Tag Archives: Sarnath

To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul

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Scenes of the Buddha’s life: the teaching of the Dharma at Sarnath & attaining Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya [from back of Jing’yan Buddha in Shanghai, China] – (2012)

So, I had to get back. And in the week of Christmas 2014, I returned to India, the egg. This time I was arriving in Mumbai.  It had been 5 years since my first trip to the country when I gritted through the drought of parched north India and took a slow train from Delhi to Kolkata. Along the way, I was able to make my first pilgrimage to the sites of Bodh Gaya (where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and awakened as the Buddha) and Sarnath (where the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma before his disciples in a small deer park near the holy Hindu city of Varanasi). [see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” and “Pilgrimage – Part II” at https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/04/pilgrimage-part-i and https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/14/pilgrimage-part-ii%5D.  When I walked outside of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and made my way to the taxi area — ohhh, that smell. It just took one whiff. Something opened in my mind and transported me to another plane of consciousness.  A mix of ash, dash of incense (like sandalwood), and the warm stench of urine. The smell wafts into your core and the rings of Mumbai’s smog circulate that smell into an orbit around the sprawling cityscape.  Yet, the smell is not repulsive. It is strangely welcoming and familiar– albeit a familiarity that is connected to something  deep and buried in us. Like some primordial chord that gets struck once the odor gets recognized by some vestigial sense receptor in us.  After a 15-hour non-stop flight from the United States, I was suddenly alive with wonder. The plan was this: 2 weeks to take a train from Mumbai to Aurangabad to see the 1500 year old rock caves carved in the gorge of Ajanta and hills of Ellora during Buddhism’s zenith in India. From Aurangabad, I would fly back to Mumbai and hop on a connecting flight to Goa.  I wasn’t interested in the beaches or hanging out with Russian tourists there– Christmas in Goa would be something special, but I had no idea I would come to face to face with the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier while I was there.

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Sunset over Haji Ali Darga Mosque – Mumbai, India (2014)

Mumbai itself does not have much by way of historical Buddhist temples or structures. It is dominated by Hindu religious fervor, but there is a sizable community of Muslims, as well as Parsis (Zoroastrians), in the city. A good chunk of today’s Mumbai consists of reclaimed land where former islands were brought together to form one landmass by the Portuguese during the 16th century.  One of the most memorable sights is the Haji Ali Darga Mosque that sits out in the Arabian Sea near the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai. Like Mont St. Michel in medieval France, this religious shrine becomes an island when the water rises at high tide and covers the stone walkway that leads to it.  The shrine was built to house the coffin of Haji Ali who died as he was returning from Mecca — his coffin somehow fell off the ship transporting his body to India and was found floating in the sea. The shrine was then built at the location where the coffin was recovered.

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Vipassana Pagoda – Gorai (Mumbai) (2014)

The one interesting Buddhist structure in Mumbai that I visited was the Global Vipassana Pagoda way out in the north of Mumbai.  The construction of this pagoda and its meditation hall began in 2009 and there was still some work remaining in order to finish the project when I saw it. The pagoda itself is a copy of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). [see post: “Enter the Pagoda” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/06/21/enter-the-pagoda%5D. Inside the pagoda there is a huge empty space — a space that is framed by one of the largest interior domes in the world.

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Interior dome – Vipassana Pagoda

What caught my eye as I walked around a plexiglass area for visitors to peer inside the dome was a photograph showing what appeared to be pearls, but what were actually relics of the Buddha — pieces of bone that had transformed into shiny small balls.  These relics had been placed into a ceremonial vessel that was then interred inside the Vipassana Pagoda.

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Photo inside Pagoda showing relics of Buddha

The English messaging on the photo had me scratching my head: “most of the bone relics turn into this shape“. I had seen bone relics before such as at the Botataung Pagoda in Burma [see post: “Bones of Reverence” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/04/11/bones-of-reverance%5D, and these relics had not taken the shape of pearl-like shiny balls. I had also witnessed cremations in India and Nepal and it was hard to believe that human bones would form such shapes after being burned.  But, even if the messaging on the photo was simply an inaccurate English translation, India is more magic than logic. It is a land where ancient custom and ritual butt up against Bollywood and technology, so one must try to make sense of it all.  When I found myself in an old Goan cathedral a week later, I would see the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier at rest in a glass coffin. I saw little decay.  Instead of a human skeleton, I saw a fleshy black corpse with hair on its head, fingernails, toenails, eyeballs, and teeth all intact.  So, if without any mummification, the Saint’s body had been miraculously preserved — why couldn’t some of the bones of the Buddha turn into pearl-like balls after his cremation?

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Train to Aurangabad

While I was a bit hesitant to travel by train (2nd class coach) again in India after my last experience years earlier, I went ahead and bought a train ticket from Mumbai to Aurangabad.  The train left in the early afternoon and took about 7 hours. I ended up sitting next to a professor who entertained me with various YouTube videos that discussed conspiracy theories of terrorists plotting to attack India and the West. Of course, I was well aware of the siege of Mumbai that had taken place in 2008 by an Islamic fundamentalist group from Pakistan who entered the city by boat and attacked Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal palace and other buildings. So, I did not feel it was my place to point out some of the preposterous statements in the videos he showed me. I was rewarded for this because when our train arrived in Aurangabad the professor told me he was being picked up in a car and could drop me off at my hotel.  I took one look at the dusty torn up state of the Aurangabad train station and the void I had entered. There were no signs, lights, or any viable exit from the chaos of vendors, tuk-tuks, and tangle of bodies and bags around me. I eagerly said yes and jumped into the backseat of his car.

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Dreams of Ajanta – (Maharashtra state, India)

Excitement gripped me that first night in Aurangabad as I knew I would be seeing the legendary Ajanta caves the next day.  I had once seen an “Ancient Aliens” episode on the History 2 channel in the States — where the theory of “ancient astronauts” with advanced tools had dug and carved these otherworldly shrine caves into the black stone of Ajanta. I was hooked and had to see these for myself. So, here I was.

 

Pilgrimage – Part II

14 Aug

The name, “Sarnath”, had a kind of sinister inflection in my mind. It reminded me of Golgotha. But, as I traveled there, I learned that Sarnath is actually shorthand for a longer word that means “Lord of the Deer.” It was now the name for the area surrounding the deer park where the Buddha had given his first teaching of the Dharma to his 5 companions. Sarnath is located about 13km to the northeast of the ancient city of Benares (Varanasi) and I would stay there for a few nights and take a day trip to Sarnath.

The Ghats of Varanasi, India (2009)

The funny thing was that I wasn’t too far off by thinking of Golgotha on my way there because Varanasi had a skull-like form and netherworld glow to it. Its vertiginous old buildings vomited out steps that led down to the banks of the Ganges below. And there was the dark plume of smoke that seemed to continually float above one of the ghats in particular. I would soon learn that this was Manikarnika Ghat — the pre-eminent cremation ground in all of Hinduism. I could faintly see this ghat in the distance and wasn’t ready to experience its power on that first day. As it so happened, I was only able to spend just an hour or so around the ghats that were near my Varanasi hotel on that first day. The water level of the Ganges was so low that large sand bars were exposed. These weren’t small banks of sand, but instead were large mounds that rose several feet above the ground. The clouds overhead started moving fast as a wild wind picked up and then the exposed sand bars took flight — meaning twisters picked up the sand and blew them with a ferocity toward the ghats. I was swiftly caught in a severe sandstorm and wasn’t able to breathe or open my eyes. I put on my sunglasses, pulled my shirt over my mouth, and ducked behind a wall. Incredibly, the sand whipped around the wall and swarmed over me. I could feel my ears get plugged up and things got muffled. For a few moments, all my senses were snuffed out in some way and I was in the black. I had no idea if anyone else was around, but the streets had to be deserted. It then dawned on me that the locals must have known about these sandstorms. The monsoon was late and it was the end of June of 2009. These early afternoon winds must have hit the Ganges with some regularity, so the shopkeepers, faithful, and cricketers alike knew when it was time to take cover. I had no choice but to make my way back to the hotel until the sandstorm subsided. When I got to my room, I was hoping to cool down and clean off. Unfortunately, there were constant rolling blackouts that kept knocking out the A/C and the lights. I washed myself in the dark and laid down on my bed to recover. I silently hoped that when I visited Sarnath, the deer park would live up to its reputation as being a place of serenity and calm.

