Revolutionary may not be the word that springs to mind at the mention of Gautama Buddha, but that is what he was. Siddhartha Gautama was a radical who, throughout his long life, behaved in the most unconventional manner, constantly challenging and reforming the customs and traditions of his times.
His first, and more commonly known, step in this direction was to renounce his privileged birthright. Of Siddhartha's Four Meetings outside the gates of his father Suddodhan's palace in Kapilavastu-with an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a sadhu-the first three plunged him into sorrow and despair about the fate of humans, but the fourth offered him a glimpse of a path leading to freedom from earthly suffering. And so, at 29, the Sakya noble born in Lumbini turned his back on a princely life of pleasure and pomp and went forth as a humble seeker of spiritual fortunes.
It was Siddhartha's second unconventional act-another renunciation, really-that formed the basis of Buddhist philosophy as it is most widely understood. After practising severe austerity for six years, he decided he was not going to find enlightenment by abusing his body. His self-starvation was so extreme that he said later of this time: "When I touched my belly, I encountered my backbone. when I rubbed my limbs, hair, rotted at the roots, fell in my hands... But even with this extreme asceticism I did not reach the highest goal of human striving, true Aryan wisdom." And he wondered: Might not there be an alternative way to enlightenment?
Siddhartha then accepted food from a young village girl called Sujata, only to have five Brahman ascetics who had been his admirers immediately leave because they were "disillusioned and shocked" that he had accepted nourishment. But Siddhartha remained firm in his conviction that the Middle Way, as he had termed his realisation, was the path to nirvana. The Middle Way, as he explained it, avoids two extremes: that of indulgence in sensual pleasures and the other of the pursuit of physical torture, both being "ignoble and unprofitable". He once remarked to a group of young men looking for girls: "Which is better for you, young men, to go in search of women or go in search of yourselves?" When one adheres to the Middle Way, the Buddha said, one gains "clear vision, insight, tranquillity, enlightenment and nirvana." And he described this last state as "the end of sorrow".
But Siddhartha Gautam's most radical actions took place after he gained enlightenment and became a Buddha. And these are the acts urgently relevant to us today, and worthy of emulation. The Buddha completely and absolutely ignored all the trappings that arise from birth, caste, occupation and social status. His disciples included kings, courtesans, aristocrats, merchants, untouchables, slaves, and even a notorious ex-robber known as Angulimala for wearing a garland of his victims' fingers.
There is one curious deviation from his egalitarianism, though-at first he was reluctant to allow women into his sangha. He is supposed to have said to Ananda, his cousin and faithful attendant, that if women hadn't been allowed to found their own order of nuns, the dharma would've lasted a thousand years, but now that women could become nuns, the dharma of the Middle Way would only last five hundred years. He may not have been eager to accept women into the order, but the Buddha did admit to Ananda that women are in every way "capable of realising nirvana." And what do we have today? Self-proclaimed leaders, organisations and even national laws that consider women less than a man, even less than human, and believe that virtuous women are those hidden at home, illiterate, pregnant, slaving in the kitchen, bundled in voluminous clothes.
In the caste- and class-conscious, Brahmin-dominated society of the sixth century BCE, the Buddha treated the courtesan and the king with equal civility. Of many examples, two stand out:
In Vaishali, the Buddha received a dinner invitation from a famous courtesan, Ambapalika, which he accepted. Later, the city's nobles also invited him to dine with them. He declined, owing to his previous engagement. The second instance is exceedingly poignant, since it is speculated that it probably hastened the Buddha's death. At this time he was over 80 years old and in poor health. He was aware that his "parinirvana" was close at hand, and was travelling north to Kapilavastu, to die among his Sakya clan. Near Kushinara, he was invited to dinner by an untouchable blacksmith called Cunda. There is some dispute about whether Cunda served pork or bamboo shoots for dinner. What is irrefutable is that the Buddha ate whatever he was offered. All accounts agree that soon after the Venerable One suffered from stomach trouble and, given his age and illness, soon entered that state which he himself had described as "the end of sorrow."
There are countless examples of the Buddha's acts of compassion, tenderness, generosity, wit, and even anger. Of course, over the centuries, the stories and anecdotes have been embellished, if not fabricated, by his followers to make him look even better than he already was. But like many truly spiritual beings, Siddhartha Gautam discovered for himself a unique path that he asserted would lighten the sorrows and sufferings of his fellow human beings. For forty years, he tirelessly preached this alternative path to enlightenment, the Middle Way.
Today in Nepal- "the land of Buddha's birth", as we are reminded ad nauseum-it is sad to note that untouchability, oppression, deceit, corruption, discrimination and other social evils are rampant. The courageous Buddha dined with courtesans and outcasts, while our leaders carry out nefarious deeds under cover of darkness.
The Buddha promised no miracles, no divine intervention that would make us better people, but declared that with our own individual effort, we too, just like him, could achieve "the end of sorrow." It won't do for us to just hope our pillars of community learn some lessons this Buddha Jayanti. As individuals, we all need to. We need to realise that the change we hope for can only come from within us. The Dhammapada says: "The perfume of flowers goes not against the wind... but the perfume of virtue travels against the wind and reaches unto the ends of the world."
Come 7 May, thousands of Buddhists will have cause to celebrate. After years of discourse and delay, conservation work on the birth site of the Buddha is slated to begin this Buddha Jayanti.
"We still have to get the final excavation report from the Japanese archaeologist. It is behind schedule, but we hope to start work as soon as possible. People are running out of patience," says Omkar Prasad Gauchan, vice chairman of the Lumbini Development Trust, the Nepali caretaker organisation.
