Bodhgaya "The Holiest Buddhist City"

"We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.." ~Buddha

Today we visited Bodhgaya this was a last minute add on to our tour. I learned about this city from the Uber who took me to LAX airport, saying it was a must visit if I was going to be in Varanasi. After talking to other foreigners and reading about it online we decided we had to visit and paid our tour company $115 to add on a one day excursion. This trip was an 11 hour round trip car ride from Varanasi with mostly farm lands in between.

The city was originally named Gaya and since Buddha reached his enlightenment here until the Bodhi Tree, they decided to rename the city Bodhgaya. The city is the most important place for Buddahist pilgrimage, most Buddahist saving their entire life to make this visit.

Unlike Sarnarth which is in ruins and is an archeological site, Bodhgaya is a functioning Buddahist town. The streets are filled with monks from around the world, studying at the various monasteries. Buddhist countries from around the world have set up temples in Bodhgaya. We saw the inside of the Thai temples, a Japanese temple, and a Burmese temple. The Japanese government also donated a giant monument to Buddha here.

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The main attraction of the town was Mahabodhi Temple with the diamond throne (called the Vajrasana) and the holy Bodhi Tree. This tree was originally a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, itself grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. The temple was reconstructed in the 1800s when a British excavator found the temple 30 feet below dirt, due to the Mughal emperors destroying the buildings and looting them.

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We ended up splurging on a guide here because our guide book was light on the details of this and we didn’t want to miss any of the sites. We first learned further details of the Buddha’s life leading up to this enlightenment.

After prince Siddhartha Gautama left his sleeping wife and son at 29 years to discover enlightenment he met 5 others also trying to find the way (these 5 men later become his first 5 disciples). They all made a pack to not eat or drink water (asceticism) until they reach enlightenment and then went on their own way. Siddhartha went to a cave Dungeswari Hills and meditated for six years, he became incredibly emaciated. He ended up coming down from the cave frustrated and not achieving enlightenment.

He came to sit down in the middle of the forest in Gaya under a Bodhi Tree and started mediating. While he was meditating a local women who had prayed to that same tree to get pregnant and did, she came back with an offering of milk and rice pudding. Seeing the emaciated man under the tree, she assumed it was the tree God himself. He decided to take the food and nourished himself. This is when he reached his enlightenment the “middle way” to live not suffering and to not live wanting more.

Here on the grounds we can see what happened during those 7 weeks of enlightenment:

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FIRST WEEK: The Bodhi Tree and the Mahabodhi Temple, this is where the Buddha meditated and gained enlightenment. Here you see people chanting quietly with closed eyes. We closed our eyes here and meditated with the others from around the world.

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SECOND WEEK: Animisa Lokana was our next stop. It is said from here the Buddha spent a week gazing at the Mahabodhi Tree where he gained enlightenment without blinking his eyes.

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THIRD WEEK: Around the back side of the temple there was a spot called Cankamana where the Buddha spent a week walking up and down. It’s said that when Buddha walked these 19 steps a lotus appeared. There are 11 vases from 630AD that were recovered during the excavation of Bodhgaya and a newer platform behind it with 19 built by the British in the 1800s.

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FOURTH WEEK: Ratanaghara or the Jewel House Shrine where the Buddha spent a week in meditation reflecting on Patthana or Casual Law which is one of the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism. That all things in the universe are interdependent, impermanent and constantly changing. It is said that blue (confidence), yellow (holiness),red (wisdom), white (purity), and orange (desire-less-ness) rays emanated from his body while the Buddha was meditating here. These colors are used in the present day Buddhist flag.

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FIFTH WEEK: Ajapala Banyan Tree. When entering the main gate and descending the stairs towards Maha Bodhi Temple, there is a stone pillar marking the once Ajapala-Banyan tree. It is also here Lord Buddha while responding to a question raised by a Brahmin (the priestly and highest class in the Indian caste system) that it is good karma(action) alone and not birth which makes one a Brahmin. Here he denounced the caste system.

SIXTH WEEK: We went to the Mucalinda Lake (The Abode of the Snake King). Here one can see a statue of the Buddha in meditation protected by the hood of a giant Cobra. The story goes that a severe monsoon broke out while the Buddha was meditating and Mucalinda, the Snake King protected him from the elements until the great storm cleared. The Mucalinda Lake has also lot of fish.

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SEVENTH WEEK: It is here under a Banyan tree the Buddha meditated for a week. At the end of his meditation two merchants from Myanmar offered rice cake and honey to the Buddha. In return he gave them eight strands of his hair this famous Buddhist sermons "Buddham saranam gacchami and Dhammam saranam gacchami" (I go to the Buddha for refuge and I to the Dhamma for refuge). These eight strands of hair are believed to be placed as relics inside the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

It has been fascinating visiting this site and Sarnarth to paint a more cohesive picture of the Buddah’s life. In my life I’ve been to countless Buddahist temples in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and China. I’m very blessed to have a little more of an understanding, but of course there’s much much more than to learn.