Lumbini: The Birthplace of Buddha (Laura & Matt)
May 30, 2007
We excitedly board the bus bound for Lumbini and meet a man from New Zealand (John). I am literally shocked to see another westerner as I really didn't think anyone would stick it out in Tansen like we did. We chat with him during the bus trip and for the few days in Lumbini as well and learn that his experience was like ours, but he stuck it out for four days!
We have come to Lumbini to see the birthplace of Buddha. There are four places that were important to Buddha and the Buddhist religion: Lumbini (his birthplace), Kushinagar (where he died), Sarnath (where he gave his first sermon) and Bodhgaya (where he attained enlightlment under a Bodhi tree). We plan to visit each site as they are all relatively close together. Lumbini is our first stop on the Buddha tour.
For those of you, who like me, know very little about Buddhism, here is a basic introduction: In 563 AD, a ruler's wife gave birth to a son named Siddhartha Gautama. For 29 years he was sheltered by his wealthy parents in their royal compound. When he left for the first time and went out the front gates he saw an old man, a sick man, a hermit and a corpse. He was shocked by this human suffering and he abandoned his privileged life to become a holy man - fasting and meditating on the nature of life. Buddhism is complicated and has several schools within it, but basically it proposes the "middle way" - a path of moderation and self-knowledge through which human beings can escape the cycle of birth and rebirth and achieve nirvana, a state of eternal bliss. I enoy the peacefulness of the temples and the devotees and Buddha's idea that one doesn't have to be a starving pauper nor a rich man, but instead we can work towards something in between. There is no creator, or god, in Buddhism, but yet Buddha himself is regarded as a lord and grand temples are built in his honour. It is another contrast that I struggle with, but one that is interesting to explore.
Lumbini is a place that is eventually going to be a huge area filled with Buddhist temples from all over the world. Right now it is a huge space with a few temples and an odd building housing the actual spot where Buddha's mother gave birth. As we explore the area, I am shocked to see a man spraying pesticides from a dispenser while wearing no protection. I have to cover my face while I run past. No one else seems concerned, but I fear for the dog who lies lazily in the garden, and the Buddhist monks relaxing on the grass behind the temple. The Buddhist concept of "not killing any fellow beings" seems to have been ignored. I try to tell the woman at the Information Centre that the gardener should at least have protection, but she doesn't understand.
We try to explore a few temples on the first day, but the stone floors are too hot in the sun and we have to take our shoes off. We look ridiculous running from building to building and we decide to get an earlier start tomorrow and to bring bikes to cover the large distances.
The second day is spent idly pedalling from temple to temple. I am most impressed with Thailand's contribution and it makes me eager to return there. Matt wonders aloud if they will seve pad thai at the temple and our mouths start watering for the food. It will be good to return. We visit the World Peace Pagoda - a large pagoda built by Japanese Buddhists at a price tag of $1million USD. We are very hot when we arrive so we stop for a cold drink first. We sit at a table sipping a Coke as a starving, rib-protuding, yet tail-wagging puppy lies at our feet. The man running the restaurant seems oblivious to his panting breaths and emaciated body. Huh. If the Buddhist concept of karma is truly at play here, the owners of this restaurant should be worried. Looking up at the massive, expensive monument nearby, I wonder if perhaps the million dollars could have been used more effectively? Fortunately, there is a crane sanctuary outside the pagoda and a vast area of grasses and wetland has been set aside for the endangered bird. Finally, some middle ground.
I am torn by the contrasts of this place. On one hand it is wonderful to see the temples being built in the name of Buddha, peace and harmony. Yet, at the same time, we are in one of the poorest countries in the world where money and infrastructure is so badly needed. Here, wealthy Buddhists can come and stay in fancy hotels and kneel before statues of Buddha. Is that what he would have wanted?
We sit each night by the artificial lake that surrounds Buddha's birthplace, turning on our backs on the cell tower (seriously, is there no where else they could have put that eyesore?). We watch the sunset reflected in the lake and brainstorm about the other uses that could accompany the temples here (medical clinics, schools, etc.) The middle ground is an interesting concept, but after 2,500 years, humans are still struggling with perfecting it.
The road is lined with tall mango trees that tower over the bus as it bounces toward Lumbini. I watch closely as we pass and see that the branches are heavy with large green fruit: they aren't ripe yet.
