Pilgrimage to Nepal and India in November 2012


by Man Wong

 

A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place as an act of faith and devotion; and should be done with feelings of reverence so as to purify one’s thought, speech and action.

With so much time, money and effort involved, a pilgrim should strive to cultivate the right mental aspects in order to gain the most benefit from the journey. A pilgrim should be calm, serene and walk mindfully and take refuge in the Triple Gem by following the Five Precepts, and recite the virtues of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha with a feeling of reverence. In this way, a pilgrim will be endowed
with the morality of right thought, right speech and right action.

Fellowship among Buddhists is also important so that we can encourage and help one another in the practice of the Buddha’s Teachings and to strengthen our faith in times of trial and tribulation. Pilgrims in a group will have the opportunity to interact closely and get to know each other well under conditions where metta (loving-kindness), mudita (appreciative joy), generosity and faith prevail. The bonds of comradeship formed through the performance of meritorious actions together will endure long after the Pilgrimage is over and the pilgrims will cherish fond memories of each other whenever they recollect the happy moments spent at the holy places.

After Buddha’s Parinirvana, devotees in India built stupas and viharas to commemorate important events relating to the Buddha.  Today a pilgrim has to travel long distances over poor road conditions to remote areas in Nepal and northern India only to see the ruins of these once glorious monuments that have been damaged or destroyed over time.

This gives rise to the awareness that the conditioned world (sankhara-loka) and the natural world (akasa-loka) do not remain constant but are subject to changes according to the law of impermanence. Reflecting on this, one becomes truly apprehensive and this arouses religious urgency to practice the Noble Eightfold Path to realize Nirvana, the cessation of all suffering.

The four holy places of Pilgrimage are called Samvejaniya-thana or places that will arouse awareness and apprehension of the nature of
impermanence. Pilgrims take the opportunity to arouse religiousurgency (samvega) by reflecting on the last words of the Buddha before he entered into Parinirvana“Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare this to you: It is the nature of all conditioned things to perish.
Accomplish all your duties with mindfulness”.

The Buddha recommended that Buddhists visit the four 4 holy places where the most important events took place in his life.

Lumbini – place of his birth

Bodh Gaya – place of his enlightenment

Sarnath – place of his first teaching

Kusinhagar – place of his passing away

Both my wife and I have always wanted to trace the footsteps of the Buddha. It was perhaps with the right condition that my wife overheard a telephone conversation between her friend’s husband, Mr Chin Kian Hee and Mr Aw Kim Fatt of the Malaysian Buddhist  Co-operative Society Ltd (MBCS) that registration of interest was underway for a pilgrimage to Nepal and India. Without hesitation,
my wife registered both of us for the Buddha path journey in mid-November 2012.

A couple of months passed quickly and soon we were on a plane from Perth to Kuala Lumpur to join members from MBCS on the Pilgrimage tour. Everyone was eager and looking forward to the journey. Everyone was in high spirits as the group of 50 participants left Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Kathmandu, Nepal. The party was received at the airport by our able and experienced
tour guide.

The first official function was to take part in the Kathina ceremony at Vishwa Shanti Vihara, Kathmandu. I learned that our group was the major sponsor of the Robe Offering ceremony. We witnessed the age old Theravedin tradition of nominating the most eligible monk to be offered the Kathina Robe. It was my privilege to witness such a ceremony after more than 30 years since taking refuge as a Buddhist. I observed first-hand  the significance of the Vassa (rain retreat) and the importance of Buddhist practice and meditation for monks, as taught by the Buddha. As we left the temple for our hotel, this Kathina Ceremony strengthened my faith and determination to put more effort into my practice.

On the way to Lumbini, we stayed overnight at Nagakot where we watched the sunrise over the majestic Annapurna Himalayan Range. Without any smog or dust at over 2000 meters, it was an awesome and spectacular sight as dawn began with the sky slowly turning light crimson. At the back of my mind, a thought arose as to when and where we, city dwellers, would be able to see such a magnificent scene!

At Lumbini, we circumambulated the Maya Devi Temple. The temple houses the Sanctum, the exact spot where Siddhartha was born some 2550 years ago. An Asoka Pillar stood in testimony to the birth place of Siddhartha, with the Puskarni Pond nearby where Queen Maya Devi took a bath before delivering Prince Siddhartha. A sense of reverence engulfed us as we absorbed the spirituality of the sacred site.

