Suspended over the new security entrance outside the Mahabodhi Temple were large blue banners, each with a motto in both English and Tibetan. Presumably the marketing campaign of one of many visiting Tibetan lamas, the slogans never failed to make me smile, even when the security line made me grumble. The first struck me as sound and straightforward (which is not to say easy) advice: “Do not emotionally disturb others.” The second, however, I found more elusive. Though I suspected that an element of clarity must have been lost in translation, I felt the phrasing might offer something meaningful, if only, like a riddle, I could figure it out. Puzzlingly, it cautioned passersby, “Do not forsake your standpoint.”
In January 2015, I arrived in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha is believed to have found enlightenment 2,500 years ago, not exactly sure what I would or would not find. It was my first trip back since the 2013 terrorist bombings in which nine different “low-intensity” explosives were planted all over town. Miraculously, only a few people were injured, and both the temple and the Bodhi Tree were left fully intact. But, as almost every Bodhgaya resident I spoke to explained, the bombing itself was minor compared with the government’s response.
Not long after the Mahabodhi Temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, India’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation, working with the state government and the local temple management committee, looked for ways to encourage and accommodate the growing number of tourists. The result was the Bodhgaya master plan, which at that time and for several years afterward remained just that—a plan, outlining the removal of all shops and commerce within one kilometer of the temple entrance and banning any further construction in the same section. This “buffer zone,” it was claimed, would make for a more “spiritual” and “relaxing” environment.
Although the master plan also recommended much-needed improvements within the town’s infrastructure, such as toilets, storm drains, and public green space, many Bodhgaya residents and visitors remained apprehensive. For decades, dozens of handicraft shops, souvenir stands, chai stalls, restaurants, and general stores—good for everything from making a phone call to buying candles and biscuits—had surrounded the temple gates, benefitting both local businesses and pilgrims.
In early 2008, hundreds of people, including Buddhists monks and unions representing resident workers, staged a protest to coincide with a visit from the then chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar. For the next several years, the situation appeared to be at a standstill: the master plan was still the plan, but there was little movement toward its implementation. After the 2013 bombings, however, and despite further protests, destruction of the market began within weeks, eventually demolishing a reported 58 businesses. A high wall was constructed around the same area, in some cases blocking from view shops that had thought themselves fortunate to remain open.
Guards armed with large sticks now patrol the enclosure. A handful of policemen sit around a folding table, and to enter the temple complex it is necessary to obtain a (free) ticket that no one ever asks to see. The result is an oddly empty, militarized, walled-in kind of limbo—indeed a separation of the town from the temple, but hardly the “peaceful” atmosphere no one ever really believed was forthcoming.
I know that trying to go backward, to some imaginary past tense, is both detrimental to my practice and unhelpful to the people who live and work where I sit and pray.
Because the suspects charged in the bombings were allegedly part of the terrorist organization known as the Indian Mujahideen, I had been eager to see if the traditionally peaceful Hindu-Muslim relations in Bodhgaya had been at all affected. Although the majority of the town’s approximately 35,000 residents are Hindu, there has always been a significant Sunni Muslim population.
But most people in town shrugged off any insinuation that this harmony was ever at risk, denying fear of either a recurrence or a retaliation. “You can’t worry about these things,” Mohammad, the owner of a popular guesthouse and restaurant assured me, a sentiment I heard repeatedly from Hindus and Muslims alike. If anything, the residents seemed more united than ever, at least in the notion that the “buffer zone” and security wall have only made them feel more vulnerable, not to violent extremists but to the whims of their own government.
I’ve been traveling regularly to Bodhgaya for 20 years, ever since I first arrived as an 18-year-old undergraduate. Along with confronting my own aging, my experience of pilgrimage has also come to include grappling with the changes in Bodhgaya itself. Despite our Buddhist intention to accept and realize impermanence, I would imagine that I’m not alone in my nostalgic lapses, pining for a version of town before, among other things, plastic bags, traffic jams, Barista Lavazza (an Indian espresso bar franchise where a latte will set you back 120 rupees, 12 times more than a chai from the market), and now a security wall. I even miss the telegram office.
And yet I also know my impulses are futile. Security checks, expensive coffee, and terrorism are all hallmarks of our era. To fail to contend with these realities in Bodhgaya especially would contradict the Buddhist notion of interdependence that recognizes the sacred as never separate from the mundane. This doesn’t mean that I condone the violence or the government’s actions or that I want to throw my hands up and shrug. But I know that trying to go backward, to some imaginary past tense, is both detrimental to my practice and unhelpful to the people who live and work where I sit and pray.
The bombings were horrific and unsettling. And the destruction of so many shops, along with their owners’ livelihoods, seems to have dealt residents an even harsher blow. Unfortunately, such problems are not unique to Bodhgaya, and it is this reflection of the larger world that makes all the more urgent our need for fluid and genuine compassion, for skillfulness and empathy in these unpredictable and often scary times. If I have a standpoint I hope not to forsake, it is this awareness of the contemporary world, the very present moment in which I live.
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