All the thousand Buddhas of this aeon, after demonstrating the attainment of enlightenment at Vajrasana, proceed to Sarnath to give the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Similarly, Shakyamuni also walked from Bodhgaya to Sarnath, to meet the five ascetics who had left him earlier. Coming to the Ganges, he crossed it in one step. It was here that Emperor Ashoka later made Pataliputra his capital city. He entered Benares early morning, made his alms round, bathed, ate his meal and, leaving by the east gate of the city, walked northwards to Rishipatana Mrigadava, the Rishi's Deer Park.
There are many legends about the origin of this name. Fa Hien says that the Rishi was a Pratyeka Buddha who dwelled there. On hearing that the son of King Suddhodana was about to become a supreme Buddha, He entered nirvana. Others mention 500 Pratyeka Buddhas. Heun Tsang mentioned a stupa marking the site of their nirvana.
The name Deer Park is derived from an occasion in one of Shakyamuni's former lives as a bodhisattva. He was leading a herd of deer. After much indiscriminate plundering of the herd by a local king, an agreement was made with him that one of them would be offered to him and only when it is necessary. The turn came of a doe. She was supposed to give birth shortly and wished to delay her turn until then. Bodhisattva offered himself instead of her. This act impressed the king so much that he not only resolved to refrain from killing deer in future, but also gave the park to them.
Here, the five ascetics had resumed their austere practices. When they saw Buddha approaching, they thought of as Gautama, who had forsaken their path. They decided not to welcome him. Yet, as He neared they found themselves involuntarily rising and paying respect. Proclaiming that He was Lord Buddha, Shakyamuni assured them that the goal had been attained. Huen Tsang saw a large, dome-shaped stupa on this spot. Today, it houses a large mound, probably the remains of the stupa, surmounted by a Muslim monument.
During the first night, Buddha was silent; during the second, He made a little conversation and on the third, began the teaching. The spot where all the Buddhas first turn the wheel, thousand thrones appeared. Shakyamuni circumambulated those of the three previous Buddhas and sat upon the fourth. Light radiated from his body, illuminating 3,000 worlds, and the earth trembled. Lord Brahma offered him a 1,000-spoked golden wheel, and Indra Deva and other gods also made offerings, all imploring Buddha to teach.
After inviting gods and all those who wished to hear, He said that He spoke not for the purpose of debate, but in order to help living beings gain control of their minds. Shakyamuni began the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. He taught the middle way, which avoids the extremes of pleasure and austerity; the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Kaundmya was the first of the five ascetics to understand and realize the teaching, while Ashvajit was the last. All of them, eventually, became arhants.
The teachings included in the collection, known as the first turning of the wheel, extended over a period of seven years. Other teachings, such as those on the Vinaya and on the practice of close placement of mindfulness, were given elsewhere, but the wheel was turned twelve times at Sarnath.
Starting from the time of Buddha, monastic tradition flourished for over 1,500 years on the site of the Deer Park. Amongst the many ruins, archaeologists have found traces dating from as early as the third century BC. The existing inscription of Ashoka's pillar, dating from that time, implies that a monastery was already established during Ashoka's reign. Fa Hien speaks of two monasteries with monks in residence. Two centuries later, Heun Tsang described a Mahavihara encompassing eight divisions. It comprised of a great temple with ornate balconies, over one hundred niches containing gilt images in its walls and a statue of Buddha in the teaching posture.
The last monastery constructed before the Muslim invasion, the Dharmachakra-jina Vihara, was the largest of all. Kumaradevi, queen of King Govindachandra, who ruled in Benares from 1114-1154, built the monastery. There is a surviving fragment of stone inscription here, which records that in 1058, a monk presented a gift copy of the Prajna-paramita Sutra to the monastery. This incident provides the evidence of Mahayana activity at that time. The discovery of ancient statues of Heruka and Arya Tara in this area shows that Vajrayana was also practiced there.
Formerly, two great stupas adorned the site. However, today only the Dhamekha remains, assigned by its inscription to the sixth century. The Dharmarajika stupa built by Ashoka was pulled down in the eighteenth century by Jagat Singh, who consigned the casket of relics contained within it to the Ganges River. Huen Tsang described that Ashoka's pillar, which stood in front of the stupa, was so highly polished that it constantly reflected the statue of Buddha.
Benares, the second city to reappear following the last destruction of the world, was also a site of the previous Buddha's manifestations. Kashyapa, the third Buddha of this aeon, built a monastery near Deer Park, where he ordained the Brahmin boy, Jotipala, an earlier incarnation of Shakyamuni. Heun Tsang recorded the existence of stupas and an artificial platform on the site where several previous Buddhas walked and sat in meditation.
Deer Park was also the location of Shakyamuni's deeds in His previous lives. Heun Tsang mentioned a number of stupas near the monastery, commemorating these lives. One of stupas honors the event when bodhisattva offered himself as the deer. There was another observing the event when, as a six-tusked elephant, He offered his tusks to a deceitful hunter. The third stupa memorialized the event where He bodhisattva had been a bird, with Maudgalyayana and Sariputra as a monkey and an elephant.
Another stupa commemorated the occasion when Indra manifested as a hungry old man and asked a fox, an ape and a hare (the Buddha in a former life) for food. The fox brought fish, the ape brought fruit, but the bodhisattva hare, having nothing else to offer, threw himself on a fire and offered his roasted body. Indra was so moved by this act that he took the hare and placed him in the moon. Many people in central Asia still refer to the moon as the hare sign, or worship the hare in the moon.
Today, the actual site of the Buddha's teaching at Sarnath as well as the several ruins in the area stand enclosed in a park. Nearby, a well-planned museum houses a number of unearthed statues, many of them barely damaged, along with several other findings from the site. The museum's entrance is dominated by the famous lion capital from Ashoka's pillar.
Adjacent to the park, is the Mahabodhi Society's Mulaghandaluti Temple, an imposing building containing certain relics of the Buddha. Close by is the Society's sangharama and a library, which houses a rare collection of Buddhist literature. Also in the vicinity, are Burmese, Chinese and Tibetan temples. There is also a Tibetan monastery and the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies nearby, where two hundred young monks practice and study the many aspects of the Buddha's teaching, to qualify for the degree of an Acharya. There is also a Tibetan printing press, The Pleasure of Elegant Sayings, which, over the last decade, has published more than thirty Tibetan texts of Buddhist treatises, otherwise hard to find. The wheel of Dharma that Shakyamuni first turned at Sarnath continues to revolve even today.
Information on buddhist pilgrimage site of sarnath - the first sermon place.