Dhamekha Stupa – Sarnath, India

The next day I flagged down a Bajaj rickshaw and told the driver to take me to Sarnath. Cruising on these 3-wheelers – whether a tuk-tuk in Thailand or elsewhere – is always the same. You suck in alot of exhaust and hot thick air while dodging motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, trucks, and cars. Once in a while, you get a driver that is drunk, whacked out, or just too eager to take you to some brothel. It’s usually fun in any situation though. The tricky part is having enough cash on you to pay the driver after you (hopefully) barter out the price in advance. The road to Sarnath was long and winding and we did have a bump with a motorcycle, but that was resolved with an apology and some pulling back of the bent parts into place. I was dropped off at the entrance to the archaeological site. I paid the entrance fee and walked into a green park which contained the ruins of an old monastery, a flattened stupa, and some old broken pillars erected by Ashoka and destroyed many, many centuries later by Turkish invaders. Looming above it all was the only monument that was still largely intact. This was the Dhamekha Stupa. It had been built at the location where the Buddha had given his first sermon to his companions. It was where the wheel of the Dharma had first rotated into the world. The Stupa conveyed a majesty and simplicity to it. It looked like a giant brick thimble from afar. It had a sense of utility. As I got closer, the intricate detail and patterns that still remained on the lower half of the Stupa jumped out at me: floral wreaths, swirling patterns, and overlapping shakti symbols (perverted into what was known as the swastika in 20th century). I walked around the Stupa 3 times clockwise and imagined myself becoming part of the wheel. That was the utility of this structure – its design roped you in and you want to glom on to its side and become part of its pattern work. Sarnath did still contain an actual deer park, but this had been moved to a newer area and outside of the archaeological zone where the Dhamekha Stupa sat. Just a little further up the road, a modern version of the Mahabodhi temple had been built during the early 20th century, and behind this temple was the deer park– although from what I remember the deer were penned up in a corral which was part of a zoo where a donation or fee had to be paid. But, given the crush of humanity that India teemed with, it was still a relief to have some kind of haven for these deer which were ultimately descendants of those deer that had lived in the park during the Buddha’s time.

Detail – Dhamekha Stupa

The Dhamekha Stupa itself dates back to about 500 AD and was built over an earlier stupa that Ashoka had built upon his visit to Sarnath in the mid-3rd century. Ashoka had also erected an exquisite 4-headed lion capital that crowned a tall pillar he had placed in Sarnath to commemorate his visit. This lion capital was struck by lighting and had fallen to the ground intact. It was now housed in the Sarnath Museum which was around the corner from the park. The capital was epic in scope and purpose. 4 lions placed back-to-back-to-back-to-back and other animals like an elephant, bull, and horse spaced below them. A large wheel of the Dharma was thought to have been built over the head of the lions, but that wheel has been lost. Below the paws of each lion appeared to be another wheel design of some sort. It looked like a wheel of a chariot, but I thought it could have been a rendering of the wheel of the Dharma. This lion capital is now the emblem that is set smack dab in the center of the national flag of India. So, the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, had left a legacy that went beyond just making his own pilgrimages to the key places of the Buddhist’s life. In his quest to memorialize these visits, he created a symbol for a new country which more than 2000 years later would seek to gain independence and forge its own identity and nationhood. One could see the hand of the Sangha behind this legacy. Because again, the lion capital would never have made it through the marauding and colonial plundering that depleted much of the old Mauryan dynasty of Ashoka without the watchful eyes of the Sangha. Like Sanghamitta’s act to salvage the Bodhi Tree, I was able to see the Lion Capital at the Sarnath Museum because of the Sangha’s dogged preservation of this important relic. As I returned back to Varanasi, I mentally prepared for the next day where I was determined to make the walk to Manikarnika Ghat and into the beyond.

Part I (Cont’d) – Tree

8 Aug

The Emperor Ashoka ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC. He had consolidated his kingdom and dynasty through many brutal wars. He was a destroyer. But, after one particularly horrific battle where he was left alone to survey the carnage of rotting corpses, burnt villages, and destruction he and his army caused, he had an awakening. He was disgusted at what he had done and how meaningless it all was. At that moment, he felt a warmth come over him and he swore he would change his life. Buddhism had taken hold of much of the subcontinent during the 200 years since the Buddha had passed. The Sangha had grown and become strong. This community filled many parts of Ashoka’s kingdom and so Ashoka sought out the Buddhist monks in his midst. He converted to Buddhism and adopted the Buddha’s teachings as his own. Going forward, he would live his life and root his kingdom and legacy in the name of the Buddha and practice only non-violence and tolerance. He had two children from his first wife – a son called Mahindu and a daughter named Sanghamitta – whose name meant “friend of the Sangha.” His two children would devote their lives to Buddhism and Ashoka himself set out to visit the key sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, the Bodhi Tree at Magadha, the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and Kushinigar.

Bodhi Tree – Bodh Gaya

When Ashoka came to Magahda he saw the Bodhi Tree and he placed a grey sandstone slab under it to mark the spot where the Buddha had sat. Then, Ashoka commissioned the building of the original Mahadabodhi Temple. Ashoka loved the serenity of the forest and spent many days and nights sitting and sleeping under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that he spent so much time with the Tree that his wife became jealous. This jealousy drove her to the point where she poisoned the Tree and it rotted and decayed. Other traditions say that the Tree was toppled during a battle Ashoka had with another warring tribe who had sought to claim the forest and the remnants of the Magadha kingdom. We may not know what exactly happened to that original Bo Tree, but we do know that the young Princess Sanghamitta understood the importance of the Tree and was able to save a small cutting or sapling from the Tree after it had been felled. Fearing any reprisals from her mother or Ashoka’s enemies, she hid the small shoot in her long hair and took surreptitious care of it. Her brother, Mahindu, had already become a Buddhist monk and begun a mission to the south of the subcontinent — even as far as to the island nation of what is today, Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was determined to take the cutting of the Tree to where her brother was since she knew the Tree would be safe there. She traveled under the cover of night from village to village until she reached the end of the subcontinent. From there, she took a boat and sailed to the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The cutting of the Tree was kept in a golden vase during the crossing from India to Sri Lanka. Once she reached Sri Lanka an advanced guard of King Tissa met her and they took her to the royal capital of Anuradhapura where Mahindu had successfully passed on the Buddha’s teachings to an eager people. Mahindu himself had taken to living in a rock cave just outside of Anuradhapura. (Little did I know while I was reading this story at Bodhi Gaya about Mahindu, a year later I would be fumbling [barefoot again] down a ravine while getting followed by dubious looking dogs as I tried to find this rock cave. It was off a plateau now called Mihintale about 13km away from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A “mango tree” dagoba had also been built on the top of this plateau marking the location where Mahindu had first met King Tissa. A very holy site for Sri Lanka Buddhists).

Rock Cave of Mahindu – Mihintale, Sri Lanka

Mahindu traveled to Anuradhapura to meet his sister there and she gave him the vase with the sapling. Then, during an elaborate ceremony, Mahindu, Sanghamitta, King Tissa, members of the royal family, and other monks planted the tree in an elevated mound. This all took place in the 3rd century BC. For more than 2000 years afterwards, this sapling grew and was taken care of by successive members of the royal family and the monks who lived in Anuradhapura up to the present time. What happened next was that centuries later when the original Tree in Bodh Gaya was toppled again by an invading army, the Buddhist order in Anuradhapura took a sapling from their tree – reverentially called Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – and replanted it in Bodhi Gaya at the same site where the original Tree had sprouted. But, this Tree also was toppled and then in the late 19th century, the British viceroy or whatever who had control of th Bihar province had a new Bo Tree planted. It was this Tree that I saw in 2009. Although it was young (under a 150 years old), it was still mighty and massive with history. But, as I read the story about Sanghamitta I knew I would have to travel to Anuradhapura and see Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. And in 2010, I was in Anuradhapura — an electrifying plain strewn with enormous, bubble-shaped Dagobas which I will detail later — but first it was the Tree. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the oldest “human tended” tree in the world. The monks in Anuradhapura have meticulous records of how generation after generation their order has taken care of the Tree. There were golden shrouds tied around knobby elbows of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and various metal braces were placed around the tree in order to hold up and spread the weight of its lumbering branches. I had never seen such tender upkeep of any non-human being before. There were many pilgrims and lay people walking around the tree and praying in the covered shrines built around the tree. There was a rotating wheel of activity like being in a fair or carnival.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (2010)

I sat in a corner of the Tree complex and was covered by the shade of one of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’s large, leafy branches. I clearly remember the feeling I had of just how insignificant my own life was. I had the life span of a gnat in the eyes of this Tree. No question about that. There was something undeniably supernatural about being in the presence of another living thing that was over 2 millennia old. When I thought back to Bodh Gaya, the connection this Tree had to the Buddha himself, and the journey the Tree had made with Sanghamitta to get to this place – it was almost too much to comprehend. Every culture or religion has its share of myths and legends that sustain and define its identity. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been passed on by tradition as bearing forbidden fruit. The Bodhi Tree was just the opposite – it was a catalyst that led to the receipt of complete Knowledge in the case of the Buddha. The Tree was then an object to be revered and celebrated. Here, before me was its 2,200+ year old descendant. It had been cared for by the Sangha and would likely live on for another millennia, or until the Sangha was no more. Would there still be a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi without the Sangha’s care? Would the Sangha have still been able to be as strong as it was in Anuradhapura without something tangible like the Tree to motivate it and stay true to the Buddha’s teaching? The two’s destinies had been intertwined. Each needed the other, but if either was to over-indulge on their attachment to the other, then there would be conflict and loss of purpose. As I stood up and was ready to leave the Tree complex, I noticed a few twigs and leaves that must have fallen from Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. I picked up a couple of them and put them in my bag. I guess I needed to stay attached to this experience in some way. I had done the same thing at Bodh Gaya the year before. Back to Bodh Gaya then. From there, I set out like the Buddha had to the deer park.

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