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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

The First Buddhist Landscapes (3) – Rajgir

Originally published in Tibet Journal Vol. XIII, 1988


Three revolutionary and original ideas about using landscape were expressed in Rajgir: the first residence constructed for the ordained community, the first monastery to be designed as a cloistered quadrangle focused on a central common courtyard, and the first landscape on which to present the profound discourses on the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Each a three dimensional landscape of physical form and space, each a complement to its spiritual teachings.

When the Buddha's band of disciples gradually expanded a hundred-fold from the original five to five hundred, the landscape could no longer support their informal gatherings – six times each month to recite the discourses. There were too many of them. Their indiscriminate tramping on the land and killing the insects and other critters tilling the soil raised the farmers’ ire. To avoid the blatant contradiction of his own teachings, the Buddha prescribed the months of the annual Vassa rainy season as additional retreat time. They’d require a place to gather.

Where? King Bimbasara had become a new disciple of the Buddha and offered his pleasure garden, the bamboo forest called Veluvana, for these gatherings. With no hesitation, he had sixty huts of thatch and straw built, all in one day. This entire assemblage was called an avasa, and it was the first temporary residence built for the ordained community.

The small regional village plan served as the prototype of the avasa. Either elliptical or amorphous in form, village huts were built close to one another to defend against wild beasts or enemies with their front doors facing into an open space. Common ground of the community, this open space was used as the activity centre for festivals and assemblies.

The design of the king's pleasure garden was consistent with the type of landscape sought by Brahman hermits. When retiring from the world, Brahmans would select a sequestered woodland or valley and build a simple cottage. Some of these landscapes were so ideally situated, as if designed by the heavenly architect Vessakamma. In a similar fashion, the Veluvana landscape would be most suitable for the Buddhist community retreats – simple, peaceful and serene; neither austere nor extravagant in accord with the Buddha’s Middle Way principles.

In addition, the bamboo forest of the Veluvana, whose growth and dying changed the character of the landscape each day, perfectly expressed the Buddha's discourses on impermanence.

These teachings comprised the Buddha’s ‘First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’.

The ordained Buddhist community continued to expand in number, returning to the Veluvana for their retreats. As any increase in population would stress facilities and grounds, so would the larger ordained population cause landscape conditions to deteriorate. The community required an enclave’s new generation, a more permanent structure. This would be known as the sangharama.

The Buddha prescribed that the first sangharama be constructed southwest of the Veluvana in a mango grove below Vulture's Peak. A revolutionary design concept for the formal contemplative gathering place, a cloistered quadrangle focused on a central common courtyard, the first time such a layout was used as residence and practice for an ordained community. As the first monastery, this sangharama was the architectural precursor of monasteries that would be used by spiritual traditions and orders throughout the world.

The layout of the sangharama actually was devised by the Buddha's physician, Jivaka Komara-bhakka, hence the Buddha named this sangharama, Jivakarama. Inquiring into the health of the community one day, the good doctor looked at their demeanor and decided that the monks were getting lethargic, spending too much time just meditating and sitting around. Lethargy was a hindrance to meditation; once the monks sat and attempted to engage in their meditation practice, they didn't seem to penetrate much deeper than the minimum ‘daily requirement’, so to speak, nor do much of anything else required by the community. A diminished quality of concentration, its negativities would override whatever benefits they derived.

Greeting the Buddha, Doctor Jivaka suggested that the monks have two things at their disposal: a steam room; and a kan'kama, or cloister. This cloister was to be an open space cleared and leveled specifically for walking for exercise and meditation. Consequently, the Buddha prescribed that the cloistered courtyard be an integral design element of the sangharama, which would also be referred to as a vihara.

A second revolutionary design element of the Jivakarama was the unique configuration of the assembly halls. Disproportionately longer than they were wide, and rounded off at both ends, they were designed to enable the ordained community to sit facing one another in long rows while reciting the discourses as they do today. Questioning why rounded rather than squared ends, perhaps the ends were designed to enable monks to more fluidly walk through the space without having to physically square corners. In later renditions of the sangharama, a stupa or other votive figure would be placed at the end of the meditation hall; the Jivakarama was built before that development.

Once walking meditation became a popular practice, some disciples took it to the extreme. There was one monk, Sona Kolivisa, who’d walk back and forth with such fury, he’d just about destroyed the soles of his feet. They were so scarred, his compatriots called him monk with hair-covered feet. Seeing how the monk tracked blood on the ground, the Buddha gathered the disciples for a teaching on the level of intensity in meditation, avoiding both laziness and excess. Another practice of the Middle Way.

After years of teaching ‘The First Turning of the Wheel’, the Buddha decided to up the ante and present the em, the profound discourses on the nature of reality and the reality of nature. He chose to teach this ‘Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ on the mountain called Vulture’s Peak.

Unlike the relatively flat Ganges Plain landscape, where the Buddha presented the first series of teachings, Vulture’s Peak presented a landscape of unimaginable physical, verbal, mental and spiritual topography. The collision of the Indian and Asian continental plates had caused tremendous upheaval and geological displacement, causing metamorphic layers of quartzite and gneiss to soar almost vertically. Physical geography transformed into spiritual geography, mountain as if apparition – like the place called Shangri-la. To provide access up the steep slopes, King Bimbasara constructed a stone walk from the base of the mountain to the high confined valley, enabling the Buddha and his 500 disciples to more easily walk up.

In what other setting, in the midst of these vertically bedded sharp quartzite rocks appearing to shoot up into space, could the Buddha have told the assembly of disciples to question everything he previously had taught – that ordinary appearances are like illusions; that their apparent nature is to be questioned; that they appear to exist inherently but they do not.

The common assumption has the Buddha presenting these profound teachings to the large community of monks and Bodhisattvas at the top of Vulture's Peak, where the shrine is located. To those who’ve made pilgrimage there, imagine the sharp vertical rock strata of this incredible landscape rise into the air without the leveled concrete platform, actually constructed centuries after the Buddha's presence; where would there be sufficient physical space for the Buddha and the large community of monks to sit? Perhaps it didn’t matter to the Bodhisattvas – they’d just fly around throughout as they listened to the Buddha.

Perhaps they gathered on the top of the main mountain ridge just across the valley from the shrine. More likely, physical evidence shows that the Buddha could have chosen a level terrace on the south side of the mountain below the peak for the site of these teachings. Much carefully laid stonework and brick had leveled the grounds, offering sufficient space for 500 monks and Bodhisattvas without the Buddha's having to resort to magic tricks, like hovering over the sharp mountain peaks to prove the teachings’ validity. The discourses on the Perfection of Wisdom were magic enough. Heart Sutra says:

Whomever of the noble lineage trains in the profound discipline of the Perfection of Wisdom best consider things in the following way. First, clearly and thoroughly comprehend the five aggregates void of any inherent nature of their own. Form is void and voidness is form. Voidness is not other than form and form not other than voidness. Similarly, feeling, discernment, formative elements and consciousness are also void. Likewise, Shariputra, are all phenomena void.

Today, pilgrims can recite the Heart Sutra as they walk that same path constructed by the king. They can meander past the cave where the Buddha's disciple Ananda meditated, past the site of the monastery noted in the 7th century by the Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang, up to the ridge where pilgrims erect piles of stone offerings to celebrate their arrival at the sacred mountain. For the most part, however, the site where the Buddha likely taught is not on their radar. I wonder why.