Sunday, February 05, 2006

Many paths - and the Middle Way at Bodhgaya

I know it may well be anathema to adherents of One True Faith but for me, open-minded agnostic, the idea of many paths to the sublime is an appealing one. Though written in a racy modern style, Sarah Macdonald's "Holy Cow" chronicles a wide sampling of faiths and paths, most of which she found had something for her in her spiritual quest. In Varanasi, for all that it is considered Shiva's City, many currents of Hinduism flow alongside: in fact in the chanting at the ghats, I could catch references to Khrishna rather than to Shiva. Then, thanks perhaps to repeated raids and destruction by marauding Mughals and their like, the Moslem population of the city is also significant. And even here in what is the epicentre of Buddhist pilgrimage, the site of Siddharta Gautama's enlightenment, the diversity of styles - of doctrine, worship, decorative art - is quite as wide [as far as you can measure such things] as the gap between Western fundamentalist Christianity and, say, the remnants of the Syrian Christian church visited by William Dalrymple for his excellent "From the Holy Mountain", my current read. As in Sarnath, just outside Varanasi, where the Buddha preached his first sermon, so in Bodhgaya there are examples of temples/monasteries from a number of Buddhist countries - Thailand, Bhutan, Japan, China, Tibet and !! Bangladesh - but I find my preferenced for the unadorned has difficulty with many of the styles. As with so many religions [is Buddhism a religion? Discuss!] the plain core of teaching from the originator seems inevitably to gather accretions, whether decorative or superstitious, that overlay and obscure the original straightforward message. So, for me, while I am drawn to the Theravada form of Buddhism found in Thailand, among others, it's the starker aesthetics of Japanese Zen that feel most calming, focused and uncluttered.

When I left Varanasi, I last ritual I saw (or think I saw) was at night when a litter bearing and ancient or ailing body was carried down to the ghats in front of my guesr house accompanied by a raucous and discordant "jazz" band. After the music stopped (thankfully) there was a little fussing around the figure on the litter and then it was left alone, close to the water's edge. Perhaps it was a dying person who wished to gaze on the holy Ganges one last time - and maybe even die there. In the morning all was gone, as I set out for Bodhgaya - a bumpy noisy bus tripo of 8 hours along the ambitiously named Grand Trunk Road (Delhi to Kolkata), now being converted bit by bit into a dual carriageway - with many sections suddenly missing and others unexpectedly becoming two-way (on both carriageways). On arrival at Bodhgaya, after a necessary collapse onto my bed, I set out to explore and found there were a load or VIPs in town [I'd been told to expect the Dalai Lama] but the only way I could deduce that was from the substantial army/police presence, bamboo barricades and several occasions where a tidal flow of the Important Ones were tended and shepherded at some speed along between the largely hushed crowds or where a motorcade (of typical disorderliness) swept an unassuming Hindustani Ambassador (aka Morris Oxford) into an area for an audience. Only later did I discover via the internet that dissidents had set off a bomb just 5 km away, that the Dalai Lama had been ill and his arrival here at one stage in doubt, and that a group of "neo-Buddhists" bent on starving themselves to death over the Dalai Lama's softly-softly approach to the Chinese regime had been arrested and thrown into prison!! And I thought I was coming to a centre of Peace and Reflection!

Bit it IS good to be in a town full of Tibetans. They seem gentle people, maybe a little shy. The women and men sit down together to eat in family or friendship groups - more appealing than the Indian male world where women appear only round the edges, doing most of the work and expected to be beautiful at the same time. I haven't seen Tibetan children much, though - perhaps they were left behind in Dharamsala and other Tibetan refugee centres while the crowds of parents followed his Holiness here. Judging by the ebbing crowds and the vanishing army he must now be gone.

There's clearly something of a retreat circuit around here judging by the posters on the "restaurant" wall and the conversation at my breakfast table between two large men, a German and an American. They were conducting a kind of point-scoring retreat-groupie conversation which was won comprehensively by the American-Russian-Jew able to speak Hebrew and Hindi and now studying Tibetan who expatiated at lebgth on the relative characteristics of various Sutras. But for all their Buddhism, they didn't feel the need for any gesture or remark before plonking themselves down at "my" table, when all the others in the place were vacant. Ah well!

In fact I am slowing becoming aware of a hidden western population in Bodh Gaya, invisible because they are in 10-day retreats and then suddenly visible, as they are today, when they emerge and busily compare notes and plan transport to the next retreat location - Sarnath, where I was before, seems the current favourite. It's an underworld of many nationalities, Aussie, Kiwi, US, French, German, UK and others no doubt who know each other, it seems, from such occasions in key sites around the country. Maybe some are doing the Spirtual Tourist bit, like the book of the same name, or like Sarah Macdonald - although I get the feeling that the majority are finding their own version of the Middle Way in the footsteps of the Buddha.


Blogger Nigel said...

Well your journey from the quiet waters of Bharatpur to the spiritual centres is proving eventful.

It sounds as though the country continues to shine at introducing drama and disturbing contrasts at all turns; from railway stations to road junctions and eating places. It is comforting at a distance to hear that fellow travellers are contributing to the dissonance and not just being slightly pompous observers as I found myself in dange of becoming a few times. I wish you more rich experiences and the chance to take rest when needed. Nigel

Sun Feb 05, 06:05:00 pm GMT  
Blogger pangapilot said...

Thanks for that, Nigel. I now now I have a readership of at least three! Hope your home-coming is relatively gentle!

Sun Feb 12, 09:21:00 am GMT  

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