Having traveled a day and night from India by motor scooter, train, multiple buses, and a short stint on a bicycle rickshaw, I opt to walk the last leg of the journey to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. The twenty-two kilometers of road cross the Nepali Terai—the flat, fertile region of southern Nepal stretching from the Indian border to the Himalayan foothills. Growing most of Nepal’s food, the Terai is covered with rice fields, each bordered by small stretches of sal trees and a grid of twisted grass footpaths. Nepalese women and children with enormous bundles of rice stalks on their heads walk along the paths to granaries, where a hand- or foot-powered blower separates the rice from the shaft. The Nepali waste nothing. Piles of rice straw line the road, to be fed to animals, then used again as manure for fertilizer and kitchen fuel.
It appears from the stares on the road that Westerners are infrequently in Lumbini. As the day heats up, I stop to rest in the company of a Nepali soap maker. Jumping down off his porch, this curiously Yoda-like fellow comes out to greet me, waving his hand with all of two fingers remaining and leading me behind his house. He insists I take off my pack, then sit, and finally lie down on a cot made of jute string. He climbs on an identical bed himself. We nap, then eat dal bhat, mushing the lentil soup and rice with our fingers and scooping it into our mouths, Nepali style. The conversation focuses on soap and religion. “A Muslim,” he says and slaps his chest with his hand. When I tell him I am Jewish, his face shows no response, and my explanation of our relation as ancient cousins exhausts his English.
Wanting to reach Lumbini before dark, I refuse his offer for another nap and continue down the road. Just across the Barganga River, I pass a faded metal sign with a beautiful picture of Gautama Buddha seated under the Bodhi tree. I stop to marvel at what is evidently a Buddhist road sign. On closer examination, however, I see that the Buddha is not sitting on the straw mat given to him by a passing farmer, as the story goes, but rather on a brick platform built upon the roots of the tree. The logo at the bottom of the sign reads, “The Siddhartha Bodhi Brick Company.”
I continue on. The quiet pace of daily life is perhaps not so different, I think, from when Queen Mayadevi traveled down a similar road just to the west, toward Lumbini and the auspicious birth of her son. I begin to imagine the idyllic gardens described in Buddhist texts, “blessed with blooming sal trees and masses of beautiful flowers, where bees of five colors hum.” I am to find, however, that like the Buddha’s straw mat, such simple splendor has vanished. In its place lies a reconstruction built of brick, cemented by a mixture of reverence, greed, and even violence.
It is thought that the pregnant Queen Maya, on her way from Kapilavastu to her natal home in Devadaha, stopped in Lumbini to worship the trees in the lush gardens, as was the custom of the time. After bathing in the garden’s pool, she went into labor under a tree—most likely the tall, cone-shaped Ashoka tree—and gave birth to a son while grasping a branch for support. Just after birth, Buddhist literature relates, the baby prince took seven steps upon lotus flowers and declared his intention to end suffering in the world. Eighty years later, close to death, the Buddha speaks of Lumbini, “After I am no more, O Ananda, men of belief will visit—with faithful curiosity and devotion—to the four places—where I was born, attained enlightenment, gave the first sermons, and where I passed into paranibbana.” True to his prediction, within three hundred years of the Buddha’s death, stupas and temples were built at his birthplace, the nativity scene carved in stone, and many pilgrims came to pay homage, including the Indian emperor Ashoka, the Buddhist monarch who replaced the sword with the Dharma. Ashoka visited in 249 B.C.E., constructing a pillar with the Rock Edict declaring, “Here the Buddha was born.”
Over the past eight hundred years, Lumbini fell into obscurity with the decline of Buddhism and the rise of Hindu and Muslim empires in India. Temples crumbled into ruin, Ashoka’s Rock Edict was buried, and Lumbini itself became lost on the Buddhist map. Only in the past century has what is now Lumbini, Nepal, once again been recognized as the historical site of Gautama Buddha’s birth. Until just last year, India had virulently contested the claim, wanting to believe—and have pilgrims believe—that the Buddha was in fact born within its borders.
In 1967 U.N. secretary general U Thant, himself a Buddhist, wept upon seeing the sorry state of Lumbini and called for international support for its restoration. Nepal sought to attract foreign visitors and tourist dollars, and to this end, the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) was established in 1978 by the Nepali monarchy under U.N. sponsorship, receiving much of its funding from the Japanese Buddhist Federation (JBF). Later the LDT adopted the title “Fountain of World Peace” for Lumbini, attempting to broaden its scope beyond Buddhism and propel it into the international arena. Kenzo Tange, renowned Japanese architect, designed a master plan for its development as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. The plan aims to restore the sacred garden and excavation of the Ashoka Pillar, the Mayadevi Temple, which dates from 300 B.C.E., and other archaeological ruins. The plan also included a “Monastic Zone” with construction of Buddhist monasteries from around the world, bringing monks, nuns, and, hopefully, pilgrims, to the birthplace of the Buddha.
