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.
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.