Bodhgaya III

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Those of us attending the teachings at Tergar Monastery, also referred to as the Karmapa Monastery, were graced with a brief visit from the Karmapa himself on Wednesday, along with his retinue of attendants and uniformed Indian military armed guards. With automatic weapons.

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The Karmapa is like the CEO of Tibetan Buddhism to the Dalai Lama’s Chairman of the Board. When he attends large, I mean 10,000 people, ceremonies, he may have 30-40 guards. When he went to Germany last year, Israeli security was hired, which is about as serious as you can get. No one gets near him with a cell phone. Everyone is patted down before an audience. Strangers, such as perhaps certain Chinese strangers, might rush him in public gatherings, hurling things, along with epithets.

From the Karmapa’s website:

Born in Eastern Tibet on June 26th, 1985, he was recognized at the age of seven through a prediction letter, known as the Last Testament. Written by his previous incarnation, it indicated the place and year of his future birth along with the names of his parents and the special signs that would appear.

The Karmapa’s early years were divided between the pastoral life of his large nomadic family and Buddhist training at the nearby Karlek Monastery. Then, in the spring of 1992, contrary to his usual behavior, the Karmapa insisted that his parents move their camp early and knowing their son was special, they complied. This allowed the Karmapa to be in the exact place predicted by the Last Testament when the search party came to find him.

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He is not a citizen of India. He, and a few other high lamas, occupy a special class of both protected and restricted individuals whose movements are not entirely free, but whose personal security is assured. So it was unusual that no individual security checks were performed on the attendees of this meeting today before his arrival.

Also extremely unusual about this visit was that after brief perfunctory remarks, this commanding individual, a powerful presence unto himself, had his attendants remove his chair and table from the stage and place them down at the level of the monks sitting in front of him and all the students in the gompa, where he stood and invited all to file by and receive blessings. It was an extraordinary gesture of ordinariness and has also been  interpreted as homage to Mingyur for his recent travels and return. In fact, he referred to Mingyur as Kyabje Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, meaning “lord of refuge,” a term reserved for senior lamas, those who have achieved status as protectors of all beings. This was an amazing, rare and beautiful gesture. Mingyur’s bother Tsoknyi, ten years his senior, even calls him Kyabje.

These are strange times and this is a strange place. On my journey from the airport into town a week ago, the road was blocked by police who were apparently performing normal duties of stopping traffic and clearing the roads for government officials passing through. Why would that be necessary? Or are these government officials simply taking advantage of every possible entitlement? Well, no. It turns out that Bihar state, in which Bodhgaya is located, is known throughout India as the most corrupt. And that’s saying something, I’m guessing. Government officials are reviled not only for what is assumed they do, but for what they have already done, like the callous displacement of many businesses and people to accommodate some grand plan for the “main” temple–Maha Bodhi. Kinda like what London did for the 2012 Olympics.

There were consequences. A bomb did go off at the complex some years ago…which I’m guessing accounts for the security measures at the temple now. All cell phones must be surrendered. Pat-down searches are done with everyone passing through three layers of security.

Taxis do not run after dark on the 20 km road between Gaya and Bodhgaya for fear of bandits. The same is true in some areas of town. As a foreigner, do not be in certain areas after dark and not alone. So the Karmapa needs security for more reasons than one. Having this monastery here seems like putting the Vatican in South-side, Chicago. But it’s still Bodhgaya, Buddha Gaya, with the main street being Buddha Blvd and most of the businesses having the Buddha in their name, the Buddha Market, Buddha Medical Hall, Buddha clothing. Heck, I don’t know, Buddha Bank. And inside, they all have a picture of the Karmapa.

There are also a number of other monasteries and temples built by Nepal, Bangladesh, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Loas, Vietnam and more. Besides Tergar, there is a Dalai Lama’ Shechen monastery, the Nyingmapa monastery and more. I haven’t visited them all and probably won’t even try. But there are a few worth noting:

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Japan: the outside and the grounds–to my total surprise–were unremarkable.

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Bhutan: exquisite, inside and out.

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One of over a dozen Thai facilities: dramatic on the outside. But closed and in need of renovation.

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Thailand

So this is also Bodhgaya; polluted, corrupt, dirty, poor, and dangerous, where practice thrives, roadsigns are in four languages (hindi, english, chinese, tibetan) and stunningly beautiful spiritual institutions have been built by every Buddhist nation of South Asia. Bandits notwithstanding, it is still the holiest place in Buddha-dom. A good place to remember that samsara and nirvana, heaven and hell, are present in every moment and, in essence, equal and inseparable.

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