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The Bodhi Tree

Listed under Sacred Spaces in Gaya, India.

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Gautama Siddhartha, a royal prince of the 6th century BC, lived his early years never having seen old age, sickness, poverty or death. At the age of twenty-nine, renouncing an opulent life style, he began his search for truth. Following the traditions of Hinduism, Siddhartha had spiritual teachers, practiced yoga, and deeply explored the ascetic path. After several years Siddhartha was guided by visionary dreams to meditate beneath the Bodhi Tree, where he attained the ultimate knowledge of spiritual enlightenment. His first discourse, given at Saranath, presented the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path for which Buddhism is so famous. The Buddha spent the remainder of his life traveling and teaching in northeastern India. He died at the age of eighty, his body was cremated, and the ashes were placed in ten reliquary shrines whose locations are now unknown.

The origins of the practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism are obscure. Scholars believe that Buddhist pilgrimage was initially imitative of the practice among Hindus but later became an integral part of the Buddhist tradition, assuming its own distinct features. Buddhists quote passages from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in which the Buddha told his disciple, Ananda, that there are four places "...that a devout person should visit and look upon with reverence." These four places are Lumbini, where he was born; Bodh Gaya, where he attained realization; Saranath, where he gave his first teachings; and Kushinager, where he passed away. These places became known as ‘The Four Great Wonders’ and monks and pilgrims began visiting them. Other places associated with the Buddha's life, such as Rajagraha, Sravasti, Vaisali and Samkasya, also became pilgrimage destinations and all eight sites were known as ‘The Eight Great Wonders’.

Other places became pilgrimage centers as Buddhism extended its influence across Asia. In general, there were three categories of Buddhist sacred sites that arose in the centuries following Buddha's death. One category concerns those places considered sacred prior to the arrival of Buddhism, which were then incorporated into Buddhist sacred geography. This was especially true in Tibet, where numerous Bon-Po sacred sites were taken over by the Buddhists, and in China, where particular Taoist sacred mountains became the abodes of Buddhist Bodhisattvas. The second category of Buddhist sacred sites were those places associated with the lives or relics of various sages, saints and teachers in the Buddhist tradition. A third type concerned those sacred sites which had their origin in the manifestation or apparition of various deities.

Preeminent among all these pilgrimage sites is Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. No archaeological remains exist of structures from the time of the Buddha, the earliest temple was constructed by the Emperor Asoka around 250 BC, and this shrine was replaced in the 2nd century AD by the Mahabodhi temple. The Mahabodhi, with shrines for ritual practice and meditation, is crowned by a stupa containing relics of the Buddha. Inside the temple is a statue of the Buddha and also a Shiva Linga. The Hindus believe that the Buddha was one of the incarnations of Vishnu; therefore the Mahabodhi temple is a pilgrimage site for Hindus as well as Buddhists. Behind the temple are the two most venerated objects in the Buddhist world, the Bodhi Tree and beneath it, the Vajrasana, or seat of the Buddha's meditation. The tree standing today is a descendant of the tree from the Buddha's time. The environs of Bodh Gaya have attracted yogis and sages since the time of Buddha. Great spiritual figures such as Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna and Atisha have meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree.

The Four Noble Truths assert that human beings suffer because of the clinging nature of the mind. There is a way out of suffering through the meditative practices of the Noble Eightfold Path. Through these practices one gains insight into how suffering is caused by identification with the mind's processes. Letting go of such identification, one discovers and increasingly resides in a pre-existing state of inner peace.

Photos: Tibetan monks meditating by the Bodhi Tree, the place of Buddha's enlightenment, Bodh Gaya, India

Buddha Footprints, Bodh Gaya, India

More on the Bodhi Tree from Sacred Sites.

Written by  Martin Gray.

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The Bodhi Tree

At the place of the Buddha's 'great awakening' stands the Mahabodhi Temple, built to commemorate that momentous event. However, the enlightenment itself is said to have occurred at the foot of a Sacred Fig tree and one still grows there, very likely a direct descendant of the original. It is called the 'Sri Mahabodhi', and the legend goes that Gautama Buddha, after fasting and practising self-mortification for six years, realised that he could not attain 'bodhi' (enlightenment) by this method. When he was close to collapse from hunger, a local girl gave him rice milk to drink and he revived sufficiently to regain his determination and seek enlightenment, choosing to sit beneath a nearby fig tree until it arrived. After a psychological battle with Mara, the demon of illusion and temptation, he finally attained bodhi, and continued to meditate under the tree for a further week in thanks.

A monastery and several other temples have been founded here near the Mahabodhi temple, and although the tree itself has now been fenced off in a sacred enclosure, its shade extends out far enough for visitors to sit underneath and pick up a few leaves as a souvenir.

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