Songs from Under the Boughs of the Bodhi Tree


Stone lotus

The stone lotus.

We leave our shoes at the gate. Attendants brush past with long wooden brooms and keep the stones swept for the thousands of feet that press over the surface, that slip around the grounds. Lotuses bloom, and tiny flowers, yellow and orange, bob in minuscule cups brimming with pale sugar-water. The air is sweet and moves as though gently pushed.

It is past dusk, and there is a chill. The path below us is cold to the touch, it shivers through our feet and into us. The temple ahead is well-lit, a grey and purple beacon against a black banner of horizon. High above is a smattering of stars, tiny pin-prick holes in a sieve containing the light of the sky. It is a clear night.

There is chanting everywhere, everywhere. Loud-speakers pump a bass grunt, the voices of men, intoning in some difficult and throaty tongue, thrumming through the air. It hits us in the abdomens, it suddenly synchronizes with the deep noises in our bodies, the natural rhythm of heart and artery. There are other sounds in this distant ring of the grounds, in this peculiar orbit: bells; murmurs; the shuffle of dozens of pairs of feet moving in dainty, respectful gait. A dog’s bark, a baby’s cry.

Closer to the centre the music grows sweet. Monks and the lay gather in unison, in song. To my right, bald men in saffron lead dozens in Thai verses, more delicate and crisp than I have ever heard the language. I realize: it is a language that is meant to be sung, to be put to rhythm and harmony. A tinny radio accompanies them, by static and the scratchy percussion people shifting through the pages of their lyric sheets. Some gather to listen to their voices in the night, they sit along the balustrades and tilt their heads and are content.

Other music swells in the dark in other languages, in other tones and beats. Songs pulse every hour, hymns for daylight and vespers in the gloom. There is humming, there is prayer, there is weeping. Monks in white lead great circumambulatory processions, white-socked feet moving in unison, in tiny scuff-scuff-scuff steps, in circles and circles. People whisper in Hindi, pray in Vietnamese, chant in Japanese, murmur in Malay. Tongues swirl and sway in the night, rustling the leaves above us.

When a gust is strong, a delicate, teardrop leaf in pale green-grey glides to the ground, and one of the faithful catches it before it meets stone. She cradles it, a smile breaking across her lips. We take her picture before the tree, under the protection of its boughs, in the cool and delicate touch of its shade.

They say a man once sat below this very particular tree and discovered the truth of the world. They also say that this tree may not be that tree, that it is a descendant, that this remnant was seeded here when a jealous wife took an axe to her pious husband’s love. A small bench sits among the roots in the place where the first man may have sat. He placed his hand on the ground just there and reached enlightenment.

Daisy chains

The petal walls.

The tree is encircled by a great stone fence, latticed in metal shaped into lotus petals. People move towards the tree, raise their hands in reverence; some say words, some barely let breath scrape across the flat expanse before them. People rest their foreheads against the cool flat surface, they rub gold foil against the rock, they smile and stare up at the leaves of the Bodhi.

How do we know that this is the epicentre, the localized gravity well of lenity and benevolence? Great columns of metal carry people to this village in this country, over thousands of miles of mountain and plain and water. Feet from every corner of the earth meet bare ground, foreheads in every shade of human colour drift to touch the ground in beneficence and respect.

Not everyone here believes, and not everyone has to. I look around more than once, I worry that I am interrupting, that I am in violation of code, that I am robbing some of the mercy they seek here. I only see smiles, ones that reach the eyes and rarely show teeth; I see solemnity, shared amongst brothers and sisters from distant reaches. No one cares what I believe; no one wants to dictate whom this is for.

I sit in the still and let the sound of voices fade from my mind. I look into leaves, into slivers of cloud and space between wood and chlorophyll. Why this one?

There are other trees within the temple grounds, great trees, as sturdy and old as nation itself. Their leaves also shimmy to the ground, their branches also shade the people and the animals that move around the great stone courtyard. Why does this collection of xylem and phloem, this great unmoving cycler of oxygen and carbon dioxide, why does it hold the hearts of the many? The  ages and the people have claimed this tree to be hallowed, have decided to hold it above all others, have bestowed upon it their trust, have imbued within it benevolence and clemency. In belief, in love, the object has grown worthy of being believed in, of being loved.

And in that act of bestowal, via the passage of grace, through the mechanism of heartfelt faith and commitment, this tree becomes The Tree. Its true history, its age, and the nature of all the people and gods who may have dwelled within its shade diminish in the face of the choice. Through celebration, through gold-leaf and hard stone, through sandalwood paste and incense and silver reliquaries, this tree is chosen as the beloved. And in choice, it becomes.

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3 thoughts on “Songs from Under the Boughs of the Bodhi Tree

  1. Again, writing about India takes me a little out of my wheelhouse.

    2 things, by way of context.

    1) Bodh Gaya was kind of a fluke on our journey. We needed something halfway between Varanasi and Kolkata, as a journey that whole length seemed depressingly long. Bodh Gaya fit the bill! I had already had my religion major’s fill with hanging out near the Ganges, and thought I would have nothing more to get all sappy and poetical about after seeing the sun rise over that river. Boy, was I wrong. Bodh Gaya slipped into the slot of one of my favourite places on this here planet, and I think the same was true of my companions.

    2) In order to try to keep ourselves from becoming Those White People, you know, the kind that go to India to find ourselves spiritually, we did all we could to deflate our own pomposity. We quoted Owen Wilson’s character from The Darjeeling Limited constantly, in hopes that we would never become him. “It’s probably one of the most spiritual places in the wooooorld,” we mumbled, our mouths full of marbles. We managed, most of the time, to remain what we felt was respectful, non-trivializing Westerners who refrained from rampaging around holy sites in the East for our own amusement. And then we went to the Bodhi tree, which overcame all of our defences, y’all. One of the most spiritual places in the woooooorld.

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