Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Navel of the Earth: Buddhist India

Siddhartha on his horse, Kanthaka, with Channa as he renounces household life (Sims)

Tonight under the blood moon is New Year's Eve in Long Beach as in Bangladesh (the Vanga Kingdom next to the Magadha Kingdom), formerly regions in ancient Buddhist India. 

The region (now a Muslim country) was part of modern India up until 1947 when it was created overnight by the exiting British colonial power's Partition).

The Bangladeshi Theravada Buddhist community has two temples in California, one here and one in Riverside. Long Beach is an industrial port town of Los Angeles -- where the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose are docked, an enormous glass pyramid stands as a beacon to wisdom (CSULB), and where the Dalai Lama used to make annual visits to teach -- as it abuts Orange County.

The area is full of Buddhist temples: Cambodian and Thai Wats, a Japanese pagoda, a Tibetan gompa, a Chinese nunnery dedicated to Kwan Yin (formerly Catholic), and Vietnamese Buddhist temples as well. Gathering to remember the Buddha, the community recited the precepts and the Abbot spoke of Ven. Dhammika's book on the place where Siddhartha gained liberating insight to become the Buddha, the great teacher of the Dharma.
Tibetan monastics around the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India (Shene81/flickr)
Going to Sambodhi
Ven. Shravasti Dhammika (Australian, ordained in Sri Lanka, living in Singapore)
I renounce these riches and responsibilities.
Bodh Gaya is a large village in the southern part of the Indian state of Bihar (viharas). The environment around the village is rural, being made up of cultivated areas interspersed with open ground on which grow mango, tamarind, and palm trees. Beside the village flows the wide but shallow Lilajan river.

In Buddhist texts, the river is call Neranjara, a name derived form the words pleasant (nelan) or alternatively blue (nila) and water (jalam). About a mile downstream from Bodh Gaya, the Lilanjan joins the Mohana to form the Phalgu river, which flows past Gaya and is considered sacred to Hindus.

Great clan territories of ancient India
The name Bodh Gaya has been spelled variously as Buddha Gaya, Boodha Gaya, Buddh Gya, Bauddha Gyah, and Bodhi Gaya. In any of its forms, it is not an old name, first occurring in the spurious inscription of Amaradeva, a document of uncertain but recent date (Buddha Gaya: the Great Buddhist Temple, the Hermitage of Sakya Muni, Rajendralala Mitra, 1878, p.201).

At the time of the Buddha, the village was named Uruvela. According to Dharmapala, it was given this name because of a large amount of sand (vela) in the area. He tells a delightful story to explain all the sand:

Siddhartha finds a pleasant riverside grove and sturdy tropical tree for striving.
[The Sand, all this Sand!]
In the distant past, long before the Buddha, a company of wandering ascetics lived in the area. They could tell who among them had committed an unwholesome bodily or verbal deed but not if they had had an unwholesome thought. So they came to an agreement among themselves that whoever should think an unwholesome thought would bring sand in a leaf basket. Soon the entire area was covered with sand (Udana Atthakatha, p.26).

Other sources say the village was given the name on account of a vilva tree (Aegie marmelas) growing nearby (ASI, 1908-09, p.144). It seems that within two centuries of the Buddha's great awakening, the name Uruvela fell out of use and was replaced by four other names:
  1. Sambodhi
  2. Bodhimanda
  3. Vajrasana
  4. Mahabodhi
Great Enlightenment Temple, Bodh Gaya, India
The oldest and now least commonly used of these names was Sambodhi, meaning "complete enlightenment." In the Eighth Rock Edict issued in 256 BCE, Indian Emperor Asoka says he "went to Sambodhi" (ayaya Sambodhi) referring to his pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya four year earlier (The Edicts of King Asoka, Ven. S. Dhammika, 1993, p.12).

Another ancient name, Bodhimanda, refers to the circular area around the Bodhi tree. The Kalingabodhi Jataka describes the Bodhimanda before Siddhartha's enlightenment as being covered with silvery sand without a blade of grass growing on it and with all the surrounding trees and flowering shrubs bending, as if in homage, toward the Bodhi tree (Jataka, Vol. IV, p.233).

