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On the Pilgrims' Path

Updated: Feb 21

Exploring the architecture of enlightenment with Sally Dudgeon



It’s a February morning in Bodhgaya, India. I’m circumambulating the Mahabodhi Temple and the ancient ficus religiosa tree, the sacred fig, at its heart. The tree is a graceful descendent of the one Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath, vowing not to get up again until he became enlightened, a Buddha, sometime between 528 and 445 BCE. People have been coming here ever since.

And what people there are. Vietnamese monks in robes of gold and gray. Elderly Tibetan women in traditional chuba dresses, graying hair in braids that have been braided together, elaborate turquoise earrings dangling nearly to their shoulders. Indian Buddhists in white, followers of Ambedkar, the forgotten father of modern India who converted from Hinduism as a protest against the caste system. Children weave in and out of the throng of pilgrims, chasing the sacred leaves when they flutter down from the tree – it’s considered a blessing to gather these tokens of devotion and illumination. Stray dogs snooze in the sun, and all the while, temple workers bring basket upon basket of flowers, heaps of them, gifts given to replace the flowers that already adorn every spare inch around the temple. Monks chant and spin prayer wheels.

Up ahead of me, Sally Dudgeon is doing her daily walking meditation. Tall, red headed, barefoot, bent slightly in concentration, Sally is the director of the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, a semi-monastic Dharma center in Bodhgaya, and a haven from the intensity of the town. She has also worked on three of the Dalai Lama's tours of Australia, her native land, and for two years worked in Dharamshala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, managing the Lotsawa Ringchen Zangpo Translator Program. Sally has become a cherished companion during my time in Bodhgaya, what in the Celtic tradition we would call an anam cara – a soul friend. Now in her 70s, Sally is the mother of two and an architect by training. This is her second tour as director of Root, part of what she calls her “strange career path,” working on Buddhist projects interspersed with “bouts of architecture.”

 

Finding the Path, Step by Step

Two people walking in a garden in Bodhgaya, India.
Sally Dudgeon and a friend walk in a garden in Bodhgaya.

Sally grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in a comfortable family. She attended a church school, and remembers her parents as good, ethical people, “but they weren’t religious at all,” she says, though she wondered about the deeper questions. We’re seated in her office at Root, enjoying cups of warm ginger tea, two of the resident dogs lying at her feet.

“I remember coming to my mother, asking her, you know, about the meaning of it all, I was probably 16 or 17, and I think she went, ‘Oh God!” Sally laughs.

But the questions continued.

“It was the 70s,” she remembers, sipping her tea. “There were a lot of different teachers around, but nothing really resonated.” Though she was curious about Buddhism, Sally initially thought it sounded “a bit hard.”

“There are so many rules and you had to be such a good person, and I just didn’t think I could make it.” But a friend invited her to the Tara Institute in Melbourne, where she met Geshe Dawa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. “He radiated this goodness that you don’t meet that often. A kindness. And that kind of got me.”

She attended his teachings for a year, and then decided to visit Kopan Monastery, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Kopan was founded by Lama Zopa Ripoche and Lama Yeshe, two Tibetan monks who met in a refugee camp after Communist China invaded Tibet. Together, they established the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Root Institute is a part of FPMT, as are many Dharma centers around the world. Kopan was one of the first monasteries to offer Tibetan Buddhist teachings to westerners, so she went.  

“That actually really shook me up,” she says of her time there. “It made me realize that you had to look at the world in a different way. Not from my point of view, you know, not trying to work out what's best for me. But what's best for everybody else. We certainly weren't trained like that in the West, with our consumer society. We were trained to want everything for ourselves.”

After her travels, life intervened. Sally married, had children, worked – all of which took time from her practice. “I was kind of ostensibly Buddhist, but I don't know how I was really practicing. It's only been more recently that I've really tried to make an effort, because time's running out.”

In fact, part of her decision to return to Root Institute was to benefit from proximity to one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism – the Mahabodhi Temple, also called a stupa.

“Lama Zopa said a year here is the equivalent of three years retreat. And I said, that's a big drawing card, isn't it?”

 

Encountering the Power of a Place

A woman stands at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India.
Devotion at the Mahabodhi Temple.

