Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in Bodhgaya

December 25, 2007

With no visible notice marking the day as being any different from yesterday and the ones before, Christmas morning 2007 broke cool and gray in Bodhgaya, the Indian town known affectionately as “Buddhism’s Belly Button.”

It was here 2,500 years ago that Siddhartha Gautama determined he was going to “enlighten or die trying” while meditating under a tree. So sit he did. And enlighten he did.

Upon his decision to teach to others what he discovered, Buddhism, the great ethical mind science was born. And people have been coming here to touch and be touched by the place ever since. (Hindus come here as well as they worship Gautama the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu.)

This is my first visit, I’ve been here less than a week, and it is intense. Located in the very poor Indian state of Bihar, there are robbers on the roads and many sick and broken people. There are children everywhere. Monks and nuns from all the world’s Buddhist traditions crowd the streets. Chickens and cows and goats and pigs poke through the garbage. Scurryers include chipmunks, squirrels, mice and rats. One sees dogs in disease that defy description, their skin covered with lumps and bleeding sores and growths that look as though they can’t be real. Bright green parrots and amazing blue birds sing and chatter in the canopy above, which they have all to themselves, because unlike other places in India I’ve been, there’s not a monkey to be seen here.

And looking down on the whole thing, visible from all around, looms a colossal (80 foot-high) stone Buddha, an expression of peace and calm on his face, a reminder that regardless of how real or unreal Bodhgaya or anything else seems, none of it is permanent.

Bodhgaya is not particularly large, and many of those who come here are pilgrims, journeying from around the world to enhance their “practice” – be it meditation, prayer, chanting, taking teachings, reflection, etc. Because it’s not an easy place to get to, those who are here are at their destination.

Bodhgaya is one of those places that easily takes-on and reflects the characteristics of its inhabitants. Suffice to say there is “energy” here and lots of it.


I’ve been away from home less than a week, and already I‘ve developed a nasty chest infection (giving the words "breath meditation" a whole new challenging meaning). Have also lost track of the days, but do know today is Christmas Tuesday.

Tuesday. In the business world, said to be the day of the week that is most “productive.”

Here it’s a day just like any other.

I woke at 5:30 and walked about 30 minutes into town, through fields that were just beginning to lighten, down streets of small doorways that would later be filled with kids but were now empty, the only movement coming from early risers sweeping the nighttime dust from the door-fronts. This reminds me of something I once heard, that “every filthy alleyway can be a mandir (hindu temple) if your mind is right.”

During travel, habits develop and fall away quickly. The Indian lady from whom I (each day so far) buy a glass of “while you watch” squeezed pomegranate seed juice (this is a GOOD habit) didn’t have her cart set-up yet, it would’ve been a fantastic morning treat but I was too early. The fresh vitamins would have been good, the town’s dust is not.

I made my way to the park containing the famous stupa marking the spot where Siddhartha’s Buddha-becoming occurred, it was packed with monks and nuns and laypeople, all being led in Medicine Buddha puja by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa lama. (If you don’t know what any of that means, it’s fine – if you have an idea, you know how special a Christmas morning dharma treat this is.)

Hundreds of monks and followers were assembled outside in the rear of the stupa, facing the Karmapa, who was seated beneath the leafy well-spread branches of the world’s most famous tree. As he chanted prayers, his strong voice boomed with youthful self-confidence.

He is a Tibetan, an escapee from the Chinese now living in sanctuary in India, like so many of his countrymen.

He is a Buddha, and is only 22 years-old, just growing into his role. To see the Karmapa up-close, or be in his presence is astounding. He is physically magnificent. To make eye-contact with him can be breath-taking, it’s as if you’re gazing deeply into the strength and wisdom of the Tibetan people. And if your eyes lock with his for more than a split-second you’ll never forget the moment. (I know this sounds over-the-top, but it’s true.)

When the time comes for him to step onto the world’s stage, he will generate lots of interest and do just fine. (Imagine the Dalai Lama as a teen idol.)

After the puja ended I found a sunny spot next to the lake that borders the stupa, and sat on the grass facing the Bodhi tree, knowing I was sitting in perhaps the world’s best meditation spot. It was peaceful and quite nice. And then later it was back to the retreat where we all shared in a fantastic vegetarian “Christmas feast” before listening to Rinpoche’s teachings on bodhicitta.

As I write this it’s now 5:00 in the afternoon, which means back home its 7:00am on Christmas morning. Wow, so many memories; all the past Christmas days seem to blend together, I imagine I’m feeling a bit how old Ebenezer must have felt as the night’s first tour-guide took him on his own same kind of journey.

Christmases Past. The kids so young and wonderful, life laced with love and so pregnant with possibilities of the days ahead.

It raises strong emotions, both happy and sad, and it feels so far away.

But it’s alright, and even nice in a bittersweet sort of way.

What shines through is how it was once so deeply felt, all the planning and preparation and excitement parents feel being able to share Christmas morning with each other and the children. So light. So sweet. So special. So precious.

And now it blends with the really-not-wanted-but-inescapable knowledge that it was by its nature just like everything else in our life. So impermanent.

And once the bitter and sweet are blended, you can no longer stir them apart.

As the Buddha said, “it’s all as a bubble on a stream.”