January 21, 2007 at 10:00 AM • Filed under India 2007

          The man's broad, kind face was a welcome sight after my first overnight train ride. He was the manager of the lodge I was to stay at near Bandhavgarh National Park in eastern Madhya Pradesh - far off the beaten travelers' track. 
          "My name is Siddharth."
          "Siddharth?"  I said with surprise. 
          "Yes, very common name in India."
          "I know - Siddhartha Gotama!"
          "Oh, you know!"
          Yes, I knew that he had the same first name as the Buddha. I didn't know yet that I would feel closer to the Buddha here than I ever have.
          It happened a few hours later, when I walked down to the small pond at the lodge. No one was around - most people were on the morning jeep safari, which I had missed because of my late arrival. So it was quiet, blissfully quiet and a far cry from the ceasless honking of cars in the cities. I heard nothing but birds and the distant shouts of the rural animal herders who live around the park. Their land is parched, sandy and red, amazingly similar in texture and tone to the landscape of southeastern Arizona -  although here there are sal trees instead of mesquite.
          A small bit of land jutted out into the pond and there was a single banyan tree growing on it, with a wooden bench placed underneath. I sat down and realized I was in the forests of nothern India, and close to the area where the Buddha walked and taught - ok, maybe 200 or 300 km away, but certainly closer than I've ever been!  And a feeling swept over me - that the Buddha was a human being. I looked down at the dirt. This was the kind of dirt he gazed at. The banyan tree would have been a tree he had known well. He would have passed the sort of animal herders I was hearing, and known the same thirst I was experiencing. 
          The Buddha was human. 
          I went and fetched my copy of the Dhammapada, the first known Buddhist text, full of words thought to be directly spoken by the Buddha. And in the introduction (by Jack McGuire, 2002 edition, amended here) I read this: 
          One day, a Hindu priest found the Buddha sitting under a tree in a deep state of peace. The Buddha reminded the priest of an old male elephant; there was the same sense of great power and being controlled and channeled into a force of gentleness. The Brahman was amazed and asked the Buddha, "Are you a god?" "No," the Buddha answered. "Are you becoming an angel.. or a spirit?" Once again, the Buddha replied that he was not. The priest plucked up his courage once more and asked the Buddha how, then, he should be categorized. "Remember me," the Buddha said quietly, "as someone who has woken up."

           Despite all the statues we see of him, the stories told about him, our bows before him, the Buddha was simply a man, someone who knew what it felt like to drink water, to weep, to touch a bare foot to the ground. And he was courageous beyond measure. Later that evening, a group of local residents from the Gond and Baiga tribes performed a dance around a fire for all of us staying in the lodge. They practice their own local form of Hinduism. Watching them, I realized that the Buddha was raised in a Hindu society and that, by preaching solitary, meditative effort and by abandoning the gods that permeated the society around him, he was completely radical for his time - maybe even more radical in his time than in ours. I felt enormous gratitidue for his life. I felt enormous gratitude for the thousands of other human beings who brought his teachings to me, a Zen practitioner, 2,500 years later.
          And by the way, today I read in another book that the Buddha was enlightened under a ficus tree, and that the banyan, which I sat under while feeling so close to Siddhartha Gotama, is a member of the ficus family.

          I also must write about the tigers. Or should I say, Tiger, as if addressing him formally and by his proper name. The hot sun of this part of India started shining early yesterday morning, and Tiger preferred to get away from it, so he lay down in a patch of grassland inside this national park. An elephant hired by a former minister of Bihar reportedly found Tiger in the grass, which prompted dozens of rangers roaming the park to drive their jeep passengers to this one spot. Here, we jeep passengers climbed up onto a handful of elephants, becoming elephant passengers, and high on top of these peaceful gray beings we swayed toward the spot where Tiger was sleeping. He was not bothered by Elephant or by us. But when my elephant approached, he awoke. He looked sleepy. He was ten feet away from me. I took a few pictures but, more importantly, smiled at him. I did not feel like donning him with the stereotypical (masculine) adjectives: royal, fierce, king. Instead, I sensed how free he was. Not in a zoo. "This is how life should be," I thought. "Nature is working here."  It was a feeling I often felt after volunteering on the New Hampshire farm run by my friends Jim & Lori. There, nature also works and everything makes sense. So, looking at Tiger yesterday morning was breathtaking, not because of his strength or rarity, but because of the strength of nature, and the rarity of seeing it so beautifully expressed in the absence of human dominance.