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Passing Through Bodhi Gaya

Bihar -- Why Buddha, twenty-five centuries ago, chose this unutterably forsaken spot to sit under a Bo tree, I can't imagine. Nor can I guess why Ashoka, great warrior turned Buddhist, should establish the capital of his empire a hundred miles north in the equally desolate landscape at Pataliputra in the third century, B.C.

The town, now called Patna, could not be less inviting, nor more heat-battered, grimy, dusty and austere. Surely, since the human body has not altered that much in twenty-five hundred years, the heat of 115 degrees in the shade -- hotter at night, as the concrete walls re-radiated their heat, in the monastery where I stayed -- must have been no less a torment in the fifth century B.C.

Under Buddha's tree, it was probably even more scorching then, as, presumably, the Bo tree was smaller and cast less shade -- or maybe not. For this is not the identical Bo tree under which Buddha sat, but its progeny. The present tree was brought back as a sapling from Sri Lanka where a cutting of Buddha's Bodhi tree was taken by the nephew of Emperor Ashoka before the original tree died. I'm not exactly sure of the dates of these horticultural transfers. I even suspect they may be apocryphal, but the tree that stands in Bodh-Gaya now is immense. And it makes absolutely no difference in the intensity of the pre-monsoon heat whether you are sheltered under its dense foliage or not. Shade counts for less in this landscape than twilight and early morning. Maybe there is a certain coolness under its shelter in the night -- but, at that time, the gates to the Mahabodhi Temple complex are locked.

Buddha sat under the Bo tree for six years, according to some legends, or six days according to others, before he attained enlightenment. I wonder what he did for the comfort of his bowels. Did he eat? Who fed him? A six-day trance fringes the possible. A six-year trance is not like anything you or I can easily believe, could do, or would likely want to. What exactly would enlightenment be, I asked myself.

Getting to Bodh-Gaya is one story, being there in the crucifying sun is another.


It takes more than five hours to travel from Patna to Gaya by train, a distance of not more than seventy-five miles. Arriving at the Patna train station at dawn, I was early enough to have a choice of train car. I chose a car half drenched by water leaking from the roof onto the seats opposite me, thinking it might mean the car would remain cooler and stay less crowded. Not so. Bit by bit, even before we left the station, people encroached onto the wet seats, sat on the wet floor absorbing the water into their clothes and, soon, the heat had dried the residue. 

Before we had gone ten slow stops on this slowest of all local and stopping trains, we were, as is usual in India, packed tighter than any American can realistically visualize.  The ceiling sprouted fans in all directions. Not one of them worked. I sat in the doorway, my legs hanging down over the metal plates of the stairs, just above the gravel, grit and shit of the railway embankment, grateful for the wind when we were in motion.

The searing heat and the inhuman crush never overcomes the patient good cheer of the ordinary Indian. But I was ill, in a torment of loose bowels, and hungry. I feared to eat the cucumbers which were the only edibles available on the train. But after I ran short of my tepid, supposedly "good," water obtained from the last hotel, an Indian -- Indians are always kind and observant -- offered me half a long pale, what we would call, "English" cucumber. Cut lengthwise and sprinkled with chili, I could not in all politeness refuse to eat it. So, I let go of the fear of his dirty hands, the dirtier hands of the vendor and the filthy basket in which the cucumber had rested since it had been taken, no doubt, unwashed from the earth. The heat is so intense in India, I told myself, it makes all clean. I felt momentarily refreshed. I had been in India years before and not been sick. Indeed, I had just come down from Kathmandu specifically to recoup my health, to steady my bowels, to find something I could or wanted to eat.

After the five hour train ride to Gaya, it took another hour to get from Gaya to Bodh Gaya in a three-wheel motorized rickshaw (I think they're sometimes called "tempos") made for six people but carrying fourteen -- for which I was double charged because of my white skin. Even so, the cost was about fifty cents for maybe twenty miles.

I didn't then know the phenomenon by name, but I arrived in the town of Buddha's enlightenment the day the "pre-monsoon heat" struck. Each year, a month or so before the monsoon begins, the heat jumps, from one day to the next, by ten or fifteen degrees. It is expected. And it is welcomed. It is a sign that "the monsoon will be good this year." This year the rain was much needed. All of India, I had heard, was suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history.

