Following Buddha's footsteps
Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
273Trip End Oct 08, 2008
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He figured it out when he finally got out to see his kingdom. There were old people and sick people. Even some dead people. There was suffering, and he decided (at least in theory) that he wanted none of it. So he ran away from home. The resulting learning process was somewhat experimental, his father having not only withheld human suffering, but also religious teachings. Eventually he sat under a tree and didn't get up for a very long time
When he did, he had all the answers (he had said he wouldn't get up till he did, so, really, he was a man of his word), and he decided to share them.
This, dear readers, brings us to Sarnath. In case you had not realized, the above story is an extraordinarily loose (meant to be more amusing than factual...but also informative...) version of the events that lead the Siddhartha Gautama to become known to one and all as the Buddha.
Sarnath, you see, is one of four pilgrimage sites (in the entire world) for Buddhists, because it is where he preached his first sermon to his seemingly wayward disciples. The town has a temple in it from every country that has an abundant Buddhist population. They're pretty much all Asian temples, but each has its own distinct flair. The Tibetan one is particularly splendid (at least from the outside...we didn't go into temples outside the complex) and it has the added bonus of carrying a political message. But who can blame them? Their Buddhism has had a number of slaps in the face these past years.
First we entered the temple inside the complex. It was quite plain, especially on the outside, being entirely made of some dull red-brown stone and lacking any special carving. But then on the inside there was a Japanese fresco running around three walls. It looked oh so Japanese, and yet...not. But it was not bold, and the majority of the inside was wood. Thus all attention was drawn to the large, gold Buddha seated on his pedestal, looking utterly serene and in the know
Next, and quite possibly my favorite part, we went to see the holy tree. The holy tree was completely surrounded (more than once) by religiosity. On the inner wall were the prayer flags, but the outer "wall" consisted of enormous plaques in over a dozen languages carrying Buddha's first message. In front of the tree was a mock-up of Buddha, seated in teaching position, giving said first sermon to his disciples. They had a very nice canopy in addition to the tree. There was also a bell that people seemed to think was important, but there was no explanation for we of the uneducated set. It was nifty, so I took a photo anyway.
But I still haven't gotten to the best part! And that is, quite simply, that this tree is the offspring of the offspring of the very tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment! Isn't that simply delightful?
Our next step was to get a little bit lost. We saw the stupa, but we were continuously fenced off from it. Alas. Eventually we figured out that there was a separate gate and that we had to pay admission to get into that section of the complex. Our map (courtesy of LP) neglected to mention this.
The complex as a whole is not terribly exciting. There are piles and piles of ruined monasteries. The main points of interest are the Ashokan pillar and the stupa where Buddha is thought to have preached.
Emperor Ashoka, the most powerful emperor of the Indian Mauryan era, embraced Buddhism in something like 262 AD
We wandered through the ruins to the stupa. It was ridiculously large, and, while the base was still smooth and had some lovely carvings, the top mostly looked like a pile of bricks. I was never totally sure if it was actually meant to look that way or not. There are also eight recesses around the stupa that are thought to have contained little buddhas in them back in the day. I walked around it twice.
The first time I followed a group of pilgrims who were circling the stupa. They very dilligently placed marigolds among other marigolds in a ring about chin height around the stupa. Very pretty. In the lawns were some other pilgrims listening to the teachings of their monk and then chanting. It was a good setting for an enlightening pilgrimage. Peaceful, calm, beautiful. I felt a little bit in the way, but tourists are tourists, and when the pilgrims started taking pictures I relaxed.
Walking back toward the gate we ran across some inhabitants of the deer park. I thought they might be holy deer, given that they looked pretty much exactly like the deer at Todaiji temple in Nara, and those deer are messengers of heaven
After a somewhat fly-by visit to the archaeological museum (it cost 2 rupees...entry to the park cost 100...honestly, who does the money stuff here?) we headed back to Varanasi. For your information, the museum was quality, though not necessarily a font of information. The big room with the giant, stone, toadstool umbrellas; larger-than-life buddhas in standing position; and lion standard is best. But the other rooms have nifty carvings and jars and the like that got dug up in the resurrection of Sarnath.
On the way back to Varanasi our rickshaw driver tried to squeeze two other adult tourists into the tiny back seat for the 20 minute ride. Travis had none of it. Our betelnut eating friend smiled and indicated that he wanted the extra fare (he had just called to them that it was no problem to bring them along...gotta love money grubbers). Travis indicated that extra fare for him made no difference to our expense, but a great deal of discomfort at our expense, and ordered him to move along.
And then it was New Year's Eve in Varanasi. Travis was sick and fell asleep and by the time he woke up to join the party upstairs (it was very lively) I was asleep. And so we rang in the New Year (and the anniversary of our engagement) in bed.