Monday, March 29, 2004

Root Institute Compound

The Root Institute, where the retreat I did was held, is one of numerous monasteries and teaching centers founded by the well-known Lama Yeshe (now deceased), and his partner Lama Zopa, originally from Nepal, and incorporated under the umbrella of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. The quiet grounds, famous for their flower gardens, and well-appointed guest rooms offer a refreshing respite from the more hectic atmosphere of Bodhgaya itself. I had reserved a private room with bath and balcony and was at least looking forward to some creature comforts during my stay.

Living quarters at Root: This is the Tara Building

The retreat officially began at 7:00 p.m. on February 5, the evening before the full moon Since the retreat was held in silent and I did not arrive until moments before seven I did not have a chance to meet any of the other participants, other than the above-mentioned Rob who I met at the airport. There were however a total of thirty-six, twenty women and sixteen men ranging in age from early twenties to sixties, with most I would say in their late twenties or early thirties. Seven participants were monks or nuns usually in residence here at Root. The retreat began in earnest the next morning with an hour session starting in the dark at six o’clock (sunrise was at 6:31 on the 5th) This first session consisted of a short meditation and talk by the teacher, Antonio Satta, a Gelug monk from Italy, followed by a group recitation of the Heart of Wisdom Sutra, the latter taking an average of four minutes and thirty-four seconds to complete (I timed each recitation on a stopwatch), and then more meditation for the remainder of the hour. Breakfast was from seven to eight. This was served cafeteria-style at tables set up outside. Already at this time the temperatures were already in the high seventies at the beginning of the retreat, and would climb into the mid-eighties by the end.

From 8:00 to 8:30 was an unguided meditation, since the teacher, Venerable Antonio, used this time to do the rituals of certain tantric practices to which he was committed. A break followed from 8:30 to 9:00. Then two one-hour sessions, starting at 9:00 and 10:30, with twenty minutes of walking meditation and forty minutes of sitting meditation. Each sitting meditation began with a five-to-ten minute talk by the teacher. Then lunch. The first one hour afternoon meditation session began at 1:30 and was the same as the others except for thirty minutes of walking meditation and thirty minutes of sitting mediation. The additional walking meditation was supposed to help fight off drowsiness after lunch. Then a half hour break followed by another hour session, twenty minutes walking and forty minutes sitting. By this time the temperature was up into the high eighties or low nineties. Four to five o’clock was a break, followed by another one hour session of twenty minutes walking and forty minutes sitting. Dinner between 6:00 and 7:15. The evening session started at 7:00. First there was a short mediation, followed by the reading the Diamond Sutra. The reading alone took about twenty-five minutes. Then meditation for the rest of the session. After a fifteen minute break began the final meditation, a short session of twenty to thirty minutes. We were usually done for the day by 8:45. I myself went up and sat on one of the rooftops to enjoy the relatively cool night air and gaze at the stars - admittedly not much of a show in the polluted, humidity-laden skies in this part of India - before going to bed at ten o’clock. I got up at 4:30 in the morning and had tea in my room. This was the regime, without alteration, for the entire twenty-eight days.

Participants were not allowed to leave the compound for any reason - say to check email or make a phone call - nor could they skip any sessions without a valid excuse - usually this meant a health problem - and permission from the teacher. Of course if you wanted to quit the retreat you could just leave. But no one quit.

There was complete silent for the entire 28 days. No talking to other participants was allowed for any reason. Nor were you allowed to make eye contact, use body language, or pass notes. You could talk to the teacher only if you have a specific question or problem. The mere need to chew the fat with someone did not justify a talk with the teacher. If you needed something like soap or a new light bulb for your room you wrote your request in a book left at the front of the meditation hall and the item was left for you there the next morning. Also there is no reading of anything, except the two sutras mentioned, which were read in unison in the meditation hall. No dharmas books, no novels or scholarly reading, no newspapers or magazines, no nothing. At breakfast the cereal - which I never ate anyhow (I wasn’t yet starving) - was placed in big bowls from which each person took what they wanted, so you could not even read the back of cereal cartons. And of course no internet access or email.

The purpose of this whole regime is to eliminate external influences and thus create the space and time needed to examine what is actually going on your mind. The meditation techniques used and day-to-day unfolding of the teachings are of some interest, but they are not properly the subject of this travelogue and will thus be omitted here, although I may have occasion below to elaborate on a detail or two.

The last meditation session of the retreat ended on the morning of 3 March at 7:00. I had my bag packed and took it to the meditation hall with me so that I could leave the instant the session was over. I wanted to avoid the gush of conversation which I suspected would ensue the moment the no-talking rule ended. Bag in hand I walked straight to the entrance of Root Institute, where two rickshaw men were waiting for customers. “Mahabodhi Temple,” I told one, speaking for the first time in 28 days. It was still reasonable cool and I sat back to enjoy this ride into town which I had been anticipating for the last twenty-eight days. One of the points of the teaching, however, had been on the futility of anticipating anything. This lesson seems to have sunk in all too well, and I experienced none of the rush I expected at being finally released from the regime of the retreat.

Creature of habit that I am I went back to the same tea stall in front of the main entrance that I had visited when I first arrived in Bodhgaya over a month ago. By Bodhgaya standards I was already an old customer and the tea-man greeted me familiarly and handed me a glass of tea without being asked. I was content just to sit here for an hour and watch the parade of people enter the grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple. If anything, there seem to be more people here now than a month ago, even thought the season is supposed to be winding down. The crowds, however, were nothing like those of I had experienced during an earlier visit two years ago.

As I mentioned earlier, this is my second trip to Bodhgaya. I had greeted the new year of 2002 here, observing a temperate New Year’s Eve alone in my room in a small guest house two blocks off the main street, just across the street from the Bhutanese monastery. I doubt if there was a magnum of champagne anywhere in the town; in fact, in the few days I had been in Bodhgaya I had not seen any alcohol of any kind for sale. This is not a party town. Anyhow, I was not in Bodhgaya to party. I was here to participate in the Kalachakra initiation presided over by the 14th Dalai Lama. The Kalachakra teachings had, according to Tibetan Buddhist belief, originated in the semi-mythical realm of Shambhala, and according to the Guidebook to Shambhala, written by Lozang Palden Yeshe, the Third Panchen Lama ((1738-1780) Bodhgaya, the axis mundi and navel of the world, was the starting point on the path to this legendary kingdom. The legend of Shambhala has been one of my fixations for numerous years, and Bodhgaya seemed like a good place as any to continue my investigations.

At midnight volleys of firecrackers erupted from the direction of the Chinese monastery a few hundred yards to the north, following by the brief sounding of gongs, bells, and drums from the Thai, Bhutanese, Japanese, and Sikkimese monasteries just to the west. The deep sonorous tolling of one bell at fifteen minute intervals was the last sound I heard as I finally drifted off to sleep at about two o’clock.

I rose at five o’clock. It was still completely dark and the street outside my guesthouse was shrouded in thick fog. Rickshaws hauling monks from the monasteries down the street materialized out of the gloom and then disappeared again. Although the temperature was in the mid-fifties, this is mid-winter in northern India and the rickshaw drivers were swathed like mummies in an assortment of turbans, scarves, shawls, and blankets. Several rickshaw drivers importuned me, but I preferred to walk the half mile or so the Mahabodhi Temple. The temple compound had opened at four in the morning and a steady stream of people was pouring down the broad boulevard leading to the entrance. Most of the hundred or more beggars camped out along the outer wall of the temple complex were still wrapped up in their rags and asleep on pieces of cardboard but a few of their bare-footed children draped in shawls were already up and accosting the early arrivals. Older children from the town of Bodhgaya hawked lotus flowers, incense, prayer scarves, and candles; teenagers sell bags of ninety one-rupee coins for 100 rupees in bills for those who wish earn merit for themselves by appeasing the beggars; and sturdy Tibetan women who have monopolized the area just outside the gate sell flats and twists of Tibetan bread made just that night and still hot in cloth-covered wicker baskets..

