Enso logo
Regarding Sacred Landscapes

¬The First Buddhist Landscapes (4) – Sravasti


I’d arrived at the Buddha’s sacred landscapes more than 2600 years after he had taught there, only to realize they weren’t as described in the sutras. Twenty-six hundred years of geologically and socially induced changes – Himalayan uplift and denudation, aggradation and degradation of the Ganges River, global cooling and warming, changes in weather intensity and patterns, land use intensity and patterns, politically motivated destruction, peacemaking and rebuilding – all contributed to the transformation of the landscape.

Surprisingly, much of the sacred energy abiding in the lands, waters and winds by the Buddha’s presence went dormant soon after his passing. I’d find that especially surprising here at the Jetavana in Sravasti because this was the most famous monastery in which Buddha Shakyamuni lived and taught. During the twenty-five years of his abiding there, he’d discoursed on all sutras and most of tantras.

Even when Chinese Buddhist monk Hsüan-tsang arrived at the Jetavana during his 7th century pilgrimage, he found among the ruins only one solitary shrine containing a five-foot tall image of the Buddha. By the 12th and early 13th century, Indian Buddhist monastic practice either ceased to exist, went underground or emigrated to other lands after its monasteries were destroyed by invaders and swallowed by the jungle. Only local folklore and hearsay passed the ghostly secrets of its inhabitants from generation to generation. To non-local Indians and Western ears, the Jetavana remained unknown until the 1860's, when British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham discovered mounds of brick in the jungle near the village of Sahet Mahet.

Walking the grounds through restored gardens one hundred twenty-five years after Cunningham’s discovery, I’d thought the Jetavana was the one place of any I’d visited that had resuscitated the qualities of sacred landscape that the Buddha described:

There I saw woods that were delightful, lovely, secluded, sequestered, remote from turmoil amid charming lakes ... When I saw all this my mind became exceedingly clear.

Buddha Shakyamuni had come to Sravasti at the invitation of Anatha Pindaka. [His name meant ‘feeder of the destitute’]. The wealthy merchant and banker saw how large the ordained community had grown and decided to offer a place for the Buddha and disciples to retreat during the rainy seasons. When the Buddha accepted the invitation, Anatha Pindaka invoked the key scriptural guidelines for choosing the location for the spiritual community – a fundamental prescription for sacred landscape:

Not too far from the town and not too near, convenient for going and for coming, easily accessible for all who wish to visit the Buddha; by day not too crowded, by night not exposed to too much noise and alarm; protected from the wind; hidden from people; and well fitted for a retired life.

The merchant had his eye on one particularly sizeable tract of land rising above the surrounding plains. Although owned by Prince Jeta, the son of Prasenajit, the king of Sravasti, it seemed perfect for the intended purposes. Anatha Pindaka offered to purchase the property and the prince agreed to sell; its price was for the amount of gold it took to completely cover the land – roughly twenty-seven acres by my pacing. [It could have been more. Some historical references reported the area to be in excess of 130 acres].

Regardless of its size, Anatha Pindaka accepted the prince’s price and commenced covering the land until he’d depleted his treasury of its 180 million Rupees worth of gold. There was one small parcel of land that remained uncovered. Prince Jeta realized that the merchant had a rather special enterprise in mind for the land’s use, and offered the remainder as a gift. In gratitude, Anatha Pindaka named the monastery Jetavava in honour of the prince.

Before commencing any construction, Anatha Pindaka had all the vegetation cut and cleared except for the sandalwood and mango trees, providing a clean slate for a master plan suitable for teaching. He then ordered his builders to construct a wall around the entire parcel to protect the community from wild animals and other distractions, followed by the construction of as many as 120 structures. These including viharas, temples for meditation and teaching, libraries, residences and shrines. He surrounded these structures with a luxuriously verdant setting of trees and shrubs and flowers and ponds. The cost for these buildings was an additional 180 to 360 million Rupees, depending on the historical source, provided from a somehow replenished treasury.

