This is an excerpt from Paolo Coluzzi’s Book, Buddhism and Pilgrimage.
Mud Pie Books recently published the title Buddhism and Pilgrimage by Paolo Coluzzi.
In this book, Coluzzi escorts us on a journey to Buddhism’s four most sacred pilgrimage sites: Lumbini (where the Buddha was born), Bodhgaya (where the Buddha reached enlightenment), Sarnath (where the Buddha began to teach), and Kushinagar (where the Buddha passed away).
Interspersed with comments from his travel journals and reflections on the many adventurers he encounters on the way, this book explores how pilgrimage interacts with following a Buddhist path.
What follows is an excerpt from the chapter on Bodhgaya.
“The flight from Bangkok lasts three and a half hours: over the mountains of Western Thailand and Myanmar, then over the Ganges and parts of Bangladesh, arriving at our final destination at two in the afternoon India time. Climbing down from the plane, I can sense both excitement and trepidation at being in an utterly new country, one well known for its culture and spirituality, but also for its extremes of wealth and poverty.
Customs control is strict. The policemen and personnel in this small airport—which only functions as an international airport for the Buddhist pilgrim season and is, at all other times, an unhurried domestic airport—look quite stern. At the exit, taxi drivers await customers, while cars and minibusses organised in advance receive my fellow passengers and take them to the temples where they will be accommodated (nearly all temples here have hostel annexes for pilgrims). I am one of the very few who has to haggle for a passage to Bodhgaya. They name 600 rupees, a sum extortionate in local terms, and I try to bring it down to 300, but no go. In the end, all I manage to wangle is a feeble discount of a hundred rupees. Well, what other alternative do I have? So the taxi driver takes me to the hostel of the Bhutanese temple, at full throttle along the narrow country road leading to Bodhgaya, brushing against passersby, bicycles, and the ubiquitous local tuk-tuks which are here called auto-rickshaws.
At the Bhutanese temple, with its elegant pagoda roof, all the rooms have been taken. So I get an auto-rickshaw to the other end of the little town, to another of the guesthouses recommended in my travel guide. This one has several free rooms, probably because they are a little dearer, and there are fewer foreigners about. The rooms are simple but clean, each with its own bathroom and TV. Even though I don’t really need a television set, I must admit that over the following evenings it will open up for me another window on this country’s popular culture.
The receptionists and other members of staff are most helpful, which I appreciate. I always find them in good spirits, despite their twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Indians don’t seem to smile as much as Southeast Asians, and may look indifferent or even surly at times, but their frown easily turns into a smile over the slightest thing.
I’m pleased to have found accommodation so quickly; I have slept very little and am exhausted. I hear the noise of the traffic outside, especially the horns that go non-stop whether they are needed or not, and for a moment I am overcome by a sense of loneliness and emptiness, and by a niggle in my head: will I be able to last a whole week in this messy and noisy place? But I am aware that exhaustion tends to bring on pessimism in me, so I lie down on the bed and give in to a nap, after which I feel much better. It is nearly five in the evening when I venture out.
Immediately, I find myself in at the deep-end, besieged by India’s diversity, its dust, its dirt, its poverty, its confusion. There are people everywhere, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, auto-rickshaws by the dozen, and the occasional motor vehicle, all flashing past me, all in a hurry, all honking. People here basically drive with one hand on the horn and dodge each other continually. But nobody pays much attention to all of this. To them, it’s all normal; and soon it will be normal for me too. I also see the first cows here, walking placidly in the middle of the road—they are also being dodged continually by passing vehicles.
I stop at the first restaurant I find to cheer myself up with a delicious masala chai—tea with milk and spices—that quintessential drink of the Asian Subcontinent which I have enjoyed so much in Sri Lanka and Nepal. As soon as I finish, I get moving again towards the town centre, passing through a small market and several beggars, until finally, I arrive within view of the Mahabodhi Temple. The sun has just set. The temple’s 55-metre-high shikhara (spire) soars out of the surrounding green. What a nice surprise it is to find that entrance is free of charge. I decide to go in straight away, to allow myself a preliminary look around. I am still tired, even a little lifeless. And then I think: ‘Buddhism teaches us to not let the negative thoughts that arise in our minds dominate us, but to let them go, and live in the moment. If I don’t practise this now, in this outstanding place where the Buddha attained liberation, then where and when else?’ In that moment I feel the tension releasing and I start to sense the positive energy and the enthusiasm that usually buoy me up on my travels.”