First update from India! I've been in Bodhgaya for a week now and New Delhi for three days before that. In Delhi I stayed in a YMCA hostel in a newer part of town. It is hard to describe the city, but a few things struck me. First, the amount of people was staggering. Everywhere people sleeping, selling, walking, buying, and begging. Traffic laws weren't enforced so the streets chaos. Along with the beggars were "friendly guides" or street touts, who wanted to take you shopping for commission. I visited a few Hindu temples, a Baha'i Lotus temple, a Sikh temple and an ancient Muslim minarette tower. The Hindu temples were exciting places of worship; bright colored statues of gods, like Hanuman, a monkey, or Ganesh, an elephant, each representing a distinct aspect of Brahma, or God. Shoes were removed before entering all temples; the streets filthy. The city itself was a mix of old, new and partially constructed buildings. Almost all building scaffolding was made from bamboo.
After three days of orientation in Delhi, we took a 16 hour train ride to Gaya, in the northeast of India. We took AC class 2 trains, the second best, meaning we got AC, bunks, and meals. Since our orientation in London, the head of our program, Robert, has conceptualized our trip as a pilgrimage, as Buddhist pilgrims have done for 2500 years. Something about the train ride solidified this feeling. I was leaving everything familiar and western. In the evening the train sped past hours of fields, hovels, and half built towns. In the morning, it was hours of fields.
There is considerable diversity within the group. There are students of religion, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, creative writing, history, contemplative studies and film. One student is 40 years old and a recently fired union contractor. One student has seriously considered becoming a monk since he was in high school. One student is a Christian farm hand from the South. Despite the differences we all have the interest in an unusual program like this in common and have been getting along well.
In Bodhgaya, I have settled into what is to be our schedule for the rest of the semester, which I outlined in an earlier post. The Burmese monastery I am living in is probably one or two acres enclosed by a cement fence with barbed wire. There is a main temple with a large statue of Buddha in it, four four-story residential buildings for pilgrims, and two story building for the monks, a partially completed residential building and a garden, which is more like jungle, complete with cobras.
My days are filled with meditating, yoga, reading for anthropology and philosophy and taking cold showers. I am living on the first floor of a concrete building in a white high ceilinged room with a fan and a light. During the middle of the day, the temperature gets into the 90's with 80% humidity, and the power shuts off about a fourth of the time, making for very hot afternoons. There is no air conditioning. Everyone in our program eats three meals and two teas a day together. Our meals are prepared in a kitchen by five Indian ladies. Everything has to be carefully prepared because the water is tainted with diseases, but they do a good job and we have access to purified water. They make mostly Indian food for us, with some western dishes like spaghetti or pancakes.
Outside the walls is beautiful chaos. The streets are full of cows, dogs, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tractor trailers, buses, vans, donkey carts, and people. There are beautifully dressed women in bright colors and feces everywhere. The town smells like incense, baked goods, wet dog, fruit and outhouses. Small shops and street venders line the two lane streets south of the monastery towards the Mahabodhi Temple. To the north and west of us are fields and residential buildings. To the east is a large river, and across the river is Sujata village.
A short history lesson of Buddhism and Bodhgaya: 2500 years ago, the area of the Ganges river basin was undergoing change as the area urbanized under agricultural surplus, population density increased, and kingships overturned agrarian republics. The religion of the area, the Vedic tradition, brought there 1000 years earlier by an Indo-Aryan exodus from the north, was brought under scrutiny as unsanitary conditions in cities made suffering a forefront issue. Gautama, Buddhas birthname, was born during this time. According to the story, he was raised as a prince inside a palace and had an easy life. Eventually, he left his palace, saw a sick man, an old man, a dying man and a religious hermit on the streets. This lead him to question how to overcome suffering, and following the tradition of many before him in India, he renounced his life to search for a way to end suffering. Important also was the assumption of rebirth that almost all of India's religion operate under. After spending years meditating and starving himself, he found a way to end suffering for himself (in this life as well as removing himself from te process of rebirth entirely) and taught it to his followers. Buddhism spread throughout India, Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. The city where he stopped suffering and became enlightened was Bodhgaya, which became a pilgrimage destination for about 1000 years, before the Muslim Moghal empire invaded India and stopped people from coming. After, that the Brahmanic tradition pushed Buddhism out of India almost entirely, minus pilgrimage sites, which people have continued to visit. The main temple in Bodhgaya was built 1600 years ago. Since the fall of the British Raj in India, Buddhist tradition from all over the world have been building monasteries in the town, including Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Bengali, all with architecture traditional to the country.
I am getting over a nasty case of bacterial dysentery and a 105 fever which knocked me out for a couple days. Almost half the group is sick right now. Next week Bodhgaya's usual population of 30,000 grows by 250,000 for a Hindu festival. Something else exciting is happening next week but I will save that for later. Peace and love