The Hero’s Journey

A pilgrim reaches up to touch a statue of the Buddha Sakayamuni in Bodhgaya.Sunrise over a pond in Lumbini.Pilgrims in Lumbini Gardens gaze toward a modern temple constructed over the place of the Buddha's birth. Near the temple stands a column erected by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC.Tibetan prayer flags attached to a holy banyan tree in Lumbini Gardens.Monks in a Korean temple in Lumbini chant in a pre-dawn ritual. Today Lumbini is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site and monks from various countries maintain monasteries there.A corpse on a funeral pyre.The ruins of the eastern gateway of a palace in Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya State and the place where Siddhartha Gautama grew up.Early morning in a forest near Lumbini.Ascetics take part in initiation rituals at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers,a place known to the Buddha. The tradition of asceticism remains alive in India today and in numerous ways probably resembles the ascetic communities that Gautama dwelt in after his renunciation of the princely life. Yogis tending a sacred fire near the Ganges. The traditions of renunciation, asceticism and yogic practices known to Siddhartha Gautama and his gurus still endure in India today.The Neranjana River near Gaya.An ascetic bathes in a river at dawn.A leaf of the sacred banyan tree.Today Uruvela, the place of Gautama's enlightenment is known as Bodhgaya. The Buddhist emperor Ashoka built the first temple adjacent to the banyan tree under which Gautama meditated; however, the present great temple, called Mahabodhi, dates to the 6th century AD. For Buddhists, Bodhgaya is a sacred site and their most important pilgrimage place. Especially on full moon nights, pilgrims gather around the ancient temple for meditation and prayer.Nuns inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Buddhist temple at Bodhgaya. The statue of a meditating Gautama dates to the 10th century AD.A monk displays his reverence for the Buddha Gautama at the temple in Bodhgaya.Thai monks meditating on a full moon night near the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya. Along with Hindus, Sufis, Taoists and Christian contemplatives, Buddhists believe that only through meditation can a person attain to the higher spiritual life. Boats on the Ganges River in Varanasi.Hindu pilgrims at Varanasi perform dawn rituals on the banks of the Ganges River during Shivaratri, the Night of Shiva.Archaeological excavations continue at the ruins at Sarnath, known as Isipatana in ancient times. It was here, in a deer park, that the Buddha taught for the first time. The ruins are those of a Buddhist monastic community that arose on the spot in later years.Forest and a few scattered ruins are all that remain of Rajagaha, one of the great north Indian cities in Buddha's time — an eloquent testimonial to the impermanence of all things, an idea central to the Buddha's teaching. After his first sermon in Sarnath the Buddha spent the rest of his life, about forty-five years, traveling around northern India teaching.The mountain known as Vulture Peak, outside the ancient city of Rajagaha. Sakyamuni liked to withdraw here from the city for retreats of quiet and meditation.Ruins of the Buddhist university at Nalanda. In the Buddha's time Nalanda was a prosperous town and he visited many times to teach there. Centuries later, Nalanda became the largest and most famous seat of learning in the Buddhist world, reaching its peak in the 4th to the 7th centuries AD. Muslim invaders destroyed the university in the 12th century during their conquest of India.Ruins of the Buddhist university at Nalanda. It flourished for more than one thousand years until Muslim invaders destroyed it in the 12th century. These invasions not only meant the end of Nalanda but effectively sounded the death knell for Buddhism in the land of its birth.A shepherd on the plains of northern India.Sunset in Ayodhya, an ancient city mentioned in the Mahabharata. The Buddha Sakyamuni taught here on many occasions. Nothing survives in the city from Buddha's time, but today it is an important pilgrimage center for devotees of the Hindu god Ram.A Hindu pilgrim in Mathura. The Buddha sometimes stayed in Mathura, a pilgrim city on the Yamuna River, but is said to have been not very fond of the place. In Mathura he delivered an important discourse on the error of believing that caste conferred status and stressed that a person's place in society derived from his deeds not from his birth. Much later, during the reign of the Emperor Kanishka, a conqueror from Central Asia and a great patron of Buddhism, Mathura became an important Buddhist center. It was said to have twenty monasteries housing more than three thousand monks. Mathura also is known, among other things, for producing the first sculptures showing Buddha in human form. Early Buddhist religious art depicted the Buddha symbolically, as a banyan tree, or a lotus flower or footsteps, in keeping with his insistence that it was his teaching and not his person that should be revered. Today Mathura remains a Hindu pilgrimage center, but almost nothing remains of its Buddhist heritage, just a collection of sculptures and carvings in the local museum.Thai pilgrims in Jetavana. Though he lived a mostly peripatetic life, during the monsoon season, when travel became difficult and dangerous, Sakyamuni often stayed just outside the ancient capital Sravasti, in a monastery built in Jetavana, a park donated to the buddhist order by a rich local merchant. In the years of his ministry, Buddha spent more time at Jetavana than in any other one place.A Sri Lankan pilgrim reads the sutras in the ruins of a temple built on the site where Buddha's house is said to have stood in Jetavana.  