A Blessed Pilgrimage

by Dr. Yutang Lin | 1990 | 18,562 words

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Part 7 - The Site Of Buddha's Enlightenment


On the 8th of January we flew from Kathmandu to Varanasi, India. Max, Professor Pryors assistant, came with a 50-seat bus to pick us up at the airport and take us to the Diamond Hotel where we spent the night. On the 9th we went to Bodhgaya, arriving at 4 p.m., and checked into the hotel of the Mahabodhi Society. In the courtyard of its compound there were a few tents where Tibetan pilgrims stayed.

After having changed into my Chinese cap and robe, I walked directly toward the Mahabodhi Temple that surrounded the spot of Buddha Shakyamuni"s Enlightenment. I had a box of Mandala Incense with me, and two different packages of candles, which I had bought from a peddling stand near the outskirts of the temple. One contained 24 candles, and the other 32. There were many people of all ages inside the temple compound including monks and nuns. With deep devotion they were prostrating, chanting mantras, reading sutras, circumambulating, offering incense and lamps, or sitting in meditation. The Tibetans seemed to outnumber all the others.

I went into the temple and prostrated to the statue of Buddha, then I offered the candles under the Bodhi tree of Enlightenment. I lit all the Mandala Incense sticks, and holding them, circumambulated the temple. Near the Bodhi tree of Enlightenment there was a platform with a lama in charge of the offering of butter lamps. There I offered 200 butter lamps with 100 rupees. (The market rate of exchange was 19.4 Indian rupees to one U.S. dollar.)

On the Bodhi tree of Enlightenment hung many strings of prayer flags and a string of small bells. Its trunk was wrapped in several layers of silk with auspicious praises written on them. Beneath the tree there was a rectangular platform called the Vajra Seat, right at the spot where Shakyamuni realized Full Enlightenment. Placed on the seat were some fresh flowers and ritual offerings, and right behind the seat, a tall white umbrella was erected to cover the seat as a sign of respect. The Vajra Seat and the Bodhi tree were gilded in places with gold leaves by the pilgrims as offerings; and right in front of the Vajra Seat was the main temple shaped like a huge stupa.

On the outside walls of this temple, slightly taller than the height of a man, were a row of statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Among them a gilded statue of Shakyamuni Buddha was placed facing squarely the Vajra Seat. The Bodhi tree and the Vajra Seat were enclosed by a stone railing with metal gates on either side which were usually locked. Near the right gate were two large circular stones; a pair of huge footprints was engraved on one of them, while a single footprint with auspicious symbols on the other. All were taken to be footprints of Buddha. Pilgrims made prostrations to them touched the footprints with their foreheads, or placed flowers, candles, incense, coins or gold leaves on them as offerings. A merchant traced them on pieces of cloth or paper and sold them. The Bodhi leaves would serve as wonderful souvenirs, but at this time of the year there were very few falling leaves. Occasionally one might find one or two. Some pilgrims were walking back and forth waiting beneath the tree with their eyes looking up in hopes of seeing falling leaves.

Along the left side of the main temple was a row of stone lotus steps placed on a long platform with the center of some of the lotuses adorned with gold leaves; this was called the Vajra Path. After Buddhas Enlightenment, he walked back and forth in meditation on this path for a week. The first seven weeks after Buddhas Enlightenment he stayed, for one week each, at seven places in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree. Six of them were within the compound of this temple, the remaining one was a small distance away. Nevertheless, at the spot just before the stairway that led to the main entrance of the compound a stone pillar was erected with a small gilded statue of Buddha sitting on top, to commemorate the seventh place. A stone monument with English and Hindu memorials engraved on either side was erected at each of the seven places. At one of the seven places was a pond with a huge statue of Buddha erected within. Buddha was sitting in meditation and his seat was encircled by a large serpent with its head raised above Buddha from behind to protect him.

There were some people by the pond selling live fish with water in small plastic bags so that the pilgrims might enact the Buddhist practice of saving lives. I heard that these fish were caught during the night from this pond by the people who were selling them for profit. I felt they were taking advantage of the kindness of the pilgrims, so I chose not to buy these fish.

