July 20, 2011

Lumbini will never be a Buddhist Mecca

The BBC has an article today that asks: "What happened to the dream of a Buddhist Mecca?" The article is about development in Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha. It's a common question these days (in fact, I wrote the same article more or less in The Oregonian over two years ago), as the project has been in the works for decades. What started as a beautiful dream by U Thant, then secretary-general of the United Nations, who wanted to revive Lumbini after seeing the site's condition in 1967, is now a slog of finger pointing by those in charge of the redevelopment process. People closest to the project believe that money is at the heart of the problem. If that's true, then Lumbini's troubles might be over. A Chinese group called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Co-operation Foundation, says that it will raise $3 billion to develop the sacred Buddhist site.

It should also be pointed out, however, that even with all the money in the world Lumbini will never be a "Buddhist Mecca" because pilgrimage isn't as central to the Buddhist tradition as it is in Islam. A pilgrimage to Mecca (haji) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are the basic acts that all devout Muslims are expected to perform. If pilgrimage held such a lofty position in the Buddhist tradition, this would be akin to finding it mentioned in the Four Noble Truths or outlined as a part of the Eightfold Path.

Of course, none of this means that Lumbini should not be developed. Even though pilgrimage isn't as central to Buddhism as it is to Islam, Buddhists have been embarking on trips to sacred sites for centuries and pilgrimage is mentioned in Buddhist literature. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutta the Buddha says, "Lumbini is where the Tathagata [Buddha] was born, this is a place which should be seen by a person of devotion, and which would cause awareness and apprehension of the nature of impermanence."

Indeed, there are many reasons to develop the Buddha's birthplace (see videos on the matter here and here). But it's unrealistic think that Lumbini will ever be a Buddhist Mecca. The sooner people let go of that idea the sooner they might see some progress toward a more reachable goal.

Image 1: From the BBC

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jimboer's picture

Buddhists should not necessarily be pilgrams, because that would be being someone and going somewhere, however adoration, affection, and deep devotion to the Buddha and his teachings are a part of being a Buddhist, especially in the later centuries after the Teaching developed. We are encouraged to visit the sights of the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana of the Buddha though somewhere in the Teaching. I can't recall where just now.

Seems that Varanasi, and Bodigaya are more popular than Lumbini for some reason.
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gfeinstein's picture

Via Aljazeera The Lumbini project: China's $3bn for Buddhism

"The organization behind the project is called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a quasi-governmental non-governmental organisation. Its executive vice president, Xiao Wunan, is a member of the Communist Party and holds a position at the National Development and Reform Commission, a state agency.

At worst, Lumbini's goal is to marginalize key Buddhist leaders who challenge Chinese state dominance, and is meant to co-opt the global Buddhist conversation to make it less Tibetan-influenced. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has not been allowed to visit Lumbini since the late 1980s, and the Nepalese government, under pressure from Chinese diplomats, continues to show little tolerance of its Tibetan refugee community. On the Dalai Lama's birthday last week, Nepalese riot police prevented Tibetans from celebrating, over concerns the gatherings would turn anti-Chinese - perhaps a nod to its $3bn benefactor."

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for linking to this. It was an informative read. Here's to hoping that the investment is for religious reasons and not political... but I won't hold my breath.

jeaton's picture

Pilgrimage was much more central to lay--and even monastic--Buddhism in Tibet than either the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path. Everyone did pilgrimage all the time, but only an elite, highly-educated few had probably ever even heard of those lofty philosophical concepts.

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for reading, Joshua. Your comment reveals my Western-Buddhist bias, with its emphasis on " lofty philosophical concepts." I appreciate you pointing this out skillfully & subtly. It is, of course, important to remember that in traditional Buddhist countries the practice is often less conceptual and more of a lived tradition. Something I certainly aspire to (and should remember, having spent a considerable amount of time in both Bodh Gaya and Lumbini).

Aside from picking that apart, do you disagree with my point about pilgrimage being less significant in Buddhism than it is in Islam? At the end of the day, I guess comparisons like this are not helpful… which, when I think about it, is actually what inspired this blog post in the first place. Why try to make Lumbini like Mecca?

jeaton's picture

It's hard to say, but I do think it would be difficult to overstate the importance of pilgrimage within traditional Tibetan society. Either way, China's involvement unsettles me. (The commenter below gives a much more articulate and knowledgeable explanation of why than I ever could.)

At the same time, the pictures I've seen of many of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites makes them seem less built-up and well-kept than they deserve. Just look at the beautiful church on the Mount of Beatitudes--where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount--and the small outdoor shrine on Vulture Peek--where the Buddha delivered the Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra. There's no comparison!