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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

The First Buddhist Landscapes (1) – Bodhgaya

Presented at the 3rd Annual Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality – Serenbe, Georgia, USA, 2011

The first Buddhist landscapes, where Buddha Shakyamuni lived and taught his disciples 2600 years ago, provide a spiritual foundation for design of the contemplative garden. Intended to clear the mind and open the heart, these sacred landscapes reveal teachings and paths of Buddhist practice. Two basic themes are to be found: the importance that Buddha Shakyamuni gave to the landscape in his teachings; and the significance of the Spark of Awakening, providing the ability to design sacred spaces and powerful places.

These landscapes were not innocuous backgrounds. The Buddha intentionally sited and designed them as integral components of his discourses, with qualities in which he could most effectively present a whole wide range of teachings. Because of that, they provide clues to the artistic expressions produced by the fully awakened mind: Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha's enlightenment; Deer Park at Sarnath, where he first taught; Rajgir, the site of the first monasteries and the teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom; and the Jetavana of Sravasti, where Buddha resided for twenty-five rainy seasons and taught all sutras and most of the tantras.

At an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Middlebury College, VT, members of Milarepa Buddhist Meditation Center were invited to discuss proposed designs for the natural environment, and for buildings and gardens on 270 acres of meadows and woodlands overlooking the Connecticut River Valley in Barnet, Vermont.

As project designer, I spoke about the environmental setting, feng-shui and earth energies to place the project on the land; about historical precedents from India, China, Tibet and Japan for designing a Buddhist meditation centre here today in the west; about symbolic references to bridge philosophy and design; about expressions of Buddhist practice used in architecture and landscape. His Holiness seemed keen on this comprehensive design of a Buddhist centre in the west (remember this was early 1980’s), commenting on details, such as the appearance of many mandalas in the plan. But nearing the end of my carefully prepared presentation, His Holiness succinctly asked: "Tell me, what is the basis for this design? From where does it come; what is its source?"

Regardless of my seemingly extensive research, my response was shallow. He kindly accepted my sophomoric answer. Following the audience, my dissatisfied response didn’t go away. What is the basis for this design? For years afterwards, I offered insufficient hindsight answers. To design spiritual centres and gardens for meditation and healing, I needed firm physical, mental, emotional and spiritual foundation. Having neither, I set off to find such basis. But where?

While classical texts on garden-making say study works of accomplished garden masters, I was particularly drawn to those also distinguished as spiritual teachers. Zen teacher Muso Soseki, designer of Kyoto’s Saiho-ji Gardens said:

There are people for whom landscape sustains their search for truth – this is truly noble, for there is no distinction between love of landscape and a search for truth. These people will see the great earth of mountains, rivers, trees and stones in their changing appearances through the four seasons – as means to search for truth in their making a garden.

I began to see that His Holiness' question profoundly linked spiritual inquiry with the practice of designing gardens, making design of landscape integral to a spiritual path. As a Buddhist, this would lead me to spiritual texts such as the Mahavastu of the Mahasanghikas, Lalitavistara, Uttaratantra of Maitreya, Prajna-paramita, Avatamsaka and Vimalakirti Sutras, profoundly connecting qualities of a Buddha and Bodhisattva with landscape.

In Buddhist discourse, landscape is as much part of the Buddha and Bodhisattva as their own skin and bones; indistinguishable from their own purified five aggregates (form-feeling-perception-compositional factors-consciousness). Not only would their gardens be source of inspiration, their teachings could reveal profound spiritual paths showing how they learned to do what they did. Going as deeply to the source of these designs would teach me the means for expressing landscape as spiritual practice, the truth of design.

“Any landscape, in particular?” you ask. Scriptural descriptions of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment over 2500 years ago at the Bodhi Tree in the garden of enlightenment points to Bodhgaya as the primordial expression of place, archetype of the Buddhist sacred landscape. This landscape would provide both precedence and inspiration. The allegory of Bodhgaya reveals the important relationships among: 1) qualities of landscape unsuitable for practice of a spiritual path; 2) qualities of landscape suitable for practices of a spiritual path, thus providing inspiration and precedence; 3) qualities of a spiritual teacher to design a place for practice of a spiritual path.

Qualities of landscape unsuitable for practice of a spiritual path

Deciding that six years of austere, uncompromised living was not a reasonable approach to enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama accepted others’ care, regained his health, and set out for the crest of Pragbodhi Mountain. Although stating his intention to attain enlightenment there, Pragbodhi actually served as refutation of landscape unsuitable for practice of a spiritual path.