In the courtyard of our guesthouse, when we finally arrive amidst the dust and heat of the little town, a large mango tree taunts me with its green fruit. Beside it, a pomegranate tree offers equally green fruit. I imagine the town in a month or so when sun-warmed mangoes can be picked from the tree. If only ...
The guesthouse is notable for two other things: first, a door to our room that is absurdly, head-crackingly low; second, food that is proudly served but quite dismal to eat.
We explore the vast empty area set aside for Buddhist temples from different countries. Most are under construction. Those that have been finished seem empty of devotees and tourists. I am left wondering why they are here: few, if any, seem to act as monasteries for a community of monks or nuns. Are these lavish temples engaged in a competition to see which country can build the best, most lavish monastery? If so, there is little of the Buddhist philosophy of seeking fulfillment via an inner quest, not the external, materialistic world. Nevertheless, I am drawn to the beauty of the temples, their artwork and peaceful gardens, and enjoy our time there despite the heat that burns our bare feet and drains our energy.
The place where Buddha is said to have been born is strangely empty when we visit. Inside a plain red building, a green stone sits under glass marking the exact birthplace. Outside, a smokestack-like sandstone pillar seems to attract more devotees. At its base lie flower garlands, stains of tikka powder, and clumps of children's hair. It resembles a holy place for Hindus which is, I discover, exactly what it is: Hindus view Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver, and the place seems to attract more Hindu pilgrims from nearby India than actual Buddhists.
I purchase a tiny sandstone statue of Buddha at a souvenir stand and dip it in the water of the pool where Buddha's mother stopped before his birth. I don't know why, but it was something I wanted for a keepsake.
That evening, Laura and I sit with John, a New Zealander we'd met on the bus, and Patrick, a young man from Switzerland. As the sun sets in a wash of orange light over the lake spotted with white cranes and lined with yellow grasses, John begins a caustic tirade. The artificial lake is an eyesore. Can't they find a better place for the cell tower? The food here is awful. The temples are a waste of money. Patrick interjects with complaints about "bloody Hindus" based, it seems, on his few weeks in India.
As the light fades, it all begins to feel out of balance: the caustic comments falling around me, the sunlight reflected in the still water, and even the green mangoes hanging plump with sugary potential back at the guesthouse. A racist comment taunts me to anger and I wonder about the Buddist idea of attachment, our material clutching for the physical world, the external, the search for comfort in things. I sit there as the beauty of a sunset is stained with John's sarcasm and consider how easily its beauty can be spoiled. I try to block it all out -- the barbs, the sunset, the humming of mosquitos -- and I fail. Later, their words are still with me and I am angry with myself for not confronting them, for not expressing anger or disgust. Would it have mattered anyway?
On our last day in Lumbini, we ride bicycles into the nearby villages. Mud houses with thatch roofs and tiny windows line the road. Chickens and goats wander in doorways. Despite power lines and bicycles, it feels like we have travelled back in time. This world seems to have changed little from the time that Buddha left his priviledged existence to live as an ascetic. I wish we had time to explore the villages on foot, but the sun is setting. We return to our guesthouse.
We depart Lumbini sitting atop a small bus beside our luggage, eyes streaming in the hot dusty wind. Mango trees move past in a blur of vivid green. Ahead is the border and India.
Our last view of Nepal is the garbage-strewn, sour smelling border town of Sunauli. A moneychanger's booth where we get rid of our Nepali rupees. A coke shared at a sticky fly-blown table and a urine-filled foetid squat toilet with broken porcelain. A man vomitting in a parking lot. Then, past trucks with ear-searing horns idling in the dusty road, past shops and beneath a "Welcome to India" sign, and Nepal is behind us. Ahead is India in all its jostling, sour, irrational, loud, insane wonders. I admit to being glad to be back.
Immigration officers sit behind a long table at the side of the road. We almost walk past them, but one calls us over. One of them likes Laura's name: "like a money plant" he laughs.
A bus takes us toward Gorakphur, bouncing precariously along a narrow detour through the countryside at one point. I hear a scraping sound, and a thud. I look behind the bus, expecting to see our bags in the middle of the road. Instead, I see a child sprawled atop a bicycle laying in the road, a woman screaming as she runs to him. Some passengers on the bus talk loudly, one speaking in the direction of the bus driver. The bus maintains its roaring, horn-blasting speed through the village. I am left to wonder impotently whether the child we'd hit was alright. By the sound I heard, I suspect not.
Before long, we arrive in Gorakphur.