Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Buddha
The bus stopped at a dusty crossroad and the driver shouted “Lumbini, Lumbini, Lumbini.” Indeed, I was Lumbini bound, but I had been told this bus would carry me all the way; suddenly it seemed I would have to change buses. I unfolded my aching legs from the cramped space between seat rows, stood and stretched to get the blood flowing after seven hours of sitting. Slinging the backpack containing all my electronic equipment over my shoulder, I remembered a time when this situation would have alarmed me. Though I carried a map of Nepal and could guestimate my location, in truth I was in a small town in remote southern Nepal where I knew no one, was unable to read Nepali, and was hopelessly incapable of figuring out which of the dozen or so tin-cans lining the dirt shoulder would take me to my final destination.
Smiling, I invoked my secret travel mantra, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and put myself in the hands of the adolescent boy who’d hung out the open door of my bus for the past few hours, hawking tickets. He grabbed my second bag and led me from bus to bus until he found the one going to Lumbini. This is my second secret: I turn myself over and just do what I’m told, with faith that whoever is leading me knows the way. As a strong-willed, fiercely independent woman, these techniques would have been inconceivable in the corporate world, yet in the world of long-term travel they are the secrets to success. Staying present, being mindful, not stressing out. Enjoying the experience, whatever it brings.
The mini-bus groaned and leaned precariously to the left as I stepped up. Inside, every seat was taken except for one spot on a front row bench next to a Buddhist monk. Respectful of his vows, I stood in the center aisle, but he motioned for me to sit.
“Thank you,” I said, surprised. I was even more surprised when he struck up a conversation in perfect English.
“Are you traveling to Lumbini for the Sakya Monlam Prayer Festival?” he asked. I told him I’d come to see the Sacred Gardens and the birthplace of Buddha, but knew nothing about the festival. He explained that prayers for world peace are held once each year at the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites: the birthplace of Buddha; the site where he attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, India; where he first preached at Benaras, India; and where he died and achieved nirvana at Kusinagara, India. Luckily, I was arriving a day before the Sakya Monlam festival would begin in Lumbini and he invited me to attend, with an assurance that everyone was welcome.
“You are Buddhist, then?” he probed. I replied that I had been Buddhist for many years.
“And what tradition do you follow?”
“Well, that is an interesting question. I’ve long been confused by the many different sects and traditions of Buddhism. I have investigated Chinese, Theravadan, and Zen Buddhism, and briefly attended classes at a temple in the U.S. that was associated with the New Kadampa tradition, until I discovered they did not follow the Dalai Lama. But I’d never quite found my place until I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. Here in Nepal, in just a few short weeks, I’ve learned more about Buddhism than in the previous ten years, and have finally found my spiritual home.”
He smiled knowingly. “It was the same for me. You have made a good choice. And have you found a guru yet?”
“Not yet. I am not looking but I am waiting.”
He adjusted his orange robes and pushed gold wire-rimmed glasses up higher on the bridge of his nose. “Just wait, he is coming.”
I finally asked the question that had been bothering me for the last half-hour as I tried to keep from sliding into him every time the bus bounced over a pothole. “I always thought that monks are not allowed to touch women. I’ve even been told that women must not hand anything directly to a monk; instead items must be put on the ground for the monk to pick up so that he is not contaminated by the touch of a woman.”
He laughed. “That is the old way. There are some sects that still follow those rules, but most do not. Our main purpose is to help and we cannot do this if we are unable to touch others.”
True to his purpose, as we disembarked from the bus in Lumbini he pulled a cell phone from the folds of his robe and offered to call my hotel for directions. When he learned he had instructed me to get off one stop too early, he accompanied me the mile to the hotel and deposited me at the front door, with a reminder that breakfast would be served at the monastery at 7 a.m. the following day.
Anxious not to miss the beginning of the festival, I set out for town before dawn the following day. Muted green plains stretched to infinity on both sides of the highway, the vast flatness relieved only by an occasional tree and a sleepy stream meandering between sinuous red dirt embankments. Smoke from burning rice stubble gnawed its way up and mingled with morning mist, creating a gauzy curtain that turned the rising sun into a crimson candy apple. Slowly the town came to life. Rustic wooden carts loaded to overflowing with rice stalks rambled down the highway behind teams of white oxen. Buses spewing black smoke from long tailpipes groaned to life with the day’s first load of passengers. Focused on dodging cows and buffalo meandering along the road, I was caught off guard when a wild monkey passed me. Turning a menacing gaze upon me, he bared his teeth in a “what are you staring at” challenge. I looked away, telegraphing my acceptance that he was the alpha, and he continued on his way. As I neared the town, monks began emerging from tents set up alongside the road, rapidly becoming a tidal wave of saffron, crimson, and orange that surrounded and swept me into the front gates of the monastery.
Picking a spot at the rear of the courtyard, I sat cross-legged on a patch of grass, one of only three foreigners in a sea of Tibetan faces. Women in ankle-length gray dresses with golden nose ornaments and thick braids hanging down to their waist twirled prayer wheels while monks circulated with plastic bowls. The low drone of chanting was joined by guttural throat singing as prayers began. A procession of monks carrying enormous steel teapots with rainbow fans tucked into their spouts was followed by another group that delivered giant pots mounded high with sweet rice. They climbed to the top of the monastery staircase where the high lamas blessed the food, then passed through the crowd pouring Tibetan tea made with yak butter and rock salt and spooning out rice. Mesmerized by the chanting, four hours passed in a nanosecond. As suddenly as they had begun, the monks ended on a collective note and wrapped up their prayer parchments until the afternoon session. As one, they poured out onto the street, some heading for restaurant tents lining the highway while others crossed the road and turned their backs, relieving themselves against a low brick wall surrounding the Sacred Gardens.
Eventually, I carved one day out of my visit to tour the Sacred Gardens, said to be the birthplace of Buddha. As legend has it, in 623 BC Maya Devi, queen of the Sakya king Suddhodna, was passing through Lumbini on the way to her maternal hometown in India. She stopped to walk in the gardens and take a bath in the pool. After bathing, she took 25 paces to the north and felt labor pains; supporting herself with a tree branch, she gave birth to the holy prince who later became the Buddha. Today devotees from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Lumbini, but the first to bear witness was the famous Maurya Emperor Asoka, who made a pilgrimage in 249 BC and erected a stone pillar at the site that bore the inscription, “here Sakyamuni Buddha was born.”
Over the ensuing decades, the association of Lumbini with Buddha was forgotten until 1895, when a prominent archeological surveyor rediscovered the Asoka Pillar, however it wasn’t until the site was visited by then United Nations Secretary General, U Thant, that it began reaching prominence. Deeply affected by the sanctity of Lumbini, U. Thant suggested to the Nepal government that the site be developed as an international pilgrimage and tourist center. He helped form an international committee consisting of 15 member nations which support Lumbini through United Nations involvement; Lumbini was subsequently inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Member nations with strong Buddhist traditions have built monasteries within the three square-mile Sacred Gardens. Too large to walk, especially under the brutal sun of the Tarai plains, I opted to see as many temples as possible by hiring a rickshaw for the day. Even so, I barely made a dent, seeing only the monasteries and temples of China, India, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Had I wished, I could have gone back for a second day, but instead I opted for prayer and meditation at the Monlam Festival. Sometimes, the things we don’t plan turn out to be the best experiences.