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...

Chapter 1 - The Holy Places

The Buddha was born 623 B.C. in Lumbini as Prince Siddhattha, son of Suddhodana, King of the Sakyas and Queen Maya. He attained enlightenment at the age of thirtyfive in Bodh Gaya; he delivered his first sermon in Sarnath, at the Deerpark of Isipatana, and, after having taught for fortyfive years, he passed finally away in Kusinara.

Countless people have visited the holy places, century after century, and also today people visit the place where the Buddha was born, where he attained enlightenment, where he delivered his first sermon and where he passed finally away. The Buddha had, as a Bodhisatta, accumulated all the “perfections” (paramis) during aeons. These perfections are: liberality (dana), morality (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), patience (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), resolution (aditthana), loving kindness (metta) and equanimity (upekkha). Before he was to be born as a human being in his last life, he stayed in the “Tusita Heaven”. He had fulfilled all the perfections and now the time had come for his last birth as Prince Siddhattha Gotama. In the “Discourse on Wonderful and Marvellous Qualities” (Middle Length Sayings III, 123) we read that the Buddha asked Ananda to deliver to the monks a Discourse on the wonderful and marvellous qualities of the Tathagata. We read that he arose in Tusita Heaven mindful and clearly conscious, remained there mindful and clearly conscious, and stayed there as long as his lifespan lasted. These were wonderful and marvellous qualities of the Lord. We read in the same sutta that he ascended in the womb of Queen Maya who gave birth in Lumbini Gardens after ten months, while standing, and that four devas received the new-born and placed him in front of his mother. There appeared then from the sky two streams of water, one cool and one warm, which were used for a water-libation for the Bodhisatta and his mother.

In Lumbini we saw the pillar King Asoka had erected 249 B.C. when he payed hommage at the place where the Buddha was born. An inscription on the pillar says that King Asoka, after having been anointed for twenty years, came himself and worshipped this spot, because the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here. The inscription also says that King Asoka made the village of Lumbini free of taxes and that it had to pay only an eighth share of the produce. There is also a temple in honour of Queen Maya erected on an older structure, but today this temple is not accessible. Queen Maya died on the seventh day after the birth of the Bodhisatta, as is always the case for the Bodhisatta’s mother. We paid respect going around the pillar with chanting and we sat near a pool which reminds us of the water-libation for the Bodhisatta and his mother. We recited texts from the scriptures and the commentary on the Chronicle of Buddhas (Buddhavamsa, the “Clarifier of Sweet Meaning”) concerning the birth of the Bodhisatta. Afterwards we had a Dhamma discussion.

We read in the same sutta about the wonderful and marvellous qualities of the Buddha concerning the moments just after his birth:

Face to face with the Lord, revered sir, have I heard, face to face have I learnt: “The moment, Ananda, the Bodhisatta has come to birth, standing on even feet and facing north, he takes seven strides, and while a white sunshade is being held over him, he scans all the quarters and utters as with the voice of a bull: ‘I am chief in the world, I am best in the world, I am eldest in the world. This is the last birth, there is not now again-becoming’...”

The Bodhisatta was leading a life full of sense-pleasures, but after he saw an old man, a sick man and a corpse he realized the futility of such a life. When he saw a recluse, wearing a yellow robe, he decided to go forth and become a monk in order to seek the truth. He took instructions first from Alara Kalama who could attain arupa-jhana (immaterial absorption) as far as the “plane of nothingness”, but he found that this did not lead to enlightenment. He then took instructions from Uddaka who could attain the highest stage of arupa-jhana, the “plane of neither-perception-nor-non-perception”, but he found that this did not lead to  enlightenment either. 

The Bodhisatta decided to search for the truth alone, and he practised rigid austerities. He ate so little that he became like a skeleton. He found that this was not the way to enlightenment either. On the full-moon day of Visakha (May) he accepted boiled rice and sour milk from Sujata, near Uruvela. He threw the bowl upstream into the river Neranjara and he knew that on that day he would attain enlightenment. We walked along the river Neranjara and saw statues which represent the scene of Sujata giving the rice and sour milk to the Bodhisatta. In the evening of that same day the Bodhisatta walked to the Bodhi-tree and sat down under it.

