Home > Buddhism, Dharamsala, Himalayas, India, Meditation, Monks, Tibet, Travel > Worms Under the Bodhi Tree

Worms Under the Bodhi Tree

The bus from Rajgir to Gaya was characteristically bursting at the rusted metal seams. I was standing, snuggled nicely in an armpit, as more and more people were shoehorned into the vehicle. Families were crushed into too few seats and children were piled on top of their parents in a game of human Jenga. A young lad alongside me fell asleep on his feet, woken by every sharp bounce of the suspension. Dirt flew everywhere through the cracked windows, shards of glass hanging precariously from the frames. We were awarded some respite as the inevitable puncture occurred, and as I stood back and observed I was full of admiration for the people around me. This was a normal bus journey for them; no iPod, iPad, or iPhone, no air conditioning and no guarantee they would arrive in one piece. They didn’t choose to live in these conditions, they were just dealt the hand. Being born in the UK is an enormous stroke of good luck, and the things I would often take for granted seemed ludicrous, even shameful.

Arriving in Gaya we had to negotiate for a rickshaw to Bodhgaya, a 13km journey. A repeat human crush ensued; Hazell and I were joined on the back seat by two old ladies who omitted on odour strikingly similar to a refuse dump, jabbing their walking sticks into places even Stig wouldn’t go. The economy size boot was rammed full with unspecified goods, on top of which a third old lady was sandwiched. To finish the show, a young Indian man then sat on her lap, grinning as we sped away. ‘Why treat each other like this?’ I thought to myself, but the answer is obvious. The more people there are in the rickshaw the more money the driver makes, while the passengers can share the cost between them. A short journey in discomfort could well mean they can afford to eat dinner.

It was fantastic to finally arrive in Bodhgaya, the most important pilgrimage sight for Buddhists the world over. It was here that the Buddha gained enlightenment sat under a Bodhi tree over 25 centuries ago. The historical sight was almost lost to history and the original Bodhi tree disappeared, though thankfully it lived on through an offshoot taken to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A further cutting was taken from this tree and replanted in Bodhgaya, where it continues to flourish on the grounds of the Mahabodhi temple. The park area is a wonderful place to spend time; monks and lay people of all nationalities and traditions join in reverence. We bumped into a number of Tibetan monks who we had met in Dharamsala, many of whom we found sweating as they performed a special practice of 100,000 prostrations on wooden planks. Elsewhere, lay pilgrims read the sutras, Theravadin monks sat peacefully and a Chinese prayer festival was getting underway. The enormous spire of the temple towered above us, surrounded by green grass, small stupas and Tibetan carved prayer stones. I was filled with humility as I sat quietly under the Bodhi tree, an opportunity only dreamed of by many.

I was lost in the moment, but India always manages to bring one back to earth with a bang. An Indian man was arguing with a monk outside the temple; hawkers were collecting fallen bodhi leaves and selling them in the throng outside the grounds; beggars lined every empty paving slab. The sound of small metal wheels scratching on the pavement is an Indian sound bite that will stay with me; it is the signature of the legless man dragging himself along on a self made wooden skateboard. Hoards of homeless back onto the dusty roads, gathered under a sign which reads, “Proud To Be Bihari”. Children play in the dirt as if it was sand, only looking up to ask for money or ice-cream. It is saddening that such an important area should be so under developed, but ironically, it is therefore the perfect teacher of the Buddha’s message of compassion.

One of the joys of a visit to Bodhgaya is a journey around the many temples. Most countries where Buddhism predominates are represented, each bringing their own distinctive style. Our favourite was the recently built Kagyu Tibetan temple of the Karmapa, who was soon to be teaching in the area. After a lunch of Tibetan Momos, (which we had sorely missed), Hazell and I spent a pleasant afternoon strolling through the fields to the typically colourful, Tibetan building. We then spent the evening at the ‘Root Institute’, the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) centre in the area. It was this Tibetan organisation that we did our course in Nepal with so we felt very much at home! We sat and watched a showing of the Karmapa’s teachings in the USA and attended an evening meditation session, thrilled to be able to practice in such an auspicious environment.

The other dimension to our time in Bodhgaya was very much in the domain of physical health. I had been suffering from intermittent fever and sickness for some time now, so decided to go and see a doctor. I was sent to the local ’pathology lab’ where I was required to give a blood and stool sample. To sharpen the image in your mind, replace the word ’lab’ with ’dirty hovel in the gutter’. The shopkeeper from over the road kindly translated as a freshly unpackaged syringe was inserted into my arm. So far so good. I then used sign language to communicate the phrase, ’do you need my shit as well?’ To which the pathologist, smiled and nodded, and an awkward silence ensued. I stood blank faced and my host then laughed again and began to scan the room. At the culmination of his search he picked up a match box, emptied its contents and handed me my ’receptacle’. I burst out laughing and said I’d be back in a while.

The wonders of modern science went to work over night and I returned to the doc with results in hand.

’Ah yes, you’ve got Typhoid’

’Erm, right, that’s not ideal is it?’, I replied.

’And Hookworm’, he added.

At this point my concern was intertwined with incredulity and the desire to burst out laughing. Furthermore, I felt a twang of victory as I now had (semi) scientific evidence to prove to Hazell it wasn’t just ’man-flu’. She was still unconvinced, though had been feeling ill herself. The doctor believed she probably had worms too and prescribed her some drugs, though we didn’t have time to go and see my mate the pathologist again. As we were both feeling ill we decided to leave our Vipassana meditation course for another time. However, we were both plagued by a pertinent moral question given the circumstance: do we take the drugs and kill the living creatures inside us? We decided we had only one worm each; mine was named Frank and Hazell’s Edgar. Perhaps we shouldn’t have humanised them and become emotionally attached before taking the medicine…The Karmapa had just arrived in Bodhgaya; we wondered what he would do…

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