As soon as I decided to go to India, I added Bodhgaya to my list. I intended to go there years ago but it didn’t work out then, it probably wasn’t the right time. Now, I was finally on my way.
Bodhaya is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists where Buddha had obtained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. I planned to stay 3 days in a Buddhist institution which a FB friend had suggested.Since I was travelling alone, I was warned about the crime rate in Bihar, the upcoming elections, and possible commotion on the streets. At least I knew I was staying at a very safe place, the Root Institute, a Buddhist center, founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe Rinpoche and Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I didn’t know I was going to be accompanied by two angels though.
On the airplane, I made an intention to sit next to someone whom I can talk about Bodhgaya and get some tips. I’m generally not very talkative on airplanes but this time, I initiated the conversation with the young woman sitting at the aisle seat. After introductions, Lily moved to sit next to me and we spent the whole time chatting. She is a Tibetan Buddhist student living in Hong Kong and visiting Bodhgaya for a long weekend to study with her Lama. We talked about our paths, the teachings. I told her that I’m not Buddhist but I like to study Buddadharma. Why do we always need labels?
While approaching to Bodhgaya, just looking out to the fields, my excitement peaked. I imagined Buddha walking on these same fields thousands of years ago. I couldn’t believe I was soon about to step into the same land he once walked, meditated, achieved enlightenment and gave his first sermon. That thought filled my heart with gratitude. As I imagined him, I felt an overwhelming compassion from BUddha. It felt like I was totally safe and taken care of. He was almost saying, “we’re taking her over from here”.
As we landed, Lily and I said we’d meet again the next day in the Mahabodhi temple but quite honestly I didn’t know if I could see her again.
I grabbed a rickshaw from the airport for the 6 km ride to the Root Institute. Because so many people have warned me about safety, I was a little bit precautious. Before grabbing my rickshaw I stormed through the crowd waiting outside of the airport, giving a confident image that I knew exactly where I was going. I went all the way to the outer ring of the crowd and then grabbed a rickshaw there. I was closely watching the road to make sure we’re on right track. A few minutes into our ride, I noticed the driver made a call from his cell phone and later pulled to the side and another motorbike approached. I thought “here we go”. The guy in the motorbike greeted me and said “Madame, how long will you stay? I asked him why he was asking. It turns out that he was trying to convince me to hire him as a tourist guide. Wow what a clever sales strategy. I told him I don’t need a tourist guide and we continued. The rest of the road was uneventful.
Yet, I was going to hear these questions many times in the next couple of days “Madame where are you from” “Madame which country ae you from”. Lily gave the best answer when asked. She said she is from “Everywhere”, when asked which country she is from, she said “Pureland”.
Life is full of surprises! I didn’t know that when I arrived in monastery I was going to be greeted in Turkish. It turns out that the staff member at the reception has worked in Turkey as a tourist guide for 3 years and she knew Turkish. She said she saw my name on the list and was so excited to have someone from Turkey and that she was waiting for my arrival. I got my key to my very modest room, yet with private bathroom and running water. That’s all I needed. This reminded me of the nice memories of my stay at Dai Bosatzu Zen monastery a couple years ago. I wasn’t expecting much at all. I dropped my backpack at the room and left immediately for the MahaBodhi temple. I knew I had to be back to the Institute before it gets dark, since I was warned by many people not to be out on the streets after dark in Bodhgaya. I grabbed a rickshaw (only 30 rupees-50 cent one way to the temple). The driver dropped me off of a temple and pointed out and said Mahabodhi temple. I still don’t know if he intended to joke or if it was a misunderstanding, anyway I got off and walked into the temple he pointed out, and I knew something was wrong. This temple was so small and almost empty. Yet there was a sign for a Bodhi tree and the tree didn’t seem to like 2500 years old at all. I was confused and disappointed. I immediately realized my “expectation” to have a certain temple and a certain tree. I got the lesson. I dropped all expectations and walked out of the temple. I saw a bus full of monks and I thought it would be wise to follow monks as they were most probably going to the correct temple. I was right. As I walked into the entrance, I imagined this place to be more vibrant before the terrorist attacks and bombings couple of years ago. Since then, sellers were not allowed on the premises or on the pathway leading to the temple, yet Indian people always find ways! I finally saw the temple on my right side, you couldn’t mistake this temple with anything else. As I stopped at the top of the steps leading to the temple, I wanted to take it all in at once. The temple was simply magnificent. It was stunning. I had a quick visit to the Buddha statue inside the temple and turned around to go behind the temple to find the Bodhi tree. As I turned the corner and saw the tree I was rushed with emotions. I can’t believe I’m here at the Mahabodhi temple, where Buddha has enlightened, under the Bodhi tree. I found a quiet spot and sat on meditation. I circled the temple and sat on meditation again. I watched people, mostly monks and nuns who are visiting the temple from all over Asia, some quietly meditating, some reading scriptures, some doing walking meditation, while a distant chant was making a perfect background. 2 hours passed too quickly and it was time to get back. The next day I could spend the whole day here.