After the Mayadevi Temple Renovation Project, started by the Japanese Buddhist Federation (JBF) and the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), metamorphosed into the Mayadevi Temple Restoration Project in 1992, the sacred site has been under siege. First by an exercise to rein in the wayward roots of the pipal tree standing near the temple and later by archaeologists excavating the temple. Since then, the nativity statue in black stone, showing Mayadevi giving birth to young Gautama, which earlier stood in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, has been moved to a nearby shed while antiquities uncovered by the excavation (which go back to the Maurya, Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods) are kept in another shelter to which the JBF, the LDT and Nepal's Department of Archeology have access. Visitors have not been able to see any of these for close to a decade and conservation experts are concerned that the metal sheet and scaffolding shelter may, under certain climatic conditions, pose a danger to the archaeological remains and visitors.
A devout Buddhist, Gauchan believes the statue has been kept away from the public too long and that it is time to begin reconstruction of the temple. This is a far cry from the indifferent attitude of Kathmandu-based politicians and bureaucrats. At the World Buddhist Summit in 1998, archaeologists and conservationists were aghast when Prime Minister Koirala poured concrete while laying the foundation stone of the reconstruction of the sacred site, a complete no-no in conservation efforts.
They were even more taken aback when in April this year he summoned members of the UNESCO international technical meeting for conservation and presentation of the archaeological site of Mayadevi temple to his residence and presented a conceptual design he had asked a local architectural concern to prepare without prior notice. A stunned expert politely pointed out that the Sacred Garden had been declared an international heritage site in 1997 and did not only belong to Nepal. "The model did not keep in mind several conservation aspects strongly recommended by a UNESCO monitoring mission to Lumbini last April," says an architect who was present at the meeting.
The mission recommends that draft conceptual designs for the Mayadevi Temple keep in mind elements of non-intrusion, reversibility, shelter, visibility, focus, access, worship, authentic material and integration with Kenzo Tange's 1978 Master Plan of Lumbini-to leave the site as natural and untouched as possible. What Koirala displayed, says the architect, was "more suited to Disney World or Sentosa Island."
The mission also rejected four conceptual designs submitted earlier, one by Nepal's Institute of Engineering and three by Japanese architect Kumagai on the basis that the construction of a short-term temple (with an estimated lifespan of 100 years) will result in significant long term damage to the fragile site. None of the designs met the criteria in place for the project, as they utilised steel, concrete and other materials deemed inauthentic. Also, they all propose air conditioning to stabilise the environment of the encased archaeological remains. Such a system was required by all four designs as otherwise the exposed brick walls, the nativity statue and the marker stone would be subject to temperature and humidity extremes. "Air conditioning, however, would be extremely expensive. Then there's the question of inadequate and irregular power supply," says a UNESCO official.
Observers point out that no human blueprint, however grand or sublime, can ever do justice to Lumbini and what it means to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Already there is concern that Lumbini is giving way to tacky commercialism, encouraged by the easy availability of East Asian hard currency and competition between different sects and nationalities. Thai Temples, Burmese pagodas and Tibetan monasteries, on which tens of millions have been spent, vie for attention in an area near the nativity site. "The LDT supplies the plots, they design their own building," says Gauchan who feels this is an expression of the diverse aspects of Buddhism. Nepal's own plot is lost in the shadow of the Chinese and Korean temples.
Those who want Lumbini to remain a spiritual legacy to the whole world-and not be the stomping ground for a few sects with money and access- are closely watching the garden to ensure that nothing inappropriate comes up. Last month's UNESCO international technical meeting appears to have nudged things in the right direction. Nepali and international experts agreed on a conceptual design for a golden pavilion within the Sacred Garden of the Buddha's birthplace. "We have agreed as a concept to a timber framed structure that will support a gold-plated metal roof, but the technical details and design have to still be sorted out," says architect Sudarshan Raj Tiwari. The structure will protect the statue and the marker stone, and the former will be put back in its original place. A light wood platform will be built around them so that it will be accessible and visible to devotees. The 15 brick chambers in the area will be evened out and protected by three layers of old bricks excavated from the site, making clear where the original structure was and allowing for future excavations.
Such a structure would keep the site as natural and untouched as possible, as envisioned by Professor Kenzo Tenge, the man who drafted the original Lumbini Master Plan in 1978, funded by the UNDP. Tange's plan proposes to transform three square miles of paddy land into "a sculpted landscape to make the teachings of Lord Buddha accessible to all humanity" and is divided into three linear zones on a north-south access.
The first, the most northerly, is to be a residential village, cultural centre and accommodation for visitors and tourists. The second, or monastic zone, is divided into 41 plots for places of worship and it possesses a library, a museum and an international research centre
The final zone is the sacred garden-the focus of much international and local interests. Protected by a circular levee with the Ashokan Pillar and Mayadevi temple in the centre, the LDT in 1988 stated that the Sacred Garden "to be tranquil and undisturbed, the beauty of its plant life restored to create a reverent atmosphere in which to experience Buddha's universal message." The current conceptual design would make matters simpler, less time consuming and more cost effective.
"People complain about things moving slowly," says Gauchan. "But sometimes they forget the enormity and ambition of Tange's plan. Nepal cannot implement it alone."
A multi-volume report was recently completed by the JICA on the infrastructure development project of Lumbini. The report cites lack of resources and a lack of reciprocal commitment as reasons why Tange's Master Plan has been restricted to paper for the past 18 years. Says a UNESCO official: "Money is no bar. There are so many Buddhist and non Buddhist organisations, including the Japanese Buddhist Federation, UNDP, ADB, who are interested in developing Lumbini. More important is political will and an improved and efficient LDT."