The Whatever-it-is of Existence

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It is seventeen years since I was last here in India. Back then, I was travelling around the Buddhist pilgrimage sites as a young and rather earnest aspiring Buddhist, making notes towards an excessively pious travelogue that I’m now rather glad was never published.

Now I find myself back in India to launch the paperback of my novel The Descent of the Lyre at the Kolkata Book Fair. As it’s a long trip for a book lauch alone, I’m taking advantage of being here to spend a short while doing some research towards various projects that I have in the works. And this has involved (for reasons that are still rather hazy in my mind) finding my way back to Bodhgaya, the foremost of India’s Buddhist sites, the place of the Buddha’s awakening.

It is strange to be back after so long. Before coming here, the one thing that almost everybody said to me was this: ‘India has changed. You won’t recognise it.’ But whilst India clearly has changed, it has not changed beyond recognition. The altercations between passengers as our plane touched down in Kolkata—vocal, animated, and ultimately oddly amicable; the cart on the road by the airport, laden with images of the goddess Saraswati, close-packed in with straw; the frogger-like experience of crossing roads crammed with motley fleets of vehicles—all of these seem pretty familiar. India, like everything else, has both changed and not changed.

Bodhgaya has also changed. Seventeen years ago, it was still more or less an overblown village. It is now larger, more sprawling, more crowded. And whilst I don’t recall Bodhgaya ever being particularly peaceful (I remember, all those years ago, sitting under the Bodhi tree and meditating as a fidgety Korean nun rustled constantly in a large plastic bag; and I remember thinking to myself that if the Buddha had had to contend with Korean Buddhist nuns with plastic bags, Buddhism would never have got started), this former village is now vastly more chaotic. Bodhgaya has transformed itself into a strange and frenetic Buddhist carnival where consumerism, tourism, sincerity, hope and delusion are all equally mixed. There’s even a ferris wheel…

But as I settle in, I get the sense that there are continuities here as well, that the changes are not absolute. There are places I am beginning to recognise, despite the fact that even the layout of the streets has changed. This afternoon I spent a couple of hours walking around, and I found myself able to trace the map of my earlier visit. The unfamiliar is starting to become familiar again.

And of course, the same goes for me. Since I was last here, a great deal has happened. I lived for several years in Buddhist communities, practising Buddhism very seriously. I almost—but not quite—got myself ordained as a Buddhist. Then found myself going from identifying as Buddhist to identifying as Buddhish to preferring to simply change the subject if anybody brought it up (although I still meditated, and still thought, more often than not, in Buddhist or Buddhish terms). Somewhere along the way, I started a PhD in philosophy and soon found myself publishing novels and philosophy books and falling into the strange priesthood that is the world of academia…

Like India, like Bodhgaya itself, it seems to me that I too have both changed and not changed since I was last here. But as I wandered around town this afternoon, mapping past onto future and future onto past, I found that these two things started to blur together, until it was hard to say precisely what had changed, and precisely what had remained the same. And in this blurring of now and then, I could feel the subtle shifting of my sense of life, a quickening of the spirits, the beginning of new possibilities for thinking about the whatever-it-is of existence.

Whatever that is.

I don’t know where this is all going. I’m even not sure, exactly, what I am trying to say in writing all this. But all in all, across a gulf of seventeen years, it feels good to be back.

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