Before gaining Enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha spent 6 years of extreme physical and painful self-mortification at and around Mahakala cave at Dhongra Hill. He became extremely emaciated. Under the banyan tree on the bank of Neranjara River in Uravilva, a lady called Sujata came to offer milk rice to Siddharta. He soon recovered his health and strength. He realized that the opposite extremes of pleasure and self-mortification would not bring him Enlightenment. He abandoned both extreme practices and chose the Middle Path. He sat in deep meditation under the Maha Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. On the full moon day in May around 623BC, Prince Siddhartha attained full Enlightenment. This Diamond Throne under the Maha Bodhi Tree where Prince Siddhartha achieved supreme Enlightenment is the most sacred spot on Earth to all Buddhists.

In the 3rd century BCE, King Asoka built the Maha Bodhi Temple as a reverence to the Buddha. Today tourists, visitors and Buddhists practice prostration, circumambulation and meditation at the grounds of the Maha Bodhi Temple complex. Many Buddhist groups chant and meditate within the grounds.  One can feel and sense the spirituality which is omnipresent within the grounds. I sensed the intense energy and spirituality at the site. I felt a great rush of positive energy by being present at the temple.

Our group held meditation sessions over 2 days. As we ended our visit to this sacred site, we rejoiced at being there. Being a Buddhist,  it was a dream come true for me and my wife.

Seven actions performed by the Buddha after Enlightenment 

After Enlightenment, the Buddha spent another 7 weeks contemplating, reflecting and meditating the blissfulness and peace that He has achieved.

Week 1: He sat on the Diamond Throne under the Maha Bodhi tree absorbing the blissfulness of the supreme awakening.

Week 2: The Buddha stood at the place called Animesa Locana Stupa looking at the Maha Bodhi tree in full gratitude and thankfulness for its shelter during His struggle to obtain Enlightenment.

Week 3: The Buddha spent the 3rd week in walking meditation at the Cankamana.

Week 4: The Buddha reflected on the higher doctrine called Abhidhamma.

Week 5: At Ajapala Nigrodha, the Buddha replied to the Brahman that only by one’s deed can one become a Brahman and not by birth. In His mind states, 3 dancing girls tried to entice Him but the Buddha was unmoved so the girls were unsuccessful and left.

Week 6: The Serpent King protected the Buddha from severe thunder storm at Mucalinda Lake.

Week 7: The Buddha was offered rice cakes and honey by Tapussa and Bhallika under the Rajayatana Tree. The Buddha told them about His Enlightenment and the two of them became His lay followers.

2 months after achieving supreme Enlightenment, the Buddha went to Sarnath. At the Deer Park in Isipattana, the Buddha delivered his first sermon called “Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta” to Kondana, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanama and Assaji. The Dhamekha Stupa marks the place where the first sermon was taught, thus turning the Wheel of Dharma in Buddhism.

There were many groups of pilgrims who chanted sutras as they walked around the Dharmekha Stupa.

An Asoka Pillar with 4 lions in the Sarnath Museum symbolised the 4 directional spread of the Buddha’s Teachings.

Rajgir was the place where Sariputra and Moggallana became the first and second disciples of the Buddha.

Vulture’s Peak (Gijjhakuta) was the sacred peak where the Buddha delivered many sutras and discourses. Among the well-known Sutras are the Heart, Lotus, Surangama, and Samadhi/Prajna Paramita Sutra. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha described the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. The view from Vulture’s Peak looking at the plains below was spectacular. We can relate to the physical beauty
of the view with the Pure Land as described in the Lotus Sutra. At Vulture’s Peak, groups of Buddhists from various traditions chanted sutras as reverence to the sacred site. The sound of the chanting revibrated around the peak and surrounded us as though the Buddha was preaching to us. It was an exhilarating experience.

A story mentioned that the Buddha subdued the intoxicated and angry elephant called Nalagiri with his loving kindness.

On the way down from Vulture’s Peak, we stopped by a sign which stated that the great Chinese traveller monk Xuan Zhang had visited Vulture’s Peak during the Tang Dynasty.
Sravasti

The next destination was Sravasti where the Buddha spent 24 vassas continuously. A rich merchant, Anathapindika paid for the land by using gold coins that covered the whole site. The Jetavana Monastery was built on it and then offered to the Buddha.

At this monastery in Jeta Grove, the Buddha delivered the majority of His teachings. The Amitabha, Mangala and Metta Sutras were among the earliest to be delivered by the Buddha in the Holy Fragrant Chamber. The Chinese Mahayanists still chant the Amitabha Sutra regularly at their services.

