Sarnath is where Buddha gave the first teaching. Upon hearing this discourse, his old friend Kondañña understood and attained the first stage of awakening, thus giving birth to the arya sangha. The name Sarnath is said to be a contraction of Saraganatha, 'Lord of the Deer.' At one time the Buddha lived here as the leader of a herd of deer. When the buck offered his life for the release of a pregnant doe, the King of Benares was humbled and moved to create a park. Large herds used to roamed freely, immune from the hunter's bow. Because of the natural beauty and tranquillity of the park, it became a favorite dwelling place for rishis.
When Queen Maya was about to give birth, 150 miles to the north, gods announced the imminent arrival of the future Buddha. Hearing this, all five hundred rishis rose into the sky and entered nirvana. Their relics fell to earth and this is why the field is know as Risipatana, the Place Where the Rishis Fell.
The Chaukhandi mound, where the Buddha first encountered his five former friends after Enlightenment.
The Mughal tower on the crown was built in 1588 during the reign of Emperor Akbar.
Losar, 1996, Fire Mouse 2127
I spent my first night in a monastery. The room having been recently built and not yet tiled, the floor was covered with fresh straw. Street light shining through the iron grillwork on the window opening threw the shape of the eternal knot on the bare wall. I set up a mosquito net, undid my bedroll and crawled in. I had not slept in almost two full days. A little after six a.m. I was awakened by a loud, ongoing sound that I couldnât identify. About fifteen minutes later, it trailed off and I fell back asleep. After asking around at breakfast, I learn that it was a blasmephously poor recording of devotional music in praise of the monkey god, distorted and blaring through a PA system speaker wired to the top of the local Hanuman temple a block away. No doubt it woke the whole neighborhood, but as I was to learn, this is considered a form of generosity. After a few days of waking to this raucousness, I was able to recognize the tune and eventually grew to like it. In a way...
As I entered the central courtyard of the monastery, a large Tibetan man in a ski cap, a cousin of the Khenpos who had been overseeing construction on the temple, handed me a steaming cup of chang and a pastry. The hot liquid smelled like compost and tasted as rotten, but to judge by his smile, it was really quite wonderful, so I sipped on it, and even attempted to hold my breath as I drank it to void the taste and discovered that besides warming my tummy, it provided a nice buzz. That wasn't too hard, was it? No sooner had I put down the empty cup than he had filled it again.
"These cups are small..." he explained.
Round and round the Damekh stupa, (128 ft. high, 93 ft. in diameter at the base) an obvious power place, a clockwise flow of pilgrims, hundreds of white candles and great clouds of tibetan incense burning on stone benches double-banding the base. People on the surrounding greens prostrating towards the structure, others on the inner walkway, prostrating around it, one old monk on the grass offering mandala, groups of Theravada monks in bright orange, the Tibetans less obvious in wine, a gathering of hippies playing music under a big tree like it was Central Park. Or is it? A Japanese woman leans her head against the stupa and sobs. Three Indian children, obnoxious little beggars, hunch up against the stupa and chant the six syllable mantra with their hands outstretched. A flock of brilliant green parrots land on the red brick dome. Katas hanging from most of the eight empty alcoves on the upper walls built into the facade of the stupa. These once held life sized-buddha statues . A huge black bee hive now occupies one of the openings. On the lower walls and stone benches, one can see many 3" square patches of goldleaf offered by pilgrims.
Over two thousand years ago, the Buddha's five former companions had planned on ignoring their old friend as they saw him approach, but the energy of his being was irresistible and they all rose to greet him. It was obvious he had found what they were looking for and they asked him to share this knowledge with them. This all occured near the present Chaukhi mound, about six miles north of Varanasi. As for the exact site where Buddha actually gave the first teaching, there is only speculation. It is popularly believed to be either the Damekh stupa or the temple west of the Asokan pillar.
The park is dominated by a huge complex of brick ruins, the remains of massive monastery buildings constructed atop previous generations of structures. One can observe great detail in recovered sections of frieze both here and in the nearby museum. Various representations of wrathful dakas and Tara suggest that the Vajrayana was practiced in the monasteries of Sarnath.
Every day near sundown, hundreds of candles are lit and placed upon a multi-tiered cement shelf which runs along the south-eastern edge of the path around the stupa. Once lit, a few dozen Tibetans begin prostrating on the grass in the direction of the stupa until the candles burned down. I was circumambulating with a big crowd one evening, a few yards behind a little old Tibetan woman who had been dropping crumbs for puppies as she circled. As we approached the display of candles, I saw a young beggar boy jump up from behind the bench and pinch out a few that had just been re-lit by someone. The old woman ahead of me also saw this, hustled her way out of midstream to the edge and whipped the kid in the head with her bone mala. He turned, surprised, as she muffled a growl, and I kept walking.
