Title: Mahakala Caves, Bihar, India
Date: January 2006
Medium: 35mm Film
From all over the world, Buddhist monks are gravitating right now to Bihar, mostly on foot, and prostrating themselves flat on the ground after every step as a prayer to reduce suffering and violence in the world. Many have walked for three and a half years, having made several million full body prostrations and worn all fingerprints off their hands to achieve this goal. And here we are, presumably at the final destination of their good karma, only to find that the actual inhabitants in the geographical heart of their beliefs are setting off bombs to express that the annihilation of suffering is a luxury they cannot afford. Contrary to the centuries of non-violence embraced by the monks, the Biharis have concluded that their only hope of annihilating suffering will not be found in reducing it to an intellectual abstraction to peel from the kernel of their souls, but by actually becoming suffering's mouthpiece. And fire has proven to be its most universal language. Or at least the only translator they can afford to hire.
Wendy and I return to Bodhgaya, where we learn that we have just missed the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, who made a procession down the main dirt road of the village only moments ago. They have left their footprints of peace in the same soil where children, only a few turns down the same road, compensated for their less consequential imprints on the earth with those of the fallen rocks they threw at our heads. And connecting them all like hyphens, are the indentations left in the dirt by bodies of Tibetan monks that have prostrated their way past the village life around them, to reach the tree where the Buddha found enlightenment. The surface of the road is inscribed with more words than libraries, and the story it suggests is that of mankind's varied responses to suffering. Unfortunately, no journalists or camera crews have appeared to lend some permanence to the traces of Bihari suffering along these roads. As usual, even the wind will reveal its bias to the Buddhist view of life, when it carries these delicate outlines of their struggles to an audience of thin air.
I am interested to find that the outer border separating the "real" world from the spiritual world within Buddhist mandalas, is always a ring of fire. Fire is placed around the perimeter to incinerate "coarse matter," because entry is denied to the uninitiated. Just beyond this wall of fire, kalachakra deities are supposed to reduce suffering and violence in the world. The only thing standing between this more ideal world and the real world around us is this barrier of fire.
But as I look up from the mandalas to the landscape around me, I see fires telling conflicting stories. Butter lamps burning in the hands of the monks say that the only cause of suffering is ourselves, and that the divine prays for that suffering to end. Meanwhile fires rising from heaps of cow shit and corpses in the surrounding villages say that a divine plan itself has caused our suffering, and although suffering will not end, meaning will remain as present in it as God is. Meanwhile, bombs are sending up their own fires to contradict the first two, saying that it is neither ourselves, nor a divine plan, but other people who cause our suffering, and all the prayers in the world have not been enough to stop them.
It strikes me how sharply the inhabitants of this parched landscape are defined by their relationship to fire. Each soul is shaped by the belief that the borders of their own fire contains the meeting point between God and man, and that the border of the next man's fire marks the precise point at which God is separated from man. If the history of Bihar is the forked path of fire's touch, then even the air is not exempt from communion. With every breath, history descends from its perch on the breeze to inscribe its words on the pages of my lungs.