Flying visit to the birthplace of the Lord Buddha

Story and photos by HAROLD STEPHENS, Bangkok Post, Feb 23, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- Followers of Buddha have always been aware of the revered sites, the places of homage to the Lord Buddha in Indian and Nepal, but getting there has always been difficult. To visit the place where Buddha gained enlightenment, they would have to travel to Bodhgaya near Varanasi, or if they wanted to see where Buddha died and attained nirvana, that was kilometres away in Kushinagar. The third sacred site in India is Deer Park in Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon. Of course, any devotee would also want to visit Buddha's birthplace but that was far away in Lumbini in southern Nepal.

<< Dhammeklia Stupa, where Buddha gave his first sermon. Devotees walked around the temple in prayer, and on the spread of green lawn before the temple they sat on the grass and listened to monks in saffron robes give talks.

No longer is transportation - getting there - the problem, nor an excuse. To answer the call of Buddhists in Thailand and from all over Southeast Asia, THAI Airways has started charter flights to these important sites. Last November saw the first flight, and when it left Bangkok with a full compliment of 120 passengers I was privileged to make the journey with them.

One never quite knows what to expect on a trip like this. After a week of travelling to India and Nepal, in the footsteps of Buddha, I returned to Bangkok elated. I never imagined a trip could be so rewarding - and I discovered that the path to India and Nepal can be just as rewarding and educational for non-Buddhists as it is for followers of Buddha.

It was an easy flight from Bangkok to Varanasi in India, a three and a half hour journey across the Andaman Sea and halfway across the Indian sub-continent. The 120 passengers aboard were eagerly awaiting what lay ahead: Lord Buddha's place of enlightenment and where he died and was cremated.

We arrived at Varanasi Airport at 8:30am, where five coaches waited to carry us to our first site, Sarnath, a half-hour's drive away and the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Before Buddha became "the enlightened one" he was Prince Gautama Siddhartha, son of the King of the Shakya tribe. Sages prophesied that he would either become a powerful king or, renouncing his royal life, an enlightened being and religious leader. The king, wanting his son to follow in his footsteps, insulated him from religious and philosophical concerns by providing him with a life of ease and plenty. Imprisoned within palace walls, the prince grew to manhood and fatherhood never having seen old age, sickness, poverty or death.

Wat Thai Kusinara Chalermraj in Kushinagar.  >>
The temple was initiated for the worship of the Lord Buddha and to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Accession to the Throne and the 72nd birthday Anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

Sitting in the shadow of the Bodhi Tree at Sarnath, the very spot where Buddha sat, I read the history of his life. The most touching part of the story was what happened when Prince Siddhartha ventured beyond the castle walls, stunned by the human suffering he saw. Why did man have to suffer? Why did he have to grow old? Why did he have to die? He came to the conviction that he must seek answers to these questions and learn the great truths of life. Thus at the age of 29, he let go the constraints of family and worldly responsibility to start on the path of self-discovery.

Our morning was filled with places to see and thoughts to dwell on. Dhammeklia Stupa was impressive - constructed by King Ashoa in 300 BCE, at the very spot where Buddha gave his first sermon. The site is marked by a huge circular temple, a mound of brick and stone, many metres high, and in the early morning, when we arrived, it was shrouded in mist, giving it a mystical appearance. Devotees walked around the temple in prayer, and on the green lawn spread before the temple they sat on the grass and listened to monks in saffron robes give talks, followed by chanting that all joined in. At the far end of a large field we came to high ground, crowned with several ancient Bodhi trees. Here devotees placed flecks of gold foil onto tree trunks.

After lunch we made a quick boat trip on the Ganga River (once called the Ganges) to see the burning ghats, and at 2pm were aboard a flight from Varanasi Airport to Gaya Airport, a flight of just one hour. The afternoon was far too short for what followed. Most rewarding was the Bodhi tree, the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment and one of the most venerated objects in the Buddhist world. The other was the Vajrasana, the Diamond Throne, a stone slab marking where the Buddha was sitting when he attained enlightenment.

We returned to the site in the cool of the evening and sat listening to monks chanting and watched devotees from as far afield as Tibet, Assam, Japan and Korea pass by. Under flickering lights I read in my history about the great sages who sat here in times past, during some 2,600 years of history.

The final important pilgrimage site in India is Kushinagar. Buddha spent the last years of his life travelling around northeastern India teaching and establishing monastic communities for both men and women. He died at the age of 80 in the village of Kushinagar, and his death is known as the parinirvana, the "going beyond nirvana". His body was cremated with great ceremony and the cremation relics were placed in an earthen jar. Soon after the relics were divided into eight portions and these, along with the jar that held them and the embers of the cremation fire, were then distributed among the rulers of eight territories in which the Buddha had travelled and taught.

