Nepal Zen: Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, is a major world pilgrimage site that strongly conveys that aura of spirit of place
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on November 8, 2010
Augusto Villalon Philippine Daily Inquirer
The airlines on the tarmac at the Kathmandu airport were definitely local: Druk, Cosmic, Yeti, Sita.
And then there was Buddha Air, which, ever so appropriately, was the airline that took us to the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, a World Heritage site in Lumbini in the flat, rice-growing landscape of southern Nepal. It was an arid place in the postharvest summer season of our visit.
When I first took that flight a year ago, my Nepalese-Swiss friend Kai Weise told me to take a window on the right side. A few minutes after takeoff, he told me to look out. In full view were the snow-capped Himalayas.
On the same flight again a year later, my amazement remained intense; the short Buddha Air flight is the most memorable flight I have taken.
All association with snow-capped Himalayan peaks immediately dissolved upon disembarking at Gautama Buddha Airport. I was rudely accosted by the stifling 44°C heat of the flat Terai plain that stretched from southern Nepal across t o nor the rn Indi a , whose border was only 9km away.
Author Peter Matthiessen writes in his book Snow Leopard that the Lumbini landscape today looks as it did during the Buddha’s time. That statement may be arguable, but the haunting feel of the landscape and its people definitely radiates a sense of continuity stretching back 2 millennia.
Now, rickety buses often packed to the roof hog the narrow highways, which are cluttered with slow-moving tractors pulling trailers, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, men, women in saris or heavy black burqas, children and dogs.
Dirt roads branch off from the potholed asphalt, leading to dustblown, dirt-poor villages of mudwalled houses roofed with either thatch or baked clay tiles. Everything is built close to the ground.
Caked rice paddies, dried out by summer heat, surround the small villages where people gather under the shade of the few trees that manage to grow.
There wasn’t a breeze the day we arrived that day in summer. Nothing, not even people, moved. In searing midday, everything was still, and only the occasional howls of jackals pierced the barren silence.
Beneath a sal tree (Shorea Robusta) in a Lumbini forest clearing near those villages was born Siddhartha Gautama, Crown Prince of the royal Sakya family, who was to evolve into the Buddha during his lifetime.
He was born in 563BC, when Queen Maya Devi journeyed from Kapilvastu, the powerful Sakya capital where she had
married the king, to the neighbouring kingdom of Devadaha where she was born a princess and where, in keeping with tradition, she intended her son to be born. Unexpectedly she gave birth at a rest stop in the Lumbini forest.
The pond where the queen bathed before her delivery remains, now a brick-encased pool. A 6m-high sandstone pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka commemorates his visit to the religious site in 3rd century BC. The inscription on the pillar is proof that here is, indeed, the birthplace of the Buddha.
A reputedly 14th-century sandstone carving depicting the birth is enshrined in the recently constructed Maya Devi Temple, named to honour the Buddha’s mother, also worshipped by Hindus as a mother goddess incarnate.
The markers of the Buddha’s birth, located close to each other in a special area called the Sacred Garden,
are encircled by archaeological remains of monasteries and stupas dating since the 2nd century BC, attesting that the holy site has been revered from the beginning.
Excavated bricks outline walls and floor levels of vanished buildings that silently tell stories of religious life and rituals from centuries ago. Still unexcavated are vast areas of archaeological artifacts within the Sacred Garden; full archaeological documentation and research still remain to be done.
In 1978, the eminent Japanese architect Kenzo Tange submitted the Lumbini Master Plan to a group of international
and local authorities for implementation. Execution of the Master Plan has been minimal since.
An advantage, really , since it provides the opportunity to finetune the plan to meet modern needs impossible to foresee 30 years ago.
What needs absolutely no finetuning, however, is Tange’s vision. As the Master Plan area, Tange demarcated a rectangular area oriented due north to south, three miles long and one-mile wide, further subdividing the main rectangle into three smaller ones, equal squares measuring 1×1 miles (1.6 km x 1.6 km).
The first square on the northern side was designated for pilgrim services, including hotels, shops, library, museum, visitor information and parking. The middle square, the Monastic Zone, was designated for construction of temples by different countries for their pilgrims. In the final, southernmost square, at the centre of a circular body of water, stands the Sacred Garden.
To arrive at the Sacred Garden, Tange designed a spiritual processional that begins at a large plaza where pilgrims noisily alight from vehicles to commence the walk of slightly over a mile to the Sacred Garden.
The brick-paved walk cuts through the Lumbini jungle in a perfectly straight, level line, shooting directly toward the Sacred Garden where Buddha was born. The point is visible in the distant horizon, the focus at the end of a long canal running along the centre of the wide walkway.
Once the pilgrim sets foot on the walk, his pilgrimage begins. The ritual of walking toward the Sacred Garden takes over. The trees planted at the centre of the walk at uniform intervals begin a cadence marking the pilgrim’s walk.
As he walks deeper into the Monastic Zone, his steps take on a rhythm that stills his mind more and more until the Sacred Flame appears, symbolizing the light of the individual soul, at the end of the walk.
After the flame, the walk contracts suddenly, squeezes the pilgrim between high brick walls, restricts his vision. Upon passing the constricting walls, it erupts without warning into an expansive semicircular body of water. Release!
The brick pilgrim path turns into a causeway across the still water, ending at the Sacred Garden on the opposite shore.
The procession masterfully designed by Tange brings the serious pilgrim into a state of calm, preparing him for his entry into the Sacred Garden, where he comes in emptiness into the birthplace of the Lord Buddha.
The processional walk, the “warmup” to the Sacred Garden experience and the “cool-down” walk in the return direction into the everyday, provides the spiritual experience worthy of one of the holiest shrines in the world.
Its design is a 20th-century interpretation of the Buddha’s principles laid down 2 millennia ago, as seen through the Zen vision of the celebrated Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.
Despite uncertain political situations, lack of funding and site-management issues, there, indeed, is continuity with the ages in Lumbini, a major world pilgrimage site that strongly conveys that aura of spirit of place.
ASIANEWS • NOVEMBER 20-26, 2009 33