In Siddhartha’s Footsteps

Too Much Luxury

Prince Siddhartha’s dad worried a lot about his son fulfilling a wise man’s prophecy: he will either be the king of all India or the savior of the world.  Well, no one had ever conquered all of India, so the king set about making sure that his son had the best possible training for such a task.  Lots of sports, great food, and no distractions.  Especially not the kind that might make him empathetic or compassionate.  Everyone knows rulers can’t afford those evil temptations!

But of course, one day the prince insisted on actually seeing the city his father ruled, and was shocked and heartbroken by poverty, sickness, old age, and death. But, God knows, there is more room in a broken heart.  He left home during the night, and soon joined a group of ascetics.  They gave up just about every material thing, and soon he was the champion of self-denial.  He spent five years like this, and was nearly a skeleton when a simple request from a young woman jarred him out of his single-mindedness:

“Please, sir, eat something.”

When his disciples found him eating and enjoying the porridge, they abandoned him as a heretic.  But Siddhartha knew that neither extreme, sheltered luxury or extreme, voluntary poverty was a gateway to what he was looking for: the key to unlock the prison of human suffering.  This meeting with his savior, who is sometimes called a village girl and other times as a queen, took place at this spot, under a banyan tree:

Banyan Tree, Bodhgaya (village girl story)

Here is a closer look at the scene on the altar under the banyan tree:

Ascetic Siddhartha being offered food by village girl/queen

The Middle Way: Moderation!

John’s dad used to preach the virtue of moderation, despite the fact that he struggled not to overdo things.  Perhaps because of grade inflation, John likes to say that most daily tasks you should do well, but not perfectly.  A-minus is quite a good grade.  Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The Buddha, giving up the quest for perfect self-denial on one hand and total self-indulgence on the other, sat down again to think.  His great meditation happened not too far away from the banyan tree, also near the place Bodh Gaya.  It’s now the Mecca or Jerusalem of world Buddhism.  Unlike the banyan tree shrine, the bodhi tree shrine is a gigantic temple on grounds that could hold six football fields.  The tree is next to the main temple, and that’s surrounded by several terraced levels of gardens, flat horizontal surfaces for offerings, and shrines.   Photo: wikimedia


Tradition says that Siddhartha reached enlightenment sitting right there, under the bodhi tree, after seven days.  “Humans can remove suffering,” he said to himself, touching the ground, “the Earth is my witness.”  From then on, he became Lord Buddha.  His discovery was the famous Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is full of suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by our selfish craving for our own private fulfillment at others’ expense
  3. To remove suffering, stop the selfish craving
  4. Do that by following the Eightfold Path, which can be a lifelong effort to become more mindful, more devoted to the happiness of others, less anxious, and so on.  Easy, right?

We lucked out, coming to Bodh Gaya this week.  Half the Tibetan monks who usually stay in their monasteries on the Indian side of the Himalayas are in town for a ten day prayer celebration called The XXVII Nyingma Kagyu Monlam (okay, they really just call it the 28th).  Led by the second most important Lama in Buddhism, the 17th Gyalma Karmapa, thousands of maroon-robed men and women, their heads freshly shaved, gathered in national groups that also included some westerners and folks from all over Southeast Asia.

We saw them meditating, some swaying, some walking with prayer beads, some sitting still like a mountain, ranged in perfect rows and columns facing the Tree.  It is probably like being a Muslim finally seeing the Kaaba cube in the center of Mecca and walking seven times around.  Or stepping into the church on the spot of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem. Photo: wikimedia.


In their spare time, monks, nuns, and laypeople filled hundreds of metal bowls with water and placed them on one shrine.  On others, they made beautiful mandala designs with marigold flowers that match their yellow and maroon robes.  We couldn’t have taken either of these pictures, however, because cell phones are not allowed in the Maha Bodhi (Great Awakening) Temple grounds.  At all.  As a result, no one bumps into a meditator while backing up to get a little more in the viewfinder.  No one poses self-consciously for a selfie in front of “that Buddha thingy.”  And no one paces back and forth, spare hand covering his ear, like John, saying a little too loud, “no, I hear you, but there’s a delay.  Yes, we’re in that Temple place, but we’re gonna get some food pretty soon.”

Instead, everyone is quiet.  Near the temple, shoes come off.  More than half the people look like they are praying.  The rest are relaxing in the shade, for even in January it’s hot in the sun.  And when we come close to the Tree, we feel the sacredness in everyone around us.  Some hang garlands of yellow or white marigolds on the fence around it.  Some press their foreheads to a stone shield in front of the trunk, as if to ask for some of the wisdom still residing there.

The actual Bodhi Tree was poisoned by the jealous wife of Ashoka the Great about 300 years after the Buddha.  She resented his obsession with everything related to Siddhartha the Buddha–all the shrines, temples, stupas, memorial stones, monasteries, libraries–and it fell to their children to save a cutting and some seed from the tree.  These were taken to Sri Lanka, where an offspring tree still stands.  And the present tree is an offspring of that one.  bodhi-leavesKind of a grandchild-tree of the original.

The leaves remind me of linden trees, as do the berries.  The bark is like a pockmarked moonscape of craters, only smoothed-over.

And the massive trunk appears to enclose a number of other trunks, each now deeply wrapped up in the base of the tree, sending roots like buttresses into the Earth that the Buddha called on.  We picked up a leaf from one of its neighboring Bodhi trees and tucked it safely into John’s passport.

The shade was glorious.  The branches were powerful, some propped up with steel pillars as they stretch far out in every direction to cover the hundreds of people seated in meditation.

What if we really could let go of all that craving?

  • We wouldn’t stress out over train delays on Indian Railways.
  • We’d just notice our hunger, thirst, or tiredness, rather than become crabby like Siddhartha was when he accepted the porridge.
  • We would do our work, and not cling to the outcome.
  • We wouldn’t need to have even a souvenir leaf, nor our very own photos.

One last picture, of the back of a taxi at the Root Institute, a Mahayana Buddhist Center where we stayed the night in Bodh Gaya.  Their head Lama was also in town, visiting from Dharamsala in the Himalayas, and we got to see him and try to hear his talk about training your mind.  This was maybe the car that was poised to take him over to the Great Awakening Temple for the ninth day prayers.


“If no anger, then no enemy.”  It sounds impossible.  Or maybe we just want it to be impossible so we can hang on to our anger.  Sometimes it’s useful.  John says he’d settle for someday getting an A- in No Anger.

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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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