Those who are interested in Buddhism might know that one of the biggest tantric initiations took place in January. The event I’m talking about is called Kalachakra (“The Wheel of Time”) and consists of almost two weeks of prayers, rituals, teachings and empowerments. The teachings and empowerments were given by no one else than His Holiness the Dalai Lama in one of the holiest Buddhist places in the world, in the Land of Enlightenment – Bodhgaya.
Why is it one of the holiest places you might ask? Well, some 2500 years ago, Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment after having meditated under a bodhi tree at the place where the Mahabodhi Temple now stands. The tree is still there and during Kalachakra, thousands of people were sitting under it trying to meditate and pray so that they can also swiftly achieve nirvana. I wasn’t any different, let me tell you that. But as luck wouldn’t have it, no enlightenment came. At least not yet. 😉
I set off on a 1500-km-long journey across India by no other means of transport than train. Every time I travel in India I forget how huge it is! I basically made a trip from California to Texas and back without even realizing it… Even though I booked a berth in Ladies’ compartment, I ended up in a wagon full of Indian men as the only foreigner. To my great surprise, neither were they intrusive nor did they stare at me too much; maybe because they simply snored throughout the whole journey. To my deepest regret, I bought a ticket for the best class that the train offered: the so-called 2A (two-tier AC wagon). So imagine a 36-hour trip in a wagon full of Indian men snoring, burping, and farting without any possibility of opening the window! Hence, on the way back from Bodhgaya I opted for the cheapest ticket. I had a bit less privacy but the fresh air was seriously worth it.
It is said that if you go on a pilgrimage, the more difficulties you have to endure, the bigger purification you will undergo. To be honest with you, a little bit of discomfort on the train and catching a cold were the only obstacles I had to face. However, many of my friends got really sick in polluted and dusty Bodhgaya and it took them weeks to recover, poor things.
The Mahabodhi temple which lures people from all over the world is the main sight to see in the town. Due to Kalachakra, around 300,000 devotees came to Bodhgaya in January; many of them came daily to the temple to prostrate, give water and flower offerings, or simply circumambulate the temple while reciting prayers and chanting mantras. Buddhists believe in karma (which actually translates from Tibetan as “action”) so accumulating merit in this life is crucial for the next one to be fortunate. Again, I went with the flow and circled and circled and circled…
While in town, I visited many other temples from the countries that follow their own Buddhist traditions such as Bhutan, Japan, China, Thailand and others. Walking on foot for quite some time in the sun paid off when I arrived at the 25-meter-tall statue of the Buddha Amitabha who in his serene meditative posture observes all the passers-by with his eyes half-closed.
Close to Bodhgaya are other holy must-see places that are worth the visit (at least for Buddhists). You can cross the river, walk through tiny villages and then you will find yourself at a place where Gautama Buddha once led ascetic life. After 6 years of having tortured his body without food he realized that the only way to enlightenment is by following the middle way (which – no wonder – is the approach of the Tibetan government in exile toward China). I, on the other hand, took a rickshaw in order to save some time and instead of walking for almost an hour, I was there in 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, all those holy places have become a tourist trap so instead of enjoying the whole atmosphere, I tried to run away from a foray of Indians of all ages trying to make little money from selling fallen leaves from the bodhi tree, caged birds, and cookies for stray dogs.
Since we decided to skip the ritual dance that took place on the 8th day of Kalachakra, we gained some time to visit Vulture Peak – where the Buddha taught the Heart sutra – as well as the ruins of the oldest university in the world, Nalanda. Not only was Nalanda a center for the biggest masters, scholars and pundits of that time, it was also a great monastery. Some say it was a combination of Harvard and Oxford. The premises were destroyed by Muslims around 1200 AD and imagine how big the university was given the fact that it took six months to burn it down!
Despite the dirt and extreme poverty (Bihar is the second poorest state in India) I had a wonderful time listening to different Dharma teachings, seeing all those happy people who got blessed by His Holiness, and being able to enjoy the holy atmosphere that this unique place offers. If you wish to continue with me on my pilgrimage, jump to the article about Varanasi!
Do you feel like I forgot to mention something? Let me know and I’ll tell you more!