All religions have a sacred place. But a sacred place isn’t necessarily a religious or spiritual place. Sacred is not incompatible with secular concepts. Many consider Jerusalem to be a sacred place. Others find sites like Gettysburg, or even Yellowstone National Park, sacred.
In Buddha or Bust, Perry Garfinkel relates the story of his travels to Bodh Gaya, one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism. It is where, one could very simplistically say—and I will—the Buddha became the Buddha. Siddhartha Guatama struggled with his spirituality, first trying to attain it through deprivation, nearly starving himself. When he realized that he was none the happier for it, he changed tactics. After recovering, he decided to meditate: “he simply notes [his thoughts] without judgment as the focus of this minute attention rises and then, inevitably, fades away.” Kind of a “don’t sweat the small stuff” realization.
After he realizes this, he finds a nice tree and sits under a tree, vowing not to leave until enlightenment. Under the tree, he confronts Māra, in the Vedic mythology, a god of love…thought the name means death. Māra tempts him, with the traditional temptations of power, lust and fear. Siddhartha calls upon the earth to testify—which it does. This is not the end of his journey though. To become the Buddha, he continues with his meditation and gains knowledge of his past lives, the “superhuman divine eye” and the Four Noble Truths,” pillars on which he builds the dharma. And then he hangs out at the tree for another several weeks—understandably a bit overwhelmed. The area is known as the Vajrasana.
I didn’t mean to talk quite so much about Buddhist history. But without knowing the history, it’s hard to determine why people consider a site sacred. Especially one from another tradition. But knowing that history, it is clear why Buddhists see Bodh Gaya as such a sacred place.
Like most sacred sites today, though, Bodh Gaya has caught the attention of Tourists. And the place has been overrun. Not just by the tourists, but by those taking advantage of the tourists. As Garfinkel puts it, it’s more of a “spiritual three-ring circus” than simply a spiritual epicenter. There is simply no way, as he discovered, to recreate the Buddha’s experience. And ironically, the attention may have begun to harm the sacred site: the Bodhi Tree had been infested by the mealybug—possibly relating to the activities of the devout.
Garfinkel does not actually say that he sees Bodh Gaya’s “three-ring circus” as a bad thing. When writing of the plans the Indian tourism department has for bypass roads, Garfinkel points out that “Bodh Gaya will have less traffic, less noise and less air pollution—and less character—than when…I was there.” Generally, for the US and journalists, character is considered a virtue. He also points out that people look for distractions from Enlightenment. That’s why the Buddha is so revered. If it was easy, anyone could do it.
Garfinkel calls it “the sense of peace that nonetheless manages to transcend even the chaos here.”
All the while Garfinkel discusses his visit with the tour, he points out how superior he feels to the others with him. He knows how to ignore the beggars, and to rise above the surrounding poverty. He isn’t naïve like that poor rich woman from, and is perfectly aware of social injustices as a fact of life—even when she cannot. Then, when he is in the Mahakala caves, he finds himself confessing to one instance in which he was particularly obnoxious to another traveler. He confesses, and then realizes that he can let the incident go. He doesn’t have to feel guilty, or even superior, any longer.
But in the caves, he’s already pointed out, it still feels to him as though they must be the same as 2,500 years ago. But in letting go of that instance, he also let go of his own expectations. “Bodh Gaya is no place for intellectual nitpicking.”
Because Bodh Gaya wouldn’t be a tourist destination if no one believed in the Buddha and his teachings. People come to the site to connect with their history…or at least the history of their beliefs. They find their own meaning there, not dependant on the outside conditions. If Buddha found his enlightenment there, then not everyone else needs to. He went to teach others his principles so that they could find enlightenment in their own place.
Bodh Gaya is sacred because the believers make it so. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Little plastic Buddhas? Well people only like marble because it’s expensive. Let’s not be elitist.
*Another post from my class blog. I’m not as happy with this one, but not quite ready to edit it. I need to think some more about it. I’d appreciate feedback though.