Hit by Enlightenment (India Report #2)

23 11 2010
Mahabodhi Temple – day and night

Day and night at Mahabodhi Temple

I’m a little slow on my India follow-up. It’s been an exhausting week of finding out that the worsening “Kathmandu cough” I’ve had is actually bronchitis, probably brought on by the enormous amount of pollution in this city (since I’ve never had bronchitis in my life). In addition, I was working on a presentation on the influence of the “East” on American art for an upcoming international arts conference. Now that some of the more dramatic moments of my Nepal life have been temporarily settled, I can finally sit down to post about Bodhgaya, India.

Bodhgaya is where Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi (pipal) tree. The town is a major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and others alike, and every nation with a healthy number of Buddhists has erected their own temple and/or monastery. First, we had to get to Bodhgaya from Varanasi, about 6 hours away, with our trusty driver Ram. We had tour guides within each town, city or at major tourist destinations but between each of those, we had Ram. He and my husband chattered away in Hindi and from Ram we learned probably more than we did from any of the guides. He told us about local customs, which industries were big in certain areas, and food. Did you know that Indian chapati bread tastes best when cooked over a fire fueled by dried cow dung patties? I know some are thinking, “Oh, that’s gross,” but somewhere in the world, someone probably thinks it’s weird that Americans enjoy hickory-smoked bar-b-que.

We did have a good guide in Bodhgaya, because he was actually interested in the topic of Buddhism on a personal level. When I have hired travel guides (not just in India, but in other parts of the world including the U.S.) I’ve found that 60% of the time you get someone who just rattles off a list of facts they’ve memorized from a book. (Being a professor on the lookout for plagiarized papers/presentations, I’m pretty good at spotting this trend). When someone isn’t invested in a topic and they don’t really know it in-depth, it makes it difficult to follow their delivery, and asking follow-up questions is nearly impossible because they’re unprepared. But our Bodhgaya guide had informally studied Buddhism with various monks and was excitedly planning to take part in a 10-day meditation retreat next year. So, his delivery of the material was passionate and based on both factual information and his own experiences. He was actually happy when we asked questions!

The major Enlightenment sites are clustered around the Mahabodhi Temple and document each stage of Buddha’s final quest for enlightenment. He didn’t just attain enlightenment and head immediately to Sarnath to preach about it, but stuck around for a while to meditate upon his spiritual journey. Surrounding the temple complex are wooden planks that people can rent in order to prostrate or meditate upon holy ground. It’s even possible to meditate all night within the complex so long as you purchase a ticket before they lock the gates, and local vendors were selling mosquito tents for those wishing to meditate more comfortably throughout the night and day.

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

The bodhi tree itself is huge. You can’t actually sit against it since a stone fence surrounds it, but the long branches extend far enough out that you can sit in their shade, as you see the saffron-robed monks doing in this photograph. This isn’t Buddha’s original tree. Emperor Ashoka’s wife, so the story goes, jealously killed that tree, because Ashoka devoted himself to Buddhism after converting in the 2nd century BCE. Before she killed it, a cutting from the original tree was planted in Sri Lanka and the Bodhgaya tree is a cutting from the Sri Lanka tree.

As I was photographing the tree, a small branch fell and hit me on the head. Maybe I was too “in the moment” to be anything but annoyed and should’ve realized that any branches or leaves from Buddha’s tree would be highly sought after, but within seconds, several people dove toward my feet (including a couple monks and my husband) to collect the leaves and now broken bits of branch that hit me. Does getting hit by a sacred tree branch mean I’m blessed? I sure hope so. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

I was able to photograph some nice water images as part of my ongoing water series. During our Bodhgaya tour, we drove across the Falgu River, to the spot where Buddha, in one of his pre-Buddha moments of frustration, threw a metal bowl into the river and said something to the effect, “If I am to reach the highest spiritual plain, let this bowl float upriver against the current. If it floats downriver, I’ll give up my quest.” Well guess what? The bowl did the impossible and floated upriver, pointing the way to the bodhi tree. Hence, the story and symbolism of this place made it the perfect spot for me to be creating splashes, as I’m sure Buddha’s bowl would have done.