We read in the “Middle Length Sayings” (I, 4, “Discourse on Fear and Dread”) that the Buddha related to the brahman Janussoni how he spent the three watches of the night during which he attained enlightenment. In the first watch he recollected his former lives, in the second watch he directed the mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings. In the third watch he realized the four noble Truths. We read: 

Then with the mind composed... fixed, immovable, I directed my mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the cankers. I understood as it really is: This is dukkha (suffering), this is the arising of dukkha, this is the stopping of dukkha, this is the course leading to the stopping of dukkha. I understood as it really is: These are the cankers, this is the arising of the cankers, this is the stopping of the cankers, this is the course leading to the stopping of the cankers. Knowing this thus, seeing thus, my mind was freed from the canker of sense-pleasures, and my mind was freed from the canker of becoming, and my mind was freed from the canker of ignorance. In freedom the knowledge came to me: I am freed; and I comprehended: Destroyed is birth, brought to a close is the Brahma-faring, done is what was to be done, there is no more of being such or such. This, brahman, was the third knowledge attained by me in the last watch of the night; ignorance was dispelled, knowledge arose, darkness was dispelled, light arose even as I abided diligent, ardent, self-resolute.

The Buddha had become a Sammasambuddha who could through his teaching of Dhamma help others to be freed from birth, old age, sickness and death.

It is said that the location of the temple, adjoining the Bodhi-tree, built on top of a much older structure, is the actual place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. We paid respect in this temple and we paid respect near the Bodhi-tree where candles were placed. We went around the area of the Bodhi-tree three times. Near the Bodhi-tree small monuments have been erected commemorating how the Buddha spent the first weeks after his enlightenment. The fourth week after his enlightenment he contemplated the Abhidhamma, which is commemorated by the “Jewel House”, but we could not reach this monument because it was partly inundated by the rain. We can pay respect to the Buddha with incense and candles, but above all we should pay respect by considering his teaching about realities, by having discussions and by developing right understanding. Because of the rain we could not have a Dhamma discussion near the Bodhi-tree as we used to have at other occasions, but we held it in the evening in the hotel.

The Buddha wanted to teach Dhamma to his former teacher Alara Kalama, but he had passed away. The Buddha then wanted to teach Dhamma to Uddaka but he also had passed away. The Buddha decided to teach the five monks who had been his attendants before and who were now staying near Varanasi (Benares) at Isipatana in the Deer-park. When they saw the Buddha from afar they did not want to attend to him because they believed that he had reverted to a life of abundance after he had accepted solid food from Sujata. But when the Buddha came near they changed their minds. The Buddha then preached his first sermon and set rolling the “Wheel of Dhamma”.

In Sarnath one can see the great Stupa, the place of the first sermon, and excavations of old structures which were once the monks’ dwellings. The Chinese pilgrims Fa Hian (beginning fifth century) and Hiuen Tsang (640) who gave accounts of their pilgrimages to the holy places, also described Sarnath and the monuments they saw there. One can still see a remnant of a stone pillar erected by King Asoka.

Our group presented a meal to hundred twenty monks of different nationalities in the Maha-Bodhi Society. In the afternoon we visited a temple built by the Maha-Bodhi Society where relics of the Buddha are kept which are shown once a year. But for this occasion the relics were taken out by the Singhalese monks who are guarding them and they were placed on Khun Sujin’s head. After that we all were allowed to come near and pay respect while one of the monks was pointing with a lotus to the relics. We then approached the relics for a second time and these were placed on the head of each one of us while one of the monks recited a stanza. It must have taken us countless lives to listen to the Dhamma and develop understanding, countless lives of accumulating conditions which enabled us to experience such a moment. The relics are all that is left of the Buddha’s bodily frame and when the teachings have deteriorated and disappeared also the relics will disappear.

It may take again many lives before understanding is fully developed so that enlightenment can be attained. Thus, paying respect to the relics can remind us to have firm resolution to continue developing understanding, even though it can be only a little in each life.

At the end of the afternoon we went to the Great Stupa and recited from the Vinaya the text dealing with the first sermon (Book of the Discipline IV, Maha-vagga, I, the Great Section). The Buddha explained that the two extremes of addiction to sense-pleasures and of self-torment should be avoided and that the “Middle Way”, the eightfold Path, should be followed.

