Lunchtime crowd in Bodh Gaya
May 07 Newsletter » One Day in Bodh Gaya
A Jesse Jiryu Davis

Bodh Gaya is the site (roughly, probably) of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment 2500 years ago. Nothing's certain. Something happened in this general region, and in North America in the 21st Century I started practicing Zen. Out of an idea that these two events were connected, I was trying to find the source. What I found was poverty, misery, crass commercialism and scams, and a tiny glimpse of something overwhelmingly profound.

The way to Bodh Gaya began in the city of Patna, in Bihar province, one of the poorest and most violent regions of India. I landed at the airport there and took a taxi into town. Through the window I saw heaps of trash, dogs fighting for scraps, a pack of wild pigs tearing apart a dead cow. I decided to leave Patna immediately. At a tiny "travel agency", which was just two guys in an office drinking coffee from a Nescafé machine, I arranged for a car and driver to take me to Bodh Gaya. Instead I got a whole staff — there was the driver, of course, but also a beefy, bearded Muslim to provide security, and a third man, nominally a translator.

As I rode out of the city with my entourage in a battered white Tata sedan, my translator began with the typical Indian pleasantries, startlingly personal by American standards. Where am I from? How old am I? Am I married? Am I Christian? He seemed unsurprised when I said I was a Buddhist Jew. We passed desiccated farmlands, sun-blackened farmers behind water buffalo tilling the rock-hard soil. As the journey wore on he broached the topic of money. What is my occupation? "I'm a computer programmer." I pantomimed typing. How much do I make in a month? I calculated. "Three hundred thousand rupees." He paused, then shook his head in disbelief. Perhaps in anger. He asked how much my hotel cost per night. Again I calculated the exchange rate: the price had been quoted to me in dollars. "Five thousand rupees." He made a pumping motion with his arms to indicate labor, and said, "I work six months that many rupees." I nodded. After a long pause he said, "You king country. I poor country." I raised my hands. "I'm sorry," I said. "It isn't fair. I know." We didn't speak for a long time.

Winter is peak season for Bodh Gaya, when thousands and thousands of Tibetan monks and nuns come down from Dharamsala to stay in tent cities, joined by hordes of rich foreigners. Many important lamas including the Karmapa were in residence, attracting Tibetan Buddhist converts from Europe and the US. The mid-price hotels were full of Sri Lankans and Thais, and the expensive ones were full of Japanese. The only hotel that would assure me a reservation was the poshest, priciest one in town, the Royal Residencies. I arrived with my staff at the hotel's pillared entrance, with the doormen standing at attention in their red turbans. Our jalopy navigated the tarmac among the black Mercedes sedans. I assuaged my liberal guilt by tipping my staff magnificently.

The Royal Residencies seems to be built as an apology for the privations experienced by the rich tourist in India. Many Indian hotels have only a hole in the ground for a toilet, and a bucket of cold water for a shower. To make up for this asceticism, the Royal Residencies provided me with not one, but two gleaming porcelain bathrooms, each complete with toilet, shower, and separate bathtub. In case my finery had been spattered with anything nasty on my journey, the hotel provided same-day laundry service (at US $5 per article, more than the laundry staff make in a week, I'm certain), and to express their regret for anything foreign that might have surprised me in India, they had placed a vast flatscreen TV on the wall, tuned to the BBC. The hallways are adorned with antique statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and modernist commercial paintings of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Posters advertised Royal Residencies hotels in Kapilavastu, Varanasi, and Kusinagar. I'm reminded of the verse we chant at the Village Zendo when we open our eating bowls, naming the holiest pilgrimage sites: "Buddha was born in Kapilavastu, enlightened at Magadha...." Apparently there is a chain of opulent hotels for the pilgrim whose Middle Way includes champagne at breakfast.

Bodh Gaya is the capital of Buddhism. Buddhists from dozens of countries have built temples in their distinctive styles, like embassies, and the streets are thick with monks, laypeople, and tourists from all over the world. All the wild costumes and languages meet here. It's hard to break in, though: I floated on the teeming surface, unable to dive in. None of the monks had time to talk with me. No one was interested. And on the other hand the beggars, con men, souvenir sellers, and other charlatans and rascals had all the time in the world to follow me around, demonstrating an exuberant proliferation of methods of asking me for money.

