Sujata’s Village – Bodhgaya

October 24 – 25

Bodhgaya is the most holy, best known, and undoubtedly the most dangerous stop on the Buddhist pilgrimage route in Bihar- the poorest state of India that takes its name from the Sanskrit word vihara, or Buddhist monastery. India’s highest cultural achievements in math, science, astronomy, philosophy, and the arts were found in Bihar within 500 years of the Buddha’s life, but as Buddhism began to disappear from India, so did the advanced civilization of Bihar.

Presently, with the visible remains of great Buddhist sites notwithstanding, it is difficult to imagine that an area so backward, poverty stricken and politically corrupt was once a great center of human refinement.  Most people in Bihar live in primitive homes constructed of either straw and cow dung, or loose bricks held in place with mud.  Indoor plumbing is rare, primary education minimal, and after dark, criminals rule the garbage strewn roads.

Purse snatching, and thefts of cell phones, backpacks, and cameras are frequent occurrences in Bodhgaya–even within the group traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as in almost every previous visit.  Last year, a Western man was found shot to death, robbed, and left naked by the side of the main road leading to the Mahabodhi Temple just a few kilometers from our heavily gated and guarded hotel, the Royal Residency.

To be fair, improvements have also been made in the area.  Most of the noisy tent stores blaring with Bollywood music have been cleared from the periphery of the temple grounds, cleaning crews within the temple complex have doubled, and beautiful new temples are in construction. The corrupt leadership of the governing non-Buddhist Temple Committee was exposed, and a Buddhist put in charge.  Funds are also being allocated to more dubious improvements such as clearing away nearby villages to make room for tourist trams, and more parking lots. One of the villages reportedly threatened is Sujata’s Village, named after a young maiden who offered the Buddha a bowl of sweet rice-milk to bring him back to life after his practice of austerities.

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) and his foremost Indian disciple Shantum Seth purchased a small plot of land in the village and have allowed a local family to live and garden on it rent-free with one proviso: that they grow only organic food.  Thay and the group visited the homestead and the ruins of the nearby Ashokan stupa marking the maiden’s generosity, an act that still informs our lives in the modern era. As we assembled in the village, Thay asked us to visualize the ancient times.  Imagine the haughtiness of Siddartha’s peers on the path when they saw him breaking the practice of  long term fasting and eating out of the hand of a young woman. He wasn’t yet able to let them know that unless the body is well taken care of, the mind will not become enlightened.

A young girl who lives in the village brought Thay some rice-milk pudding as a symbolic gesture of mutual gratitude.  With incredible elegance and gratiousness, Thay shared a gatha (poem of practice) with his audience to help them feel the Buddha within:

Buddha is breathing

I am breathing.

Buddha is enjoying the outside

I am enjoying the outside.

Buddha is happy

I am happy.

Buddha is free

I am free.

Next stop is Rajgir, Nalanda, and the Shantum Seth family in Delhi.

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