December 28, 2009: Lumbini, Nepal
Lumbini is special because it’s where the Buddha was born. For 2600 years this village was little more than countryside with a sparse population and a few small reminders of its greatest inhabitant. Ten years ago a large stretch of trees and fields was set aside for monasteries. Since then, each of the Buddhist nations has built a large temple, shrine, or monastery in honor of the Buddha.
It’s 6am at the monastery and my alarm has just sounded. I would’ve enjoyed the extra sleeping time, but I’m hungry and enjoy the curry that is served every meal. At 7 begins morning worship, which consists of chanting and prostrations. Their chant is a flute-song of melodies made beautiful by harmony and devotion, and all the spirited anis (female monks) sing them with playful duty. With eyes closed at this early hour, their sweet song transports me to faraway places, to Nepal, in a monastery.
The fog here is wild—the thickest fog I’ve ever seen in my life. You can’t even see 10 feet in front of you, blurring trees in smoky ambguity. While there’s not much sight seeing to be done at this hour, I was completely enthralled by the fog and needed to explore. And so I rented a bike that was so rickety I felt like it was my first time on a bike.
Slowly as the day progress the fog began thinning and the outlines of monasteries begin to appear. The sun was rising lazy in vast empty fields, not a sound to be heard except the breeze. Up and down du sty roads, large joyful groups of Indian pilgrims, barefoot and dressed in colorful saris, walk off to the next temple. I too, end up visiting most of the 26 monasteries scattered abou the refuge.
At the end of the day I find myself a bit confused. With all due respect, what we have here in Lumbnini is a living museum. We have a bunch of monasteries and shrines to honor the Awakened One. But as far as I can tell, there’s not much happening here. I just see more instances of grand opulence and iconic reverence. And this seems to violate what I thought I understood about Buddhism.
The Buddha stated emphatically that he himself should not be regarded as God, nor revered as special—that his teachings were of utmost importance, not the person. He says “nothing is hidden in the hand of the master” and that each person possesses the ability to become a Buddha.
And yet, here in Lumbini you see once again many temples and objects of reverence that hold the Buddha on a Godly pedestal akin t o Jesus, Shiva, Mohammed, and the rest. No doubt he was an extraordinary person, for which the world is to be immensely grateful. But as I watch the rituals of pilgrims I can’t help but think it all contradict the Buddha’s ambitions.
For me, the Buddha’s presence comes near while sitting beside a peaceful lake this morning, watching the sunrise. The fog was just lifting and a big red sun was rising out over the lake. The tranquility and peace here evokes the Buddha, and with eyes closed I feel certain that his spirit is becoming stronger in my heart and mind every day.