Better to swallow a
red-hot iron ball like a flame of fire than to be an immoral and
uncontrolled person feeding on the alms offered by people.
Niraya Vagga - The Dhammapada
Journey to a spiritual oasis
The road to Bodh Gaya, one of Buddhism's holiest sites, had been long
Four hours of jolting along potholed roads had taken their toll. My
back was sore and I was more in need of spinal therapy than the
spiritual therapy that had brought me to Bihar, a poverty-wracked state
infamous for its appalling crime and lawlessness.
Tourists and devotees at the 80-foot Buddha statue site at
Bodhgaya, India. AP
But my all-too human aches fled when I entered the sprawling silence
of the Mahabodhi Temple complex and let the serenity of the
centuries-old shrine wash over me.
There, under the canopy of an ancient peepul tree, where the rustling
of leaves mingled with the quiet, rhythmic chanting of mantras and the
clicking of prayer beads, sat a group of saffron-robed Buddhist monks
engrossed in prayer.
The elaborately carved Mahabodhi Temple, Buddhism's holiest shrine
and a popular destination for nirvana seekers, marks the site where the
prince-turned-hermit-turned-spiritual-leader, Gautama Siddhartha,
attained enlightenment some 2,500 years ago after intense meditation.
From then on, he was known as the Buddha, or "Enlightened One."
Today, there are an estimated 360 million Buddhists around the globe.
Bihar is a checkerboard of Buddhist holy sites. A few hours drive
from Bodh Gaya is the town of Rajgir, where the Buddha taught and
prayed. Nearby is Nalanda, one of the world's earliest universities,
which flourished in the 5th century B.C.
The state is also an increasingly important stop for wealthy
tourists, many seeking their own, luxurious form of enlightenment.
A Buddhist monk reads scripts at the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya,
For years, those tourists were largely people who grew up Buddhist,
often in Japan, Thailand or Sri Lanka. But increasingly, Buddhism's
appeal has spread to the West, where the Buddha's teachings about
nonviolence and spiritualism have been welded with beliefs ranging from
Judaism to atheism.
But Bihar isn't ready-made for wealthy tourists.
While India's economic boom has spurred economic development in many
regions, Bihar has lagged badly, with a state government nearly
paralyzed by corruption and mismanagement. Tourists are advised to
return to their hotels before dark and to stick to government-licensed
taxis and buses to avoid being - literally - taken for a ride.
So while there are glass-walled shopping malls outside New Delhi and
high-end spa resorts in India's southern backwaters, much of Bihar
struggles with barely paved roads, on-and-off electricity and rampant
That has meant that despite its abundance of Buddhist treasures, the
state fails to draw its full share of tourists.
Not that Bihar isn't trying.
A priest stands next to Budhha statues inside the Mahabodhi Temple
at Bodhgaya. AP
While the state doesn't track religious tourists, officials say the
Buddhist trail is increasingly hot. After the Mahabodhi Temple was named
a World Heritage site in 2002, Bodh Gaya has seen a steady rise in
visitors. As India's torrid summer gives way to the monsoon rains and
cooler weather in October, they come flocking.
"In the fast-paced lives that people lead, increasingly - perhaps
instinctively - there is a trend to discover our inner selves. And most
of the tourists who come here are doing so in search of that inner
peace," said Rama Shankar Tewari, Bihar's top tourism official.
Tourism authorities are trying to cash in with an ambitious tourist
campaign, "Come to India: Walk with the Buddha." As part of that, roads
are being repaved, museums are being refurbished and public restrooms
being built or repaired.
Security around the shrines and monasteries has also been stepped up
to ensure that pilgrims are not hounded too much by touts and beggars.
Still, most sites have their share of children holding out stick-thin
arms and trinket vendors periodically shooed away by security guards.
A year-long celebration of the 2,550th anniversary of the Buddha's
death, called the Parinirvana, began in May, but plans to gradually
upgrade facilities will unfold over 25 years.
The detailed blueprint includes numerous luxury and budget hotels
around the Buddhist circuit. It also includes a world-class 18-hole golf
course in Bodh Gaya and luxurious spas, said Manoj Srivastava, who heads
Bihar's state-run tourism development corporation.
If that seems odd logic - bringing the hedonism of golf to a land
steeped in both spiritualism and poverty - Srivastava disagrees.
"While Bihar's rich trove of Buddhist treasures serve the spiritual
quest, the average traveler is also looking to relax," he said.