He explained to five disciples the four noble Truths, the Truth of dukkha (suffering) of the origin of dukkha, of the ceasing of dukkha and of the way leading to the ceasing of dukkha. We read:

And this, monks, is the ariyan truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, and old age is dukkha and disease is dukkha and dying is dukkha, association with what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha— in short the five khandhas of grasping are dukkha...

We then read about the origin of dukkha which is craving, about the ceasing of dukkha which is nibbana and the way leading to the ceasing of dukkha which is the eightfold Path.

When it was already dark we went three times around the Stupa. Afterwards we had a Dhamma discussion in the hotel in Benares. We spoke about the cycle of birth and death, about samsara, which term means “going around”. In many lives we did not know the dhamma, the reality, which appears. Seeing arises and then falls away, and there is nothing left. Hearing arises and then falls away, there is nothing left. In each life citta, consciousness, arises and falls away. The dukkha in the cycle of birth and death is the arising and falling away of realities. The Buddha said in his first sermon that the five khandhas are dukkha. Rupakkhandha, physical phenomena, vedanakkhandha, the khandha of feelings, sannakkhandha, the khandha of perception or memory, sankharakkhandha, the khandha of “formations” or “activities” (all mental factors, cetasikas, except feeling and perception), and vinnanakkhandha, the khandha of consciousness (all cittas) arise and then fall away immediately, and therefore they are dukkha.

The Buddha preached many suttas in the Jeta Grove, near Savatthi, where he stayed nineteen rainy seasons (During the rainy season the monks did not travel, but stayed in one dwelling place.).  Anathapindika who wanted to offer this Grove to the Buddha, had to buy it from Prince Jeta. He had to cover the area with pieces of gold, but he did not have enough gold to cover one small spot near the gateway and then Prince Jeta said that he wanted to offer this spot. 

There are many excavations at the sites where the dwelling-places of the Buddha and his disciples were. There is also a Bodhi-tree planted by Ananda. We read in the Commentary to the “Kalinga-Bodhi-Jataka” (IV, no. 479) that Ananda said to the Buddha that while he was traveling the people who used to visit him and pay respect to him had no place where they could show their reverence. Therefore Ananda asked permission to plant a seed of the Great Bodhi-tree near the gateway. The Buddha gave his permission and Anathapindika planted it. It grew up as soon as it was planted and became a huge tree. The tree is known by the name of Ananda’s Bo-Tree. While the Buddha stayed at the Jeta Grove many people visited him in order to pay respect and listen to the Dhamma. We read in the Commentary to the “Brahmajala Sutta” (Dialogues of the Buddha, Digha Nikaya I, no.1), in the “Sumangala Vilasini” about the daily routine of the Buddha. In the morning he would go out on his alms round, and accept people’s offerings.

When he had finished his meal he surveyed the dispositions of the people present and then taught Dhamma to them. Upon his return to the monastery he sat in the pavilion, waiting until the monks had finished their meal. Then he entered his dwelling place, the “Fragrant Cottage”. In the afternoon he washed his feet and after that he exhorted the monks and gave those who requested it a meditation subject (Meditation subject, kammatthana, does not only refer to a meditation subject of samatha.). After that the monks retired to different places such as the forest, the foot of a tree or the mountains. The Buddha entered his Fragrant Cottage and if he wished he lay down for a few moments in the “lion’s posture”, mindful and clearly conscious. He then rose and in the second part of the afternoon he surveyed the world. In the third part of the afternoon he taught Dhamma to the people who visited him and paid respect to him. When he had finished his afternoon activities, if he wanted to bathe, he entered the bathroom and refreshed his body with water brought by his attendant. After the Buddha had put on his robes and sat alone for a few moments in solitary meditation, the monks came to him, asking questions, requesting meditation subjects and asking for his explanation about points of Dhamma. These were his activities in the first watch of the night. In the middle watch of the night deities visited him asking questions, and the Buddha replied to their questions. The last watch of the night was divided into three parts: in the first part he walked up and down since he had been sitting for a long time; in the second part he entered the Fragrant Cottage and lay down on his right side, in the lion’s posture, mindful and clearly conscious; in the third part he rose and surveyed the world with his Buddha-eye in order to see who had in the past performed dana and observed sila in the presence of past Buddhas. Thus we see that the Buddha was intent on the welfare of others all the time.

