Bodhgaya – the Bodhi tree in Gaya, India – where the Buddha achieved enlightenment – is one of the most important pilgrimage sights for Buddhists. The highlight here is visiting the great Mahabodhi Temple complex, a giant stupa monument surrounding the Bodhi Tree. According to the Buddhists, any prayers, meditation and positive or negative karmic activities that you do in Bodhgaya are multiplied eight times (8x!) – this means that coming to Bodhgaya to practice is a very, very special activity.
In spite of the thousands of pilgrims that come here, Gaya is a very small and impoverished town. There are not many places to stay and not a lot of information for tourists online. There are other temples in town that represent each country such as Thailand, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Japan and others, some which you can stay at.
We decided to stay at the Root Institute, which is a semi-monastic retreat center, reasonably close to the Bodhi Tree. It is a very safe, clean and welcoming place for pilgrims, monks and foreigners and the food is vegetarian, clean and quite delicious.
The center offers simple lodging, a quiet place for reflection, two Gompas – meditation rooms which are open to use – a great library full of Buddhist books and a TV room where you can watch Buddhist films. There is also a nice garden throughout the property with colorful Dahlia flowers, hydrangeas, Buddha statues, goats and baby goats, friendly dogs, cows, frogs and birds jumping around. A highlight is their huge prayer wheel that you can spin whenever you feel like it.
As mentioned, any positive or negative karmic activities that you do in Bodhgaya are multiplied eight times (8x!) This did not stop someone from stealing my sandals on my first visit to the Mahabodhi temple. (Suggestion to leave your shoes at a shoe booth where someone will watch them at the entry gate. Also wear a pair of socks, as you can not wear shoes on the premises.) I can’t say I was not warned. Who knows how or why, but perhaps it is just the first major lesson in Buddhism – suffering exists, and it exists because of attachment, but there is a way to free yourself and others, and that’s to consider your sandals a donation to the poverty stricken community and to let them go. Whoever took them must have needed them more than I did. A lesson in attachment – learned immediately.
We continued to visit the Mahabodhi temple for three days straight, this time wearing shoes we didn’t care to lose and hiding them better. I actually brought a pair of sneakers praying someone would take them because I wanted to throw them out anyway, but of course no one did. Well, at least whoever took my sandals had good taste.
The Root Institute where we stayed has major projects that work to help the local community including a free clinic for the poor, a school, various projects for children and work with a leper colony. You will find that the surrounding areas are in destitute conditions by Western standards. You will see fields of grass that at a closer look are also full of garbage where pigs, cows, dogs and people are rummaging through for scraps of food and unfortunately you will find petty theft. It is a very humbling experience that quickly reminds you in a very real way – that many, many people in the world can use help and many, many people in our own immediate vicinity need us too.
Which brings us back to good karma being multiplied 8x at the Mahabodhi temple – Pilgrims come to this sacred, power spot in hopes to also become enlightened and to purify karma and create merit – not for themselves, but for all sentient beings – all living beings in the world. It is a beautiful practice and there are many ways to practice at the temple. Upon entering, people bring flowers, fruits, packaged food and other objects of worship as an offering to the Buddha to give thanks for his teachings and to the Bodhi tree behind the giant stupa, where the Buddha sat for many weeks until he achieved enlightenment. There are numbered spots throughout the site that mark where the Buddha sat at various points and where he practiced walking meditation. The food once it is offered and blessed, quickly, gets dispersed to anyone who needs or wants food.
People practice “circumnabulations” – which requires chanting mantra while physically walking around (circulating) the temple and Bodhi tree clockwise, however many times you would like to. There is a path immediately around the temple and there are two additional paths on the outskirts of the temple. I found instructions for circumnabulating at the Root Institute that had mantras and a visualization you can do to prepare for the practice. But it can be as simple as walking up to the Bodhi tree, saying a small dedication of gratitude and also dedicating the karmic merit of what you are doing for all sentient beings and then walking around the temple chanting a favorite prayer or mantra of choice. You will see monks and visitors practicing this using Mala beads, chanting internally one mantra for each bead.
Each day I would circulate about 7 times. This practice took about 20 – 45 minutes depending on how fast you walk. I found the affects were really relaxing, grounding and centering. After this walking practice it felt great to sit in meditation under the Bodhi tree and listen to everyone praying, the various types of birds chirping and jumping in the tree, watching Bodhi leaves fall and monks jump to catch one and keep them as a souvenir. A few fell on Daniel and I and it was like receiving a lovely gift from the sacred tree. It is definitely a beautiful and peaceful spot to meditate.
Although some monks beg to differ as large groups sometimes come through with megaphones, chanting and talking as they bring a large group through. But we still found it to be very peaceful regardless and everyone just meditates right through all the movement and bustling devotional energy. At moments it can be quiet and peaceful and then it suddenly changes to become busy and buzzing. This fluctuates throughout the day. Often big prayer groups come through for impromptu spiritual talks that take place in the gardens in a variety of Asian languages. Some leaders use mics and big megaphones. I’m a city girl, so I guess I am used to meditatating despite the noise.
Next to the main stupa on the left side if you are facing the Bodhi tree, there is an area where the Buddha practiced walking meditation. His foot prints are marked with small stone lotuses filled with flower offerings. This is a good place to practice walking meditation. You can walk back and forth here, very slowly, focusing on your breath and having each step aligned with an inhale and exhale. You can also use mantra, or just concentrate on your breathing.
Some monks and pilgrims are set up in the gardens on the outskirts of the temple practicing various rituals and “full prostrations” on large wooden boards. This is a physical prayer that starts standing and then swiftly moving using pads that help you slide to the ground and laying your whole body flat on the boards while offering a prayer overhead. This action is done many, many times. Again with the intent of gaining good karmic merit and offering it to the whole world. Watching people do this action was very humble and moving. Not to mention that it looks like an incredible abdominal and upper body exercise.
Most people find a place they feel comfortable at on the premises to sit in meditation. Some bring blankets, pads, cushions and set up for as long as they would like to practice. While at the Root Institute we attended a Dharma talk with a visiting monk from Thailand who sits for a month at the Bodhi Tree in meditation for nine hours a day. But there is no minimum or maximum amount of time required. They say even just coming to visit the temple gives you positive karmic merit. It’s up to you. For me I enjoyed circumambulation with mantra and sitting under the Bodhi tree.
On the outskirts of the temple people create mandalas, which are geometric designs with cups of water and bowls of flowers that are quite beautiful. There are also prayer wheels on the outer circuit that you can spin. Each wheel is believed to contain various sacred texts and mantras that are released just by spinning it. It’s also fun to do. You will sometimes see people carrying their own, personal prayer wheels and circumnabulating the temple with them.
On the outskirts of the temple are other places where the Buddha sat that are marked, small gardens, a pond and an area where people light and leave “butter lanterns” which is a dark room full of thousands of candles set ablaze. The more time you spend, the more you will find.
Overall, the Bodhi tree has been one of the most interesting, beautiful, and sacred places I have ever visited due to the sincerity of everyone who comes to practice together in their own way. Even if you are not a Buddhist, you can still come and pray for peace. At first I thought we would only need one day to see it and that we would go off to see other sights in the area, but instead we felt such a strong pull to come back to the Bodhi tree every morning to practice with everyone and left on our final day feeling very moved to have taken part in praying with so many people for positive energy, peace, liberation and good karma. After all, the world always, always needs it.
Daniel getting a driver to let him try driving the tuk tuk! Don’t try this at home: