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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