|Lin Hwai-min photo by Liu Chen-hsiang
I do not know when the name Bodhgaya first entered my mind. For a few years I wanted to go there badly, even if I didn’t know what I would do once I got there. I only knew it was in Bodhgaya that Buddha attained his enlightenment under a bodhi tree. In the summer of 1994, when I finally had a few free days, I hurriedly booked an air ticket. Still I did not know why I had set my mind on going.
Bodhgaya was a village with only a muddy track for access. Little shops and open-air stalls gathered around the compound of Mahabodhi Temple to form a market. Constructed in the sixth century, the Mahabodhi stupa, a stone structure, was 50 meters tall. Standing in the temple courtyard, it ascended towards the blue sky. To the back of the stupa stood a bodhi tree, a fourth generation descendent in 2,500 years; its trunk spreading into infinity, and its leaves and branches shielding over mortal souls. The Diamond Seat of Buddha sat beneath the tree; a fence had been set up around it. Monks and pilgrims of different nationalities sat on the ground outside the fence. Under the guidance of the monks, the pilgrims chanted Buddhist scriptures. Between the rising and falling of the chanting, one could hear birds twittering from near and afar.
In the afternoon I would sit on the banks of the Neranjra River outside of the Temple compound and stare blankly at it. The water was muddy and seemed motionless. From time to time, a big bubble would break out and pop, to remind one of the turbulent life coursing underneath the smooth surface of the river.
I suppose that the Neranjra river which Buddha saw would have been flowing in much the same way. It was in the grove of trees on the opposite shore that Prince Siddhartha engaged in six years of ascetic practice on a daily diet of sesame seeds and a grain of wheat, at last reducing himself to skin-and-bones before realizing that this consuming desire to be enlightened was the biggest obstacle to his enlightenment.
So Prince Siddhartha accepted the offerings of a village maiden. He crossed the river to take his place in the diamond seat that destiny had prepared for him.
I stood on the river bank and marveled at Buddha’s determination to cross the river.
To turn away from the world and become self-reliant, to live the life of a hermit and practice asceticism, is completion of the self. To receive, to accept another person’s bodily warmth was for Buddha, at the moment of receiving, a return to the world of birth, old age, illness and death. Having crossed the river himself, Buddha would now guide humanity to cross it.
The Agama Scripture tells us that, at the time of his nirvana, Buddha did not, as popular Buddhist mythology would have us believe, take leave of the world easily. He summoned his beloved disciple, Ananda, to give him detailed instructions on his cremation and the construction of the stupa. It was too much for Ananda to bear, and he ran into the woods to cry. Buddha heard him crying and called him back to his side and comforted him. There is infinite beauty within the beauty of nirvana – the reluctance to leave, and the reluctance to let go.
On the bank of the Neranjra River, I realized for the first time in my life that Buddha was an ordinary mortal who also endured human confusion and struggle. Out of his compassion, he practiced asceticism and meditation, and pointed out to us the path of salvation. I felt warmth and was filled with love and admiration for Buddha.
I sat quietly under the bodhi tree, shoulder to shoulder with the monks. I opened my eyes, and saw sunlight coming from the top of the stupa through the branches to land directly on my forehead. My heart became full of joy; I felt a quietude that I had never experienced.
Back in Taipei, I often remembered the cool bodhi tree, and the Neranjra River that ran quietly through time. Every day the dancers of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan meditated. I created Songs of the Wanderers with great ease, a work about practicing asceticism, the river’s mildness, and the quest for quietude.
As I review this piece of work from 1994, it feels as though I am studying an entry in my diary. The memory of the journey to Budhgaya causes my heart to be overcome with joy, which I hope can be shared with the audience of Songs of the Wanderers.
For tickets and information on Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan – Songs of the Wanderers, visit the Auditorium Theatre website.