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August 10, 2010

Ghost Crossing. ~ Bija Andrew Wright

An American in India.

Outside of the Hotel Tokyo Vihar in Bodhgaya, India, my friend Raju picks me up on his motorcycle. I tell Raju that my dad used to take me on trips on his motorcycle, and that he would be very disappointed that I was riding without a helmet. On a dirt road. In a third-world village. Raju promises me he’ll drive safely.

We ride up Temple Road, where pilgrims from most Buddhist countries have shrines in their own tradition. The hotel is named Tokyo Vihar because it’s across from a Japanese Zen temple, though in all respects it’s typically Indian. We pass the bazaar where tourists buy souvenirs and daily needs, out through the village to Sujata Bridge.

According to legend, this is the place where a village girl brought Siddhartha an offering of food. Before his enlightenment, he practiced rigid fasting with a group of ascetics who believed self-denial was the way to liberation. After years of this practice, the end was not in sight. It was then that Sujata found him in the forest near Bodhgaya. He was so thin, the stories say, that Sujata thought she’d seen a ghost. She gave some rice milk as offering. Siddhartha knew that drinking the rice milk would violate his commitment to the ascetics, show him as a quitter. But Sujata’s kindness convinced Siddhartha that denying his own needs was fruitless. It was the idea he’d come to describe as “the Middle Path.”

From a narrow alley in the village, a few locals wave at Raju and stare at me. When we get to the bridge, we park the motorcycle and walk across. It’s a tiny wooden footbridge, no railings, and I cross with careful steps. A tiny temple marks the spot; the outside altar has two smiling statues that represent Siddhartha and Sujata. A small group of Indian pilgrims shuffle around the temple, clockwise. Raju lights a candle at the shrine, holds it between his palms and chants under his breath before setting it before the figure of Buddha. We sit at the temple for a minute or two before walking back

Raju asks if I have had breakfast. “There is a restaurant I know,” he tells me. “My friend was the cook at one of Bodhgaya’s best restaurants, but quit so that he could start his own. I smile a little at how this sounds to American ears, thinking of celebrity chefs and their vanity restaurants. I predict that this won’t be like that. The restaurant is in a small shack, with wobbly folding tables and plastic chairs. I order fruit porridge and chai. Both are delicious.

I notice a thin red rope knotted around Raju’s right arm as we sit and talk over breakfast. It peeks out from under the sleeve of his shirt.. I ask about it, and he shrugs. “I wear it for my family. They think it makes me lucky and protects me. This is like my helmet.”

Later in the evening, I go to the Japanese temple for their evening meditation. As the monks chant the Heart Sutra in Japanese, my mind drifts back to the story of Sujata. She thought she saw a ghost, and her response was to offer that ghost kindness. The effect of her act was to feed the Buddha-to-be when he had starved himself.

Many of the Buddhist holy sites are in the state of Bihar. Its ancient history is legendary, but in modern times, Bihar is the poorest state in India by a wide margin.

Yet it’s here in Bihar where I have encountered the kindest people, in all places, from all walks of life. In the train, I sat with a young man who wore a traditional white tunic and skullcap. He told me his name was Muhammad Ali. When a peanut-vendor came walking through the train car, he insisted on buying peanuts to split with me. I took out my wallet, but he protested. “No no, you are my brother.” I had nothing to say except, “Thank you, Muhammad Ali.”

I’m not saying I’m the Buddha here, but there’s a parallel. Someone in Bihar sees a strange visitor to their state, pale skin, an exhausted, haunted look from monsoon travel and culture shock. This visitor’s eyes are magnified by thick lenses. I probably do look like a ghost. Whatever they know about me, it’s probably safe to assume that I have food and resources available at home. But they see that I am very far from home; I am starving myself of the comforts I get there.

It’s strange to notice this kind of kindness. It’s not charity; it’s not providing me with something I could not afford.

What does it mean, then, to practice the Middle Path while traveling? Maybe the secret of Buddha’s discovery was not simply averaging the extremes, but responding to Sujata’s kindness. When we’re out of our homes and comfort zones, we’re suddenly shaken into paying attention to the kindness of the world. Instead of independently deciding how much tea I want to drink, and picking an average between two much or none at all, my Middle Path in India means accepting tea when it’s offered, accepting peanuts, accepting a motorcycle ride, accepting a smile. And then, as often as possible, offering what I can in return.

Bija Andrew Wright is the whitest Buddhist you know. He has been an ordained Dharma teacher through Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit. He never met a cup of five-rupee chai he didn’t like. Visit his blog or follow him on twitter.

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