December 2, 1998

Buddha's Birthplace Hopes for a New Incarnation


LUMBINI, Nepal -- Some 2,500 years ago, on a spring day under a full moon, Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini. His mother had gone into labor while on a stroll in a verdant grove, smelling the flowers and listening to the songbirds. The baby would grow up to be the Enlightened One -- the Buddha -- and this village would become holy soil to millions of Buddhists who, for the most part, would these days never think of coming here.

Situated in the flat, steamy lowlands of southwestern Nepal, Lumbini is not only off the beaten track, it is away from an adequate supply of sewer pipes, telephone lines, electric lights, clean sheets and mosquito control. Thirty years of planning to develop the site have thus far failed to make it the Buddhist counterpart of a Mecca or Jerusalem.

The royal government of Nepal would like to change that. On Tuesday, it convened a two-day conference of religious leaders and political officials from 19 nations, trying to promote Lumbini as "the fountain of world peace" and open the way for a torrent of pilgrims and tourists to this impoverished country of 21 million. The conference began with prayerful chanting, a peace march and a plea for help. "His Majesty's government will leave no stone unturned to cooperate with individuals, organizations and friendly nations to develop Lumbini into an international complex for all the world human community," Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala promised.


Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala of Nepal, center, marched with religious and political figures from some 30 countries Tuesday at the opening of a two-day conference in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.

At best, such cooperation has been inconsistent in the past, a sad matter for many of the devoted. As if working through some inescapable karmic process, the development of Lumbini seems required to overcome sorrow, greed, egotism, despair and countless other human frailties before it can attain its realization. "Five and a half years ago I found so much jungle that it made me weep," said Thay Huyen Dieu, a Vietnamese scholar who is building a monastery here. "This was not the beautiful garden of scripture. We Buddhist people sometimes talk too much and do very little. This is what Lumbini needs. People doing, people believing."

But while the area may lack well-sculpted gardens, it does not want for tranquillity. Dawn's first brush strokes come in brilliant greens and golds. A few bicycle rickshaws plow through powdery roads. An occasional pair of cranes gracefully swoop across the sky. The spot believed to be Buddha's birthplace is now a modest excavation site. There are piles of red-brown brick once used in ancient temples. For Tuesday's occasion, red bunting was hung across the area. Multicolored streamers swayed with the breeze.

Priestly delegates wore robes of brown, maroon or yellow, depending on their sect. Many also carried small black briefcases, gifts of the Nepalese government. "What Lumbini needs is the right concept," said Noritada Morita, a retired economist with the Asian Development Bank. "This is Buddha's birthplace. It has to be a peace-oriented, high-quality meditation place, not just for Buddhists but for everybody. The problem with the Nepalese is that they are so nice, they don't how to market."

Not everyone was being so charitable to the Nepalese. This is a declared Hindu kingdom; upward of 80 percent of the population is Hindu. And many Buddhists feel that the government's Lumbini efforts have been half-hearted -- and sometimes even corrupt. "The word pocket is supposed to be a noun, but here it is also very often a verb," the Rev. Hiroyuki Kawashima of the powerful Japan Buddhist Federation remarked wryly. The Tokyo-based federation has helped finance the archeological exploration of the site.

For centuries after Buddha's death, Lumbini was a place of pilgrimage. It is described in writings left by seventh-century travelers. But with the Muslim invasions of the subcontinent, Lumbini was abandoned as a religious shrine, its location ceded to uncertainty. The village was rediscovered only in 1896, when excavators unearthed a half-buried pillar in the Nepalese countryside. It had been left in the third century B.C. by Maurya emperor Ashoka, a once-fierce warrior tamed by Buddhist compassion. An inscription claimed the spot to be Buddha's birthplace. The pillar stood near a destroyed temple that contained a relief sculpture of Maya, Buddha's mother, giving birth.

Little was done to reclaim the site and its relics until 1967 when U Thant of Burma, the secretary-general of the United Nations and a Buddhist, visited Lumbini. Its neglect distressed him, and, with his prodding and U.N. funds, an ambitious master plan for developing the site was created by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Tange's plans call for three zones, each a mile square in area: a lavish garden surrounding the pillar and temple; a place for monasteries with a canal dividing Buddhism's two main traditions, the Mahayana and Theravada; a space for tourist accommodations.

To get moving, the project needed infrastructure, something hard to come by in a nation where most people still earn less than $1 a day. It also required political leadership, which many would say has also been in short supply. Before democratic reforms, Nepal was ruled by its royal family from 1960 to 1990. Since then, there have been a succession of failed coalition governments -- each one making its own political appointments to a succession of failed Lumbini development committees. "There is no way to make plans when people know you won't be around for long and they cannot believe what you say," said Ram Lal Shrestha, a recently departed head of the Lumbini staff. "Then there is the problem of the master plan. It is too ambitious for us. So we build a library, for instance -- who is going to pay to operate the air-conditioning?" At present, perhaps only 20 percent of the original master plan has made it off the drawing board. A handful of monasteries are complete, deep set into the emptiness.

Archeological work goes on. Three years ago, in the temple ruins near the pillar, a reddish-brown slab was found in a position that indicated it had been left as a marker. The stone was alien to the area, and Nepalese scholars have concluded that it denotes the precise location -- down to the inch -- of Buddha's birth. Other scholars are not so sure. "Academically, it cannot be determined -- and I don't think there is any way to ever know for sure," said Hiroyuki Kawashima of the Japan Buddhist Federation.

All in all, the present sluggishness made this a wise time for the Nepalese government to solicit help. The U.N. Development Program has agreed to review the master plan and consult on future management of the project. Donors have said they would be more inclined to contribute to Lumbini if ledger books are kept open and politics kept out.

In the few Lumbini monasteries, among some of the monks drinking tea, there is impatience: Why has it taken so long to pay the proper respect to Lord Buddha? When will millions come to this place and learn of its peace? But other monks are undisturbed by such things. "Why would anyone hurry to create gardens and buildings and monuments?" they ask, echoing the Buddha in reply:

Everything is transient and nothing endures.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company