Buddha's First Lesson


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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Sarnath
February 23rd 2019
Published: February 4th 2020
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Due to my scheduled trip to Sarnath I had set the alarm for 9am. As soon as it went off I bolted awake with a surge of excitement. Immediately I became aware of a lot of commotion coming from the hotel’s patio. After a few brief announcements, it sounded like the entire Hindu pilgrim group was departing. This meant that I would not have to maneuver around their meal times and could once again eat whenever I wanted. I would also not be subjected to another drawn out prayer service.

With that sorted, I took a cool shower and twenty minutes later I was out on the patio with the whole place to myself. It felt blissful. My condition was heaps better. So much so that I added the yogurt back into my breakfast. I would need all the energy I could get for my journey to Sarnath. Sanjay asked me how I was feeling and how much longer I would be staying. I told him that tomorrow would be my last day. He said that he was going to miss me and that I was a good man. With the sun shining and my health returning, all I could think of was that I was staying somewhere comfortable and good. It was well with my soul.

After breakfast I went back to my room. Almost instantaneously there came a knock on my door. I opened it and there was a stocky little Indian man. He said that I was to come with him and he would lead me to my driver. I grabbed my day bag and water bottle and was on my way. It was back through the alley ways of the old city for me. However, this time I wasn’t toting my heavy luggage or suffering from fever induced deliriums. I was navigating free and easy. Or near to it. The little guy was darting all over the place, up on steps, careening around tight corners. These moves were great for him, but with my gigantic frame I was not able to quite replicate them. However, I managed ok and that was good enough for me.

We emerged from the rabbit warren out on to a busy intersection. And trust me there is no busy intersection like a Varanasi busy intersection. The traffic consisted of carts, cars, scooters, cows and pedestrians. All crammed together and seemingly all arriving from five different directions. The little guy told me to wait there and went off in search of the driver. By the time he returned I had already attracted the interests of the locals, who wanted to know all about me and what they could get for me. Within moments a car pulled up and I was ushered in, as my diminutive guide vanished back into the crowd.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my driver was the same man who had picked me up at the airport when I first arrived. Yes, it was kind old Satish of the white mustache and sweater vest. I liked how this day was going already. Satish was driving me to Sarnath, one of the holiest sites in all of Buddhism. It was there that the Buddha delivered his first lesson to his fellow monks after attaining enlightenment under a bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. Peace and serenity awaited.

Satish was a fount of local knowledge and it was fun getting to know him as we drove along. The traffic was massive, but it began to ease a bit the closer we got to Sarnath. He said that Varanasi was getting fuller and fuller each year as people from the countryside poured into the city. He said that I was here at the area’s busiest time of year when Hindus flocked from all over the world to attend the Kumba Mela in Allahabad and took side trips to Varanasi and other Hindu holy sites.

When we arrived in Sarnath, Satish asked if I wanted a guide to show me around. I declined saying that I preferred to see the place in my own way and speed. This answer seemed to please him. He pointed out where I could buy a ticket and that afterwards I could walk over to the museum and archeological site. He would be right over here waiting for me when I was through. Perfect, and out the car I got.

In the museum it was fascinating to see all the exhibits from the surrounding area. The artifacts reminded me of things I had seen in Angkor Wat a year earlier. It was also wonderful to be wandering around taking in the sights and sounds without the heat and hassle of old riverside Varanasi. Once I had my curiosity sated, I exited and turned the corner to visit the archaeological site.

The archaeological site felt like an oasis. Beyond the iron gates open lawns and uninterrupted bright blue skies greeted me. Wandering around was like a breath of fresh air after being stuck in Varanasi with an illness. There wasn’t an overwhelming amount of people there and those who were there were pleasingly calm. The peaceful monks wandering around led to an air of contemplation. At the center of it all was a giant stupa from the 5th Century. It marked the exact spot where the Buddha gave his first lecture. Even though it was not my religion, the feeling of reverence for this cherished pilgrimage spot could be felt in the air.

I returned to Satish restored and ready for anything he might suggest. Apparently, each nation had their own temple in Sarnath. He pointed down the road and said that I should walk down to the Thai Buddhist Temple. Inside the temple complex were lush gardens and golden statues. The main feature was an 80m tall Buddha hovering over a reflection pool. To my good fortune there was also a large group of Indian college girls touring the complex at the same time. They looked gorgeous in their colorful saris and spent most of the time taking pictures of each other.

Afterwards, I ambled back down the road to Satish. He said that he would drive me around to other temple complexes. The first stop was the Sri Lankan temple complex which had a cutting of the actual bodhi tree which Buddha had gained enlightenment under. What I admired the most was a simple statue of Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist who travelled to India on a pilgrimage in 1891. He was distressed by what he found. Buddhism had been almost wiped out in the land of Buddha’s birth. Overrun by the expansion of Hinduism and further destroyed by Islam.

