Journey to Buddha Land

Features Issue 29 Aug, 2010
Text by Susal Stebbins

Nepal is trumpeted as being the birthplace of Lord Buddha, yet Lumbini is usually a dis-
tant fifth after Kathmandu, Pokhara/Annapurna region, Solu Khumbu and Chitwan on most lists of places one is expected to visit in Nepal. Most photos of the Maya Devi temple and the Ashoka pillar look boring, and the guidebooks do little to correct that impression. Generally no mention is made of the remains of Kapilvastu, the Shakyamuni family fortress where Siddharth Gautam lived for his first thirty years before departing to seek enlightenment.

I came to Lumbini on a motorcycle, via Chitwan. Even the terrain surprised me. I had thought that the jungle basically ended at Royal Chitwan National Park. But the leafy canopy continued most of the way to Lumbini, broken only occasionally by villages and farmland. About an hour into the ride, the earth suddenly took on a bright rust colored hue. Even the trunks of trees were spattered with this clay tika. In another hour or two, the road suddenly rose from the pancake flat plain steeply as though we were re-entering the mountains. Indeed the roadside flora was as beautifully lush as on some of the trails in the Annapurna region. The mini-mountain climaxed at the village of Daune, where there were many inviting open-air tea shops and restaurants, then descended back to the plains.

Even before Butwal, a major town still over 40 km away from Lumbini, signs of the Buddha increase: a statue here, a gompa there in what otherwise seems to be Hindu and Muslim territory. At Bhairahawa (Siddarthnagar), the last major settlement on the road before Lumbini and about 24 km away, the real procession to meet the Buddha begins. There is a huge metal statue of the meditating Buddha at the turn to Lumbini, and the lane is lined with trees seeming to honor the route and welcome the pilgrim. I took in the vistas of green fields and slender saplings, the mystic marshland, the oxen pulling wooden plows, and the men trudging along wrapped in their dhotis and headscarves and imagined the Buddha wandering among them.

Weary upon arrival in Lumbini (it was cold on the motorcycle and the six hour ride was the longest I’d been on) my friend and I stumbled into the cheap guesthouse that had been recommended by another friend in Chitwan. It was noisy and had no hot water, but the food – chapati, local curried potatoes and fish - was wonderful and renewed our energy.

We first visited the Sacred Garden where Buddha was born at dusk. The sun shone like a white disk cutting through the mists above. Familiar maroon clad figures circled the Maya Devi temple, prostrated at various places, lit incense, chanted in a drone that blended perfectly with the evening birdsong. Although the tree that Maya Devi grasped for support when giving birth is no more, a similar huge bodhi tree is honored with a small temple in its trunk and is a main anchor for the layers of prayer flags that streak across the sky. The reflecting pool that Buddha’s mother is believed to have bathed in is a simple layered rectangle- almost a square- that still looks inviting for bathing or contemplation of great tranquility and wisdom. The nearby Ashoka pillar is also plain but not at all boring in its actual presence. Surrounded by offerings of kata and incense, it seemed to give off the glowing energy of ancient times when memories of the reality of the person of Buddha were still fresh.

I was also struck by the extensive preserved ruins inside and outside of the Maya Devi Temple (which has recently been finished off with a stupa spire – a little incongruous perhaps, but a nice touch connecting it with other local Buddhist architecture). These ruins give strong and detailed reminders of the ancient human presence: here the base of twelve small round stupas; there, what must have been the interior of a house or prayer hall. A group of Japanese visitors walked as if in a trance in great reverence through the ruins to the resounding ‘tok’ of a woodblock.

We went to the outskirts of the garden for the last tea of the day. Chatting with a Tibetan lama at the next table we learned that there was a huge Tibetan monlam prayer for world peace at the new Sakya Gompa just northeast of the Sacred Garden. Even the leader of the Sakya sect, his Holiness Sakya Trinzin was present. As it happened, the lama we had met was from Mustang and knew my dear friend Lama Gendun Gyatso, also from Mustang and director of the Minnesota Sakya Center in my home city of Minneapolis!

