Bodhgaya: In the Footsteps of the Buddha

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I have seen the largest tree in the world (the “General Sherman” in California’s Sequoia National Park) and I have walked among the tallest trees in the world (the Redwood Forests of the Northern California coastline). Now, I have sat under the holiest, most revered tree in the world.

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After wandering these arid Bihari plains in search of spiritual enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha Gautama finally found what he was looking for here, under a Bodhi tree near the Phalgu River, becoming The Buddha. This was 2,628 years ago. Lord Buddha continued to roam the land, to teach, to meditate, and finally, to lay down and die in present-day Kushinagar, India. His followers recorded and practiced his teachings (which centered around practicing compassion and subduing one’s busy mind), creating the spiritual path which blossomed and spread and, today, is called Buddhism.

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“The Buddha Circuit” is a loop through Northern India and parts of Nepal which follows the journey made by Lord Buddha, who, it goes without saying, is the most Tranquilo Traveler that ever was or will be. Religious pilgrims from around the world (especially Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia) come to follow his path—in air-conditioned tour buses, by public transportation, or, like the Buddha, on foot. We arrived on the Rajdhani Express from Calcutta.

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Out of all the sacred Buddhist places, from Prince Siddhartha’s birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, to the spot of his passing in India’s Uttar Pradesh, Bodhgaya is the holiest, and a profusion of international monasteries and shrines spreads outward from the Mahabodhi Temple complex, in the middle of which grows the famous tree. (Actually, today’s massive, shade-throwing, flag-adorned Bodhi is a distant offshoot of the original tree, goes the story, a cutting of which was whisked away to Sri Lanka by King Ashoka’s daughter until it was safe to bring it back and re-plant it.)

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Buddha, considered a facet of Vishnu, is sacred to Hindus and Jains as well, and there are several mosques in town, which blare their muezzin calls five times a day; the resulting spiritual mélange is amazing. And the incredibly noisy Diwali and Lakshmi Puja celebrations notwithstanding, Bodhgaya is a peaceful, pleasant haven. Our original plan of staying for only four days before continuing to Varanasi is under re-consideration.

[friends, i am braving a veritable plague of baby grasshoppers to post this message — they are swarming the screen and keyboards, crawling through my hair, in my ears, fear factor in buddha-land, or perhaps some ultimate meditative test of patience — say it with me: “ommmm…”]

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