In Asoka’s Footsteps

by Nina Van Gorkom | 1999 | 27,079 words

Ashoka (or Aśoka, asoka) was an Indian emporeor reigning the Maurya dynasty from 268 to 232 BCE. In Asoka’s Footsteps; Dhamma in India; October 1999; by Nina Van Gorkom...

Introduction

We read in the “Dialogues of the Buddha” (Digha Nikaya II, 16, Maha-Parinibbana sutta, Ch V, 140) that the Buddha, in the night of his passing away, said to Ananda:

The place, Ananda, at which the believing man can say:— “Here the Tathagata (Epithet of the Buddha, translated as “thus gone” or “thus come”, the meaning of which will be explained further on in this book.) was born!” is a spot to be visited with feelings of reverence. 

The place, Ananda, at which the believing man can say:— “Here the Tathagata attained to the supreme and perfect insight!” is a spot to be visited with feelings of reverence.

The place, Ananda, at which the believing man can say:— “Here was the kingdom of righteousness set on foot by the Tathagata!” is a spot to be visited with feelings of reverence.

The place, Ananda, at which the believing man can say:— “Here the Tathagata passed finally away in the utter passing away which leaves nothing whatever to remain behind!” is a spot to be visited with feelings of reverence.

And there will come, Ananda, to such spots, believers, monks and nuns of the Order, or devout men and women, and will say:— 

“Here was the Tathagata born!” or, “Here did the Tathagata attain to the supreme and perfect insight!” or, “Here was the kingdom of righteousness set on foot by the Tathagata!” or, “Here the Tathagata passed away in that utter passing away which leaves nothing whatever to remain behind!”

And they, Ananda, who shall die while they, with believing heart, are journeying on such pilgrimage, shall be reborn after death, when the body shall dissolve, in the happy realms of heaven.
Some three hundred years after the Buddha’s passing away, Asoka, the great king of the Mauryan Empire, in the twentyfirst year of his reign, in 249 B.C. , undertook a pilgrimage to all the holy places. Asoka was the third ruler of the first truly Indian Empire of the Mauryan dynasty which, at the end of Asoka’s reign, stretched all the way from the Hindu Kush, in today’s Afghanistan, in the West, to the Bay of Bengal in the East and from the Himalayans in the North to somewhere North of Madras in the South. The first years of his reign were reputedly harsh but after the conquest of the Kingdom of Kalinga, Asoka was filled with remorse and he proclaimed the Law of Piety. It was at that time that he converted to a devoted Buddhist. From that time on he did not cease to inspire and exhort his subjects to apply the Dhamma. He governed his vast empire in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, as can still be witnessed by the numerous “rock edicts” which are preserved. A copy of one of them is placed at the entrance of the National Museum in New Delhi. In the seventeenth year of his reign, under his patronage, the Third Council was held by Moggaliputta-Tissa (At the first Council, held shortly after the Buddha’s parinibbana in Rajagaha under the presidency of Maha Kassapa, the collection of the Dhamma and the Vinaya (Book of Discipline for the monks) was established. At the second Council, held one century later at Vesali, the teaching of heretical views was refuted. At the third council the “Points of Controversy” (Kathavatthu), as we have it in its present form, was established as a treatise against schismatic groups and incorporated into the Abhidhamma.). During this Council the Buddhist teaching and the Sangha were firmly established. Shortly afterwards, Asoka sent his son (Another source states that it was his younger brother.) Mahinda to Sri Lanka and also missionaries to other countries to propagate the teachings. 

In the so-called Indian Legends, a non-historical record of Asoka’s reign, his pilgrimage to the holy places is described as follows: (See: Vincent Arthur Smith, “Asoka”. Low Price Publication, New Delhi, 1994.) The Pilgrimage of Asoka. 

Having erected the eighty-four thousand stupas, King Asoka expressed a desire to visit the holy places of his religion. By the advice of his counselors he sent for the saint Upagupta (Moggaliputta-Tissa’s name is given in the northern texts as Upagupta.), son of Gupta the perfumer. Upagupta had been in accordance with prophecy born a century after the death of the Buddha, and, when summoned by the king, was dwelling on Mount Urumunda in the Natabhatika forest near Mathura

The saint accepted the royal invitation, and, accompanied by eighteen thousand holy men, traveled in state by boat down the Jumna and Ganges to Pataliputra, where he was received with the utmost reverence and honour. 

The king said: “I desire to visit all the places where the venerable Buddha stayed, to do honour unto them, and to mark each with an enduring memorial for the instruction of the most remote posterity.” The saint approved of the project, and undertook to act as guide. Escorted by a mighty army the monarch visited all the holy places in order.

The first place visited was the Lumbini Garden. Here Upagupta said: “In this spot, great king, the venerable One was born”; and added: “Here is the first monument consecrated in honour of the Buddha, the sight of whom is excellent. Here, the moment after his birth, the recluse took seven steps upon the ground.”

The king bestowed a hundred thousand gold pieces on the people of the place, and built a stupa. He then passed on to Kapilavastu. The royal pilgrim next visited the Bodhi-tree at Bodh Gaya, and there also gave a largess of a hundred thousand gold pieces, and built a chaitya (cedi). 