On the outside wall of the main temple there was a statue of Tara (a transformation of Avalokitesvara) that the Tibetans paid special reverence to. In ancient times there was one Indian Buddhist teacher, Atisha, who originally did not want to accept invitations to preach in Tibet because he was quite old. But later, this statue spoke to him telling him to accept the invitations and, based on his Bodhicitta, preach to the Tibetans for their benefit. Thus, he eventually went preaching to the Tibetans.

A Tibetan pilgrim would stand at a distance facing this statue and make a wish, then, with eyes closed, walk toward Tara until reaching the wall. It is believed that, if one reached the wall right under the statue, then the wish would be blessed by Tara and would certainly come true.

In the early days of Buddhism there was no statue of Buddha, he was commonly represented in pictures by an empty platform or a Dharma wheel. Now, on the stone railings within this temple compound, carvings of these symbols can still be found. Within the temple compound there were hundreds of stupas of various sizes. Among them a few were composed from variegated debris of ancient statues or stupas so as to preserve the ever-present power of the blessings contained in them.

Professor Pryor said, after the decline of Buddhism in India, this temple was under the management of the Hindus for a long time. During that period the Buddhist and the Hindu statues were placed together for worship. During this century, after five or six decades of lawsuits, the temple was finally judged to be originally Buddhist and returned to Buddhist management. The Hindu statues had been removed from the shrine hall and placed together at one spot in the compound.

The moment I saw the many pilgrims who came voluntarily from all over the world, I immediately realized that all it took was sincere practices and realization of Truth for people to gather spontaneously. Hence, a practitioner who would like to propagate the Dharma need not be preoccupied with propagandistic activities. One need only remain sincere and persevere in ones practices, then the conditions for spreading ones Dharma activities will occur in time.

Here, I was at the spot of Enlightenment, facing squarely the ultimate Truth of Buddhahood. Such directness freed my mind from all considerations and resulted in a spontaneous devotion. How lucky to have the opportunity and means to have arrived at this holy place safely, and to prostrate in person to the seat of Enlightenment. The overwhelming sense of gratitude caused me to unreservedly pray for and turn merits to all sentient beings. The distinguishing of friends or foes, relatives or strangers, and likes or dislikes, became meaningless in the face of Enlightenment and disappeared into thin air. The paragraph above was written according to the notes I took under the Bodhi tree of Enlightenment. The significance of my pilgrimage to this holy land could be capsulized through these spontaneous reflections.

On the 10th of January, I woke up at 4 a.m. and immediately went to the Mahabodhi Temple alone. I got in by climbing over the fence near the main gate. Every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. the main gate remains locked; the pilgrims, clergy and laity alike, climb the fence to get in or out. The guards on duty who walk the compound ignore these entries and are on alert only for thieves or beggars. I offered six candles in front of the Vajra Seat; then I sat under the Bodhi tree and did my morning practice in the light from a street lamp. I recited my Gurus Poems on Pilgrimage, some hymns from his Collection of Hymns, my works A Succinct Supplication to Guru Chen, and A Short Hymn on Guru Chens Life. Then I returned to the hotel and had breakfast.

Afterwards, Professor Pryor led the whole group to visit the Mahabodhi Temple. In the shrine hall, I offered money from various countries into the donation trunk (one U.S. 20-dollar bill, one Taiwan 100-yuen bill, one Thailand five baht bill, a few Nepali rupees, U.S. coins and Rep. of China coins) signifying my prayer to Buddha for his blessing to the people of all countries of the world. Later, our group went upstairs to the veranda for sitting meditation, but I went alone to sit in meditation under the Bodhi tree. The Buddhist Tantric tradition requires students to sit lower than the teacher, and hence, I dared not sit upstairs where I would have been higher than Buddhas Vajra Seat. In front of the Vajra Seat I lit six candles and sat down to recite Pure Land Daily Practice which was, under the guidance of my Guru, originally edited in Chinese and then translated into English by me. I prayed for Shakyamuni Buddhas blessing to fall on those practitioners who would adopt this daily practice, and for the ever increase in numbers of such practitioners. After I had completed this practice, I circumambulated the main temple. At that moment I saw a group of Korean pilgrims inside the court of the Vajra Seat, and one of them opened the gate and came out; I took the opportunity to get inside and prostrated to the visualized Buddha on the Vajra Seat.