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

During the photographic process, we attracted some attention from the local village children. They became my helpers and you can see them in this image. The oldest, whom you see in the front, was very interested from a scientific perspective and told us about his studies into nature and the human body. He’s very hopeful of one day becoming a doctor and asked if we could send him books about brains (the mind) and lungs and the diseases that affect them. So, any of you Mount Mercy nursing and biology students reading this blog: if you have entry-level science materials that we could send in a care package, please pass them along to Jane Gilmor and my husband will FedEx them to our curious young friend in order to encourage him toward achieving his dream. My husband was once a small boy in a village home with dirt floor and no electricity or running water. With the help of family, friends and complete strangers who extended their kindnesses (like the Catholic nun who gave him some money for the last little bit of money he needed for his plane ticket to America, or the volunteers from English-speaking countries who helped him improve his English) he made it to the United States. Now, he’s one of those immigrant success stories you read about all the time. When we met this studious boy who clearly could succeed if given the chance, I thought of my husband and all the other people like him who just need a break.

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8 responses

29 11 2010
Amanda Walker

I am a Medical Technology major….so I will definately look around to see if I have any books that I can donate to him!
I have maybe a dumb question…but you know what they say….there are no dumb questions! So here it goes…Does everyone go to school in India? Here in the U.s., almost everyone goes to school at least through high school. I know in the beginning of your blog we talked about the students in the art colleges you were teaching at, but those students have to have money? I guess I asking how accesible/affordable is education in India/Nepal ( the whole region?)
Also, here in the U.S. if you cant afford college there are financial aid programs and scholorship opportunites…is there anything similar in Inda/Nepal?
And I also have to comment on that tree….its huge….!!!! I think that tree could provide shade for the entire Mount Mercy campus! 🙂

28 11 2010


After looking at all of the pictures you have recently posted, I noticed how rich and colorful many things are. The architecture, especially the giant Buddha, is amazing. Do you think anything in the United States compares to where you are at? Is most of the architecture where you are modern or older?

25 11 2010


Those are some awesome stories you have! It makes you stop and think about the things you are grateful for! It is amazing how people can grow so much and completely change their lives around from the help of strangers. I hope the best for that boy! Happy Thanksgiving!


24 11 2010

Glad that you were blessed and not too dented by the tree branch!

23 11 2010
Ben Kromminga

Hi Kathryn,
Obviously most of us students here at Mt. Mercy wouldn’t be here without the assistance of government loans and financial aid. But from the story of the boy who wants to be a doctor, I’m getting the impression that there isn’t much in the way of student financial aid in India. Is this the case? Maybe he might improve his chances by standing underneath the Bodhi Tree and hope that a branch falls on him! 😉

23 11 2010
Jim Hagy

I really enjoyed this. Thanks, Dad

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Mallory,

You must be in Kathy’s class, that’s great! Well, tell your classmates to check out the images, if they help the info sink in more. I’m more of a “walking meditation” type than a sitting meditator. But my husband meditated in one of the Japanese temples, the Bangladeshi temple, and the Mahabodhi temple. The whole town has a kind of spiritual presence. I hope the meditation class was beneficial and I think it fits into the holistic approach to health that we see more and more of these days.

There are too many artworks to be inspired by here! The architecture is staggering (wait til you see the next India post on Khajuraho) and the colors are vibrant. And then when I see monkeys climbing on the architecture, for example, it makes me see everything in a new way. Being here makes me realize that even though I do travel as much as possible, I want to see and do more. If you like to read or watch movies, you might be able to relate to walking into Barnes and Noble or your local DVD rental place (or Netflix) and feeling like you’ll never have enough time to read all those book or see all those movies.

23 11 2010
Mallory Singbeil

I loved reading about your time spent at the temple. I am currently in intro to meditation at MMU and have learned about these all semester. I found them very interesting and your pictures helped elaborate on what the temple looks like. Did you have time to practice meditation while at the temple? Also while looking at the pictures i notice how breath taking India’s artwork and monuments are, especially the Buddhist sculptures. Have you gotten inspired by any one particular artwork while traveling over there?

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