I’ve studied Buddhism as an academic. It’s fascinating, and probably my favorite religion to study. But there are lots of things I don’t know about Buddhism yet. So when I came across this Discovery News article about Buddhism’s (possibly) oldest temple, you better believe I read it immediately.
There was an article recently posted on Discovery News about archaeological excavations in the Maya Devi Buddhist temple in Lumbini, Nepal, where it is believed that the Buddha was born. By excavating the site, archaeologists were able to discover a different kind of Buddhist temple, one with a central tree, rather than a central image of the Buddha himself, or of any other Buddha or Bodhisattva. This layout is older, much older, and recalls early writings about the layout of Buddhist temples by travelers from before the first millennium CE.
Rather than focusing on an image of the Buddha, these temples focused on a sacred tree, which of course references the narrative importance of trees in the story of the Buddha. Before he was the Buddha, he was Prince Siddhartha Guatama, a prince born in Lumbini, before escaping from his palace and devoting his life to teaching about Nirvana. Before that, though, he had to become enlightened, which, according to the traditional stories, happened after meditating under a tree. Before he died, the Buddha advised that everyone who was Buddhist should visit Lumbini before they died. Trees are very important to Buddhism for just this reason.
So when archaeologists excavated beneath the extent Maya Devi temple at Lumbini, and found a temple with tree roots at the center, they knew what they had found was much older than the current temple.
While many academics have linked the rise of Buddhism to the rule of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, these archaeologists date a strong Buddhist tradition to the sixth century BCE, three hundred years before Ashoka. This timeline really emphasizes just how old the Buddhist tradition is, and the context of the time when Buddhism came to be.
When I think about how old some of the traditions of the non-European world are, it makes me feel small and insignificant, because everything I know is so comparatively young. Indian traditions are thousands of years older than anything I have ever known, and that sense of impermanence is part of what I seek when I study history. What do you seek?