Dharmapala made it his life’s mission to restore Buddhism’s most holy sites to their rightful glory. He wanted Buddhism to flower in India again. He was quite serious and actually wanted to be reborn in India for his next twenty-five lives so that he could continue to promote Buddhism back there. The revival of Sarnath was one of the fruits of his labor. Who knows, maybe he was here today walking around in one of his subsequent lives. I decided to rule nothing out.

I thought that might be the end of the visit to Sarnath, but there was more. Satish wanted to drive me around to all the other temples too. I loved how each temple design really reflected the style of the different nations. At the Chinese Temple I thought about the Chinese government’s harsh persecution of religion. The Japanese had two temples, one old and one modern. I was amused about how at home I felt in the older Japanese one. My years in Japan seem to have led to a permanent change in my psyche. The final temple we stopped at was the Tibetan one. Yes, Tibet is a nation in its own right. I hadn’t realized before that while the Dalai Lama lives in exile from Tibet, he does in fact live in Buddha’s home country. Inside were pictures of the Dalai Lama and a giant golden seated Buddha. Outside in the courtyard, the Tibetan prayer flags waved in the breezes.

It was now time to return to Varanasi. The traffic was absolutely hellish as we arrived back into the vortex of the city. It was worse than anything I had experienced so far. The car just could not move at all with the masses of humanity and commerce squeezing in all around it. At one point Satish just got out and left the car saying that he would be back in one minute. Huh?

Our car was in the middle of the street adding to the snarl of traffic. So there I was sitting in the back seat of a driverless car in the center of the swirl of Varanasi. And oh boy was there honking. It was funny to see people looking around at the car disapprovingly. Only to see their expressions change to ones of the surprise when they saw there was no driver and then further astonishment when they saw a huge westerner sitting alone in the backseat.

Satish did eventually return, although it had been way more than one minute. He managed to finally deposit the car in a local garage. Then the frail old man once again led me through the maze of old city streets back to the hotel. I had such an excellent experience on the trip, and had been so well taken care of, that I gave Satish a heartfelt thank you and a huge tip.

Upon entering my room, I discovered that the electricity had been shut off. However, by then I didn’t care. Everything else could wait. It was time for a nap. Oh yes, it was time for a deep satisfied siesta. When I awoke, I went to the desk to enquire about the lack of electricity. Apparently, all I needed to do was flip a switch. The air conditioner did not come back on though. However, even this would not be an issue as the temperature was forecast to dip significantly that night.

I happily walked over to the Aarti. And it was cooler, refreshingly so. Even the usually naked holy man had wrapped himself up in an orange blanket. I saw many familiar faces. Some people must attend the Aarti almost every night. Whether they went out of community, routine, or devotion it was quite inspiring to see.

---Bedtime Journal Entry: “I’m back. I feel like I might have made it through to the other side. These last feverish days were an interesting trip and experience in itself. In some bizarre moments I questioned whether I would ever make it away from the banks of the Ganges alive. But with a full day’s sightseeing under my belt I feel restrengthened and invigorated. It helped to have someone showing me around and the cooler weather blowing in tonight has been a godsend. I too have begun to cherish the feeling of community and reliable routine of meeting together with thousands of people night after night to celebrate existence and being alive.”

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4th February 2020
Buddha's First Lesson

Sarnath
Wonderful story of your tiptoeing zigzag to get from hotel to waiting taxi, Tommy. Then to the calm of Sarnath where many nations had left their mark in the name of Buddhism. These are stories that need to be told, so thank you for that. Pleased that your health has recovered so you could enjoy the ride.
5th February 2020
Buddha's First Lesson

Buddha's First Lesson
Thanks. The swiftness of travel's ups and downs are a sight to behold. It was also great to learn the stories of those I had no idea even existed.
8th February 2020

Sarnath
I was curious about your blog on Sarnath, as I had always thought it was Dharamsala that was important to the Buddhists who visit India. It was lovely to read about this place, and the many temples from the different Buddhist countries. There's a temple in Sri Lanka that also has a bodhi tree grown from a cutting from that original tree - it's a magnificent tree and has an army of dedicated volunteers taking care of it, but visiting it certainly wasn't as calm as you described here. Sorry to hear you were sick in India - it's crap being sick on any journey, but everything is somehow amplified in India :) Cheers, Ren
8th February 2020

Thank You
I think Dharamsala is only holy to Tibetan Buddhists because the Dalai Lama is there. Sarnath is one of the four main holy pilgrimage sites. I think the most important one is at Bodh Gaya where Buddha actually sat under the tree and gained enlightenment. The other two sites are where he was born and where he died. Sarnath probably felt calmer than it actually was due to where I was coming from, but it still felt like an oasis to me.

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