Backpacking in Buddha’s Birthplace

5 minute read.
The Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal, 2,600 years ago. Today, Buddhism is the world’s 4th largest religion. I traveled to Lumbini to see what the Buddha’s life would have been like when he was known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama.
Lumbini
I arrived in Lumbini by bus after hiking over the Himalaya Mountains and completing a walking safari in the jungle. I had lost 15 pounds, and was enjoying as much street food as possible. My favorite samosas from Nepal and India came from a street-side restaurant in Lumbini. It was operated by a friendly family that taught me their recipes, which included loving what you do.

Their restaurant had rustic infrastructure, like most of Nepal. They used a hand-pump for water, which is where they washed dishes throughout the day.
For breakfast, I’d have coffee with milk, made by hand with an ancient espresso machine, and two samosas stuffed with curried vegetables, for 30 Rupees (30 cents U.S.).
I’d take a bag of samosas to share as I walked to a park dedicated to the birth of the Buddha. It’s almost two miles across, with hiking trails and dozens of monasteries, built by Asian countries to support their citizens in pilgrimages to Lumbini. Meditation centers are available for drop-in sessions or 10-day retreats, all for free.

The Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His birthsite is enclosed in a modern building to protect the 3,000+ year old temple and rock carvings inside. His mother bathed in the nearby pond, and in the background you can see a Pillar of Asoka from 283 B.C. Asoka was an Indian emperor who embraced Buddha’s teachings of nonviolence, placing stone edicts at sites of the Buddha’s life and throughout his kingdom.
The park is centered around a man-made river and reflecting pond. On one side was an eternal-flame, dedicated by dozens of countries as a symbol of peace and unity. On the other end was a peace-pagoda built by Japan for the benefit of all.

Most Asian countries have built monasteries or pilgrim rest-houses throughout the park, which is a fun way to see different styles of architecture side-by-side. China and Japan have simple structures, Thailand and Korea have elaborate temples.

I walked around the park each day, enjoying the simple signs along the path, which is a metaphor for what the Buddha taught.

I spoke with many monks, most of whom were pilgrims to the site from other countries. It’s rare to see a caucasian tourist (that’s a euphemism for “white guy”) so I stood out. They were anxious to learn from me, share their knowledge, and take “selfies” with me. But, I told them, the Buddha taught there’s “no self-ie,” so we took photos of each other.

Monks are funny. By that I mean they have good humor. Generally speaking, monks are joyful, without ego or “self.” That helped me make friends, because it would take a joyful monk to laugh at my puns:

Siddhartha

I hired a motorcycle driver to explore the surrounding area, including lesser-known archeology sites. I was interested in how Siddhartha lived before he became known as the Buddha. The walled city and his childhood palace were 30 miles away, almost unvisited today. Another site marks where, at age 37, he returned to his family as the Buddha. The ruins included Hindu symbology; Buddha was born Hindu, similar to how Jesus was born Jewish.
If you think the rock figure looks familiar, you’re probably right. The Hindu god Shiva is represented by one of the world’s oldest symbols, a phallus. It’s inside of the feminine equivalent, meant to show unity.
Over time, the meaning behind symbols was lost. Religious doctrine focused on a caste-system based on hope for happiness in a future life rather than the unity of all humans in the present. The Buddha renounced the caste system, leaving his palace to understand how to use intellect to obtain peace on earth rather than hoping for happiness in an afterlife. He walked out of his kingdom’s eastern gate, which is still there, marked by the foundations of his city and prayer-flags from Buddhist pilgrims. It was unsurprisingly unremarkable.

Surrounding villages
I imagine that life in the villages around these historic sites hasn’t changed much. There were no cars, commerce and social life centered around markets, women dug through mud to find fish and crustaceans for protein, and families maintained the same line of work for generations.

Life in poverty
People were smiling, kind, and generous with what little they had. For example, the family that made samosas had been feeding a homeless youth who had nowhere to go because Nepal doesn’t have social services. The kid was always smiling, happily wandering in the dirt street with an old soda bottle he used for drinking water and as a toy. He was approximately 11 years old. No one knew for sure, and no one knew his name, because he couldn’t speak. He was mentally delayed at the level of a 4 year old, and probably had been abandoned by his family when they realized he wouldn’t contribute to household income. Nepal is poor; if a child can’t work, the entire family goes hungry supporting him.
People shared what they could with the boy, but did not show affection. This was mostly for his benefit: if they can’t sustain affection, it’s false-hope and cruel to inflict on the kid. This was also for their benefit: by not becoming attached, they minimize their guilt of not doing more.
Over the next week, the kid would rush to me for a hug and we’d go walking to buy fresh fruit. He was dirty from sleeping in the street, but well-fed by the family restaurants. Eating fried samosas every day is unhealthy, so I bought fresh fruit for us, hoping he’d learn to enjoy it. Fresh fruit is more expensive than samosas, so I gave the restaurant money to add fruit to the kid’s diet after I was left.
I had avoided saying goodbye before leaving, but the kid saw me and came running down the street. My bus drove off before he reached us, and I could see him standing in the dirt road, waving his soda-bottle. I had only known him for a week, but I cried during the twenty minute ride to India’s border, and am crying as I type this. My tears are for the millions like him that go unloved because we’re too busy with things that aren’t important. I include myself in that; I could have changed that kid’s life, but chose not to.
Food cost ~ 50 cents per day, less than $200 per year. Money isn’t the biggest challenge, it’s the infrastructure to administer it, checks and balances against exploitation, and daily love that stems from compassion.
When we hear about people suffering we become upset or worry, but do not do anything. We do not even wish them happiness. We may say the words, but we do not feel compassion, or that compassion is temporary without becoming part of our lives. We experience suffering without ending the suffering of others.
The Buddha taught that selfless compassion leads to our happiness; that’s a start to providing sustainable futures for everyone on Earth, and follows the teachings of every world religion. The first words of the Old Testament taught the importance of social justice for the poor, which is emphasized by every book of the Old Testament used by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Six hundred years later, Jesus said to serve the poor because it is better to give than to receive. One day we’ll listen, regardless of which religion we claim to follow. At the very least, we can strive to feel compassion for the suffering of others, which leads to our own happiness, and provides the mental clarity to make decisions beneficial to everyone.
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Be well, and live peacefully.
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