On the final night of the 10-day Buddhist retreat in Bodh Gaya, I walk with five students to the Bodhi Tree. On an ordinary day about two thousand six hundred years ago, Siddhartha Gautama sat down to meditate under this tree and made a vow not to move until he had realized the answers to life’s biggest questions. Seven weeks later, he arose an enlightened and awakened being. Today, the towering stone Mahabodhi Stupa stands next to the Bodhi Tree. Bright orange-colored lights illuminate the stupa against the dark night sky. Thousands of monks and nuns from Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, and Nepal sit in clusters around the stupa and under the Bodhi Tree. Hundred-foot-long branches reach outward from the tree to make a canopy over us all. The bright stupa radiates a pale glow through the branches onto the meditators below. A low hum of Sinhalese, Thai, Mandarin, and Tibetan chants fills the cool night air. I am lost in the magic of the place.
From an outsider’s perspective, the scene before me looks like worship. Like Ka’bah in Mecca, pilgrims travel thousands of miles from home to be in this sacred place, and many people circumambulate clockwise around the stupa. Monks from Tibet and Nepal do countless prostrations, bowing down before the stupa. The faithful offer flowers and food on altars.
As I sit under the Bodhi Tree, my thoughts turn to my twin sister Jenny. She decided recently to find herself a religion. She’s tired of the “find your own path” method where there’s no discipline or tradition. She’s a Dragons instructor as well, and has lived in countries with Muslim and Sufi beliefs, Christian beliefs, Hindu beliefs, smaller indigenous religions, and all other manner of worldly and otherworldly philosophy. Rather than be on the sidelines of these powerful ceremonies of devotion, Jenny wants to be a part. As she says, “in distancing myself from all the religions of the world, I have removed myself from the most concentrated areas of spiritual wisdom on the planet.” As I look around the stupa, I see Theravada nuns chanting, Hindus meditating, Mahayana monks chanting prayers, and Jewish and Christian tourists watching it all in awe. I take a long look up at the enormous Bodhi Tree, then close my eyes and meditate.
Underneath all the ritual, Buddhists don’t come to worship Siddhartha Gautama. He was just an ordinary human who dedicated his life to finding meaning and inner peace and discovering what it means to be truly happy. People come here to be inspired by an ancient spiritual path. At the heart of it all, millions of people come to the Bodhi Tree every year because they want to be more compassionate and loving and generous and happy. They are on this path because they are striving to be good people.
The morning after the Bodhi Tree visit, I sit in the final lesson with Venerable Sarah, the main teacher for the retreat. She tells the story of a power transition at Shambhala, a huge Buddhist organization is the United States. When the founder died, a high-ranking Tibetan lama came to preside over the week-long death ceremony. An American man (we’ll call him Jim) was the chosen successor to run Shambhala, and the lama told Jim to prepare himself for a profound private teaching at the end of the week. As the week dragged on, Jim’s anticipation and nervousness grew. After all, Jim was to receive some serious and secret ancient wisdom to help him run an enormous and complicated spiritual organization. The final night of the ceremonies, a knock came on the door at 2 o’clock in the morning. It was time. Jim was escorted to the lama’s private chambers where the lama was in deep meditation. Jim sat for an hour until the lama opened his eyes and leaned over to whisper the teaching in Jim’s ear. This was the moment! His heart was racing. The lama whispered only three words to Jim: just be kind.
After living and learning Buddhism for ten days, have I decided to become a Buddhist? If I have learned one thing, it’s this: my beliefs align very closely with the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, even if we use different words to describe those beliefs. I agree that we make our own happiness, and that the culmination of wisdom is living a life of compassion for others. I think back to the three word teaching. Just be kind. If I can realize those three words in each action and thought in my life, it’s a profound spiritual practice.
In my own life, I choose to engage in many practices: mindfulness, yoga, meditation, cultivating compassion, and reflection on happiness, joy, and living a life with meaning. I choose to be close to spiritual wisdom in my life. I want to engage with people who dedicate their lives towards meaningful work and joyful existence. I am grateful for the Buddhist teachings, and much of the wisdom I cherish comes from the Buddhist path. In the end though, it may be Buddhism that teaches the practice, but I’m certain that it’s the practice that matters, not the name.