The house was called Gandha Kuti or Fragrant Hut, because of the flowers and incense that his devotees used to leave there. True to his principle that not his personality but his teaching should be revered, Sakyamuni always remained wary of excess devotion. The sutras tell that when the offerings made by his devotess became overwhelming, the Buddha gave instructions that a banyan tree, the same kind of tree under which he had gained enlightenment, should be planted nearby. In Buddhism the banyan tree is a symbol of enlightenment, and devotees from then on were instructed to leave their offerings in front of the tree rather than in front of the Buddha's house.Thai monks venerating a banyan tree, a symbol of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. The Jetavana moastic complex was abandoned for nearly a thousand years, and today it is impossible to determine which, if any, of the numerous banyan trees growing there was the one planted on Buddha's instructions. Today pilgrims venerate an old tree growing a short distance away from the Fragrant Hut.Twenty-five centuries ago Sravsasti was the capital of the Khosala Kingdom and the largest and wealthiest city in northern India. Today it is a scrub-covered plain with a few ruins here and there.Just below the earth's surface in Jetavana lies a deep layer of earthenware fragments and bits of brick: homes and temples, the wealth of past generations.Sri Lankan pilgrims on the ruins of a stupa commemorating one of the Buddha's important disciples, Anathapindika. It is one of the few remains of the great ancient city of Sravasti.Boys carrying firewood pass in front of the city walls of Sravasti, still massive after more than two millenia of decay and erosion, suggesting the power and wealth that this long abandoned city once possessed. Sri Lankan pilgrims pray outside the the Fragrant Hut, the place where the Buddha's house once stood.Sri Lankan temple dancers in Jetavana. In addition to making offerings of flowers or incense at holy places, Sri Lankan pilgrims sometimes make an offering of a sacred dance. For this, professional temple dancers sometimes accompany Sri Lankan pilgrim groups and dance at revered sites.A Korean monk meditates at Korean temple in Sravasti. As in the other Buddhist pilgrimage sites, monks from numerous countries have built temples or monastic complexes at Sravasti to maintain a monastic presence at this sacred site and also to cater to pilgrims.Moonrise in the countryside just outside Sravasti, a landscape little changed from the one known to the Buddha.Morning on the confluence of the Gandak and Ganges Rivers. The Buddha would have passed here many times on his travels north of the Ganges and especially to Vaishali. It was probably this way that he passed on what proved to be his last journey.Spiders' webs grow on the grass covering the unexcavated ruins of Vaishali, a prosperous city in Buddha's day. Sakyamuni stayed here during his last rainy season retreat before setting off for Kapilavastu, his childhood home, in what would prove to be his final journey.The ruins of Kutagarasala, the most important monastery in Vaishali, where the Buddha delivered many imporant teachings. It is especially famous as the place where the Buddha agreed to allow women to be ordained as nuns, something revolutionary in the fifth century BC. The stupa once held the remains of Ananda, one of the Buddha's most imporant disciples and the one responsible for collecting and organizing Sakyamuni's teachings. It was in this monastery that, ill and feeling himself growing weaker, the Buddha is said to have consciously abandoned the will to live. Sakyamuni summoned the resident monks for his final teaching to the monastic order. He then announced that he woud soon die.Leaving Vaishali the Buddha walked northwest, hoping to reach his childhood home in Kapilavastu before he died. He and Ananda traveled together, staying in the villages of Hatthigama, Ambagama, Jambugama and Bhoganagama, all of which have vanished and left not a wreck behind. In those days in India kings, merchants and even ordinary householders venerated wandering holy men and often vied with each other for the privilege of hosting and feeding them. In the village of Pava, a smith named Chunda offered to host the Buddha and Ananda for the night. Sakyamuni, Ananda and Chunda shared a meal together, and soon after that the Buddha fell violently ill, possibly with dysentery. But by the next morning he appeared to have recovered sufficiently to continue the journey, and he and Ananda walked on.The stupa of the Malla Clan in Kushinagar, a small, isolated town in the Buddha's day and the place where Sakyamuni died and was cremated. An ancient sculpture in a Kushinagar temple depicting the Buddha Sakyamuni on his deathbed.A temple in Kushinagar, near the place where the Buddha is said to have breathed his last.A pilgrim makes offerings in front of an ancient gilded sculpture of the dying Buddha in Kushinagar near the place where he died, probably in his eightieth year. His last words were reported as follows: "Decay is inherent in all worldly things. Strive for your own liberation with diligence."The stupa at the cremation ground of the Malla Clan in Kushinagar. After the Buddha's death, the corpse was washed, wrapped in a fine shroud and placed on a funeral pyre of scented woods at the cremation ground of the Mallas, the local clan. For seven days people came to pay their respects, offering flowers, incense, music and dance. At the end of the seventh day the body was cremated, and the ashes, which had come to be seen as sacred, were divided amongst the rulers of eight surrounding states. These rulers later enshrined the ashes in stupas throughout northern India.A lotus pond in Sravasti. The lotus takes root and begins life in stagnant, dark, murky water, but eventually rises above it into the purity of air and sunshine and gives forth a beautiful blossom. For this reason, the lotus flower is a symbol of Buddhism, of the human potential to rise above darkness and ignorance to illumination and enlightenment.