Buddhas and Beggars – Bodhgaya
Our Hotel in Bodhgaya is the RK Palace. Could any place be more inappropriately named! But we are glad to find accommodation anywhere this week. My friend Luis who is a volunteer from a Buddhist centre in San Francisco had filled the entire room with flowers, balloons and thoughtful little gifts. What a welcome to a wonderful three days!
First stop was dinner with Luis at the Tibetan Cafe which became our haunt while we were there. THE best lentil dahl soup ever! This was a pop up cafe all the way from McLeod Ganj in the Himalayas where in 2005 I spent a month and met Buddhism for the first time. McLeod is just over the mountains from Tibet and it is where many Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama live. He must be lonely this week because every Tibetan and every monk in India is here in Bodhgaya!
To get to the cafe one walks through a Tibetan refugee camp which is like….. a refugee camp! Dirty, makeshift, dark, not immediately attractive as a regular dining venue but India is like that, appearances are deceptive…. The ‘Happy Cafe’ staff were all miserable!!
Bodhgaya isn’t much more than one main road leading to the Mahabodhi Temple at one end and back out of town at the other. There are little side roads and down each one is another Buddhist temple from each of the Buddhists countries of the world. Plus some Hindu temples and shrines.
The street was packed with hundreds, no thousands of monks in their saffron and red robes coming and going for the Silver Jubilee of The World Peace Ceremony. There are almost as many cycle rickshaws as monks, their drivers so skinny it seems impossible they could pull two or three fat Westerners up the bumpy and rutted track in their flimsy vehicle. I felt guilty about using them, (even though I am VERY light!) but chatting to a traveller in the Tibetan Cafe I said what an awful job they had and he said “I would love to be a rickshaw driver very much”. I looked disbelieving and he said, ” they have a fine purpose and earn honest money for their family and grow very fit with big muscles”…. he said muss-kels because he was foreign! And the different perspective worked because I realised that we were keeping them employed so they didn’t join the ranks of the beggars.
The whole street is really one long market selling anything and everything Buddhist related, and of course the usual tourist tat. There are barbers shaving their customers with cut throat razors at the side of the road, cobblers mending piles of broken flip flops, flower sellers with garlands of orange marigolds, barrows full of tiny bananas and oranges, stalls with hot spicy food, the smells mingling with the scents of incense, unwashed people, jasmine and cow shit. And above all of this colourful, noisy mayhem, this fantastic scene is garlanded above with a million tiny triangular prayer flags and a lot of twinkly tinsel. The whole thing is a crazy, colourful, spiritual carnival!
But best not to look down because here are the largest number of beggars I have ever seen in India and the most pitiful. There are broken men and women, so dark and the rags they wear so filthy that they blend into the road they are crawling along. How they are not run over is a miracle. Hundreds of others, squat and lie at the side of the road and as you pass beseeching hands reach out. Others chase us, imploring us to give them money. The tiny children and the naked babies with their huge dark eyes play in the dirt or mimic the begging action of their parents, but strangely I never see a crying child. Perhaps they learn very early that screaming will get them nothing.
Its hard, so very hard, to pass by and I feel terribly ashamed that I want to photograph them but no one person could save them all… and unless you have money ready in hand or pocket to give as quickly and as discreetly as possible you are simply mobbed…what to do?
There are many lepers. Leprosy at one point was apparently almost eradicated but here it is in all its horror, of rotting flesh and so many with hands or feet lost, sometimes all four gone….. The will to live must be very strong because some of them look old and their wretched, painful lives are unimaginable. Maybe they are young and poverty and disease has robbed them of their youth?
One afternoon I was walking back to the Hotel and it was quieter than usual and I passed by a woman sitting by herself in the dirt. I went to give her some rupees, and I squatted to pass her the money and we made eye contact.
Something in me reached out to this woman and I smiled at her and took her hand… It was just one of those sweet moments in life of knowing, not just intellectually but in my heart, that we are indeed all one. That in truth there is no difference, no division, no duality. I may be wrong of course but I felt that touching her, the acknowledgment of one woman to another, the human connection was perhaps more important than the few rupees. She had leprosy of course, which I knew. But I can honestly say that I wasn’t repelled or afraid? If Princes William or Harry should read these recollections (well who knows!) they can be proud that the legacy of their beautiful mother lives on because only afterwards I remembered Diana touched lepers and aids sufferers tenderly and without fear, in her humanitarian work, and so she lives on.
Even with all this I was excited like a child to go to the very spot where Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment! If you have read my bio you will know that I am a Jewish Buddhist, a JUBU they say in America! And there is no dichotomy there because Buddhism (and Hinduism too) don’t require one to give up whatever religion you were before. In fact Buddhism isn’t really a religion, in the sense that Buddha made it very clear that he isn’t a God. So for me it is a way of life that makes perfect sense and has deepened my spirituality and connection to the divine and to myself. I find it very comforting and beautiful and extremely sensible!
The temple dates from the 2nd century, it is magnificent, ancient and beautiful and is dominated by a central stupa 55 metres high with four smaller stupas at each corner. The whole is surrounded by waist high stone walls forming an outer and inner square and in the inner temple is THE tree, a descendant of the actual Bodhi tree under which Buddha was meditating when he became enlightened. And now I was going to sit there and meditate and pray in that same spot!
For me it was very emotional in the same way that praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem always is. These ancient, sacred places where countless prayers are said have a beautiful energy which is difficult to describe. I only know how it feels and whilst I understand that the location of praying matters little, still I am filled with awe and a kind of peaceful joy (Jerusalem Blog Post)
To be there with the sound of ten thousand monks chanting endless prayers, bells chiming, hundreds of people in deep meditation, people prostrating as they circumnavigate the stupa,within which is a gorgeous golden effigy of the Buddha and of course THE tree……I was overwhelmed and over the days as soon as we left the temple grounds I couldn’t wait to get back!
Row upon row of men sitting in the lotus position, thousands of them praying fervently for peace and for the happiness of all living beings was powerful, moving and beautiful beyond words. Rows of “baby monks” too. Little boys with shaved heads sitting together in rows chanting and sometimes just being little boys!
All the while bells ringing and chiming and the smell of incense and jasmine. The huge carpets of flower heads, orange, yellow and red laid out in intricate designs or mandalas as offerings to the Buddha were breathtaking. And hundreds of gleaming copper bowls filled with water offerings sat in long lines along the walls along with the thousands of flower offerings brought by the huge crowds of pilgrims. Here too were many sadhus, the travelling holy men of India. Hindu men dressed in orange who gather in all the spiritual places of India. My least favourite Americanism is perfect here, it was truly ‘awesome!’
On our last day a lot of the monks and pilgrims had left so it was not so dramatic! but it was very serene and so peaceful…. This is a place where divisiveness doesn’t exist. Anyone and everyone is welcome to any Buddhist place and every prayer, every meditation is for ALL living beings. Yet in July last year, terrorists planted 12 bombs here and at other peace filled places in Bodhgaya. Two monks were injured and precious stones almost 3000 years old were damaged. No comment…….
In my next piece I will tell you about my own little miracle, that happened here in the Temple before we move on to amazing Varanasi!