"The Buddha's Coming: A Trip to Lumbini" by Joseph Bengivenni
10 March 2010
In Korea, where I live, on April 8th of the Lunar Calendar, it is Buddha’s “O-shin-nal,” the day Buddha came. It’s hard to say when, exactly, the Buddha did arrive, but there might as well be a day to celebrate! This year, the Buddhist Calendar will enter the year 2554, but this number could be off by as much as 80 years, according to some opinions. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I even learned that Buddha was an historical figure. Like most people I know back home, my most associated image with Buddhism was the Chinese Laughing Buddha; 50% belly/50% smile. As warm and cheerful an image as it is, the further I’m able to progress into Buddhism, the more I’m amazed and intrigued to continue.
Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. Legend has it that he sprang from his mother’s side, but I think there are few traditions, although there are some, who still believe this. I think the story goes that he then took a few steps, lotuses blooming in his footsteps, pointed at the ground with one hand, and to the sky with the other, and spoke, “Of all there is above and all there is below, only I am Holy.” It’s been explained to me that it means everything is within yourself; you don’t need to look above or below. It’s a common teaching in Korean Seon (Zen) that your true nature is Buddha nature, every being has inherent Buddha nature already, and it’s a matter of “cleaning the dust off the mirror” and rediscovering it.
An interesting part of the story of the Buddha’s life is where they recount a dream the Buddha’s mother had at the time of the Buddha’s conception. “She was told that a special being, called the Buddha, was about to be born again on the Earth.” She was carried in her bed by the four heavenly guardians, up to the Himalayas. They “anointed her with divine perfumes and decked with heavenly flowers.” A white elephant with six tusks, carrying a lotus flower, came down from Heaven and entered her womb.
In Korea, when a woman becomes pregnant, it’s normal for them to have “a baby dream” where usually an animal, a fish, or a flower comes to them and enters their body. My wife’s dream was that she was surrounded by cats and two cute white kittens leaped into her arms and she embraced them. Just before my wife’s dream, I had dreamt that we were together and a spider dropped down onto my right arm. It turned into a snake, wrapped around me and bit me on the left forearm. I’m not saying that has anything to do with the baby, but it did leave me a little uneasy!
While I was in India, I took the opportunity to visit Lumbini, in Nepal. I took an overnight bus from Kathmandu and was dropped off a bit after sunrise by a long, straight dirt road that followed a large pond. It had been light for a while, but the heavy mist kept me from knowing when, exactly, the sun actually rose. Through the mist, I could make out a temple. I guessed that would be the sight where he was born, but it was the first of many international temples around the site. I made it to the ticket booth, unloaded my 25kg pack into a locker, paid my dues, and walked across the road to the place of Buddha’s birth. The building that marks the spot is unimpressive, and after many of the places in Asia I’ve visited, I was somewhat disappointed. It looked to me like an old, square, red bricked elementary school. The only feature that stood out to me was the stupa on top with the distinct Nepalese Buddha eyes, gazing in four directions. I wonder now if the architecture of the building was meant to imitate the architecture of the Buddha’s time. None the less, the park surrounding the building was absolute tranquility. Besides the building was the pool his mother bathed in after her labor. The area is covered in the brick foundations of the ruins of ancient structures and the braided trunks and bushy limbs of Bodhi Trees, sitting like Buddhas in meditation throughout the area, and lines and lines of prayer flags, catching the light of the sun as it peered through occasional gaps in the clouds.
Behind the building is Ashoka’s pillar, pointing out the place of Buddha’s birth that became the first modern evidence that the Buddha was an historical being. As I rounded the corner of the brick wall, I was surprised to see a handful of Korean monks and Korean women dressed in Hanbok (traditional Korean dress) doing a ceremony by the pond. There was a small group gathered around. I chatted with a couple of them, and then they headed out. There’s usually not a whole lot to talk about, but I enjoy the reactions when they see a westerner in another country speaking Korean.
I walked around a little, and then made my way inside the brick box. It was dim and a bit stuffy. The interior wasn’t much different from the ruins outside. Towards the corner, the boardwalk jutted out like a bridge. I walked over to see what everyone was looking at. Below was a spot marked as “the exact spot where Buddha was born.” I have no idea how they could know, but it’s possible that the architecture would have had a specific lay out or something so they would know, but it’s also likely they could have just picked a spot! As before with the date, why not?
I wandered around the rest of the grounds for a while. There is a long road that forms a rectangle with temples from several countries along each side. I returned to the main site. There were two monks beneath a couple of the Bodhi trees where the crowd of Koreans had been. I decided to follow their example and sit for a moment. For the most part, there wasn’t a whole lot of peace through out my travels in India and Nepal, but I remember the peacefulness I felt here. Actually, the only other spot that I remember feeling more at peace during the trip was in Kushinagar, the place where Buddha died and was cremated. I enjoyed my sit for another moment, and then made my way back to the Indian border, to the chaos, the struggles, the suffering, and all the things that keep us coming back, again and again.
Joseph Bengivenni is a teacher and Buddhist practitioner living in Korea. His blog, Somewhere in Dhamma, chronicles his life and travels.