Bodh Gaya, Land of Enlightened Shopping

India 2013

Being good Canadians, we arrive at the Varanasi train station at 8:30 for a 10:15 train. Being a good Indian train, the Sealdah Express is delayed until 11:15 and shows up at 12:30. It decides to change tracks, too. This means we have to carry all of our luggage up about 50 steps, over to the new track and then down 50 steps, and do it in about 2 minutes because the track change is not advertised on the schedule board, but a man, being a good Indian, sees us sticking out like sore thumbs, figures out what we're up to, and tells us, the Sealdah Express is changed to track 6. Now. How he knows, I have no idea.

Waiting for a train brings all sorts of ways to beat boredom. Taking photos and recording audio being two of them.

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Once on board, I take a series of shots of a mother and son at the window, traveling alone.

And here is the Bihar countryside zooming by them.

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Upon arriving in Gaya, we catch 4 auto rickshaws for a harrowing ride to Bodh Gaya. Our driver has fallen behind in traffic, and is doing his Indy 500 imitation to catch up to his buddies.

We arrive at our new home at around 5:30. To call the Vian Giac Vietnamese Monastery an oasis is an understatement. Its delicate architectural lines, spotless stone and hardwood floors, and light airy ambiance are a welcome surprise. The beds are bamboo and the bedding silk, and each room has a private bath with western style flush toilet and hot water for a bucket shower.

Bright and silky bedclothes at Vian Giac.

Furniture made from tree stumps and a huge taiko-style barrel drum adorn the 3rd floor balcony.

The other side of the same balcony features a giant brass bell.

At 6, we sit down in the dining room for a meal that reflects the lightness and simplicity of the place.

Vegetable broth is served with all you can dish greens and tofu on the side.

There are 11 of us plus maybe 20 other visitors, most of whom appear to be Vietnamese, and maybe more on retreat than on vacation.

This is Leslie. She and some of her travel companions have been sitting next to our group at mealtime. Extremely friendly, and her English is quite fluent. She's Taiwanese. So much for appearances and presumptions.

After dinner, we all gather outside the library next to the meditation room for an orientation meeting. Darrol gives us info about upcoming events he has planned for us and we have a chance to get our bearings and air any issues or ask any questions. Have I mentioned what a great facilitator Darrol is? He just makes it so easy for everyone to get along and have a wonderful time.

After the meeting, Ben, Emma, Dennis and I decide to go for a walk to the main attraction of Bodh Gaya, the Maha Bodhi Temple. It's a warm, breezy, clear evening and the temple is lit up to the nines.

Maha Bodhi Temple. Maha means great and Bodhi, awakening. So great was Buddha's awakening that we're still learning from it 2,500 years later.

An extravagantly lit path, flanked by gardens, circumnavigates the temple. Note the abandoned shoes on the left side of the walkway. I'm betting some poor soul read the No Shoes Allowed sign back at the entrance, decided to be flip and ignore it, but then their conscience got the better of them about 20 yards in.

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Friday, 22 Feb. Day 10

Not sleeping so well the last couple of nights. Something going on in the nasal passages. Dust? Diet? Change of climate? Who knows? And who cares, as long as it doesn't develop into something nasty. Poor Ben has been pretty sick since Delhi and Darrol seems to be coming down with something. Hope I'm not next on the list.

We start the day with another meeting. It's 'tell-your-life-story' time. We have been doing this most mornings since we arrived. One of us takes 20 minutes or so and gives a run-down of whatever he or she feels has shaped them into who they are today. Maybe family, education, travels, religion, other important life events...whatever. It's a beautiful way to gain insight into, and empathy for, one's travel companions. Just anticipating being the speaker, however, gives insight into something else - i.e. one's own insecurity! My turn happened back in Delhi, and I'm glad it's over with.

After the meeting, most of us head to the Maha Bodhi Temple again. It is alive with action, and of course, plenty of inaction, too. (heh heh heh... a little buddhist humour, there.) After some confusion about which of the massive trees is the Bodhi tree under which Gotama Buddha sat and sat and sat until he figured it all out, I see it! And it is obvious. Not enlightenment. The tree, silly. It's marvellous to see, but I am so caught up in capturing it, and the whole scene, in photos, video and audio, that I feel I am totally missing it. (A pretty poignant Buddhist lesson in itself.) So I promise myself I will go back again at least once and just sit for a good long time.

Searching for Buddha's Bodhi

Is this The Tree?

Mmm, don't think so. Must be this one.

Another candidate, but no cigar.

There is a service going on with a hundred or so monks chanting away. The Marcels certainly could have used this bass guy on Blue Moon. Bomp diddy bomp a-rang-a-dong dang.

At the end of this video you will see THE Bodhi tree.

Some more shots of this noble and blessed old fellow.

Wikipedia calls it a "Sacred Fig" and says it's "a direct descendant planted in 288 B.C.E. from the original specimen." So, perhaps it's not the actual one under which Gotama sat, but hey, give the old guy a break. It's maybe 2.300 years old!

There are plenty of stories about the tree and its relatives, so - like most things you hear about India - don't be too quick to take it as Gospel. (Veda, Canon or Sutra either.)

Note the 180-foot spire of the Maha Bodhi temple peeking through the leaves of this giant arm.

At one side of the temple is a commemoration of where Gotama spent time in walking meditation. If you don't know what that is, think of it as advanced pacing.

The "platform" referred to on the sign above is on the right. The old sculptures on the ground may be remnants of previous lotus footstep commemorations. Anyone?

Stone lotuses on the platform. "Stone Lotus." Someone HAS to name a band that.