Arriving at the gates of the Burmese monastery at noon, with the sun firing down its incinerating blasts, I wept to find a sign on the locked metal fence announcing that it would not be opened again until 2:00 P.M. Tears ran down my cheeks as I banged on the gate, rattling its chain, rocking its hot-as-a-branding-iron frame. Finally the ubiquitous young Indian lad appeared (on my side of the gate), gleaned my story and disappeared. Within a few minutes a toothy old man -- four teeth stuck straight out like individual canopies over his lower lip -- came and opened the gates. Dressed in a dhoti, he spoke a bit of sing-song English and was, for many days to come, as kind as a grandfather to me.

He led me out of the blazing sun into a room that seemed cool by contrast even though it must have been well over one hundred degrees. Electricity for the fan was "temporarily" off then, as I found it was to be at least half the time for the duration of my visit. The room was thick with dust, and the undersides of the shelves of the whitewashed wall recesses were blackened by soot from naked candle flames and their surfaces encrusted with wax -- this should have been a warning about the electricity, but I was too ill to recognize it at that moment. There were two hard pallets with clean white sheets folded across them and yards of greyed mosquito netting. I lay down exhausted, ready to vomit, begging for water which the fellow with the teeth got, tepid, from a garden faucet. I tried to ascertain, as any already indisposed tourist would, by asking impolite questions, whether or not it was safe to drink. He assured me the monastery had excellent water. This was confirmed by others on the following days, though where it came from in that parched landscape I never knew. Up from the ground somehow. Was it a well? It was good water they said -- but nothing could keep it from being tepid. I, who do not like ice-water, longed for the clink of just a few civilized cubes against a sparkling clean glass. I slept and woke and slept again.

Was I close to death? I might have been. Probably I suffered from heat stroke. Certainly I suffered from hunger. They served no food to guests in the monastery. It was more than a mile into town -- what was I to do? Two days later, I persuaded the ancient one to get me some food. He brought two small watermelons for me from the town; he, no doubt, had sent the lad. One I ate straight down, for the water and for the sugar; by the next day, the second had began to sour in the heat. I ate it anyway, not knowing when I would get another bit of food. It was a mistake. Diarrhea began again. On the third day I bought a plate of rice across the road at the grass and bamboo shack that seemed to be home to the lad and a considerable number of other family members. I ate two spoonfuls before I carried it "home," and then it, too, spoiled before I was hungry again.

The incandescent sun circled in a sky which was pure white, as if the heat had burnt up all the blue. Across the road was the Falgu river, a mile wide, flatter and drier than the Sahara. Palms, gone pale in the light, shagged its edges. Almost no one moved from mid-morning to twilight. On my bed, I lay wondering if this was where I would leave this world. I didn't care.

Though I rarely read novels any more, a desire to re-read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain had recently come over me while I was sitting in Korea in the three months silence of Kyol Che (the Buddhist winter practice).

When I could stand a bit better, and needed something to do other than feel the pulsing of my despair, I asked about the English Library that was mentioned in my guide book. From the porch of my room in the separate dormitory, a fellow pilgrim pointed toward the furtherest corner of the second floor of the main hall. I mounted the back stairs into an emptiness of grit more desolate than the river beyond the road. One or two bits of English furniture lay about and parts of an old four-postered bed, a broken chair. Otherwise there was nothing on that vast second floor of the monastery.


Below the library, on the ground floor, in the long darkness of their refectory, the handsome, bronzed, young (they were actually in their forties but looked twenty), orange-clad monks watched television all day. At night, returning on their motorcycles, I knew not from where, they slept on the refectory floor or on charpoys in the garden. They were delightfully friendly and hugely enjoyed the tourists cum pilgrims like me - when I began to put in appearances after the worst of my illness was over. The dozen or so of us staying at the monastery were a motley crew.

There was one regal, young Anglo-Indian woman who, with a Spanish companion, was helping to build the first small structure for a Tibetan monastery out in some field. There was a young English girl, named Teresa, tall, round-faced, who was planning to return to England to study law after some two years of wandering. She, more or less, save my life. There was a lovely, smiling Indian woman by the name of Jesse, who called herself a Christian sadhu. She went about doing her version of good which did not necessarily jibe with the monks' idea of good. She had, apparently, quite out-stayed an originally warm welcome. There were also a Korean lad with his Japanese friend; several portly nuns from Thailand who spoke only Thai; and others whom I saw only in passing in the mosquito-filled nights when the fans stopped their indolent turning, went dead along with the 25 watt light bulbs -- and we all wandered out, candles in hand, from our suffocating rooms to dodge and swat the insects.

