The seat of enlightenment

By Upali Salgado
As the Ganges flows through Varanasi (Benares), one sees the spirit of Hinduism present in the people who gather in the thousands to bathe and pray, offering incense and flowers in traditional pooja near the ghats. Likewise, about two hundred kilometres away at Buddhagaya, the home of twenty-eight Buddhas, there is the majestic looking, very ancient temple and the venerated Bodhi tree, with the diamond-studded seat of Vajirasana Buddha. There, thousands of Buddhist devotees gather daily to observe Atasil and meditate on the impermanence of life and attempt to rid themselves of the suffering that is manifested in various forms.

The beautiful vihare of striking Gupta architecture has been referred to in monastic records of monks, dating back to the 4th Century AC.

Archaeologist Ale-xander Cunningham visited this site around 1880. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, an explorer, has recorded visiting the place of worship in 1811. Later, our own Anagarika Dharmapala, who dedicated his life to the struggle to take control of the hallowed site from the Hindu Mahanta (Overlord), was in tears when he first saw the neglected vihare. Long after Dharmapala's demise, in 1949, after India gained Independence from the British, the

Buddha Act was passed by the Bihar State Assembly, to give control of the temple to a Management Committee comprising of Buddhists and Hindus.

The vihare
The historic Buddhist Vihare is 170 feet tall and 48 ft wide at plinth level. Straight sides form a square truncated pyramid. The Asokavadana (Chronicle) and related records recounted by Chinese pilgrims, describe Emperor Asoka's conversion to Buddhism in the eighth year of his reign. The Emperor followed the teachings of the Great Master and became known as Dharma Asoka (The righteous Asoka) and not as Chanda Asoka (The wicked Asoka). He visited the Buddhagaya temple to pay homage everyday, and spent hours there. His Queen, who sought to have the Bo tree partly destroyed, did not find this behaviour acceptable. But with Sardha, the Emperor poured cows' milk to moisten the roots. The tree revived to reach a height of thirty-seven metres. The Bo tree we see today though is not the very same tree. Our sacred Bo tree at Anuradhapura is historically older.

According to Cunningham, the Bodhi tree in 1890 looked very much decayed. It is known that in about 1015 AC, devout Burmese pilgrims had haphazardly renovated the dilapidated structure of the Temple. Archaeologists say that this Vihare was built with red sandstone and lime. Relics and coins of a Kushan King, Huvshaka have been found. The important ‘Diamond Throne’ according to Cunningham had been located inside the Temple (it is now outside, by the Bo tree), at the spot where the main altar stands. This position has now been occupied by a beautiful image of the Buddha, in the Bhumis-parsha mudra (posture). The Vajirasanaya or Diamond Throne is beneath this Buddha image.

Sir Edwin Arnold, author of The Light Of Asia visited Buddhagaya around 1870, at a time when the whole place was under the control of the Hindu Saivite Mahanta. Having seen the shabby and neglected state of the Vihare, Sir Edwin with his incomparable epic, focused the world's attention on the situation, which prompted Anagarika Dharmapala (later ordained Bhikkhu and named Devamitta Dharmapala) to visit the holy place. He then resolved that the Buddhists should take control of the Vihare and the images. Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society of India. He moved from country to country, addressing gatherings about his noble mission, and received strong support from Japan.

The Buddha's enlightenment
No story of Buddhagaya Vihare and of the historic Bo tree would be complete without a reference to Sakyamuni Gauthama Buddha, and his Enlightenment. Ancient records say that Prince Siddhartha as the mendicant Bodhisattva in search of the truth about suffering and the way to end it, had after consuming milk rice, offered with great piety by a villager named Sujatha, regained strength and headed towards Gaya. Then a grass cutter named Sottiya had offered him eight handfuls of 'Kusa Grass' (a long leafed heavy grass of a bushy type) which the Bodhisattva accepted. On reaching the time-hallowed spot where all previous Buddhas sat (they were: Tanahnakara, Nedhankara, Sarananakara, Deepankara, Konnadanga, Mangala, Sumana, Revatha, Sobitha, Anomadassi, Paduma, Naradha, Padumuttara, Sumedha, Sujatha, Piyadassi, Attadassi, Dhammadassi, Siddhartha, Tissa, Phussa, Vipassi, Sukhi and Kassyapa), the Great Being who by then was free of all worldly and sensuous desires said to Himself, “this is the immovable spot on which all previous Buddhas planted themselves. This is the place for destroying passion's net.”

