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In the Buddha’s footsteps

By S.B. TOH, The Star, May 5, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The life of the Buddha is one of the most inspiring stories ever told. The Buddhist circuit of northern India and Nepal allows pilgrims and tourists alike to “walk with the Buddha”.

<< The young monks of Mahabodhi Temple are playful.

Neck craning, eyes scanning, the boy – no more than 12 and perhaps Vietnamese – waits patiently under the shady tree. When a breeze rustles the branches, he freezes – expectant, intent – and as a leaf falls, hurries to retrieve it. 

It is hardly his first leaf, and the boy is scarcely alone in his endeavour. 

There are others who have staked out their own spots under the tree – keen, silent, watchful. It is as if the leaves are manna from the heavens. And in a sense, they are, for this is no ordinary tree in any old spot. 

This is the bodhi tree, planted and replanted from saplings of the original, under which, 25 centuries ago, a certain prince turned pauper and seeker-after-the-truth sat and, meditating, found the answers to the questions of life. 

It was here, in what is present-day Bodhgaya, northern India, that Siddhatta Gotama became, at age 35, the Buddha, the Enlightened One, the Tathagata, the Thus Gone. 

Bodhgaya is one of the four important destinations in the Buddhist pilgrimage route along with Sarnath, Kushinagar, and Lumbini in Nepal.

Bodhgaya: Enlightenment

The place of Gotama’s spiritual awakening is today hallowed ground, a place of pilgrimage and site of the Mahabodhi temple.

The present temple dates from the 5th and 6th centuries and is said to be one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick still intact.

There are seven spots within the complex that are of importance, corresponding to the seven weeks that the Buddha spent meditating and fasting, including the bodhi tree and Muchalinda pond, where a giant serpent is said to have sheltered him during a storm.

All kinds of everyone come here, seekers and onlookers, clergy and laity, old and young, Indians and foreigners, Buddhists and not.

I’m not sure what I am myself: a sort of Buddhist on a pilgrimage of sort? When you undertake pilgrimages, even one as tentative as mine, you journey inwards even as you venture out. 

First a confession: Religion holds no special appeal to me. It has inspired too much irrationality and violence. Abdicating reason for blind faith seems a dangerous thing. But Buddhism I could live with, which is apt in a way because, as some people say, it is not a religion. They are correct, strictly speaking, because religion in the conventional sense means a system of worship centred around a supernatural god.

A boy collecting the fallen leaves of the revered bodhi tree of Bodhgaya at the Mahabodhi Temple  >>

There is no such god in Buddhism, at least not in its basic form, and no handing over of one’s fate to the gods.

The Buddha emphasised selfreliance and personal responsibility. He taught his followers not to take his or anybody’s word for it; people had to verify everything for themselves. Embracing Buddhism does not guarantee anyone salvation.

No god will favour you; no clergyman will absolve you of wrongdoings. The focus and onus is on you yourself.

“By oneself is one defiled; by oneself is one purified,” the Buddha said.

Buddhism, then, is not so much theology (theo = god, logy = discourse) as homology, a discourse on humanity. It prescribes a code of living that would, if diligently practised, lead one to Ultimate Bliss. This most empowering of spiritual ideas, that the earthly human can transcend the world by his own efforts, is symbolised by the earth-touching posture so popular in Buddhist iconography. 

There is a fine example of this bumisphasa mudra pose in the main building at the Mahabodhi complex, where the gilded statue of a meditating Buddha touches the ground with his right hand.

The story goes that as Gotama sat under the bodhi tree, the demon Mara (“delusion”), who is really Gotama’s shadow-self, appeared with his army, bent on disruption. When neither force nor temptation could dissuade Gotama from his quest, Mara asked his rival to vacate the spot under the tree. He said it belonged to him because he was the Lord of the World and had done many great deeds, which his soldiers could attest to.

Could anyone bear witness to Gotama’s worthiness? Having no one around to vouch for his acts of compassion, Gotama reached out to touch the earth with his right hand, asking it to testify for him. The earth roared in response, “I bear your witness!”, sending Mara and his army helterskelter.

As with many Buddhist stories, which are part scripture, part legend, part history, this tale has an allegorical dimension to it, and basically it underlines that the Buddha was indeed of this world, was in tune with it, and, moreover, was someone who relied on his own virtuous conducts on earth to prevail.