The Ramabhar Stupa, also called a Mukutbandhan-Chaitya, is the cremation place of Buddha. The site is a short distance east of the main Nirvana Temple on the Kushinagar-Deoria Road. This stupa has a huge circular drum with a diameter of 35m on the top and consists of two or more terraces.

The next morning, before setting off for Nepal, we wanted to revisit Wat Thai Kusinara Chalermraj in Kushinagar as we felt we had missed much on our previous visit. Wat Chalermraj, which also serves as a monastery, dates back only 10 years, and it's remarkable what has happened in that short time. The Indian Government granted the land to the Wat Thai Kusinara Chalermraj Foundation on Makhabucha Day, February 24, 1994. The wat was initiated for the worship of the Lord Buddha and to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Accession to the Throne and the 72nd Birthday Anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand. His Majesty gave the temple the name that it now bears and the royal monogram Bhor Por Ror was affixed on the front gable. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn represented His Majesty to lay the foundation stone of the Maha Chetiya on March 30, 2001.

It wasn't until 1957 that the government of India, under the directive of Prime Minister Nehru, decided to celebrate Buddha and revitalise Buddhism in India. Thailand was the first country to build a monastery, and the temple in Gaya was constructed under a lease agreement between the governments of India and Thailand.

One person with whom I wanted to spend more time with at Wat Chalermraj was the monk in charge, Dr Phramaha Khomsorn Khamkert. He could tell us everything we wanted to know about the monastery and, of course, about the area. Dr Phramaha has been at the monastery for 10 years, from the day it was planned. He escorted us on a tour and then took the time to tell me something about himself and his work. He was born near Bangkok 34 years ago and became a novice monk at 13. He studied in Bangkok and holds several university degrees including a doctorate in philosophy.

Dr Phramaha is most proud of the Kushinagar Clinic, staffed by volunteers. It has been open since August 2000 to anyone seeking medical care, regardless of race, age or religion. I looked at the records and in the first two years it ministered to 41,920 patients. Dr Phramaha emphasised that doctors, nurses, pharmacists and anyone with medical skills are invited to volunteer their services. Donations can also be made - money, medicines or medical equipment items - directly to the Wat Thai Kusinara Chalermraj Monastery office.

We stayed far too long at the wat - darkness had begun to fall by the time we departed and what we were told would be a six hour drive turned out to be 10 hours. The few hours of light we had left proved to be very interesting: We saw some truly impressive Indian countryside. Customs and immigration didn't delay us at all, and at midnight we were at our hotel near Lumbini. At 6am the next morning we began our tour.

Lumbini, the Lord Buddha's birthplace, evokes the same kind of holy sentiment to the millions of Buddhists all over the world as does Jerusalem to Christians and Mecca to Muslims. For centuries, Buddhists all over the world knew Lumbini was where the Buddha was born, however, the exact location remained uncertain and obscured until as recently as 1886 when a wandering archaeologist came across a stone pillar and ascertained the exact location.

The historic importance of the pillar is evidenced by the inscription engraved on it, in Brahmin script. It reads that Emperor Ashoa (sometimes spelled Ashoka) visited the site in the twentieth year of his ascendancy to the throne (around 300 BCE), and as homage to the birthplace, erected the pillar.

South of the Ashoa Pillar is the famous sacred pool "Puskarni" believed to be the same sacred pool in which Maya Devi took a holy dip just before giving birth to the Lord and also where the infant Buddha was given his first purification bath.

The single most important place in Lumbini is the stone slab located deep in the Sanctum Sanctorum. Revealed after hard and meticulous excavations under three layers of ruins over the site of a famous Maya Devi temple, the stone slab marks the exact spot of the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

In addition to the Ashoa Pillar, the other shrine of importance is the bas-relief image of Maya Devi, kept in a small pagoda-like structure. The image shows Maya Devi, mother of the Lord, supporting herself by holding on with her right hand to a branch of the Sal tree, with the newly born infant Buddha standing upright on a lotus pedestal on an oval halo. Two other celestial figures are depicted in an act of pouring water and lotuses from heaven.

Our departure from Lumbini was much easier than our arrival. We caught a Buddha Airlines flight that carried us from the flat southern plains of Nepal over the Himalayas to Kathmandu. The view from our twin-engined propeller aircraft was spectacular, and unfortunately lasted only an hour. From Kathmandu it was an easy flight back to Bangkok.

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