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Seeking the Buddha's Footprints

Shantum Seth

Ananda, there are four places for faithful disciples to see,
which may be their inspiration:
here a Perfect One was born
discovered the full supreme Enligntenment
set rolling the matchless wheel of the Law
here a Perfect One finally attained Nibbana.

The opportunity to join a pilgrimage "in the footstpes of the Buddha" through India and Nepal came just when I was beginning to involve my heart more in my practice and to develop a sense of gratitude to the man who gave us the Dhamma. It was a three week journey combining meditation, sightseeing and talks from the Buddha's life led by Shantum Seth, a disciple of the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. I expected a powerful emotional experience, something dramatic and overpowering - as if merely to sit beneath the Bodhi tree would shatter my greed, hatred and delusion, and propel me to Nibbana in a blaze of flashing lights! But of course the Buddha's footprints are harder to follow.

At dusk on the second day of the pilgrimage we walked up Vulture Peak, a hill near Rajgir where the Buddha often sat to watch the sunset. The view of the surrounding wooded hills must be similar to that of two and a half thousand years ago, and the steps are the same ones that were laid for the Buddha by the local king, Bimbisara. I took off my shoes as I climbed, in an attempt to bring me closer to the earth, to the Buddha who had walked here. At the top, where a shrine had been built for pilgrims to offer incense, we sat in meditation facing the glorious red sunset. I reminded myself that the Buddha sat here: but I felt remote from the experience, as if the pious monuments built by his followers separated me from the man himself.

Just south of the modern city is the attractive Bamboo Grove - still containing bamboos - where the Buddha's first monastery was built. This park, peaceful amid India's customary noise and bustle, seemed much more as it would have been in the Buddha's day although the monks and monasteries were missing. We sat quietly to hear Shantum tell the story of the Buddha and King Bimbisara, who donated the grove.

Our visit to Bodh Gaya, next on our itinery, by chance coincided with a Nyingmapa Tibetan festival which had drawn thousands of mainly Bhutanese monks. With every inch of ground around the main temple occupied by prostrating pilgrims and chanting monks, we were unable to reach the base of the Bodhi tree. Shantum obtained permission of us to take the stairs to the temple's roof, where we meditated under the upper branches of the tree. The Tibetan chanting - a rhythmic, powerful sound - drowned all internal distractions. I began to realise the futility of expecting Buddhist shrines in modern India to be anything like the places the Buddha knew. What the places offered was the experience of Buddhism as a living, dynamic faith.

The Bhutanese pilgrims swirled like a river around the temple, circumambulating step by step or in full-length prostrations. They chanted quietly to themselves and turned their prayer wheels: each was totallly absorbed in his or her devotions. It was impossible not to be awed by the intense concentration, not to be overwhelmed by the massed monks in their red and yellow robes.

The local people are Hindu and Muslim, but every Buddhist nation has at least one temple in Bodh Gaya. We spent an afternoon at the Root Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist organisation which tries to serve the material as well as spiritual needs of the local people. We visited the attractive Tibetan, Japanese, Thai and Bhutanese temples, the Vietnamese temple (closed), and the Burmese temple, (run-down and used as a dormitory), and wondered whether as the Dhamma spread there might one day be an "English Temple". I felt the power of the Buddha's teaching, whose many different traditions, sundered by time and geography, could still meet peacefully. Our own group of three Britons, five Americans and our Indian guide, represented at least four traditions. Two of us, Carol Williams and I, practise in the Theravadin forest tradition.

Before leaving Bodh Gaya we visited the hills nearby, where the Buddha-to-be practised austerities. The cave he was said to have used had been visited by other pilgrims before us, whose votive candles made it unbearably hot and smoky. Without the temple and shrine, and the long line of sometimes aggressive beggars, it would have been a lonely, barren place.

At Sarnath, where the Buddha expounded his teaching to the five ascetics, we sat by the ruined wall of a monastery while Shantum told the story of the First Sermon. In the evening the resident Sri Lankan monks held their puja and I managed to find space inside their crowded temple to listen. The unfamiliar form of the Pali - the monks amplified by loudspeakers, the voices of the lay people in the background - washed through the building like waves beating upon a shore. Although very different from the Tibetan chanting, it was equally moving.