The main gate is open and several hundred people were surging into the outer courtyard, mostly Tibetans from India and people from the Buddhist countries of the Himalayas here in anticipation of the Dalai Lama’s arrival. Off the right, the immense elongated pyramid of the Mahabodhi Temple loomed up in the early morning winter fog which almost always blankets Bodhgaya at this time of the year. Most of the early arrivals started circumambulating the outer walkway around the temple. Present were all ages from babes at the breast to old tottering men held at the elbows by relatives and ancient bent-over crones with canes. Burgundy-robed monks and nuns of all ages, muscular, stocky men in cowboy hats, middle-aged matrons in colorful Tibetan aprons, teenagers in designer jeans and nylon windbreakers, wild-looking mendicants in traditional Tibetan dress with huge coils of hair wrapped around their heads - all join the procession. Most are fingering malas - strings of 108 prayer beads - and a steady drone of mantras reverberates in the damp morning air.

The outer walkway is a square about 425 feet long one each side and about 10 feet wide. When it is not too crowded and I could walk at my regular meditative pace it took me exactly eight minutes to make one circuit. Coincidentally, this was also the exact amount of time it takes to repeat one mala - 108 recitations - of the basic Buddhist mantra Om muni muni maha muniye svaha. By the time I began my second circuit several hundred more people had joined the procession. The ten-foot wide pathway was now almost shoulder-to-shoulder with people and the pace began to slow.

The outer circuit begins and ends in the middle of the east side of the temple complex, where a stone staircase leads down to the inner courtyard and the Mahabodhi Temple itself. Near at the end of the walk, just to the right, is a small white temple known as the Animisa Chaitya, or the Unblinking Shrine.

The Unblinking Shrine

This marks the spot where the Buddha spent the second week after his Enlightenment staring unblinkingly at the Bodhi Tree, which is now just behind the Mahabodhi Temple to the west. Some modern commentators have questioned this, suggesting instead that the true Animisa Chaitya is to the north of the Mahabodhi Temple, at a place now marked only by the foundation of a stupa which itself has long since disappeared. The White Temple is still considered the official Animisa Chaitya by the temple authorities, however, and is identified as such with a large signpost. At least a dozen people are now doing prostrations on the small concrete platform in front of the temple and others are placing hundreds of blazing candles on the low surrounding walls and dumping plastic bags of powdered juniper on smoldering heaps of incense that emit clouds of thick, pungent smoke.

By the time I start my third circumambulation hundreds more are gathered around the entrance to the outer walkway and are easing their way into the procession. Now the walkway is jammed solid with people, and there are bottlenecks where the crowd has to squeeze around people doing prostrations. These individuals drop to their knees, stretch out full length on their stomachs with their arms fully extended in front of them, then get up, walk three paces forward to where their hands had reached, and then complete the process all over again. The real hard-core practitioners of this devotional exercise wear thick leather aprons and mittens to cushion their full-body extensions, and some have thick calluses on their foreheads from repeated contact with the concrete walkway. Most are middle-aged men and they make circuit after circuit, all day long, day after day, some, reportedly, for months at a time. There’s small contingent of women in their fifties also doing this practice, but from the look of their Tibetan aprons they are day-trippers and not hard-core prostrators. By now also the western side of the walkway is lined with monks and wandering yogis who sit and recite scriptures either from long loose-sheeted Tibetan books or from memory. These are the pilgrims who rely on other pilgrims for their daily sustenance. The faithful throw rupee coins into the laps of the reciters’ robes as they walk by, thereby adding to the merit they hope to accumulate by circumambulating the Temple.

At the end of my third circuit of the outer walkway I turn right and descend the stone stairs into the large sunken courtyard which contains the Mahabodhi Temple itself. At the bottom of the stairs is a stone pillar and signpost which marks the original location of the so-called Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, a banyan tree under which the Buddha meditated during the fifth week after his Enlightenment. (This is just before the Buddhapada Temple, which I described earlier.)

Pillar marking the site of the Ajapala Nigrodha Tree

Just past the pillar is the entrance to the middle walkway, which is on the level of the Mahabodhi Temple, about ten feet lower than the outer walkway, and separated from it by a grassy sloping bank. This middle walkway, about 400 feet long on each side, is less crowded in the mornings than the outer walkway, and I am able to quickly complete my first circumambulations.

On the southern side of the middle circuit a wide passageway leads underneath the outer walkway to a small courtyard containing a section of one of the famous pillars which were erected at numerous places around India by the Emperor Ashoka, one of the early and perhaps greatest Indian patron of Buddhism. Crowned in 270 b.c., Ashoka himself came here to Bodhgaya on a pilgrimage in 260 b.c., after he had converted to the Buddha’s teaching. This pillar, however, was probably placed originally in Gaya, ten or twelve miles from here, and was only moved to its present location in 1956. About three feet in diameter and perhaps fifteen feet high (it is just a section of the original), it is the object of its own special form of veneration. Three people are now circumambulating the pillar with their backs to it, their shoulder blades pressed tightly against the stone while they step sideways in a clockwise direction. A dozen other people are waiting their turn.

The Ashoka Pillar

Beyond the small courtyard with the pillar is a large gateway leading to a pond known as the Muchhalinda Tank. According to a signpost this is where the Buddha meditated during the sixth week after his Enlightenment, although as with the Animisa Chaitya many scholars believe that the actual location was elsewhere, in this case at a small pond about a mile further south from here.

Statue in the middle of the Muchhalinda Tank

By the time I complete my second round of the middle circuit many of the stationary prostrators have taken up their posts in the small courtyards between the walkway and the temple itself. Instead of inching around one of the walkways these devotees prostrate themselves on a long wooden boards placed on the ground. In the northwest and northeast courtyards and in grassy spaces between shrines and stupas there are already dozens of them, young and old, men and women, monks, Tibetan lay persons, and Buddhist practitioners from all over the world. In the northeast courtyard I see Manfred, a German man in his fifties who I had once met in Kathmandu. He had arrived in Bodhgaya on December 15 and started doing what is known as Prostrations to the 35 Confessional Buddhas. He intended to do 100,000 prostrations, and estimated that he would complete them by the middle of March.

At the end of my third circuit around the middle walkway I turn right and enter the inner courtyard of the Mahabodhi Temple, but not before taking off my shoes and placing them in my shoulder bag. There has recently been a major set-to about people, in particular Tibetans, who have worn their shoes within the inner precincts of the temple, in flagrant violation of the rules and to the intense irritation of the committee who oversees the temple. There is now a fine imposed for wearing shoes within the inner temple grounds.

The huge doors to the temple have not yet been opened for the day, but several hundred people are gathered out front. Some are praying or reciting mantras while fingering malas, some are doing full length prostrations, some hold big lotus flowers, others candles, prayer scarves, thick bundles of burning incense, baskets of fruit, and bowls of uncooked rice.

Running around the temple is the rectangular inner walkway, measuring about 150 by 100 feet, and a hundred more people are circumambulating this. At the back of the temple is a enclosure containing the legendary Bodhi Tree, reputedly a descendant of the very Bodhi Tree under which Buddha sat when he achieved Enlightenment here over 2500 years ago.

The Bodhi Tree

Already the faithful are standing with their foreheads pressed to the bark of the Bodhi Tree as they silently pray, and two young men are applying small postage stamp-sized sheets of gold leaf to sections of the tree already coated with gold by previous visitors. Mounted in a low base between the Bodhi Tree and the back wall of the temple is a 4.6 x 7.8 foot slab of Chunar sandstone - the same material from which Ashoka’s pillar was made - know as the Outer Vajrasana, or Diamond Seat.

