In the groundless dust of Bodhgaya the beggars actually chase you down. Even the ones without legs. A riot of of monks, nuns and lay practitioners from all Buddhist traditions are here for a massive prayer ceremony for world peace. It’s December 2010 and time for the 27th Kagyu Monlam Chenmo, presided over by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa of Tibet. And if you hadn’t yet heard, there are three foot tall letters in multi-coloured electric lights in the grass proclaiming the fact from two different vantage points.
The first day I bought some Tibetan momos, like little dumplings. I tried handing them out to the beggar kids, but was mobbed. It’s difficult to figure out a beggar policy here. Not like Dharamsala, where the situation is less desperate. There they will likely turn down the offer of food. Here, people are actually starving. One evening, my friend Gyamtso gestures towards rows of beggars sleeping under ragged blankets on the streets outside the temple complex. “These are the honored guests for the teachings,” he says in his typically dry style.
Strings of lights and marigolds festoon the grounds of a 180 foot tall temple, the Mahabodhi, that has a history of 2,500 years. Every day, more people arrive, and every day it seems more impossible for the town can accommodate them. It is getting hard to walk from one end of the temple complex to the other. What I thought was a circus, is it turns out, the quiet time. His Holiness the Dalai Lama will begin teachings on January 5th. “You have seen nothing yet,” everyone tells me.
Around the complex, everything is for sale, flashing light up Buddhas, prayer beads (“special price for you madam”) and leaves supposedly off the original Bodhi tree where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, though almost certainly pulled off a Peepal, the tree of the same genus.
The actual Bodhi tree, an ancestor of the original, is huge. It seems to lean and stretch as if trying to cover as much earth as possible, like a mother trying to protect her children. It stands right up against one of the walls of the Mahabodhi temple. It is adorned with a large golden bow.
A man is selling tiny caged birds. Not to keep, but to set free. In Buddhism, there is the belief in ‘merit’ that can be attained from engaging in acts that are purely motivated to bring benefit to other beings. Gyamtso and I get him down from 1,000 rupees to 500 for the lot. He lets them go while we glare at him. “What about the parrots?” he asks, lifting up a second cage. Gyamtso leans over and whispers into his ear. I imagine he’s telling him to get another job. Later, the same man is selling the same birds. Of course, they are weak and easy to catch again. Gyamtso calls the police and has him turned out of the grounds. But of course, like the birds, he’ll be back.
Whatever the stories, the hype, the marketing of spirituality, the hustle and scams, the aching poverty….there is a beauty and peace here beyond description. Settled deep in Bihar, the poorest state of India, this is the “navel of the world.” When the world is destroyed at the end of an eon, where the Bodhi tree grows is the last spot to disappear. When the world emerges into existence again, it is the first to appear….so they say. But sitting beneath its branches, I feel that anything is possible for the first time in a long, long time.
I go at night (the quietest time) to sit on a mound where it is said the Buddha spent the first week after his enlightenment staring at the Bodhi tree with gratitude. It’s called the place of the Unblinking Gaze.
The constant chanting in multiple languages: Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Japanese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Bhutanese, Sanskrit, Pali, create a Babelesque fugue, occasionally broken by the cry of an imam’s call to prayer.
A crowd of about 100 Tibetan monks doing the fast circuit circumambulation, began a chant–a cross between a football anthem and a dirge made up of four impossibly low notes stretched out over long intervals. Spontaneously, the monks doing full-length prostrations on wooden boards in began to harmonize with them. As the circuiting monks approached and receded, so did the sounds of the chanting–rolling through the thick night air in soulful waves. When the atmosphere was suddenly broken by piercing high-pitched wailing in Sanskrit to an actually danceable tabla beat, I had to laugh.
In the middle of all this I get an SMS from a Tibetan friend that reads:
‘May your Christmas be filled with special moment, warmth and happiness and frolic songs are always with you throughout the year‘.
I hadn’t noticed it was Christmas Day. It took an Asian Buddhist to capture the spirit of the season: special moment, warmth, happiness…and, of course, frolic songs.