Places in India>> Sarnath
|Sarnath : First turning
of the Wheel of Dharma
All 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.
There 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.
The 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.
At 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.
During 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.
Thus, 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.
The 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.
From 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
The 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.
Formerly, 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.
Benares, 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.
Deer 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
Another 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.
Today 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
Adjacent 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 to revolve.