The Four Buddhism Holy Sites, Sacred Places

(I) An overview of the Four Holy Places – The four Buddhist Holy, Sacred Places, or Pilgrimage Sites in India

According to the Buddhist tradition, every year Buddhists often go on a pilgrim to the Buddhist centers in India and Nepal associated with the life of the Buddha. According to The Spectrum of Buddhism, written by Bhikkhu Bodhi, while staying in the Sala Grove at Kusinara a few hours before he attained parinirvana, the Supreme Buddha, at the age of eighty, addressing the Venerable Ananda, his most dutiful and beloved attendant about the four holy places of Buddhism. The Buddha said: “There are four holy places, the sight of which will arouse strong feelings of reverence. Those who have faith should visit these places. And whoever, Ananda, should die on the pilgrimage trip with his heart full of faith, at the breaking up of the body, after, he will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. Thus, devotees should visit with feelings of inspiration.” When we make a trip to these Buddhist Sacred places, we will see the image of the Buddha not in the ruins of these places, but His image lively appears everywhere. The four holy places are: Lumbini, in Nepal, where Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born; Bodhgaya where Prince Siddhartha gained enlightenment; Sarnath where the Buddha set in motion the Wheel of the Dharma; and Kusinagara where the Buddha entered final Nirvana.

Map of Nepal and borders of North India

(II) A summary of the Four Holy Places

1) Lumbini, the birth-place of the Buddha:

Lumbini Park, now is known as Rummindei in Nepal which is the Birth Place of Prince Siddhattha (the Buddha). Situated one hundred miles north of Benares, the full range of the snow-crowned Himalayas can be seen.

2) Buddha-Gaya in India, where the Buddha attained Enlightenment

Buddhagaya or Bodhi Gaya in India, the most sacred place to all the Buddhists in the world, where the Buddha became enlightened (the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment) on the full moon day of December as the sun rose in a glowing eastern sky, at the the age of thirty-five.

3) Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon:

Isipatana or presently Sarnath in India, where the Buddha set in motion the Wheel of the Dharma (preached his first sermon about the Four Noble Truths) on the full moon day of Asalha (July).

4) Câu Thi Na, nơi Đức Phật Nhập Diệt—Kusinagara, where the Buddha passed away: Câu Thi Na nơi Phật nhập diệt (lúc Ngài 80 tuổi) trong rừng Ta La Song Thọ, nằm trong vùng Uttar Pradesh khoảng 120 dậm về phía Đông Bắc của Baranasi: Kusinara, presently Kusinagara in Northern India where the Buddha entered Nirvana (at the age of eighty) under the Tala trees. It is in Uttar Pradesh about 120 miles north-east of Baranasi—See Câu Thi Na in Chapter 15 (C).

(III) Chi tiết về Tứ Động Tâm—Details on the Four Holy Places

1) Lumbini (skt & p)

Guiding map at the gate of Lumbini

a) Lumbini, name of a park, one of the four sacred places in Buddhism (other sacred places are Buddha Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinara), the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama (almost 2,600 years ago), who became the Buddha. It is near the capital of Kapilavastu of the Sakya tribe, in the foohill of Himalayas. The place is now known as Rummindei within the territory of Nepal, about 15 miles east of Kapilavastu. It is the place where Queen Maya, on the way from Kapilavastu to her parental home in Devadaha, gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, in the month of May in the years 624 B.C. in a beautiful garden full of green and shady Sal trees.

Gate to Lumbini

b) According to Buddhist legends of the Buddha’s life, it is said that she gave birth standing up, with her arms against a tree, and the future Buddha stepped out of her side. In Lumbini there had been many establishments, but very few are now in existence. At the present time, there exists a stone column that king Asoka had erected there on the occasion of a pilgrimage in the 249 or 250 BC. The inscription reads: “Twenty years after his coronation King Devanapiya Piyadasi came here and commemorated his veneration because the Buddha, the sage of the Sakya clan, was born here. He had a stone relief and a stone column set up to show that here a venerable one was born. He exempt the village of Lumbini from taxes and reduces its tribute.” The statement of King Asoka on the stone pillar proves the identity of the sanctified spot beyond any doubt. Besides the pillar, there is an ancient shrine with an image representing the nativity of the Buddha as described in the sacred texts. Recently, people built in Lumbini garden Maya Devi Temple right on the side of the sacred pond in which Queen Maya took a bath before delivery of Prince Siddarttha. Nowadays, beside a large monastic zone, we can still see ruins of ancient monasteries, a Sacred Bodhi tree, an ancient bathing pond and a great stone pillar built by Emperor Asoka. As the birth-place of the Buddha, Lumbini grew in sanctity and importance, especially today it becomes an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. On December 7, 1997, UNESCO declared that Lumbini, one of the holiest places of Buddhism, World Heritage Site.