Having walked all day, I arrive just before sunset and twenty years after the beginning of the Lumbini Development Project. I am prepared for the barrage of Indian persistence that I have encountered in all other places of Western attraction: children and lepers begging for coins; bananas and tchatchkes for sale; and men converging from all directions selling rickshaw rides, hotel rooms, and local hashish. But the center of Lumbini is quiet, almost abandoned. Smiling and chatting, people stroll slowly down the road. The only activity is a group of children playing in the street across from the sacred garden.
My guide is a Nepali man, who introduces himself as “Chinka,” Nepali for “small.” We meet in an empty restaurant in the center of town and make plans for him to show me around on his day off from cooking at a local hotel. Walking to the Korean monastery where I plan to stay, we follow a maze of dirt roads boxing empty fields and ponds spotted with lotus flowers, then continue along the side of Lumbini’s central canal. Tange had designed the canal in the center of the Monastic Zone to carry monks, nuns, and pilgrims among the various monasteries. The canal separates the Theravadin monasteries to the east from the Mahayana ones to the west. We pass a long line of unfinished monasteries in varying degrees of incompletion. (Of the forty-two planned monasteries, to date twelve have started construction.) Two, however, stand gloriously whole, ornate with golden pagodas and lacquered stupas. The Burmese and Chinese monasteries, both government-sponsored, tower above the rest. Later, I learned that these two regimes built them with unprecedented speed and efficiency, using political pressure and money to circumvent restrictions of Tange’s plan.
Despite not being finished, many of the monasteries do have monks and nuns in residence and offer room and board to guests, supported by donations. A visitor can stay with the Tibetans, Koreans, or Burmese and eattsampa (barley porridge), kim chee (pickled greens), or Burmese khauswe (noodle soup). The monks and nuns are happy to engage the occasional visitor in a personal tour or conversation over tea. Sadly, however, for all its intention to become a center for Buddhism, Lumbini and its monasteries have largely ignored meditation and Dharma teaching. A shining exception is Panditarama, a branch of Burmese meditation master U Pandita Sayadaw’s monastery in Burma where a German monk, Bikkhu Vivekananda, teaches vipassana meditation. Chogye Rinpoche’s Gompa also holds Tibetan retreats each winter.
Lumbini awakens at 5:00 a.m. The sounds of drums, bells, and chanting in Pali, Tibetan, and Japanese carry across the canal, and soon after, a sangha of dogs and wild jackals joins in. Time is loosely kept in Nepal, where clocks are set fifteen minutes off the rest of the time zone, as if to officially sanction a culture outside the world’s hectic routine. In Lumbini, each monastery rings the hour, as likely with a rusty kitchen pot or tractor gear swinging from a bamboo post as with a traditional chime or gong.
After a night at the Korean monastery and a breakfast that is noticeably indistinguishable from dinner the night before, I join the abbot, Juji Sanim, as he goes about his morning activities. In charge of a dozen or so monks and nuns and welcoming twice that number of pilgrims each week, he also personally supervises construction of the Korean Buddha Hall, still in its initial stages. A small man in a grey Zen jacket, he skips about the monastery, smiling and giggling, stopping frequently to play with a Nepali baby in the front office. We walk to the Korean construction site. Sanim speaks in Korean and broken English, pointing and gesturing to the crew of Nepali workers, an almost miraculous dialogue I was to witness again and again in Lumbini where a dozen languages are spoken yet everyone seems to communicate.
The workers make 50 rupees a day—about 80 cents—and live in the outlying villages, although some of them say they had once lived right where they are now working. Seven villages of mostly Nepali Muslims were relocated to make room for the monasteries. In exchange, they were promised improved utilities, new schools, hospitals, and jobs. “Sixteen years ago they moved our family and gave us very little money,” one man tells me. “Schools have never materialized and the work is only low-paying labor jobs.”
The locals are not the only ones to express disillusionment with the project and the LDT. The monastic community is quite frustrated with the lack of progress, citing Kathmandu’s politics, corruption in the LDT, and even intentional neglect by the Hindu government. The LDT was established to oversee the development of the sacred garden, villages, and monasteries, providing infrastructure and managing funds. I talk with Tashi, a Tibetan monk, over a cup of chai at the dal bhat shop near the sacred garden. When the conversation turns to the LDT and its progress, he looks around and lowers his voice. “In any other country, in twenty years they would have finished. Here in Nepal, look around and see for yourself.” He is right. To date, less than half of the planned development is finished. Money, he says, is slow to come and what does come disappears before it is put to good use. He goes on to explain that the LDT is in fact funded to pay laborers 100 rupees per day, but that most only receive 50 rupees, the other half disappearing along the way. Dinesh Tripathi is a lawyer in the Nepal Supreme Court and member of the LDT’s oversight committee, a political body that changes with the constant shifts in parliament. He says that 80 percent of the LDT’s budget goes to bureaucratic salaries. While corruption, waste, and neglect are common in this part of the world, even political veterans here say that Lumbini has been a nightmare. “The word pocket is supposed to be a noun, but here it is also very often a verb,” a JBF official, Rev. Hiroyuki Kawashima, told the New York Times in December of last year.
