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Lions Roar : January 2019
sweetened rice cooked in milk. Sujata’s gift gave Siddhartha the strength to cross the Nairan- jana River, and on the other side, on a sandy bank, he came to a large tree with heart-shaped leaves. Siddhartha sat beneath it and, in full lotus facing east, vowed that he’d stay there until he reached enlightenment. This type of tree became known as a ficus religiosa—a Bodhi tree. SINCE I WAS A KID, I’ve always thought of large trees as generous, stable grandfathers, quietly offering shade and sup- port. But the tree the Buddha sat under was more like an old teacher—kind and venerable. I imagine Siddhartha contem- plating the heart-shaped leaves and seeing in them the sunshine and rain, the earth and clouds, and in that way, I imagine the tree teaching him dependent arising: if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist. Though the original Bodhi tree is long gone, its place has been taken by what’s believed to be a direct descendent. In the Buddha’s time, the tree was rooted in a rural setting, but over the centuries a town by the name of Bodhgaya has grown up around it. Bodhgaya is located in the modern Indian state of Bihar—the poorest in India—and the nearest airport is in Gaya, intense and busy like all Indian cities. I arrive on a chartered flight with the other delegates of the International Buddhist Conclave, which is sponsored by the government of India. We’re given an exuberant, flower-filled welcome and herded onto eight buses festooned with mari- gold garlands, long stemmed red roses, and ribbons. Driving to Bodhgaya, the buses stick together as if they are a train. A police escort leads us, and children wave as we pass by. Finally, we get to the site of the Buddha’s awakening, and there, silhouetted against the sky, is the Mahabodhi temple, a tall, graceful pyramid rising from a square platform. Every- where I look people are meditating. They’re monastic and lay; in robes and in jeans; doing traditional practice or their own thing. One man has his eyes covered and a bottle of water bal- anced in each hand, as if they were Chinese meditation balls. There’s also the odd stray dog. Bodhgaya is the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Shantum Seth, a Buddhist teacher and pilgrimage guide, describes it as “the axis mundi of the Buddhist world.” PHOTOBYLIZAMATTHEWS LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 35