Sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, my mind was restless like waves on an ocean. For over an hour I had struggled to sit silently and meditate under the tree where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
But, I couldn’t take my attention off from observing the interesting activities of diverse Buddhist pilgrims from around the world.
Monks and nuns with shaved heads and elegant orange and brown robes sat in stillness, deeply engrossed in meditation. How I wish my monkey mind would let me sit still like that for five minutes!
Indian women in colourful saris and foreigners wearing baggy pants, T – shirts with Buddha motifs and large summer hats circumambulated the majestic Mahabodhi Temple under the cloudy evening sky.
Tibetan ladies circled the Maha Bodhi temple by stretching down flat on their stomach with folded hands, getting up again and repeating. This stirred up nostalgia from my trip to Tibet in 2007 when I used to watch in amazement as locals performed this physically demanding ritual at remote monasteries at high altitudes.
I watched with interest as a Thai lady unpacked a large gourmet cake and offered it to the idol of Buddha at the Mahabodhi temple as an offering. This was so different from the (also yummy) sweets we offered to deities in India. It looked so delicious and I sinfully craved for a piece. Mastery over my senses was clearly not on my spiritual menu today.
As I joined the pilgrims circling around the temple in tranquility, I was suddenly roughly pushed aside by a lady who seemed to be in a hurry to fast track her own road to Nirvana. Suddenly, looking around I realised that most people were totally self absorbed in quest of their own salvation and some didn’t mind getting pushy and overtaking others in the process, as if others were pesky speed brakers on the highway to salvation.
What was this? Some spiritual marathon?
Walking around the temple premises later, I noticed that pilgrims sat huddled in their own groups only, not even smiling or engaging with other groups. Strange, since everyone was here to pray to a singular Buddha. This was similar to the uneasy silence I had experienced of contrasting sub groups of Christians at Jerusalem and Hindus at Benares.
The silence of the place was suddenly disturbed by a lady shouting at someone for usurping her place right under the Bodhi tree. She banged her plastic bottle on the ledge and demanded that the person get up and leave. This unexpected disturbance shook me up and most people turned around to look at the epicenter of this ugly drama. I overheard some monks discussing how this lady has given up living in her country and has been staying on the premises of this temple for years in the hope of finding moksha. But, in the process she had lost her mental balance. She would come like clockwork for all the daily prayers. This was her fixed place to sit and anyone who dared take her place got a dose of her rage.
I didn’t know how to react, but it certainly left me disturbed. Guess that’s why Buddha stressed on walking the middle path so that people don’t lose their mind in the rigours of the spiritual process. I felt compassion for her condition and silently prayed for her well being.
A little while later, a group of young monks huddled up to a senior Indian monk sitting next to me under the Bodhi tree. They revered him like the Buddha himself. Some of his students attempted to discuss Buddhist philosophy with him and the nature of the ego. But, ironically all he wanted to do was boast about all the international Buddhist conferences he had been invited to and how he would get free sponsorship.
That’s it. I rushed restlessly inside the densely packed Mahabodhi temple and wriggled my way right to the front. Closing my eyes before the serene statue of Buddha, I silently shared my disappointment at all that I had just witnessed.
Why was I being forced to experience these disturbing scenes when all I wanted was a few moments of peace under the Bodhi tree?
Was it so necessary to sprinkle a dash of peppery reality check on my illusion of calm?
I lost count of time and held on tightly to the railing as devotees crashed into me like tumultuous waves on a rocky shore. Interestingly, the security guards roughly asked everyone at the front lines to leave, but for some reason spared me. Perhaps they sensed my desperation.
A few days back, I had come to Bodh Gaya to attend a meditation retreat hoping to find peace. But, what I got was a heightened awareness of the nature of reality and more often than not, the realisations were far from pretty. The retreat didn’t really give me peace, but gave me a deeper understanding of the workings of life.
Now, I had come seeking peace under the Bodhi tree. But, the process of reality check I was undergoing was the same.
A realisation softly dawned on me like the gentle break of dawn. I realised that just like Buddha, the seeker sets out seeking peace. But, gets yanked on to a rough roller coaster ride that opens his eyes to the illusions that surround him and toughens him to accept hard truths and then find beauty in the most seemingly ugly situations. Somewhere at the intersection of these overlapping circles, peace dwells silently in its humble abode.
As this realisation dawned on me, the restless waves of turmoil on the ocean of my consciousness and the waves of the pilgrims crashing on to the shore of my being both stopped.
Devoid of waves, I was now neither an ocean nor a shore. In that moment of absolute stillness, peace finally welcomed me into its humble abode.