“Pleasant is Vaisali,” the Buddha reportedly remarked to his attendant Ananda. “Pleasant are its shrines and gardens.” The first thing you notice about Vaisali, Siddhartha’s first stop on his quest for enlightenment, are the trees, tall and with immense parasol foliage. They bestow a sense of peace and majesty upon this lovely village north of the Ganges. Indeed, during the time of the Buddha, Vaisali was renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in India, counting among its many charms hundreds of lotus ponds and ten square miles of broad lanes lined with mango and banana trees. The trees of Vaisali are memorialized in an image carved almost two thousand years ago on the great stupa at Sanchi, three hundred miles to the south. In the carving, a monkey offers honey to Shakyamuni Buddha under these very same mango trees, rooted in soil that nourished the foundations of democracy as well as Buddhism.

The first thing you notice about Vaisali, Siddhartha’s first stop on his quest for enlightenment, are the trees, tall and with immense parasol foliage. They bestow a sense of peace and majesty upon this lovely village north of the Ganges. Indeed, during the time of the Buddha, Vaisali was renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in India, counting among its many charms hundreds of lotus ponds and ten square miles of broad lanes lined with mango and banana trees. The trees of Vaisali are memorialized in an image carved almost two thousand years ago on the great stupa at Sanchi, three hundred miles to the south. In the carving, a monkey offers honey to Shakyamuni Buddha under these very same mango trees, rooted in soil that nourished the foundations of democracy as well as Buddhism.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, Vaisali was the capital of the Licchavi Republic, which may have been one of the earliest democratic republics in history. Archaeological excavations reveal that an ancient parliament house flourished here in the sixth century B.C.E. Shakyamuni Buddha was apparently so impressed by the republic’s frequent public assemblies, reverence for elders, and respect for women, that he said to his disciple Ananda, “So long as this is the case, the growth of the [the people of Vaisali] is to be expected, not their decline” (Mahaparinibbana Sutta).

What we know for sure is that among the groves of Vaisali, Siddhartha Gautama became the student of the elder Alara Kalama, a teacher renowned for being able to maintain a meditative state even on the city’s noisy streets. Under Kalama’s tutelage, Siddhartha learned how to reach the higher states of meditation known as the jhanas, and within a year Kalama had invited him to help lead his community of three hundred disciples. But the Buddha-to-be was beginning to realize that, despite his advancement in the jhanas, Kalama’s teachings were not freeing him from suffering.

Siddhartha moved on from Vaisali to Bodh Gaya, and five years later he returned to the city as the Buddha, the “awakened one,” bringing with him his unique insights as well as a retinue of five hundred monks. As a result of the Buddha’s influence, Vaisali became a flourishing center for the practice of the Middle Way between materialism and extreme asceticism.

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