Early Buddhist scripture is heavily punctuated with references to places that still exist in Rajgir, a small city in the state of Bihar, in northeastern India. It was the early capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha and one of the eight great places identified with the life of the historical Buddha. The Squirrel Sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove (Veluvana), a place the Buddha described to his disciple Ananda as “pleasant,” and the site of…Early Buddhist scripture is heavily punctuated with references to places that still exist in Rajgir, a small city in the state of Bihar, in northeastern India. It was the early capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha and one of the eight great places identified with the life of the historical Buddha. The Squirrel Sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove (Veluvana), a place the Buddha described to his disciple Ananda as “pleasant,” and the site of many of his teachings, is pleasant still: a picnic-perfect park with a large pond and bursts of bamboo trees.

But it’s hard to image that the relatively poor but colorful town of Rajgir, or Rajagriha (which means “royal abode”), bustled with prosperity while the Buddha lived, that it became one of his favorite places to pass rainy seasons, or that eighteen practice centers flourished here during his lifetime. One month after the parinirvana—the Buddha’s passing into nirvana—Rajgir was the site of the first Buddhist Council, in 483 B.C.E., at which five hundred monks gathered to recite the teachings of the Buddha and to settle disputes concerning matters of doctrine.

Described in the Mahabharata as “large and beautiful, flowing with water, healthy and wealthy with fine houses,” the area is surrounded by five mountainous hills; one of them, Gridhrakuta, is considered more than any other place to be the Buddha’s home. “After being a guiding light to all for fifty years,” the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang wrote, “[the Buddha] dwelt much in this mountain and delivered the excellent law in its most refined form.”

I set out one day to climb the ancient, oversized stone steps of Gridhrakuta, known in English as Vulture’s Peak. As I ascended, all signs of modernity gradually faded, leaving only a panorama of green, dotted by small white Jain temples sitting like hats on outlying hills. What better way to practice walking meditation, I asked myself, than on what were literally the Buddha’s steps—placed here for him by the grateful King Bimbisara?

Closer to the summit I spotted several caves whose craggy rock openings were carpeted with moss and lichen. Earlier visitors had left offerings: candles and burnt incense and remnants of gold leaf. Sariputta and Moggallana, two important disciples of the Buddha, may have been retreatants in these very same caves; indeed, the Buddha himself is said to have occupied a cave farther to the west.

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