The Vajrasana

Many people seem to think that this is the sandstone slab on which the Buddha was actually sitting on when he achieve Enlightenment, although historians believe that it was probably fashioned during the time of Emperor Ashoka, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. This does not lessen the veneration with which it is held. Dozens of people are lined up to press their foreheads to the cloth-covered sandstone, or to hold their prayer beads against it, and the surface of the slab is already covered with lotuses, oranges, bowls of rice, and coins and bills.

The inner walkway continues along the north side of the temple. Here is a long stone table known as the Ratnachankrama Chaitya, or Jewel Walk Shrine. This marks the place where Buddha paced back and forth during the third week of his Enlightenment. It is now covered with hundreds of candles, smoldering sticks of incense, and elaborate statues fashioned by monks from butter dyed in various colors.

The Ratsnachankrama Chaitya

By the time I have finished my third circumambulation of the inner circuit the temple doors have been opened and the crowd surges in. Through a long hallway can be seen the large statue of Buddha seated on high platform. Although the crowds outside are remarkably well mannered, here within the inner sanctum there are the first signs of pushing and shoving as the faithful, many of whom have come here from faraway countries and continents, force their way forward. Approaching the shrine on which the Buddha statue sits they fall on their knees and press their foreheads against the cool stone, their lips moving in silent prayers. Their devotions completed they back away slowly, reluctant to leave this hallowed space, while other quickly move forward to take their places.

My own orisons and invocations completed I struggle out through the crowd pressing forward into temple, past the dozens now prostrating out front, and climb the stairs to the gateway leading out of the temple complex. Hundreds more are pouring in, merging into the processions around the outer walkways or joining the lines into the temple. The sun is not yet up but the sky to the east is turning pearly white. As soon as the sun come up the crowds will get even bigger.

Although every winter Bodhgaya sees an influx of visitors intent on worship or sightseeing 2002 was a special year. From January 21 to January 29 the Dalai Lama was to give a series of teachings culminating with public initiations into the tantric system known as the Kalachakra, or “Wheel of Time”. These Kalachakra teachings and initiations to large crowds have became a specialty of the current Dalai Lama. While still in Tibet he gave offered Kalachakra initiations at his summer palace of Norbu Lingka in Lhasa in 1954 and 1956, each time to about 100,000 Tibetans. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the escape of the Dalai Lama to India, and the subsequent Tibetan diaspora, there was a fourteen year hiatus in Kalachakra initiations, but finally in 1970 the Dalai Lama again performed the ceremony, attended by some 30,000, in Dharamsala, the Indian headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. The next year he again held initiations in Bylakuppe, in southern India, this time with 10,000 in attendance. The first Kalachakra initiation in Bodhgaya was held in 1974 and attracted almost 100,000, mostly Tibetan refugees and Buddhists from the kingdoms of Bhutan and Nepal and the various Himalayan states of India, but also for the first time a small but significant number of Westerners. Present was translator and author Glenn H. Mullin, who observed the build-up to the Dalai Lama’s appearance:

“Two month’s before the initiation was to begin the crowd of pilgrims began to gather. Most of them wanted to do some hundreds of thousands of repetitions of their principal mantra practice during the pilgrimage; or perhaps a hundred thousand full length body prostrations. Others would set as their objective circumambulating the great stupa several thousand times. The Dalai Lama’s initiation would be the crescendo, the grand finale, to their devotions.”

The first Kalachakra Initiation outside of India took place in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, in 1981 before a crowd of 1500. More initiations followed in India, Europe (Switzerland, 1985; Spain, 1994); the USA (Los Angeles, 1989; New York, 1991, Bloomington, 1999); Mongolia (1995); and Australia (1996). To date Dalai Lama has given twenty-six Kalachakra initiations; this one, the twenty-seventh, was to be his third in Bodhgaya.

According to press accounts some 12,000 Buddhist monks, 800 nuns (this surely an under-estimation), and over 50,000 pilgrims and tourists flocked here for the Kalachakra puja, or ceremony. Most were Tibetans who have settled in India, but there is also a sprinkling of Tibetans from Tibet itself who have wrangled exit permits from the Chinese government, plus sizable contingents from Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Korea, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, and other Buddhist countries of Asia. There also appears to be several thousand “Neo-Buddhists” - as the Times of India insists on calling them - from western countries and Australia.

If the press estimates are correct the number in pilgrims and tourists this year would be considerably less than the two-to-three hundred thousand who attended the Bodhgaya Kalachakra puja in 1985. Of course January of 2002 was not exactly travel-conducive time. The events of September 11, 2001 still cast a pall over world-wide travel; the Taliban had been defeated in Afghanistan but the victorious warlords, increasingly at each other’s throats, threatened a new conflict which could have spill over into Pakistan; and Pakistan and India, both armed with nuclear weapons, were loudly sounding the tocsins of war over Kashmir. And only a few miles from Bodhgaya itself terrorists had just recently blown up a Hindu Temple and threatened, according to local authorities, to interrupt the Kalachakra puja. There have even been vague but alarming threats against the Dalai Lama himself. Pilgrims might be excused if they preferred to stick close to home under such conditions. Americans in particular seem to be particularly thin on the ground in Bodhgaya. With a few exceptions the ones I’ve met seem to spend most of their time in Nepal or India anyhow so really didn’t have far to travel.

Still, it’s an immense crowd, one that easily swamped the available accommodations in Bodhgaya. Every hotel and guest house was packed to the rafters (tales of outrageous price gouging is a recurrent theme among the foreign contingent), and many were people sacked out in the courtyards and on the flat roofs of otherwise stuffed hotels. A huge camp of hundreds, if not thousands, of tents had spring up along the Naranjara River north of Bodhgaya, and other smaller tent camps dot fields and vacant lots to the west of town. One side-street, perhaps a thousand feet long, is lined on both sides with itinerant restaurants set up in tents and dozens of fast food outlets, some consisting of nothing more than a kerosene stove, a wok, and a tea kettle, have materialized in any available vacant space. For those tiring of their devotions and wishing to indulge in samsaric pleasures there were two carnivals complete with ferris wheels and other rides, and one of them even had a tent show featuring several Siamese twins, an attraction I never quite found the time to check out.

Although there were certainly Buddhists, especially those who are not followers of the type of Buddhism practiced by Tibetans, who were here in Bodhgaya simply because it is the site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and tourists who were here simply because Bodhgaya is part of their tour of India, it’s safe to say that the by far the biggest part of the crowd had traveled here because of the presence of the Dalai Lama and the planned Kalachakra Initiation. So why was the Dalai Lama giving this initiation, and what does it mean to the people who were attending?

First of all, it must be pointed out that according one system of classification there are three basic kinds of teachings in Buddhism: the outer teachings, also known as the Hinayana, or Small Vehicle; the inner teachings, also known as the Mahayana or Great Vehicle; and the secret teachings, also known as the Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, or the Tantric Path. Generally speaking, the secret, tantric doctrines are considered the most advanced and are supposed to offer the quickest route to Enlightenment, but because of their complex nature initiations into these teachings are usually given only in private to individuals and to small groups of advanced students who have spent years thoroughly grounding themselves in preparatory practices taught in the other Vehicles. The Kalachakra is classified as a secret teaching, and is thought by some be the most advanced of all tantric teachings, but paradoxically Kalachakra initiations, alone along all the various tantric systems, are by tradition given in public to large groups of people, many of whom may have very little if any experience in the prerequisite practices.

The current Dalai Lama himself, commenting on the Kalachakra Initiation, points out that “there is a tradition of giving it at large public gatherings,” but adds, “Certainly, not everyone who attends will have a sufficient inner basis to receive the full benefit of the initiation, but it is believed that anyone attending with a positive attitude will establish and strengthen positive karmic instincts.”

