Everyone has their pilgrimage. For some, it’s going to Graceland to see the home of Elvis Presley. For others, it’s stopping by Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris to view the burial place of Jim Morrison. For me, it’s Sarnath, India, the site of the Gautama Buddha’s first sermon after attaining enlightenment.
Just a few clicks northeast of Varanasi (Wow Place #86), Sarnath is an unassuming place. Along with a few nice ruins, the historical site has a scattering of meditation halls and administrative buildings, and one VERY old tree. Is it the original tree under which the Buddha delivered his first talk? Apparently not. Sarnath’s current tree was planted in 1931. However, legend has it that this tree came from a shoot of the “Bodhi tree” in Sri Lanka (the oldest continually documented tree in the world), which itself came from the “Bodhi tree” in Bodh Gaya, where the historical Buddha attained enlightenment. Think of it like the Olympic flame, only passed along from generation to generation, all the way from the Buddha’s time in 528 BCE. Like I said, it’s a very old tree.
I’d love to say that I when I sit under Sarnath’s Bodhi tree, following in Gautama’s footsteps, I attain my own enlightenment. Wouldn’t that be a great story! Alas, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Of course it doesn’t! The site definitely has a vibe, though. If you close your eyes, you can imagine a lone figure sitting right there, surrounded by acolytes hearing the dharma for the first time and beginning to meditate. My own meditation under the tree only lasts for 20 minutes, but it’s a good one. I feel calm and at one – not something you feel all the time when traveling in hectic India. Afterwards, I get to talking with a few fellow travelers standing in a bunch by one of the nearby buildings.
“Hey guys, what’s going on?”
“The Dalai Lama is here to administer a ceremony!”
“THE Dalai Lama?”
“Yeah, he’s right over there, in that building.”
Remarkably, there’s no security in sight. Quietly I sidle over to the building and look in a dusty window. There he is, no doubt about it. The head of the Tibetan government in exile is standing on a stage at the front of the room, chanting prayers to a room full of rapt followers. I’m starstruck – what can I say? This is my Elvis!
I never do get to actually meet the Dalai Lama, alas. But that’s okay. I came for a buddha of the past and stumbled upon a bodhisattva of the present. Now that is a great pilgrimage!
(Very rarely does the final destination of a pilgrimage involve a moment of enlightenment. It’s always the journey to that pilgrimage location that comprises the most value. What goals have you set for yourself? What lessons did you learn along the way? The trick is managing your expectations, and staying present for every moment in the journey. What’s your next pilgrimage?)