– Me at the Mahabodhi Temple
Nearly 2,500 years ago in India, a wandering monk named Gautama was practicing severe austerities in the forest with five fellow mendicants. After 6 years, he had nearly starved himself to death and attained almost unimaginable states of single-pointed concentration. Yet, despite his herculean efforts, he was still dissatisfied with his understanding, for he discovered that even subtle bliss states lasting for days at a time were subject to the law of impermanence. After controversially accepting a bowl of milk from a maiden named Sugata, enacting with his own body the principal of the “middle way” he would someday propagate to the world, his five friends abandoned him in disgust.
Shortly after this incident, he sat down under the now famous Bodhi Tree, and vowed not to leave the spot until he attained enlightenment. Traditions differ, but the most popular one says he meditated for a week, observing himself with mindfulness and scrupulously inquiring into the nature of his own experience. On the 7th day, he saw the morning star and finally experienced his own True Nature. Then he said something like, “I am awakened together with all beings!” The monk Gautama had become the Buddha, or the “Awakened One.”
Like a seed that contains thousands of unseen future generations within itself, this singular moment in history was not an isolated event. From this moment of illumination, and through the Buddha’s subsequent 40 years of tireless teaching, a world movement began that would catalyze many thousands and perhaps even millions of individual awakenings up to the present day.
Buddhism, like every major religion, has countless millions of followers and hundreds of sects that are often in intense ideological disagreement with each other. Yet every sect asserts the importance of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment, and traces its roots back to a single spot of ground in the modern city of Bodhgaya, India. A temple built by the famous Buddhist emperor Ashoka tracing back to around 260 B.C. marks this spot, and contains what may be a direct descendent of the original Bodhi Tree. For Buddhists around the world, it is the holiest pilgrimage site on Earth.
– Sunset in Bodhgaya
I recently visited Bodhgaya for three weeks, and it was an incredible experience. I have been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation daily for 7 years, and have spent considerable time studying with Buddhist meditation teachers and going on long retreats. I consider Buddhist meditation to be my primary path to enlightenment (or God-Realization) in this lifetime, and for this reason I feel deeply connected to the historical Buddha. Although Buddha-Nature is equally present everywhere, it was an incredible blessing to walk in the Buddha’s footsteps (literally!), meditate, and contemplate my life’s meaning under the Bodhi Tree at the epicenter of the Buddhist world.
Because of Bodhgaya’s significance, most major Buddhist sects have a presence there. There are many beautiful temples, monasteries, and retreat centers from a diverse array of traditions. As a practitioner of Zen, I often forget how diverse the Buddhist world is, and it was very refreshing to see Buddhism in its international character – Thai monks, Tibetan monks, and Zen priests; red robes, blue robes, orange robes, and yellow robes; Chinese, Japanese, South American, Australian, European, Russian and North American pilgrims; and these are just a few of the pilgrims and sects I witnessed there, all expressing by their presence their connection to the Buddha and his inspiring message of every human being’s potential Buddhahood.
While in Bodhgaya I visited a number of awesome historical sites, participated in one retreat with a Tibetan teacher, and experienced many of Bodhgaya’s impressive temples. Yet the most powerful experience for me was going to the Mahabodhi temple, the place marking the spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience. In this post I’ll briefly share my experience of the temple itself and conclude by sharing some thoughts on enlightenment. A subtler and more complete expression of my views on enlightenment is contained in both my book and in other posts on this blog.
The Mahabodhi Temple
– The Bodhi Tree
The main road in Bodhgaya is dusty, polluted, and noisy. As anyone who has been to India can testify, drivers honk their horns – a lot! Generally, I have experienced few things in life scarier than driving in a taxi in India (there’s no need for me to explain this statement further – if you have been there, you know what I mean!). Vendors and taxi drivers beckon you on all sides to spend money, and large groups of beggars implore your help. People approach you selling various trinkets, and often will not take no for an answer. Packs of wild dogs and other animals wander aimlessly in the throng of people. So it is with a feeling of relief that one leaves the main road and finally gets to the sacred refuge of the temple.
