Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Lion’s Roar‘s Andrea Miller shares her transformative experience on pilgrimage in India. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
You don’t need to walk where the Buddha walked or sit where the Buddha sat. You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage, because you can awaken anywhere. And yet, for so many people, it’s transformative to leave home, travel for miles and miles, and go to the places — be in the places — associated with the Buddha’s life. I know it was for me.
Last summer, I attended the International Buddhist Conclave in India and had the opportunity to sit under the Bodhi tree, where it’s believed Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was sitting when he reached enlightenment. Generation after generation of Buddhists have gathered to practice in this spot, and when I joined them and listened to the chorus of birds in the branches above me, I discovered a new appreciation for lineage and the precious relationship between teacher and student. My practice was enriched.
As the dharma teacher and pilgrimage guide Shantum Seth put it, “That tree has a characteristic chime sound when the wind blows through, and it calms your mind. There are experiential things that you can only do while you’re there.”
Of course, you can gain realization under any tree in your very own yard or local park. “But sometimes,” Seth continued, “you have to go to the Bodhi tree once or twice to realize that the maple tree at home is your tree of awakening.”
In addition to the Bodhi tree, I journeyed to several other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. I wrote the three stories in this Weekend Reader about that trip. In “The Buddha Was Here”, I go to places associated with the life of Siddhartha Gautama and explore what it means that he was actually a living, breathing human being. In “The Dharma Was Built on These Bricks” and “Only Nirvana Is More Beautiful” I visit magnificent ancient ruins that offer a window into how Buddhism took root and began to flourish. Perhaps these stories will inspire you to take a trip of your own.
—Andrea Miller, deputy editor, Lion’s Roar magazine
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.
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.”
Andrea Miller visits the ruins of Nalanda, the great university where much of what we know today as Buddhism was developed.
Near the end of my Nalanda visit, I stand in front of its most arresting structure, Shariputra’s stupa, with its flights of stairs and stucco Buddhist figures, and I contemplate him as an actual human being. I think of all who taught and studied at Nalanda. They fostered a flowering of the dharma, which we continue to enjoy the benefits of. This is a place where Buddhists can pay homage to our ancestors, and feel our gratitude to them.
Andrea Miller visits the ancient artistic wonder known as the Ajanta Caves. As an inscription inside says, it’s best to attain nirvana, but second best is living in beauty.
I finally tear myself away from the exterior view and begin weaving my way in and out of the individual caves. They’re rich with Buddhist sculpture and extensive murals, many depicting scenes from the Jataka Tales, the traditional stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations. These murals, I learn, are some of the finest — and only — examples of early Indian painting still in existence, making them extremely significant from an art history perspective.
For Buddhists, though, the Ajanta Caves are more than an archeological artifact: they’re a meaningful pilgrimage site. In their construction, the caves offer a glimpse into how the dharma was expressed in different times and, by extension, they can give us a fresh perspective on how it’s expressed in our lives today.