In Buddha's Footsteps
Birthplace of Buddhism, India's Bodh Gaya is a riot of temple architecture.
The Wall Street Journal Asia
March 3, 2006
"Take some moments," says a woman's soothing voice, "to really arrive here at this holy place." I try to do as I'm told. Eyes closed, legs crossed, I attempt to tap the brakes on my brain and as the teacher, Holland-born Hedwig Bakker, softly suggests "withdraw the mind inside."
But what's outside gets the better of me. Involuntarily, I open my eyes again. At least I'm in good company. Because there, right in front of me, is the spot where Siddhartha Gautama "woke up" and became the Buddha.
Bodh Gaya, in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, is home to the Mahabodhi Temple, which marks the spot where Buddha gained spiritual enlightenment. A descendant of the bodhi (peepul) tree, under which the royal-born Siddhartha famously sat in determined contemplation, towers next to the temple's 52-meter high central pillar. Buddhist pilgrims from South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and other places circumambulate the temple in their stocking feet. Candles flicker nearby. And through the night air rise the deep chants of the faithful.
Such is the atmosphere of Bodh Gaya, a powerful place even for non-Buddhists. More than 2,500 years after the awakened one's death, the Indian town also known as Buddha Gaya is home to more than a dozen temples in architectural styles from across Asia. For the curious, it's the ultimate place to study what Buddhists call "The Middle Way" of moderation in all things, as well as meditation. And right now is the time to do it. March sees the end of the peak season in the town. While the town has about 30,000 inhabitants, it swells to 50,000 between October and March with an influx of pilgrims attracted by the cooler winter weather in particular Tibetan monks from the far north of India, home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile and a large Tibetan exile population.
"You are the only one who can work your own mind. No one else will," says Ms. Bakker, 41 years old, in a red-pillared room of the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, replete with a beatific photograph of the Dalai Lama hanging in the center and Tibetan paintings festooning the walls. Ms. Bakker leads guided analytical meditation classes for the Tibetan-lama-founded Root Institute; she herself undertook an intensive three-month "purification retreat" in the northwest Indian town of Dharamsala to prepare for teaching meditation. She was addressing a group of 19 seekers, all from overseas, although the institute offers courses in both Hindi and English and is popular with Indians and foreigners alike.
For those who aren't into the quick-fix enlightenment many travelers seek in Indian retreats and ashrams, Bodh Gaya also offers the opportunity to explore Buddhist history and philosophy. Though it originated in India two and a half millennia ago, Buddhism has dwindled to the fifth-largest religion in its native land, with an estimated seven million followers there, but thrives across Asia and, increasingly, the West. Beginning with the precepts that life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desire, Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all sentient beings and stresses mental discipline.
Located in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, Bodh Gaya is a good place to muse about suffering and compassion and the Buddhist approach to both. "Poverty does not matter," reads a sign inside the beautiful, gilded Thai wat. "Matter generosity and hospitality." (Bihar's poverty might matter to some visitors, however; banditry is common in the state, and tourists are advised to stay off roads outside the main towns after nightfall.) A group of weather-beaten Tibetan pilgrims wearing ragged, frayed clothes walks in; they fall to their knees and knock their foreheads to the ground in supplication before the temple's golden Buddha image. A gaggle of smartly dressed Thai tourists files in. Meanwhile, Indian beggars clutching bowls squat by the entry gate.
The town contains a continent's worth of structural style, making it an unbeatable place for temple-gazing. The temple that abuts the Gaden Phelgay Ling Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist monastery, along the town's main drag, for example, features eight deep-red pillars standing mightily inside. A floral design decorates the yellow ceiling, and a flight of stairs leads to a room containing a six-meter high prayer wheel, around which pilgrims and laughing kids alike walk clockwise. The Bhutanese temple is similarly colorful, featuring an altar adorned with small cups of rice, biscuits, oranges, peacock feathers and an oil-burning candle.
At times in Bodh Gaya, with its bevy of East and Southeast Asian visitors, it can be easy to forget that you're in India. But you only have to linger at the temples to see that Indian Hindus by definition polytheistic also venerate the town's most famous one-time resident, whom they regard as the ninth incarnation of the god Vishnu. Siddhartha Gautama was born in present-day Nepal around 560 B.C. into Hindu nobility, but gave up his riches to pursue spiritual inquiry. All the temples are heavily visited by both Indians and overseas tourists.
"We like this kind of sightseeing, because it's a sacred place," says Suya Ebiya, who was visiting Bodh Gaya from Japan with her husband Shudo. And, for some, it's an oft-visited one: Academic James Wei, from Taiwan, says he's been coming to Bodh Gaya for 25 years. Another reliable group of winter visitors are Tibetans, many thousands of whom live on the subcontinent, having fled with the Dalai Lama when China occupied Tibet in 1959, or followed later. Red-robed monks and ponytailed women are a constant sight in the town. There's even a Tibetan Refugee Market, open from November to January though its merchants don't sell Tibetan garb or art, preferring to hawk knock-off Levi's or jackets and sweaters made in New Delhi, China or Thailand.
On my last night in Bodh Gaya, I moved to the Nepali monastery, sharing a common roof with monks and nuns. Barking dogs and humming motorcycles punctured the darkness as I sat stargazing from my small balcony. My belly full of Tibetan food from a nearby restaurant, I realized all of a sudden that I'd automatically been sitting cross-legged. The Buddhist instruction had evidently hit home: This holy place had arrived in me.