Cheng Chin Yuen

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bodhgaya (5th – 10th Mar)

Being probably the two least spiritual persons in Bodhgaya, we first paid homage to the internet café before the Bodhi tree. Some of the intense spiritual power here must have rubbed off the internet connection and photos were going on the blog every 3 seconds. The Indian guy running Vishnu’s internet café tells us about how he sees colourful swirling vortexes in front of him after a few hours of meditation. At its height, a great ‘fireball’ blasts through the swirls and the mind is placid and clear. This dude is certainly en-lighted. Forewarned that Bodhgaya is a very spiritual place, we listen respectfully and do our best to prevent the disbelief from escaping our faces. If you think this guy is intense, wait till you see the foreigners who are here to embrace Buddhism.

For Asians, Buddhism works itself subtly into the various ways of life. You don’t see people walking barefooted in a monk robe under the mid-day sun, putting each other to sleep in deliberate measured monotones, pairing a huge beard with a small bun of hair right at the top of the head or experiencing a heightened sense of happiness which is to be made known to all the unfortunate souls within a 5 metre listening radius. The Bodhgaya Buddhism dosage for these blokes is perhaps a tad too high and some of them are probably suffering from a Buddism-OD which transforms the normalcy of everyday life into a celebrated radical life-altering revelation. Well, for the Zen-deficient me, Bodhgaya is full of weird and peculiar westerners who armed with several books, are trying to experience the ‘enlightened’ and ‘exotic’ East via the bridge of Buddhism. It’s like the ‘in’ thing to do here since Bodhgaya was where it all began.

After observing these western oddities for a couple of hours, the sun eased off a little and we could make our way to The Mahabodhi Temple to find The Bodhi Tree. At the entrance, CD peddlers transformed what was intended to be soothing Buddhist chants into a hammering loud irritant that lasted the whole day. For the sake of the many pilgrims who go there daily to pray, prostrate and meditate, there is no entrance fee but most tourists cannot avoid a one time camera charge of 20 rupees. Videocams are 200 per piece and 500 if yours is a shoulder-mount-bazooka-like ‘big one’.

When we finally make the barefoot walk to the front of the Mahabodhi, it was disappointing to find the main 5-storey pyramidal stupa under a shroud of rusty scaffolding. I asked a shopkeeper when would the restoration works be completed and this was what he had to say:

‘In my humble opinion, never. They want to keep the donations coming. When people see that the temple need money, they donate. I have been here for the past five years and nothing has changed. If they really want to do it, they can finish in three months.’

‘Oh, that’s not very Buddhist-like. Who’s they?’

‘The local mafia…’

‘Ahhhh…thank you for the interesting bit of information. I feel a little enlightened now.’

So the devotees are suckered by the mafia and all LP-based tourists too by the photo of the magnificent Mahabodhi with the invisible scaffold in the 2005 edition. Looks like Bodhgaya corruption has got the better of Buddhism here. No wonder I have only seen like three men up there doing what looked like restoration work. UNESCO probably doesn’t know about this either. The mafia’s headquarters is probably in the ‘Office of Temple Management’ which is also in charge of ‘donations’.

Despite this enlightenment of sorts, Bodhgaya is still worth a visit to enjoy the convergence of pilgrims from all over the world. In the three days we were at the Mahabodhi, there were contingents from Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Korea. The Sri Lankan group was about 150 strong and all simply dressed in white. Their guru is surprisingly young and led the evening prayers. The Thai group were the wealthiest and came with a professional photographer and videoman. The Thai monks also had digital cameras stashed somewhere in their robes. They barged in on the poor Koreans who found themselves suddenly surrounded, outnumbered and out-chanted and had to relinquish top spot underneath the Bodhi Tree for another corner. Before the Thais arrived, these elderly Koreans were kowtowing as they said their prayers in unison on their blue and pink plastic sheets till they were flushed and sweating. The Burmese had a brown sash over their tops to match their longyis and were the quietest of the lot. To be able to come to Bodhgaya, they probably hail from the social elite in Myanmar. Besides these main groups, there were representatives from other countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and China. To be here is a dream realised for these people much alike the Hajj to the Muslims.

The Bodhi Tree, with the help of 10 green supporting poles, radiates outward in a huge semicircle from behind the Mahabodhi Temple. It would have been bigger if Emperor Ashoka’s wife hadn’t lopped it down. The tree today actually comes from a cutting saved by Sanghamitta (Ashoka’s daughter) who escaped to Sri Lanka with a sapling from the original tree before her unreasonable mother destroyed it. The Bodhi Tree seems to be flourishing and I wonder if fertiliser is added since pilgrims disrupt the nutrient cycle by picking up the heart-shaped Bodhi leaves as a souvenir for their homes and temples. Perhaps my Uncle Chou who is a monk would be delighted with one sample.

Squashed between the Mahabodhi and the Bodhi Tree is the Diamond Throne, or the spot where Buddha sat to do his mental homework. There is supposedly a red piece of sandstone beneath the elaborate altar. In the centre, sits a small Buddha statue clad in a robe of diamonds. The Diamond Throne and the Bodhi Tree is barricaded by a fence covered with colourful prayer flags and banners but anyone can pass through the golden gates to view the sacred spot during the opening hours. Thinking I was one of the photographers for the Thai contingent, I was allowed into the enclosure to ‘cover’ the senior monks in prayer. This took a few minutes for chanting and the arrangement of their generous offerings after which the tsunami of Thai aunties swept me to one corner and held me immobile for a while. The cream of the crowd got to touch and place their foreheads on the Diamond Throne and those behind placed their hands on their backs as if to sap some of the Holy power. Notably, the average age of the mostly-women crowd was about 55. These ladies would do well intercepting the queue up our SBS buses.

One unusual form of prayer involves showering a flat metal mortar with handfuls of rice, coloured stones, beads and shells followed by a circular rub of the the shiny metal surface with the blade of the hand. One elderly Tibetan woman was doing this for hours over a few days.
Prostrations are made easier with smooth wooden boards, hand-pads and a blanket to cushion the body. I have no idea how many times the burpie-like worship is repeated but the monks were losing some serious weight in the process, a better workout than football perhaps. The novices here tried to cut some corners by spending a noticeably longer time in prone position before getting up on their feet again. The older monks however did it properly. I haven’t seen a nun here prostrating but one Tibetan woman despite her height prostrated around the perimeter of the temple grounds, several hundred body-lengths in total for sure. I waited to see how she would go down the stone stairs that led to the main temple, thankfully she decided to walk.

The more normal human beings just sat facing the Tree and meditated or mouthed their prayers silently. Altogether, the effect is one of peace and spirituality and we were just happy to savour it on an Earthly-level. At night without the crowds, it is even more peaceful. Some monks and nuns meditate under mozzie nets draped over their heads which reminds me of scenes in Chinese horror movies where the undead are about to spring to life beneath their shivery veils of cobwebs. I remember a picture of Buddha having a mozzie net of sorts when he was in the jungle. It was sewn into his umbrella. The temple closes at 9pm and reopens at 4am where the really hardcore pilgrims come…I presume.

We stayed in Mohammad’s House located away from the tourist area in the middle of small mud houses where the poorer folks make do with one electric bulb in the entire house. It was the kind of place where all the lights in the house become dimmer when someone switches on the heater in the mozzie-infested toilet. Small rats also visit our room from time to time. Bodhgaya experiences an average of 4 to 5 blackouts per day, each lasting from 15 minutes to an hour. I had the good fortune to be in one when I was in the middle of a shower at Mohammad’s but thankfully Karen came to my rescue with a headlamp.

Dwargo’s Samanway Ashram

Three Japanese undergrads we met at Mohammad’s brought us to Samanway (Harmony) Ashram, where they were doing volunteer work with the 40 less fortunate kids there. Here, we got to have a nice chat with Dwargo, the 84 year-old Pakistani headmaster who has been at its helm for the past 34 years. ‘You may not find enlightenment in Bodhgaya, but you will find peace here’ he says, ‘I myself have experienced it. Just come and help out in my Ashram and you will find peace.’ With a yearly operating cost of 1 million rupees a year, the Ashram’s educational philosophy is one which is ‘of life, for life and through life’. The kid’s day starts at 4.30 with prayer and meditation. Prayer is in Hindi but the emphasis is on moral values rather than religion. After breakfast, the kids work in the farm in the compound. Their parents are mostly poor farm labourers not land-owners and have little idea on how the farm functions as a system. The farm produce help to feed the kids and the staff. Their meals consists mainly of rice and dhal. After lunch, the students go for lessons followed by a compulsory 2 hour nap and then play-time. Evening prayers follow dinner and the children are asleep by 8. The evening pray was conducted in total darkness to the high-pitched voices of 40 kids singing songs of love and compassion in the hall. According to Dwargo, the kids know many songs and they just sing different songs everyday.

The ashram also plays a matchmaking role. Though they will only get married later when they are 18, consenting compatible couples are paired up before they reach that age and if their parents approve, the marriage will go ahead. I guess it is one step better than arranged marriages since they would have at least a few years to know each other better. Dwargo doesn’t want to give the kids too high an education so that ‘we won’t lose them to the cities’. The kids here do not learn English. It takes US$15 (630 rupees) to support each kid for a month and the teachers here earn a monthly income of 2500 rupees (S$100). Dwargo introduced us to one lady teacher who studied there as a kid. Her room is spartan with the wooden bed taking up most of the space.

