One day, in India, I found that I had stumbled into an immense prayer ceremony, by accident. I had been travelling east, on my way to Kolkata (Calcutta), to meet a yogic nun who ran a girls school and orphanage (which I later found out was more than a day's journey from the city), where I had said I would volunteer and teach English for a month. Before I got to Kolkata though, I thought I might stop into Bodh Gaya, and visit the Bodhi Tree, under which Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment after three days and three nights of meditation. The photo above is that very tree, decked out in prayer flags and finery for the ceremonies that were taking place.
Doorway to the Bodhi Tree
When I arrived in the town there seemed to be a flurry of preparations underway.
I didn't know much at all about Buddhism when I arrived in town, but everywhere I went people kept stopping and talking to me, and soon I had learnt a few things. I made friends with a monk who was visiting from Nepal for the ceremonies, and met up with him every afternoon for a cup of chai and a chat in the shade. It was the Kagyu Monlam Chemno, a traditional prayer ceremony which is led by the Karmapa Lama in Bodh Gaya every year, drawing nuns and monks from all over the world. Next I met two Englishmen who had been devout Buddhists for over twenty years, who invited me to dinner every evening and answered all my questions about Buddhism. I also met a very nice man who was a Tibetan refugee, living in New Delhi at the time and working in a call centre who brought me to eat Tibetan food with him in a tent, dazzling me with his talk all the while. And then there was a man called Siddharta who used to work with Mother Teresa and had been inspired by her to start an orphanage and school in his hometown. I spent a day visiting and playing games with the boys there.
There was also a couple from Singapore and another couple from Russia, both of which I chanced to run into separately later on, in other parts of India. And there were many others, too.
As the ceremonies began there was so much to wonder at.
The Mahabodhi temple (being renovated here) is the main temple in Bodh Gaya
I followed tradition and walked clockwise around the Mahabodhi temple before entering. As I walked I tried to reflect on all I was experiencing. As I mentioned earlier, there were people from everywhere visiting for this ceremony, and with them they brought so many traditions and cultures. I passed people in the gardens prostrating themselves over and over again before the temple. Local children reached their arms in through the gates of the temple with bags of goldfish for sale.
One the right you can just make out monks who were chanting
I ended up staying in Bodh Gaya for longer than I had intended. There was always one more thing I had told someone I'd do with them the next day, it seemed.
One of my favourite memories happened in the temple in the above photograph. My monk friend brought me in here with all of the older monks that had travelled with him from Nepal while they chanted together lines of prayers from their books. I cannot describe the intense, incredible feeling there.
During most of each day there were mass prayers. My friend also brought me in to sit with him and the other monks for a day of this. I was a little island in a sea of saffron robes, watching the young monks (some looked to be no more than five years old) try to amuse themselves with quiet little games that helped them pass the long hours of listening and praying. I felt a little conspicuous sitting there at first, but it wore off.
Temporary art, made of what looked like icing.
Though I am not a Buddhist, I felt blessed to have been a small part of this. How lovely never to know what tomorrow will bring.