Bodhi tree in Lumbini
Asoka’s Stone Pillar at Lumbini
Sacred Pond in Lumbini

c) Lumbini Garden stupa: Lumbini Garden, Buddha’s birthplace in Kapilavastu, This is one of the eight Great Spiritual or Sacred Stupas of Buddhism.

Inside Lumbini Garden Stupa, the exact place where the Buddha was born

2. Bodhi Gaya—Buddha-Gaya (skt)

After six years of practicing extremely ascetic cultivation without any success, Prince Siddharta abandoned asceticism and adopted the middle path. He sat in meditation under a Bodhi tree near the bank of Nairanjana River, and made a great vow to get up only after attaining enlightenment. His efforts were finally paid off after seven days of meditation, when He became enlightened. Here He continued to spend seven weeks in the vicinity enjoying His enlightened experience.

Main Temple in Bodhgaya, near the bank of Nairanjana River, Bihar State, Central India

a) A place near the bank of Nairanjana River in Central India (Bihar), also called the Citadel of Enlightenment because it was where the Buddha attained enlightenment or supreme wisdom (bodhi). Bodhi-Gaya is located near the town of Gaya. It is said to be diamond-like, the navel or centre of the earth; every Bodhisattva sits down on such a seat before becoming Buddha. To the devout Buddhists, there is no place of greater interest or sanctity than the holy spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment: Bodh-Gaya. Sacred shrines and stately monuments were raised all around and the account of the Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-Tsang, gives us a glimpse of the past splendor of this sanctified place. According to Prof. P.V. Bapat in The Twenty-Five Hundred Years of Buddhism, Hsuan-Tsang ascribes the erection of the original Bodhi shrine to Emperor Asoka. According to one of his rock edits, Asoka visited this place, which is called Sambodhi in the inscription, when he had been consecrated ten years, and it is more than probable that the great emperor constructed a shrine on this holy spot. However, no vestiges os such a shrine can be found at present. This shrine has been restored and renovated many times. From the description of Hsuan-Tsang, it appears that the shrine, essentially in its present shape and appearance, existed already in the seventh century A.D. The Mahabodhi temple in Burma is a prototype of this grand temple. As it now stands, the Mahabodhi shrine at Bodh-Gaya is approximately 160 feet high and consists of a straight pyramidal tower with many storeys. The shrine enshrines a great gilded figure of the Buddha touching the earth which symbolizes the supreme event of enlightenment. Around the shrine lie innumerable remains of which the most important are portions of the stone railing which represent two different periods of construction, the earlier going back to about the second century B.C., and the latter to the early Gupta period. In the immediate vicinity are situated seven sacred sites, which, according to tradition, were identical with those where the Buddha is said to have passed seven tranquil weeks in the enjoyment of his Buddhahood.

b) It is common for pilgrims to visit the places connected with the Buddha’s life and death, and Bodh-Gaya, located in the Ganges basin, is one of the holiest of Buddhist sites. It was here, on the night of the full moon of the month of Vesakha (May), that the Bodhisattva sat under the Bodhi Tree, the “Tree of Enlightenment,” and reach Nirvana, releasing himself from the endless cycle of rebirth and becoming a Buddha. He remained under the Bodhi Tree for forty-nine days, meditating on the meaning of his awakening, before going out into the world to teach other beings about his discoveries. Bodh-gaya is said to be the only place on earth that can sustain the weight of the experience of enlightenment. The original Bodhi Tree had been destroyed, but a pipal tree, descended from the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, stands at Bodh-Gaya, near to the Mahabodhi temple, built in the 6th century and subsequently restored.

Inner Walking Meditation Route inside Bodhgaya

c) Bodhi-Tree: Bodhi-tree (wrongly identified by Fa-Hsien as the palm-tree) under which Sakyamuni attained his enlightenment is among the oldest and the most venerated trees in the world. In the Records of the Western Lands of Hsuan-Tsang, it is described as an evergreen, to have been 400 feet high, been cut down several times, but in the T’ang dynasty still to be 40 or 50 feet. Under the reign of king Asoka (around 249 or 250 B.C.), a branch of it is said to have been sent by Asoka to Ceylon, from which sprang the celebrated Bo-tree still flourishing there. In Bodh-Gaya, there is still today a “grandchild” of the original tree at Buddha Gaya. The tree becomes known as the Bodhi Tree only after the Buddha has attained Enlightenment underneath it. Today, it is used to represent the wisdom of the Buddha. It is therefore called the Tree of Wisdom, and is respected all over the world by Buddhists. To honor the Bodhi Tree is a way of showing gratitude for the wisdom realized by the Buddha. To Buddhists from all over the world, the tree is also considered a religious symbol that sheltered the Buddha Sakyamuni before, during, and just after His Realization.