The Buddha, then, is a supreme example of human capacity for spiritual perfection. When Buddhists prostate before a statue of the Buddha, as many do now in the hush of Mahabodhi’s darkened inner sanctum, they aren’t worshipping so much as reverencing him as an example to emulate.

That’s the idea, at least. Out in the temple compounds, the atmosphere is serene despite the constant flow of people. A Sri Lankan group sit cross-legged under the tree praying. Here and there, individuals meditate singly.

Many loiter and chat. Bashful child monks pose for shots, and the horde of tourists mirrors the swarming catfish they feed at the pond.

Some people say they can feel positive vibes here; alas, I’m impervious to such things. But the prevailing sense of peace, I like.

Little Bodhgaya town itself, thriving from the tourist boom, is like a United Nation of Buddhists with monasteries and temples of many nations.

Sarnath: Teaching

In the shade cast by the massive cylindrical tower in the swelter of the noonday heat, a small Thai entourage, led by two monks, sits on the grass chanting. A little away, waiting, another group of Thais banter as at a picnic.

<< A group of Thai nationals led by two monks pray in the shade of Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath.

Other visitors take to circumambulating the building, touching it all the while in a kind of instinctive ritual.

This is Sarnath, where the Buddha established his monastic order and Dhamma (teaching).

After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha sought out the five ascetics with whom he had practised penances. They deserted him when he gave up the severe austerities of the ascetic life as futile. Now that he had found the Way, the Buddha felt obliged to share his Dhamma with the world.

It was here in the Deer Park of Issipatana, 10km from Varanasi (Benares), that the Buddhist word first spread. The site is today a verdant park with emerald lawns studded by the ruins of temples and monasteries, and fringed by trees.

Deer can still be found here, fenced in and tame enough to be petted.

There is a spot, among the many broken spots, that stands out here, anointed as it were with gold leaf. A mark of veneration oft seen on the Buddhist trail, it is the handiwork of devotees from the Far East, for whom the Buddha is, well, as dear as gold.

This particular patchily gilded place is believed to be where the Buddha meditated during his monsoon retreats in Sarnath.

The building that dominates the park grounds, though, is Dhamekh Stupa, the imposing tower that rises to 42.6m. It is said Emperor Ashoka built it to mark the Buddha’s first sermon, which set into motion the Wheel of Dhamma.

This was the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way to enlightenment that is the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha’s teaching did not concern itself with God or Creation. The Dhamma diagnosed the problem of life “as it is” and prescribed a cure that would end craving, attachment, and, hence, pain.

The Buddha did not lay claim to divinity — he was neither god’s prophet nor son. He was a mere mortal who had nevertheless transcended by his own efforts the world of men, and, indeed, the world of gods.

In this, the Buddha was as humble as he was astonishing. He was profoundly human and humanly profound. Few will have problems with the ethos he promoted: to extinguish the ego, to be selfless, and to have compassion for all living beings.

Next to the park is Sarnath Museum, a treasure trove of Buddhist art, from sculptures to inscriptions to pottery. Ashoka’s famous lion capital, a sculpture of four lions facing the four directions, takes centre stage.

For many Buddhists, the items on display are more objects of veneration than exhibits; many put their palms together in reverence and bend their heads to the feet of the statues.

The irony of Buddhist art and imagery is that it flourished despite a founder who did not support the making of images and discouraged the cult of personality.

What was important for the Buddha was the Dhamma, not himself. “He honours me best who practises my teaching best.” For the first 500 years after his passing, no images of the Buddha were made.

He was merely represented by an empty throne or a pair of footprints. Apparently, it was the Greeks, who had penetrated the northwestern region of India, who made the first Buddhist images in human form.

Lumbini: Birth

Some 27km across the border from India is the Nepalese village of Lumbini. If Bodhgaya is the spiritual birthplace of Buddhism, then Lumbini claims the distinction of being the birthplace of Gotama.

You journey there by bus from India, 170km, three odd hours. Once in Sonauli at the border, you have 27km more to go. A real border town, Sonauli is a sprawl of buildings wrapped around a main trunk road that is frantic, dusty, and mad with traffic — hulking lorries, chiefly.

