Allison K Williams
Bodh Gaya, India, is where Prince Siddhārtha Gautama sat under a tree, attained enlightenment, and became the Buddha.
I went there to see if I was still an agnostic. Maybe I was a Buddhist now, after years of reading and the desire to be part of something more spiritual than yoga class and the salad bar at Whole Foods. Maybe, here at the source, I would find Buddha-nature in my heart, “spontaneous nirvana. The Unity of the Buddha with everything that exists.”
Siddhārtha’s Bodh Gaya was a tiny village surrounding a temple surrounding a tree. Now it’s Buddhaland.
There are three roads buzzing with autorickshaws honking at goats wearing sweaters, peddlers with carts of sacred offerings, and three-year-olds trying to sell me gum at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. Eleven more temples have been built by Buddhist nations. The Thai temple, covered in gold. The Japanese Temple, very plain and Zen. There is a fifty-foot-high Buddha at the edge of town, and it is a major photo opportunity. Muslims celebrating an important holiday dance through the streets behind trucks full of speakers booming out techno music. Touts stand at souvenir stands hawking mandala T-shirts and keychains, asking, “Ma’am? You buy Buddha?”
My inner self is filled with suffering and judgment.
Pilgrims swarm the temples, their white clothes picking up dirt from the unpaved streets. Each group of pilgrims wears matching baseball caps with the logo of their package tour. Monks in maroon robes step out of chartered buses. Monks in orange robes walk clockwise around the main temple, Mahabodhi, while texting on their smartphones. I imagine them thumb-typing, cant tlk am wrshppng Ld Buddha.
Laypeople in tie-dye and dreadlocks prostrate themselves rhythmically toward the sacred tree. One European guy meditates on the temple lawn. Open face-down on the grass beside him is his copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
I do it all. I meditate. I spin prayer wheels. I walk clockwise around Mahabodhi every day for three days. It takes a long time to get around and walking mindfully is impossible because every twenty feet a pilgrim or a monk politely stops me, “Take picture?” I am confused until I realize I’m the only redhead in town, and six inches taller than everyone else here. I wonder what they say when they show their pictures back home: “We worshipped the Lord Buddha—and then we saw a white lady!”
I go to the fifty-foot Buddha. There is a sixty-yard path to the statue. On it, I take twenty-eight photos with Buddhist monks, stifling my instinct to sling a friendly arm around their shoulders. Monks aren’t supposed to touch women or even have anything handed to them by a woman. Make contact and they’re supposed to go back to their temple for cleansing rituals. Monks are never alone with women, never even a guest in a house where a woman sleeps. In all my photos, there are three inches of air between us.
Everywhere, I try to listen, to be an empty vessel. I listen to the big Buddha in Mahabodhi, draped in saffron cloth and covered in gold leaf. I listen to the medium Buddha in the Tibetan temple, surrounded by photos of the Dalai Lama. I listen to the little plastic Buddhas set out on makeshift tables lining every street. I listen to the stone Buddha above the sign with the Buddha’s email address for PayPal donations.
At the end of the third day, I hear something.
It’s my own voice saying, “This sucks.”
I’m experiencing the dissatisfaction that Buddhists call dukkha. The origin of dukkha is craving conditioned by ignorance. I didn’t know what it would be like. I want it to be something else.
I am Buddha’d out. I go back to my guesthouse and get online to buy a ticket to anywhere else. A young monk sits at the computer next to mine. I put my hands together, Namaste.
“I from Bhutan,” he says.
“USA,” pointing to myself.
He looks into my eyes, into me. “Practice English more? I come to your room?”
For a moment I am frustrated and disgusted that nothing is sacred here. Then I realize: He is the Buddha. I am the Buddha. We are both sacred and we are both imperfect. Both suffering in the search for something we cannot have.
I say, “No, I’m going to sleep now.” And then I hug him with all the Buddha-nature in my heart.