Contemporary Tibetan scholar Geshe Lhundrup Sopa, who has written extensively on the Kalachakra, elaborates on this theme:

“The Kalachakra or “Wheel of Time” is a tantra that plays a unique and paradoxical role in Tibetan Buddhism. On the one hand, most Tibetan Buddhists believe it to represent the very pinnacle of Buddhist esoterism. The Kalachakra presents the Buddha’s most profound and complex statement on matters both worldly and religious, and its intricacies have placed it beyond the ken of all by a few specialized scholars and parishioners who can master it only by understanding a vast range of traditional ideas and practices. On the other hand, initiations into the meditational practice of Kalachakra are the only Anuttara Yoga tantra initiations that are offered to the general public. The Kalachakra’s association with the kingdom of Shambhala, the ground of a future revival of the Dharma, gives it a special eschatological focus.”

Shambhalist Glenn A. Mullin, who witnessed the first Kalachakra initiation in Bodhgaya and subsequently translated many Kalachakra-connected texts into English, also alludes to this:

“For most attendees, the purpose of sitting through the initiation ceremony would not be to receive empowerment as a permission to enter into the yogic endeavors, but rather to have the opportunity to bask in the bright rays of the spiritual communion with the initiating lama, in this case the Dalai Lama, and hopefully to absorb a sprinkling of spiritual energy from the occasion. As well, the hope would be to generate karmic seeds that establish a link with the lama and also with Shambala [Shambhala], the mythological pure land of the Kalachakra doctrine”.

Shambhalist A. Alan Wallace, who has translated several key Kalachakra texts from Tibetan into English also comments on the Shambhala connection:

“According to the legend of Sambhala [Shambhala], based on the Kalachakra Tantra, when Yasas Manjusri reincarnates as the twenty-fifth Kalki King, Sambhala and our world will unite and a time of great material and spiritual bounty will begin. In order that as many people as possible might receive karmic imprints related to this momentous event, the Kalachakra initiation was openly given in Tibet, and His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has, in this same tradition, granted this initiation openly on many occasions throughout the world . . . For almost a millennium Tibetan Buddhists have been praying to be reborn in Sambhala or in our world when the twenty-fifth Kalki King appears and the golden era of Sambhala begins.”

Jeffrey Hopkins, who has translated the Kalachakra Initiation into English, elaborate further on Shambhala:

“Through making prayer-wishes persons can be reborn in Shambhala whereby they can enjoy the Kulikas’ [Kalkis’] continued preaching of the doctrine. Also, initiation [into the Kalachakra] is said to establish predispositions for rebirth in Shambhala not only for the sake of maintaining practice of the Kalachakra system but also for being under the care and protection of the Kulika Rudra With A Wheel when the great war comes. Thus, Shambhala is a beacon of hope in a world of tragedy for many Tibetans, Mongolians, Bhutanese, Sikkimese, Nepalese, and Ladakhis.”

Even the mass media weighted in on the Shambhala theme. In a January 13, 2002 Times of India article entitled “All roads lead to Bodh Gaya for Kalachakra” reporter Sudeep Rawats informed us that the Kalachakra “rituals are considered an essential part of Vajrayana Buddhism, which is widely practiced in India. The rituals and meditation performed during the ceremony, it is believed, lead to salvation of the soul and ensures one a rebirth in the mystical land of Shambala.”

As it turned out, those who were in Bodhgaya for the Kalachakra initiation and a presumptive free pass to Shambhala had come in vain. The initiation was eventually cancelled, for reasons I will elaborate on below.

The Dalai Lama arrived in Bodhgaya on January 9 to begin the preparations for the Kalachakra initiation. At the time I staying at Root Institute. Lama Zopa had arrived at Root a few days earlier, late in the evening. The fifty or so people present lined up in the courtyard to greet him, and although we had been specifically asked not to ask for his blessing, since he had spent the day traveling and was tired, he personally greeted everyone and placed his hands on the heads of most. I had not known he was going to be here, or even that I was going to be at Root, for that matter, and thus had to reflect on the curious coincidence that less than a month before I had trekked near the tiny village in the Everest Region of Nepal where he had been born and had met his elderly sister who lives in a small monastery perched on a nearby mountainside. I mentioned that I had just been to Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, perhaps the best-known of the may establishments created by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. She asked me if I had heard any news of Lama Zopa and in fact I had. While visited Kopan earlier someone at lunch had mentioned that Lama Zopa was at that moment in the entourage of the Dalai Lama in Italy. “Oh really,” she said, “I don’t get to see him much anymore. He is very busy.” I did think it a bit strange that she would have to ask me, a total stranger, for news of her famous brother. Anyhow, after greeting the people at Root Lama Zopa stopped and blessed the half dozen goats grazing on the lawn - he spent more time with each of them than with any one person - and then he had immediately gone into retreat. He was not seen again for several days.

About nine-thirty on the morning of the 9th word filtered into the gompa where people were meditating that the Dalai Lama would be passing by on the main road outside the institute at exactly ten o’clock. Lama Zopa, who was after all an intimate of the Dalai Lama, had been notified of his arrival, the exact timing of which was otherwise being kept more or less a secret for security reasons. Now Lama Zopa had requested that everyone staying at Root Institute walk out to the main road to greet the Dalai Lama. He himself, it was first announced, would come out of retreat and lead the group. Katas (prayer scarves) were handed out and everyone was given flowers, either marigolds or daisies, to hold. Lama Zopa apparently changed his mind about leading the group, and people soon began traipsing on their own the quarter mile out to the main road where they lined up with katas and flowers in hand. Some seemed under the impression that Dalai Lama was actually going to stop and greet us and were carefully folding their katas in preparation. Curious locals also drifted out to see what was going on, and this being Bodhgaya a popcorn vendor instantly materialized out of the ether. In a few minutes a police car passed sounding a siren, following by three or four jeeps full of soldiers. Then a white Ambassador sedan speed by, and I just managed to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama in the front seat. He was smiling. People who were talking to someone or had glanced away for a second missed him completely, and were left standing expectantly with katas and flowers in hand when others, who realized that the event was over, had already begun to walk away.

Later a nun staying at the retreat who happened to be at the Mahabodhi Temple at the time reported that the Dalai Lama had gone straight there after a brief stop at the main Tibetan monastery. She said there were numerous India army soldiers and policemen around the temple and that the whole situation seemed “tense”. Indeed, the atmosphere at the retreat was a bit tense. A couple days before a few early risers had heard an explosion which turned out to be an attack on a nearby Hindu temple by a local contingent of Maoist revolutionaries. The incessant gossip in town, which inevitably filtered into the retreat, was the Maoists were psing some treat to the Dalai Lama himself. Street urchins even floated the rumor that the Chinese Communists had ordered the local Maoists to assassinate the Dalai Lama. Then there were Moslems, who were reportedly infuriated by the Dalai Lama’s stand on the “Kashmir Question”, although no one I talked to had a clue as to what his stand actually was. Most of this, of course, was just irresponsible bazaar rumors, but the Times of India did weigh in with a report which quoted the local Director General Of Police Ashish Ranjan Sinha: “We are leaving nothing to chance . . . We have made fool-proof security arrangements and all police stations have been put on maximum alert to maintain law and order. “ I also noticed that the Root Institute had its own security contingent which prowled the walled and securely gated compound from dusk to dawn.

One afternoon a few days later I took a rickshaw downtown to the Mahabodhi Temple. The main square just before the entrance to the broad boulevard leading to the temple was jammed with several thousand people. I was quickly informed by bystanders that any moment now the Dalai Lama was going to walk from the monastery to the temple, a distance of some 600 or 700 feet. Indian police and gun-toting army men had cleared a wide path through the crowd and factotums from the Dalai Lama’s entourage were pacing back and forth, motioning to people in the front rows to get down on their knees in the proper position of obeisance. After a half hour or so he did appear, surrounding by a squadron of security men. I had never seen the Dalai Lama before and was surprised by how fragile he looked. Although he had certainly not reached the state of decrepitude exhibited by the Pope he did not all resemble the hale and hearty man I had often seen on television. Apart from the security detail he had a man at each elbow who seem poised to help in case he lost his balance. Thus I was not totally surprised when he later fell ill.

