“Merely to praise those supreme places in which
The Bhagavān resided yields boundless merit.”
So it is said, and, in accordance with this,
I praise this site of his sacred Dharma teaching.
It was here that Buddha’s excellent speech was compiled
A place as even as a palm, and abundantly auspicious.
In the centre, surrounded by lesser hills,
Is this lofty peak, located to the east
Of the great town called Rājagṛha.”
—Excerpt from In Praise of Vulture’s Peak by Rongton Sheja Kunrig
For the second instalment of my recent pilgrimage travel in the Bodh Gaya region of Bihar, India, I offer this connected to my recent visit (January 3rd 2023) to what many consider the second most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site, Vulture’s Peak, where the Shakyamuni Buddha meditated with some of his most renowned students and have many inspiring teachings, such as the Heart Sūtra.
I first provide some historical background to Vulture’s Peak and Rajgir and why the place is so important as a pilgrimage site, together with some photos from my trip there to the peak and its surrounding caves. Then, I offer a new translation of a very short text on the Prajñāpāramitā, which I recited while on Vulture’s Peak.
As those who follow my work and website will know, one of my specialist subjects is the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom), in particular that of the Empty-of-Other view by Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu master, Tāranātha and as held by the Kagyu and Nyingma. I translated and published his Commentary on the Heart Sutra for my postgraduate thesis in 2017, which was then published as a book by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 2017. I have just recently finished a second edition of this book, which I will write more about on here very soon once it is finally published and ready to go!
As I stated in the Introduction of that book, on my first trip to Vulture’s Peak in 2006 (I have now been there three times in total), after taking refuge with HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje in Dharamsala, India, I magically (and karmically) bumped into a young Jamgon Kongtrul yangsi on the way up in the cable car to the peak, who was with a couple of his attendants and followers:
“In terms of the auspicious connections that led to this particular study, I will share a personal experience. On my first pilgrimage visit to Vulture’s Peak, India (the place where the Buddha taught prajñāpāramitā) in 2006, I was fortunate to ‘randomly’ be there at the same time as the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche (and his attendant), who conducted a solitary puja on the peak at that time and whom I then accompanied onward to visit Nālandā University nearby. Some years after that, I travelled again to Nepal to spend two months studying Praise to the Dharmadhātu (Dharmadhātustava: chos kyi dbyings su bstod pa) by Nāgārjuna with Drupon Khenpo Lodro Namgyal and Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being (Dharmadharmatāvibhāga: chos dang chos nyid rnam par ’byed pa) with Khenpo Chokey Gyaltsen (translation by Jim Scott) at the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul’s Pullahari Monastery. This was the first time I had heard about the Empty-of-Other view and while there Drupon Khenpo suggested I read the First Jamgon Kongtrul the Great’s text (’Jam-mgon-kong-sprul-blo-gros-mtha’-yas), Light Rays of the Stainless Vajra Moon: Guiding Instructions on the Empty-of-Other Great Mādhyamaka (gZhan stong dbu ma chenpo’i lta khrid rdo rje zla ba dri ma med pa’i ’od zer). On reading this, I learnt not only that it had been composed while Jamgon Kongtrul was being given teach- ings by a Jonang master, Kheydrub Ngawang Chophel Gyatso (mKhas- grub-ngag-dbang-chos-’phel-rgya-mtsho), at the Jonang monastery in Dzamthang (’Dzam-thang), Tibet, but also that his Empty-of-Other view was heavily influenced by the Jonang lineage, in particular by the work of Jonang masters, Dolpopa and Tāranātha. As a result of this inspiring introduction to the Jonang lineage and view, and through further personal research, I decided to use Tāranātha’s Word-for-Word Commentary as the text for my Master’s thesis.”
Written by Adele Tomlin, 10th January 2023.
Brief Historical background to Vulture’s Peak and Rajgir
Vulture’s Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa), was the Buddha’s favorite retreat in Rajagaha (now Rajgir, or Rajagrih, Bihar, India). It was the scene for many of his discourses. It is so named because it resembles a sitting vulture with its wings folded. According to other commentaries this place got its name because vultures used to perch on some of the peak’s rocks.
Bihar is considered by many Indians to be one of the poorest, undeveloped and most crime-ridden in India. Ironic considering it was not only the site where Buddha taught many of his most famous teachings, such as the Heart Sutra, but also where he attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. Its location is frequently mentioned in Buddhist texts in the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism and in the Mahayana sutras as the place where the Buddha gave certain sermons. Among the sermons are the Heart Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra as well as many prajñāpāramitā sutras. It is explicitly mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, chapter 16, as the Buddha’s pure land. Rajgir is also the place where Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, the two foremost disciples of the Buddha embraced Buddhism.
Rajgir is also where the Buddha tamed a wild elephant. King Ajatasatru possessed a ferocious elephant. Shakyamuni’s jealous cousin Devadatta, hearing that the Buddha was coming to Rajgir, arranged to have the elephant escape. As the Buddha came toward the city, Devadatta went to the palace terrace to see the Buddha killed, but when the elephant came rushing at the Buddha, the Enlightened One tamed the elephant with a few words, and the ferocious beast knelt at this feet.
In Rajgir, King Bimbisara offered the Veluvana Bamboo Grove to the followers of the Buddha. The site was ideal for a monastic order, being not too near the city, calm and having mild air and cool water. Thus it was suited to the practice of meditation, and here Shakyamuni passed the first rainy season retreat following his enlightenment. He was to return to this place for several rainy season retreats later in his life.
The final journey of Buddha’s life, which ended with the mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar began at Rajgir.
A statue of the Buddha (600 BCE) was found here and currently housed at Archeological Museum of Nalanda.
The Caves and Prayer flags just below the Peak
There is a cable car that takes one most of the way up the hill. Once descending from that and climbing the steps that lead to the top, one passes a large cave. This is said to be the Sukarakhata (the Boar’s Grotto) where the Buddha delivered two discourses, the Discourse to Long Nails and the Sukarakhata Sutta.
It was here too that one of Buddha’s famous students, Shariputrs attained enlightenment. The Sukarakhata seems to have been formed by excavating the earth from under the huge rock that forms the grotto’s roof, an impression confirmed by legend. According to the Pali commentaries during the time of Kassapa Buddha a boar rooting around under the rock made a small cavity which was later enlarged when monsoon rains washed more earth away. Later, an ascetic discovered the cave and, deciding it would be a good place to live in, built a wall around it, furnished it with a couch, and ‘made it as clean as a golden bowl polished with sand.’
Here are some photos I took of the higher cave as one walks up to the peak. There are masses of colourful Tibetan prayer flags and Indian mala sellers, selling bodhi seed malas. They show you the Bodhi trees where they get the bodhi seeds from if you ask them. I was given a fresh seed peeled from one tree, which I kept as a sacred memoir from this sacred place (see photo).
The peak and remains
Climbing further, the pilgrim can see the ruins of stupas and the foundations of a small temple built on the summit in ancient times.
Famous visitors, statues,the Buddhist First Council and the Japanese Shanti Stupa
When the famous Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang came here, he was deeply moved by the atmosphere on the Gijjhakuta.
‘In the new city, Xuanzang bought incense, flowers, oil and lamps and hired two monks, long residents in the place, to carry them to the peak. When he himself arrived, he made his offerings with flowers and incense and lit the lamps when the darkness began to come on. He felt melancholy but restrained his tears, and said,
‘Here the Buddha delivered the Surangama Sutra. I, Fa Hien, was born when I could not meet the Buddha and now I only see the footprints which he has left and the place where he lived and nothing more.’
With this, in front of the rock cavern, he chanted the Surangama Sutra, remaining there overnight and then returned towards the new city.’
During the time of Dharmasvamin (Chag Lo-tsa-ba Chos-rje-dpal, 1197–1264) the Gijjhakuta was ‘the abode for numerous carnivorous animals such as tiger, black bear and brown bear,’ and in order to frighten away the animals, pilgrims visiting the Gijjhakuta would beat drums, blow conches and carry tubes of green bamboo that would emit sparks.
