Bodhagaya: epicentre of Buddhism


Originally published in The Nation Focus; Bangkok, Thailand

Amidst the fascinating fable and history, the magnificent temple architecture and sculpture, it is finally that splendid sea of humanity, its costume and ritual, representing Buddhism in all its pageantry and variety, that colours one's memories of Bodhgaya most vividly.

It is the blind, toothless Tibetan monk with Hollywood sunglasses, purple robes, dirty, untie . 'lop sneakers and all manner of beads and necklaces draped over his chest, selling small buttons of a smiling Dalai Lama for a rupee. Or the dark, bald face of the Sri Lankan monk, barefoot, in gleaming orange robes, walking in meditation with the airy lightness of a geisha.

It is the incandescent brilliance of a congregation of Thai monks, a forest of luminous newly-shaved heads, stunning yellow robes, chanting from the Pali scriptures while kneeling and bowing in unison like a row of yellow irises being nudged by a summer breeze. Or the long-haired Westerner sitting solemnly in close-eyed meditation before the Bodhi tree, an aging hippy it seems, only recently graduated into the all-embracing arms of the Buddha.

There is the lay Bhutanese woman, with the weathered, wrinkled face, eyes half-closed, hands clasped in prayer, mouthing sacred formulas in a barely audible hum.

Or the young Tibetan woman circling the Mahabodi temple, uttering ancient invocations while rubbing her bodhi beads fervently with one hand and turning briskly, in clockwise rotation, her squeaking prayer wheel with the other; sending the message of the holy inscriptions lying within the prayer wheel fluttering skyward to fall upon the compassionate ears of the many Bodisattvas residing within the Tibetan firmament.

Many others circumambulate the great temple in a form of ritual worship that could well find itself in the programme of any aerobics manual. They prostrate themselves, slide their bodies forward along the ground, lift themselves to the standing position and repeat this over and over for what seems like hours in some cases, all the while chanting the holy words "Om Mani Padme Hong."

Then there are the crack Japanese monks, in white and purple robes, sitting in full lotus with the martial crispness of Tokugawa samurai while 'intoning mantras.

Other devotees place wreaths of flowers at the base of the numerous stupas and Buddha images within the main temple enclave. Others are entrusted with the task of keeping thousands of small candles lit as they float in small golden chalices. By nightfall, the entire courtyard shimmers eerily in the dancing light of these myriad tiny flames.

Of all the well-known holy places associated with the life of the Buddha (there are four main ones) and the many temples and places of worship that have risen in his name, Bodhgaya is the most sacred, for it is here where the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. That naked, historical fact secures Bodhgaya's status as the centre of world Buddhism. The story of Siddhartha Gautama in his pursuit of the Four Noble Truths, leading finally to his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, seasoned with legend and a touch of Hindu mythology, is the basis for this veneration.

The Lord Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, was born in or about the year 560 BC in the Lumbini grove, near the ancient town of Kapilavastu in southern Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, a wealthy chieftan of the important Shakya clan, belonged to a warrior caste and ruled over a small kingdom. Suddhodana, mindful of the prophecy that his son would either become a Universal Emperor or a Universal Teacher and that four signs would lead him towards the life of renunciation, surrounded him with luxury in order to prevent him from witnessing the misery of the world and choosing the ascetic life.

Feeling unsatisfied with the indulgence of his regal life, Siddhartha wandered outside his palace and encountered the four signs. He saw old age (a decrepit old man), sickness (a man ravaged with disease), death (a corpse) and true serenity (a wandering monk). Legend tells that in reality, the i that Siddhartha saw were gods ) had taken disguises in order that Siddhartha might become the Buddha.

At the age of 29, he left his palace, wife and son and took up the life of the wandering religious mendicant in what has been described as the. "Great Renunciation." Siddhartha decided upon the great task of discovering the cause of suffering and how to dispel it. He learned the techniques of meditation and self-discipline, joined a band of five ascetics and practiced self-mortification. After six years of austerity, having come no closer to attaining his goal, he departed from the ascetics.

Siddhartha Gautama, now 35 years old, seated himself beneath a large Bodhi tree on the outskirts of the town of Gaya in eastern India and vowed that he would not leave his place until the riddle of suffering was solved: "Never from this seat will I stir, until I have attained the supreme and absolute wisdom."

Mara, the god of temptation, called his demon hosts to attack Gautama with whirlwind, flood and earthquake. He had his daughters Desire, Pleasure and Passion dance seductively before Gautama.

When Mara called on him to produce evidence of his goodness and benevolence, Siddhartha touched the ground with his hand and, with a voice like thunder, the earth intoned, "I am his witness." After subduing Mara, Gautama continued in profound meditation and attained enlightenment on the dawn of the three watches of night.

For seven days Buddha continued to meditate under the Bodhi tree without moving from his seat. During the second week he walked up and down and on each footstep a lotus flower sprang up. This site is known today as the Chankramanar Jewel Walk, a low platform adorned with nineteen lotuses which are parallel to the north side of the Bodhi tree, a place now marked by the Animescha-lochana stupa.

It is said that Brahma and Indra (Hindu gods) offered a hall made of seven precious substances in which Buddha sat for a week radiating lights of five colours from his body to illuminate the Bodhi tree. This site is marked by the Ratnagraha Chaitya.

Another week, at a time of unusually bad weather, the Snake King Muchalinda wrapped his body around the meditating Buddha and spread his hood over him like a canopy for protection from rain and wind. In all there are seven places described where Buddha practised meditation, spending one week in each.

After attaining enlightenment the Buddha debated in his mind whether he should undertake the wearisome and perhaps thankless task of communicating the profound wisdom which he had perceived. Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, appeared to him with reverential obeisance and requested the Buddha to reveal the truths he had discovered for the benefit of suffering mankind. The Buddha, having assented, then walked to Saranath and delivered his first sermon, the "Turning of the Wheel of Law," to the five ascetics.