I stepped across the dust and desertion, tiptoeing my way to the furthermost corner of the monastery's shadowed upper story, and there, on the slanting-like-a-teeter-totter shelves of what had once been a piece of nineteenth century furniture, was a crazily tumbled collection of books: mostly novels, detective stories, a few scientific treatises, almost nothing to do with the spirit, less to do with literature, obviously stuff pilgrims had unloaded from their backpacks rather than carry onward. To my amazement, and thanks be to Buddha, there was a densely printed, translated-into-English paperback of The Magic Mountain. Was I surprised? I suppose so. But the heat under the uninsulated ceiling was rising. I grabbed the book and fled.

In my room, through the days that followed, I read it slowly, interspersing my heavy-headed lack of enthusiasm for Mann's ponderous Germanic analysis of the world before chaos -- or just when chaos was beckoning -- with visits to the ladies room, thick with mosquitos and crackly with lizards. I tried to catch the water in the shower and the sink and garden faucets when the water was on. The whole system, apparently, worked via an electric pump and went out as often as the fans. I drank and drank and drank the tepid water. Nothing slaked my thirst. Jesse taught me to toss a bucket of water onto the composition stone floor and to hang sheets -- in my case, two sarongs I had bought in Thailand -- dripping wet from a line so that the evaporation of all this water cooled my room -- if ever so slightly.

Over maybe a week's time I got better, and I got worse. I became friends with healthy Teresa who had worked for six months on a sheep ranch in Australia and as a nanny in the outback. She brought me an egg that Jesse cooked and bitter black tea which is excellent for stablizing the bowels. Finally, I asked for a doctor. He came and prescribed electrolytes, just as they do in the U.S.A., and almost in the same form: a sickishly sweetened liquid like Gatoraid, which I tried to drink but couldn't. The doctor also gave me medicines, also abominably sweet. But the doctor, a most sympathetic Indian man, with medicines -- he threw in some antibiotics in mercifully swallowable pill-form -- and house visit included, cost only about $5 -- better odds than a health care plan.

I wondered, I wonder still, why I didn't just let myself die. Not sadly, or for any reason or lack of reason, but simply because I didn't know where to go or what to do. I had no interest whatsoever in living. Indeed, one night when a funeral procession, carrying candles and branches, came walking along the road and out across the river bed, I found myself quite envying the corpse, draped,as it was, on a bier of wood, decorated all around with withered palm fronds that rattled in the wind.

Eventually, however, with the help of Teresa, I shook off my ennui enough to stagger, at twilight, into town to eat omelets on chappatis. She took me to a rather magnificent lean-to built of stripped young saplings and palm fronds at a wide place on the dirt road in central Bodh-Gaya. She had been in town for several months and knew a good many of the people, all the paths and most of the restaurants.

Bodh-Gaya. How can I give you a sense of it? It's actually a pretty little town and must be beautiful in the rains. It's flat but surrounded by fields. It's animated because enough tourists and pilgrims come there to have inspired the entrepreneurial spirit in some of its inhabitants. But the friendliness is still genuine. There are monasteries housing monks of many nationalities scattered all over the town and fields. At that season -- it was May -- they looked closed up and deserted even though, with a search, one could always find a door open and a monk, at last, to lead you to the dharma hall.

After a few days of omelets and dharma halls, I found my way, very early one morning, to the Mahabodhi Temple. I entered the sacred ground. The dawn was already losing its crimson hue above the horizon at what? -- 4:30, maybe 5:00, in the morning. I was alone. I stepped through a little low wrought iron gate into the complex, or maybe it was wrought copper, for it was turquoise-green with age. Beyond this decorative barrier, a rather wild, somewhat junglely garden grew among pillars and stupas. There were shoulder high flowers, some green things I didn't know, and lilies. One had the feeling it was watered here. I stepped into the temple. It was silent, gray, stone and lonely. Statues and carvings stood about in shafts of early light. But I knew this wasn't where I wanted to be. It was the Bo tree I had come to see. There was no one around to ask where it might be.

I went back out into the morning dazzle. I turned to my right, noticing a ways off an embankment which I never did go to investigate. I learned later from a map of the complex that it was a lake. Perhaps I was lucky not to have discovered it at the time; I might have jumped right in. I walked to the right around the vast temple building. And soon, scattered at my feet, near the temple's back corner, were elegant, heart shaped leaves with long curved points. They were scattered everywhere, and the wind blew more, green and golden, to the ground. I looked up. There was the vast tree. I didn't need to ask or look for a plaque. It was as huge and dark as a mango tree in the glittering gold of sunrise.

