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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

The First Buddhist Landscapes (2) – Deer Park


It was during the last days of his seven-week engagement at Bodhgaya that the Buddha decided to teach to what he had awakened. He sought out the five ascetics with whom he’d sojourned during his six years of austerity, and found them near Sarnath under a Banyan tree at the Mrigadawa Deer Park. The Buddha had a strong karmic connection with this particular landscape.

The Mrigadawa Deer Park had once been great forest inhabited by a herd of 500 deer and their leader was a previous incarnation of the Buddha. During a particularly tenuous climatic period, a lack of rain had caused crops to fail and forests to parch. The king was advised that his food stock would be nearly depleted. An avid hunter, the king ordered his soldiers to set fire to the woods to flush out the deer herd by burning the shrubs and saplings on which they fed. If any had not died from starvation, they could be killed by the hunt.

Worried about his herd’s plight, the deer’s leader, who by that time had cultivated equanimity for more than his kind, also was concerned about the king's basic food requirements for the kingdom. He offered the king a solution: to provide the king a subsistence bounty of one deer each day. A lottery number was to be drawn to decide which deer to sacrifice. It was on one particular day that a doe carrying an unborn fawn was picked. The herd cried, “Not fair! Two deer are being killed instead of one.” Hearing their cries, the deer's leader presented himself to the executioner as the daily sacrifice rather than the doe.

The king was advised of this altruistic act, and came to the cage where the deer’s leader was being held. The king asked, "Was this story true?" The leader told him that it was true, and the king responded, "Well, although I have the body of a human being, I appear to be acting more like a vicious animal. Whereas you have the body of a deer, and you act more like a person of virtue." So, the king released the deer, became a vegetarian, proclaimed the kingdom to no longer require the daily sacrifice, and dedicated the forest as a deer conservation area. This was the Mrigadawa Deer Park in which Buddha Shakyamuni came to teach his five ascetics.

Deer Park rose above the terrain of the Ganges Plain. A mere twenty-five feet higher than the surrounding fields, such a relatively minor elevation gave the luxurious woods of Deer Park much significance; the otherwise expansive terrain of cultivated land – lightly punctuated by small villages, hedgerows and small tree stands – appeared to have almost no topographic relief as far as the eye could see. And because the forest canopy protected the soils of the conservation area from the mass erosion generally experienced on the plains during summer monsoon flooding, the park seemed to rise even higher each year above the whole of the landscape. So even before Buddha Shakyamuni came to teach, the presence of such a distinguishing feature as Deer Park was rare and came to be acknowledged as sacred space.

It was here that the Buddha would present the ‘First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ – teachings of the ‘Four Noble Truths’; teachings of the ‘Eight-fold Noble Path’; teachings of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination; teachings on the Middle Way between abject neglect and self-serving indulgence, between extreme beliefs in inherent existence and nihilism.

Since the landscape was an integral component of the Buddha’s discourses rather than merely an innocuous background, what were the design features of the Deer Park landscape? What did it express? Firstly, this landscape design required neither symbols, design allusions nor other intermediary devices such as geometry, cardinal references, mandalas or divine imagery to aid in making his case; for the Buddha himself taught. Landscape as Buddha.

Secondly, the elevated woodland was the type of landscape neither completely alien nor lavishly hospitable. As a conservation area amenable to minimal human activity, the deer’s browsing would have opened clearings for the ascetics to safely encamp, experiencing minimal conflict with either the natural or social environment. There’d be less than constant vigilance for survival, unlike the kinds of threats posed in the Mahavana, the great impenetrable jungle wilderness that most everyone feared and avoided. Likewise, there’d be minimal conflict with the everyday noisy interferences permeating the bustling villages.

Physical landscape as expression of spiritual landscape – Buddha’s Middle Way, Deer Park provided a somewhat ‘middle way’ landscape between unknown forest realm and unwitting human habitation.

Physical landscape as expression of spiritual landscape – Buddha’s ‘Four Noble Truths’ and ‘Twelve Links’; Deer Park as landscape arising, abiding and decaying. Landscape design as Nature’s operations – the law of cause and effect – actively at work in which the Buddha's first disciples would become an integral part. Nothing more; nothing less; silence … and the unbearable lightness of space.

Two hundred eighteen years after the Buddha's passing, King Asoka constructed structures that marked significant events. He built the Dhamekh Stupa on the site of the first teachings and the thirty-meter high Dharmarajika stupa. (Today, a hole suggests its location). North of the Dharmarajika stupa is the spot where the Buddha supposedly meditated. The Chaukhandi Stupa marks where the Buddha first met the five ascetics.

On 1987’s New Year's Day at four in the morning under a moonless, clear black sky, punctuated by a host of bright constellations, I’d come out to meditate. Searching in the dark for a place to sit, I’d remembered for the most part that the grounds appeared to be reasonably level. However, with my head filled with the cool of the night and the heat of my being there, I’d forgotten the exact location of the excavated areas. I tripped just short of the lip of one excavation, fortunately falling safely on solid ground rather than six feet below into a linear courtyard, rows of stupas along its perimeter. Backing away from the edge, I managed to find a comfortable and level spot that seemed just right. Under the warmth of the rising sun, I opened my eyes to discover myself in perfect alignment with all the major structures, located on the grounds in the cardinal directions. Landscape inhaling and exhaling together with me, how auspicious.