Look! A photo-filled post! 😀
An elaborate temple complex, Mahabodhi, developed on the site where the Buddha historically attained enlightenment. People hawking marigolds, hibiscus, and lotus flowers to the devotees line the wide walkway up to the entrance. Boys hold bunches of the lotus flowers, hoping for a quick sale because they will fade by late morning, petals sagging beyond value. I wonder how they strike a balance between bringing enough to make a profit and losing their work to nature’s decay, especially having waded into ponds to collect them: I wish the Buddha had chosen a sturdier flower.
Gardens frame the central towered structure which contains a golden Buddha statue: I spend roughly five minutes there as waves of worshipers arrive and depart, bowing and touching the stone below the figure. The gardens themselves are full of devotional symbols and offerings. Incense sticking out at auspicious sites, flowers draping various statues, oil or water in small portions, and sometimes layers of single marigold blooms placed in tiny plastic cups.
These wooden planks are everywhere, always aimed at the stone temple. Tarps spare them from rain and cover the cushions or blankets left behind. Sometimes a book or two remains behind. They facilitate a particular form of prayer which involves prostration: moving quickly from flat to kneeling to standing with folded hands, swooping from sky to earth and back: an act done in deep reverence. Hands landing on folded fabric, sliding down the plank until the chest meets the wood and then sweeping back up and into the next position. Experienced practitioners fold and flatten in a smooth movement, visually at ease — although you could argue that the whole thing looks like an aerobics move. If their hands weren’t folded in prayer.
Each Buddha carving receives lotus flowers each morning from the young Indian boys selling them on the street.
Walking clockwise around the central tower, the already-peaceful atmosphere increases its soft touch. The bodhi (or peples) tree’s giant branches peek around the corner of the stone structure. It is not the Original under which Siddhartha meditated; it is a grown offshoot of another descendant. But it still casts a magical ambiance over those who come to meditate and pray beneath its extensive branches. Young monks and schoolchildren dive for every solitary fallen leaf, some gripping seven or eight. Hungry for peace? One realizes that he’s snapped one up at my feet where I am sitting, and shyly hands it to me. Or maybe he just thought I needed one, although I hadn’t gone for it myself.
Like nowhere else I have been on earth, there is a sacred peace to the space beneath its spread; the power may be in that peace coming unbidden, pre-meditation. A contentment and easy contemplation, a raw sense of goodness in the world. Although its base is cut off by a stone fence, its heavy branches extend to include the entire crowd passing beneath it, which is funneled past its central point.
Some position themselves in the wall’s gaps to meditate, others funnel through snapping photos. Most are devotees, Buddhists coming to pray or reflect in the traditionally most sacred religious site. The photo captures a rare, empty moment for the space dedicated to group meditation and chanting (I’m uncomfortable photographing people, or take photos in general). Buddhists from all over the world travel to visit this spot, expressing faith and philosophy through many different cultures; the population of this corner in India is exceptionally diverse. Peace manifests in another form here: the coexistence of many different approaches, and the common ground found between them all.
The auto drivers swarm when I exit the train station. This is, of course, a common experience for me in India — leaving a train station always draws at least a few offers, usually at double the price. But this is different. A few get a head start in my direction, but in a moment I am among them, twenty men clustered around me, layers of circles, waiting to hear who I will choose. I look back at the station and think about how I haven’t seen a single foreigner (I wouldn’t have noticed before, I’m often the only one) but I begin to wonder at the rarity of my occurrence. How there’s no one else looking for a lift.
I hesitate, the men wait with anxious faces, some tossing out offers. This is not frightening, as it would have been in Delhi if so many overtook me at once. There isn’t a single infuriating, anticipatory grin as I scan around the group — no well-known look of relishing imminent extortion or violation. Only strangled hope. I don’t know what to do, who to choose.
There’s no obvious “first one there” to solve the question, my usual solution. The cruel and creepy usually make themselves known quickly, but no one here is distinguishable. My hesitation drags on, a distended moment that heightens the anxiety of those waiting for my all-too-powerful choice. I want fairness and reason, and it is not coming quickly in this poverty-stricken state.
Second solution: bargain, which works in Delhi for selection and, in some cases, retribution. Here, it is a mistake. I call out for eighty rupees instead of the standard one hundred, thinking that I’ll get to ninety and we can go, but someone accepts it. Glad that the choosing is over, I toss my backpack onto the back shelf and dive in.
The young driver and I quickly pass through the simple city and out onto a long road passing fields and I wonder if the poverty is connected to the weak-looking land that cannot entirely owe its appearance to an imminent winter. Tension eases. The driver switches on his radio and suddenly I have a soundtrack to life, heightening my awareness — I really am in India.
We stop along the way, and a street-clothed man asks for a “road tax,” not even attempting to feign professionalism. I refuse to pay the ten rupees, and fake incomprehension, another common ruse of mine. The young man pays it instead; he may only be subject to corruption, and not participating. I don’t know, and I won’t be so disconnected as to pretend he has much of a choice.
Again, we stop at another cluster of stalls, mostly chai-focused, and the driver leaves me behind in his auto. He’s only gone for a moment, waving goodbye to someone and shouting. I ask, and he tells me he stopped to see his friend [unspoken: to show off his passenger]. So I figure that that’s worth ten rupees. But after crossing the seven miles to Bodhgaya, I tell him that my quoted price is unfair, and give him the one hundred rupees. It’s still an unthinkably small amount for how prices usually go; to give more would increase the ugliness of elbowing for a foreigner, unproductive for everyone.
Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained Enlightenment 2,500 years ago. A grand temple marks the spot, with a grown offshoot of the original Bodhi tree. A town formed around it, with more temples.
There are extremely poor, begging folk all over India; there is a high concentration of them in Bodhgaya, here for the merit-building donations that praying Buddhists may give and potentially the highest concentration of any tourists in Bihar. And there aren’t that many.
The destitute are often maimed, sometimes accidentally, sometimes to intentionally elicit sympathy. Sometimes they’re organized, carried to their “spot” by others who will take a cut of their earnings. Mothers may hang back and send their children to you, or point to an infant wrapped across their chest to ask for milk (which, at least in McLeodganj, they sell back to the shop owner for cash). In lucrative tourist areas, they make more than they ever could via hard labor. It is a complex situation integrated into the society, supporting the better-off in many ways, especially by producing cheap labor.
Bihar feels different. The pleas used to make me feel cornered, anxious, overwhelmed, helpless. Here, I am simply and utterly humbled. Pity separates: one standing above, extending a thought or a small rupee bill meant well, but keeping the others below. In Bihar, poverty manifests in broader ways, a heavy message of limited options. Perhaps I am simply able to receive the message, now that I’ve cleared my head and heart. An earnestness devoid of manipulation or disconnection. That anxious desperation. There can be no superiority in the presence of that, only great humility. Maybe it is because I was raised Catholic, maybe it was my university, but I feel as if this is what they are talking about, the Jesus of my liberal friends and family, of St. Vincent de Paul.
I have come to visit the sacred Buddhist site, but also to see the collection of temples built according to different cultural styles: the carefully painted structures stand stark and strange against the living pain. Bizarre expenditures bent on glory and peace but decorated with suffering.
It’s around 8 AM as I am walking past the grand Mahabodhi temple. I recognize some Tibetans standing at a basket or two — there’s bread! Imagine a giant English muffin, baked fresh that morning. I can’t buy enough for everyone here, and what will they eat tomorrow? The juxtaposition of nicely-outfitted Tibetans, baskets of bread for those who can afford it, the fancy temples, and the thin, begging people scattered among it all contorts my mind. I take a breather in the known — and ask about the bread.
Buy Tibetan things from Tibetans, and Indian from India = an attempt to sort through consumer ethics. The salesperson smiles, and the man behind her gives me a price that is more than double what it would cost in Delhi. I give him a startled, critical look, but he smiles and shrugs it off, but I buy it — and he asks me for a donation, says something about hard times. I leave without answering.
Priorities. Racial conflict. Discrimination.
My delight in eased harassment among the Tibetans had been too strong an influence. This is not a condemnation of an entire community, Indian or Tibetan. Eyes opened to the few who take advantage of a situation, to the desensitization, and the troubles. Traveling in India demonstrates the worst and the best of humanity, and draws out your best and worst. It is a land of extremes, with a unique education to offer.
Still, the next morning, I purchase Tibetan bread from two young Indian woman squatting next to a large woven basket. All smiles and connection and reaching out. So much for a simple answer to ethical consumerism.
Sitting on a borrowed cushion, I fiddled with the tuner on my radio, attempting to find the English translation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching.
Thousands of people had gathered in the temple complex, a select few sitting in the room proper, the rest filling the balconies and courtyard. I had slept through the morning session and was late for the afternoon one — ate a muffin while charging through the streets, consistently rushing to class wherever I am in the world.
I had circumambulated the inner temple partly out of respect and partly to see what there was to see. As I mentioned before, walking clockwise around sacred objects (kora in Tibetan) is done to gain merit. As I made my way around the building, crowds of eyes pushed me along, but for a long moment I had been able to see H. H. the Dalai Lama through the main temple opening, his elevated seat draped in gold fabric, speaking into two microphones. Young monks in saffron robes took notes while the youngest played with tiny plastic airplanes. Turning another corner, an older group of monks filled the large southern balcony, and I suddenly became incredibly aware of my gender. Moving by individuals leaning into microphones offering the various translations, I made my way back to the main seating area.
Having settled into a good spot in the lower courtyard, I had pulled out my radio, only to discover that it refused to pick up the correct frequency for English. Or maybe the problem was that the language changed on the same setting if I pointed the antenna a different direction. And French was not one of them either.
As I was messing with it, a Tibetan toddler wandered up, curious. Considering that it was already broken, I showed him how to pull the antenna up and down, which was very exciting. He took it from me and waved it around; then with a “pew, pew!” he shot at me, antenna blazing, as I died dramatically. Arguably inappropriate for a Buddhist lecture. He reached up and gently pulled the headphones out of my ears and tried to put them in his own. His embarrassed mother arrived and swept him away before I could put on some foreign language that neither of us understood but might be fun to listen to.
Eventually I did get to hear a bit of the lecture, sharing an earbud with a friend. Sitting among a crowd of Tibetans, thumbing through my prayer beads, and contemplating H. H. the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, for everyone, even your enemies, was meaningful on its own.
But the experience of being a few feet away from him as he walked out of the hall has no words.