Dwargo doesn’t to have anything to do with the corrupt government and the ashram is funded mainly by the Japanese, Dutch and other individuals who had heeded his appeal to donate 1 per cent of their monthly expenditure to the ashram.

‘What is your purpose in life?’ he asks before launching into a long lecture of how humans are distinguished from animals by this thing called ‘super-consciousness’. By this time, I have already zoned out. I zoned in again when he talks about how Gandhi (his hero) instructed that his books and writing be burnt after his death. ‘These things are not important anymore. My life is my message.’ Dwargo continues, ‘Religon and technology are outdated today. What is important is Science with Spirituality.’ I can’t help but zone out again. I ask if he goes down to the Bodhi Tree often and he says he cannot be bothered with ‘rituals’ like these.

He invites us to have lunch in his room which has surprisingly few things for someone who has been here for 34 years. But compared to the other staff quarters, it was more luxurious with an attached bath and tiled walls. The only electronic device is an Inverter, which is like a backup battery against blackouts. Lunch is a delicious vegetarian thali prepared by one of the older girls. The stuffed tomato was heavenly. Dwargo, like the monks, eats only 2 vegetarian meals a day and abstains from tea and coffee.

Our lunch is interrupted by a old lady who after a brief exchange with Dwargo squats on the floor and grumbles in disappointment. She has just missed the eye-camp, where Indian doctors come from Mumbai to offer free eye treatment for the poor. She has to wait another year to get her eyes fixed.

Half a dozen countries have constructed temples and monasteries in Bodhgaya but the most impressive comes from Bhutan with its fine 3D murals on the walls and pillars. We eagerly awaited a free meditation session at the Japanese Temple which turned out to be a DIY thing, they just provided the venue, cushions and mosquitoes. I think I lasted 5 minutes before checking out to read my book. Earlier on as we were waiting beneath outside the Jap temple, Karen drew a small crowd of local men who gathered around her just to watch her write in her scrapbook. They were genuinely impressed! It was as if women and writing didn’t go together in India. Karen asked one guy to write his family name and he wrote down all the names of his family members including his grandparents.

The Varanasi Bombings

Two bombs went off in Varanasi on the 7th of March killing about 15 to 20 people. It was the first time that the Hindu holy city had been bombed and a Pakistani extremist group had claimed responsibility. So it was two more days of devotee-gazing beneath the shade of the Bodhi tree for us before we deemed it safe (after reading the papers and talking to some tourists who just came in from there) to take the train there.

The Train to Varanasi

Train rides in India are mini lessons into the multifaceted culture. On this ride, we found ourselves in the good company of an Italian psychologist who came to study Sanskrit and some Tantric mediation. He gives his guru a bear-hug before they part and tells us that he had to repeat the tantric mantra about 150,000 times when he started the 3 month course. Now the 7000 he does each day is a breeze. He’s going to Varanasi to visit his Sanskrit teacher who teaches him for free.

Next up was a couple of professors or a professor couple. The husband is a retired political science lecturer and his wife’s field is in Indian classical music. Karen asks him why Bihar is so poor and he replies instantly ‘Rituals’. Indians spend tons of money on the rituals of the festivals they celebrate and they have plenty of festivals in a year. ‘More than 365 festivals in a year!’ He exclaims and I don’t know if he was joking. This started a big egocentric conversational snowball rolling with this man in the middle of it all talking mostly to himself. He can’t seem to stop talking once we got him started. Soon we all realised that as much as he was a talker, he wasn’t such a great listener and couldn’t answer our questions directly. The Italian asked why did the Indians have such a high standard of personal hygiene but litter and spit all over and he launched into a description of how they prepared the food! I rephrase the same question but got the same reply. ‘I don’t know’ certainly wasn’t in this guy’s vocabulary and I began to pity his students. We finally became more engaged in the conversation when they defended the merits of the arranged marriage. They were the result of one and have subsequently arranged marriages for all their four children. ’More than 80 percent of arranged marriages are successful’ meaning less than 20 percent end in divorce. Whether the marriages are happy or not is another matter it seems. According to them, parents now can find suitable partners for their kids online on this website called ‘Shadi’. Photos and detailed specifications like height and skin colour are spelled out here. Our political science prof commented that the Italian’s skin would make it into the top grade – milky white.


Blogger tiramisu said...

Erm, I wasn't taught by you, but you were my school teacher back in my secondary school days. Well, got your blog from a good friend of mine, and I'm intrigued by your blog cos I do go backpacking too! Its rather enlightening to experience (thru a laptop screen) life, from the places you visited.
Hope to really travel like you do.. like really immerse and become a "fellow countryman" in a country, and not a mere visitor. But let me grow out of my phobia of visiting rats first, haha!
Well, Mr.Cheng,

11:06 PM  

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