11 August 2008

Letter 2.63

In two days there will begin a meditation retreat at the Burmese temple here in Bodh Gaya, which I expect to join. Listening to some of the Burmese monks chanting Pali, the lilt and cadence struck me as oddly familiar. Finally it dawned on me: the abbot of the Buddhist temple in Calcutta, Ven, Dhammapala, who ordained me, and taught me my first Pali chants, was originally from a village near Cox's Bazaar, not far from the Burmese border, and his teacher, the monk who ordained him, was a much-revered Burmese bhikkhu who lived alone in the jungle near his village. Ergo, I guess I have a bit of a Burmese accent -- in Pali.

As for the persons joining the retreat -- which lasts ten days -- most appear to be young Westerners: some are earnest, others are looking simply for what they think of as 'far out', others are curious, a few, monks and laymen, have extensive previous practice. A very mixed bag -- but all quite friendly, and -- even though many of those involved have strong Hindu leanings -- there is a very different atmosphere to the whole thing than I've met in the Hindu groups -- somehow it seems less frivolous. The freaky gesture, the wild eyes, the zennish talk ('everything is one; nothing really exists; it's all the same,' etc.) -- when g these are seen they stand out as something foreign to the atmosphere, rather than part of it, as in the Hindu sessions, and there seems a clearer sense of direction -- and calmness -- here. Even the Hinou-oriented have noted this. One, a follower of Baba Ram Das (Alpert), who wears his hair in a topknot, was, he said, amazed to find a place where people actually mean what they say and do.

Bodh Gaya itself helps. None of the English-country-estate lawns and gardens of Sarnath. The mud huts of the village extend everywhere, almost up to 5 the doorsteps of the pilgrimage places, but the area is dominated not by the village with its fields of rice, and bustle of life from people, dogs, wild (or atleast loose) pigs, sheep, goats, cows, and buffalo, but by the Maha Bodhi temple, a very high and unusual temple behind the tree under which the Buddha sat at the time he attained Enlightenment. (The original tree is no longer there: it was accidentally? destroyed by the British when they were doing excavations, and has been replaced with a shoot from the tree at Anuradhapura, which is itself a shoot from the original tree.) The temple is a gorgeous structure unlike any I've ever seen; a sort of synthesis of architectural styles of all the Buddhist countries and the ancient Buddhist stupas or monuments of India (such as at Sanchi); very elegant: a bell-shaped dome is topped by what resembles a Papal cross of stone -- with three crossbars -- surrounded by three smaller domes; every inch of the building is sculpted with ornate designs, and, perhaps, more than any single features its many meditative niches and corners give it its distinctive character.

Life centers around this temple for the devotees, especially the Tibetans, many of whom measure the circumference of the area surrounding the temple with their bodies, prostrating themselves endlessly as they slowly work their way around the grounds. Inside the temple one room echoes constantly to the chanting of the pious as they read from their sacred books -- books made of sheets of paper unbound, about two and a half feet long and perhaps six inches high, with Tibetan script (put, they say, Sanskrit language) -- about seven lines to the page. The sound struck me as not unlike that heard inside an orthodox shul, but the Tibetans, in their purple and yellow dresses, dark faces with sharply pronounced features and high cheekbones and long hair, often in braids or topknot, hardly look like East European Jews. (My impression -- just passing -- is that probably 25% of the Westerners here are of Jewish background. I remember reading somewhere that something of the same percentage of Jews were involved in the San Francisco scenes of the 60's.) The large contingent of Tibetans about is due partly to the presence of the Dalai Lama, who is staying (for the winter, I think, before returning to his usual home, Dharamsala, about 100 miles west of Almora) at the beautiful Tibetan Rest House.

It's cold still -- though I've enough warm robes -- in the mornings even colder than Almora. Here the air is heavy and the sun rises and sets as a dull cold orange ball giving off insufficient heat to penetrate the heavy air. But once warm it stays warm for a while after sunset, and shadows are not cold. In a quiet, unadorned way the place is rather enchanting.

I look forward to the retreat.

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