The Mahabodi temple

The centre of activity in Bodhgaya is the Mahabodi temple. Adjacent to the Bodhi tree, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, this is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site. The temple is said to stand on the site of a shrine originally erected by Emperor Ashok in the third century BC. The current structure, restored by the Burmese in the eleventh century and again by the British in 1882, is thought to have been erected in the fifth century AD.

Upon entering the Buddhist "Torana" Eastern gate, the Mahabodi temple can be seen rising high above the vast courtyard dotted with stupas and flowering trees. It is an awesome pyramid tapering off from a square platform, topped with a circular spire over fifty metres high rising triumphantly into the blue sky. On its four corners, four towers ascend gracefully to some height. It is a massive and inspiring structure, yet it maintains balance and poise.

There are numerous niches and alcoves with small inset Buddha carvings along the lower levels. Inside the temple there is a large gilded Buddha image in sitting Bhumisparsha Mudra (touching the ground) pose. The image, said to be 1700 years old, faces east, exactly as the Buddha did when he sat in meditation with his back to the Bodhi tree.

In the main hall there is also an image of Lord Shiva, placed by the Shankaracharya; the Mahabodi temple was, for a time, a Hindu shrine. Wat Jet Yot, in Chiang Mai, built in 1470, is modelled after the Mahabodi temple.

On the western side of the temple sits the sacred Bodhi tree. It is said to be a direct, albeit distant, descendant of the original tree under which the Buddha sat. Although that tree has died, a sapling from the original tree was taken to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashok, when he carried Buddha's message to that island. That tree now thrives in Anuradhapura, in Sri Lanka, and a sapling from that tree was, in turn, brought here Bodhgaya where it flourishes today.

The Bodhi tree was deliberately cut down on a number of occasions, including once by Tishyarakshita, Emperor Ashok's queen, who was jealous of her husband's inordinate attachment to it. However, it was revived by the Emperor. It perished once again at the hands of Sasanka, the anti-Buddhist King of Gauda in the seventh century AD, but was revived by Purnavarman, a king of Magadha, who "poured the milk of a thousand cows upon it." It is said to have grown three metres in a single night. The present tree was found in 1876 by the Englishman Cunningham to have fallen down but young sprouts had sprung from the roots of the fallen tree to grow into the present one. Today, devotees can be seen washing the roots of the Bodhi tree with scented water and perfumed milk.

Between the Bodhi tree and the temple rests the Diamond Throne or Vajrasana which is a red sandstone slab where the Buddha first sat. It is considered the holiest of all places. The Chankramanar Chaitya or Jewel Walk, a raised platform along the north wall of the temple, has nineteen sculpted lotuses. The Buddha spent one week walking back and forth in meditation along this path. There are seven sacred sites of meditation, including the Vajrasana and the Chankramanar Chaitya, where the Buddha is said to have meditated while in Bodhgaya.

Outside the Mahabodi temple complex there are other monasteries that have been erected by various Buddhist nations from around the world. It is here where one can appreciate the full flavour and range of Buddhist art and temple architecture. This diver-gent flowering of artistic styles, tastes, beliefs and practices offers vivid testimonial to the tolerant spirit that forms the heart and soul of Buddhism.

The history of Buddhism fortunately, is not tainted by stories of one sect of Buddhism attacking or conquering another or attempting to dominate another religion. There is no record of Buddhist armies catapulting across continents with swords or guns in hand attempting to convert or force-fully spread the gentle insights of Lord Buddha; or to subjugate other peoples and repress their native customs and traditions. Instead, the history of Buddhism is the story of a tolerant and compassionate religion . that was spread by barefoot monks armed only with gentle words and noble action. This tolerant spirit allowed the seed of Buddhism, as it propagated through the lands, adopted and adapted by many indigenous peoples, to variegate, blend, evolve and flourish in many wondrous, beautiful and highly distinct forms. The result of that tolerance is in evidence in Bodhgaya today.

There is the Tibetan monastery with its numerous wrathful and semi-wrathful Tantric deities grimacing at you in fiery ecstasy from the walls, ceilings and altars within the temple; the ever-present prayer wheels - in this case, a single, massive wheel, completely filling a temple hall, with sufficient Tantric voltage conceivably to absolve the entire human race.

The Japanese monastery has a more austere and reflective mood with its imposing yet soothing grey stone sculpture of the Buddha, recently brought from Japan. The brilliantly colored white and crimson Thai temple has a gilded facade, tiered roof and slender, graceful columns. And inside is a redolent golden Buddha image made of eight metals, modeled after the incomparable statue found in Phitsanuloke. Outside the temple are a broad spacious courtyard and garden; a perfectly serene sanctuary. The monastery from Bhutan, with its fierce deities and intricate mandalas is similar but different from the Tibetan temple. There is also a Chinese Mahabodi temple with a fine mage of white marble and a Burmese Vihar.

Holiest pilgrimage site

Bodhgaya is a magical place where the pageantry of Buddhism in all its color, variety, spirituality and beauty comes alive. It is the holiest pilgrimage site in the Buddhist world; the epicenter of a world religion, perhaps the dominant religion of Asia. For the devotee it is the focus of unparalleled veneration and worship; the sacred site for paying homage to the great teacher who taught the world how to deliver itself from suffering. Bodhgaya beckons to the disciples of Buddha to return to the source and discover for themselves the lucid insights perceived by Siddhartha Gautama over 2500 years ago. Pregnant with history, myth, and splendor, Bodhgaya preserves a precious legacy to be revered and enjoyed by everyone.


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