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A Bodh Gaya Pilgrimage (Learning About Buddhism in India)

Bodh Gaya is the most important Buddhist site I have ever visited and one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists in the world.

It’s where Buddha attained enlightenment.

I spent around 1 week in Bodh Gaya attending seminars that were on at the time with renowned Buddhist monks giving talks on Buddhism, meditating at the Mahabodhi Temple and inside others, and studying more about Buddhism through books and talks.

I had journeyed down from Sikkim in the north where I was meditating with Tibetan monks in monasteries to learn more about Buddhism in Bodh Gaya.

This post is dedicated to my wife’s late father, Ati, who was born in Bodh Gaya:

Buddhism in Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya india buddhism

Mahabodhi Temple (Great Awakening Temple)

mahabodhi temple

The Mahabodhi Temple is where I spent most of my time in the area.

It’s the heart of Bodh Gaya as this is the main pilgrimage site to visit for Buddhists, as this is where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

The bodhi tree next to the temple is a direct descendant (around 5th generation) of the bodhi tree Buddha attained enlightenment. 

The temple was initially built by Emperor Ashoka in 300 A.D. but had fallen into disrepair over time and been destroyed in the 11th century.

It was restored in the late 19th century but some aspects still date back to the original 3rd century structure.

Time will always preserve something…

The temple complex in which the Mahabodhi Temple resides has many a place to find some solitude and peace for meditation despite the crowds that sometimes appear.

I found sitting in a grassy area the perfect spot to relax.

Around the complex are other places important to the Buddha story as they represent other key elements of where Buddha was before and after enlightenment.

mahabodhi temple bodh gaya

Buddhist boy watches the sunset from Mahabodhi Temple.

buddhist monk boy india

Monks from different sects of Buddhism meditate on the grassy area near the Mahabodhi Temple.

mahabodhi temple bodh gaya

The temple complex edition park opens at sunrise and closes around sunset. 

Sunrise or sunset is the best time to visit for the complete serene ambience and also you can hear monks chanting.

The Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi Tree descended from the tree Buddha attained enlightenment under.

buddha Bodhi tree Bodh Gaya
bohdi tree in Bodh Gaya

Tibetan Buddhism in Bodh Gaya

studying tibetan buddhism bodh gaya india

The main Buddhist group I came in contact with while at Bodh Gaya was Tibetan Buddhist monks.

This was mainly because they were the most prevalent there but also because I had meditated at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas in Sikkim (article on that experience, opens in new tab) as I was mostly interested in their version of Buddhism.

Having said that I was also studying some of the other sects Buddhist ways, such as Zen.

When learning something it’s always best to understand all ways.

The Tibetan Buddhist monks are easy to tell as they all wear deep red robes.

Tibetan monks meditating.

tibetan monks bodh gaya

Tibetan temple.

Tibetan monastery bodh gaya

Esoteric Tibetan Buddhist art in the temple.

tibetan buddhism
tibetan buddhism

Tibetan monks carry flower pots to decorate around the Bodhi tree.

tibetan buddhist monks bodh gaya

Tibetan monks leave a speech by a highly respected monk.

tibetan monks bodh gaya

Tibetan Refugees in India

Many Tibetans (10’s thousands in recent decades) have come to India as refugees since the Chinese oppression in Tibet that started in the 1950s when the communist party of China invaded Tibet.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans who lives in McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala in India’s Himachal Pradesh region (also a place to visit for those interested in Buddhism and Tibet), has spoken for decades about the abuses and suppression of freedom for the people in Tibet.

To find out information and help support the Tibetan people you can learn more at Free Tibet.

Infographic from Free Tibet explaining the situation in Tibet (graphic credit: Free Tibet)

free tibet

This is a good documentary about what the persecution of Tibetans and their culture has been like:

Zen Temple in Bodh Gaya

The difference between the Tibetan Buddhism style and Zen Buddhism from Japan is like night and day.

Whereas Tibetan Buddhism is very colourful Zen Buddhism is minimal and modest.

That could be a part of Japanese culture in general playing in as well (I spent several months travelling in Japan).

Indosan Nipponji.

zen temple bodh gaya
zen temple in bodh gaya
zen temple in india

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada is one of the 2 main traditions of Buddhism and can be extinguished visually through the different styles of the temple and art.

