North-central and North-east India is chock full of most of the most important sites in Buddhism. The Buddha Gautama was born near the current India-Nepal border, and died in Kushinigar, not far from where he was born. He travelled around the region for some time while he sought enlightenment, which he attained in Bodhgaya under the Bodhi Tree. He then travelled to Sarnath, where he gave his first discourse on the dharma. Other important sites dot the region as well, where he gave other important discourses, but these three towns are the highlights of the traditional pilgrimage.
My visit to Sarnath was delightful; it is the nicest city I have stayed in so far. My guest house lodging was only a five minute walk along quiet streets to the deer park where a stupa marks the spot of the Buddha’s first discourse. It is the low season for tourists because it is the rainy season (though I’ve yet to see more than a two minute shower), and so the park was not crowded. I spent some time there, looking at the stupa, the monastery ruins, the peacocks, and the steady stream of pilgrims.
Next door to the park is a museum (wonderfully air conditioned!) containing the artwork that was recovered from the site, most notably the Ashokan pillar capital with four lions that was adopted as the Indian emblem. However, there were also many rooms filled with beautiful stone carvings and statues.
My train ride the next day took me through some beautiful landscapes to Gaya, the nearest train station to Bodhgaya. On the train, one of the passengers was eager to practice his English with me and talk to me about American and Indian culture, politics, movies, and food. He was insistent on sharing his food with me, so I said a silent prayer and tried a delicious raw cucumber dish, and also masala chai from a chai-wallah who passed through our car to sell drinks to the passengers. He will be travelling to Chicago soon, and especially wanted to know what “Indian fruits” were available in the U.S. – would he be able to eat papayas and apples there? He asked if I knew any Hindi, and when I shared me extremely short vocabulary knowledge (“ek” for “one” and “namaskar” for “hello” were all I could pronounce well from memory) and little phrasebook with him, he laughed so hard he nearly fell off his seat. But then, recovering himself, he admitted he also had a notebook for English words he is practicing too.
I am so in love with masala chai, I have to figure out how to make it myself for when I am home again.
When I got off the train in Gaya, a monk who was also heading towards the tuktuk stand asked me if I was going to Bodhgaya also, so we could split the cost of the ride. I gladly agreed, having just learned from the Indian passenger that I had been speaking with that tuktuk drivers only charge Indians about 10 rupees to go to Bodhgaya, but foreigners would be hard pressed to negotiate below 80. With the exchange rate at about $1 to 60 rupees, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s still annoying that foreigners pay so much more.
As we rode together, the monk told me about the area, how all the different Buddhist countries have temples in Bodhgaya, and that he was going to the Thai monastery here for a few months. I had read that some monasteries offer simple lodging for travelers, and asked him if his monastery had rooms available that women could stay in? He dug out a cell phone from his saffron robes and made a quick call, with the result that I was set up to stay at the neighboring Laos monastery.
By the time we arrived, it was getting late, but the monks welcomed me into their dining hall for a cup of coffee and a cup of tea. They then showed me to my room, which – except for the lack of air conditioning – is nicer than any hotel I’ve been at so far. After I dropped my bags, we stood out on the terrace and talked about the dharma, while in the distance lightning flashed over the temple that marks the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Some of the monks here speak fluent, if heavily accented, English; they offered that I could stay as long as I would like as a volunteer to help them all with their English language skills, which is important to their being able to communicate with pilgrims about the dharma and to talk with monks from other countries. I had not been planning on staying here for long, but I feel like it is such a blessing of an opportunity to live in the monastery, spend daily meditations at the Bodhi Tree, and take an already-needed break from the jungle of humanity that is India, because as much as I am enjoying my trip, traveling here is exhausting.