On a pilgrimage to India, Andrea Miller connects with the flesh-and-blood Buddha, who lived, reached enlightenment, and taught in these very places. His humanity, she finds, is more inspiring than any legend. It means awakening is possible for all of us. With photos by James Gritz.
The National Museum in New Delhi doesn’t usually welcome visitors until 10 a.m., but on the first morning of the 2018 International Buddhist Conclave, they open their doors early for us. This, the sixth edition of the conclave, is attended by nearly three hundred people from twenty-nine countries. We are journalists and monastics, travel agents and scholars. We are Buddhists from many traditions and non-Buddhists. Our purpose is to connect with each other and explore the potential of Buddhist pilgrimage in India.
As I’m filing through security, I have no idea what treasures the National Museum houses. So as far as I know, this museum visit doesn’t have a direct connection to the conclave’s mission. It’s just a nice add-on for those of us who are interested. And I am interested—in everything. This is my first time in India, a place I have always longed to visit.
I marvel at an elegant bronze figurine of a dancer from the Indus Valley, circa 2500 BCE. I laugh when Shantum Seth, an Indian dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, quips that the ancient dinnerware on display looks as if it could have come from Ikea. (He’s right!) But most memorable of all, I feel a quiet thrill when I come to the Buddhist artifacts and, though I’m being hurried along, I pause for as long as I can in front of a depiction of the Buddha’s birth. As was the artistic custom in the early centuries of Buddhism, the Buddha himself is not shown—just his footprints.
Along with the other delegates, I’m ushered into a room that’s been prepared for us for meditation and I quietly take a seat on the floor. We sit facing an intricate pavilion, gleaming with gold, that was crafted from teak by Thai artists. This pavilion is roped off and behind glass, and I don’t know what it holds until someone whispers in my ear: they’re bone fragments from the Buddha.
But are they really? The Buddha died so long ago. How can we know that these bits of skull belonged to him and not to someone else? This is a valid question. Yet as Shantum Seth rings the bell and a clutch of Theravadin monks in saffron robes begins to drone their Pali chants, it’s not a question that concerns me. What’s touching me is the fact that the Buddha had bones—and flesh—at all.
So often we talk about the Buddha as if he were a figure from mythology, not a human being like you and me. Generation after generation, for thousands of years, we’ve revered his wisdom so much that in our imagination he has become more of a deity than a person, and his life story has been embellished with fantastical flourishes—the stuff of legends. Maybe it’s because we want there to be someone who is more than human to save us. Maybe it’s because it’s so hard to grasp a time like 500 BCE, which is around when the Buddha lived. It sounds so far in the past that maybe it was never.
But now I’m meditating in front of ancient bone and, for a moment, it feels as if the Buddha has reached through the centuries and tapped me on the shoulder. I was real, he seems to say. I was here.
This is how the story goes. Twenty-six centuries ago, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Queen Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant with a lotus in its trunk. The elephant circled her three times and then entered her womb. Since elephants were considered a symbol of greatness, this dream was taken as a sign that Mahamaya would have an extraordinary child.
In those days it was customary for a woman to return to her parents’ house to give birth. So when Mahamaya felt the time had come, she set out for her ancestral home. Along the way they stopped to rest in Lumbini, a garden in what is now Nepal, and there she delivered her child. It is said that heavenly beings showered down flower petals and the newborn—shining like the sun—took seven paces in each direction and wherever he stepped, a lotus sprang up.
It was prophesied that the boy, named Siddhartha, would grow up to become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father—hoping that Siddhartha would dedicate himself to the political realm—tried to guide him in that direction by sheltering Siddhartha within the luxurious confines of his palaces. When Siddhartha was sixteen years old, he married Yasodhara, who was also of his clan, and the couple eventually had a son.
