Lumbini and the Spiritual

Destination Issue 89 Jul, 2010
Text by Anil Joshi

Just before his death, the Buddha is said to have said “Be your own light”to his followers gathered for one last teaching. He spoke Truth. Wise and compassionate is the nature of the Buddha, which literally means ‘Enlightened One.’ The term has become synonymous with the once crown prince Siddhartha who renounced his family and kingdom in his quest for Truth. He attained Buddhahood at Bodhgaya, gave his first sermon in Sarnath, and taught wisdom for 45 years. He died at Kushinagar at the age of eighty, leaving a large number of dedicated followers. After his death, his disciples went to all directions and spread the teachings. Since then, Buddhism has evolved in many ways around the world, in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Today, we even have American Buddhism

This historical Buddha was born in 563 BCE (before the current era) on the day of Baisakh Purnima, the full moon of May. As the Shakya queen Mayadevi of Kapilvastu kingdom was on her way from her home in Tilaurakot to her maternal home at Devadaha the capital of the Koliyas, to deliver her child, she stopped by the grove in Lumbini. There, she bathed in the Puskarni pond and gave birth to a son under a sal  tree. She named him Siddhartha.

Various excavations in and around Lumbini have scientifically confirmed Lumbini as Lord Buddha’s birthplace. Discovery of an inscription on the Ashokan Pillar erected by the Maurya king Ashoka in 249 BCE states that Buddha was born there, on the site of what is now the Mayadevi Temple. In 1997, UNESCO recognized Lumbini as a World Heritage Site. The pillar and the temple have been restored following Professor Tange’s master plan for the Lumbini Development Project. One square mile each was set aside for the Sacred Garden, the Monastic Zone and the New Lumbini Village.

Situated in Rupandehi district of Nepal’s Lumbini Zone (about 300km west of capital Kathmandu and 200km south of Pokhara), Lumbini, the mecca of world’s Buddhists, is easily accessible by road or by air via Bhairahawa. It is considered the foremost among the four holiest Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The other three are Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar in north India. Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike come here from all over the world. Many go a further 28 kilometers (18 miles) west to see Tilaurakot, where Siddhartha grew up in the palace of his father, King Suddodhan. Siddhartha married a princess named Yasodhara and had a son, Rahul, before embarking on in his quest to get rid of suffering that plagues us all. He was 29 years old.

On the day of Chaitra Purnima, full moon of March-April, a huge month-long fair is celebrated by more thousands of people leading up to Baisakh Purnima, the birthday of Lord Buddha. This main festival of Buddha jayanti (birth day) and Lumbini Day is observed and celebrated for three days amidst worship of the Buddha idol. There is a procession with the idol on a chariot, and songs, dances, chants and prayers in tune of sacred and folk music are played. In view of the festival and fair, late March to May is the right period to visit, despite the hot climate. In fact, however, anytime of the year will do, except perhaps for the coldest months of December and January.

The arched threshold at the main entrance of Lumbini welcomes all with encompassing arms. A short pathway inside leads us towards a parked row of rickshaws for hire. Passing by, there is a huge tree next to the calm Puskarni pond that reflects the Mayadevi Temple. Looking up, the cloud-white stupa, a womb of the reflection, stands out beneath a clear blue sky. Inside the temple is a stone image of Mayadevi giving birth to the Buddha while holding a sal tree branch. The chambers beneath it display stones and the sculpture, which were discovered after years of excavation. The Marker Stone pinpoints the exact birth site.

Outside, devotees make obeisance to the temple and do parikrama (circumambulation). The Ashokan pillar now restored stands tall next to the temple. There is a custom of offering shaved-hair at the pillar on the occasion of upanayan, the head-shaving ceremony of a child. The pillar keeps guard over the area with the sacred garden and soothing scenery as its jurisdiction. The famed old garden of the past, which inspired and a mused many travelers, may have succumbed to the ravages of history, but a grand rejuvenated garden studded with a variety of trees and flowers and a soft carpet of grass is the subject of admiration to many a visitors. It is place of solace, thanks to the reconstruction efforts of the Lumbini Master Plan. The fragrance of the garden brings an air of freshness and, at times, a whiff of incense, all of which creates a meditative atmosphere. As the fruits of many years of meditation, it was one day under a Banyan tree that Siddhartha is believed to have seen the first rays of Realization. At that moment he crossed the ocean of suffering by ‘cessation of the self’ by ‘extinguishing the lamp of will’ to a state of Nirvana, and became The Buddha. No wonder that today many consider him to be The Father of Meditation.