Finally rallying myself from these recollections of the past I gulp down the dregs of my third glass of tea and head into the temple grounds. After three quick circumambulations of the outer walkway - now there are no more than dozen people on the circuit - I go down into the inner courtyard. Starting around the temple on the inner walkway I am surprised to see a White Tara almost three feet high in a east facing niche just to the left of the temple entrance. I am almost certain this statue was not here in 2002. This White Tara is quite different from the thin-waisted, small-bosomed White Tara by Zanabazar I had been in Ulaan Baatar. This White Tara has fulsome, cantaloupe-shaped breasts and a distinctively Indian roll of fat just above the waist of her pantaloons, not all dissimilar to the love handles seen on so many middle-aged Indian woman today. She does not yet seem to inspired the adulation shown the Green Tara to the right of the entrance, and there is just a single marigold flower placed at her feet. Unfortunately I do not have an offering to make. I am reminded of those who forget about Tara when all is well but then cry out to her for assistance as soon as they find themselves in a jam.

White Tara in her Indian Mode

Over a thousand years ago, before the Islamic onslaught when the Mahabodhi Temple was in its prime, a Hinayana monk on his way to a rainy season retreat in a distant town and had to cross the Naranjara River, which was in full spate. Not halfway across the got swept off his feet was carried along by the current for several hundred yards. Realizing that he was about to drown he remembered that Mayahana monks often invoked Tara when in peril, especially from dangers involving water. “Tara, Tara, please help me,” he cried. Tara did indeed appear, chiding him: ““You never think of me. How is it right that you call me now?” But Tara is famous for her compassion, bestowing help upon those who simply ask. She pointed out to the monk a way to the shore and he was saved. The Tara who saved him allegedly then turned to stone and was placed in a Tara Temple near the main Mahabodhi Temple. Apparently there actually was a Tara Temple with a Tara statue, but the temple was later destroyed and the Tara statue lost. Could it somehow have miraculous survived and ended up in this niche? Highly unlikely, but a pleasant thought.

There was another Tara statue at a spring near Bodhgaya where local monks got their water. Nearby was a shrine with a silver statue of Heruka. Some Hinayana monks from Ceylon got the idea to melt down the statue for its silver and sell the metal. (Most of these legends were apparently propagated by Mahayanists at the expense of Hinayanists.). The local king somehow found out and sent men to arrest the monks from Ceylon. One of them went before the statue of Tara and begged, “Please protect me from the fear of a king’s punishment.” The statue spoke, “So you don’t think of me when things are easy, but you think of me now?” But she advised to crawl into a nearby culvert and he would be safe. The king’s men searched everywhere but couldn’t find him. Eventually he fled the area, escaping the king’ wrath. This shows that Tara helps even those who commit evil deeds. It is not for her to judge, but to assist, and forgive.

I continue on around to the back of the temple where the Bodhi Tree stands. There’s been a change since I was here in 2002. Before the you could enter the enclosure around the Bodhi Tree and the Outer Vajrayana, the stone seat which signifies where Buddha was supposedly sitting when he achieved Enlightenment. Now the entrance is locked and the lower trunk of the tree and the Vajrasana can be seen only through the stone railings of the enclosure wall. Still, dozens are filing by and peering into the enclosure. On one side of the tree, outside the enclosure, a three dozen ochre-robed monks from Taiwan are chanting, while on the other side a couple dozen orange-robed monks from Thailand were sitting in silent meditation. Behind the monks and on the foot of the wall which surrounds the inner courtyard sit dozens of lay people all engaged in their own contemplations of this historic spot.

Even today many people seem to be under the impression that the Bodhi Tree (a specimen of the pipal tree, Ficus religiosa) found here now is the very same Bodhi Tree under which Buddha achieved Enlightenment. Whether it is possible or not for the same tree to have existed for some 2500 years is not considered. But it may be that the current Bodhi Tree is a distant relative of the original Bodhi Tree, if indeed trees can be thought of as having relatives. The Venerable S. Dhammika, after an exhaustive study of the subject, has opined in his definitive pilgrim’s guide Middle Land, Middle Way, that the current Bodhi Tree “is probably a descendant of the original Bodhi Tree.”

If we are to believe a document called the “Kalingabodhi Jataka”, the Bodhi Tree was well-known as a local landmark even before the Buddha’s time Probably already in his lifetime and certainly immediately therefore the tree became an important pilgrimage site. There are two versions of how the original Bodhi Tree perished. One legends relates that in the 360s B.C., a hundred and sixty years or so after the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Ashoka, king of the Mauryan Empire (321-104 b.c.), not yet been converted to Buddhism and apparently piqued at the attention the tree was attracting, had it cut down. The Asokavadana, a chronicle detailing his reign, relates, however, that after Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism he became so enamored of the tree that his wife the Queen became jealous (if indeed one can be jealous of a tree), and that it was she who ordered that it be it cut down. According to this version the heart-broken Ashoka poured milk on the roots of the tree and soon it re-sprouted. This new tree flourished under Ashoka’s protection and eventually grew reached a high of 120 feet. To further safeguard this tree Ashoka had built around it a stone wall some ten feet high. The stone enclosure found around the tree today is apparently a replacement of this original wall.

On somewhat firmer historical ground, the Mahavamsa (“Great Chronicle of Ceylon,” a fairly reliable historical source), relates that Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta, who had became a nun, took a cutting from the Bodhi Tree to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, where his son Mahinda, who had become a monk, had established a monastery. It is not quite clear whether this cutting came from the first Bodhi Tree or from the one which re-sprouted from the first one’s roots. Anyhow, the tree that grew from this cutting still exists today and is said to be the oldest - according to some accounts, the second oldest - tree in the world whose age can be documented.

The second generation Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya survived until about 600 a. d., when a Hindu King from Bengal named Sananka had it chopped down in a fit of anti-Buddhist iconoclasm. Sananka soon died a ghastly death, his very flesh rotting away from his bones, whether or not in karmic retribution for cutting down the Bodhi Tree we are not told.

In 637 the peripatetic Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang on a sixteen year sojourn from his native China arrived in Bodhgaya and recounts the then current story:

“Recently King Sananka of the kingdom of Karnasuvara cut the tree, dug it up to the water springs but still he could not destroy the bottom of the roots. He then burnt and sprinkled the juice of sugar cane on it wishing to destroy the bottom of the root completely. A few months afterwards King Pu-la-na-fa-mo [Purnavarma] who was said to be a descendant of King Ashoka, on hearing that the tree had been cut, cast his body on the ground, invited the monks and for seven days make offerings to the tree and poured milk of several thousand cows in the large pit. When he had done it for six day and nights the tree grew a little more than 10 feet. Fearing that it might be cut again afterwards, he surrounded it with a stone wall 24 feet high.”

Historian Charles Allen, however, has dismissed this account as a “pious fiction.” The Mahavamsa, he points out, unequivocally states that a cutting from the tree at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka was brought to Bodhgaya after Sananka’s desecration and that the next Bodhi tree grew from this. As mentioned above, the tree at Anuradhapura had grown from a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree taken there by Ashoka’s daughter a few centuries earlier.

In any case, Xuanzang relates that thousands of pilgrims each year came to the Bodhi Tree and made offerings of milk, scented water, and flowers. He himself paid his respects: “The moment he had been waiting for came,” wrote Huili, Xuanzang’s biographer, and who had also worked with him as a translator.

Finally Xuanzang kneels down before the sacred tree. He thinks of the time the Buddha, in the first watch of the night, meditated on all worlds, the rising and falling of things, the ascending and descending rhythm of existence; how in the second watch, from 10 to 2 a.m., the Buddha reviewed his own life, and the third watch, for 2 to 6 a.m., he meditated on human suffering and arrived at the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Salvation. “What an awakening! His mind was liberated, ignorance vanished, knowledge was acquired, darkness melted away, light sprang out.”