On my third day in Lumbini, Chinka accompanies me to the sacred garden where a stone marks the spot of Buddha’s birth. The word “garden” is somewhat euphemistic now. It is, in fact, quite barren of flora and fauna, more of an archaeological site with temple ruins, the pool where Queen Maya bathed, and numerous ancient pillars. In perhaps the grossest example of the LDT’s priorities, the five-hundred-year-old pipal tree that stood inside the Mayadevi Temple was removed five years ago. Having come to symbolize the original nativity tree, it was for Lumbini what the Bodhi tree is for Bodh Gaya. The JBF lobbied for its removal, saying that its roots were disrupting the archaeological ruins. Many here dispute this claim, all the more suspect because they say that the wood was shipped to Japan to build pirkas, or wooden stools, for wealthy Buddhist collectors. The Mayadevi Temple itself has been disassembled to uncover relics below and has yet to be reconstructed. Instead, a pile of ancient bricks sits in an empty field.
The darkest moment for Lumbini came in July 1997. Six masked gunmen broke into the Nippon Zan Peace Pagoda and shot Unataka Navatame, a Japanese monk. The gunman was released by the police following the shooting and fled to India, where he purportedly remains today. The five convicted men said the motive was robbery, claiming they thought the monk had a week’s payroll for his workers. But many here, including the Nepalese media, and an article in Himal magazine, have suggested a conspiracy in the government or the LDT in order to silence a vocal critic. Navatame was loudly outspoken about the lack of progress in Lumbini, often going over the heads of the LDT management and working directly with Kathmandu officials in different ministries and parliament to pull strings. Others say fanatical religious groups were angered by his advocacy for religious gatherings and his zealous promotion of Buddhism.
Meeting people like Thay Hugyen Dieu makes me optimistic about Lumbini’s future. Dr. Lam (as he prefers to be called) is a Vietnamese monk who arrived in Lumbini several years ago: “Six years ago, there was no one here, no monasteries; we were the first to build. It was very difficult: I had $60, and for the first six and a half months, I slept in the jungle under a tarp. I would walk into town twice a day and carry back drinking water. But we had a vision and we persevered and now it is starting to happen.”
While diplomatically working with the LDT, various monasteries, and the community, Dr. Lam has made a practice of quiet persistence. A tall, thin man with a gentleness to his words and movements, he has continued to push hard for progress even after the death of his friend, the monk Navatame.
He shows me around his half-finished monastery, beautifully decorated with thangkas, statues, and an indoor garden with exotic plants and trees from throughout Asia. We climb upstairs to the Buddha Hall, still just a frame, and Dr. Lam points over the railing to two cranes below in the grass. In recent years, some fifty cranes have nested in Lumbini. “I watch them every day,” he says. “There is much that can be learned from the crane. They spend time teaching their children. We have so many Buddhist conferences and we talk so much here, so much in theory, but not much practice.” Slowly the cranes take to flight, low to the ground, their enormous wings almost brushing the grass in slow, steady rhythm. “Every man is in the seat of the Buddha, but if they want to become the Buddha, they must practice,” Dr. Lam continues. “We can learn from the cranes. As long as the cranes stay, I will stay.”
A week after I arrive, the pace suddenly changes. Last summer the Nepali government and the LDT had chosen Lumbini as site of “The World Buddhist Summit” in hopes of promoting its development and new image as “Fountain of World Peace.” The conference had pressured the LDT to make progress in preparation for the arrival of delegates from around the world and a visit by Nepal’s crown prince. Roads were finished, power lines hoisted, and mounds of rubble cleared. The canal, which had remained empty since its creation some ten years ago, was temporarily filled with water for the conference, evaporating away in the days and weeks to follow. By the conference’s opening on November 30, Lumbini had a whole new look, with smooth roads, banners, and freshly planted shrubs.
The conference drew delegates from most Asian Buddhist countries and a few from the West to hear speeches about Lumbini’s development, history, and the possibilities for world peace. Ironically, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was not in attendance. Since 1980, the Nepali government, bowing to pressure from China, has refused to allow him into the country.
As my time in Lumbini passes, I begin to see that the Buddha’s teachings of dukkha (suffering) apply as much to this holy site as to one’s own mind. Bureaucratic greed, religious aversion, governmental sloth, community restlessness, and the dubious nature of success: Lumbini embodies the five hindrances. Like the beginning meditator, intending to quiet the mind and contemplate tranquility, only to find the mind anything but still, so it is with Lumbini. Just as the practitioner uses thoughts and sensations during meditation to gain insight into the nature of suffering and the end of suffering, so Lumbini’s challenge is to focus on its own inner conflicts. While it is far from utopian, this very fact provides the opportunity to teach the world about the Buddhist path to peace, not in the absence of conflict, but in its resolution.
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