Day 7: Turning the Wheel of Dharma amid Digambar Jains

Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone. This is the ancient law.
Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without. – The Buddha

Yesterday, a friend and I took a trip to the city of Sarnath, 13 km north of Varanasi city. Sarnath is one of the four holy sites revered in the life of Gotama the Buddha. The first is Lumbini, where he was born. The second is Bodh Gaya, where he achieved full enlightenment. The third is Sarnath and the fourth is Kusinigara, where he left his mortal body.

After Gotama reached full enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, he traveled to the Deer Park of Sarnath and delivered the first sermon on the “Four Noble Truths” to five of his former traveling sanyasin companions. This is traditionally called the first turning of the wheel of Dharma and the sangha or “community” was first established. Although the term “Buddhism” was never used during the time of the Buddha, some consider this to be the unofficial starting point of Buddhism as we know it today. 


In the 3rd century BC, Emperor Ashoka the Great discovered the exact site of this historical occurrence and erected a massive stone structure called “Dhamekh Stupa.” It towers over the landscape and can be seen from miles away. 

For those unaware, Ashoka was at one time labeled Ashoka the Cruel. He was a ruthless and cunning military leader with ambitions to spread his empire to the far reaches of the known world. He was very effective at uniting India and the surrounding area under a single banner, but he did so through fear. One day, he came into contact with the Dharma and the teachings of vipassana. Not long afterwards, he became a changed man and was from that point forward known as Ashoka the Great. 

During Ashoka’s reign he built pillars at the major sites of the Buddha’s life. I have been to the pillar at Lumbini twice, but unfortunately the pillar at Sarnath had toppled and was in many pieces. When it was erected however,  on top of the pillar stood the “Lion Capital”, which is a large statue of four lions standing back-to-back. It is now the national emblem of India. 

Without Ashoka, the meditation of Vipassana, which to me was the greatest contribution of the Buddha’s enlightenment, would have perhaps been lost forever. Ashoka sent fully enlightened “Arahants” to every part of his empire, as well as to every known land beyond his own. Out of all of these emissaries, only one country preserved the technique of vipassana and that was the in Land of Dharma, presently known as Myanmar or Burma. 

The technique was rediscovered in the 1960s and has been spreading throughout the world ever since. This is officially known as the second Buddha-sasana or cycle of teaching. I am very happy that I got to visit this site and I look forward to continue the pilgrimage through Bodh Gaya in the coming months.

Although I came to Sarnath to see the ancient ruins and the location of the Buddha’s first sermon, I was surprised to find a Jain temple nearby within a stone’s throw from the massive stupa.   I have many times heard about Jainism and how it is highly respected, but for some reason I have never had the chance to study it or to hear about it from a Jain follower himself. 

We visited the Digambara Jain temple, southwest of the Dhamekh Stupa, and learned what this religion was about. It is said that in this temple Shreyanshnath, the 11th Jain tirthankara was born. Within the temple were beautiful frescoes, explaining the life of the Mahavir who founded the present day Jain religion. It reminded me of a Eastern Orthodox church and was very nicely put together.

We entered the temple complex and found a very intelligent and kind man who shared what it was about. He showed us a tremendous amount of pictures on Digambar munis explaining the lifestyle that they live. They follow an extremely strict and austere spiritual life, including “hardcore” ahimsa, possessionless to the point of nakedness, and plucking out one’s own hair a single strand at a time rather than cutting it which to them would risk hurting bacteria or lice.  


The Digambars observe full vows of non-violence, truth, non-stealing, celibacy, and possessionless. They are mentioned throughout the Vedas and Puranas and Gandhi expressed deep regard for the Jains going so far as saying that he hoped in his next life to be able to live the life of a Digambar muni.


There are some distinct differences between their beliefs and other religions. The Jains believe that women cannot live the Digambar life, nor can they reach nirvana, but they can still support Jainism as lay people. In their belief, they will have to be reborn as men before they can reach liberation or enlightenment. Unlike most major religions, they believe there are no more tirthankaras to be incarnated and “they have had their full amount” as the man stated. Whereas, in Hinduism, they believe the 24th Vishnu incarnate will arrive one day. In Buddhism, they believe the Buddha Maitreya will come. In Islam, it is the Mahdi. In Judaism, they are waiting for the Mashiach and in Christianity they are waiting for the “Second Coming of Christ”. To me, this is a noticeable difference, but I think I know why they believe this.

After we left, I had to think about many things he explained. The only thing that makes sense to me is that they are doing two important things for the future. They are challenging women to reach the highest spiritual heights, which I believe they can, and they are challenging others to become a tirthankara, who they state will no longer incarnate. Furthermore, because of their hardcore “sadhu-ness” they are forever setting an example for others who live austere or extreme to compare their own lives to. This is extremely beneficial for people like me, who live semi-disciplined, but not as disciplined as they do. For example, if sometimes I think I cannot go on with my own spiritual and austere practice, it is much easier once I think of the Digamber Jains. 

Compared to these men, I can do a wide-range of things. I don’t think they believe that all people should live like them, but are just setting a “high-bar” to encourage others to carry on with their own discipline. Because I believe that we must consider the material life and spiritual life to be 100% equal, it would be impossible for me to live their lifestyle at this moment, but I highly respect those that do.

List of daily expenses and donations for April 29th, 2015:

Total spent on travel: $3.18
Total spent on food: $4.29
Total spent on room: $1.59
Random: $1.59
Total: $10.65 + 61.47 = $72.12 divided by 8 days = $9.02 each day.

Donations given to 4 random strangers = 40 Indian rupees or $ .64 
Donations given to 3 sadhus or holy men = 30 INR or $ .48
Donations given to Digamber Jain Temple of Sarnath = 100 INR or $1.59
Total = $2.71 + 425.74 = $428.45 divided by  days = $53.56 each day

Expense account = $538.33 – 10.65 = $527.80 (Avg $9.02 each day will last 59 more days)
Donations account = $174.31 – 2.71 = $171.60 (Avg $53.56 each day will last 3 more days)

The man walked into the kitchen at 6:30 in the morning to roast his favorite local instant coffee, BRU Super Strong. In the lower corner of the room, a rustle was heard near the red-plated gas tank. A rectangular cage was shaking, but it was hard to see what was causing it as the light was still dim. All of a sudden, a rat the size of a cat lifted the trap door and streaked out like a lightning bolt under the stairs. 

As if nothing unusual had happened, the stove was lit and water was placed to boil. Meanwhile, Dolly the arthritic shitzu came to investigate the great escape. She could smell it. It was there, and close, but it was hiding and Dolly would be unable to catch her prey. If only she was a pup again, that rat would have met his match, or so the shitzu thought. Next time.

The coffee was finished and served. It had a burnt aroma, like country coffee, but that is the way he liked it.

“After today, no more coffee for me,” exclaimed Shanti. 

“And for you Kumiko?” said the man. A subtle nod was given.

After coffee, the typing always began.

Thinking of Nepal. Continue to stay strong. 


New mantra up. Shiva Shiva Shiva Shamboh:



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This American Sadhu

Wandering traveler, writing a story, contemplating spiritual stuff, living austere, and helping random strangers... all rolled into ONE. What fun!

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