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Four Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites

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By Author: Rabi AC
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Buddhism is more a philosophy about life than a religion. It helped billions to understand the true nature of existence, cease the cause of suffering and thus attain the state of Nirvana. While Buddhism now a days is divided into different schools, all of them agreed to the fundamental teachings of Buddha. The fundamentals of Buddha’s teachings are : the three universal truths about nature of existence, four noble truth about suffering and eight folded path for cessation of suffering.

The expounder of this extraordinary philosophy, Buddha (enlightened one) was born in Lumbini, Nepal some 563 years CE. Prince Siddhartha was prophesized to become great sage with trivial chance of becoming great emperor. His father, king Suddhodhana sees this trivial change as great hope and raises him in royal confinement with all worldly pleasures. When he got to see the sick, ageing, death and saint; curiosity about reality of life made home in his mind. Unconvinced by any answers, he left the palace at 29 in search of true wisdom. He attained enlightenment at Bodhgaya, gave his first sermon at Sarnath and then died at 80 in Kushinagar. ...
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Unlike many spiritual places in the world, sites related with Buddha were well marked and developed until the 12th century. The credit goes to 3rd century BC emperor Ashoka and the early Chinese travelers Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hsien. Emperor Ashoka engraved monolithic pillars to mark the important Buddhist sites. While Fa Sien (4th AD) and Huien Tsang (7th AD) wrote diaries about their years of travel around Buddhist sites. Their detailed explanations played important role in relocating Buddhist sites, 700 years after their destruction in Mugal invasion.

The sites where important incidents happened in Buddha’s life have been rediscovered since mid 19th century and is developed into a peaceful park surrounded by monasteries from around the world. Today about 32 million domestic and 1 million international tourists visit the Buddhist pilgrimage sites each year.

A Buddhist circuit tour is the great way of honoring Buddha and understanding his teachings. When Ananda asked Buddha about how to remember him after his death, Buddha himself told Ananda to visit four power places as follows :
“There are four places, Ananda that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four? ‘Here the Tathagata [the one who has gone beyond all transitory phenomena] was born.’ ‘Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened.’ ‘Here the Tathagata set in motion the wheel of the dhamma.’ ‘Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of nibbana in which no element of clinging remains!’ And the monk, the nun, the layman or laywoman who has faith should visit these places. And whoever, Ananda, should die on such a pilgrimage with his heart established in faith, at the breaking up of the body after death will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. (Digha Nikaya 16.5)”

Here are the four important places in Buddha’s life :

Lumbini

Lumbini was a sacred garden where Buddha was born in around 6th or 7th century BC. Queen Mayadevi was travelling to her maternal home at Devadaha on the full moon day of Baishaka (around April / May). Feeling the onset of labor at Lumbini garden, She hold branches of the tree and gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who became Buddha. The Puskarini pond which is believed as a place where Queen Mayadevi and Buddha took bath still exists. A stone was kept at the place where Buddha was born. The marker stone was later enshrined and known as Mayadevi temple. Emperor Ashoka visited Mayadevi temple 200 years after Buddha and engraved monolithic pillar with inscription about the Buddha’s birth at the site. With the decline of Buddhism in the region following the Mugal invasion in 12th century, the place was lost in antiquity. The marker stone was buried under the debris of temples.

The meticulous excavation in 1990es rediscovered the market stone and the master plan for the development of Lumbini was executed. Lumbini became the UNESCO Heritage site in 1996. Under the master plan, Lumbini at present is developed into the area of 3 miles by 1 mile. The rectangular area consists of three zones; sacred garden, monastic zone and the new tourist village. Monastic zone is allocated only for monasteries from around world. The sacred garden spreads around the Mayadevi temple, Puskarini pond and Ashoka pillar. The tourist village is where there are Bus Park, hotels and restaurants, recourse center and museum.

Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya another holiest Buddhist sites where Prince Siddhartha attended enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The place still has the descendant of Bodhi tree, Vajraasana (diamond seat) and restored temple, originally from the time of Emperor Ashoka. The simple shrine built by Ashoka was enclosed by a stone railing in around 1st century BC. The present Mahabodhi temple designated as UNESCO Heritage sites, was built in Kushan period in around 2nd Century AD. The temple went through several refurbishment during 7 – 12th century and eventually abandoned following the Mugal invasion. It was revived once again after the heavy restoration by British archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham in the second half of 19th century.
The Mahabodhi temple at present rises 54 m (180 ft) above the ground and is surrounded by several votive stupas and temples. The most important sites around the temple are the Bodhi tree, Vajraasana and the shrines to mark the first seven weeks after enlightenment. While Bodhi tree is the descendant of original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment, Vajraasana (diamond seat) was established by Emperor Ashoka at the place where Buddha sat under the tree.

Sarnath

After Buddha achieved enlightenment, he came to Sarnath to deliver his sermon. He met his first five disciples at deer park and gave his first Dharma teachings. The first teaching is known as Dhammacakka Pavattana, which is about the four noble truths and the eightfold path. In third century BC, Emperor Ashoka erected engraved pillar and built stupas to mark the site of first teaching. The Chinese traveler Xuan Zang travelled in 7th century; Sarnath had 100 m high temple and aobut 1,500 monks living in large monastery. Buddhism started to decline from the 8th century and finally wiped out of the region after the Mugal invasion in later 12th century. The charm of Sarnath disappeared altogether and was only rediscovered in mid 19th century by British archaeologists.
The archaeological site of Sarnath now revel the Dhamek Stupa built by Ashoka, Ashoka pillar, Dharmarajika stupa and Mulagandhakuti vihar, where Buddha spent the first rainy season. The Sarnath museum is the oldest archaeological site museum of India, which houses original sandstone sculpted Lion Capital of Ashoka and 6,832 sculptures and artifacts found at Sarnath.

Kushinagar

Kushinagar has been discovered as a site where Buddha attained the Mahaparinibbana. Buddha died at the age of 80 and was cremated about 1.5 km southeast from the site of death. Both places have been marked with stupas. The restored 50 ft tall Rambhar Stupa is believed as the place where Buddha was cremated. The stupa is also known as Mukutbandhana Chaitya.
Buddha travelled from Rajgir to Vaishali and then to Kushinagar giving his teachings to the fellow monks until the last moment in his life. There he lied in a reclining position between the sal trees and gave his last sermon. The Buddha’s last words at Kushinagar were these: "All compounded things are subject to decay: strive with diligence" (Vaya dhamma sankhara; appamadena sampadetha). Pilgrims to Kushinagar walk in silence around the massive reclining statue of the Buddha to pay homage to the truth of anicca (impermanence) and cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for the Buddha and his teaching.
200 years later Emperor Ashoka built Parinibbana stupa to mark the place where Buddha died. The world famous reclining Buddha sculpture was built in 5th century by the Gupta kings. At present the 6.10 m long reclining Buddha statue is enshrined as Nibbana temple.
Like other Buddhist site, Kushinagar was also lost its charm after 12th century and was revived after mid 20th century. At present is great pilgrimage site with restored Nibbana temple, Parinibbana stupa, Ramabhar stupa and monasteries from many Buddhist countries.

Buddhism started to decline from its place of origin after the 8th century AD. The wars between kingdoms, revival of Hinduism and eventually the Mugal invasion caused the religion of peace and liberty to be limited in the foothills of the Himalayas or across. The Himalayan valleys of Nepal nourished the ancient form of Buddhism. Kathmandu valley was the center of Buddhist learning until the 15th century. The Shakyas of Kathmandu claim themselves as the descendant of Buddha. There are over 500 ancient and medieval monasteries in Kathmandu valley. Some of them dates back to 7th century. Similarly there are also meditation caves and stupas dedicated to Boddhisattvas and Buddhist masters like Nagarjuna, Padmashambhava, Milarepa and more. Visit of four Buddhist sites could be combined with Buddhist pilgrimage tour of Nepal as well. Buddhist pilgrimage tour of Nepal visits ancient Buddha relic Stupa or Ramgram, Tilaurakot palace (where Buddha spent 29 years as prince), Kudan monastery ruin, Boudhanath, Swyambhunath and Namobuddha Stupa. The Yangleso and Asura caves of Guru Rinpoche (Padmashambhava) are also important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists from around the world.

More About the Author

I am an adventurer from the Himalayas of Nepal. I like trekking and discovering new places. I have a degree in culture and love to read non fiction books. I also write travel journals and blogs.

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