After going through two security checkpoints, you then enter the temple yard. The site of the massive main building, with its impressive etchings of Buddhas and other patterns covering its totality, is awe inspiring. It reaches to the sky with a majestic confidence that silently testifies to its historical significance. Its base is broad and slowly slims until it ends with a single point high in the air, seeming to signify the rarified heights of life’s most ambitious goal that many strive for but few reach in their lifetime.
When you think of the Buddha, you probably think of him silently meditating under the Bodhi Tree in deep contemplation. The Mahabodhi Temple usually has the exact opposite feel. At times I found myself thinking: is this a spot where the Buddha meditated silently, or a pep-rally? Sometimes three or four distinct groups are doing separate chants with loud speakers simultaneously. Groups often beat drums and play instruments. In busy times, there is a steady drone of tourist conversations, and hundreds of pilgrims all-the-while are doing prostrations, saying prayers, and circumambulating the temple together. People walk by you chanting mantras under their breath with intensified emotional sincerity. Tibetan throat chanting – often with hundreds of participants – reaches dramatic heights over a loud speaker.
In general, the atmosphere is dramatic and intense. And all the while, in the back of my mind, I remembered the stirring thought that the Buddha himself once hallowed this very ground with his deep meditation and powerful insights into the nature of the human condition. Additionally, pilgrims have been continually visiting this spot for thousands of years, and subtle vibrations of their spiritual practice remain in the ether. The spiritualized energy in the air is tangible, and to meditate and pray there was truly a blessing.
– Chanting monks near the Bodhi Tree.
Thoughts on Enlightenment
Like Jesus – for better or for worse – the Buddha has become more than a man, and is often conceived as a collective symbol of our own highest potential. As religious symbols, the Diamond Throne (referring the spot of Earth that the Buddha meditated upon under the Bodhi Tree) and the Bodhi Tree are potent reminders that experiencing enlightenment is life’s highest goal. Yet we should never forget that the actual historical Buddha was only a human being. We all have the capacity to realize what he realized, and the freedom he attained is something we all can attain through our own efforts. Every human being is a potential Buddha, in the same way that every seed is a potential tree.
Yet the path to Buddhahood is not easy, for it eventually requires the inner renunciation of all lesser goals. The Buddha was a prince blessed with every conceivable pleasure, but he realized that nothing in the world of impermanence could give him true happiness. Like an arrow shot into the sky that is destined to return to earth at some point, he saw that even heavenly joys eventually reach their zenith and then disappear, leaving only craving. The Buddha taught that only Nirvana – the realization of our deathless True Nature – can satisfy us in an ultimate sense. Any other desire sought without this higher goal as its end will culminate only in disappointment, rebirth, and misery.
This is a truth many do not want to hear: in the Buddhist worldview, at some point, we all must realize that only enlightenment will bring us lasting fulfillment. We all have different desires, talents, and hopes, and we all have a different material purpose in life. We are like rivers flowing in various directions in different parts of the vast Earth, each with a different function to fulfill. Yet all our rivers will someday lead back to the ocean, and all the winding roads of our endless incarnations will someday lead to the metaphorical Bodhi Tree, to the deep understanding that only the path to enlightenment will lead us the joy we have always been seeking. Like the Buddha – either through disappointment or curiosity, either from desire for happiness or freedom from misery – we will all at some point be compelled to seek enlightenment as the Buddha did when he fully committed himself, at whatever the cost, to the great quest for spiritual illumination.
Yet choosing to follow the path laid out by the Buddha and all the Earth’s fully awakened masters (including Jesus Christ and the sages of other traditions) is not difficult when you truly realize that nothing else will satisfy you in an ultimate sense. Additionally, it is easy to choose “the narrow Way” to God-Realization/Enlightenment if you have even a tiny glimpse of the unfathomable Bliss of God, which so far exceeds the small joys we are accustomed to enjoying that no comparison, however subtle, could ever do it justice. As Jesus once put it, choosing God-Realization over material desires is like a person who leaves behind all her/his possessions to seek the “pearl of great price” that is worth infinitely more than all her/his other possessions combined. The Buddha expressed this same sentiment when he uttered in the Dhammapada, “If a person beholds a lesser happiness and a greater happiness, let them leave behind the lesser to attain the greater.”
Any personal desire we must temporarily sacrifice to realize God-Realization/Enlightenment is worth it, for the Bliss of God-Realization is not only a thousand times greater, or a million times greater, or a billion times greater, or a trillion times greater, but is incalculably and incomparably superior to the temporary fruits enjoyed by any impermanent desire.