Rishipatana (Sarnath) near Benares, where Gautama had “turned the wheel of the law”, and Kusinagare, where the teacher had passed away, were also visited with similar observances. At Sravasti the pilgrims did reverence to the Jetavana monastery, where Gautama had so long dwelt and taught, and to the stupas of his disciples, Sariputra, Maudgalayana (Moggallana), and Maha-Kasyapa (Kassapa). But when the king visited the stupa of Vakkula, he gave only one copper coin, inasmuch as Vakkula had met with few obstacles in the path of holiness, and had done little good to his fellow creatures. At the stupa of Ananda, the faithful attendant of Gautama, the royal gift amounted to six million gold pieces.

In October 1999, we joined a large group of Thai pilgrims and followed the footsteps of King Asoka in visiting the holy places. The group started in Patna, which, under the name of Pataliputta, was the capital of King Asoka’s empire.
Khun (Mr or Ms is in Thai Khun. Ms. Sujin is in Thailand also called Acharn, which means teacher.) Sujin Boriharnwanaket, our friend in the Dhamma and our teacher, was our spiritual leader and Khun Suwat Chansuvityanant together with his son Khun Pakabutr were in charge of the organisation of the tour.

Also Acharn Somporn Srivaratit, Khun Santi Phantakeong Amorn and many other friends took part in this tour. Jack Tippayachan, his wife Oj and other friends had come from from California, Khun Buth Sawong and Khun Soun Orsoth had come from Cambodia. My husband Lodewijk and I came from the Netherlands and started our pilgrimage in New Delhi. There, we went to Kailash (East of Kailash, near the C. Market) in the region which was formerly called Kuru, where the Buddha preached the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on Mindfulness. We had to go over some dirt to reach the steps leading to the rock where King Asoka had an inscription made to mark the place. A concrete roof has been erected over this place. Just before we arrived a group of Singhalese pilgrims had sprinkled water over the inscription and therefore it was clearly visible. Our guide held up the grill which protects the stone, so that we could look at it while we paid respect. Our guide was interested at the Buddha’s teachings and wanted to know more about the contents. We spoke about the fact that there is no person or self, only elements devoid of self. 

Afterwards we went to the National Museum in order to pay respect to a relic of the Buddha which has now been enshrined by Thai Buddhists under the patronage of the Royal Thai Government. In the museum we spoke with our guide about the Buddha who, as a Bodhisatta, had to accumulate wisdom during endless lives. Also for us the development of understanding will take aeons. We flew to Patna where we joined our Thai friends and began our pilgrimage together with them, in four buses. 

Our journey brought us to Nalanda, Rajagaha, Varanasi (Benares), Kusinara, Savatthi, and then via Bairawa, in Nepal, to Lumbini, Pokkhara and Kathmandu where our Thai friends would fly back to Bangkok. Lumbini, the birth place of the Bodhisatta, was the last place we visited because of the route the buses had to take. In the holy places we recited together those parts of the scriptures and commentaries which were referring to the place we visited. It was festival time for the Hindus, Durka Pujja. On this occasion processions were held in the villages with the statues of the deities which were venerated and at the end of the festival the statues were thrown into the river so that they would float to the sea. We had several rainy days: in Nalanda where we visited the Thai monastery; when we climbed the Vulture’s Peak (Gijjhakuta) near Rajagaha; when we walked in the Bamboo Grove (Veruvana); when we were in Bodh Gaya. Vulture’s Peak is on one of the five hills encircling the old city of Rajagaha. The Buddha used to stay here and once, when he was walking on the slopes, Devadatta hurled a stone at him in order to kill him. However, only a splinter hurt his foot. We walked around in the Bamboo Grove near Rajagaha where the Buddha preached the Discourse on the three characteristics of realities: impermanence, dukkha (suffering) and anatta. When we were in Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, we walked in the rain on wet pavement while going around the place near the Bodhi-tree three times. Usually many pilgrims of different nationalities walk around but this time the place was quite deserted because of the rain. This reminded Khun Sujin of the time which will come in the future when the teachings will decline and then disappear.

Khun Sujin gave Dhamma talks on the way as much as she could. Sometimes the discussions were in the hotels and sometimes outside when we could sit on the grounds. At the Cremation Stupa near Kusinara and in the Jeta Grove, near Savatthi, we went on with the discussions until after dark. In the bus we listened to tapes referring to the holy places and tapes about phenomena as they appear through the senses and the mind-door, about all the realities the Buddha taught. Ell Walsh was holding the tape recorder all day in the bus so that we were able to listen. She helped all of us in many ways.

For the writing of this book I used the discussions we held, material from tapes and from the scriptures and commentaries we discussed. I greatly appreciate Khun Sujin’s untiring efforts to explain the Dhamma, exhorting us to verify the Dhamma ourselves. She was stressing all the time that the Dhamma is not theory, that it has to be realized by being mindful of realities at this very moment. She showed us time and again that only through the development of satipatthana we can have direct understanding of realities. I also appreciate the many explanations of Pali terms Acharn Somporn gave, reminding us that these refer to the reality appearing now. I also consulted Khun Santi Phantakeong Amorn many times on difficult points of the Dhamma and I greatly appreciated his advice. He has written a most useful lexicon to Khun Sujin’s book “A Survey of Paramattha Dhammas”. I am quoting from his lexicon in this book. He does not only explain the Pali terms, but at the same time he also reminds us in this lexicon to continue developing right understanding so that eventually enlightenment can be attained.

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