But then, at age twenty-nine, Siddhartha got a glimpse of the troubled world his father had protected him from. Out driving with his charioteer, he saw—for the very first time—old age, disease, and death, and he learned that this degeneration was the inescapable human condition. The prince was shocked. How could everyone just go about their lives, seeking silly pleasures, as if this shadow weren’t hanging over them?
We are hundreds of people, all together, listening to nothing but our breathing and the chorus of birds calling from the branches above our heads.
While mired in this thought, Siddhartha saw a holy man. Dressed simply, this man had such a peaceful look on his face that Siddhartha knew what he needed to do. In the middle of the night he slipped away, leaving his family and royal life behind. This is how he took his first step on the spiritual path.
Siddhartha found a holy man and mastered his teachings; then he found another and mastered his. Yet Siddhartha still felt that something was missing in his understanding. So, following the suggestion of the great Jain teacher Mahavira, he decided to follow the path of asceticism. Siddhartha’s approach was extreme and left him skeletal and weak. Rigidly practicing meditation, he held his breath for long, dangerous periods of time and each day ate only what fit into the hollow of his palm.
Eventually, Siddhartha realized that this self-mortification was going to kill him, not lead him to enlightenment. What he actually needed to advance spiritually was a middle way, neither worldly indulgence nor harsh austerities. On Siddhartha’s thirty-fifth birthday, he broke his fast when a young village woman named Sujata made him an offering: a bowl of sweetened rice cooked in milk.
Sujata’s gift gave Siddhartha the strength to cross the Nairanjana River, and on the other side, on a sandy bank, he came to a large tree with heart-shaped leaves. Siddhartha sat beneath it and, in full lotus facing east, vowed that he’d stay there until he reached enlightenment. This type of tree became known as a ficus religiosa—a Bodhi tree.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always thought of large trees as generous, stable grandfathers, quietly offering shade and support. But the tree the Buddha sat under was more like an old teacher—kind and venerable. I imagine Siddhartha contemplating the heart-shaped leaves and seeing in them the sunshine and rain, the earth and clouds, and in that way, I imagine the tree teaching him dependent arising: if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.
Though the original Bodhi tree is long gone, its place has been taken by what’s believed to be a direct descendent. In the Buddha’s time, the tree was rooted in a rural setting, but over the centuries a town by the name of Bodhgaya has grown up around it. Bodhgaya is located in the modern Indian state of Bihar—the poorest in India—and the nearest airport is in Gaya, intense and busy like all Indian cities.
I arrive on a chartered flight with the other delegates of the International Buddhist Conclave, which is sponsored by the government of India. We’re given an exuberant, flower-filled welcome and herded onto eight buses festooned with marigold garlands, long stemmed red roses, and ribbons. Driving to Bodhgaya, the buses stick together as if they are a train. A police escort leads us, and children wave as we pass by.
Finally, we get to the site of the Buddha’s awakening, and there, silhouetted against the sky, is the Mahabodhi temple, a tall, graceful pyramid rising from a square platform. Everywhere I look people are meditating. They’re monastic and lay; in robes and in jeans; doing traditional practice or their own thing. One man has his eyes covered and a bottle of water balanced in each hand, as if they were Chinese meditation balls. There’s also the odd stray dog.
Bodhgaya is the most important pilgrimage site in the Buddhist world, and it’s believed that even in the Buddha’s time there was a shrine here. At first, the Bodhi tree was marked simply by a two-story wooden structure and stone throne. Then in the third century, Ashoka, the Mauryan king who was instrumental in spreading Buddhism in India, ordered the construction of a commemorative temple. Mahabodhi was originally built in the sixth century and over the years has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
Along with the rest of the delegates, I take my place under the Bodhi tree, which is right beside the temple. Sitting on oriental rugs that have been laid out for us, we face an altar laden with dragon fruit, pomegranates, pink roses, and a statue of the Buddha. A Theravadin monk lights a lamp, and the chanting begins, then builds, and finally stops. Slowly, I let go of my rushing and grasping and find my breath.
Shantum Seth, who sits facing me and the other delegates, rings a bell. “Our teacher, the Buddha, sat under the Bodhi tree for forty-nine days and nights and then continued to be with the Bodhi tree for another forty-nine days,” he says. “So, we look at the Bodhi tree as our spiritual ancestor and we sit with her in the same way the Buddha did—in the present moment.”
When we go to these Buddhist pilgrimage sites, we gain new insight into the Buddha’s teachings.
Seth holds a yellow Bodhi leaf in his hand and glances down at it occasionally. Focusing on our breath, he continues, our body and mind come together. Often our body is here but our mind is elsewhere. Meditation trains the mind to come back to the present and gives us a way to look more deeply into what’s going on both inside of us and outside.
Seth rings the bell again and guides us to straighten our backs, relax our shoulders, and feel the gentle rise and fall of our bellies. He has a soothing voice, which eventually dissolves into silence. Now, we are hundreds of people, all together, listening to nothing but our breathing and the chorus of birds calling from the branches above our heads.
Later, I talk about our experience under the Bodhi tree with one of the non-Buddhist delegates, a journalist from Poland. Something about it touched her so deeply, she says, that it brought tears to her eyes. It was like she could feel the collective energy of generation after generation of people coming to this spot and finding stillness and quiet. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t a Buddhist.
Shantum Seth, in addition to being a dharma teacher, is also a longtime leader of Buddhist pilgrimage tours with his company Buddhapath. Under the Bodhi tree, he says, people often find they have a deep sense of concentration and gratitude. “There are magical memories you can have,” he continues. “You’re sitting there meditating and then maybe a leaf falls onto your lap. You can take that leaf with you to your meditation space back home and put it on your alter to be reminded of this beautiful space where the Buddha—and you—practiced.”
Siddhartha took his seat under the Bodhi tree on a full moon just before the rainy season. As our train of buses pulls away from Bodhgaya, I understand a little more about what it must have been like for him. We were also there when the moon was a perfect circle. While I was sitting under the Bodhi tree, a few cooling raindrops fell on my back, and they felt like a gift.
After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he pondered how he could share his realizations with others. The truth he had realized was difficult to grasp and ran hard against the grain of human desires. Most people, the Buddha knew, would turn away from his teachings, but he would try to teach those who could truly listen and understand.
The Buddha contemplated who he should teach first. He thought of the two holy men he’d studied with, but he knew they had passed away. Then he thought of the five men he’d practiced asceticism with. They’d shunned him when he started to practice the middle way, but he knew they were sincere seekers and might listen.
The five ascetics were residing in a park where deer roamed freely, in a place now called Sarnath, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. So, taking his leave of the Bodhi tree, the Buddha walked more than 160 miles to find his old companions. When they saw him coming, they resolved to ignore him, but there was something new and remarkable about his bearing and, despite themselves, they were drawn to him.
This, says Shantum Seth, is when “the Buddha became the buddhadharma.” On that day in Deer Park, the Buddha taught for the very first time. In this, his first sermon, he taught the four noble truths, and in doing so laid the foundation of the world religion we know today as Buddhism. He taught the truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path.
An ascetic named Kaundinya was the first to realize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Then soon after, the other four ascetics in the Deer Park came to the same realization. They were the first Buddhist monks, and the Buddhist sangha—the world’s oldest continuous human institution—was born.
The Buddha went on to teach for forty-five years. He and his growing number of followers crisscrossed the plains of northern India, going everywhere on foot. He often returned to Sarnath and the surrounding area.
Today, the most iconic feature of Sarnath is the massive Dhamek Stupa, built in 500 CE. Stupas are Buddhist mound-like structures that often contain relics, but Dhamek is solid and relic-less. Other notable sites in this historical city include additional stupas and the Archaeological Museum Sarnath, which houses such antiquities as a lustrously polished sculpture of four lions, each facing a different direction. These four united felines were crafted under the auspices of King Ashoka and originally topped a pillar in Sarnath. Today they’re recognized around the world as the official symbol of the Republic of India.
