Friday, January 13, 2012

Varanasi, day 3 (part 1); Sarnath Deer Park, the Four Noble Truths

            January 13th, 2008

Today, my friends and I once again headed out from the shelter of the Varanasi's tourist area and into the racket of the local reality. Except this morning we were on our way to a one of the four most sacred places in the Buddhist pilgrimage, Sarnath.

After Siddhattha Gotama attained full realization under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, becoming a Buddha, he eventually stirred himself from the profound peacefulness he'd been sitting in. His initial thoughts were that it would be unteachable.

❝This Dhamma that I have realized is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced only by the wise.

But this generation delights in worldliness, takes delight in worldliness, rejoices in worldliness. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbâna. If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.❞

I guess even Buddhas have trouble with thoughts, at least newly-awakened ones anyway, and it took a plea from none other than Brahma himself to nudge the Buddha into action.

❝Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma!
Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma!
There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma.
There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.

In the past there appeared among the Magadhans an impure Dhamma devised by the stained.
Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dhamma realized by the Stainless One!
Just as one standing on a rocky crag might see people all around below,

So, O wise one, with all-around vision, ascend the palace fashioned of the Dhamma.
Free from sorrow, behold the people submerged in sorrow, oppressed by birth & aging.
Rise up, hero, victor in battle! O Teacher, wander without debt in the world.
Teach the Dhamma, O Blessed One,
There will be those who will understand.❞

Then, in the Buddha's compassion, he looked upon the world and saw those with little dust in their eyes, like lotuses rising to bloom from murky waters, and he replied,

❝Open are the doors to the Deathless to those with ears.
Let them show their conviction. Perceiving trouble,
O Brahma,
I did not tell people the refined, sublime Dhamma.❞

After this, he walked for days until he came to a deer park where he found his five old ascetic friends who'd abandoned him when, near starvation, he was shown the middle way and accepted food from a young girl, accusing him of giving up the struggle in exchange for a life of luxury.

When they saw Gotama approaching, they all decided to not even acknowledge him but on closer look, they noticed something different about him and immediately prepared a seat for him. Still, they ragged on him heavily for choosing a life of luxury, and though the Buddha explained that he'd maintained his efforts, they continued their criticism of him until finally he was able to convince them that is wasn't the same Gotama they remembered, and he was able to share the Dhamma for the first time, teaching them the Four Noble Truths (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion); The truth of dukkha; The truth of the arising of dukkha; The truth of the cessation of dukkha; The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.

Dukkha has often been translated as suffering, stress, or thirst but, in Buddha's time, it was a term used to describe a potter's wheel that wasn't centered, off-balance. In essence, what the Buddha taught was the path toward being centered, balanced.

Today, their remains in the spot of the Buddha's first turning of the wheel of Dhamma, a massive stupa, and the brick foundations of the ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries, that held as many as 15,000 monks just a few hundred years after the Buddha's life, and continued to be a strong community for several hundred years after, consistently maintain a community of 3000 monks, until the 12th Century, when the area was invaded by Turkish Muslims and the temples torn down for their materials.

Arriving in dusty old Sarnath int he rickshaw, passing the huge Tibetan temple, and finally pulling up to the site, the first thing that greets you is the interesting looking Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a 1930's Sri Lankān temple, where my Korean monk friend, Jae Ahn Sunim told me I should bug a Sandalwood mala. I went inside, and sure enough, they were selling the sweet smelling mala in baskets on the counter next to the postcards. Enshrined in the back is a gold replica of the "Sarnath Statue", a beautiful Buddha, sitting full-lotus, expounding the Dhamma. 

The path into the park leads past a Jain temple, then loops around through the ruins, where we sat for some time on the lawn beside the monolithic stupa. Further down, there is also still a deer park, though the deer looked a little less than comfortable in their enclosure, hiding from the smoldering heat under a tree. One thing they had going for them is that they were well fed! A woman was there selling carrots to tourist to toss down to them.

Before heading back to Varanasi, we visited the Sarnath Musuem, that houses a breathtaking collection of statues and carvings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas excavated from the ruins, including the exquisite original stone Sarnath Buddha, hands displaying a Dhammajak mutra, and the four seated lions that once capped Ashoka's pillar, that is now the official symbol of India. The Dhamma wheel form the carving is also used as the central graphic in the Indian flag.

It was an exhilarating feeling being in the same space where Gotama Buddha once lived out one of the most distinguishing scenes of his life, even though it was impossible to overlook the great stretch of time separating us.

[Think traveling in India is hard on the nerves? It's not very easy on the camera either... I was going to touch them up on Photoshop and take out the dust spots, but they kind of represent a part of the trip to me, now.]

❁ Sarnath statues I found on Wiki ❁

Bouddha Le premier sermon à Sarnath Shorchuk, grotte de Kirin, 8ème siècle (?) Argile peinte

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