While we were in the Jeta Grove we sat down near the spot where once was the Buddha’s dwelling place and we recited from the Vinaya (Book of Discipline, V, Cullavagga VI, 154) the story about Anathapindika who bought the Jeta Grove and presented it to the Buddha. Then we had a Dhamma discussion and after dark we paid respect by going around the Buddha’s dwelling place three times.

The Buddha taught for forty-five years and when he was eighty he passed finally away. In Kusinara we visited the place of his Parinibbana. A temple with a recumbent Buddha-image marks this place. When the Buddha was passing away he was lying in the “lion’s posture”. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (IV, Saîayatana-vagga, Fourth Fifty, Ch IV, § 202) that when the Buddha was resting he did so in the lion’s posture, lying on his right side, “putting one foot on the other, collected and composed, with his mind set on rising up again”. We paid respect near the Buddha image in the temple and we also went around the Stupa which has been erected near the temple and paid respect by chanting and by talking about nama, mental phenomena, and rupa, physical phenomena, which are non-self.

We read in the “Maha-Parinibbana Sutta” (Dialogues of the Buddha, “Manorathapurani”, the commentary to the “Gradual Sayings”(Book of the Threes, Ch 7, § 61, Tenets), that with the meditation subjects which are the five khandhas, all rupa and nama, one can become an arahat. These subjects are all realities appearing now.

We read in the Digha Nikaya, II, 16) about the last days of the Buddha. His last meal was offered to him by Cunda, the metalworker. The “Sukara-maddava” (truffles or pork meat) caused the Buddha deadly pains. Inspite of this the Buddha wanted to go to Kusinara. The Buddha said to Ananda that he would come to his Parinibbana (final passing away) during the last watch of the night, in the MallasSala-grove, near Kusinara, in between two Sala trees. Until his last moments the Buddha thought of the wellbeing of others. He said that Cunda’s remorse about the last meal which caused deadly pains should be dispelled, explaining to him that there are two offerings which are of equal fruition, exceeding in excellence the fruition of any other offerings of food: the offering of food taken by the Buddha before his enlightenment and the offering of food taken by the Buddha before his Parinibbana. He said: “By his deed has the venerable Cunda accumulated that which makes for long life, beauty, wellbeing, glory, heavenly rebirth, and sovereignty!” (I am using the translation of the Buddhist publication Society, Wheel 67-69, Kandy, Sri Lanka..13) 

When Ananda was weeping because the Buddha was going to pass away while he, Ananda, was still a “learner” (sekha, an ariyan who has not attained to the stage of arahatship) the Buddha called him and explained to him that it is in the nature of things near and dear to us that we must suffer separation from them. He said that Ananda should put forth energy and that he would be freed from defilements. He then praised Ananda. 

Subhadda, a wandering ascetic, visited the Buddha who explained that in other teachings there is no noble Eightfold Path and no true ascetics of the first, second, third or fourth degree, save in the Buddha’s teaching. Subhadda took his refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and received ordination. The Buddha’s last words were: “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: transient are all the elements of being! Strive with earnestness!” After the Buddha attained the different stages of rupa-jhana and arupa-jhana he entered the state of the Cessation of Perception and Feeling. After he had emerged from that stage he entered the highest stage of arupa-jhana and then attained in reverse order the other stages of arupa-jhana and of rupa-jhana. Then he entered again the four stages of rupa-jhana from the first up to the highest and after that he passed finally away.

Near Kusinara a stupa commemorates the place of the Buddha’s cremation. We had visited this stupa in the evening and had held a Dhamma discussion there until after dark. The next day we visited this place again and recited from the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta the passages concerning the cremation of the Buddha and the partition of his relics. The relics were divided into eight portions and given to the King of Magadha, the Licchavis of Vesali and others. Stupas were erected over the relics and moreover, a ninth stupa was erected for the urn and a tenth for the ashes.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: