led by Martin Evans on

On pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya

In search of what is skilful, seeking that state of perfect peace, while walking on a tour through Magadha I arrived at Urvela. There I found some beautiful countryside, a lovely forest grove, a clear flowing river with a delightful ford and a village nearby for support. So I sat down there thinking, ‘this is the right place for exertion.’ The Buddha, Majhima Nikhaya, 26.

On pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya

In December 2004 I spent a week visiting some of the pilgrimage sites in Northern India with my daughter. Travelling by train from Delhi to Bodh Gaya, I was pleased to find my seat was next to a Burmese Buddhist monk who was on his way back from the World Buddhist Conference which had just been held in Myanmar. He gave me the conference papers to read which kept me happy for hours.

He was returning to Bodh Gaya where he was building a meditation centre. He told me that because the Buddha gained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, there is a special energy there. In fact, he said, the Buddha chose this place to strive for enlightenment because it already possessed this energy. ‘It is the centre of the world, as far as Buddhists are concerned’, he said.

After such a build up, all the conditions for disappointment had been created. First, we called at the Mahabodhi Resthouse, where there was no room at the Inn, although I had booked ahead. Then we tried the Burmese Temple, only to be turned away again.

Saving the lives of fishes

Having installed ourselves in an expensive hotel, we went to explore the town and I didn’t feel particularly inspired by what I saw. Rows of market stalls with sellers insisting we buy trinkets we didn’t want, and dozens of beggars, many with missing limbs, dragging themselves after us in the hope of a few coins. I saw one woman who had to drop her bag of bananas and run for her life into a shop, after stopping to hand one or two out to some beggars, such was the fight over them. It was like watching monkeys fight over a bag of nuts.

On one walk through the village, we were persuaded to ride in a horse and cart to visit a stupa supposed to be on the site of Sujata’s house (Sujata offered milk rice to the Buddha before his enlightenment). Whilst there, we were asked to donate to three schools, ‘that one over there’ (wherever that was), and absolutely everyone we passed begged for money. Some children asked us to save the lives of the fish they had caught, by giving them money so that they could return them to the pond. Even the one person who was at least carrying out a livelihood, he was ploughing a field with a hand held plough drawn by two bullocks, demanded money because I’d taken a photograph of him. By then I had run out of coins and all I had was a 20 rupee note which he rejected because it was torn. He was not at all pleased when I waved away his demand for another and walked on.

A lot of people go to Bodh Gaya on retreats. I met two women who had just finished meditation retreats in Tibetan meditation centres. They had spent the whole time in the retreat centre. They had no idea about the poverty of the state of Bihar. And when I visited the monk who was building the new meditation centre I noticed that he had built a six-foot wall around the whole site. Now bearing in mind that he will be running Goenka style retreats where the rule is you aren’t allowed to leave the centre during the retreat, you will get to see a lot of wall, but not much of the people on the other side.

If I was running a retreat at Bodh Gaya I would hold the meditation sessions on the other side of the wall. I would ask that retreatants practice walking meditation at least once a day through the slums of the town, to experience the sounds, the sights and the smells of birth, old age, sickness, and dying, and see for themselves the suffering of people in real poverty. Then they would realise by direct experience the inescapable truth that the Buddha taught, ‘there is suffering’. Isn’t this the power of Bodh Gaya, simply in the understanding and practice of the Buddha’s teaching, in this present moment? And the place of this power is surely wherever we are right now. Meditate under a Bodhi tree, behind a brick wall, in a slum; all of these places have the power of now. When little hands are clinging to you, and you know if you give to one, dozens more hungry children will surround you. All of these places have the power of now.

The Mahabodhi Temple

If there is a special power in Bodh Gaya it certainly isn’t in a reliable electricity supply. One evening, walking around the Mahabodhi Temple, there was a power cut. The illuminated temple disappeared into total darkness and the speakers which had been belting out ‘Buddham saranam gaccami’ to the devoted, fell silent. In the confusion of market traders finding lamps to light their stalls, and people making sure that the person next to them was really the person they thought they were with, we stood still and silent and watched the new moon sink behind the ancient temple and its spreading bodhi tree. N.B. it is worth remembering to carry a small torch at all times when travelling in India.