A Buddha statue, dating from the 6th century CE, found on the Gijjhakuta, is now housed in the Archaeological Museum at Nalanda. The Gijjhakuta is located about 5 kilometers south-east of the town of Rajgir and is a popular destination.
It is also very close to the location of the First Buddhist council at Rajagaha, at the Sattapanni Cave, which is about 5 km from Vulture Peak.
There is a stunning Japanese Shanti Stupa (Peace Pagoda) constructed near the summit of Vulture’s Peak, here are some spontaneous photos I took:
The Sound of AH – One syllable teaching on Prajñāpāramitā
While I was on the Peak, as well as reciting the Heart Sūtra (and other aspirations) I felt drawn to recite this magnificent Prajñāpāramitā teaching given by the Buddha to Ānanda and many Bodhisattvas. It reminded me a little of another text by Phagmo Drupa, in which he quotes a teaching of the ‘greatest secret of all secrets’ from the Buddha that relates to the presence of Sanskrit sounds/syllables in the central channel (for more on that see here).
There are several editions of this text in the Kangyur: Lithang, Dege, Ragya, Narthang, Lhasa, Tog Pho (Ladakh), Phugdrag Drima, Shel Kar Drima, Pedurma, Peking, and Choney. I have not listed them all here, but they can be found on the BDRC here.
As I chanted this stunning short text on the peak, with its resounding AH at the end, like the long Tibetan horns of puja rituals, the AH filled the space and environment both enveloping and consuming all the phenomena within it. Feeling the eternal presence of the Dharmakaya/Tathagata/Buddha, the mother source of all appearances, sounds and thoughts, the Great Mother.
The Perfection of Wisdom, Mother of All Tathāgatas, ‘In One Syllable’ from the Words of the Buddha
༄༅། །དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པ་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་ཡུམ་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་མ་ཡི་གེ་གཅིག་མ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ། །
In the language of India: Ekākṣarī-mātā-nāma-sarva-tathāgata-prajñā-pāramitā
In Tibetan: Deshin shekpa tamché kyi yum sherab kyi parol tu chinma yigé chikma shé chawa (de bzhin gshegs pa thams cad kyi yum shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin ma yi ge gcig ma zhes bya ba)
In English: The Perfection of Wisdom, Mother of All Tathāgatas, ‘In One Syllable’
Homage to the Great Mother Prajñāpāramitā!
This I heard at one time:
The Bhagavān, in Rājgṛha at Vulture’s Peak mountain,
with a great gathering of eighty  fully-ordained monks,
And myriads of many bodhisattva mahāsattvas, all gathered.
At that time, the Bhagavān, to the Venerable [lit. ‘one endowed with life’] Ānanda, stated this:
O Ānanda, since the Perfection of Prajñāpāramitā ‘In One Syllable’ will bring benefit and bliss to sentient beings, maintain it!
It is like this:
When the Blessed One had said this,
ཚེ་དང་ལྡན་པ་ཀུན་དགའ་བོ་དང༌། དགེ་སློང་དེ་དག་དང་། བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའ་སེམས་དཔའ་ཆེན་པོ་དེ་དག་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱིས་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་རྗེས་སུ་རྟོགས་ཤིང་ཡི་རངས་ནས།
The Venerable, Ānanda together with all the fully-ordained monks and bodhisattva mahāsattvas realized the perfection of wisdom and rejoicing
Thoroughly praised the speech of the Bhagavān.
This completes the Mother of All Tathāgatas, The Perfection of Prajñāpāramitā, ‘In One Syllable’.
Translated by Adele Tomlin, 10th January 2023.
 This translation is based on the Dergé Kangyur edition (Tōh. 23: sher phyin yi ge gcig ma). The Tibetan text varies greatly depending on the edition consulted. It was originally translated by Stefan Mang in 2019 and published on Lotsawa House.
[2} Here the Tibetan literally says ‘half a century’ and thirty monks. For some inknown reason, Mang has translated this as twelve hundred and fifty, I am not sure why.