I did not want luxury travel. I remind myself, I wanted experience. I wanted a story to tell. Still, after 11 hours on a bouncing bus with bad suspension, a seat that refuses to stay upright, a window that won’t shut, and loud Nepali music blasting in my ears, my discoverer side is wavering. I resolve never to complain about long haul economy flights across the ocean in the comfort of Qantas ever again. We have driven for hours through the winding jungle covered hills, across the plains they call The Terai, land historically so infested with malaria carrying mosquitos it was only inhabitable by indigenous folk. Eventually we are just 8 kilometres from the Indian border in the village of Lumbini. This is the birthplace of the Buddha, the prince born as Siddhartha Gautama in 623 B.C.
Stepping off the bus late at night into the dark dusty village is a shock, it’s dark as pitch with no electricity, we are promptly approached by Indian children begging, stray mangy dogs wander past, and people walking or cycling into the dark beyond. Lumbini’s main street is dirty and dusty, a short 100 metres of dirt road. With only spasmodic electricity the nights here are dark, as mother nature intended. It’s a very distressing sight that leaves me somewhat depressed. That long bus ride for this place?
History tells that Siddhartha Gautama left the palace and was so distressed by the poverty of the people outside the palace walls that he went in search of an end to their suffering. I wonder what he would think today, after thousands of years it seems little has changed. Can we humans ever change the suffering of others?
Tomorrow I will tour the site of the Buddha’s birth. In my mind I imagine a tour to a few shabby temples. I resign myself to practise being in the moment no matter what that reveals.
Next morning we enter the main gate of Lumbini World Peace Park, a World Heritage listed pilgrimage site for buddhists across the globe. My grim expectations of the night before are promptly overturned. Countries from all over the world have built their own style of buddhist temples here, to honour this sacred place where the buddha was born. We wander through miles and miles of paths nestled within The Terai scrub land. This is a remarkable place carved out of seemingly unusable jungle and swamp, turned into a place where peace is marked. No car or motor traffic is allowed, only pedestrians and bicycles. Strolling one hears only the sounds of water birds hidden in scrub trees. The winter sun lies low and red on the horizon, and many miles away the snow covered himalayan mountains peak tantalisingly through the haze. Hidden within the scrub, each monastic centre is a unique sanctuary of manicured gardens, monastic residences, temples, stupas and shrines. The contrast is not lost – manicured green tranquil gardens oppose jungly malaria infested marshland – paradise versus the netherworld.
There are so many temples. Three days wandering does not allow me to see all. Their variety is impressive: Myanmar’s emerald green and gold spire sparkles like a woman’s emerald jewels; Manang’s Tibetan monolithic temple depicts finely detailed thangka paintings telling Buddha’s life story. Germany’s statued gardens tell the cycle of the wheel of life, from birth to death. On and on they go, each temple telling a story for those who take time to hear it. Everything here has meaning. Hand gestures of each statue reveals a message (mudras – knowledge, peace, circle of life etc). Mandalas represent the wheel of life. Thangka paintings tell the story of fighting demons to find release from suffering. However, these stories are not just of one man, they are the story of us all. Humanity. Our story of peace versus struggle.
We each have this story. Life is peace. Life is struggle.
Bookmarking each end of the peace zone is the Maya Devi temple and the World Peace Pagoda. World Peace Pagoda is a white marble shrine, its purpose is to spread peace into the world. At the other end, kilometres down the central peace canal, we see Maya Devi Temple glimmering.
Maya Devi temple is the treasure of Lumbini. This, so the story goes, is the exact spot of Buddha’s birth. Queen Maya Devi, Siddhartha’s mother, nearing the end of her pregnancy, left the royal palace headed for her maternal home to prepare for the birth of her child. On route she unexpectedly began to labour, and gave birth to her prince son under a tree with her handmaidens in attendance. Some time after, Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, marked the spot where his son was born. Today this site is the Maya Devi temple.
We are required to leave our shoes at the beginning of the garden that covers several acres. We wander barefoot in the garden, past rings of stupas and monasteries erected in the 3rd to 5th centuries B.C. Past ancient stupas celebrating the Buddha’s teachings, erected long before the birth of the christian Christ. In the centre is a white building that houses the most sacred spot, a 3rd century B.C. archeological find (in the background of the accompanying photo). Inside it is dark, no photos are allowed here. People are quietly meditating around the perimeter. A centre stone marks the exact birthplace of the buddha; an ancient rock that lies behind glass and protects the mark made by the king where his son was born. It lies in the darkness. We shine a torch to see the exact spot where the buddha was born. The birth of a story too.
After a few quiet moments we exit the temple into the light, surrounded by bodhi trees with thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze (see photo). Monks, mediation groups, and lone peace seekers sit quietly across the acres. A group from a Japanese sangha are chanting softly. Local women are squatting, cutting the grass with hand shears.
On this site, story after story is revealed amidst thousands of years of archeological history. At birth the buddha took 7 steps, on each step a lotus appeared. Maya Devi was spellbound by the beauty of Lumbini, so she bathed in the sacred pool in the gardens, then grasped a tree and gave birth. All story? Perhaps. It matters not. The key message is this, we humans live inside the stories we create. True or not true does not matter. Fact or myth does not matter. What matters is how the story works for us. Whether we use it for peace or struggle.
Lumbini is a humbling experience. No wars have been fought in the name of the Buddha, so this peace site is true to its story.
I am reminded of the key messages we use to help our fellow humans when they are struggling with their own stories of trauma and pain – hold stories lightly. Perhaps there is a corollary too — when the story brings peace, bring it closer. Allow your peaceful stories to bubble to the surface and bring peace within. Perhaps this is a story I can tell to myself too.