Rajgir & Vulture Peak
October 26, 2008
[Click photos for a closer look.]
The sunlight was barely discernible as we boarded the musty buses in Bodghaya for what became a six hour trip to Rajgir. A bridge on the main road between the two cities, only 30 miles apart, was inexplicably closed and thus the Buddhist caravan of 11 buses needed to take a less direct route through small villages. Aside from the pain of being bus-bound for so long, the trip was fascinating for its close-up views of village life, and for its lack of the thin strips of urban blight that line most larger highways. The drivers skillfully averted slow moving bullock carts, or feckless goats wandering into the roadway. Our journey seemed equally fascinating to the people we passed, many of whom found our invasion a little shocking. The children just smiled and waved.
Fields of wheat, rice, lentils, vegetables, and fruits took turns passing in and out of view. The villages contained clusters of mud-plastered walls shaded by a few scrawny trees, set among patches of green or dun-colored plots, with colorful fabrics spread out to dry, oxcarts creaking by, cattle wandering about, and kids playing in puddles– a vision of harmonious simplicity. Even in the smallest of villages there were many little shops– often duplicates of each other displaying the same hanging goods.
As we arrive in Rajgir, notice is immediately made of the thick ancient city walls, the white Jain Temples that adorn the tops of the five hills surrounding the city, and the colorfully decked horse-driven carts that function as the town taxi’s. One often hears the drivers yelling “chella” (go) to their horses as their carts bounce along the bumpy roads at maximum speed. The makeshift marketplace swells with activity, and while it is one of the poorest towns in Bihar, the residents are busy shopping or trading for everything from bangles to rubber bands to late model electric fans. Rajgir literally means ‘house of the king’, and it is this dusty town that was once the ancient capital of Magadha, one of the most wealthy kingdoms on the subcontinent.
The Buddha was fond of Rajgir, and thus it is the religious importance and resulting spiritual tourism that is at the center of Rajgir’s economy. Many important and interesting sites associated with the Buddha are found here, and it is to the most beautiful and significant of them that we are headed for the sunset, the Vulture Peak, or Griddhakuta. The bus stops first at our hotel, the Japanese built Hokke Hotel, one of the first comfortable hotels in all of Bihar that initially catered only to prosperous pilgrims from Japan. To experience an air-conditioned restaurant, cold soba noodles, and a restroom with hot water, and linen towel dispensers in a town like Rajgir can itself be a spiritual experience.
It was in Rajgir that Buddha’s teachings were officially organized for the first time in what was called the First Buddhist Council, and it was on the Griddhakuta that the Buddha stayed for about 12 years, and delivered many of those important sermons. As we approached the base of Vulture Peak, we noticed the ruins of a monastery which marked the spot where the Buddha’s physician Jivaka offered him the Amaravana, an exquisite mango grove.
King Bimbissara of Magadha, a huge fan of the Buddha, had the rough broken trail leading 2,300 feet to the peak paved with large leveled stones. It was these very stones that Buddha and his Sangha walked upon, and up until just a few years ago, visitors and pilgrims did too. Now these great stones have been paved over with pink cement as part of some tourism plan to “develop” the pilgrimage sites. Ironically, the new pavings are already starting to crack and chip, while the ancient stone steps underneath it will easily last for another 2,000 years.
The sun was near golden as 250 of us silently climbed up the steep walkway in the footsteps of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). We paused to get a sense of the landscape that surrounds the peak. One of the great treats of being here is to see what the Buddha saw– the vast dry jungles of small trees and bushes untouched for as far as you can see. In the 13th century, visiting pilgrims would beat drums and blow conches continuously to frighten the tigers and bears that made the mountain their home.
Approaching the summit we walk along the base of the peak itself, a series of huge angled and jagged rock formations that resemble the vultures that were known to take shelter at the top. The rock is multi-colored and compelling beautiful to behold. Slowly we climb the steps around the peak to arrive at the top, passing a cave known as Sukarakhata (the Boar’s Grotto) where the Buddha delivered two discourses, the Discourse to Long Nails and the Sukarakhata Sutta. It was here too that Sariputta, Buddha’s most learned disciple, attained enlightenment.
Shantum Seth, and his sister, Aradhana, and I exchanged smiles as we all remembered so clearly the exciting moment when we first visited this spot 20 years earlier. Thay and his monks and nuns found their places along the top, and the rest of the lay delegation followed. With a surprising lack of chaos, and in just a few minutes the group fell still and silent– just in time to witness an extraordinary sunset. The rock face of the peak flashed colors from brown to purple to rust until it almost vibrated with golden energy. Retaining the heat of the day, the peak lent its warmth to us as the temperature fell.
As Thay sat happily in perfect form, my mind turned to the time of the Buddha, and I imagined Thay was the Buddha, and we his early disciples. Just over my right side, I thought I might hear the legendary wild elephant that was tamed when it came in proximity to the Buddha. Moments later I could hear the chanting of the Prajna Paramita Sutra, or the Heart Sutra that reminds us that emptiness is form, and form emptiness. I imagined Thay’s hand holding a flower as he remained silent, and the multitudes assembled for hours waiting for him to speak while only the great Mahakasyapa understood the great Dharma Flower teaching. Bathed in the last red light of the sun, and feeling surrounded by numerous arhants and bodhisattvas, I slipped into a deep meditative state.
Aroused moments later by the cool air, and then the sound of a bell, I gathered my gear and followed the group silently down the path taking great care not to step in the fresh pies donated by the local cows. Thay stopped to take one last look back up at the peak, and we all stopped behind him. “Beautiful as it is, you don’t need to seek the Buddha here on Vulture Peak,” said Thay with a smile, “as Vulture Peak is within our own hearts. We are all solid as this mountain, and we can always enjoy the Buddha within.”
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