Later, while circumambulating the main temple, I got another chance to enter this court. A Sri Lankan monk spontaneously showed me how to revere the holy seat and tree. It is done in the following way: while chanting the refuge ("I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sanga.") or Shakyamuni Buddhas mantra ("Om Muni Muni Maha Muni Yeh Soha"), kneel down on the ground at the right side of the Vajra Seat and salute Buddha by pressing ones forehead on the seat. Then walk clockwise around the Bodhi tree but stop halfway to embrace the trunk with open arms, press ones forehead on the tree in reverence, and then continue around to the left side of the seat. Then kneel down on the ground and press ones forehead on the seat in salutation. Afterwards, I had a chance to see the court open to two groups simultaneously. One was our group coming down following sitting meditation. So I went in for the third time and asked my friends to use my camera to take pictures of me.

At noon our group went in several rickshaws to visit the nearby Burmese Temple. Over the past eleven years Professor Pryor has rented a building in the compound of this temple to house the Antioch College students who are part of the Buddhist Study Project. Once a year the school opens for four months in order to teach these college students from the U.S. In between, there is a three week break for the students to visit the holy sites of Buddhism or Hinduism in India or Nepal. When we walked by the shrine hall there was a group of Europeans inside learning Tibetan; they came to study Tibetan intensively for four months in order to serve as translators or interpreters in the future.

Their class ended a short while later, and we went inside to revere the Buddha statues. I donated 100 rupees, which I put into the offering box. On the temple compound there were women making candles. The manager was a friend of Professor Pryor, so I bought three packages of candles from her.

On our way back we walked by a Hindu Temple; we left our shoes at the entrance and went in for a visit. The Hindu priest told us to dip our right fingers into the sacred water and then touch and wet our forehead to receive blessing from their deities. Since they were not Buddhist and they might have some power to affect ones mentality through the use of their charmed water, I simply ignored their suggestions. We saw various kinds and sizes of linga yoni sculptures. One each was placed at the center of the small chambers, while the statues of some Hindu deities were placed on the sides. There was also a mandala for conducting Hindu fire sacrifice rituals. Statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were placed outside on either side of the entrance of each chamber signifying the Hindu view that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were merely guards. This showed the arrogance of Hinduism and their ignorance to the teachings of Buddhism.

After lunch, I had diarrhea, so I rested for the remainder of the day. The early morning chill from my morning sitting may have caused it. By evening I was well again. That afternoon I donated 100 rupees to the Mahabodhi Society as a small token of my thanks to them for having sent me their publications over the years.

Outside the main gate, along the wall of the Mahabodhi Temple, were a few rows of beggars squatting or standing. Some beggars would follow a passer by and keep mumbling for money. Most of the beggars were either senile, sick, women or children. I heard from people who had lived here for some years that some local people who were not poor were acting as beggars to gain extra earnings, and that some children would drop out of school to enjoy the fun of earning through begging. Some peddlers sold coins in plastic bags to make it easy for pilgrims who wanted to spare some change. The beggars then sold the coins they accumulated back to these peddlers; thus, the coins were recycled in their transmigration.

Some pilgrims would bring a small bag of grain and pour some into a few of the beggars bowls. When someone started to give to the beggars, a crowd would gather around with extended hands. It produced a sense of an ongoing robbery. This kind of situation caused one to hesitate about giving alms to them. I did not want to get caught in an entrapped situation, so I refrained from giving material things. Instead, I chanted in silence the six syllable mantra of Avalokitesvara for them as I walked by. Professor Pryor suggested that we give only to those few beggars who were still waiting there early in the morning or late at night, because they were the needy ones and they would not come forth to bother people.

As to those beggars who followed passers by, some people would say directly to them in Hindustani, "Go away!" while others would simply keep walking in silence until the beggar lost interest. Granting that they had the right to beg for almsgiving, I chose the silent response. Occasionally, I would give a rupee or so. I was more inclined to give to the sick or disabled. I felt sorry for those kids who, upon seeing foreigners, would cry out, "One rupee, one rupee, ...." Buddha taught us to practice almsgiving. Encountering unusual or difficult situations in our practice is unavoidable. Of course, to practice almsgiving with a pure mind and simply give as much as one is able to, without considering so many factors, would be ideal.

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