Varanasi – Sarnath

Sarnath is a place located 10 kilometres north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. The Deer Park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma.

Also referred to as Isipatana, this city is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage his devout followers should visit. It was also the site of the Buddha’s Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, in which he explained the four noble truths and the teachings associated with them.

Sarnath has been variously known as Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana and Isipatana throughout its long history. Mrigadava means “deer-park”. “Isipatana” is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men landed.

The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was so-called because, sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight here or start from here on their aerial flight. Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to eartPacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamūlaka-pabbhāra.

Xuanzang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka to account for the origin of the Migadāya. According to him, the Deer Park was a forest given by the king of Benares of the Jātaka, where deer might wander unmolested. The Migadāya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam about there unmolested.

Sarnath derives from the Sanskrit Sāranganātha, which means “Lord of the Deer”, and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park is active in modern times.

Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks. Seven weeks after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Buddha left Uruvela and travelled to Isipatana to rejoin them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While travelling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had no money to pay the ferryman to cross the Ganges, so he crossed it through the air.[citation needed] Later when King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. Gautama Buddha found his five former companions and enlightened them with the teachings of the Dharma. At that time, the Sangha, the community of the enlightened ones, was founded. The sermon, Buddha gave to the five monks, was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It was given on the full-moon day of Asalha Puja. Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath at the Mulagandhakuti. By then, the Sangha had grown to 60 in number (after Yasa and his friends had become monks), and so Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All 60 monks were Arhats.

The following is from Nancy’s sharing:

Hi everyone, welcome to this channel, Rising of Bodhisattvas! This is Nancy from International Buddha Dharma Society for Cosmic Law in America. It’s a great honor to be here with you. How are you doing. Today is Oct. 15th. We will tour Sarnath and the Ganges River.

All the Eight Holy places are located in the North East of India, by Nepal, and close to Himalaya Mountain. The Pilgrimage trip started from New Delhi and ended in New Delhi.

To most people, every side of India is fresh and eye-catching because it is so different from the place we live in or have visited. On the first day of the trip, we arrived at New Delhi, the capital of India. There are many places worthy to take a look in New Delhi, the India Gate, the Lotus Temple, the National Museum of India, and so on. But today, I will take you directly to Varanasi, to Sarnath and Ganges River.

In the early morning of the second day, we flew to Varanasi, the City of Temples. Varanasi has about 2000 temples, and it is the major hub of pilgrimage from all over the country. After checking in the hotel and having lunch, we headed to Sarnath.

Sarnath is located about 7 miles north of Varanasi. This is where the Buddha first turned the Dharma wheel. Here he preached his first sermon, the Four Noble Truth to his first five disciples. Sarnath, is a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘Lord of the Deer’. Sarnath is also called the Deer Park. The name is related to an old Buddhist story. In one of the Buddha’s past lives, he was a deer king. To save others, he sacrificed his life, and it’s said that it is in this same spot. Also, deer is considered a sign of peace.

When Sakyamuni Buddha was enlightened, one heavenly king, Maha-Brahma, pleaded the Buddha to turn the Dharma Wheel. The Buddha contemplated and knew that the conditions were ripe for his former five companions who were with him during his six years of ascetic practice, including Ajnata Kaundinya, his royal teacher. So he came to Sarnath and gave them his first teaching, the Four Noble Truth. After listening to the Buddha’s teaching, Ajnata Kaundinya became enlightened first, followed by the other four. From that moment, the ‘three treasures’ in Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, were complete. This event was known as ‘turning of the Dharma wheel’. Three treasures, are also called, triratna, three jewels, or three refuges. The Buddha is the treasure of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truth is the treasure of the Dharma, the five Bhikkhus are the treasure of the Sangha. Sangha is not one Bhikkhu, but a group. One Bhikkhu is not Sangha.

Now, let’s tour Sarnath.

After entering the gate, along the path, you would see the ruins. The Buddha’s teaching after his enlightenment centered around the Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path. Buddhism flourished in Sarnath in part due to support of the kings and nearby wealthy Varanasi. In the next about one thousand years, many monasteries were built here. Monks lived and practiced here until the end of 12th century when Sarnath was destroyed by Turkish Muslims, and remained ruins until 1836 when the British began excavation and restoration.

The Buddha spent one rainy season here. The Sangha grew to about 60 members and the monks were sent out to teach people.

Along the path, you would see a deer park with deer inside. You would also see the original Ashoka Pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka. The splendid lion capital of this Ashoka pillar fell off during excavation and is on display in the Sarnath Archeological Museum which is right on site. and could be visited too during the tour. It houses some of the greatest treasure of Indian Buddhist art.

The lion capital of Ashoka Pillar has either one lion or four lions. A one lion capital normally is directed to a certain meaningful direction. A four lion capital means that the Buddha Dharma is propagated to all directions. As for Buddha Dharma propagation, Emperor Ashoka made great contributions. Lions represent confidence, courage and strength. It’s said that there is a Dharma wheel on top of the lions.

There is also a Bodhi Tree in Sarnath which was grafted from the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya. We all know that the Buddha became enlightened under a Bodhi Tree, and a Bodhi Tree symbolizes enlightenment. It’s said that all the trees absorb CO2 and release O2 except the Bodhi Tree. It’s said that the Bodhi Tree is the opposite. Like human, it absorbs O2 and releases CO2. I am not sure if this is true or not. If interested, you may check it out yourself.

In the park, standing tall among the ruins is the Dharmekh Stupa which is 128 feet high, and 93 feet in diameter. It’s said that this is where the Buddha gave his first teaching.

The Dharmekh stupa has two layers: the first layer is made of blue sandstone, and the second layer is made of red sandstone. There are eight exquisite lotus petals around it and each has a niche with a Buddha figure in it which is missing now.

Sarnath is a sacred place carrying the history of Buddhism. When you are there, don’t forget to circumambulate the Dharmekh Stupa and chant the name of Shakyamuni Buddha to pay homage to the Buddha. Also leave yourself some time to recite sutras or meditate there. Across the time, we resonate with the Buddha. Real sutra has no words. Words are just carriers. Real sutra is resonating with the Buddha and the Dharma.

On the same day, visit Varanasi and the Ganges River in the evening. Every place has its own energy. You would see dogs and cows laying on the streets, just like many Indian people. They seem to worry nothing and are never in a hurry. Varanasi is a crowded city for sure and noisy. But somehow, here by the Ganges River, you can feel the quietude, the tranquility behind the noise, which you may not feel in other places.

Every night, by the Ganges River, people gather here to watch performance, which has lasted thousands of years. The world is changing fast, but there is always something not changing. India is the country that has kept many traditions, both good ones and bad ones.

Buy some flower and candle dishes from the beautiful local Indian girls. Light up, make a wish and put them into the Ganges River. Let your wish flow to the Heaven.

This is Nancy. Thank you for watching this video. See you next time. Bye.