Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Dispatch from Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya, Bihar, India -- New Year’s Eve, 2007

Just before a full moon day in (about) the year 528 BCE*, a young ascetic monk of noble birth, worn out after years of self-mortification, arrived on the outskirts of the small Indian village of Uruvela, which was nestled on the banks of the sandy Neranjara River.

Many years later he described the scene that unfolded before him, “There I saw a beautiful stretch of the countryside, a beautiful grove, a clear flowing river and a village nearby for support. And I thought to myself; “indeed, this is a good place for a young man set on striving.”

He settled himself under the spreading branches of a nearby tree and prepared to begin his meditation.

Just then a young woman named Sujata happened to be passing and noticing him and how thin he was, ran quickly home and brought him a bowl of milk rice and sweet honey. Strengthened by this nutritious meal the ascetic began his meditation. All night he sat there as the leaves of the tree quivered in the warm breeze and the moon shone bright in the velvety black sky.

Eventually the clouds of ignorance dissolved and he saw Reality in all its glory and splendor. He was no longer Prince Siddhartha or the ascetic Gautama. He had become the Awakened One, the Compassionate One, the Light of the World, the Buddha.

The Buddha spent the next seven weeks in and near Uruvela experiencing the bliss of enlightenment, moving to a different location every seven days. Then he set off for Isipathana (now Sarnath) near Varanasi to proclaim to the world the liberating truths he had realized.

It’s said the Buddha returned just once to Uruvela, now named Bodhgaya, a few months after turning the wheel of dharma for the first time at the Deer Park near Varanasi.


Bodhgaya is located in the Indian state of Bihar (Bee-har) in the economically challenged north central “belt” that runs across the width of India from Delhi to Calcutta. Bihar’s northern border runs along the Nepali border, a porous border through which Nepal’s Maoist influences seep south.

Bihar is known to be the poorest state in India, and it carries the reputation of being the most dangerous. Those from Bihari are said to be “crazy” in the ballsy kind of way those from Brooklyn were said to be crazy when I was growing up in Queens, and there are unending tales of Bihari’s highway robbers, thieves and pickpockets. Travelers here are warned to travel in pairs and stay off the roads after dark.

There is violence between neighboring Bihari regions; a passenger train bringing rice-pickers from one part of the state to another was blown-up not too long ago. Only five people died, a Bihar man shrugged the other day. That same day I saw an old dead man lying in the dirt on the side of a road. In Bihar not even life is worth very much.

Agriculture, mostly rice, is the staple product here. There are rice fields everywhere and the countryside is quite serene and beautiful.

Running neck-and-neck with rice in terms of Bihar’s economy are the visitors, primarily the pilgrims who come to Bodhgaya; to be in the place where the Buddha awoke.

This is nothing new. People have been traveling to Bodhgaya for more than 2,000 years.

Ancient Buddhist maps were drawn almost always showing either the mythical Mount Meru or Bodhgaya at their center. There is knowledge of a guidebook to Bodhgaya written by a Tibetan scholar in the 14th century. In the 11th century a Sumatran made a pilgrimage here. The Chinese pilgrim I Tsing, in the 7th century met a monk here who had come all the way from Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union. Vietnamese have been coming since Buddhism was introduced in their country in the 6th century. The first evidence of a Sri Lankan arriving here is an inscription by a monk in the 1st century BCE. The Tibetan scholar Dharmasvamin arrived here in 1234.

Today, as ever, the main attraction for pilgrims is to worship or practice at the Mahabodhi Stupa and the famous Bodhi tree that sits directly behind it.

The tree, likely the most famous one on the planet, is a descendent of the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. It is located in the same spot as its famous ancestor. It is beautiful, with thick branches that spread far and wide.

The Stupa (some refer to it as a temple) is believed to have been built during the 5th century, although no one is quite sure of the date or builder. By the middle of the 19th century it was in serious ruin, and was extensively restored in 1880. Today it contains statues of the Buddha that date back to the 7th century.

The stones around the Stupa upon which pilgrims walk were laid in place in the 14th century. There is a large flat stone at the base of the Bodhi tree marking the place where the Buddha sat and became enlightened. It was set in place by King Asoka in 260 BCE. More than 2,260 years old, it is the oldest antiquity in Bodhgaya.

To be in this place is to connect with the vastness of the past and it is enormously powerful. Sitting in meditation with others from around the world in the shade of the Bodhi tree on a warm afternoon is an experience that brings one to the brink of pure spirit, a combination of humanity, love, gratitude and awe that manifests in a serenity and calm that flows outward from the deepest part of the heart. Feelings so light and pure and completely felt . . .
People from around the world, Buddhist and non-Buddhists alike, continue to travel to Bodhgaya. Some come to do practice, some to bathe in the deeply satisfying energy, some to simply see the place for themselves.

And for all who come here a very special industry awaits.


Mummilal is a 15 year-old boy who lives in Bodhgaya. He doesn’t go to school, never has. His work day begins at around 6am, as people begin to arrive at the Stupa, and he works until it gets dark.

His workplace is right outside the entrance to the Stupa grounds. Even though his job is very people-intensive, he never had to learn English or French or any of the other languages one hears at this world pilgrimage site. Hindi is sufficient for Mummilal as his communication with his clients is mostly visual.

Mummilal’s career training apparently began sometime before his second birthday, when he had his hips dislocated and both legs broken at the knees and ankles. As they began to heal he had them re-broken, over and over again. Once his legs were sufficiently “pliable” they were allowed to set, with one leg bent at a bizarre angle backwards and up behind the back of his head, the other a tangle of impossible angles out, back and up.