On my first visit to the temple, back in 2018, I came with very little real knowledge of what I would find. I knew there was a tree, and honestly, that was what interested me the most – the idea that this person had attained enlightenment sitting under it. But there is much more to it.

The Mahabodhi Temple is really a large complex with a tall tower in the middle – called a shikhara tower – that is the focal point of the layout. The site has seen waves of development over the centuries, but the current temple dates from the 500s – with restoration in the 1800s. Inside the tower is meant to mark the exact spot where Siddhartha became the Buddha.

On my first visit, I went there first, after going through a metal detector – there is a surprising amount of security at the temple, which has been subject to bomb threats over the years. I entered a narrow hallway and heard chanting. A woman was doing prostrations in an open area. We surged toward a large statue of the Buddha, his head surrounded by a halo of shimmering diamonds, with blue lapis curls for his hair, and piercing yet calm blue eyes. The room where this statue resides is quite small, and though there are signs urging silence, two monks recited mantras into a scratchy sound system turned up way too loud. The faithful pressed in, seeking to be as close to the sculpture as they could. They chanted prayers while pulling out 10 rupee notes to give to the monks, along with silk cloth to be blessed. It had the odd quality of a busy betting parlor.


A woman offers prayers beneath the Bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya India.
Prayers beneath the Bodhi tree.

When I came outside, I was unclear where to go. I wanted to see this tree, but it wasn’t obvious where it was – so I walked around the perimeter. The different lineages and nationalities had set up in different parts of the complex, with monks from each group giving teachings or reciting prayers, and everyone blasting all of it from their own loudspeakers. Chanting, the beautiful deep throat singing that is so haunting. Horns and bells. Not a peaceful garden conducive to enlightenment but an intense testament to the power of that experience.

Finally there it was – the tree. Beautiful, graceful, the tree of life.

As soon as I saw it I felt my heart crack, its seam rip. A tingle at the top of my being. Peace, joy, ease, well-being – it all just emanated from that spot.

The tree is tall and broad, radiating in seven or eight limbs. There is a wall around it, like a stone fence, with openings. The blocks are carved with different designs, and people have pressed gold leaf onto every available surface, especially the area closest to the trunk of the tree, where pilgrims press their foreheads and offer prayers. I sat down next to a young woman and she shared her foam mat with me so that I didn’t have to sit directly on the cold stone.

I sat for a long time, transfixed, taking in the sounds, the sights, the serenity amid the chaos. The young lady got up and took her foam and bowed to me, and I sat on. A leaf fell next to me and a man quickly snapped it up before I realized what it was. There were lovely breezes blowing through, chanting, horns and drums, and when those stopped, birds.

How lucky those birds are, I thought, to fly around the tree and land on it so easily.

Sally smiles as I tell her about my first visit. “It's an amazing part of being in Bodhgaya,” she says. “To have that time at the stupa. I like to go every day, but with work and all, I usually go every second day. It's a special place. All that devotion, for thousands of years.”

 

 

A Complex Role at Root Institute

A group of people with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a Tibetan religious leader.
The Root Institute Staff with Lama Zopa Rinpoche on his last visit before passing away.

To be director at Root Institute is to oversee several initiatives at once. There is the Dharma center, home to a small group of monastics, as well as a hostel with over 100 beds where visitors to Bodhgaya can stay. In the winter, “high season,” it fills up with pilgrims, especially if the Dalai Lama is teaching. This is also when renowned teachers visit Root from around the world offer courses in meditation, the fundamentals of Buddhism, and more advanced subjects. In the spring, summer and fall, visitors trickle to a hardy few who are not put off by the stifling heat.


A young girl at the Maitreya Universal Education School in Bodhgaya, India.
A student at the Maitreya Universal Education School, part of Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India.

Also part of the director’s purview are social welfare programs supporting the local community. The need is great. The population is quite young and very poor, with more than 48% of the area’s children suffering from malnutrition. The Maitreya Universal Education School offers free education to more than 260 children from Bodhgaya and the surrounding villages. And the Shakyamuni Buddha Health Care Centre offers free and reduced cost health care, physical therapy, and a mobile clinic to the surrounding villages. They have a special practice in helping children with cerebral palsy learn to walk, talk and participate in school – needed as there is a high incidence of the disease here.

