religions. For example the presence of Jesus and angel Gabriel in Islamic teaching was such an attempt to sublimate, which wasn’t that successful, or the Christians nicking Easter off the Druids, Christmas off the Jews and the flood story from the Mesopotamians, which was. To the Indians the Buddha is only seen in terms of the Hindu understanding of his message. So it is here in Bodh Gaya, the closest that Buddhism can get to a holy site, the entire complex is actually run by Hindus.
Buddhism’s Indian decline aside the temple is a fantastic monument.
It is of mixed design and little remains from the original. Its shape is roughly a square with the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’ itself at the back almost against the wall. Like all great Buddhist sites, all sorts of “minor” legends exist and there are statues all over the area that commemorate the Buddha standing or walking by. Directly down the path is a small chamber with a large Buddha statue inside. This room was full of meditating and worshipping Buddhists.
One of the most interesting things about visiting this temple, if you are not Buddhist yourself, is the working out who everyone is. There are representatives of almost every type of Buddhist sect visiting here at any one time. I counted Thai’s, Burmese, Japanese, lots and lots of Sri lankans, Chinese and of course the rare Westerner. I found the chamber to be a little busy and so we walked around the temple to get to the main event. The walls of the temple are all elegantly carved and the entire structure glows faintly in the morning sun.
It is one of the most beautiful temples I have visited and this is mostly thanks to the British who, like in Cambodia, recognised the importance of the temple as a monument and restored it to its current state in the Victorian period. In the last few years the temple has also become a UNESCO World Heritage site, which can only be a good thing as the local management committee have been accused of supporting the Hindu Ultra-nationalists and even of selling off limbs of the great tree.
As we round the final corner we came across a stone laid courtyard with a large tree against the temple wall, which has grown over the stone barrier protecting it and reaches out over ones head, supported by some posts to assist its fight against gravity. Cesca and I exchanged looks. The walk around the wall had built a sense of excitement about seeing this and we were both feeling that this was a very special occasion, perhaps even an acid test of the mental journey we were feeling that we were on.
Around the courtyard sat many visiting priests and it was amongst these that I sat, pulled up my legs and meditated in Zazen.
In many ways the Buddhist realisation is an anti climax compared to what you expect. This is not surprising in retrospect as if it was easy then everyone would do it. For me sitting by ‘Tree of Enlightenment’, peaceful and quiet, surrounded by the monks and priests, I took a small footstep down that road. Cesca came up to me after about an hour.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I opened my eyes. Buddhism is not a spiritual experience like Christianity. That isn’t to say it isn’t a strong and earth moving experience, but it is not about something “other” something “outside” you. It is actually the exact opposite of that. I have explained it before by analogy of whitespace. Whitespace is the white part of the page in a painting, drawing or writing. It is the part of the page with nothing on it. To some that means it is not important; the drawing is what matters, what is important. However, speak to a graphic designer on this point and they will smile and shake their head. The space around something is vital they will explain. It is just as much an object as the drawing. It holds it, balances it, and contains it. Done incorrectly and it squashes it, oppresses it, or leaves it looking lost in a field of white. It is negative space. Buddhism’s first step is like that. Buddhism is not magic, it is reality, and it is suddenly becoming aware of the whitespace holding the world. Holding you. People often say that they have had a feeling of the infinity of the Universe, of the potential of mankind or perhaps of the connectedness of us in the great race that is humanity, that is life. It makes you suddenly realise that no god is your father, sheparding your soul and intervening in your pain and suffering. God helps those that help themselves is another way of simply saying “wake up” and stop expecting miracles for the miracle is actually in you. Once that step has been taken, and I took it willingly but was unable to prevent it – like sliding into a warm bath, you see the world a little differently. Your perspective has changed and you see the whitespace. You can’t go back to the old way.
Here is an analogy. There is a certain group of mountains and craters on the moon that from England looks like a face. All my childhood I didn’t realise this. I mean, I looked at it, but never applied my mind to it. So, I looked right at it and didn’t “see” it. Once someone has pointed it out to you, once you have “seen” it, you can then see it whenever you want and often when you don’t. The mind has made the connection; the memory has been formed by the creation of neural connections in the brain. Almost nothing can make those go away as the more you think of them, the stronger the connection gets.
“Well?” Cesca asked. She looked unsure of herself, like she was hoping that whatever I said would accord with what she thought. I considered what to say, how to let her in on what I was thinking, but in the end I didn’t want to say anything that wasn’t direct experience, wasn’t in accord with what I had thought and outlined above.
“It’s just a tree,” I said, “and I wonder what the Buddha would make of it all, I don’t think he would be that impressed with the worshiping.”
Cesca sighed, “I think the same. He wouldn’t need this, or want it.”
“I still feel this is a very special place to sit.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “budge up!”
I shuffled across and Cesca sat next to me, she took my right arm in a hug and leant against me. We sat like that for a while, enjoying the morning, the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’ and the people. It’s an amazing site and probably the best place in the world to just sit and pause. At least, at this time of year (when it is quiet) and at this time of day (when it is empty of tours and only the monks and Buddhists like us are here). I was not sure of what understanding of Buddhism I was destined to reach, but it would not be the sort that simply swallows the dogma and deifies the great man. His last words came to my mind, as they often do these days, and I think that all the truth of the “religion” of Buddhism is found in these words,
“Don’t believe because you are told to, don’t believe because I say so, find out for yourself, and look after your own salvation with diligence.”
After another while Cesca said, “Anyway, I got chatted up by a monk just then.”
“Yeah, he was from Thailand and he was talking to me and I suddenly realised that he was flirting with me.”
“A monk was flirting with you?” I said
“Yep, then he asked me who I was with and I said my husband and then he just went.”
“Did you point me out?”
“No, he just basically ran off at the mention of a husband.”
“Probably he was not a real monk. He only comes here to pick up Buddhist chicks.”
Cesca laughed and we got up, walked around the temple the other way and then left.
Our time in Bodh Gaya continues in part two…
- Bodh Gaya can be spelt either as I have or together as one word Bodhgaya, which follows who a Westerner would say it.
- The temple’s name (left out of the tale because I didn’t know it at the time) is Mahabodhi Temple.
- The great ‘Tree of Enlightenment’ is a Peepul, also known as a Sacred fig.
- King Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC.