was in the Deer Park at Sarnath that the Buddha gave his first
significant sermons on the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths
and the Eightfold Path to his five fellow seekers who became
the first monks of the order.
the 1,000 buddhas of this aeon, after demonstrating the attainment
of enlightenment at Vajrasana, proceed to Sarnath to give the
first turning of the wheel of Dharma. In like manner, Shakyamuni
walked from Bodhgaya to Sarnath in order to meet the five ascetics
who had left him earlier. Coming to the Ganges, he crossed it
in one step, where King Ashoka later made Pataliputra his capital
city. He entered Benares early one morning, made his alms round,
bathed, ate his meal and, leaving by the east gate of the city,
walked northwards to Rishipatana Mrigadava, the rishi's Deer Park.
are many legends about the origin of this name. Fa Hien says that
the rishi was a pratyeka buddha who had dwelt there but, on hearing
that the son of King Suddhodana was about to become a supreme
buddha, entered nirvana. Others mention 500 pratyeka buddhas and
Hsuan Chwang mentions a stupa marking the site of their nirvana.
name Deer Park derives from an occasion in one of Shakyamuni's
former lives as a bodhisattva, when he was leading a herd of deer.
After much indiscriminate plundering of the herd by a local king,
an agreement was made with him that one of their number would
be offered only when necessary. The turn came of a doe, who was
shortly to give birth and wished to delay until then. The bodhisattva
offered himself in her stead, which so impressed the king that
he not only resolved to refrain from killing deer in future but
gave the park to them as their own.
this place the five ascetics had resumed their austere practices.
When they saw the Buddha approaching, thinking him still to be
the Gautama who had forsaken their path, they decided not to welcome
him. Yet, as he neared they found themselves involuntarily rising
and paying respect. Proclaiming that he was the Buddha, Shakyamuni
assured them that the goal had been attained. Hsuan Chwang saw
a large, dome-shaped stupa on this spot, where a large mound,
probably its remains, surmounted by a muslim monument now, stands
a short distance south of the park.
the first watch of the night the Buddha was silent, during the
second he made a little conversation and at the third began the
teaching. At the spot where all the buddhas first turn the wheel,
1,000 thrones appeared. Shakyamuni circumambulated those of the
three previous buddhas and sat upon the fourth. Light radiated
from his body, illuminating the 3,000 worlds, and the earth trembled.
Brahma offered him a 1,000-spoked golden wheel, and Indra and
other gods also made offerings, all imploring the Buddha to teach.
inviting the gods and all who wished to hear, and saying that
he spoke not for the purpose of debate but in order to help living
beings gain control of their minds, Shakyamuni began the first
turning of the wheel of Dharma. He taught the middle way, that
avoids the extremes of pleasure and austerity, the four noble
truths, and the eightfold path. Kaundmya was the first of the
five ascetics to understand and realize the teaching; Ashvajit
was the last. All eventually became arhants.
teachings included in the collection known as the first turning
of the wheel, which began here, extended over a period of seven
years. Other teachings, such as those on the Vinaya and on the
practice of close placement of mindfulness, were given elsewhere,
but the wheel was turned twelve times at Sarnath.
the time of the Buddha, monastic tradition flourished for over
1,500 years on the site of the Deer Park. Amongst the many ruins,
archaeologists have found traces dating from as early as the third
century B.C., and the existing inscription of Ashoka's pillar,
dating from that time, implies that a monastery was already established
during Ashoka's reign. Fa Hien speaks of two monasteries with
monks in residence, while two centuries later Hsuan Chwang describes
a mahavihara encompassing eight divisions. This contained a great
temple with ornate balconies, over one hundred niches containing
gilt images in its walls, and a statue of the Buddha in the teaching
last monastery constructed before the muslim invasion, the Dharmachakra-jina
vihara, was the largest of all. It was built by Kumaradevi, queen
of King Govindachandra, who ruled in Benares from 1114-1154. Here
a surviving fragment of stone inscription records that in 1058
a monk presented a gift copy of the Prajna-paramita Sutra to the
monastery: evidence of mahayana activity at that time. The discovery
in the area of ancient statues of Heruka and Arya Tara shows that
vajrayana was also practised there.
two great stupas adorned the site. Only the Dhamekha remains,
assigned by its inscription to the sixth century. The Dharmarajika
stupa built by Ashoka, some say upon the very place of the teaching,
was pulled down in the eighteenth century by Jagat Singh, who
consigned the casket of relics contained within it to the Ganges
river. Hsuan Chwang describes that Ashoka's pillar, which stood
in front of the stupa, was so highly polished that it constantly
reflected the stupa's statue of the Buddha.
which was the second city to reappear following the last destruction
of the world, was also a site of the previous buddha's manifestations.
Kashyapa, the third buddha of this aeon, built a monastery near
Deer Park, where he ordained the brahmin boy, Jotipala, an earlier
incarnation of Shakyamuni. Hsuan Chwang records stupas and an
artificial platform at the places where several previous buddhas
had walked and sat in meditation.
Park was also the location of Shakyamuni's deeds as a bodhisattva
in former lives. Hsuan Chwang mentions a number of stupas commemorating
these near the monastery: one where the bodhisattva offered himself
as the deer; another where, as a six-tusked elephant, he offered
his tusks to a deceitful hunter; and a third where the bodhisattva
had been a bird, with Maudgalyayana and Sariputra as a monkey
and an elephant.
stupa commemorated the occasion when Indra manifested as a hungry
old man and asked a fox, an ape and a hare (the Buddha in a former
life) for food. The fox brought fish, the ape brought fruit, but
the bodhisattva hare, having nothing else to offer, threw himself
on a fire and offered his roasted body. Indra was so moved by
this act that he took the hare and placed him in the moon. Many
people in central Asia still refer to the moon as the hare sign,
or worship the hare in the moon.
the actual site of the Buddha's teaching at Sarnath and the several
ruins in the area have been enclosed in a pleasant park. Nearby,
a well-planned museum houses a number of unearthed statues, many
barely damaged, as well as several other findings from the site.
The museum's entrance is dominated by the famous lion capital
from Ashoka's pillar (an indication of the Indian Government's
renewed interest in Buddhism), has been adopted as the national
emblem. The wheel design on its base has become the central figure
of India's flag.
to the park is the Mahabodhi Society's Mulaghandaluti Temple,
an imposing building containing certain relics of the Buddha.
Close by is the Society's sangharama and a library possessing
a rare collection of buddhist literature. Also in the vicinity
are Burmese, Chinese and Tibetan temples, as well as a Tibetan
monastery and the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, where two
hundred young monks practise and study the many aspects of the
Buddha's teaching, aspiring to qualify for the degree of acharya.
There is also a Tibetan printing press, The Pleasure of Elegant
Sayings, which over the last decade has published more than thirty
Tibetan texts of buddhist treatises, otherwise hard to find. Thus
the wheel of Dharma that Shakyamuni first turned at Sarnath continues