He then attempted to sit on the Kussa grass. The gods in heaven deemed it unsuitable for a future Buddha, so close to His goal, to sit on grass. For that reason, they offered Him the ‘Diamond throne’, which was indestructible and unshakable, on which the future Buddha sat motionless for weeks in order to meditate. The Bodisattva sat cross-legged in a dyana mudra (posture) and made a mighty resolution: “Let my skin and bones become dry and welcome...! And let all flesh and blood dry up..., but never from this seat will I stir, until I have attained the supreme and absolute wisdom.”
He sat there in deep meditation, reaching jhana after jhana. Mara (the evil one), sovereign of all passions and the personification of death, did everything possible to disturb the Bodhisattva from His mission, but failed. Mara caused showers of red coals, sand and mud to fall on the Bodhisattva, but failed to disturb Him. He finally caused his beautiful daughters Thirst (desire), Joy (tenderness) and Delight (raga) to sing and dance before the Bodhisattva hoping to seduce Him and break His jhana (concentration) but again failed.

Then Mara commanded; “Siddhartha arise from your seat. It does not belong to you, but to me.” When the mendicant heard this, He said to Mara: “You have not fulfilled the ten perfections (of endurance, courage, patience, love, dhana, gift of wife, children, flesh, eyes and royal rule etc.), therefore this seat belongs to me”. At that point Mara questioned, “Who bears witness to your having given these perfections?” The Bodhisattva then drew forth His right hand and touched the earth in the Bhumis-sparsha mudra, and said, “Are you a witness or not to my having given a great seven hundred fold donation in my Vessantara existence? Then the earth quaked and the sky thundered: “I bear witness to you.”

Mara knew he was defeated and fled in the presence of the Devas. The devas cried joyously;

“The victory now hath this illustrious Buddha won
The wicked one, the slayer hath defeated been
Thus round the throne of wisdom, birds and Devas, shout joyously...”
When He thus attained omniscience many prodigies took place. The Compassionate One then breathed forth a solemn utterance, which never has been omitted by any of the previous Buddhas.
“Through birth and rebirth endless rounds,
Seeking in vain, I hastened one,
To find who framed this edifice.
What misery, birth incessantly,
O, builder I have discovered thee
This fabric (craving) thou shall never rebuild,
The rafters (passions) are all broken now,
Your ridgepole (ignorance) is demolished,
My mind has now attained unformed nibbana
And reached the end of craving (desire)”
-Sutta Nipatha
(Translated by Lord Chamers)

At the feet of the Buddha

O, the Exalted One
The Enlightened One, the Blessed One,
On this Vesak Full Moon evening
I see the radiance of Thy smile
Overflowing with kindness and sympathy
Towards all beings.
Shining in milky white
Stands the 'stupa' in moonlight
The resplendent pinnacle
Performs a miracle
The bo-leaves whisper
Thy message to every passing breeze,
In my hands with holy fragrance
I bear a bunch of jasmines
The very emblems of purity
With sweet scent and beauty,
At Your altar, at Thy feet
I fall on my knees
And offer these jasmines
With heartfelt reverence
Gratitude, Faith,
Towards Thee, O Lord,
These same sweet, jasmines
With beauty and fragrance
Will fade and wither soon,
Their ethereal fragrance
Will be blown with the wind
Leaving a foul-smelling mass,
Here I learn a lesson
At Your feet O, Lord
That all components of beauty
Are subject to decay and death,
All beings born in this world
Can never escape death,
All components are transient
All beings are mortal,
What an eternal truth
You perceived with Your eye of wisdom
Death follows birth
Birth follows death,
This endless cycle of births
Is sorrowful all throughout
And the only way of ceasing this cycle
Is by following the Noble Eight Fold Path
And attaining the final fruit of 'Nibbana',
O, Lord, You didn't keep it a secret
What compassion and sympathy
Had You for sinners like us
Veiled with ignorance and lust
To disclose the truth You perceived
On this Vesak Full Moon Day
At the foot of the Sacred Bodhi Tree
After much struggle and pain
Through countless births of pain
On this Thrice Blessed Day
Let me have refuge in Thee!
Let me bow down at Your feet
And pay my homage to Thee!
In great hallucination
In great contemplation
Here I stand awhile
Unable to move my eyes
From Thee, O Lord!
- Malini Hettige

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