The present Mahabodhi Temple dates from around the fourth century AD and what we can see today owes a great deal to British restoration of the late nineteenth century. It is a rectangular building with a large spire rising from its centre and a smaller spire at each corner. The four corner spires were added at the time of the restoration, based on a model of the temple found in the precincts. You wouldn’t get away with such a bold restoration today, but they add a grandeur which seems appropriate to the foremost place of Buddhist pilgrimage.

King Ashoka, the great Buddhist Indian king, visited in 260 BC, building a temple of which nothing survives, and a pillar, now broken. Later pilgrims built small votive stone-carved stupas, and other shrines which surround the temple, according to their wealth and devotion.

Pilgrims in the past suffered terrible hardships on the long journeys they undertook to reach here. Some wrote accounts of their travels, at first talking about a thriving Buddhist community, later referring to the neglect in which they found the place as Buddhism began to die out in India, giving harrowing accounts of when the region was at the mercy of the Muslim invaders who damaged and pillaged the site. Still the pilgrims came, driven on by the desire to visit this, the most sacred place in the Buddhist world, at least once in their lives.

A hundred years ago the temple was in the hands of a local Hindu who was not at all sympathetic to the needs of Buddhists to worship there, and the Anigarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan lay Buddhist, sought to bring the temple under Buddhist control. He fought and lost a legal battle in 1906, but he continued his campaign for the remaining 27 years of his life, gaining international support. It was not until 1949 that an act was passed giving Buddhists partial control of the site, and unimpeded access.

Today, hundreds of pilgrims come daily to walk round the temple and to sit under the Bodhi tree. Perhaps it has been an aspiration of a lifetime, fulfilled in a moment, as they turn the corner of the temple building and reach the place of their dreams, the place where the Buddha gained enlightenment, marked by a simple slab of stone. Some sit quietly in the shade alone, some in small groups, chanting softly together. Some are lead in their chanting by the monks who travelled with them, chanting the triple gem and perhaps the metta sutta. Others just come to watch and wonder at what it is that causes people to express such devotion. Which was I? I sat quietly, and watched in wonder.

When visiting the Buddhist pilgrimage sites I was aware of the tension between being in the moment and wanting to add something to the moment. After all, I have never been to India before and I’ve been a Buddhist for 25 years, why shouldn’t it be special to visit these places? But it is being in the moment that is special. When we watch the grasping mind, that is, the desire to add ‘something special’ to the moment, then we can see that it is actually taking something away. We are taking away the way it is. Grasping our experience is just a process of adding the delusion of self to it. These two, grasping and delusion, are so tightly bound when we are trapped in the process, trapped on the wheel, that we can’t see a way to get off. But the way to get off this wheel is by watching and letting go of grasping, moment by moment. And when we let go, we leave a space in which what is really there will reveal itself, this is what we call insight, where delusion falls away.

Wherever you sit, wherever you stand, walk or lie down, you have to watch the grasping mind and let it go. Then you are practising like the Buddha. You must follow this path of practice everywhere, all the time. There is no special place to practise, no special time to practise. When you are established in the practice you see that the essence of the practice is that it is beyond place and time. The present moment is here and now, and here cannot be given a geographical location, nor can now be pinpointed in the concept of time. The experience of here and now is both boundless and timeless.

We need to watch the grasping mind twist and turn like a worm trapped in a fork. However horrible it is to watch, don’t turn away from it. Don’t let the mind escape. We have to stay with it until we see right through it. When we see the grasping mind for what it is, it looses its power over us. We’re no longer fooled into grasping or rejecting the world, as it arises and ceases, moment by moment.

This is our challenge, to know by direct understanding and experience, suffering, the origin of suffering, the end of suffering and the path which leads to the end of suffering. This is where we will find the Buddha, in realising these same four truths that the Buddha realised under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya 2,500 years ago.

Martin Evans 050505

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