The Dalai Lama in Sarnath

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Photo by tiengdankeu

My timing was perfect to arrive in Varanasi because just 13 kilometers away in peaceful Sarnath, the Dalai Lama arrived to give lectures from January 8 to 14, 2009 at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. His focus was Arya Asanga’s Compendium of Higher Knowledge and Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva.

When I visited Dharamsala, I mentioned I caught a brief glimpse of the DL when he returned from a speaking tour abroad. This time I had the opportunity to sit 100 meters from him and listen to him speak.

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First 5 disciples of the Buddha at the Deer Park of Sarnath, showing their respects to the Wheel of the Dharma, Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Sarnath is one of the four main places of pilgrimage in Buddhism. About five weeks after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha journeyed to Sarnath where he delivered his first sermon to his disciples. Today the Dhamek Stupa inside a deer park marks this spot. It is said a Bodhisattva offered himself as sacrifice to a king in exchange for the life of a doe he was planning to kill. Thus moved, the king created a sanctuary for deer that still exists today.

A Bodhisattva, it should be noted, is an enlightened being who has chosen not to enter nirvana in order to help others reach enlightenment.

Dhamekh Stupa, site of Gautama Buddha's first sermon

Dhamekh Stupa, site of Gautama Buddha's first sermon

The city is a short rickshaw drive away from Varanasi and I made about 5 trips to the area to see the temples, take in a fine museum, and listen to the Dalai Lama expound on the Dharma. Its quite a change from hustling, busting Varanasi with tranquil monks and deer parks. Finding transport for near the correct price was always a hassle, but once I shared a rickshaw back with some monks and they immediately got the correct price that I would have to spend 20 minutes arguing about.

The museum contains the most famous of the four-faced lion carvings that today adorn Indian money and passports as well as being the state emblem. This one is referred to as the “Lion Capital of Asoka” after the famous and successful Indian king Ashoka the Great who embraced Buddhism patronized these statues.

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Lion Capital of Asoka, Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Unfortunately, security was rather strict about no cameras. These days I am only carrying a larger SLR and video camera which are difficult to sneak in. (In usual fashion, a couple weeks into my journey my parents say, “Oh, we’ve got a pocket camera we could have sent you with the last package.” I shed a tear for the thousands of missed photographs.) So, I have no photos but it looked similar to this other photo of a DL lecture in Sarnath:

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Photo by Taara

The lectures were conducted in Tibetan. To be able to listen, I purchased a radio and brought headphones since an English translation was being made on the fly. The translator did well, but it was quite a difficult task due to the complexity of the subject matter. For me, since I did not attend each and every lecture, the most interesting parts were the small asides and stories the DL would insert. He elaborated on his bodyguards, his recent sickness and hospitalization, and having jaundice, which turns you yellow. At one point he was describing a meditation technique where you focus on the tip of you nose. He warned, to the laughter of the crowd, not to go cross-eyed but that doing such was easier for foreigners since they have bigger noses. More than a few heads turned my way to check my own proboscis.

It was a great opportunity for soak in more Tibetan culture and really get to see the Dalai Lama. Other than the usual Indian hucksters, including a particularity creepy one, Sarnath is a welcome respite to chaotic Varanasi.

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Mulagandhakuti Temple

Mulagandhakuti Temple