At times, in India, I thought to myself, “It’s difficult to believe a Buddha could have ever walked here.” Other times, I thought, “Of course this is where a Buddha appeared.” The first thing I read, when I opened my India travel guide was that even experienced travelers can become overwhelmed at times. I mentally thanked them for the advice and forged on through the pages. There were so many places to read about; Varanasi, the Taj Mahal, Darjeeling… But there were four lesser known places that I read about over and over; Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, Kushinagar, and a side trip to Lumbini, in Nepal. I saved these four places for the end of my trip. After several weeks of mixing awe with meltdowns in India, they were all places that I could escape in for long enough to catch a deep breath before diving back into the muddle. Although these sights do get visited, they are mostly aside from the major tourist destinations and manage to hold their decency. In the places associated with the Buddha, you are more likely to put your palms together and exchange a short bow with a monk than to hold your palm over your money belt to check that it’s still in place and have a long exchange of prices with a peddler.
The first of the places that I visited was Sarnath, where Buddha taught his first sermon. From Varanasi, it was a bumpy, dusty, but short auto rickshaw ride. I don’t know what direction, exactly, that the Buddha entered Sarnath from, but I imagine it being a somewhat different place; perhaps a few more trees and little less dust, a few more deer and perhaps none of the fences holding them in… As history relates, it was not long after he attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya that the Buddha made his way there. He and his companions went their separate ways when they had disagreed with Sidhartha’s choice to start eating again. He was realizing the middle way, but to his peers he must have seemed like an imbecile. When they met again in the deer park, they immediately noticed a difference in him and were ready to listen. He spoke of the middle path, avoiding extremes. He taught the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight Fold Path. My understanding of the Nobles Truths is not deep enough to say much about it, but a basic explanation of them is simple. In the first two truths he explains suffering, the different ways that we suffer and the origins of our suffering. It is our suffering, our craving, that keeps us in the cycle of birth and death, coming back again and again. Next, though, he tells us that suffering can be ceased, we can turn the wheel in the other direction. The way to do this is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. I was told that if you truly understand the Eightfold Path, not just intellectually, but with true understanding, then you are enlightened. I’m still somewhere between the first and second, to get a glance at the third!
Of the four pilgrimage sites I visited, Sarnath was, honesty, the least inspiring. Most of the place was destroyed about 800 years ago. The one, giant stupa that remains intact is impressive and the surrounding ruins are a pleasant spot to join the local for a picnic. The zoo that’s been built-in the back did little more for me than prove the first of the Nobles Truths, and the “deer park” is a small island of earth sounded with concrete. An old woman was there to sell you a small bunch of carrots to toss down at the deer. A few small deer stood below, licking their chops. The others lay beneath a tree, away from the noon heat.
I sat on a spot in the grass and gazed at the 44m Dhamek Stupa. A few monks, nuns, and laymen did prostrations on the lawn beside me. Whatever energy that remained there from over two and a half millennia was subtle beyond my perception. I enjoyed that moment for what it was, though. I remember the warm wind as it eased the Indian sun that saturated my face. I remember the smells that it carried with it in occasional whiffs of curry and dust, along with the sounds of the swishing leaves of the Bodhi Tree. I saw a glint of what I’d come to India for. I’d finally stopped being a tourist and began my trip as a pilgrim. I gathered myself, headed back to Varanasi, and booked a seat on the bus to Nepal the next morning.