Antioch Under the Bodhi Tree

By Jasper Nighthawk

Jasper with Dharmsala prayer flags

In 2012, I graduated from college, and that fall I took a small surplus of student loan money and traveled to India. I spent a few weeks in Delhi then took the train to Bodh Gaya. My girlfriend was in her last year of college, and she was spending the semester studying abroad in Antioch’s Buddhist Studies in India program. For the next two months, I crashed the course, and I found myself welcomed by sweet, committed scholars and students who truly embodied—and taught me about—the Antiochian spirit. 

But let’s back up. 

2500 years earlier, a man named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation under a sacred fig tree a few hundred yards from where I would find myself crashing a study abroad program. While sitting there, he attained enlightenment. Since then he has been known as The Buddha, and his teachings—the core of Buddhism—are currently practiced by about half a billion people worldwide.

A few millennia later, in 1979, Antioch Education Abroad opened a new program in the town that sprang up around the place of his enlightenment, Bodh Gaya. The program, “Buddhist Studies in India,” combined the formal study of history, literature, and language with practical experience in meditation and an ambitious independent study project. 

For myself, I rented a cheap hotel room next door to the Burmese Vihar, the monastery where the program was headquartered. They didn’t provide me lodging—the Vihar’s shared dormitories were for officially-enrolled students only—but the small faculty that ran the program was uncommonly generous in welcoming me to participate in this program I wasn’t officially enrolled in. I sat through uncomfortable, hour-long silent meditation classes in the mornings and attended afternoon walking meditation sessions at the Mahabodhi Temple. I even got to join the bus trip out to the monastery belonging to the Karmapa—one of the highest lamas in Tibetan Buddhism—where we had a formal audience with the man himself, a quiet and thoughtful fellow not much older than us college students. He tied string around each of our wrists, blessed us, and tried to answer our questions.

What I remember most from those two months are the textures and rhythms of life in the monastery. Students sitting in the shade, reading ancient texts. Certain evenings, a group of us would go out for a restaurant dinner—professors and students in comfortable company. Bodh Gaya is the foremost pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world—a sort of Buddhist Jerusalem—and there was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery, a Thai monastery, the Burmese Vihar, three separate Tibetan monasteries, and many more. There also were many tent restaurants catering to pilgrims hungry for a taste of home. In one of those, I first ate Bhutanese food, falling in love with its marriage of chilis and melty cheese, obsessing over a condiment of crispy, sweet onions covered in hot chili powder.

The courses offered were all fascinating, and the students I met were taking their studies quite seriously. They took “Tibetan Language,” “History of South Asian Buddhism,” “Meditation Techniques,” and an “Independent Study Project.” This last project involved a three-week trip to a location of the student’s choice. My girlfriend wanted to continue studying Tibetan, so we went to Dharamsala, the cold town in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Dalai Llama has lived in exile for over six decades. We met up almost every day with other Antioch students studying there, gathering for meals of steaming thenthuk—Tibetan dumpling soup—on an exposed rooftop restaurant. And we did get to see the Dalai Llama, who was leading a multi-day initiation, ordaining the gathered nomads into an esoteric, lay tantric order. (We left after several hours after a friend told us that if we stayed we would have to commit ourselves to these practices for the rest of our lives.) Even now, a decade later, I can remember every day of that time so vividly.

Buddhist Studies in India is no longer part of Antioch, but it continues. In 2016, Antioch transferred administration of this program, along with three other well-established Antioch Education Abroad programs—Comparative Women’s and Gender Studies in Europe, Arts and Culture in West Africa, and Community Development in Cameroon—to Carleton College, which now calls them Carleton Global Engagement. This fall, after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic, undergraduates are returning to Bodh Gaya, to study Buddhism at the very site of its invention and to engage in independent studies all over the subcontinent. Maybe a far-flung boyfriend will be tagging along for part of it, too.

Jasper Nighthawk

Jasper Nighthawk

Jasper Nighthawk ’19 (Antioch Los Angeles, MFA) is the host of the Seed Field Podcast. He serves as Antioch’s University Storyteller, where he co-edits Common Thread and the Antioch Alumni Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles and on the Mendocino Coast with his partner, child, and cat.