With the most sincere devotion, Xuanzang casts himself face down on the ground. Filled with grief, he sighs and says, “At the time when the Buddha perfected himself in wisdom, I know not in what condition I was in the troublous whirl of life and death.” To him it is inescapably clear his evil deeds mean that is condemned to live in this lesser age, when Buddhism is in decline, instead of the golden age of the Buddha’s life on earth. His eyes overflow with tears.

One wonders, however, if the Bodhi Tree was cut down around 600 a.d. just how big its replacement - either a re-sprouted version or one grown from a cutting of the Anuradhapura tree - could have been in 637, when Xuanzang paid his respects to it. Xuanzang makes no mention of the tree’s size, but as we shall we it is possible that a young adult tree existed by that time.

Here we lose track of the Bodhi Tree for several centuries, so we don’t know if the tree described some 600 years later by the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin in the 1230s was the same one seen by Xuanzang. Given the longevity demonstrated by the Anuradhapura tree it is certainly possible that the same tree existed this long. The Bodhi Tree next pops up in the account of Dr. Francis Buchanan, an employee of the East India Company who visited Bodhgaya in 1811 while on a five-year mission to catalogue the resources and antiquities of what is now the state of Bihar: “It is a fine tree in full vigor and in all probability cannot exceed 100 in age, and has probably sprung from the ruins [of the Mahabodhi Temple] after they had been deserted. A similar tree must have existed here when the temple was entire . . .” If Buchanan was correct in his estimation of the tree’s age this then cannot be the tree seen by Dharmasvamin almost six centuries earlier, and it would thus constitute yet another generation. But what then are we to make of the description by Alexander Cunningham, head of the Archeological Survey of India, who visited here just fifty-one years later:

“In December 1862 I found this tree very much decayed; one large stem to the westward, with three branches, was still green, but the other branches were barkless and rotten. I next saw the tree in 1871, and again in 1875, when it had become completely decayed, and shortly afterwards in 1876, the only remaining portion of the tree fell over the west wall during a storm, and the Old Pipal Tree was gone. Many seeds, however, had been collected, and young scions of the present tree were already in existence to take its place.”

Either the tree seen earlier by Buchanan had aged very rapidly, or it had succumb to disease or an injury. In any case, one of “scions” soon shouldered the others aside and was apparently a sizable tree just twenty-three years later in 1899, which would seem to vindicate Xuanzang’s assertion that he had worshipped an adult Bodhi Tree some thirty-seven years after it had been destroyed by the malevolent King Sasanka. It was on January 20, 1899 that the Japanese monk, scholar, pilgrim, and reluctant adventurer Ekai Kawaguchi arrived here while on his way to make an incognito journey to Tibet. Kawaguchi:

“The night of that day I spent meditating on the ‘Diamond Seat’ under the Bodhi-tree - the very tree under which, and the very stone on which, about two thousand five hundred years ago, the holy Buddha sat and preached Buddhahood. The feeling that I then experienced is indescribable: all I can say is that I sat the night out in the most serene and peaceful ecstasy. I saw the tell-tale moon lodged, as it were, among the branches of the Bodhi-tree, shedding its pale light on the ‘Diamond Seat’, and the scene was superbly picturesque, and also hallowing, when I thought of the days and nights the Buddha spent in holy meditation on that very spot.”

Of course, the tree Kawaguchi saw is not “the very tree” under which the Buddha sat (nor, for that matter, was the Outer Vajrasana he describes “the very stone” on which the Buddha sat), but for him, as for pilgrims right down to the present day, it didn’t really matter. The Bodhi Tree exists as a symbol, a reminder of what happened here in 528 b.c., when Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment and Buddhism was born, and quibbles about the family tree of a tree are really beside the point, except of course to a few incorrigible antiquarians like myself.

It is the adult “scion” described by Cunningham that thousands of pilgrims file past and worship in front of each year, and as the people are doing here today, and with the temple’s recent recognition as a World Heritage site and the easier access to Bodhgaya via international flights the amount of visitors paying homage can only increase. The malevolent King Sananka’s fleshless bones must be turning in their grave.

The Bodhi Tree Today

I checked back into the Tibetan Monastery guest house and spent the next few days haunting the Mahabodhi Temple. In addition to doing circumambulations of the outer and inner walkways (inextricably, no one seems to using the middle khora (as the walkways are known) this year, each morning at starting at five and each evening at seven (the heat is too enervating during the day), I also studied in some detail the numerous monuments and shrines scattered around the sunken courtyard of the temple. A full description of these would entail a lengthy monograph beyond the boundaries of this brief travelogue, but I will comment on a few of the more interesting items.

I have already mentioned five of the seven “stations” where the Buddha spent the seven weeks following his Enlightenment: under the Bodhi Tree itself (first week); the Animisa Chaitya (second week); The Ratanacankama, or Jewel Walk (third week); the Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, at the bottom of the stairs leading to the sunken courtyard (fifth week); and the Mucalinda Pond, on the southern side of the temple (sixth week). That leaves the Ratanaghara Chaitya (fourth week) and the Rajayatana Tree (seventh week).

The Ratanaghara Chaitya is a small temple little larger than the average living, now roofless, in the northwest corner of the main courtyard. This is where the Buddha spent the fourth week of his Enlightenment contemplating the Adhidharma, one of the three “baskets” of his teachings. The door of the temple is framed by stone pillars with elaborate carvings of great antiquity, but the statues inside are apparently recent productions. Either side of the temple is a favorites grounds for those doing stationary prostrations, and there are often small groups of a dozen or so monks chanting or reading scriptures in front the temple itself.

The Ratananghara Chaitya

The current Rajayatana Tree is located is located in a small courtyard on the south side of the main temple. The actual location of the tree in the Buddha’s time is unknown, and so the one currently found here is more symbolic than anything else. Anyhow, according to an early Hinayana biography of the Buddha known as the “The Sutra of Extensive Play” (Lalitavistara), two brothers named Tapassu and Bhallika, merchant travelers from Bactria in what is now Afghanistan, meet the Buddha by the Rajayatana Tree and offered him rice cakes and honey. In return the Buddha made them his first lay disciples. Instead of taking the traditional refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, however, they took refuge in only the Buddha and the Dharma, since no Sangha - community of believers - existed at that time. They themselves then became the first lay members of the Sangha. Bhallika later became a monk and built a monastery near Balkh, the ancient “mother of cities,” in Afghanistan. According to the traditional account he was given eight hairs from the Buddha’ head and later built a stupa near his monastery to house them. What eventually happened to the monastery and stupa is unknown.

The Rajayatana Tree

Just behind the Rajayatana Tree is a large circular platform with a smaller circle of rose bushes and other flowers in its middle. This platform is a favorite haunt of solitary mediators and families who want to throw out a blanket and take a quiet rest. Originally it was the base of a 100-foot high stupa built, according the ubiquitous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, by order of King Ashoka himself. Not a trace of the stupa itself remains today. . After my morning circumambulations I myself often retreated to this convenient and comfortable platform where I liked to sit, since passersby would assume that I was doing meditation even when I was actually doing nothing or just idly daydreaming, even here in Bodhgaya unacceptable behavior for serious people.

