The ruins of the Buddha’s palace at Sarnath are spread across a few acres of land, and are now an archeological site available to travelers and pilgrims. Dhamek Stupa dominates the skyline, and the air is filled with the singing chants of Buddhist pilgrims, making their way from one ruined pillar to the next. Signs read “Do not place gold foil on the ruins,” and everywhere around the signs are tattered pieces of golden foil, stuck on ruins that are thousands of years old.
The tree under which the Buddha gave his first sermon is not original, but is rather a sapling from the tree under which he gained enlightenment. In any case the spot is still authentic. The tree is walled in, and visitors must remove their shoes before walking inside the sanctuary. Surrounding the tree are prayer wheels, which pilgrims turn clockwise in order to gain wisdom or purge demons or something. I don’t know exactly what spinning all the wheels does, but I did it anyway figuring I’m in no position to potentially refuse blessings.
Walking through these sacred Buddhist sites I remembered a thought I had a long time ago when I was taking a class on Buddhism in college. The Buddha was just a philosopher. At age twenty-nine the Buddha left his wife, child, home, and all his worldly possessions to discover the connection between human experience and suffering. This not so much a spiritual task as it is a philosophical one, and is therefore the work of a great philosopher. The amount of reverence and worship he receives makes us sometimes forget the truth of the Buddha’s occupation. I wonder what the west would look like if we worshiped a philosopher as much as they do in the east.