By Jake Hansen

Last week we stayed in Bhodgaya in a Buddhist Monastery called The Root Institute for Wisdom Culture. The first few days were spent on a pilgrimage to some of the most iconic spots along the path walked by the Buddha on his way to attaining enlightenment. We went to the cave where he meditated for six years, eating only five-to-seven grains of rice per day trying to solve the problem of human suffering.

Outside the cave, which was so hot and small that I could only last six minutes (much less six years), we met a group of Buddhist monks. One of them spoke English, so we ended up getting a 20-30 minute impromptu teaching on the nature of mind as seen through the perspective of someone who’s dedicated their life to studying this powerful topic. It’s sort of indescribable how it felt to be in such a holy location receiving the teachings of the Buddha, with monks and nuns around us and monkeys trying to steal our bananas. Surreal is the best word I can think of to describe the feeling of being in that place and the other places we visited along our journey.

We also visited and hiked to the top of a mountain called Vulture Peak, Buddha’s favorite retreat in Rajgir where he delivered some of his most famous teachings. We meditated at the top and I can only speak for myself but it was quite the transcendental experience; one of those rare (at least among novice meditators like myself), beautiful times in practicing meditation which keeps you coming back for more. Finally, we visited my personal favorite, the Bhodi tree where the Buddha sat as he attained enlightenment. There’s a massive, beautiful Stupa built over the tree now and a big area with carvings depicting the life of Buddha and lots of meditating monks. We made light offerings to whomever we felt like, and I know that most people including myself dedicated the candles we lit to our families.

It was an extremely powerful experience to physically connect with each of these sites where the man himself came to the realizations which over thousands of years have changed the lives of millions, including ours.

The rest of our time in Bhodgaya was spent either doing volunteer manual labor at a school for HIV positive children, playing games with the kids from the school, discussing/being taught about the “Dharma”—a.k.a. the teachings of Buddha—or meditating. Each day started with a 45-minute meditation led by one of the nuns which most of us participated in daily. This is a long time to meditate for a beginner, so most of us started out with some difficulty, but I believe everyone saw improvement and learned a lot about the real goal and purpose of meditation over the course of the week.

The kids in the school were a joy to play with. We taught them some games and they taught us some, and we all got dirty and sweaty running around and falling in the dirt of the schoolyard, scraping knees and making epic plays. It made me feel like a kid in elementary school again. We left on Diwali, the Indian festival of light, and so our last moments in the monastery were spent lighting hundreds of candles all over the place with the children. Directly after and in sharp contrast to this beautiful, magical moment, we were shuttled to the train station where we slept on the filthy ground for about four hours as we waited for our delayed overnight train. If that doesn’t sum up what it’s like to travel through India, then I don’t know what does.