Some 500 years before Jesus was born, an emaciated ascetic got up from his seat after having spent six years practicing austerities in the forest. He walked with an unsteady gait toward the Nairanjana River, collapsing on the way, and was revived by a village girl who offered him a bowl of sweet rice cooked in milk.

Having recovered his strength and bathed in the waters of the tropical river bordered by white sands and palms trees, he realized that mortifying the body does not lead to awakening of the mind. He walked toward a large tree and sitting under its shadow, made the promise that he would not rise until he had understood the ultimate nature of mind and reality. Thus, he spent the night sitting under the Ficus religiosa tree--the Bodhi tree.

The place were he sat become known as the "Diamond Throne of India," the present Bodhgaya, and the man was Siddharta Gautama who at dawn became the enlightened one, the Buddha.

Some 2,500 years later, a few days before the start of the third Christian millennium, tens of thousands of people, including 2,000 Westerners, gathered in Bodhgaya to hear the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Land of Snows, speak about compassion. For five hours a day for over a week, he explained one of the most inspiring poems ever written on altruistic love and basic human goodness: "The Way of the Bodhisattva," composed by the seventh-century master Shantideva.

It was not a time of fiery rhetoric. Rather, it was one of calm and profound philosophy (combined with down-to-earth advice and a solid sense of humor) on how to become a better human being. The Dalai Lama's way of teaching is extremely sensible and practical. Yet, because the simple things he says are the distillation of his life-long authentic spiritual practice and direct experience, he never falls into banality.

When he tells you that a good heart is the most precious quality you can develop, it never sounds like a cliche, because he himself has such an immense heart.

When verses such as:

"May I be a guard for those who are     protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge."

brought tears to the Dalai Lama's eyes, he stopped and waited silently, unassumingly, until able to speak again. There was no hint of showmanship in this quiet display of feeling.

At other times, when he illustrated his commentary with anecdotes or remarks on something unusual in the crowd, he broke into sonorous and spontaneous laughter with the uninhibited freedom of someone who is detached from worldly preoccupations. It reminded me of the words of the 19th-century Tibetan yogi Shabkar:

"Look at my delighted laughter!
The delight of a vast, free mind!
The experience of lightness of being
As when emerging from a narrow gorge
Onto a high, wide mountain pass!
Look how, free from mistaking things as real,
I am blissful, and yet more blissful,
Enjoying the realm of primordial wakefulness!"

At the end of each session, a verse of dedication was chanted:

"As long as space endures,
And as long as beings exist,
May I too remain
To dispel the misery of the world."

With this promise resounding in their minds, from before dawn until well after dusk, thousands of pilgrims circumambulated the Bodhi Tree and the monumental Stupa standing behind it, humming mantras, counting their rosaries, singing the words of the Buddha or praises to his wisdom. Mountain people who came down from the Himalayas, still clad in heavy woolen pelt garments walked with Sri Lankan devotees dressed in immaculate white cotton, Thai monks garbed in saffron, Chinese nuns in blue robes, Japanese in black gowns--and a few Westerners strolling in all kinds of attire. Old monks sitting in the shade, tirelessly turned enormous prayer wheels.

Dozens of devotees, mostly Tibetans, offered prostrations toward the Stupa. Tirelessly making 2,000 to 3,000 prostrations a day on a smooth wooden board, they paid homage to the Buddha's enlightened body, speech, and mind, praying to purify their own body, speech, and mind of all obscurations. Here, the enemy is ignorance, the battlefield samsara--the world of conditioned existence--and the victory is freedom from suffering.

It is said that not only Buddha Shakyamuni but the 1,002 Buddhas of the present era, did and will attain enlightenment at this very place. The Buddhist poet Asvagosha also called it the "navel of the world." It is believed that the first monument commemorating the Buddha's enlightenment was built near the Bodhi Tree by the emperor Ashoka around the third century BC. A larger monument was erected in the seventh century and a community of several thousand monastics was founded in the vicinity.

As a result of the Muslim invasions, Buddhism disappeared from India around the 12th century and the monument was destroyed. Burmese kings restored it in the 14th century, but it later fell into ruins again. Sands brought by floods and winds partially buried it until the 19th century when the Burmese government and a dedicated Englishman, Alexander Cunningham, initiated its restoration to its present shape.