None of this was his idea.

It was done to prepare Mummilal for his career as a street beggar, a professional whose job it is to wrench loose rupees from open-hearted travelers in this place of the dharma’s birth, the dharma that teaches, among other things, compassion for all sentient beings.

His career counselors were his parents, who saw financial benefit in having a son who could horrify peoples’ hearts into breaking.

Today, the final day of 2007, Mummilal is working. He is filthy. His hair is matted, there are clumps of dirt and snot all over his face, his beautiful rich brown skin is gray, his legs and arms are as thin as a little league baseball bats, his eyes contain the essence of his trade – pain and suffering.

Mummilal’s world is the 30 inches above the dusty, grimy walkway. His head bends sideways at an odd angle as he is always looking up, trying to make eye contact with people who are rushing by, trying not to look at him. He moves on his hands and one shoulder, dragging his broken body along, his back twisted and distended, his legs flapping and flopping as though made of rubber and balsa wood.

His arms and hands and fingers haven’t been destroyed, they’re needed for shuffling from person to person and gathering the change that sometimes falls, dropped by people who are then gone, rushing off to the Stupa. No one waits to hear him say “thank you”.

Sit and watch him at work, as I did this morning, and you’ll see maybe one in 300 people, always a westerner, give him anything. When something drops for him it’s usually a coin, probably two rupees, worth about five cents. He takes the coin and puts it in a shirt pocket, he wears cloth around his hips and upper legs; there’s not many tailors who could make a pair pants that would fit Mummilal..

The coins come very slowly today, perhaps cash flow is hard because there’s so much competition for the visitor rupee. Like I said, in Bodhgaya this is an industry, cash-only, supported by those who come here.

Walking the streets is not easy for a visitor.

There are mothers who approach, holding one or two usually naked babies, filthy and crying, demanding money for milk.

There are blind people stumbling around mumbling “namaste” to anyone who can hear them.

And there are people of all ages in various stages of leprosy. We don’t see leprosy very much in the west, here it’s commonplace.

Want to know how challenging it can be to act on your compassionate urges?

Try to give some coins to a leper who has no fingers on either hand. It’s awkward and difficult as they press the coins between their palms, or wrists if their palms are too disfigured, and then try to drop them into their begging bowl. If they miss the bowl and one of the coins drops on the ground they can’t pick it up. So you do it for them, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable about handling a coin that has just touched the fingerless hands of an active, raging leper. (Oh God, what if it’s contagious? )

Trying to talk to or make eye contact with these poor people is also difficult, frequently the leprosy has advanced to their faces, robbing them of noses, chins, jaws. It’s hard to look.

Bodhgaya’s streets are also home to polio victims, hopelessly sick and broken. I heard of a woman with polio who used to roll/push a five-rupee coin on its edge across the filthy pavement toward her begging bowl with her nose. One or two of her helpers would stand and watch, and then out of curiosity a crowd would form. Her reward for completing this obscene act would be coins dropped in the bowl by the spectators. She hasn’t been seen in a while. Perhaps death has rescued her.

The buzz around here is that the place is being cleansed of the beggars as the Mahabodhi grounds have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and there’s some big international money coming to town, resulting in a clean-up. Reports are an area of three kilometers around the Stupa will be cleared of the undesirables.

That may be so for the days ahead, but today there’s hundreds of these sick, mangled, needy people along the road to the Stupa. Most just sit or lie in the filth, sharing the gutter with the dogs and goats. The ones who approach visitors are the children who are very aggressive, and the mothers, who are children themselves. The men just sit and watch, empty bowls on the ground.

No matter how many coins one comes to town with, pockets are soon empty. One never has enough.


Bodhgaya and Buddhism and beggars.

Can you see the juxtaposition of beauty and horror? Can you imagine how completely and totally alive one feels when here?

Experiencing this place, where such extreme suffering lives in the shadow of the Buddha’s realization of unimaginable bliss is physically exhausting, intellectually fascinating and emotionally un-processable.

The beggars are overwhelming, when in their presence it’s hard to know what to do. This uncertainty provides motivation to develop the wisdom to act skillfully with the confidence of knowing one is doing the absolute best thing for them, while generating proper compassionate intentions.

Equanimity, probably the last state of mind one would normally manifest in this situation, is what is called for. And to be joyful in what we do, actually rejoicing as we do it.

What a lesson in overcoming our own self-cherishing! I have such gratitude to be here in this incredible human atmosphere studying and practicing dharma where it began so many years ago. It is all so intense, and so very precious.

Tonight one year is passing into another. An event calling for revelry and over-indulgence for many, but I can’t help but think of how a new year means absolutely nothing to Mummilal. For him it’s just another night; tomorrow there’ll be a whole new flock of visitors with coins in their pockets. For him there are no year-end resolutions to lose weight or exercise more. I don’t believe there is a happy ending here.

In our Chenrezig Project meetings we talk about the suffering of cyclic existence or samsara. This suffering, or “dukka” as the Buddha called it, remains abstract to some, understood a bit by most, realized in brief flashes by a few.

If you want to experience samsara at its most intense, really want to get smacked in the face with it, come to India. Come to Bodhgaya. There is ecstacy and agony here, day after day. So much to learn. So much to process. So much occurring.

It’s 11:45pm. Tomorrow’s meditation begins at 5:45am. Time to stop the fingers.

Thanks for reading. With love.

(*) BCE – Before Common Era, the non-denominational alternative to BC and AD, commonly used throughout Asia.