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Half of a Buddhist Pilgrimage

October 15, 2010

There is a vast history of Buddhist pilgrimage in India, dating all the way back to 250 A.D. with the Emperor Ashoka.  The Buddha identified four sites significant in his life that his followers should visit as part of a spiritual pilgrimage.  The four sites are Lumbini, his birth place in Nepal; Bodh Gaya, where he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree; Sarnath, where he delivered his first teaching; and Kusinara, where he died.

While I was traveling outside of Delhi during the Commonwealth Games, I inadvertently completed half of a Buddhist pilgrimage by visiting Sarnath and Bodhgaya.

 

Image of the Buddha in Dhammajak Mudra at the Sarnath Museum

 

Sarnath, the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon, is just five kilometers outside of Varanasi.  It contains the ruins of a Buddhist monastery begun in the 2nd century B.C., and the Dhamekh Stupa, still in worship today.  It also has a great archaeological museum that houses the well-known image of the Buddha is Dhammajak Mudra (representing his first sermon), as well as the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which has become a national emblem for India and is used on Indian currency and the Indian flag.

Bodhgaya is the site where the Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree.  Today, a Bodhi tree, though a descendant of the original tree,  is still in what is believed to have been its original place, and has now been incorporated into the Mahabhodhi Temple Complex.  The temple complex is a World Heritage Site, and it contains several Pala-period images of the Buddha dating to the 9th century, as well as the Vajrasana, or Diamond Throne, marking the place where Buddha sat under the tree.  Buddhist monks dressed in red, gray, white, and saffron robes sit or stroll in meditation, and perform their prostrations in shady, peaceful niches where they can still face the Bodhi tree.  The city of Bodhgaya itself is home to Buddhist temples and monasteries of several other Southeast Asian countries including Japan, China, Bhutan, Thailand, Tibet, Nepal, Korea, and Vietnam.

 

Mahabodhi Temple with the Bodhi Tree to the left

 

Obviously, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to call these two site-visits “a pilgrimage” since they weren’t done with a spiritual purpose in mind.  But, stepping outside of the realm of religion and pilgrimage, both sites were fascinating from historical and artistic perspectives.  Plus, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from a contemplative stroll around a former Buddhist monastery, or a few moments of reflection under the tree where Buddha achieved his enlightenment, and where so many others have tried.

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