As is recounted throughout Buddhist canonical literature, the Buddha’s death occurred in the modern-day village of Kushinagar, located on the eastern border of Uttar Pradesh, India. Today, this sleepy town contains a handful of temples constructed by various Buddhist countries, as well as a main temple which houses a majestic reclining-Buddha statue. The ambiance of this place undoubtedly invites you into a contemplative state, a relief from the hustle and bustle of Bodhgaya and Sarnath.
Omniscience: Embodied Knowing
The Buddha’s Final Words
On his deathbed, the Buddha advocated for his disciples to remain ardent and fully aware of their experience, moment to moment. He explained that there is no refuge outside of oneself. Instead, he urged his disciples to look inward. Our own wisdom, he claimed, should be our guide. Interpretations of this final sermon have been debated for centuries. What does it mean to be a refuge for oneself? How can we relate to it?
At Sacred Path, we believe that the essence of the Buddha’s message in his final moments was that of resilience. Specifically, a spiritual resilience. A form of radically understanding ourselves in service of continually engaging in an authentic and truthful way. This constitutes a major component of all forms of Buddhist practice, including pilgrimage. It is in and through our knowing of ourselves that our activities become sacred. We must know our intentions and, in turn, continually cultivate an altruistic attitude. This is the essence of what the Buddha said on his deathbed.
There is another component of the Buddha’s final words that are applicable to the work that we do. He advocated for his disciples to visit the sites associated with his birth (Lumbini), enlightenment (Bodhgaya), first teaching (Sarnath), and death (Kushinagar) after his passing. He said that undertaking pilgrimage to these sacred places would aid in strengthening pilgrims’ inspiration, commitment, and resolve. By going on pilgrimage to these centers, he explained, the heart-mind would be uplifted and be reminded of his teachings.
When you undertake pilgrimage to Buddhist sacred site like Kushinagar, regardless of your religious affiliation, there is a potency within the space that undoubtedly touches your heart. Perhaps it’s due to some energetic residue from the life of the Buddha. Or, perhaps it’s due to the countless pilgrims who have ventured to these places over the centuries. Regardless of reasoning, pilgrimage is transformative. It affects us.
Surrounding places like Kushinagar are profound individuals and communities that further inspire us when we visit. For example, the Royal Thai Temple in Kushinagar—just on the backside of the archeological site that houses the reclining-Buddha statue—offers a free-of-charge health center for both locals and visiting pilgrims. Staffed with internationally-accredited doctors and nurses, places like this create an even deeper sense of support and community.
Sacred Path founder, Justin Kelley recounts his experience on numerous personal pilgrimages to Kushinagar. Of it, he says: “one of the most profound components of visiting places like Kushinagar are the people. For example, I remember arriving in the middle of the night one time without a place to stay. As I walked through the sleepy village, avoiding the stray dogs scavenging for food, I remembered the small Tibetan Buddhist Rest House, kitty-corner to the Royal Thai monastery. I banged on the locked gate. I feared I would anger the resident monks. Instead, the venerable Tenzin-la appeared from behind a corner, key in hand. To my amazement, he was smiling. He launched into a quintessential Tibetan ‘Tashi Delek.’ Not only did he get me settled in a room—with a mosquito net, some water, and other necessities—he even brewed me tea. This was not special for me. I’d only met Tenzin and the other monks once or twice at that time. This was the same treatment any pilgrim would have received. It was, and continues to be deeply inspiring.”
These are just a couple of examples where inspiration is compounded by both the history of a place like Kushinagar, as well as the people who occupy it. Without the latter component, these spaces would be sterile and without heart. Instead, they touch our hearts. So, on behalf of pilgrims across the world, we say thank you for creating such a supportive space to visit and practice.