20-26 May 2016 #809

Buddha’s birthplace on his birthday

If visitors look beyond its neglect and crassness, Lumbini offers a spiritual reawakening
Seulki Lee in LUMBINI


Before visiting Lumbini, I had been warned that the birthplace of the Buddha was a neglected backwater, and the temples were extravagant structures by Asian countries trying to outdo each other. One previous article in this paper even compared it to a ‘Buddhist Disneyland’.

Contrary to expectations, a visit to Lumbini this week as preparations were underway for Buddha Jayanti on Saturday, was a pleasant surprise. The place is lush with sal and simal trees and teeming with birdlife. The World Heritage Site, all 23 hectares of it, has a refreshing green and calm ambience befitting a place of such important spiritual significance. 

Of course, the facilities and infrastructure are rudimentary at best. It is difficult to get to and get around once there, but that is better than an over-developed and commercialised destination dominated more by tourists than pilgrims.

Indeed, Lumbini became a place of pilgrimage as early as the 3rd century, when the Mauryan emperor Ashoka visited and erected his famous commemorative pillar at the nativity site of the Mayadevi Garden. Then Chinese and Korean monks travelled here and wrote about it in their chronicles. Today, more than 120,000 devotees visit Lumbini every year from all over the world. 

The sal tree which Maya Devi is believed to have held on to while giving birth to Siddhartha and the sacred pond where she washed herself afterwards are still here. The nearby archaeological excavation is housed in a white temple and visitors can look down on the nativity site from a gallery.

The Lumbini Development Trust, after being in limbo for decades, has tried to more or less follow the master plan for its development laid out by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in the 1970s. The forested buffer zone now has at least 12 temples and monasteries from Asian Buddhist countries.

As a Korean deeply influenced by Buddhism both in cultural and curricular upbringing, there were two aspects of Lumbini that made an impression on me. One was the peaceful environment with thick forests which almost recreates the world of the Tarai at the time of the Buddha’s birth two-and-half millennia ago. 

The other was the surprising sight of a golden figure of the Little Buddha outside the museum complex in which he points to the sky with the forefinger of his right hand and down to the ground with his left. 

While most Buddhas in Kathmandu Valley and elsewhere depict him sitting in a lotus position with his eyes half-closed in meditation, the baby Buddha figure here relates to a story in the sutras in which the infant Siddhartha took seven steps in the four cardinal directions as soon as he was born, then pointing to heaven with his right hand and to the earth with his left, proclaimed: “In the Heavens above and on the Earth below, all that exists in the Three Worlds in suffering, but I will bring comfort.” 

This mythical nativity tale is a dramatised version of the Buddha’s 45 years of teaching in this world: that each of us is born with potential ‘Buddhatva’ inside. Everyone of us can attain enlightenment.  This week, milling around the golden Baby Buddha in Lumbini were pilgrims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Japan. A visiting Chinese minister was also at the Maya Devi Temple, Ashoka’s Pillar, the sal tree and he even collected water from the sacred pond in his bare feet.

As in life, in Lumbini you see what you look for. There is neglect and crass commercialism, but looking deeper, a visitor can gain true spiritual reawakening. As the Buddha himself said: “You only lose what you cling to.”

Read also:

Buddhaland, Indu Nepal

Lumbini set to take off, Matt Miller

Lumbini’s rebirth, Kanak Mani Dixit

Leveraging Brand Buddha, Artha Beed