As I entered Mahabodhi Temple, the man charging a few rupees to store my shoes tried to cheat me out of my correct change. But then, as I crossed the threshold into the temple grounds, tourist India just stopped. No more con-men, no more beggars. No more voices, just the one voice of tens of thousands of monastics chanting in unison. People were bowing over and over, all the way to the ground. Baby monks played tag. Laypeople on pilgrimages from Nepal, Japan, and the West silently circumambulated the central stupa. I joined them. When I was half-way around the stupa, I reached the Bodhi Tree.

The tree is considered to be the grandchild of the one Shakyamuni sat under. This story is heavily disputed: the current tree might be less than 200 years old. But who cares? I walked up to a massive old being who'd been worshipped as if it was the tree for a long time, and the power was palpable. Some pilgrims were prostrating themselves before the tree, some touched their foreheads to a gold plate in front of it, some just sat and gazed at it. The only sound was chanting. The tree's old limbs stretched out, propped up by crutches. I looked up at the leaves silhouetted against the sky and wondered if Shakyamuni saw the same sight, taking a break from his meditation, or if Shakyamuni didn't need a break.

Leaves of the Bodhi Tree

Walking the streets of Bodh Gaya, I realized that I'd been in India for two weeks without taking a picture of a beggar. Unaware, I had drawn a line around them and cut them out of India. I had taken pictures of beautiful things, and of ugly or silly things, but no beggars. I was reproducing the Ministry of Tourism version of India, suitable for export. Without beggars I wasn't really photographing India.

So I began. A boy with deformed hips, standing with crutches outside the Bhutanese Temple, asked me for money and I provided. I asked him for a picture, and he provided. He even let me reposition him to adjust the light and the background. I showed him the picture on the back of the camera (I'm so grateful for digital) and he was delighted.

I got bolder. Some beggars said no. Some were indifferent, some excited. One old man crawled toward me in the dust, moaning, but when I asked to take his picture he stood up, brushed off the grime, and gave me a big grin. One man was standing outside the main temple gate. I couldn't tell if he was deformed, burned, or both. He stood straight and looked me in the eye. I took a few exposures, and when I showed him one of the photos, he looked at it and nodded in the non-committal Indian style, moving his chin in a figure-eight.

Beggar in Bodh Gaya

I can't ignore the differences between me and these beggars; I can't smile and say "It's all one," or "Of course: existence is marked by suffering." If this man could smile and say it's all one, good. In that moment he's a buddha. But I can't, and even if I could I wouldn't. My novice understanding of the bodhisattva path is that I choose not to attain buddhahood. Instead I see differences, injustices, I suffer from the sight, and in my suffering I'm motivated to end others' suffering, so we can all become Buddha together.

The Japanese temple in Bodh Gaya, Indosan Nipponji, has meditation at 5 am and 5 pm daily. I went there that evening, hoping for a taste of home away from home. The meditation period began with three bells and ended with two, just like at the Village Zendo. The others sitting with me were mostly Western. The only Japanese was a young Pure Land priest.

At six o'clock the temple bell, as big as a Brooklyn water tower, began to ring. Another young priest, whom I took to be Soto Zen from his clothes, led the service. I recognized the Heart Sutra in Japanese, and also the Nichiren Buddhist chant "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo," and the Pure Land "Namu Amida Butsu." Apparently the temple is an embassy representing all Japanese Buddhists. The priests launched into a chant so long that my hearing acclimated to the bock bock bock of the mokugyo and I could no longer hear it, only the wah wah wah of its reverberations. After service I stayed behind taking pictures until I was kicked out.

Indosan Nipponji, Japanese temple in Bodh Gaya

That evening I luxuriated at the Royal Residencies. I ordered an elephantine "Taj Mahal" beer from room service, and lay in the hot bath, drinking, smoking, and reading sci-fi. I needed to practice the Relative, I told myself, lest I come to believe that something about Bodh Gaya was special and holy.

I went back to Mahabodhi Temple at night, just before closing. I had the temple nearly to myself. Most of the Tibetan monastics had gone back to their tent cities to eat rice and momos, sitting outside on long benches lit by camp lanterns. A few die-hards still walked around the stupa chanting, or bowed their way around it, falling to their knees, then lying flat face-down on the ground, then standing up, taking three steps, and doing it all over again. A monk had built a fire in front of a statue and sat gazing through the flames at Buddha. In eerie privacy I walked around the stupa, bowing to the ground three times before the tree, three times before the Buddha statues. Balancing my camera on a fencepost, I took some long exposures of the temple, of the last monks going home for the night.

Mahabodhi Temple at night

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