Some 2,500 years ago in the now conspicuous Indian village of Bodh Gaya, Siddhārtha Gautama obtained the covenant state of spiritual enlightenment and instantaneously became the Buddha. Today, Bodh Gaya is considered to be the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world and thousands of devotees annually visit the sacred city to pray, study, and meditate.
Earlier this year, Bodh Gaya, which has a population of around 30,000, welcomed over 200,000 Buddhists who came to partake in a sacred initiation ritual known as the Kalachakra Empowerment. This year’s Kalachakra, which took place from January 2nd-14th, marked the 34th time that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has led the initiation throughout the ceremonies, as he offered prudent spiritual advice that was absorbed by the massive crowds.
The City of Bodh Gaya:
The city of Bodh Gaya is situated along the banks of the Phalgu River in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar. Buddhists around the world recognize the city as the most important of the four primary pilgrimage sites because it is the place where Siddhārtha Gautama transcended the normalcy of human existence and became enlightened. For spiritual seekers today, traveling to Bodh Gaya, and visiting the city’s most important sites, provides meaningful inspiration and reminds them of their inborn potential to achieve the ultimate goal of Nirvana.
Since 1953, Bodh Gaya has transformed into a diverse spiritual metropolis where Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, and Japan have established monasteries and temples architecturally built-in styles common to their respective countries. While these various places of worship shouldn’t be overlooked, it is the temple at the city’s center that is Bodh Gaya’s main draw. The Mahabodhi Temple, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, plays home to the now infamous Bodhi Tree which the Buddha sat underneath at the time of his enlightened.
While the history of Bodh Gaya and the Mahabodhi Temple isn’t entirely known, it is believed the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka initially built the temple around 250 years after the Buddha passed away. It is not believed that the Bodhi Tree currently being protected within the Mahabodhi complex was the actual tree that the Buddha sat under, but rather a descendant of the original tree. Folklore tells us that Ashoka’s wife secretly cut the original Bodhi Tree down after becoming jealous of the amount of time the Emperor was spending there.
The most recent addition to Bodh Gaya’s spiritually significant sights is The Giant Buddha Statue that is pictured above. The statue, which stands 82 feet tall, was built over a seven-year period, with the help of 12,000 masons, and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989. The Great Buddha Statue is believed to be the largest of its kind in India and acts as a breathtaking monument for the entire city of Bodh Gaya.
The Buddha Attains Enlightenment:
According to Buddhist theology, Siddhārtha Gautama concluded an intensive 6-year spiritual journey when he achieved a state of pure Nirvana while sitting underneath the now infamous Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya. Before attaining Enlightenment, it is said that Siddhārtha practiced extreme asceticism, torturing and starving himself, with five other spiritual seekers. One day, when he was meditating with the other ascetics, the future Buddha came to realize that neither through punishment or overindulgence could one become fully awakened. He came to realize that it could only be done by taking a Middle Way.
It was around the same time that Siddhārtha came to this realization that a young girl came by and offered the frail ascetics a mixture of milk and rice. When Siddhārtha accepted the food, his spiritual-seeking companions believed that he had given up on his quest for enlightenment and promptly abandoned him. After the group had split, Siddhārtha made his way to Bodh Gaya in search of a suitable place for meditation and deemed the spot underneath the Bodhi Tree as ideal. Upon sitting down, Siddhārtha silently told himself:
Even if my flesh and blood were to dry up, leaving only skin and bones, I will not leave this place until I find a way to end all sorrow.”
While different Buddhist traditions believe Siddhārtha attained enlightenment after meditating under the Bodhi Tree for different periods of time, it is universally accepted that this is the place it happened. It is also widely assumed that during his time meditating underneath the Bodhi Tree, Siddhārtha was tempted by a demon named Mara with images of beautiful women and visions of evil spirits. After Siddhārtha resisted Mara’s initial temptations, now on the brink of enlightenment, the demon of desire had one final test. He asked Siddhārtha who would testify that he actually obtained enlightenment, which intensified the evil spirits’ charge. Siddhārtha remained still, offering Mara no response, before reaching his right hand gently to the ground and pronouncing:
The earth is my witness.”
At this point, the evil spirits fled, Mara vanished, and Siddhārtha became forever known as the Buddha.
The Buddhist Ritual of Kalachakra:
The Kalachakra Empowerment is an elaborate Buddhist initiation ritual, or tantra, where participants are spiritually charged to attain enlightenment for the wellbeing of all. The word Kalachakra translates to mean ‘wheel-of-time’, and the Kalachakra initiation and accompanying teachings are said to act as a guide individuals can use to overcome the cycle of rebirth by obtaining enlightenment in this lifetime.
During the Kalachakra initiation, which is believed to have been taught by the Buddha himself, participants take refuge in the Buddha, strive to develop compassion towards all and commit themselves to follow important tantric vows. Additionally, during the 13-day empowerment ceremonies, participating monks, devotees, and householders are taught an advanced form of Vairayana Buddhist meditation that centers around visualizing one’s self as Buddha-like archetypes and perform a number of sacred rituals inside a specially built mandala that resembles the Buddha-figure Kalachakra.
It is believed that by undertaking the Kalachakra initiation, individuals move closer to experiencing the ultimate divine state of bliss consciousness. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who acted as the ritual master, told the crowd in the simplest of terms:
The purpose of receiving the Kalachakra initiation is to make transformation within oneself. Therefore, having come here for the Kalachakra, your goal should be that you will become better in your spiritual practice. If you can do that, the purpose of coming here is served.”
Spiritual Wisdom from the Dalai Lama at Kalachakra:
The 2017 Kalachakra Empowerment in Bodh Gaya marked the 34th time that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has led the initiation ceremonies. There is no special reason as to why, when, or where Kalachakra may take place, and the Dalai Lama has previously offered it in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Spain. During the initiation process, His Holiness acts as the ritual master who teaches the practices and grants the authority to practice the sacred Kalachakra tantra.
Throughout the 13 days of the 2017 Kalachakra Empowerment, the Dalai Lama offered participants important spiritual insights that should be absorbed by all. Therefore, to end this article, we’ll leave you with a sampling of what he said:
On Overcoming Global Problems:
Most of the problems these days are caused by human beings using its intelligence negatively and segregating on the basis of race, religion, caste and color. Due to this it has caused a lot of trouble. Therefore, in order expand more interest on compassion we must advise not through religious teachings but by using scientific findings of its benefits.”
On Nurturing Compassion Within:
Many scientists have proven that innate nature of a human being is compassion. Since we all have the seeds of compassion in us, like a plant we must nurture it by using our intelligence to differentiate the benefits of having compassion and disadvantages in its absence.”
On Diminishing Self-Importance:
Attitude of considering oneself as the most important and disregarding others should be the main target to rescind. In absence of self-cherishing attitude, there will be impartiality and thought of others would come first. So minimizing such attitude is very important.”
On Attaining Enlightenment:
To attain enlightenment, we need to practice Bodhicitta (compassion) and proper understanding of emptiness. If we have developed Bodhicitta and emptiness, this life would be more blissful, good fortune, long life and it guarantees a good continuous human rebirth.”