Bodhgaya: The Highlight of My First Buddhist Pilgrimage
Imagine… You’re sitting next to the MahaBodhi Temple, only meters away from the very spot where the Buddha gained full enlightenment. You take in a few deep breaths and look up at the beautiful heart-shaped Bodhi tree leaves moving gently in the breeze above you. There is a feeling of wonder and excitement in the air, knowing that this was the place where the Buddha sat in meditation and achieved a great awakening 2,600 years ago.
You bring your body into a meditation posture and feel a rush of anticipation as you reflect on the promise of what your meditation may bring. Many wondrous things have happened in this special place. Who’s to say that something wonderful couldn’t happen to you as well?
As a slight breeze touches your face, it brings a light fragrance of incense from some nearby offerings. The soft chanting of devotees reaches your ears, but it doesn’t distract you, instead only serving to inspire you more. Practitioners have their mind tuned to the same frequency here, of mutual respect to the qualities of the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom, with many wanting to improve themselves and bring greater benefit to the world.
Thoughts of home life drift off into the far away distance as you sit in the inner sanctum of the temple grounds. With your mind turned inwards and with one-pointed concentration, you begin your practice which cleanses the mind and nourishes your heart…
This is the type of experience many of us have had when we’ve spent time in Bodhgaya in India. For Buddhists around the world, there is nothing more unique and extraordinary than having the opportunity to meditate in the same place where the Buddha became enlightened. It’s said that the blessings of merely visiting this site is innumerable, and that’s even before we do any practice!
Being in such a place seems to energize people. It can certainly feel that way. Suddenly everyone seems to be an early riser, meditating at dawn. Notably the Thai monks will bring their mosquito nets into the temple at night and set them up with the aim of meditating all throughout the night. You can’t help but feel inspired by their diligence.
Hundreds of Buddhist practitioners from all different Buddhist traditions come together in Bodhgaya. You can see a variety of monks and nuns creating a rainbow of maroon, orange, pink, brown, yellow and grey robes, all circling the place where the Buddha sat in meditation. Here the differences in traditions are seen but they blend harmoniously with their united love for the Buddha, his qualities and his achievements.
Bodhgaya is one of my favorite places in this world. I started saying that back in 1998 when I was 19 and on my first Buddhist pilgrimage. I really didn’t know a thing about Buddhism at that time, only that there was someone named Buddha who achieved some kind of liberation through meditation. For four days I sat with my relatives, among hundreds of monks, as they chanted for hours under the Bodhi tree (the tree of enlightenment). I remember feeling light, peaceful and carefree during this time. I felt strangely at home among the monks as I meditated and I found my mind easily becoming stable, focused and free of thoughts. I actually thought I was doing something wrong; for a 19 year old, having a mind free of thoughts seemed almost boring!
Still uncertain of what to make of my experiences in Bodhgaya, I remember on the last night before we left, I knelt at the foot of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha had meditated, and on a whim I decided to pray to the Buddha – that if he really did exist and if he thought Buddhism might be a path I should follow – would he mind giving me some kind of sign? It may simply have been a coincidence, but just as I made that wish, a sudden wind blew up and a Bodhi leaf fell down in front of me. In Bodhgaya, usually when a Bodhi leaf falls to the ground many pilgrims will scramble to get it because it is considered a blessing. But when I looked up to see if anyone was going to claim it, no one did. So I picked up this leaf and carefully brought it back with me. In fact it’s the same leaf you see framed in my videos behind me.
For me this leaf reminds me of what the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree and I guess it is also a nice memento of my time in Bodhgaya, the first time I ever really tried to meditate. But what I really took away from my time in Bodhgaya was the lasting impression it left on me. I think the tranquility I experienced there – and dare I say the energy of the place – is why it’s a place unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled to around the world. And perhaps this is why I’ve been drawn back there time and time again on three more Buddhist pilgrimages as well as why I did a two-month retreat there. I simply cannot get enough of this place.
And this is also why, when planning the itinerary for our Buddhist pilgrimage this year, I wanted to make sure that I gave people plenty of time to spend there. Every time I’ve been on pilgrimage, people have always said the same thing, “I wish I could have spent more time in Bodhgaya”. I know exactly what they mean; even as I’m leaving I’m always wondering how soon I can return.
I hope one day you might also have the opportunity to visit this very special site of Bodhgaya. It’s a place that can touch everyone, no matter who you are – the faithful or simply a curious traveler.
If you would like to join me on a Buddhist pilgrimage and spend some time in this and many other amazing locations relevant to the Buddha’s life, you can find out more about our pilgrimage at www.enthusiasticbuddhistpilgrimages.com.
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