The Four Holy Places
While living in the Sala Grove at Kusinara a few hours before He attained Maha Parinibbana, at the age of eighty, the Buddha said to Venerable Ananda, His dutiful and beloved attendant thus:
" There are four places, Ananda, which the devotees should visit with feelings of inspiration (Samavega). The places where he can say 'Here the Tathagata was born, here the Tathagata attained perfect and supreme Enlightenment. Here the Tathagata preached the first sermon on the incomparable wheel of the Dhamma. Here the Tathagata attained the final goal of Maha Parinibbana deathless', and there will come, Ananda, to these places, pious Brethren and sisters of the Holy Order, and devout men and women."
1. BIRTH AT LUMBINI
Lumbini is now known as the birth place of Prince Siddhatta Gotama. It is situated two hundred miles north of Benares ( Varanasi ) and within Nepal's border. Siddhatta Gotama the Buddha, the fully Enlightened One, is the founder of Buddhism. Buddhism is a "human and humane religion". It teaches us to love living beings and even the non-living.
His father, Suddhodana Gotama was ruling at Kapilavattu over the land of the Koliya on the Nepal frontier. Mahamaya, princess of Koliya was his queen. When the queen was travelling from Kapilavattu to her parent's home at Devadaha, she ordered the bearers to stop there for a while. As she rested underneath one of the Sala tree, she gave birth to her infant, Prince Siddhatta Gotama. It was an auspicious full moon's night of Vesakha in 6th century BC. However Lumbini was lost in the jungle for nearly a thousand years until its' discovery in 1896. It was only in 1967, upon the decision of U Thant, (the late Secretary-General of the United Nations) that Lumbini was developed and open to public. Today Lumbini remains a peaceful and sacred place in India.
2. ENLIGHTENMENT AT BUDDHAGAYA
Buddhagaya or Bodhgaya is the most sacred place to Buddhists all over the world. For it is here that the Master at the age of thirty-five attained perfect Enlightenment. It was here under the Bodhi Tree that the Enlightened One reflected Patticca Samuppada (dependent origination), the central concept of his teaching. According to the records of the Chinese pilgrims, Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsiang, Emperor Asoka was in the habit of visiting the Maha Bodhi often. The story of the Bodhi Tree and Asoka's visit is mentioned in the Sanchi scriptures. It is said that King Asoka built a shrine on the spot where the Master attained Enlightenment and later enclosed the Bodhi Tree with a magnificent stone railing. However, no remains of Asoka's shrine have survived. The existing temple of Buddhagaya can hardly be dated earlier than the first century before the common era. But there is good reason to believe that it reproduces the same design of the original temple which Asoka built on the same site.
The present Bodhi Tree was replanted in the nineteenth century as the original tree was moved when the Maha Bodhi Temple was built. Legend says that before King Asoka became a Buddhist he had the Bodhi Tree cut down but that it miraculously sprouted again. When he became so devoted to the Bodhi Tree that his queen Tishyarakkhita also became jealous and had it cut down. During another period in history King Sasank of Bengal destroyed the Bodhi Tree around 600 A.D. But no matter many attempts there were to destroy the Tree, the sacred place of Buddha would never disappear and will always remain par-excellence.
3. FIRST SERMON AT ISIPATANA
After the Buddha attained Enlightenment at Buddhagaya, he decided to teach the Four Noble Truths that he had discovered. At first he thought he would instruct his two former teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, unfortunately both had died just after the Master got Enlightenment. Then he continued to seek out his five former ascetics staying in the Deer Park at Isipatana now called Sarnath, near Varanasi. There the Enlightened One preached his first sermon which we call Dhammacakkapavattana in Pali. After the five companions understood his teaching he taught the second discourse on non-soul, Anatta lakkhana Sutta. As a result of listening to the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa, the son of wealthy merchant and his forty-four friends also became monks. In this way within a short time the Buddha had sixty disciples. The Buddha explained them the Four Noble Truth, the noble Eightfold Path and addressed not to cultivate the two extremes: self-indulgence and self-mortification. At the end of the discourse He asked the monks to spread the word of the Dhamma (The Universal Truth) to all people far and wide. Emphasising that the Dhamma is non-sectarian, irrespective of caste, race, or creed or parentage. Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life for all to follow and practice.
Says the Buddha: " Go forth, Ye Bhikkhus to different lands for the welfare, happiness and benefit of many, and out of compassion for world." (Vinaya Pitaka, Mahavagga).
When we reach Sarnath, where the Buddha first gave his sermon, we feel woeful about seeing the ruins of old Vihara and Dhammekha Stupas' remains there. Some valuable statues and things were destroyed and stolen, also the premises are occupied by Jain-followers.