The monastic complex design was inspired by the geometry of a mandala, the physical expression of a divine landscape perceived through the awakened mind purified of all obstacles and hindrances. This mandala was to be visualized having qualities and attributes of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas abiding in all of space with emphasis on the cardinal directions.

Accordingly, two major axes – north-south and east-west – transected the Jetavana, placed in accord with the topographic lay of the land. The axes intersected at right angles in the heart of the Jetavana mandala at the centre. Just on that spot, mounds of bricks surrounded a depression in the ground, perhaps the basement of the main seven-story vihara described by Fa Hien. By my visit, such a structure was yet to be uncovered. Perhaps the depression was the remains of a pond of the Pure Land, pre-dating the Japanese 11th century Pure Land mandala gardens by 1500 years. That would make sense because it was here at the Jetavana that the Buddha presented a major text of Pure Land Buddhism, the Shorter Sutra on the Description of Sukhavati, the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha. He’d presented the Longer Sutra at Vulture's Peak.

The east axis led to the Bodhi Tree planted by Anatha Pindaka and the Buddha's disciple, Ananda. According to the Kalinga-bodhi Jataka, they planted the tree as a shrine near the east gate. When the Buddha was away teaching, people could leave garlands and fragrant wreaths as offerings. Today, steel posts support the 2500-year-old tree branches.

Of the 120 structures, there were four principal buildings. On the south side of the garden was the site of the Salala Tree House, occupied by a more recent vihara, its layout derived from the classic Indian residential compound of four buildings focused on an inner space or quadrangle. This configuration enabled air currents to flow from the perimeter windows and up the inner space; a practical and natural devise for cooling the compound in a tropical climate. The layout also provided protection for the household cattle after being brought in from the pastures every evening.

Likewise at Jetavana, the vihara was composed of a central courtyard approximately fifty feet square surrounded by apartments for the monks. The main gate of the quadrangle opened through a portico on the east; a shrine was placed on the west side of the quadrangle directly opposite the main gate. A ten foot wide covered verandah surrounding the courtyard protected the monks from heavy monsoon rains. A well was placed in the centre of the courtyard.

I’d wondered what the original structures could have looked like. Was the Buddha directly responsible for the design that set precedents for all monastic structures? The abbot of the Sri Lanka Monastery just outside the Jetavana, where I stayed, had no doubt that the classical vihara was originally designed and built for the Buddha.

However, physical evidence of structures built during the Buddha's time, 900 years before the earliest visible brick walls dating to the 5th century, was deep below the surface and difficult to excavate without destroying the structures above. They may well have been the same configuration as the remains of the structures at the surface. Once the Buddhist monastery design had been established, there appeared to be almost no room for design ingenuity; subsequent structures were almost always built identically,. At Nalanda University, for example, four generations of viharas could easily be seen, each rebuilt exactly like the one below it. Why not at Jetavana, where 11th and 12th century visible remains built in the on the sites of the original structures would have duplicated the earlier generations, including those used during the Buddha’s time.

Around 3:30 in the morning, I’d make my way to meditate in the temple marking the Gandhakuti, the actual home of the Buddha. Absolute quiet. Except for the light morning breezes, the surrounding woods remained still. I’d first sit in the small assembly room, then move to the shrine room in front. Seeing me, one of the caretakers would gently walk in and light candles and incense placed in front of the wall. I’d image myself sitting in the exact spot where the Buddha sat. I’d reflect on how these places were physical expressions of the teachings themselves. Spiritual landscape as physical landscape, to present the discourses and practices, statements on the value the Buddha placed on his sacred landscapes.

It would be like that for about an hour, when at exactly 4:30, the nearby village awoke, its shrill, high-pitched ghetto blaster blasting, followed and the shrill, high pitched newscaster pitching the morning news, all at full volume. Wondering what to do, deep in meditation, on pilgrimage in India – which here was the teaching (the figure at the centre of the painting), which was the ground?