Bodhgaya is considered by nearly all Buddhists to be the most sacred pilgrimage site in India. In this way, pilgrimage to Bodhgaya provides an unparalleled glimpse into the diversity of lineages and traditions found within Buddhism worldwide as each country has constructed a temple in their own native architecture and style. The exchange that occurs due to so many types of Buddhism being in close proximity fosters re-consideration and, at times, modification of one’s own views and practices. Some say that this results in a watering down of traditions, or an amalgamation of practices that lose their essence or potency. Others say it is the natural evolution of religious or spiritual practices, regardless of where in the world you are, and that these new iterations of Buddhist practices/views are just a shift, not better or worse.
Regardless of one’s view, the diversity of practices found in the greater Bodhgaya region are, at the very least, provocative. They make us reflect on our own stereotypes and preconceptions about what is or is not Buddhism.
For self-identified Buddhist, this process gets to the heart of the four noble truths; remaining self-aware of our own identities is vital in preventing the incessant grasping that binds us to cyclic existence. For others who might have a general interest in the tradition, this reflective process allows for the possibility of an holistic and honest encounter with Buddhism.
Do Locals Understand the Importance of Sacred Buddhist Sites?
One component of this community that often gets overlooked are the stewards who live in this region. Outsiders often come to this region with the idea that Buddhist sacred sites must be protected from non-Buddhists. And, with most of the population in this area being Hindu or Muslim, this can result in an adversarial stance. People often ask: how can locals understand the nuance of the importance of these locations if they are not believers themselves?; or is the potency somehow lost due to this difference in religion?
While certainly understandable, these questions miss the vibrancy that can come from religious diversity. For example, having stewards who follow a different religion allows for an environment of inclusivity in which each visitor is able to observe their own dynamic traditions alongside others who may adhere to a different approach. In other words, when communities are homogenous, they run the risk of becoming rigid in regard to the practices that are accepted. In this case, because a single Buddhist tradition does not have jurisdiction, diversity of belief and/or practice can thrive.
One person who is working hard to simultaneously preserve these locations while creating constructive opportunities to help support the local populations is Deepak Anand. Since 2006, Deepak has worked alongside the Bihari State Government, Nava Nalanda University, National Geographic and other international organizations to expose the brilliance of this region. His work has led to the discovery of multiple Buddhist sacred sites, including Buddhavana where the Buddha stayed for a night and was famously inspired by a dream of King Indira, and the Ratanagiri rock where the Buddha accepted food from Sujata the day before his enlightenment.
While visiting with Deepak at Buddhavana, Sacred Path founder Justin Kelley recorded this greeting last December.
When Justin and Deepak ventured the some twenty kilometers from Bodhgaya to the small village at the base of the hill at Buddhavana, they were greeted by representatives from the village .
As they ascended the hill to the actual cave-dwelling of the Buddha, the pride of the villagers was palpable. This is their home; yet, this place is also an extremely important Buddhist sacred site. Never before had outsiders taken an interest in this village. That is, until Deepak showed up.
The pride felt by the villagers is productive in a number of ways. First, it gives rise to a desire by the local population to help preserve the local sacred sites. Second, there is an identity that develops from the notoriety that comes with such recognition, helping to increase the sense of communal self-worth. And, third, these stewards create a space for people of all Buddhist traditions, and really all religious affiliation, to come and experience these places in whatever way is most moving. This final point is enhanced in and through the fact that they are generally non-Buddhist. For example, there is no room for dogmatic disagreement, or exclusion dependent on one’s affiliation to a specific Buddhist school. Instead, there is a clean slate–an opportunity for anyone and everyone to practice together.
Illustrating how off-the-beaten-track this site is, the floor of the cave is still filled with small stone carvings (pictured right), dating as far back as the fourteenth century. Deepak is soliciting both public and private support to survey the area and excavate a small portion of the site to serve as a place of commemoration.
This site is one of many in the region that Deepak is working hard to find, excavate and preserve. As more and more sites are discovered, it will only enhance the experience of pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and other sacred Buddhist sites of India.
If this brief account about the diversity of this sacred Buddhist site excites you, embark upon a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya with Sacred Path and experience this dynamic region for yourself.