The platform of Ashoka’s stupa

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Mahabodhi Temple

My flight from Bangkok arrived in Gaya at 3:20 p.m. This airport is a new development since I was in Bodhgaya two years ago. Before, if you were arriving by plane, it was necessary to fly to Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar, 70 miles away, or to Varanasi, 145 miles to the west in Uttar Pradesh state. The roads connecting these two cities with Bodhgaya are horrifically potholed and often jammed bumper-to-bumper for miles with exhaust-belching lorries and other transport, and the buses are notoriously slow and cramped. For rail travelers, the mainline of the Delhi-Calcutta railroad passes through Gaya, just ten miles from Bodhgaya, but if if you arrive at night you have to stay in Gaya, since all visitors are emphatically warned not to travel between Gaya and Bodhgaya after dark, when this section of road is reputedly beleaguered by particularly rapacious bandits. The new airport, with international flights from Bangkok and Singapore, and domestic flights from Delhi and Calcutta, has now made Bodhgaya relatively accessible to foreign pilgrims and tourists unwilling or unable to brave the more cumbersome modes of Indian transport, assuming of course they have the money to fly,

The new airport has just one landing strip. The plane parks on the tarmac and passengers walk to the small one-story building which serves as a terminal. Inside the terminal I strike up a conversation with the only other American on the plane, a heavy-set guy in his thirties named Rob, who is from Seattle and works for Cisco Systems. It turns out he is also doing the 28-day retreat at Root Institute. We agree to share a cab to Root, where Rob was made reservations, but I intend to spend the night in the town itself. Twenty-eight days, I figure, will be enough time at Root, without going there before the retreat starts.

Outside we are immediately accosted by a man in his early twenties touting taxis. He wants fifteen dollars to drive to Root and then on to Bodhgaya, which sounds excessive, given it's at most ten miles, but we are both eager to get to town before it gets dark, so we agree. ?First time in India?? the guy asks Rob. It is. "You were here two years ago, right?" he says to me. Indeed I had been. I had of course met a number of the free-lance guides, touts, and small-times hustlers who make a living off pilgrims and tourists, but I don't remember this guy. "You are easy to remember. So tall!" he says. Indeed, a souvenir salesman right in front of the Mahabodhi Temple who over the years had watched hundreds of thousands of people pass by his shop said that I was the tallest person he had ever seen. The local people as a rule are not big. Our young guide stands 5'2" at most and 5'8"would be considered tall here.

Root Institute is located about a mile from downtown Bodhgaya. The walled compound, the size of three or four football fields, lies about a quarter of mile off the main road amidst perfectly flat fields of emerald green winter wheat already in head. We leave Rob off at the entrance gate - I tell him I will see him again in a couple of days - and continue on into Bodhgaya.

The town of Bodhgaya itself, although said to have a population of 25,000 (this figure apparently includes neighboring villages) is actually quite small, with most of the local businesses - those catering to the inhabitants and not to visitors - huddled on one main street running along the bank of Neranjara River. The rest of the town, running westward from the river for about half a mile, caters almost entirely to pilgrims and tourists. Many of the Buddhist lands of Asia, including Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand, Sikkim, Bhutan, Vietnam, Nepal, and Japan maintain monasteries, temples, and guest houses here, and there are numerous hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants, most catering to the frugal pilgrim and low-budget traveler, although a couple, mainly those serving organized tour groups, have pretensions to being up-scale.

I check first at the guesthouse of the Tibetan Monastery, right on the main square. The last time I was in Bodhgaya the Dalai Lama was in residence here and it was impossible to get a room, but now there's no problem. The rooms are 150 rupees a night ($3.50) a night. I try to pay when I check in but the monk in charge waves off my money. "Stay as long as you like. Pay when you leave," he says. My room on the third floor is small but fairly clean, with two single beds, a small table, two stool, and a bath with Indian-style squatter toilet. Apparently you are supposed to bring your own blanket, towel, and soap., There's no hot water either, but the cold water is lukewarm and not at all uncomfortable to shower in. The floor is marble, which might sound extravagant, but this is India where marble is more common than linoleum and often found in even the cheapest venues. It also has the advantage of staying relatively cool on even the hottest days. A wide balcony runs the length of the building and all the rooms open onto it. The doorways are covered with Tibetan-style door curtains and most people have their doors open. On one side of me are two Korean nuns who are hanging up their underwear on a wash line and on the other side two elderly Tibetan monks.

From my doorway I can see, a few hundred yards away, the raison d'etre of Bodhgaya, the Mahabodhi Temple which marks the stop where the Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and became the Buddha. My new-found friend the taxi tout, who has been waiting outside the monastery gate, wants to give me a tour of the temple. I finally manage to shake him off, telling him I have been here before and don't need a guide, but not before he tells me that he is starting a school in his native village, on the outskirts of Bodhgaya, and that a new building and books are needed. Fifty dollars would be greatly appreciated and the people of his village would be eternally grateful. I can only laugh. This scam is so lame that the last time I was here there were zeroxed posters in all the internet caf?s warning people to beware of this very come-on. Sometimes the con is quite elaborate. Guys will actually take you to a village and show you a building under construction. Another guy who speaks English will conveniently appear with details about the school and samples of the textbooks that are needed. But it is all a hoax, designed mainly to prey on the guilty consciences of affluent Westerners, especially those in India for the first time and suffering culture shock from the all-to-obvious poverty. I tell my new friend that since it?s my first day in town I don't have time yet for philanthropic activities, but see me in a week or two. By then I will be in my retreat.

Just across the square from the Tibetan Guest House a wide pedestrians-only promenade leads to the entrance of the temple. The left side is lined with small shops and internet joints and on the right, behind iron and stone grillwork, can be seen the temple itself. I am surprised by how quiet things are. The last time I was here, when the Dalai Lama in residence and giving a Kalachakra initiation, this eight hundred foot-long avenue was jammed with thousands of pilgrims and every available space was covered with blankets on which street peddlers displayed their goods. To reach the temple you had to run a gauntlet of hard-core beggars: the blind, the leprous, horribly disfigured cripples, polio victims, the hopelessly insane, and stick-thin children in grimy rags. Now the setting is positively idyllic. A few hundred pilgrims are strolling about, many of them women in all-white outfits, and only a dozen or so child beggars tentatively hold out their hands. And the boulevard actually appears clean, as if it had recently been swept. I stop at a tea stall right in front of the entrance to the temple for this trip's first glass of India tea, or chai, made with milk, heavily sugared, and served in small glasses. A full glass is three rupees (seven cents) and a half glass is 2 rupees (4.5 cents). A lot of the clientele here, I notice, can only afford a half glass.

By the outer gate I am accosted by the usual run of peddlers selling leaves supposedly from the famed Bodhi Tree itself (but much more likely from another specimen of Ficus religiosa, the pipal tree), postcards, cheap brass Buddhas, silk-screened depictions of the Buddha?s feet (assuming his feet were three feet long), incense, lotus flowers, marigold garlands, and what not. I buy a marigold garland and proceed to the inner gate. There in front of me, looming out of a sunken courtyard, is the immense pile of the Mahabodhi Temple, surely one of the most imposing religious monuments in the world, and arguable the most sacred to Buddhists. Made almost entirely of brick, it consists of a base perhaps twenty feet high topped by a elongated pyramid rising 170 feet. At the top of each of the four corners of the base are smaller pyramids. At the moment the view of the temple is marred by scaffolding rising almost halfway up its height on two sides. The temple has been declared a World Heritage Monument by UNESCO - the official dedication ceremony had been just been held on a couple of weeks earlier, on 19 February - and an effort is underway to spruce up the its exterior and the courtyard surrounding the temple.

Entrance to the Temple

Taking off my shoes - there's a one hundred rupee fine for wearing shoes in the inner precincts of the temple grounds- I descend the stone staircase to the short avenue leading to the temple entrance. Almost everything here speaks of great antiquity. On the right are four large dome-shaped stupas, one of which, about eight feet high, is surmounted by three smaller stupas. On its surface carved in high relief, is a two-foot high Buddha. On either side are two smaller Buddhas. Just below these I am surprised to see two White Taras, one about a foot high and the other about eight inches high. The rest of the stupa is covered with plaques on which are carved hundreds, perhaps thousands of inch-high Buddhas. This stupa supposedly dates from the Pala period, in the eighth and ninth centuries, a.d., and assuming that the Taras date from the same period would seem to indicate that White Tara, which as I have mentioned was later depicted by Zanabazar in Mongolia, was venerated here from at least that period.

