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Lions Roar : January 2019
On the Mulagandhakuti grounds, there is a tree that, like the one in Bodhgaya, is said to be a descendent of the original Bodhi tree. Its spreading branches are said to symbolize the new growth of Bud- dhism in India. The temple exterior is embellished with spires, and the interior is graced by a golden statue of the Buddha and frescos depicting his life that were poignantly painted in soft hues by a Japa- nese artist. There, in front of me on the wall, is an image of the newly born Sid- dhartha taking his first steps. And there he is under the Bodhi tree, with Sujata presenting him with her food offering. Finally, there he is stretched out on his side in death—his final resting posture. ACCORDING TO the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha said it is of great bene- fit for practitioners to go on pilgrimage to the four places associated with the most pivotal moments in his life: his birth, his enlightenment, his first teaching, and his death. But bear in mind that the point of pilgrimage isn’t just veneration. As Shan- tum Seth explains, it “teaches us a healthy disregard for comfort. It helps us look at our own mind in an unhabituated way, and teaches patience and humility. You get to know yourself better.” When we go to these Buddhist pilgrim- age sites, we gain new insight into the Bud- dha’s teachings because we have a deeper understanding of his life and circum- stances. Despite all the cars, cellphones, and skyscrapers, you can still connect with the India the Buddha lived in 2,600 years ago. Village life is cut from same ancient cloth, and you can meet a modern-day Sujata, serving something sweet and ener- gizing. The rivers and caves you read about in the sutras are still there, too. Farmers still plow their fields behind water buffalo the same way they did in the Buddha’s time. On pilgrimage, says Seth, “The Buddha’s story becomes real. You’re seeing the whole context of his life. You’re breathing the same air he did.” In the Mulagandhakuti temple, I take another long look at the fresco of the Buddha stretched out in death. He died from food poisoning in Kushinagar, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. He was in his eighties and, like every other human being, he’d experienced various mundane ailments his whole life. Sickness, age, fatigue, death—these are the realities of a human body, even the body of the Buddha. Now, in this place where the Buddha is said to have spent a rainy season meditating, I feel as if he just whispered in my ear, then slipped out the temple door. He seemed to say to me that although he was not eternal, his teachings are, and the beautiful, inspiring thing about his being human is that it means there’s hope for all of us. We—just like the Buddha—have the potential to awaken. I stand in front of the golden Buddha at the altar and light a candle. Then, following my breath, I watch the flame dance and burn. ♦ Lion’s Roar would like to thank the government of India for its support of Andrea Miller’s attendance at the International Buddhist Conclave. The Mulagandhakuti Vihara marks the spot in Sarnath where the Buddha meditated during his first rains retreat. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 39