The driving style is such here that the twolane road can at times heroically be made to accommodate four lorries.

About 100ft of no-man’s land separates the two countries, no barriers, just soldiers armed with long sticks and rifles.

Crossing over is fuss-free, mostly. The border feels porous, and it is in a way because Indians and Nepali don’t require documents to traverse.

Abruptly, you are on the other side: the crossing hardly noticed, but the change in atmosphere is. Nepal is different.

The streets are cleaner, the houses neater, the countryside more orderly, the people more relaxed.

How to account for this transmutation? The air? The food? For the visitor dictated by the schedule of the packaged tour, always hurrying, never lingering, there is no figuring it out.

Twenty minutes later, you are there. Step out into the dirt road, and the winds assail you, hot and dusty. The sun bakes you. It being early April, the temperature is beginning to hit the upper reaches of the 30s. Come June, it’s an insane 45°C. Lumbini is not the most attractive of places.

But here, on a full-moon day of May, some 500 years before Christ, a prince was born. Holy men came to foretell the boy’s future. 

One of them, Asita, predicted that the boy would renounce the world if ever he experienced suffering. This alarmed King Suddhodana, who took to cloistering his son in the palace. Thus sheltered from life, Gotama grew up, married, and would have led an unremarkable life had he not ventured out one day and saw four things: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a holy man.

For the very first time, the prince came face to face with the inescapable horrors of the human condition. It jolted him. Life was transient, dogged by death. Happiness was illusory, shadowed by fear.

Deeply distressed, Gotama decided to forsake family and fortune to seek the answers to the suffering of life.

“I have sons, I have wealth” The ignorant man thus thinks he is secure. Indeed, he himself is not his own. How can sons and wealth be his? – The Buddha (from The Dhammapada)

That night Gotama gazed at his wife and infant boy as they lay sleeping, and abandoned them. He was 29.

“So he left his wife and son? Like that also can ah?” a fellow tourist remarks.

“Ya,” says another, “but can you do it?” A pause. A sigh. We move on.

It’s a 1km walk, past a carnival of hawkers, picnickers, male dancers in sari with their drummers and entourages, to a boxy building.

Supposedly, it enshrines the exact spot where Gotama was born. Inside it’s airless. The locals outnumber tourists 10 to 1, all clamouring to pray, to make offerings. It’s a free-for-all.

Outside, round the back: Rummendei Pillar, Emperor Ashoka’s homage to the Buddha; nearby, the sacred pool where the infant Gotama had his first bath; next to it, a bodhi tree. And all around the heat radiates and the dust swirls.

Kushinagar: Death

Kushinagar is unusual in that it is the antithesis of the mad, frenetic, overcrowded India tourists so often confront: it is a quiet little corner, a haven. 

The reclining Buddha statue at Mahaparinibbana Temple in Kushinagar, India marks the passing of the Buddha  >>

It would not have been on the tourist radar at all had the Buddha, who by then had spent 45 years wandering the Gangetic plains, not chosen it as the place in which to breathe his last.

Like the other three sites, Kushinagar hosts the temples of several Buddhist countries. Rhambar Stupa is one of the must-visit places here, being the sacred ground of the Buddha’s cremation. The stupa resembles nothing more than a mound of bricks and is set amidst well-kept lawn, leafy trees and palms.

Further up the road is Mathakuar Shrine, which commemorates the spot where the Buddha delivered his last sermon.

Inside the little building is a statue of the Buddha made of black stone but beautifully gilded. No more than 400m away stands the rather more grand Mahaparinibbana Temple, elevated on a platform, crowning the garden grounds.

Inside, is a 6m long reclining statue depicting the Buddha as he lay dying.

“All individual things pass away. Seek your liberation with diligence,” the Buddha said, as he shed his mortal coil for Final Nibbana, that state of ultimate bliss beyond rebirth, beyond redeath.

Like everyone else, the Buddha was not exempt from aging and death but The End held no fear for he who had extinguished his ego and mastered himself.

Faring far, wandering alone, bodiless, lying in a cave, is the mind. Those who subdue it are free from the bonds of Mara – The Dhammapada

The story of the Buddha is the story of Man’s epic struggle with himself. His story tells us that Man is his own worst enemy and greatest hope.

It is one of the most inspiring stories ever told.



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