When I got to my room at the Root Institute, my next door neighbor came out and greeted me warmly. Carol was a Canadian woman who lived in Asia for the last 20 years, who worked, studied and served in different Asian countries. She is a committed Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and it was her first time in Bodhgaya. Since she only came a day before me and she was going to stay for 5 weeks, she hadn’t been to the temple yet. We had dinner together that night and talked quietly since the rest of the residents were in a silent retreat. There was a course going at the Institution. Residents were mostly young folks from all around the world. I’m always amazed how these young folks are attracted to teachings and find their ways here to study.
After dinner, a staff member came over and reminded us of that the local elections are the next day and she said we are advising all our residents to stay indoors tomorrow in anticipation of possible unrest in the area. That was my only full day in the temple and I would not sacrifice it for an anticipated commotion. Carol and I decided to go to the temple anyway.
The next morning, I joined the guided morning meditation at 6:45 am. Since this was the residents last day of silence, the teacher advised the students to take the most out of it, by having more introspection,and more practice. After meditation we all walked to the cafeteria for breakfast. The meals were simple, satisfying and silent. You wash your own dishes as in most monasteries. They do everything to conserve limited water supply, by having different compartments to sink your dishes in until the final rinse. There are of course some rules of conduct (modest dressing, silence, etc.), after all, this is a meditation center. After breakfast Carol and I headed to the temple to spend the whole day there. I was rushed with emotions once again when I saw Carol’s reaction when she first saw the temple. She later said this is “THE bucket list” for her. We meditated, walked in the premises, and sat to absorb it all. Soon I saw Lily waving; she found us. I quickly introduced Carol to Lily. The three of us spent the rest of the day together, and had a spiritual blast. We meditated together, chanted Heart sutra together, did offerings, (thanks to Lily she was here before otherwise we didn’t even know where to get the lamp offering), and had a wonderful long lunch at Be Happy Café, a restaurant owned by a Canadian woman. We even shared a mango cheesecake. We visited other temples, the Japanese, the Butanese, the Tibetan and we even did some shopping, buying malas. The temples were exquisite with artwork and murals. At the end we returned to the temple for some more meditation. I was so glad we didn’t let the fear of elections stop us. Actually, since all the stores were closed, it was much quieter and peaceful. It was the most wonderful day full of practice, friendship and fun.
Carol and I said goodbyes to Lily and headed to the Institute for dinner. After dinner I was invited to Dharma Movie night. All residents were invited to watch a documentary about the Tsoknyi Nagchen Nuns of Tibet, a group of dedicated nuns living in the remote mountains. The Institution looked stunning at night with all the decorations and lights, the prayer wheel and the Buddha statues. I engraved it all into my memory.
The subject of next morning’s meditation was patience. I found some emotions rise and cleared with lots of shedding tears. I guess I was ready to let go of these emotions regardless of what the subject of meditation was and the teacher has just become an instrument. At least no one knew me, so I could cry freely. After breakfast Carol and I chat over a masala tea. She had a traffic accident in Nepal couple years ago which almost left her paralyzed. She knew what surrender means while taking charge of your own healing. After all, she went to northern India to find healing in Tibetan medicine. She was such an inspiration. I headed back to temple to spend my last morning there; deep in meditation, observation, offering and gratitude. I remembered Lily talking about her Lama’s teachings about the right intention one should hold when you visit the temple. I thought for a second what my intention should be. I realized there should be no better intention but the “original thought”, HSZSN. After all, “the original thought is the right thought”. I hold the thought that I’m not this body, I’m not this mind, I’m not my beliefs, I’m not my experiences, I’m not even this consciousness that thinks I’m this Zeynep, my true nature is beyond all these. I’m the pure light of consciousness; I’m the existence, awareness and bliss. I hold this thought during my meditation that morning.
It was time to leave for airport. It was a short trip but full with great memories. I left a piece of me there forever.
Zeynep Premdasi Yilmaz