The monks who follow Theravada Buddhism generally wear orange robes and is mainly practised in southeast Asia (Thailand being very prevalent) and Sri Lanka.

Thai-style Theravada Buddhist Temple. 

thailand temple bodh gaya
thai temple Bodhgaya

Theravada monk praying at sunset.

thai monk bodh gaya

This article explains in much more detail the different schools of Buddhism.

Studying Buddhism in Bodh Gaya

Studying Buddhism in Bodh Gaya is the ideal place to learn more about the philosophies and practices of Buddhism.

The environment, ambience, and access to study materials and knowledge are perfect for the beginner interested in Buddhism and also for those more advanced in the ways of Buddhism.

With all the different schools of Buddhism represented you can study whichever one you are more interested in, or learn about them all to help decide which one suits your life better.

The Giant Buddha of Bodh Gaya.

buddha statue bodh gaya
buddhist stupa bodh gaya

Monks, locals, and foreigners gather in the Mahabodhi Temple Complex to meditate.

meditation bodh gaya

A respected monk gives talks on Buddhism in Bodh Gaya.

buddhist seminar bodh gaya india

Monks leave a teaching lesson.

tibetan monks india

The perfect place for meditation.

meditating bodh gaya
tibetan monk in india praying

Books on Buddhism

Although I’m not a religious person I do enjoy studying different philosophies, which is what I see Buddhism as for a peaceful way of living and looking at life.

A way of thinking that is positive for the world.

While studying Buddhism in Bodh Gaya, apart from attending lectures by renowned Buddhists, I would love sitting in the green areas near the monasteries and reading books on Buddhism.

Reading ‘Old Path White Clouds’ in Bodh Gaya.

books on buddhism

Generally, I would read about the different philosophies between the different sects of Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, etc.

Here’s a list of books I recommend for you to read to understand more.

I’ve listed only a few to give an idea of where to start if interested. 

My all-time favourite is the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

Links (affiliate) to some of the best books about Buddhism you can find to read:

The Art of Happiness – By the Dalai Lama

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind – A book about Zen Buddhism that gives a good look into Zen. Quote from the book: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching – A great intro to the core teachings of Buddhism that you can incorporate into your everyday life.

Old Path White Clouds – The same author as The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching which traces the life and teachings of the Buddha over 80 years.

Side Trip to Sarnath Deer Park

(The Birthplace of Buddhism)

Sarnath Deer Park is where Buddha first taught the Dharma (cosmic law and order) to his first followers.

Located around 300km away from Bodh Gaya and 10 km north-east of Varanasi it’s not a close side trip but you could head to Varanasi for 1 night and see it from there before coming back to Bodh Gaya.

Or if going to Varanasi after Bodh Gaya anyway wait until then.

If you’re short on time in Bodh Gaya then give it a miss, but if you’re very much into studying Buddhism and the important sites related to the history then it is an ‘essential’ trip, especially as it’s close enough.

Sarnath is an historical city although many of its important structures were destroyed or damaged over time.

These days some restoration has been done with the Dhamekh Stupa being the most impressive one amongst the archeological Buddhist remains of Sarnath.

The deer park gets its name from, you guessed it, all the deer in the park.

Dhamekh Stupa.

sarnath buddhism india
sarnath india

A Tibetan monastery and a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple can also be found there.

buddhism in sarnath india

Also, Sarnath is an important place in Jainism.

sarnath buddhism india travel

Although I don’t have any video of my time at Bodh Gaya this is one from the Dalai Lamas’s YouTube channel on his visit there in January 2020.

Bodh Gaya

Bodh gaya market

Bodh Gaya tourism is very popular but the main thing you will feel is the feeling of the Bodh Gaya pilgrimage vibe from the Buddhists there.

Getting to Bodh Gaya

The absolute best way to get to Bodh Gaya is by train.

The nearest main station is in Gaya not far from Bodh Gaya and this station will connect you with all the main cities in Bihar you may come from.

Kolkata, New Delhi, Varanasi, and Patna, all go to the area.

You can check Indian train times here.

getting to bodh gaya train

Useful links for Bodh Gaya and Indian travel:

You can find places to stay in Bodh Gaya here (Agoda booking site, my favourite for India).

For the best guidebook for India pick up the Lonely Planet India.

Read more about India and Buddhism in my post about travelling in Sikkim in the Himalayas and visiting old Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on a road trip through the area.

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