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