As I wander Sarnath, I linger near the Dhamek Stupa, feeling small next to its girth of more than ninety feet. From a distance, it looks unornamented but up close I can see that it’s delicately chiseled with floral and geometric designs, human figures, and even geese. Geese, I’m told, symbolize the sangha because they’re birds that live in community, taking turns leading and caring for each other. This reminds me of two Theravadin monastics—one elderly, one young—who are participating in the conclave. The young monk takes such tender care of his teacher.
Near the Dhamek Stupa stands the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a temple established in 1931 with an interesting—and international—backstory. In 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist revivalist from Ceylon, went on pilgrimage to India. At that time, the Mahabodhi Temple had recently been restored but—since Buddhism was no longer practiced in India—the temple had been converted into a place of worship of the Hindu deity Shiva.
When Dharmapala saw this, he resolved to help bring Buddhism back to India and, as part of his efforts, he spoke about Buddhism at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. On the way back, his ship docked in Hawaii and, there, Mary Foster, a friend of a friend, went to meet him. She was a wealthy American woman in emotional turmoil, and Dharmapala consoled her with Buddhist teachings. After that, Foster gave him a substantial donation, and he used that money to build Mulagandhakuti Vihara, marking where the Buddha meditated during his first rainy season retreat after awakening.
On the Mulagandhakuti grounds, there is a tree that, like the one in Bodhgaya, is said to be a descendent of the original Bodhi tree. Its spreading branches are said to symbolize the new growth of Buddhism in India. The temple exterior is embellished with spires, and the interior is graced by a golden statue of the Buddha and frescos depicting his life that were poignantly painted in soft hues by a Japanese artist. There, in front of me on the wall, is an image of the newly born Siddhartha taking his first steps. And there he is under the Bodhi tree, with Sujata presenting him with her food offering. Finally, there he is stretched out on his side in death—his final resting posture.
According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha said it is of great benefit for practitioners to go on pilgrimage to the four places associated with the most pivotal moments in his life: his birth, his enlightenment, his first teaching, and his death. But bear in mind that the point of pilgrimage isn’t just veneration. As Shantum Seth explains, it “teaches us a healthy disregard for comfort. It helps us look at our own mind in an unhabituated way, and teaches patience and humility. You get to know yourself better.”
When we go to these Buddhist pilgrimage sites, we gain new insight into the Buddha’s teachings because we have a deeper understanding of his life and circumstances. Despite all the cars, cellphones, and skyscrapers, you can still connect with the India the Buddha lived in 2,600 years ago. Village life is cut from same ancient cloth, and you can meet a modern-day Sujata, serving something sweet and energizing. The rivers and caves you read about in the sutras are still there, too. Farmers still plow their fields behind water buffalo the same way they did in the Buddha’s time. On pilgrimage, says Seth, “The Buddha’s story becomes real. You’re seeing the whole context of his life. You’re breathing the same air he did.”
In the Mulagandhakuti temple, I take another long look at the fresco of the Buddha stretched out in death. He died from food poisoning in Kushinagar, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. He was in his eighties and, like every other human being, he’d experienced various mundane ailments his whole life. Sickness, age, fatigue, death—these are the realities of a human body, even the body of the Buddha.
Now, in this place where the Buddha is said to have spent a rainy season meditating, I feel as if he just whispered in my ear, then slipped out the temple door. He seemed to say to me that although he was not eternal, his teachings are, and the beautiful, inspiring thing about his being human is that it means there’s hope for all of us. We—just like the Buddha—have the potential to awaken.
I stand in front of the golden Buddha at the altar and light a candle. Then, following my breath, I watch the flame dance and burn.
Lion’s Roar would like to thank the government of India for its support of Andrea Miller’s attendance at the International Buddhist Conclave.