The Dhammapada and Jataka tales were first uttered by the Buddha at Jetavana Monastery and are regularly mentioned during Buddhist classes in temples all over the world today.

It was in Sravasti that the Buddha performed the twin miracles by standing and sitting on lotuses causing fire and water to emanate from his body to dispel the heretics.

Ananda Bodhi was the second holiest tree to be planted nearby that served as an object of reverence in the absence of the Buddha.

Also nearby was the Stupa of Great Miracles, known as Orajhar. Here was the spot where the Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa Heaven to preach the Abhidhamma to his mother.

Sankissa

A site in Sankissa marked the place where the Buddha descended from Tavatimsa Heaven after teaching the Abhidhamma to his late mother. The Buddha completed the 7th vassa in Tavatimsa Heaven before returning to earth.

It is mentioned that the Sakyas created 3 ladders with crystal stairs for Brahma on the right and silver stairs for Indra on the left to accompany the Buddha on the golden stairs on his return to earth with other gods following.

This sacred site marks the birthplace of the future Buddha known as Maitreya.

Vaisali

The 44th vassa is also the last that the Buddha spent in Vaishali. For the first time, women were allowed to be admitted and ordained as Bhikkhunis to the Sangha following the ordination of Maha Pajapati Gotami. During those times, the occasion was ground breaking in terms of gender equality. It heralded the treatment of males and females as equal.

It was in Vaishali that a miracle occurred in which a band of monkeys offered a bowl of honey to the Buddha.

An Asoka Pillar was built with its Capital facing Kushinagar pointing to the direction of the location where the Buddha achieved Mahaparinabbana.

Kushinagar

Three months before the Buddha reached 80 years old, he travelled to Pava where he ate his last meal which was offered by Cunda. The Buddha reached his final resting place at the Sala grove of the Mallas by the banks of Hirannavati River in Kushinagar. On the full-moon day of Wesak in 543BC, the Buddha passed into Mahaparinabbana. His last words to the bhikkhus were: “Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare this to you: It is the nature of all conditioned things to perish. Accomplish all your duties with mindfulness.”

Pilgrims take the opportunity to arouse religious urgency (samvega) by reflecting on the last words of the Buddha before he entered into Mahaparinabbana. Reflecting on the Buddha’s last words, pilgrims become truly apprehensive and this arouses religious urgency (samvega) to practice the Noble Eightfold Path to realize Nirvana that is the cessation of all suffering.

Our group members had the opportunity to offer a tailored made Robe to the 6.1 meters long Reclining Buddha image carved out from a single piece of red sandstone in the Nibbana temple. The Buddha statue was in a lion posture lying on the right side with one leg resting on the other and bore the 32 major marks of the Great Man (Mahapurisa) as it evoked different feelings in one’s mind, depending on where one stood to look at it.

Makutabandhana

The Buddha knew it was the time for achieving Mahaparinabbana. The Buddha lay on his right side between two Sal trees.

Ananda asked the last question as to who would teach them when the Buddha has reached Mahaparinabbana. The Buddha replied that the Dharma was to be their teacher from then on.

After the Buddha’s Mahaparinabbana, his body was taken to the shrine of Mallas called Makatabandhana by the banks of the Hirannavati river. One of the senior disciples called Maha Kassapa lighted the funeral pyre. After the cremation, the relics were divided into eight equal portions and were distributed to the eight clans that have associated closely with the Buddha.

The Rambar Stupas situated at the east of Nibbana temple is a circular Stupa built of large bricks and  stands about 15 metres above the ground. Our group members circumambulated the Rambar Stupas and meditated there invoking feelings of reverence.

As we completed the pilgrimage, we were thankful and grateful that we had the opportunity and privilege to meet important senior monks at different temples who offered us prayers and blessings. Those senior monks shared their knowledge and thoughts on the teachings that the Buddha taught at the different locations.

On our journey back to Malaysia, I began to understand why some of the great religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism originated in and around northern India. For example, Bihar is one of the poorest states in India.

The people live very simple lives, and the economy is basically agriculture based. These people may be poor but proud to live a life following the natural laws of nature. Perhaps the location fulfilled all the causes and conditions for the Buddha or some great religious teachers to appear there!

I wonder when the next Buddha will appear on Earth! Perhaps I should just prepare for my next pilgrimage by awaiting the arrival of the next Buddha! EH