Monday, January 10, 2011
Hesse and the Bodhi Tree
Herman Hesse's Siddhartha has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. It's not that I didn't want to read it, but Hesse is a writer who needs to be absorbed at just the right time. My friends and I had stumbled upon Damien at 14 and it came perfectly placed in my life. I figured India was the prime place to read Siddhartha, since Hesse wrote it while inspired by his travels, so I tossed it my backpack, where it's lived for the last three months. Finally, I decided upon the place. I'd go to Bodhgaya and read the whole novel under the Bodhi tree, the very place where Siddhartha Gautma achieved enlightenment. Pretentious and cheesy yes, but it felt right.
Bodhgaya was crazy, swarming with pilgrims. I visited the divine Mahabodhi Temple, home of the tree and did a two quick koras, one on the outside, then once on the inside. Some man was giving a talk to thousands of bald-headed monks. The grounds were a sea of heads and robes, yellow, red, maroon, and orange. At first I thought it may have been the Dalai Lama: the speaker was obviously important and looked Tibetan from the distance. Upon closer inspection, I saw it was the 17th Karmapa himself, Ogyen Trinley Darje, second most holy man in the Buddhist faith. Right behind him was the tree, which still had a bit of space open between the masses crowded under it. I plopped down in the shade, pulled out my Hesse and began my journey towards enlightenment.
It was a special setting; people from around the world, some praying, some meditating, some reading scripture, but most were hanging intently on the Karmapa's words. I read in surprising peace under the tree, only feet from the future head of the Buddhist faith. About 20 pages in, a bird shuffled a small stick which fell onto my head, it felt like a blessing. Next to me, another man had a leave fall onto him, he looked to the heavens in bliss. I picked up the stick and rubbed the wood between my fingers, the precious wood from the world's most sacred tree and had a revelation. It was just wood and this wasn't my tree. This was Siddhartha's tree. To sit here, hoping for some spontaneous life-lesson was pointless. Everyone was here, hoping that this particular tree had some magic, wisdom-granting powers, praying, searching, yearning for the ironic enlightenment, as the very idea of searching for nirvana prevents one from finding it. Suddenly, I was in a sea of hypocrites, lost souls. My neighbor was a white man, almost giving himself a hernia trying to meditate under the tree with hundreds around him, with the Karmapa's voice booming over the loudspeakers. I stood up and left. I wasn't searching for any answers, only a good place to read this beautiful book, and this wasn't it. As I said, it wasn't my tree.
I said a quick prayer out of respect and found a cafe nearby. All trees were essentially the same and a cafe was as good as tree, maybe better, since I could sip chai while reading. For the rest of the day, I picked a spot, read a chapter, then saw a few temples, then sat and read some more at a different location.
My reading was often broken up by many inquiring people, intrigued by the title or familiar with Hesse. It was a town that bred philosophical talk. I met a German woman, flirting with Buddhism and discussed the book and the irony of Buddhism as a religion. She encouraged me to walk 4km to a monastery I'd just visited to receive a blessing by the Karmapa. I told her that it wouldn't hurt since I was here anyway and she rushed to join what was probably an endless line.
"I hope you find the answers you're looking for." She said as she left.
I looked at her and replied, "I'm not looking for any answers, the search itself keeps them from coming."
"Well then, I hope that the answers come to you implicitly or magically."
I smiled and waved as another of the lost souls of Bodhgaya left to force enlightenment upon herself. I chose not to seek what would be an empty blessing; to stand in a long line only to have a holy man look upon me fore one second would be meaningless, especially since I'm not Buddhist. Too much ritual bogs down the teachings of Siddhartha. To go to the blessing would erase the very lesson I learned under the great tree. Plus, I had a book to read.
The novel unfolded like my day, Siddhartha learning the same lessons throughout his life as I learned them chatting with random pole at a cafe on a dusty, crowded, vendor-lined street. I met a couple from Hong Kong who travel every year to Bodhgaya for the Karmapa's annual visit.
"We love how he tells you how to live life in a happy, peaceful way. Priests just tell you what to think, the Karmapa tells you how to live."
"Will you seek a blessing from the Karmapa?" I asked.
"Oh no, we just love to hear him speak."
When I was only ten ten pages shy of what may have been the most incredible passages in all of literature, the ending, my thali arrived and I needed my hands to eat. Behind me, a long-haired, braid-bearded Christian American, dressed in a white robe, carrying a flute and two dolls, one white and one black was conversing on religion with a Tibetan monk. I tried not to eavesdrop, but Americans talk loudly. He told of how he found Jesus, lost his wife from his devotion and talked of all the lesson he'd learned from the Koran, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I agreed with his thesis, that spirituality is religion shy. As he was leaving, I pulled him aside.
"Hey man, you're a Christian right?"
"In that I follow the ways of Jesus, yes, I am a Christian." He looked like Jesus too, a bespectacled, pasty white Jesus.
"I'm sorry, I was overhearing your conversation while I was eating..."
"...That's fine, I don't mind."
"It is so refreshing to hear a non-hypocritical Christian speak. I grew up in a small town and I really saw how the church has obscured the teaching of the man. Jesus."
"So you've read a lot of religious texts?"
"I first read the Koran after finding Jesus and I so surprised by the wisdom of it. The west demonizes the book so much."
"Muslims help with it. It's another case of how people lose through religion the very lessons and lifestyles that the book teaches."
We discussed religion for a while; I told him of my friend Brant and his conversion to Islam while in the seminary.
"Oh! I see you're reading Siddhartha!"
"Seemed like the right time and place."
"Yeah, I read that, myself, years ago for the first time...well right here in Bodhgaya."
"Seems like the hip thing to do."
I told him of my experience under the Bodhi tree, how the tree itself, though beautiful, had no more power than what we, the people gave it for its incredible historical significance.
"It's not your tree. I'm glad you realized that.
"No, it's not my tree, it's the Buddha's tree. And if I was to read the whole book," I said, tapping the cover with my index finger, "under that tree, than obviously I've learned nothing from it. I might have well never read it."
"It's not your tree."
"It's nobody's tree, but so many people here are looking to it, as if it's the tree that's going to save them. I read this book in various cafes around town; why can't a dingy cafe be my tree? It's not the place that matters. Much like it's not the religion. It's the wisdom, the spirituality. And spirituality is a universal need, I'm convinced of it."
"I'm a Christian, Jesus fills that need for me."
"And nature fills that need for me. Heck, even atheists fill that need with their conceited sense of superiority from their logic."
The man was about to leave when I asked him about the two dolls, cuddled together in a neat bundle. "These represent one form of the Hindu gods, both children, one man, one woman. One white, one black. They have the innocent love and playfulness of a child, but the wisdom of the gods."
"I really like that!"
"Yeah, me too." He paused for a moment. "I'm glad you figured out it wasn't your tree, man."
I sat and read the last chapter of the masterpiece, the final paragraph nearly bringing me to tears. I didn't linger after finishing, shutting the book quickly. Staring at the dirty wash basin, outside of the flooded toilet of the restaurant, I'd found my tree.
My baggage was waiting safe at a small used book shop, whose owner was kind enough to store for the day. As a tip, I slipped him the Hesse with 50 rupees.
"Oh," he sighed, "this book. I have so many."
"Popular book here?"
"Everybody has it!" he said as he tossed it carelessly onto a pile of other people's enlightenment.