I stood for a long time, watching the gentle wind scattering the leaves. The Bo tree, though larger by far, reminded me of the balm of Gilead trees I have seen in the American desert, quivering and shimmering in the overwhelming light.

Facing the sun, I sat down with my back to the tree. My mind went blank. I tried to think about Buddha. But I had no thoughts. I tried to think about enlightenment, but no images came. The leaves scattered and I watched. There was no joy. There was even no disappointment. Just a vast neutrality. I watched the leaves fall. There was no lightning bolt of insight, no great awareness to record. The sun rose a little higher. A few more leaves fell, and soon they stopped falling as the wind stopped with the coming of the hotter part of the morning.

I never take mementos home when I travel. I carry no packages, trinkets, or works of art from place to place. Even the most temptingly beautiful sea shells and stones I have learned to leave where they lie. But the idea came to me to pick up a whole, maybe half-inch-thick, packet of the Bo tree leaves. Gently, one by one, I laid them one atop another on my hand.

Then I walked on through the garden at the back. India's gardens are different than Western gardens. They are sparser and each plant, shrub and small tree is very individualistic. There's little "landscaping," and no decorator feeling at all about most Indian gardens. Just as each human is to be taken on their own terms, so is each plant. There is a plan, you can tell, but no cohesion.

When I got back to the monastery, I did not know what to do with the leaves. Though turning toward the gold of autumn, they were still fresh and succulent, and fragile. I finally decided to put them between the leaves of my "Kathmandu and the Kingdom of Nepal," Lonely Planet guide book -- Buddha, after all, born in Lumbini, by the new drawn borders of today, would be a Nepalese. There, between the pages of the book a few leaves, half a dozen maybe, beautifully molded, remain to this day. The others, a dozen or two, I gave away to friends, family, some to strangers, human beings all, briefly met and briefly loved. But each of those, too, those given leaves, have left their greenish-gold-brownish mold in heart-shaped patterns on the pages of my book.


One day, soon after the day I sat under the Bo tree, Teresa and I, because I felt I was as well as I would ever get in the heat, decided to take the bus to Sasaram, on our way to Varanasi. On our last night at the Burmese monastery, the monks took us to visit

their new monastery where each private room had its own flush toilet. Still under construction, it was out on a plain about three miles from town. They served us tea -- that murky, spicey, sweet, boiled-with-milk-and-sugar Indian chai which I happened to love, but which makes me immediately sick. I was about to decline, but thought, for politeness sake, ah! one more stomach ache, what does it matter? and tasted it. It turned out to be, of all things, Ovaltine! shades of Captain Midnight!

The next day, in their old car that spat and sputtered, the monks drove us, against their better judgement, "nobody takes the bus from Gaya," (everyone takes the train, those infinitely slow monsters the British left, that for some esoteric reason the Indian national pride has become enamored with) to the bus station in Gaya. From there, we two women, squashed into a rumbling bus, headed out across the dryness of the Gangetic plain where all color had long ago been leached from the land.

Eventually, we came to the British built Grand Trunk Road, now one solid traffic jam lined with lorry stops and truck repair shops, across the north of the subcontinent. Wedged in by families and bundles and baskets of foodstuffs, sacks of rice and wheat, a certain amount of small live stock, we squinted through the dusty windows -- and I knew, again, why I had come to India. Heaven must be like this, I thought, at least the scruffy kind of heaven in which I would like to abide forever.

Nothing appeals to my soul more than a rocking, lurching bus ride, pressed all around by hundreds of patiently beautiful Indians. As I look out at the pale landscape of rocks and stones and dryness and dust and an occasional tree -- always with a bullock cart and white clad driver beneath its branches -- India bewitches me. It is, to me, the rarest of opiums to move through that sacred land, whether by bus or, when I felt better, on foot. It in itself is a raison d'etre. A reason for being. There is no question that its heat cannot absorb. What did I learn in Bodh-Gaya where Buddha sat under the Bo tree? I got up off my bed and moved on. No more. But no less.

Besides, how else would I have found out that the most holy city in India, the sacred city of Varanasi, the "city of light," -- some say, the oldest city in the world -- exists only on one side of the Ganges? Across the river it is empty sand.


Updated: 23-7-2001

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