Depth

A parched riverbed runs through the city of Bodh Gaya; ancient depressions carrying the strength of apparitions though the sand, borne of the opposing desert, emerging from the mirage. Dust fuels a local market’s heat streaked pace. Cattle, vegetables and cash change hands; the subtle flow of commerce marches on. Karsen brings me to a village.

Two men greet us as the motorbike turns onto the perpendicular path. We walk, weaving through a patchwork of homes crafted of mud and thatch, a matching rusty hue with the earth. A group of children begins collecting behind us.

Radiating a warm glow, the village is resting in the quiet corner of a lucid dream. We sit. A welcome glass of water is accepted. A few dozen adults and children gather amidst manmade constructs of no doors, only windows. Women draped in saris effortlessly lower to the ground close by, men on the opposite side. Children arrange and re-arrange themselves, curious.

Then, we do something: nothing. In the silence only stillness permeates and we quietly sit — like sitting in a temple. Centuries of devotion, encased instead of within stone walls, by flesh, revealing reverence of equal depth. Absorbed in the energy of the moment we simply are.

Finally, we stand and silently stroll, stopping at a tin roof supported by metal bars wedged into the dirt. It’s the children’s school. We stand in this space and I am introduced to the teacher. She motions with her hand, “Come,” she says. “To my home.”

An iron stove anchors the front room along with a push-pedal sewing machine. In the back is a sleeping room with fan where we sit. She says in English, “Not good, my home.” I search my Hindi. “Bahut accha.” It’s all I have at a subtle contradiction. I want to tell her the walls are good and the floors are good but the words escape me.

We take our leave. My train departs Bodh Gaya at 1:55am and after dinner I am dropped at the gates of the guesthouse. Upon bidding my new acquaintance good bye Karsen asks, “Would you like to give money? To help fix the roofs in the village.”

I’d considered it, before dinner, offering money. Touring the village we discussed fixes to the dwellings, the need obvious. But instead of listening with my head about dollars, cents and obvious need, I listened with my heart. My heart said nothing. Doing nothing is also a choice. It was a privilege to visit the village. But when giving becomes compulsory, compassion is removed and it is no longer a gift.

I also remembered something. The first words Karsen spoke to me at the temple were not: “Which country?” They were, “Twenty rupees to take a photo.” It was the reason I ignored him.

“No, I don’t think so,” I tell him.

“Maybe later,” he says.

“Yes. Maybe later.”

~ by Christine Fowle

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.