Although enlightenment is the goal of life, it is important to mention that enlightenment is never outside of this very moment, though to actually experience this and embody it fully requires dedicated effort in meditation. So by saying that enlightenment is the goal of life, I am not saying we should all become monks and renounce all “worldly” plans. As the Buddha taught, we must all walk a “middle way” between the dual extremes of serious spiritual practice and the acknowledgement of our natural human desires. Everyone’s middle path will be different, for we are all at different stages of spiritual development. Some people may begin meditating 5 minutes per day, and, although seemingly small, this would be a powerful step on their own middle way. For some people, simply making an inner commitment to be a kind person would be a revolutionary step in their spiritual development. No one can tell you what your middle path will look like – the only way to discover it is to walk it yourself!
Conclusion – Circumambulating the Inner Temple
– A Tibetan mandala
The truth is that there is no “ten steps to enlightenment” method in existence, for the spiritual path is, at the end of the day, a matter of the heart. The spiritual path is more about your inner intention than any outward action you take. As it written in the Upanishads, what you desire determines your destiny, and that is why the pure-hearted wish for awakening is the most important ingredient on the path to enlightenment. Whatever our personal karma is, deep in our heart we can know that the world, and all of our desires, are impermanent. We can know that, although we may do many things, the ultimate goal of our life is enlightenment. We can have many adventures, but always set the intention to live only for this highest good. Blessed beyond blessing are the people who actually take this to heart, and understand that enlightenment is infinitely greater than any conceivable material blessing.
Walking the path to God-Realization does not mean that you will stop being human and that you will always know what you are doing. But like an explorer, you can set your compass due North without knowing how the trip will unfold, but trusting that you will reach the goal if your intention is pure and you simply keep doing your best. Thankfully, life is an adventure and none of us knows how it will unfold! Yet as we walk the path, we can trust that we will be divinely guided if our heart is truly set upon the highest goal.
The idea that the highest goal of life is something we must seek without knowing how our path will unfold has been expressed through the ancient archetype of circumambulation. This archetypal theme of circumambulation shows up in a number of separate traditions, testifying to the deep truth within us that it points to. At the Mahabodhi temple, people circumambulate around the temple, usually three times or so, before they enter the inner sanctuary. Muslims, during their pilgrimage to Mecca, circumambulate around the black cube of the Kaaba, the Holy Shrine of the One True God erected by Abraham in the distant past. All over the world, the image of the mandala has been a sacred image of circumambulation for thousands of years, an image in which many complex sides lead back to a single inner center.
In western society, we often think of life as a linear progression from achievement to achievement. Yet the enlightened life is not linear, but is a circumambulation around our inner center – around God, True Nature, Higher Self, Tao, or whatever you want to call it. This is my faith that empowers me to have hope even in the midst of our world’s intense sufferings: that whatever desire we pursue; whatever strange path we follow; whatever pain we must endure, and whatever joy we are blessed to feel; whatever we do either in this life or in a future life, all of it will lead back to where we came from, to the Eternal and Ever-Present Bliss of God that is indeed who we really are, and that in truth we have never once been separate from.
As I myself made circumambulations around the Diamond Throne and the Bodhi Tree, I realized that I was symbolically enacting the very process of the enlightened life. Every step we take on the spiritual path, whether we know it or not, is never separate from our own True Nature. And our lives, whether we know it or not, are not “progressing” linearly, but are merely circumambulating the Great Source, who is forever blessed and is Bliss Itself. From It we came, and to It we shall all return in the end. Yet the wise of all times and places realize that we have have never actually left – for in truth It alone exists.
May whoever reads this sentence and all beings meditate deeply and fully realize their True Nature, and finally be set free from the illusion that they are the mind and body.
Shanti, Shalom, Peace! With love,
– I met this man at the temple, and could not refrain from asking to take his picture. My friends, never forget that the Universe has a sense of humor…
- Merry Christmas from Bodhgaya!
- God’s Forgiveness
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief Thoughts on the Kingdom of Heaven
- Jungian Christianity – Thoughts on how Jungian psycology influenced my views on religion.
- Many Paths, One Goal
- A Few Thoughts on Spiritual Peace