Pala Era Stupa

On the left is the small pink Buddhapada Temple, in front of which is a huge flat-topped stone, bigger than a bushel basket, on which depictions of the Buddha?s feet have been carved. These are the prototypes of the silk-screened feet being sold in the entranceway to the temple.

The Buddhapada Temple

An inscription on the side of the stone is dated to 1308, although the stone and carvings of the Buddha's feet are probably much older.

The Buddha's Feet carved into a stone

A few feet further on I pass through gateway constructed of two massive stone columns about ten feet apart and twenty feet high. The right column is a replacement, but the left column and the stone crosspiece joining the two columns are covered with intricate carvings which date the gateway to about the eighth century a.d.

Eighth-century Gateway

From the gateway I can see into the entrance of the temple, where at the end of a short corridor is the eight foot high Buddha which supposedly rests on the very spot where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment.

Entrance to the temple, with the Buddha visible through the corridor

Before entering, however, I step to the right, where on the side of the entranceway, mounted in a niche in the wall and facing north, is a three foot high Green Tara, depicted in exactly the same pose as the Zanabazar?s Green Tara in the Winter Palace in Ulaan Baatar. As usual devotees of Tara are lined up to pay homage. Some stand twenty-five feet away, make a wish, then walk forward with their eyes closed and one arm outstretched. If upon reaching the wall they can reach up and touch Tara's feet their wish will come true. Tara, it will be remembered, is the granter of all boons to those who simply believe in her. Others stand with their heads pressed against the cool black stone beneath the pedestal on which Tara is seated and repeat her mantra: Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha. Her body is covered with postage stamped-sized pieces of gold leaf pressed onto her by devotees and on a narrow ledge at her feet are bowls of marigolds, smoking bundles of incense, and lotus flowers. I step forward and drape my marigold garland over her neck. I too have reason to be thankful to Tara.

Green Tara

I was on a Camel Trip in the Gobi Desert. The day before we had left Amarbuyant Monastery in Bayankhongor province in western Mongolia, intent on retracing the route used by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1904 when he fled Tibet in the wake of the invasion of the Younghusband Expedition from British India. His camel caravan had crossed the Chinese-Mongolian border somewhere south of Shar Khuls Oasis in southern Bayankhongor, and proceeded north to Amarbuyant. We?three camel herders, the wife of one of the camel herders who was serving as cook, a translator, myself, and nine camels?were following his route in reverse to Shar Khuls, one hundred and five miles south of Amarbuyant. As there was only one well on the way we had to carry 200 liters of water. We expected to take six days to reach Shar Khuls and then another four to reach Estiyn Gol Oasis, where a jeep would meet us.

We had stopped for a lunch the second day when a man in his fifties rode up on a dirt bike. Showing his identification, he announced that he was the Ranger for the Great Gobi Protected Area, a natural reserve which we had just entered, and demanded to see our permits. I had inquired about permits in Ulaan Baatar and had been assured that I could get them from the rangers we met, providing we met any, which I had been told by knowledgeable sources was very unlikely. Through my translator I told the ranger this, but he quickly informed us that he had no authority whatsoever to give out permits and that they could only be issued by the government in Ulaan Baatar after submitting a detailed itinerary noting each night's camping spot and a written explanation of exactly why we needed to enter the preserve. The area we were in was open only to scientific researchers with permits issued by the government. For all he knew we might be poaching wildlife, doing illegal searches for mineral deposits, or might even be spies. The Chinese border, after all, was not far off. We could be fined and even imprisoned for entered this area without a permit. In short, we had to turn back immediately and return to Amarbuyant Monastery or he would arrest us.

My translator explained that we did not know we needed permits and that we were only trying to retrace the path of the 13th Dalai Lama to Shar Khuls. The ranger ignored this, repeating that that we had to return to Amarbuyant immediately. He was not leaving until we had reloaded our camels and started back. By then our lunch of mutton and noodles was ready and he did not scruple to turn down a bowl and a refill while waiting for us to pack up. I slowly worked my way through three bowls. It would be a bitter disappointment to turn back now after all the planning, time, and expense which had gone into this trip, but the ranger, my translator assured me, was one of those officious, stubborn types, who liked to flaunt his authority and was unlike to back down. "The stupid fucker is probably a communist," she noted, in what was for her an unusual display of profanity.

I finished my last bowl of noodles and took a cup of tea. So that was that. We had to return to Amarbuyant. Then I thought of Tara. The two previous nights I had sat up late under the stars doing visualizations of Tara and repeating her mantra. Could she help me now? Ignoring the ranger, I took out my mala and began reciting Tara?s mantra while visualizing her spreading benevolent white light over our benighted world. Halfway through the mala a noticed a whirlwind out on the desert several miles away. A few moments later a huge gust of wind swept over us. The ranger jumped up and helped my camel men threw saddle blankets over our gear to keep it from getting covered by sand. By the time I had finished 108 Tara mantras the wind had died down completely. The ranger sat down on a saddle blanket and lit a cigarette. He seemed to be deep in thought. "I am really not authorized to give out permits," he finally announced, "but I am a religious man and I feel I should not stop you if you are doing a pilgrimage on the path of the Dalai Lama. I will give you a special permit which will allow you to proceed and which you can show to any other rangers you meet. But remember, this is a strictly protected area and you must not come here again without a permit from Ulaan Baatar. If you do you will surely be fined or sent to jail." Then dropping his official role he helped the camel men reload our camels, casually chatting and sharing his cigarettes with them. As we were mounting our camels and getting ready to leave he said, "The only water between Amarbuyant and Shar Khuls is the well at my winter camp. You will reach it tomorrow night. I suggest you camp there. I think the Dalai Lama himself camped at this well on his third night from Khar Khuls. Have a good journey."

"My God! exclaimed my translator later as we rode side by side on our camels. "That was really strange! I never thought that he would change his mind." I did not say anything, but I silently thanked Tara.

Leaving the Green Tara I turned back to entrance way to the temple. I was surprising to see no line of people waiting to get into the inner sanctum. I last time I was here hundreds were lined up already at five o'clock in the morning when the doors opened and a all day long thousand more surged through the hallway and small room containing the temple?s main image of Buddha.

The main image of the Buddha in the Inner Sanctum

Inside the inner sanctum four Tibetan monks and three Western women were sitting on the floor in meditation postures. In front is a six-foot high Buddha seated on a high platform. This is the Inner Vajrasana, or Diamond Seat, believed to be built on the very spot where Sidhartta Gautama attained Enlightenment in 527 BC, and a slab of sandstone built into the platform on which the statue sits may be the actual seat he used, although of course there is debate about this. Few question, however, that this is the very axis mundi of Buddhism, the most holy and sacred place in the world, if not in the universe. Indeed, when this universe finally winds down and returns into the Void which it came, the Vajrasana, according to Buddhist legend, will be the very last thing to disappear, and when a new universe appears after the next Big Bang it will be the very first thing to materialize. Placing my head on the cool stone of the platform for a few moments, I have a sudden vision of the farm in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania where I was born. How did I get from there to here, I wondered? There was absolutely nothing in my upbringing or my early life which should have led to this particular place and moment in time, but here I am, in India, in Bodhgaya, in front of Vajrasana. Perhaps more importantly, where do I go from here? There are many options, before making any major moves I decide I better have another glass of tea. I ease my way out of the inner sanctum before I become engulfed in any other ruminations. The twenty-eight day retreat is looming and there will be time enough for that.

Another view of the Mahabodhi Temple

Saturday, March 06, 2004

I have finally emerged from occultation. I am now in Bodhgaya, India. The season here is just about over, with the hot weather already here; up in the low nineties in the afternoon. Internet connections here are exceeding slow. I will try to post some photos of Bodhgaya when I find something better.