The Lumbini Monastic Zone is accessible by walking, or by rickshaw. There, various Asian and European nations have made their representation by building shrines, monasteries, nunneries and gardens. The one built by Nepal is called the International Nunnery. The Monastic Zone accommodates the three main traditions of Buddhism, namely Hinayana (or Theravada), Mahayana and Vajrayana. A few of the national Buddhist shrines are still under construction. Their architecture, interiors, deities and rituals are all unique. Mornings and evenings, the visitor can hear the chanting of ‘Om mani’ and readings aloud from the scriptures by monks and nuns, along with drums and traditional musical instruments.

Since Buddha’s death, Buddhism has come a long way. It is a story of adapting to different environments in different countries and assimilating with the native traditions, all the while retaining his teachings. In one chapter of the story, you will find a nun named Charumati, the daughter of king Ashoka, coming to Kathmandu Valley, spreading Buddha’s teachings and settling near Pashupatinath, in Chabahil. There is a shrine there. In another account, a monk named Padmasambhava goes to Tibet with ‘jewels of the teachings’ and established Lamaism. Another has a Bodhidharma travelling to China and practicing Chán (Dhyana in Sanskrit) and establishing the Dharma that is later exported to Japan where it became Zen. In these ways, Buddhism evolved around the globe.

The spiritual practice of Hinayana Buddhism emphasizes vipassana or insight meditation. It specializes in using one’s breath as a tool to observe, and to be aware and mindful until we finally reach a state of equanimity of the mind, which brings ‘no will.’ Panditarama and Goenka Centers are two venues in Lumbini where we can learn and practice Vipassana. The monasteries built by Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Vietnam in the eastern section of Lumbini adhere to this practice.

The Mahayana spiritual practice requires some level of understanding of ‘Emptiness’, and before long in meditation one experiences a spontaneous state of ‘profound wisdom’ like satori in Zen. The Lumbini monasteries in the western section, built by Nepal, India, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Japan, teach and practice this form.

Vajrayana also practices meditation on ‘Emptiness’, but with the aid of tantra. In a tantric ritual, the practitioner worships his deity and portrays himself as the deity until finally recognizing himself as the embodiment of Emptiness. Monasteries in the western section of Lumbini that have been built or are planned by Nepal (by the Tamang and Bajracharya Newar communities) and by people of Tibetan origin in Nepal and Bhutan teach and practice it.

There are two more monasteries in the western section built by France and Germany that follow Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, respectively.

It is worth mentioning that lay householders, as well as monks and nuns, practice Buddha’s teachings. In all these practices, we need to be initiated by the respective teacher. The teacher is just a guide, however, and one has to take the tests of life himself.

To study Buddhist texts, scriptures, philosophy, literature and the rest of it, there is a library where practitioners can get help. There is also an International Research Institute for conducting further research on Lumbini and on Buddhism, and to conduct comparative religious studies. The unique Eternal Peace Flame that burns at Lumbini epitomizes the overall focus on compassion and non-violence. Lumbini today has become a symbol for world peace and harmony.

The garden is an ideal place to meditate in the morning. It is quiet and peaceful, and good vibes fill its surroundings, aid in maintaining a state of perpetual awareness, and charge the meditator with renewed energy. In fact, ‘good vibes’ are everywhere in Lumbini.

Sitting down under a tree, trying to meditate, not succeeding with our wavering mind, trying again and feeling better about it is a normal routine for the spiritual practitioner. Siddhartha may or may not have meditated here, but it makes no difference. The spirit of Siddhartha, The Buddha, lingers nonetheless. Be your own light, he said, and there is no doubt he lived it.

The author, Anil Joshi, may be contacted by email at