Being in Bodhgaya

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Once we decide to stay awhile, we quickly find a routine, consisting of some combination of eating, emailing, temple visiting, and shopping. And even though we are sleep-deprived from the endless succession of noisy November festivals (Diwali, Lakshmi Puja, Id, Jhat, Sun Puja, etc.) with their firecrackers, processions, amplified music and preaching, we are still quite content in Bodhgaya.

How can we not smile when walking from the Burmese Vihar to the “Om Café”? Or from the giant Japanese Buddha to yet another funky bookstore with so many unread (by me) travel writers? And while the Hindus whoop it up in the streets, we can always escape to the Bodhi Tree, to sit with the Buddhists and their more introspective-and immeasurably quieter-forms of worship. Sometimes a white-clad group of pilgrims will chant a mantra together for a few hours, led by a monk with a small megaphone, but that’s about as rowdy as the Buddhists get. Which is nice.

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We meet other travelers – some Europeans, Japanese, Israelis, and Americans, including a group of 32 undergraduates attending the Buddhist Studies semester abroad program through Ohio’s Antioch University (a phenomenal program that provides a unique, engaged, and academic way to travel). The program’s Director, Robert Pryor, has been coming to Bodhgaya each fall for the last 26 years and, over lunch with his students (who hail from universities across the US, and are preparing for their three-week-long independent study trips to Thailand, Sikkim, Burma, or Dharamsala), he tells us about how much the town has changed and grown. And yet, Bodhgaya is still an island of tranquility, he says; its only drawback, says Nick, the dreadlocked philosophy teacher, is its location in a vast and unruly Bihari sea. The state of Bihar does indeed have a bad rep. It is widely known as the poorest, hottest, most backward and politically corrupt state in the country (kind of like Florida).

After our first week, the celebrations die down, peace and quiet return to the night (along with a three-day plague of baby grasshoppers), and we settle even more comfortably into our $8-a-night room at the Deep Guesthouse. There is some business to take care of as we pass our days here. There are writing deadlines to make, train tickets to reserve, a flight from Delhi to Bangkok to be postponed; but this is all done unhurriedly. And it’s good to have a few solid tasks in the midst of so much wandering.

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It is also necessary to finish these things before Tuesday, when we enter the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, whose compound we will not leave for ten days.

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