The location of Buddha’s Smile School is one of the holiest sites for Buddhists anywhere. For the many archaeological attractions and rich history of the place, there are websites and books. Here I intend to say something about a very contemporary, and perhaps neglected, wealth of Sarnath: its international Buddhist community.
In fact, there are monasteries from all the major Buddhist traditions of the world. The Theravada Sangha is well represented, as the main temple (Mulagandhakuti) is run mainly by Sri Lankan Bhikkus. There is also a Burmese temple, and a Thai one. This facilitates the reception of pilgrims from the respective countries, and allows interested locals to learn about the Theravada tradition.
The Tibetan community in Sarnath mainly gravitates around the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. I believe that this Institution has a tremendous importance for the preservation of Tibetan culture, but also of Buddhist teachings as a whole. In fact, it has encouraged interactions between Tibetan traditional scholars and Indian Pandits, towards a better understanding of the original Indian sources of Buddhism. Geshes, Khenpos, Lopons and Panditas work side by side and are available for interested students. The Institute was run for a long time by Ven.Samdhong Rinpoche, now the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile.
Rinpoche has been kind enough to introduce me to my revered Teacher, Prof. Ramshankar Tripathi. I am nowhere in a position to praise Tripathiguruji adequately. What I can say is that I, like many others, owe him whatever understanding of Buddhist philosophical texts I have gained. Even more, his ability to inspire us students makes him a living treasure even in mere recollection.
Besides the Institute, temples of the major Tibetan schools are scattered through Sarnath: Thrangu Rinpoche?s Karma Kagyu might be the biggest, although I am not sure. Rinpoche is the personal tutor of the Gyalwang Karmapa and conducts international seminars every year.
There is also a Japanese temple of the Nichirenshu, the tradition that focuses on the recitation of the Lotus Sutra. With my friend Daisy (Rajan’s small daughter) we have many times toured all the temples, and this seemed to be one of her favorites, as it is neat, with wood and gold (I think this would be the reason).
The Chinese Temple, where the Oracle dwells, is a convergence: the main Buddha in the shrine is not Chinese, but Theravada (I think Burmese). Some of the monks seem of Indian origin, and some Tibetan. Even the Great Geshe Yeshe Thapke, the sharp scholar of the Middle Way, has often stayed there.
Towards the countryside, there?s also a Korean monastery. Of this, I can only say that it is tranquil and that the hall looks like a hall to meditate, perhaps more so than in the other shrines, where visitors form an inconstant but not always contemplative flow.
Buddhist activities in Sarnath are more than I have sketched here. They are not so noticeable or advertised, and perhaps it takes time and attention to capture the complex life of Sarnath?s Buddhism. Great scholars bask in their own simplicity, practitioners come and go and, as I said, there?s even a friendly oracle. Besides heaping merit by walking around the Stupa, it is worthwhile to keep ones eyes? open and make aspirations.