3. Sarnath, or Mrgadava (skt)—Migadaya (p)

Sarnath, one of the most famous Buddhist centers in India, in Uttar Pradesh, about 10 kilometers from Varanasi. After enlightenment in Bodhgaya, the Buddha went to the Deer Park to deliver His first sermon to five ascetics, setting in motion the profound law, which is known as the four noble truths. This is where the foundation of Buddhist Order was laid.

a) The spot is marked with the Dhamek Stupa, said to have been built sometime around the fourth to sixth centuries around a smaller Stupa erected during the time of Asoka in around 234 B.C. to mark and spread the Buddha’s message of compassion and loving-kindness. Nearby is a modern sculpture depicting the Buddha surrounded by the five ascetics who constituted the audience of the first teaching. This is one of the most conspicuous structures at Sarnath, with a cylindrical tower, 28 meters in diameter at the base and 43,6 meters in height, built partly of stone and partly of brick. DBesids Dhamekh stupa, Sarnath also has the ruins of Dharnajajika Stupa, which was about 61 meters high, and the Asoka’s Pillar which was errected by Emperor Asoka commemorates his visit to the foundation of the Buddhist Sangha here. The four-lion capital on top of this pillar was adopted as the meblem of the modern Indian republic. The lion symbolizes both Asoka’s sustainable imperial rule and the dharma kingship of the Buddha.

The imposing Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath

b) Mrgadava literally means Deer Park, one of the four important sacred places of Buddhism, the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon, Dharmacakrapravartana-Sutra or Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Law. to his first five disciples and where foundation of Buddhist Order was laid, located outside of Benares. The park, abode, or retreat of wise men, whose resort it formed; a famous park north-east of Varanasi, a favourite resort of Sakyamuni. The modern Sarnath, or Saranganatha, near Benares. T’ien-T’ai also counts it as the scene of the second period of his teaching, when during twelve years he delivered the Agama sutras. Its ancient name is Rsipatana (skt) or Isipatana (p), the modern name is sarnath, situated at a distance of about seven miles from the present-day city of Benares or Varanasi, in the Uttar Pradesh state of northern India. Sarnath marks the birth of the religion of the Gautama Buddha. Hence it became a great center of Buddhist activities and remained so for more than fifteen hundred years after the death of the Buddha. This is also the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season retreat. According to Prof. P.V. Bapat in The Twenty-Five Hundred Years of Buddhism, the inscription on the stone pillars refer to the site as the “Monastery of the Turning of the Wheel of Righteousness” (Saddharmacakra-pravartana vihara) by which name this sacred place was known to ancient Buddhist writers. Though very little is known of the history of the Deer Park during the early centuries of Buddhism, the place acquires celebrity, like the other holy places of Buddhism, from the time of Asoka. This saintly monarch erected a series of monuments including a pillar inscribed with an edict warning the resident monks and nuns against creating schisms in the temple. The Chinese pilgrims, Fa-Hsien and Hsuan-Tsang, visited the place in the fifth and seventh centuries A.D. respectively, and left us valuable information regarding this important site. The ruins of Sarnath cover an extensive area. The archaeologists have excavated at the site a number of interesting monuments and sculptures of exquisite beauty from Banares, the first landmark that attracts the eye is a lofty mound of brickwork, locally known as the Chaukhandi, surmounted by an octagonal tower at the top. The mound represents the ruins of a stupa on a terraced basement erected to mark the spot where the Buddha, on his way from Gaya to Ispatana, first met his five former comrades who were soon to become coverts to his Faith. Half a mile to the north is the site of the Deer Park, which must have had imposing buildings in the days of its gloriness. All is now in ruins, except a battered structure, the Dhamekh stupa, which rears its head to a height of nearly 150 feet above the surrounding country. These constructions belong to different periods, the earliest going back to the days of Asoka. Although the Dhamekh is battered by time, it still stands 143 feet high from its original foundations. Indeed, it is a solid structure, built of massive blocks of stone at the lower stage and of brick. It is of cylindrical shape and is relieved in the lower section by eight projecting bays, each with a large altar platform containing an image. Besides the ruins and relics of the past, a place of modern interest is furnished by the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, erected by the Mahabodhi Society where are enshrined certain Buddhist relics discovered at Taksasila, Nagarjunakonda and Mirpur-khas in Sindh. At this moment, the Archaeological Museum at Sarnath still houses Buddha’s relics and several Buddhist sculptures, comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisattva images, considered among the finest masterpieces of Buddhist art.