Barefoot Bill & Shea seem to have a natural skill at charming other visitors and locals alike into conversation.

Another confusing little item about the Maha Bodhi temple is that its architecture is Hindu, not Buddhist. To me, this is a testament to India's open-mindedness toward all religions. At the same time a testament to the opposite, seeing as how the original was destroyed by the Muslims in the 11th century. This country's got no shortage of paradoxes. I'm reminded of that great metaphor of the blind men and the elephant. One touching the trunk, one the leg and another the stomach of this great beast, and, though they may not know it, they're all touching the same elephant. Ha ha ha. Get it? NO? Well, if I have to explain, that ruins the whole thing.

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The Inevitability of Shopping: The Fifth Noble Truth

Warning: The following contains over 3 paragraphs without a photo or video. Some focused reading may be required.

After visiting the temple, I head out to sample some of the fabulous shopping ops at the open stalls that line the streets of Bodh Gaya. I'm looking for shawls for the wonderful women in my life... partner, Sharon, daughters Katrina and Hannah, Sharon's daughters Layah and Sasha, and good pal Kim Brodey. I'm also looking for one for myself. The amount of choice is daunting, especially for a non-shopper like me. I have no patience and no skill, but I'm willing to develop both for the sake of bringing something home that will induce a big smile.The first time I bought something for an important woman in my life was in Grade 7: a silver chain bracelet with the name Rita etched in flowery script on the little rectangular door which opened to a skinny box not big enough for a photo, unless you folded the photo in thirds so that just the nose showed. I guess her failure to be impressed succeeded in making a big impression on me. I became a non-shopper, and today, 50 years later, I freely admit that fact.

In acceptance, there lies discovery. They are so closely related, we might say they are one. As soon as I hang my head admitting that I am non shoppos mentis - almost in the same breath - comes the realization that I am not totally without taste; not completely devoid of instinct. All I need to do is hold an image of one of my lovely ladies in my mind while scanning the vast forest of shawls - silk, pashmina wool, patterned, plain, brightly coloured, subtly shaded - and magically the field narrows to a just few candidates. Flabbergasted, I feel an excited vibration under the skin... I'm, I'm...I'm... SHOPPING! Actually SHOPPING! And, I'm shopping for someone ELSE!! For a WOMAN!!! For a woman I LOVE!!!! I can barely stand the excitement. This may seem quite normal for some of you - probably most of you - but for me it's part of expanding out of that universe I mentioned in the previous chapter. To picture myself while shopping is relatively easy. I'm right HERE, after all. But to imagine another... now that takes a little work. But it is possible. Just another opportunity to experience how this universe of which I am the centre is not the only universe there is. I know. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Simple, yes. Easy, no. Must have something to do with the sacred geography of Bodh Gaya.

Not only is there a huge selection of shawls in this boutique, there is a huge selection of boutiques; but using my newly awakened trust in my shopping instincts, I settle on one place that feels right. It is manned by two very young kids. Girls, maybe 15 and 16. (Perhaps one is named Rita?) They are good sales people. Friendly, knowledgable and surprisingly articulate about their large inventory. They're willing to unfold any shawl or scarf I might point to, but they're not pushy to make the sale, which to me is the perfect sales technique. Within a half hour, I have narrowed it down to a very few choices. My travel mates Pam & Heather stroll by about this time, and - despite my newly acquired skills - I am not shy about asking the opinions of other universes... er, shoppers. With their help, I soon settle on one for each of Hannah, Katrina, Sasha and myself. The girls and I haggle out the final volume discounted price, and the deal is done.

Now that the pressure is off, I ask one of them a couple of friendly personal questions. Turns out they are sisters. "Oh. I thought you might be," I say. "How old are you?" "I'm 13," says the one, "and this is my younger sister. She is is 11." Flabbergasted seems to be my modus operandi this afternoon. "Oh? And is this your parents' shop?" "My mother is dead," she says. "And my father stays home and drinks all day." She delivers this bomb calmly and matter-of-factly while reaching under the counter for a bag and neatly placing my purchases inside. Had we not already struck a firm deal, I might have thought it a sympathy ploy to jack up the price. But she is dead serious as I look in her eyes, express my condolences, thank her, and gratefully and humbly take away my treasures.

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Bodh Gaya is full of temples of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. After dinner, I strike out on my own to search them out. Temple hopping. One of them is the Sri Lankan Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Vihara, only about 100 meters west of the main Mahi Bodhi Temple. Vihara is Sanskrit for Temple (and is the origin for the name of the state of Bihar, of which Bodh Gaya is a part), so both places have pretty much the same name, as far as I can tell. This one is much smaller, but beautiful, and very special, as it houses some relics of the Buddha himself. Murals of scenes of his life line the walls.

Time to call it a day. Tomorrow will be day 2 in Bodh Gaya, and Day 11 on the trip. As I settle down to my comfy, comfy bed I'm aware of 4 things.

  1. My body is feeling fantastic. Daily scritches in my lower back and hips have completely disappeared.
  2. My throat is not feeling fantastic. A few of my travel pals are downright sick, and I'm afraid I'm going to join the ranks.
  3. My morning meditation and yoga practice has disappeared, ironically enough, in this of all places. Kind of like going to the ball game and not feeling like cheering. New resolve to get back on the wagon.
  4. I'm so exhausted and so happy to be here. (That's only one thing, because they come on the same yawning exhale.)
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oh, yeah. and 5... The elephant is God and the parts of it's body are the different religions;
all part of the same God, but the blind men think their little part
is the whole thing, which in fact it is, but let's not argue about it all the time.
Or something like that.
Nighty night.

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