Desolate and barren of vegetation, rocks thrust vertically into the air listing precipitously, unstable stones and boulders heaving down the mountainside, Pragbodhi Mountain lay like a huge serpent across the landscape, shoulders and back arching into the sky, tail partially encircling the river valley below, the cave in its belly facing the setting sun, its head bowed southwest towards Bodhgaya. To 5th century Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien, Pragbodhi exhibited inauspicious characteristics enumerated in practices of feng-shui, already codified in writing for 700 years. Pragbodhi Mountain could not be the place to attain enlightenment. So Siddhartha left the cave, descended the mountain and walked along the Nairanjana River towards the grove of trees of Bodhgaya and the Diamond Throne.

Qualities of landscape suitable for practices of a spiritual path

Lifetimes before, Siddhartha came across this landscape and was struck by its beauty and peaceful setting. He took pleasure in Nairanjana River’s pure waters, flowing gently between grassy banks. With glimpses into neighboring hamlets, sited neither too far nor too near the river, he was delighted by the seclusion and remote distance of the verdant woods from turmoil. Seeing all this, his mind became exceedingly calm -- certainly a place to attain enlightenment. In the Bodhgaya allegory, the recipe for landscape considered suitable for spiritual awakening. It was as Siddhartha had thought in a previous life:

This is the place where all the Buddhas overcome all obstacles
to complete enlightenment – and beyond this none can pass.

Where to sit? In a clock-wise direction he stopped at the north, south and west; the earth trembled – not directions at which to sit. On the east all remained still. Circling the Tree three times in honour of previous Buddhas, he spread kusa grass at the base and sat with the Bodhi Tree at his back facing east and the glistening beach of the crystal river. Here, in the magnificent landscape of the Bodhi Tree, Ficus religiosa, was the indestructible Diamond Throne where all Buddhas attain enlightenment; it was none other than the expression of the beauty and purity of Buddha’s mind, cultivated through lifetimes of pure action, compassion and wisdom.

Qualities of a spiritual teacher to design a place for practice of a spiritual path

Now why would this landscape serve as the primordial example for Milarepa Center’s design? The grassy woodland on the banks of the Nairanjana River was not merely inconsequential background for the enlightenment. Nor were scriptural portraits of the landscape embellishment or mere academic triviality to the subtle event. The Buddha purposefully sited and designed this garden landscape, inseparable and integral to his discourse on the path to enlightenment, with qualities in which to most effectively present this teaching. Because of that, the garden of the enlightenment provides clues to the artistic expressions produced by the fully awakened mind. How is this possible?

According to Mahayana Buddhist traditions, Buddha Shakyamuni actually attained enlightenment an incomprehensible time before his rebirth as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Consequently, all the Buddha’s physical, verbal and mental activities were deliberately intentional, expressions of complete awareness and knowledge. Nothing done nor any place gone was accidental, circumstantial or coincidence. His appearance as prince, ascetic and enlightened Buddha was essentially a performance to show the process, difficulties and lessons individuals learn on the enlightenment path – pointing to the source at the heart of this inquiry.

The source of this Milarepa Center landscape is the Buddha-nature (Tathagathagarbha), the spark of enlightenment at the core of every sentient being – the most subtle faculty of mind bearing the same essence of Buddha: the source of wisdom and virtuous activities; of happiness, kindness and love; of the capacity to cry at the sight, sound and touch of beauty. And, through spiritual inquiry, the source of artistic expression for a meditation centre.

Selected References

Barua, Benimadhab. Gaya and Buddha-gaya. (Varanasi: Bhartiya Publishing House, 1975)
Beal, Samuel. Buddhist Records of the Western World, Si-yu-ki of Hiuen Tsiang. (London: Trubner and Company, 1884)
Conze, Edward, trans. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979)
Giles, H.A. Travels of Fa-hsien, Records of the Buddhistic Kingdom. (Westport, Greenwood Press, 1981)
Jones, J. trans. The Mahavastu, (London: Kuzac and Company, 1949–1956)
Obermiller, E. Uttaratantra of Maitreya. (Talent, Oregon: Canon Publications, 1984)
Poppe, Nicholas. Lalitavistara, 12 Deeds of the Buddha. (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1967)
Rhys Davids, T. W. and H. Oldenberg, trans. Vinaya Texts. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1903)
Tara Rinpoche, Abbot of Tibetan Monastery, Bodhgaya, Private Discussion, 1990