4. Kusinagara (skt)—Kusinara (p)

The modern Kasia, near Gorakhpur in north-east Uttar Pradesh, is the place where the Buddha entered his Mahaparinirvana.

Memorial plaque in front of the ruin of Kushinagar

a) The capital of the kingdom of Mallas, located in northern India, one of the sixteen major countries in India during the Buddha’s lifetime. Belonged to an ancient Indian Kingdom, near Kasiah, the place where Sakyamuni Buddha died, also the birth place of nine famous scholars. According to Buddhist tradition, this is where the historical Buddha sakyamuni entered into Parinirvana, present-day Kasia in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, one of the four sacred places in Buddhism history. Today it is one of the major pilgrimage sites of Buddhism. Kusinagara used to be the capital of the kingdom of Mallas, located in northern India, one of the sixteen major countries in India during the Buddha’s lifetime. It is now Kasia, about about 120 miles north-east of Varanasi, and 35 miles to the east of the city of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh State of northern India. This is the place where the Buddha entered Nirvana in the Sala Grove (the Buddha passed away without any sorrow at 80 years of age in a grove of sala trees north of Kusinara, about 543 years before Christ). The Buddha laid Himself down on His right side, with one leg resting on the other, mindful and self-possessed, between the two Sala Groves on the banks of the Hiranyavati river in Kushinagara, uttered His final words: “Listen, all conditioned dharmas are subject to decay. Strive with diligence.” Then, He entered into deep meditation absorptions and eventually He entered into Mahaparinirvana on the fullmoon day of Vesakha. After his death, his mortal remains were cremated and a part of his relics were preserved in a stupa or pagoda in Kusingara. As the place of Buddha’s death, Kusinagara became one of the most holy Buddhist places of pilgrimage. Recently, Indian archaeologists found the Nirvana Temple and its ruins at Kusinagara where the Buddha passed away. Before entering Parinirvana, between two Sal groves on the banks of the Hiranyavati river in Kushinagara, the Buddha asked Ananda to prepare his bed, then he laid himself down on his right side, faced to the west, with one leg resting on the other, mindful and self-possessed. The Buddha uttered his final words: “Listen, all conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence.” He then passed into meditation absorptions and entered mahaparinirvana. The Buddha’s relics were distributed into eight shares among the representatives of the eight ancient Kingdoms in northern India. These relics were again subdivided after Emperor Asoka decided to build 84,000 stupas. Today these relics are enshrined in stupas across the world. According to Prof. P.V. Bapat in The Twenty-Five Hundred Years of Buddhism, like the other sacred places connected with the eventful life of the Buddha, Kusinara rose to be an important place of pilgrimage and in the course of time was covered with sacred shrines and monasteries. However, for unknown reasons, the place was deserted early in its history, and both Fa-Hsien and Hsuan-Tsang note the utter ruin and desolation of this once important site. The stupa of Parinirvana which Asoka is said to have built has not yet been brought to light. Among the other sacred edifices that still remain may be mentioned the Matha-Kunwar-ka-koti which enshrines a large recumbent figure of the Buddha in the state of nirvana. The image was found in fragments and has been skilfully restored by Mr. Carlleyle. The great stupa which stood on the spot where the body of the Buddha was cremated and where relics of the Master were divided into eight equal portions is probably represented by a large mound locally known as Ramabhar. This mound has only been partially examined and a more systematic exploration is expected to bring to light important material relating to the history of this venerable spot.

Base of Matha-kuar Stupa in Kushinagar

b) Kusinagara stupa: Kusinagara, where the Buddha entered nirvana. This is one of the eight Great Spiritual or Sacred Stupas of Buddhism.

Angrachaya Cremation Stupa in Kushinagar

c) The Mahaparinirvana Temple which enshrines a 6 meter long statue of the Buddha in the Parinirvana posture. When Most Venerable Chandra Swami, a Burmese Monk, came to India in 1903, the Mahaparinirvana Temple was made into a living shrine.

The Lying Statue of the Buddha inside the Kusinagara Stupa



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