Excavations of early temple structures at Sarnath, 13 km outside Varanasi
The First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma
The Buddha began his first sermon by revealing the Middle Way between self-indulgence and asceticism:
Monks, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision… which leads to Nibbana? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1844)
The Dhamek Stupa, c. 500 CE, said to mark the spot of the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon.
Mulagandhakuti Vihara, Buddhist temple at Sarnath, where a coffer contains relics of the Buddha
Bodhi Tree at Sarnath, grown from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya.
My driver and guide to Sarnath, Manoj. He was a student of Ayurvedic Medicine at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and drove a cab in the summer. At the end of the tour he turned around and asked, “Are you happy?” Yes, I was.
My visit to Sarnath, site of the Deer Park (you can still see deer there) where Buddha delivered his first sermon to five monks, was short but sweet. My stomach had felt queasy that morning, so after a bland breakfast of idli and dal I hopped in an autorickshaw with my guide for the morning, Manoj. The ride was cool, but after entering the park the sunlight was relentless and dizzying, the heat intense. Add the ever-present “guides” that hound you every step of the way, and I wilted under the pressure.
Still, it was a moving experience. I closed my eyes, listened to the whispering breeze, imagined serene deer and green, cool grass, and felt quiet inside for the first time since coming to Varanasi. The visit lasted about 2 hours at most. I didn’t see the site’s most famous artifact, the Lion Capital of Ashoka, because the Archaeological Museum was closed that day, but I did see the massive and imposing stupa built over the supposed spot where Buddha had delivered that first teaching so long ago.
My mildly upset stomach would later become heat exhaustion and major intestinal trauma. What was left of my final day in Varanasi would mostly be spent looking up at the ceiling fan in my hotel room.