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Buddhadharma : Summer 2007
summer 2007| 60 |buddhadharma greeted by bellhops carrying garlands of golden marigolds, which they threw over our necks, and plastic glasses of Cokes on silver trays. It was the best Coke I had ever tasted. In the morning, we walked down the road to the Mahabodhi Temple. Seeing Mahabodhi today, it is hard to conceive that something so grand could have ever been lost. The temple marks the spot where the Buddha attained final enlightenment. One could say that while the Buddha was born in Lumbini, Buddhism was born in Bodhgaya. Today this is not just an archeological site but also an international center for Buddhist activity. There are twenty-six monas- teries representing various Buddhist countries and lineages. The site attracts more visitors than all the other sites combined. Making a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya at least once has been the aspiration of millions of Buddhists throughout history. Buddhist scholar Reginald Ray explains it this way: The place where a Buddha attains enlightenment is unique in the world: the place where he sat, the tree that sheltered him, the area around which he walked become charged with the energy of awareness, the dynamism of the awakened state, the magic and power of his realization. ...Visiting such a place, mak- ing such a connection, has the power to transform a life and perhaps many lives to come. The Mahabodhi Temple is the heart of Bodh- gaya, and in 2002 it was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage monument. Ashoka built the original altar, but no sign of it remains. The tem- ple’s present form is thought to date from the sixth century. The exact spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree is revered as the vajrasana, the indestructible seat. When the great earth is shaken, it is said, this place alone remains unmoved. The temple complex lies in a deep courtyard below the level of the surrounding terrain. Carved of Chunar sandstone, the temple glows orange with the sunrise. It seems to emerge out of the earth, ancient and monumental. Its four-cornered, pyra- mid-like spire soars 180 feet toward the sky and comes to nearly a point. Four similarly shaped cor- ner turrets flank the spire. The temple’s two lower stories house shrines that, through the ages, have served as places of homage, ritual practice, and meditation. Its upper portion, crowned by a stupa, contains relics of the Buddha. The temple grounds cover several acres of gar- dens, trees, and flowers that surround votive stone chapels, bells, and statues. To the south of the tem- ple lies the Lotus Pond, where the Buddha bathed. To the north sits the chankrama, a raised plat- form marking the place where the Buddha walked back and forth while meditating on whether he should teach his message of self-abandonment to the world. Seven spots within the precincts of the temple are especially sacred because they mark the places where the Buddha spent a week each medi- tating after his enlightenment. Also on the north side, practitioners of many nationalities stand side by side, performing the ancient practice of prostrations. The temple’s main shrine chamber houses an ancient gilded statue of the Buddha in the bhu- misparsha mudra, one finger touching the earth, calling it to witness his awakening. But this is not the original Mahabodhi statue, which had once been the most revered object in Bodhgaya. Xuan- zang described that statue as being over eleven feet high, made of gold, and carved in the exact likeness of the Buddha. It is believed to have been destroyed in the Muslim invasion. The Struggle for Mahabodhi The struggle to restore the Mahabodhi Temple to the Buddhist world has been nearly as monu- mental as the temple itself. Unlike the other sites, Mahabodhi never completely disappeared, but when Cunningham arrived in 1861, he saw a ruin. The temple flooded during each year’s monsoon and was partially buried in silt. An early drawing (above) shows it covered in weeds, its roof fallen in and its walls badly cracked. The picture is titled East View of the Hindu Temple of Bode Gya. Hindu squatters had taken over the temple An early drawing of the Mahabodhi Temple.