Buddha Steps

Oppressive. It’s the single word the guidebook chose to describe Bodh Gaya’s heat in June.  A more apt selection need not be desired. It is here the Buddha finally attained enlightenment.

The cycle rickshaw stops at the Mahabodhi temple entrance. I pay the driver, step down and begin my walk between two long, colorful rows of vendors setting up for the day. Sandwiching the walkway, seemingly random displays of fashion and religion are piled upon blankets and tables.

“Which country?”

The question is posed by a twenty-something year old Indian man that began walking alongside me some time ago; I chose to ignore him. “Where are you from?” I respond in kind.

His expression turns quizzical. “Bodh Gaya,” he says. “You?”

I tell him.

It has been one year since I’ve last danced with Mother India and I’m a bit rusty. The navigation of her people are the single most important steps to master; it is here much of my attention will be spent. The young man next to me has posed a question I will hear hundreds of times over in the next three months. It can be grossly repetitive.

I stop, place my sandals on a rack and continue toward the temple. The man appears again next to me on the red carpet leading in; he wears an orange mark on his forehead; it’s indicative of having received a Hindu blessing.

“How old is the temple?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he responds. ”Old.”

If he is a temple guide there are some key facts that require memorization. This is one of them. After paying tribute to the statue inside it is back outside and underneath the hot sun. After a brief look forward I instead follow the man, who’s waited for me, to the path on the right. In answer to a question about faith he responds indicating a belief in one God although raised Hindu. I respond in kind with a Catholic upbringing.

We pass through a small handful of people milling about and within two steps I am engulfed by the shadow braches of a massive Bodhi tree. It’s said to be an offshoot of the original under which Buddha’s enlightenment was attained. It is very alive and very big.

Six years Guatama Buddha’s energy mingled with the essence of this tree. But achieving liberation is not the reason he is venerated. The Buddha is revered because he dissected the truth so that man may attain liberation for himself.

We approach a wall and Karsen, this is his name, turns and points out a relief and explains the depiction of Buddha’s journey. “Twenty rupees for a photo.” Two boys shout as we walk by. It’s an occasional occurrence, temples charging for photos. If this is the case a pass is typically purchased for a nominal charge; fifteen-year-old boys are not generally sent on missions to scour the crowds for flashbulbs.

Karsen waves a hand at them. “I hate that.”

Also worth noting, in the city of Bodh Gaya, is an 80-foot Buddha statue. With no plans but to play tourist and Karsen appearing harmless enough I accept his invitation to play the role of guide.

As one would assume, an 80-foot tall Buddha is friggin’ huge.

“Those are his friends,” Karsen says, pointing toward the sky at the carved monks lined up along the perimeter, hovering conspicuously. Their hands closed tight in prayer.

“It’s good to be friends of the Buddha.” I look back at the smooth stone behemoth and imagine the hefty construct rising from the ground as an offering to the gods of enlightenment. They should be pleased. He is very big.

As one would assume, an 80-foot tall Buddha is friggin’ huge.

“Those are his friends,” Karsen says, pointing toward the sky at the carved monks lined up along the perimeter, hovering conspicuously. Their hands closed tight in prayer.

“It’s good to be friends of the Buddha.” I look back at the smooth stone behemoth and imagine the hefty construct rising from the ground as an offering to the gods of enlightenment. They should be pleased. He is very big.

tri-tree
tri-tree

Karsen picks me up the next day. The cave depicted in the Mahabodhi wall carving is a little ways out of town, down a road, through a field, by a towering tri-trunked tree and across a dry riverbed. Before reaching the mountain base our path meanders through a village. Women tend to babies under the quiet shade of quivering leaves. Men sit on doorsteps talking. Children flee from mud-packed homes, waving madly, “helllooo.” My orange and gray scarf flaps behind, gesturing in kind with the wind.

Incense, candles, and prayer flags complete the Buddha-party-pak I purchase. Ascending the cement steps and onto a landing, a group of men and women sit in silence, staring at our approach.  Two stone-carved stairs and into a black crevice within the rock wall I crawl. Head first. Breathing is an effort, as is acclimating my vision and lowering my body into a cross-legged position.

I now fully understand the Buddha’s decision to move his meditative journey to the Bodhi tree. The cave is bloody hot. I sweat maniacally. Inside is a sculpture; it’s a stone Guatama, ribs exposed, in acetic state, seated in meditation. There is a young man also seated inside the cave. He is alive. The candles are lit and secured to the low stone platforms. Incense is next, every strained inhalation swells with thick fragrant vapor.

Pushing my head out of the crevice is akin to a rebirth. The first gasp of breath fills my lungs with life; my body emerges and is immediately enveloped by the rushing air. The seated group outside begin a melodious chant. Monkeys crawl over the surrounding constructs. I descend the stone steps.