And despite it all - despite the bad roads, the beggars and the
trinket-vendors selling plastic Buddha statues, key chains with imprints
of the Buddha's feet and kitschy bead necklaces - spiritualism is
"Everyone warned me against visiting Bihar. Even after we landed in
India, people kept saying: 'Be careful, it's Bihar.' But our experience
has been splendid," said Natalie Halle, a schoolteacher from Valencia,
Spain, visiting Bodh Gaya for the second time in as many years.
"The serenity about this place brings you back, and you forget all
the warnings," she said. A hush descends on visitors when they visit the
Mahabodhi Temple, which rises from a gently sloping hollow. White-robed
nuns sit cross-legged at the foot of the enormous carved and gilded
Buddha statue, reading holy verses in a deep sonorous hum.
Bodh Gaya is also home to dozens of monasteries built and maintained
by various Buddhist countries.
Thailand's monastery, with its gilded Buddha statues, brilliantly
colored wall paintings and rich silken wall hangings offers a contrast
to the more simplistic lines of the Japanese temple, or the Himalayan
architectural style of the Tibetan monastery, with its carved dragons,
pennants and archways.
As I set out from Patna as dawn was breaking one recent morning, the
distant purple hills were shrouded in a hazy mist, the road flanked by a
patchwork of verdant rice fields dotted with ponds and thatched houses.
My destination was the international World Peace stupa, a shrine a
few kilometers (a couple of miles) from Rajgir. Access is by an "aerial
rope-way" - a euphemism for a chain of rickety bucket chairs strung on a
pulley - which takes you to the top of the hill in seven minutes.
Otherwise, it's an arduous hour-long trek.
Hundreds of visitors line up each day, many looking more for the
rope-way's thrill and the spectacular views than for some sort of
I had a momentary twinge of fear as I was pushed into a chair as it
slowed down - barely - to pick me up. But it was a smooth ride to the
top. A leisurely stroll brought me to a sprawling Japanese-built
monastery, its wide open doors producing an air-conditioned effect from
the sharp breezes that blow in.
"The breeze makes you forget that there's been no power for more than
two hours," said G. Okonogi, a Japanese monk who has made the remote
monastery his home for over 25 years.
BODH GAYA, India (AP)
Sri Lankan Buddhists to participate in Lumbini Katina Pinkama
The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress led by its chairman Jagath
Sumathipala has organised a Katina Maha Pinkama at the sacred Lumbini
city in Nepal, the birthplace of Gauthama Buddha, this month to mark the
2550th Buddha Jayanthi. The pinkama held with the participation of a
large number of Sri Lankan Buddhists and blessings of the Maha Sangha
will go down in history as the biggest and most unique Buddhist event
held in the Buddha's birthplace in recent times.
The Lumbini Park is a picturesque area situated between former
Kusinara and Kimbulwath cities in Nepal. The park with a concentration
of 'Sal' trees on the banks of the river 'Rohini' became world famous
with the birth of the Enlightened one.
The Katina Pinkama at Lumbini is a culmination of a series of Pinkam
organised by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress this year to mark the
2550th Buddha Jayanthi under the able leadership of its President Jagath
It is also unique in the sense that it will be the first time
devotees would see a grand Katina Pinkama held there according to Sri
Lankan Buddhist tradition during the sacred areas recent history.
Among the Pinkam organised by the ACBC to mark the 2550th Buddha
Jayanthi were tree planting and sal mal pooja campaigns, ordination of
novice Bhikhus, temple conservation programs, donation of Buddhist
images, student bursaries, Dhammadesana program, Sil campaigns,
presentation of Sil garments, daham pasala development activities and
organisation of Buddhist pilgrimages to India for Maha Sangha and lay
The Buddha's smile
Why dost thou smile sweet Master?
What has thou seen
That brings thee such a serene calm?
What is thy secret unexplored
That light thy countenance?
The world has known thy doctrine
Twice a thousand years - and five hundred more
And yet the world knows not
The meaning of thy cloudless smile
The features, all unruffled and alight,
Must veil a mind of untold deeps.
And yet, and yet, I wish
We understood the meaning of
Thy inscrutable smile!
The Buddha smiles, my son, because He knows
The end of toilsome round, and all life's woes.
What's won is won is won nor ever lost again;
Its Fruit is sure - Beyond this present pain.
The Goal is sure for you, that's won by Me;
'Tis This that lends to Buddha Serenity.