4. NIBBANA AT KUSINAGARA
From Sarnath we come to Kusinagar or Kusinara where the Buddha Gotama took his last breath. Devout Buddhists all over the world visit this holy spot with feelings of emotion and inspiration. The Blessed One was then at the age of eighty. His two chief-disciples, Venerable Sariputta and Maha Moggallana had passed away three months earlier. Pajapati Gotami, the foster mother of the Master and head of the Order of Nuns, Yasodhara and Rahula had also passed away. The Buddha reached his journey's end in the Sala Grove of the Malla at Kusinara. The Blessed One instructed the monks on many important points, which are recorded in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta.
The Buddha said to the monks his last words:
" The teachings I have given you, I gained by the path myself. You should follow these teachings. If you follow the Dhamma you will always be happy. The point of my teaching is to control your own mind; keep your mind away from greed; and you will keep your behaviour right; keep your mind pure and your words will be faithful. If you neglect your mind, it means that you have never really met me. It means that you are far from me. Even if you are with me but fail to practice the Dhamma, that means you are distant from me. However if you accept and practice them, you are very near to me even though you are far away. He who sees merely my body but does not truly see me. Only he who accepts my teachings and practice the same will certainly see me. After my death, my teachings, the Dhamma shall be your teacher."
During the time of the Buddha and at this present time, the situations are quite different to visit these four holy places as India is not an easy country to travel. Between one destination and another is very distant. People are also unkind and unhelpful, even when they ask for help the visitors are 'charged' with money. Giving money to such people in order to ease your journey only encourages more corruption. Even when you really want to pay homage to the Buddha and meditate everywhere, you must perform bribes to locals, otherwise they will not allow you to do so. Everywhere and everytime you must have acceptance, patience, and a sense of humour. Although there are many Buddhist places, these mentioned four places are the cradle of Buddhism.
Within the course of these two years ending 1999, the Government of India generously sponsored public celebrations to promote and propagate Buddhism. The Buddhist ceremony was called 'Buddha Mohotsava or Buddha Mohotsav'. It means' Buddhist festival'. This special celebration programme was organized as a joint venture of the Central Government, the Uttar Predesh Government, and the Bihar Government. Last year Buddha Mohotsav began from Sarnath and concluded at Buddhagaya.
This year the ceremony started from Buddhagaya and concluded at Rajagiri (Rajagir-Rajagaha). These celebrations would be held at three places; Buddhagaya, Sarnath and Rajagaha regularly in turn, as the announcement made by the Ministers and authorities. A huge amount of fund was provided to make this grand celebration a great success. Buddhagaya had a beautiful look with many new arrangements roads, illuminations, cultural shows, seminars and exhibitions which attracted many visitors from all over. All 34 Buddhist Temples at Buddhagaya and other hotels decorated their premises with Buddhist flags, colourful clothes and writings such as:" welcome to the land of the Buddha, May peace prevail on earth."
During the night there are dance, music, drama and songs and other performances based on the Buddha's life story and His teachings. By doing so, his message reached people through these functions. However, despite lavish expenditure and support from the government, some Hindu fanatics destroyed the two Buddha Statues which were donated by Burmese devotees. At Sujata village or Senanigama where Sujata offered milk-rice to the Buddha, some villagers also discovered headless Buddha statues in the jungle and in their field too. Above all, some high priests at Buddhagaya were often, robbed by robbers and this act of depravity is seen as a normal incident where no arrests are made. Even police officers were attacked by the criminal gangs. Tourists too, were robbed on several incidents but no one was arrested.
The major and most important event of the Buddhamahotsav was the Exhibition of the Holy Relic of the Buddha. This Relic was discovered in excavation from Vasali (Vesali) in 1959. Under special security and Government honour, the Relic was brought to Buddhagaya and put on the Vajirasana (diamond throne) under the Bodhi Tree. Then it was taken to the Buddhagaya-museum for public exhibition. There were hundreds of monks, devotees from various parts of India and abroad chanting and offering their prayers with great reverences. After three days the Holy Relic was taken back to Patna-Museum (pataliputta) which is about 110 km away from Buddhagaya.
To grace the three sacred places (Rajagaha, Sarnath and Buddhagaya) were V.I.Ps: Hon.M.L.Khurana, the Central Minister of Tourism, His Excellency K.R. Narayanan, the President of India Hon. A.B Vajpayee, the Prime Minister of India and other chief ministers and ministers of State were present there too. During the Prime Minister's speech he emphasised the basic teachings of the Buddha - metta (loving-kindness) and Karuna (Compassion) which ought to maintain the world peace. He suggested that everyone has to think repeatedly on the message of Metta, Karuna and the importance of Non-Violence of the Buddha. Finally he also took refuge with recitation of Tisarana:
Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami
Sangham Saranam Gacchami.
May peace prevail on earth.