Prior to the Buddha’s passing away into final nirvana (pari-nirvana), his beloved attendant, Venerable Ananda, expressed concern as to how the Buddha’s disciples would pay respect to him following his death. The Buddha responded:
There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four? ‘Here the Tathagata [the one who has gone beyond all transitory phenomena] was born.’ ‘Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened.’ ‘Here the Tathagata set in motion the wheel of the dhamma.’ ‘Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of nibbana in which no element of clinging remains!’ And the monk, the nun, the layman or laywoman who has faith should visit these places. And whoever, Ananda, should die on such a pilgrimage with his heart established in faith, at the breaking up of the body after death will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. (Digha Nikaya 16.5)
These words have inspired multitudes throughout the centuries to visit the sites of the Buddha’s life. For practitioners, devotion (saddha) that develops from a deep understanding of the dharma and a heartfelt appreciation of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha is not blind faith but rather a key factor in the “balance of faculties” necessary for final liberation. For many, especially practitioners in Buddhist Asia, pilgrimage to the four sacred sites in India and Nepal represents the realization of a lifelong dream to honor the triple gem of Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
Almost all the important sites related to the Buddha’s life are in the ancient Middle Land (Majjhimadesa), which the Buddha crossed on foot many times during his 45-year teaching career. Nowadays, this area constitutes the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as well as southern Nepal. (The name “Bihar” is derived from the Pali word vihara, which refers to the Buddhist monasteries that once dotted the region.)
About two hundred years after the Buddha’s passing, the Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka (Pali, Asoka) expended great effort to preserve the Buddha’s teachings as well as the pilgrimage sites, erecting identifying pillars at the sites that have helped subsequent generations of pilgrims. Beginning around 12 C.E., however, the Buddhist sites in India ceased to be active as the dharma disappeared from its land of origin. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, in consequence of the interest and dedication of a few British Orientalists (foremost among them the archaeologist Alexander Cunningham), that the sites were “rediscovered” and reopened. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan Buddhist activist Anagarika Dharmapala, together with many Sri Lankan and Burmese monks and laypeople, helped restore and revive Bodhgaya and Sarnath as well as other complexes, making it possible for people to visit them again. Thousands of pilgrims now flock to the Buddhist sacred sites every year between December and March.
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