Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't sit under the Bodhi Tree with anyone else but me ...

January 11, 2011

Well, skip the comfortable bed – at least for a number of us.  Our hotel in Bodhgaya caters to Buddhist pilgrims from Asia (mostly Japan and Thailand) and most of these pilgrims are looking for an ascetic experience, sooooo …. the beds were rock hard.  Nonetheless, our hearty band of intrepid travelers took it in stride (“oh, well, it was good for my back”) and we started the day with a brisk walk to one of Buddhism’s holiest sites – the very spot at which Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation until he reached enlightenment.  The tree under which he sat, the Bodhi Tree (“Enlightenment Tree”), is said to have showered flower petals upon this Hindu Prince all night following his realization of the true nature of reality roughly five centuries before Christ.  The current tree was grown from a shoot taken from the original tree, which was subsequently destroyed by an enraged queen who was jealous of the attention her husband (King Ashoka, a devout convert to Buddhism) paid to the tree.

The Bodhi Tree where the Buddha was enlightened five centuries before Christ.

As we toured the temple grounds, surrounded by pilgrims from all over the world, it was apparent just how revered this site is.  With Buddhist monks and lay practitioners in prayer, meditation, or rising and falling in mindful bowing exercises, one lucky student (Elliot Longtin) noticed a leaf fall first on her shoulder before landing at her feet.  Devotees from every corner of the globe travel to this site hoping for such a blessing and, for whatever reason, the universe presented itself to Elliot with this great boon.

After a late afternoon lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant, some of us shopped the stalls for bargains while others walked the streets drinking in the sites or sat under the Bodhi Tree waiting for another leaf to fall.  Later in the afternoon, about half our merry band chose to join the monks at the nearby Japanese Temple for an hour-long session of chanting and silent meditation in their Buddha Hall.  The cool evening air kept our meditators from falling asleep (though the floors were only slightly harder than the beds the night before).  Before dinner there was just enough time for an hour-long Japanese hot bath at our hotel.  Since our hotel caters to Japanese tourists, they have separate facilities for men and women to take communal baths.  Earlier in the day we had arranged for them to heat the water and 90% of our group luxuriated in the two, gender-based baths (though it wasn't an "official" Japanese bath since we decided to take the dip in our swimsuits).

January 12, 2011

An early morning breakfast fueled us for the bus ride to Varanasi, Hindu India's holiest city.  Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River, is a busy city of about one and a quarter million people.  Rich with myth and history, for many pilgrims it a "must-visit" site on their list, even if for a brief period of time.  and, it is said that if one dies in this holy city, a much better rebirth is guaranteed.  As a result, many persons come to Varanasi late in their life.  Bicycle rickshaws shuttled us from our hotel to the Ghats (or steps) of the Ganges River where we boarded a boat for a cruise up and down the river.  As the oarsmen ferried us along the wide, slow-moving river, the ghosts of millennia past seemed ever present with the great accordion of time collapsed into a single instant, retraced in each of the well-worn steps of those walking the banks at this present moment.  One could easily imagine countless generations before the present one stringing flowers in garlands, washing clothes or bathing in the river, or offering salutations to the sun in praise of the energy it provides.  

Bicycle Rickshaws seem quaint until you realize that sometimes
they are the only vehicles able to cut through endlessly thick traffic.
While the Ganges is sacred, it is also polluted and while efforts to clean it up over the last two decades are beginning to change the situation, there is still much work to be done.  Contrary to popular belief, while bodies are cremated along the banks of this river at two prescribed spots (the largest being the Manikarnika Ghat), corpses are not dropped wholesale into the river and body parts are not floating along with the current.  Outcasts do handle the bodies, dipping them briefly into the Ganges before they are completely consumed by pyres.  Photography of the cremations is, appropriate to the subject, prohibited.

On the Ganges with steps (or "ghats") on the bank.
More to follow.

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