The Bodhi Tree and ceremonial wall, Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India, 1989, courtesy of Courtney Milne, The Sacred Earth.


The spot under the fig, or Bodhi, tree where the Buddha attained nirvana is a kind of geographical omphalos or axis mundi for Buddhists. Buddhism was conceived under the Bodhi tree, the only spot on earth, the texts tell us, that was perfectly stable.


In what is now known as Bodh Gaya—still a pastoral land of cattle savanna, shimmering water, rice paddies, palms, and red-clay hamlets without paved roads or wires—a Buddhist temple stands beside an ancient pipal, descended from that bodhi tree, or “Enlightenment Tree,” beneath which this man sat. Here in a warm dawn, ten days ago, with three Tibetan monks in maroon robes, I watched the rising of the Morning Star and came away no wiser than before. But later I wondered if the Tibetans were aware that the bodhi tree was murmuring with gusts of birds, while another large pipal, so close by that it touched the holy tree with many branches, was without life. I make no claim for this event: I simply declare what I saw there at Bodh Gaya.

From The Snow Leopard,© 1978 Peter Matthiessen. Reprinted with permission from Viking Press.

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