The exact place where the Buddha sat when he was enlightened was called Vajrasana meaning the "Diamond  or Adamantine Throne." 

It is believed that when the universe finally disintegrates, this will be the last place to disappear and that it will be the first place to form when the universe ["world-system," possibly simply a galaxy or merely a solar system, sakwala] begins to re-evolve again.

The ascetic Siddhartha (AB)
The Vajrasana was also sometimes called the "Victory Throne or Palanquin of all Buddhas" (Sabbabuddhanam Jayapallankam) or "the Navel of the Earth" (Pathavinabhi) (Jataka, loc. cit; Buddhacarita, XIII, 68).

In later centuries, the name Vajrasana came to be used for the exact location of Prince Siddhartha's enlightenment, for the temple built over it (Vajrasana Gandhakuti) [a kuti being a meditation hut, cell, resort, or small hermitage site], then for the general location.

The most widely used and also the most enduring of Bodh Gaya's names was Maha-Bodhi, meaning "Great Enlightenment." Originally a term for Siddhartha's experience, it later came to be used as the name for the place where that experience had occurred. Alexander Cunningham mentioned that this name was still in vogue in the 19th century (Mahabodhi or the Great Buddhist Temple Under the Bodhi Tree at Buddha Gaya, reprint, undated, p.2).
Modern India is no longer tolerant of sexism, discrimination, and rape (aljazeera.com)
The Buddha's experience at Uruvela not only resulted in the location changing its name to Bodh Gaya, but it has also meant that this otherwise obscure village has been the focus of attention for million of pilgrims for over two millennia.

It very early became and remains the most important place of Buddhist pilgrimage (Sanskrit yatra). Those who see Buddhism as an entirely rational religion will insist that it has no
place for practices like "pilgrimages."

However, this view is somewhat at odds with what the Buddha is reputed to have said on the subject. Just before his final nirvana, he encouraged all of his followers to visit at least once in their lives four places where pivotal events in his life occurred: birth (Lumbini), enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), teaching (Isipatana), and passing (Kusinara).

"Buddhist Circuit" now visited by train, the Mahaparinirvan Express: official pilgrimage sites in Northern India between Afghanistan (Gandhara/Kamboja) and Bangladesh (Vanga).

"Ananda, there are four places the sight of which will arouse strong emotion in those with confidence (saddha, conviction, faith). Where are these four? 'Here the Tathagata [the Wayfarer, the Welcome One, the Well-Gone One, the Buddha] was born' is the first place. 'Here the Tathagata attained enlightenment' is the second place. 'Here the Tathagata set rolling the Wheel of the Dharma' is the third place. 'Here the Tathagata passed into final-nirvana without remainder' is the fourth place. 
"The monastic or layperson who has confidence [in the Buddha's enlightenment, the Dharma's ability to lead those who practice in accordance with it to enlightenment, and the noble Sangha's success by having practiced] should visit these places. Anyone who dies while making the pilgrimage to these destinations with a devoted heart will, at the break up of the body, be reborn in [a] heaven" (Digha Nikaya, "Long Discourses of the Buddha," Vol. II, p.147).

(Chandrasekaran arum.../flickr.com)
While it is true that the Buddha had high regard for reason and intellect, he did not underestimate the importance of emotion in all human endeavors, including the quest for enlightenment and liberation.

For the devout person seeing the Buddha or simply recollecting him (Buddhanussati) can evoke a joy which, when channeled and purified, can be transformational.

Going to a place made sacred by the Buddha's presence, or even the process of getting there, can have a similar effect. On the open road, away from mundane preoccupations and familiar surroundings, the pilgrim has time to think about her life and practice of the Dharma.

The arduous, steady progress toward the goal may become analogous to the pilgrim's journey on the Noble Eightfold Path and stimulate the determination to walk the Path with more commitment. On finally reaching the goal, the pilgrim will see places and sights associated with the Buddha, which can arouse intense conviction and provide the opportunity for deep contemplation.
Bodh Gaya is now the "most amazing Buddhist city in the world," says Wisdom Quarterly, with exemplary temples from every Buddhist country on Earth. This tree-lined walk leads to Big Japanese Buddha ( John Seung-Hwan Shene/Shene81/flickr).

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