Kushinagar, site of the Buddha's death, is a quiet town without the beggars and street merchants we had met elsewhere. The stupa built on the site of the Buddha's cremation is a venerable brick ruin festooned with grass, shrubs and even tiny Bo tree saplings which have to be constantly removed lest they tear it apart. At this peaceful stupa it no longer mattered that I could not feel the living presence of the Buddha: Kushinagar was after all the place where he died. It was a site that spoke powerfully of the transience and uncertainty of life.

The diversity of Buddhist traditions was very obvious here. We stayed in the Chinese temple, which is run by a delightful Vietnamese nun. Fellow guests included a Tibetan Rinpoche and a Japanese monk. In the town we met a Sri Lankan monk, a Thai monk, and a "phoney monk" who wore the robes in order to attract rupees. The Rinpoche told us that one benefit of pilgrimage is that at the holy sites it is easier to meditate deeply; one brings the Buddha alive by being mindful. I saw that I would not find the Buddha by trying to recreate his historical setting. His humanity, although it reminds us that as human beings we too can follow him, is less important than his teaching. The facts of suffering and our human reactions to it, our craving and confusion, are the same today and they were two and half millenia ago, as is the path to their cessation.

The full moon occurred while we were in Kushinagar. That day Carol and I visited the Thai monk at his small outdoor shrine and requested the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. He spoke no English, we spoke no Thai: the Pali was sufficient. I felt it significant t reaffirm my practice in this way in this place. Then at the Chines temple we offered the eveing chanting from Chithurst in Pali and English, adding our lown language to those in which the Buddha is honoured at the holy places.

At LUmbini, across the border in Nepal, we meditated each morning beneath the large statue of the newborn Buddha in the prayer court of our Japanese hotel. At the site of the Buddha's birth, which is being "developed" and currently resembles a building site, Taiwanese pilgrims chanted in Chinese at the Mayadevi temple which honours the Buddha's monther. In the Nepalese temple, the lone Theravadin monk told us that the Nepalese are "hubble-bubble Buddhists, all mixed up with Hinduism". In the Tibetan temple a man chanted, accompanying himself on a cymbal. Attracted by the singing I wandered in, camera at the ready. I looked up to see the Buddha-image gazing serenely down on me, and with a jolt remembered that Lumbini is not a collection of dead monuments for tourists but a place for pilgrims following a profound and enduring teaching.

The pilgrimage concluded at Sravasti, where the Jeta Grove given to the Sangha by the wealthy merchant Anathapindaka is still beautiful today, with its trees, flowers and silent brick ruins. Shantum told us about Anathapindaka's purchase of the grove by covering its ground with gold coins, and about the Buddha's conversion nearby of the murderer Angulimala. In the stillness we meditated, sitting and walking. We chanted in several languages. We shared the poems Shantum had asked us to write about our experience of the pilgrimage. I tried to convey the sense I had gained of India's deeply religious heritage, and the glory of the Buddha's living religion where all traditions can enrich each other.

The journey showed us more than the ancient holy sites left in ruins for centuries after the decay of Buddhism and now restored and surrounded by modern temples. Throughout, Shantum introduced up to the hospitable Indian people - many living in the same way as their ancestors had done in the Buddha's time. We saw the poverty many live in, and Shantum pointed out how similar scenes must have confronted the Buddha. This, more than monuments, brought him alive.

I returned home to everyday life without the flashing lights of "enlightenment", without a "peak experience": but with something more significant and more enduring, which I am only now beginning to find woirds for. Travelling as a small "Sangha" with other lay Buddhists and sharing our experiences has opened me more to what the Buddha really saw, beyond the wealth and poverty, beggars and street merchants, shrines and sacred places. After the colourful varieties of Buddhism I had encountered, basic Theravada practice seemed mundane and unexciting. But although it is important to have stood where the Buddha stood and seen the sights and people he saw, truly walking in the Buddha's footprints means being present with the ordinariness of everyday life, practising his teaching at every moment, in all places.

Angela Coton

Source: Forest Sangha Newsletter, No. 37, July 1996, U.K.