To the north of the main ruins there is a funky, overgrazed, fenced-in section of woods that hosts deer and peacocks. As I approach for a look, I am accosted by a noisey squadron of female beggars of all ages. I hesitate and begin to turn away. They respond with a unanimous silence. One of them comes forward, a girl of about 14, who tells me I really must buy a bag of melon rinds. She holds one up to show me and explains, "The deer are very hungry!" I glance at the deer. They didn't look very happy or well fed, but before I can agree, she asks, "Are you Buddhist? Then you KNOW that Buddha is in the deer! Feed the Buddha! Om mani peme hum!"
Gupta (4th-6th c.) details carved on the Damekh Stupa
Another morning at the Damekh stupa, a large clockwise rotation of people, candles and incense, all going strong by the time I arrive. A Japanese man is obviously annoyed by the trio of urchins who regularly occupy a niche on the north side of the stupa, continually whining om mani peme hum with their palms out. He takes them aside and tries to buy them off but apparently negotiations broke down. Soon they are back at it, more vociferous than ever. His anger continues to build as he circles. Now he scowls at them every time he passes. Finally, he can't take it any more. He calls them over to the side and offered them a better deal.
Back at the monastery, the woman in the next room has brought her non-buddhist daughter along and this is the second evening that they have knocked on our door and told us to be quiet or 'take it out on the porch.' So we agree to call it a night and naturally, the next door neighbor turns up his radio; soon, a sound like someone is repeatedly dropping a stack of metal dishes; then the 10:40 bus leans on his horn all the way through town. It almost starts to settle down, when a large pack of dogs start barking; third train this hour now that I'm listening; the North Eastern Railway is less than a mile away. Cattle lowing, goats bleating and many people's voices mix with radio music in the surrounding yards. Two more long slow trains roll through, followed by a chorus of car horns. This is Monday night; don't any of these people have to get up in the morning?
There is a remnant of a great pillar in Deer Park which was originally fifty feet high and surmounted by the famous lion-capital with a crowning dharmachakra (found on India's money and national flag) fitted above the heads of the four lions. An inscription can be seen on the column, one of the edicts of King Asoka,
warning monks and nuns against creating schism in the sangha;
'No one shall cause division in the order of monks'
This edict is being carefully heeded in the spirit of friendliness and mutual respect among Buddhists of many different traditions and nationalities residing around Deer Park.
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche first came to Sarnath in the early 1970's, and was befriended by the local Theravada monks of the Mahabodhi Society. The Ven. Dr. Rewatha Bhante, High Priest of the Society in India, helped Khenchen Rinpoche to acquire land, plan the building and work through the labyrinth of Indian government permits and bureaucratic red tape necessary to secure it.
Our group was honored by an invitation to chant and practice in the Mulagandhakuti Vihara. This temple was built in 1931 by the Mahabodhi Society and named after the original wooden monastery built in Risipatana during the Buddha's day. At one point, we were shown an actual relic of the Buddha's body. The monks retrieved it from a vault under the main altar. Khenchen Palden received it and rapidly walked a clockwise circle around the altar with the relic held on a decorative cloth above his head. He placed it down on the south face of the altar and each of us reverently passed before it as a monk directed one's gaze to it with a long stick. It looks like a small piece of charred cinder mounted on a pin under a glass.
2540 years after Buddha Shakyamuniâs Mahaparinirvana and 2533 years after the Birth of the Second Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, in the first month of the Fire Mouse Year, the Tibetan Royal Year 2127, on the fourth day associated with Lord Buddhaâs Miraculous Activities, February 22, 1996, Padma Samye Chokhor Ling was completed and dedicated to World Peace. Located less than a half mile from the Deer Park in Sarnath where the Buddha first gave teachings to five former friends, the monastery is the result of Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche's aspiration to help preserve the Dharma in our own time by establishing centers for study and practice. In 1972 Khenchen Palden purchased a small piece of property according to the inspiration and blessing of HH Dudjom Rinpoche. Due to a lack of funds, no projects were initiated on the land for over twenty years except the maintenance of a small shrine.
Construction began in the mid-nineties. As of this writing, there are over thirty monks from Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan practicing and studying here.
At the consecration ceremony for Padma Samye Chokhor Ling, Ven. Dr. Rewatha Bhante and a fellow monk from the Mahabodhi Society, chanted beautifully for a few minutes in Pali. After the ceremonies, as we all stood outside the new temple, where Bhante, who is a rather powerful and large man, embraced Khenchen Palden with both arms. I had never seen this before and was moved by the compassion energy radiating through these beings. Khenchen Palden is in many ways very traditional, and as an intimate form of saying goodbye, he will sometimes offer to hold both your hands and recite blessing mantras, as you lean inward to touch foreheads. This unexpected bear hug in the midst of the monastery courtyard, the Theravada Bhanté and the Vajrayana Lama, touched everyone present with the spirit of understanding, profound love and true friendship enjoyed by these two great men.
I flashed on being here, and how many stories I've heard about people from both the east and west coming to India to look for a guru. I felt extremely fortunate and at peace to have already found mine, of all places, back in the hills of Tennessee. Consequently, I am free to see India without the distraction of looking for my guru. I had simply followed him here.
I went to India at the invitation of my teacher.
What did I learn?
That the future of the Dharma as a cultural force,
its presence and availability as a transformative power in the world,
largely depends on its establishment in the west.
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