“It’s a huge job,” Sally says of the role. “You've got to make decisions. Some people don't like making them, but I don't mind. I'm not saying I always know the right decision, but I'll look at things and try and work out what's best to my knowledge.”

“But,” she smiles, “it's things I'm really interested in, so it's not like work, per se. Because all of it is quite fascinating. All the strange things that you end up dealing with that, you know, that come out of the blue, which is so entertaining. I rather like the craziness of it.” 

I ask her how her training in architecture has impacted her work at Root.

“I think it's very good experience with management, actually. You're looking at projects, you've got to go through a selection process of choosing a builder, and then you've got the responsibility of the money. You have to supervise all of it.”

  She reflects on how architecture has helped her learn to navigate conflict as well. “It can be quite stressful, you know, because as the architect, you sometimes have to tell a builder that they're not doing it correctly. They don't like that because it's a loss of money, and there's often a bit of a clash between a female telling a male what to do. So yeah, I do think it's good training. It does give you quite a good set of skills for doing other things.”


A picture of the prayer wheel at Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India
The prayer wheel at Root Institute is 14' high and 8' around. It is filled with mantras, prayers, and holy objects

Sally has used her architectural skills at Root. During her first season there, she designed the structure that houses the magnificent prayer wheel that anchors devotional practice at Root. Bright red, and covered in auspicious symbols, the wheel measures 8 feet in diameter, and is 14 feet tall. Inside, the wheel is filled with mantras, prayers, and holy objects. A simple bell rings with each revolution.


An architectural drawing of the structure that houses the prayer wheel at Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India
Sally Dudgeon designed the structure that houses the prayer wheel. Her designs have been shared with other centers wishing to build something similar.

The wheel is modeled on the large prayer wheel at Kopan Monastery and was ordered by the director who came before Sally. But she traveled to the workshop in Kathmandu to see it during construction. "It travelled to Bodhgaya, in parts," she laughs, remembering, "On the top of a bus from Kathmandu!" 

This time around, she has focused on refreshing the campus of the Institute, and on ensuring that the clinic and school get much needed improvements to their physical infrastructure. The work never ends.

 

My last night in Bodhgaya falls during Losar, Tibetan New Year, and the 15 days of miracles that follow. Sally and her team have coordinated donations from around the world so that Root Institute can sponsor vast displays of light and flowers at the temple.

Just this morning I’d watched her with the temple managers, as canny a group of men as I’ve ever seen. Sally used her sly charm to chat them up, gently reminding them that the lights must be turned on by 6:45 in the evening. They nod, of course, of course. Yet when we arrive that night, the lights aren’t on. She’s off in a flash to make inquiries, and as the rest of us wait for her, the lights snap on, strands of blue and red and yellow, white and green. Then we gather beneath the Bodhi tree to read names. These are the people for whom the donors have requested prayers. Sitting beneath the tree, we each send blessings out to people we’ll never meet, wishing them well, praying for their health and safety, for their longevity or their easy transition into the next life if they’ve already departed this one.

  As we pray, at last, a leaf falls on me. I have been secretly longing for this to happen, embarrassed by my desire, and had contented myself that if it didn’t, it was ok too. Nothing to grasp, nothing to hold, after all. But here it is.

  Immediately I give it to the person praying beside me. He taps it to his forehead, grateful, and the feeling is literally electric, zapping through my body.

The biggest blessing is to give the blessing away.

Sally and I walk back to the Root campus afterwards, observing the small fires that burn along the roadside as people settle in for the night. No one pays us much mind, just another two pilgrims keeping each other company on the long road to enlightenment.


 

Jean Shields Fleming is founder and editor of Certain Age Magazine.

This interview with Sally Dudgeon was conducted at the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, February 2023.


Photos credits:

Sally Dudgeon greets the Dalai Lama, Root Institute staff photo, and architectural drawing, all courtesy of Sally Dudgeon

Student, courtesy of the Maitreya School for Universal Education

All others, by Jean Shields Fleming


 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments


Thank you Jean - reading your piece was a lovely peaceful start to the day.

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So glad you enjoyed it!

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Fascinating story that captured my heart and full attention. Thank you for sharing this adventure

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Thanks for coming along on the adventure!

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