The next morning, after a night of little sleep due to a wild party in our Guesthouse, we discreetly moved to the Lumbini Buddha guesthouse, a tranquil place I had been drawn to when we first visited the Sacred Garden site. The guesthouse is a ten-minute walk from the Maya Devi temple, through a quiet grove of slender dancing trees and forest pools. Unlike the mists in Sauhara, which seemed to disperse by around ten in the morning, the mists in Lumbini stayed all day, only thinning so that the sky became bright in the mid afternoon. The affect on the forest was magical, creating a lyrical, mythical atmosphere.

In the evenings we heard the long silver tones of a crier from a local mosque floating through the air, and once the laughter of wild jackals. And the presence of Lama Gendun was following us; when we returned for the evening, I saw a slightly familiar face at the communal fire. Are you from New York? Didn’t I meet you in Minneapolis? Indeed, I had been at his (Lama Kalsang’s) teachings on ‘The Ways of a Bodhisattva’ at the Minnesota Sakya Center! A few minutes later, we were joined by an even more familiar person: Sylvia, one of the founders of the center. It was her first time in Nepal and she was astounded to see me.

On the second day of our sojourn in Buddha land, we ventured out to Tilaurakot, 24 km west of Lumbini. Although ruins at the site may be a few centuries more recent than historical Kapilvastu, archeologists believe they are from a palace built on the same site and share the same basic structures. Prominent of these is the feature of having four gates, one facing each direction. It was near here that Buddha first discovered the nature of suffering by escaping the protective confines of his father’s palace walls, and he is believed to have walked out of the eastern gate when he left to seek enlightenment.

Standing at the site of the eastern gate more than 2500 years later, I felt a sense of spiritual adventures yet to unfold. I was also fascinated with a small brick temple that was said to have been begun by Maya Devi and finished by Emperor Ashoka. Over the centuries, the roots of the tree on top had come to dominate one corner of the temple, inside and outside, creating a new section of wall. There was something powerful about this combination of the forces of human and plant. The entire site at Tilaurakot was both unassuming and serenely magnetic; extensive brick foundations implying a magnificent fortress, standing out among stout trees that were not yet seeds when the bricks were laid.

After returning to Lumbini, the next day we visited the new national Buddhist temples of the monastic zones. The ambition and expense that has gone into some of them is enormous, and some are quite beautiful. I was particularly struck by the lovely curlicue architecture in the Myanmar complex and the serene white dome of the Japanese peace stupa. And yet they seem to be for the most part more monuments to national pride than to spiritual devotion. We also wandered into the Buddhist museum, a huge brick structure of stacked circular arches, which looked deserted with its unkempt lawn and lack of a clear entrance. The collection of artifacts inside was a bit random but still quite interesting with bits of coins, ancient statues and old photographs. Finally we found Sylvia and joined the monlam; sitting with the thousands of monks chanting together, feeling the auspicious oceans of sound roar all around us.

I paid one last visit to the Sacred Garden the morning we left. The mist was incredibly thick; we could barely see three meters ahead of us. I saw two elderly Tibetan women prostrating to and circumambulating the ancient bodhi tree. An old tree worshipper myself, I followed them. There was one root of the tree that separated from the trunk just about a meter from the ground and formed a narrow arch. To my astonishment, the slightly round women skillfully pushed and twisted their bodies through the gap, giggling as they went. A Nepali grandfather who had been observing the three of us pointed his cane to indicate that I should do it too. I did, rejoicing in the embrace of this near-eternal living giant. As I walked further, the voice of a single nun pierced through the muffler of the mist. It was as if she were Maya Devi herself, singing with joy at the birth of her son. Under my breath, I sang with her as though I already knew the melody.

Continuing to move through the mist with little reference point, I felt that I could be anywhere in time, that all the centuries between Buddha’s birth and my stroll in this enchanted place had vanished, or merged into a single moment. Even as we motorcycled out of Lumbini, this eerie sense remained with me.

 I have been a student of Buddhism for many years, yet being in Lumbini and Tilaurakot made me realize at a much deeper level that Buddha was a human being and felt a great kinship with him. And I feel blessed to know this magnificent, historical and spiritual place.