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Revisiting Vulture's Peak

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Revisiting Vulture's Peak
By Indrajala (Jeffrey Kotyk)

In June of this year (2013) I had the good fortune to take a trip to Bodhgaya again. During my stay there I visited the area around Rajgir with the main purpose of visiting Vulture's Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa) once again. It is a sacred site in Buddhism chiefly because the Buddha himself stayed there for a time, even dwelling in the caves which still remain and are open to the public. The surrounding mountains and valley are protected natural habitats, though Shanti Peace Stūpa atop the mountain built by the Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii (my teacher's teacher) is a popular tourist attraction and attracts a lot of visitors who casually discard their litter on the ground. There are also vendors who blast music out of their mobile phones.

Nevertheless, I made my way to Vulture's Peak in the hot sun. As I crossed the bridge leading up there the sky turned gray providing refreshing relief. Reaching the top I was pleased to find myself alone. When I visited in 2011 it was during the cool winter, at which time there were plenty of people around.

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Looking out from the top you are given a sight of natural beauty quite rare around India these days:

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Vulture's peak is located atop a rocky crag not so far down from the peak of another mountain inside a long valley stretching west to east:


The whole area played a core role in the history of the early sangha and later Buddhist mythology. Many of the formative events of the original sangha happened in this area. I found it quite moving to just sit and survey the area, thinking of all the great figures from the Buddha to all the Nālandā scholars who visited.

The site is not so far south from Nālandā, perhaps a day's walk (or twenty minutes by car). Between the years 399-414 the Chinese pilgrim named Faxian 法顯 (338-c423) traveled throughout South Asia before returning back home. He paid a visit to the area and provides a precious witness account. Modern scholars would be at a great loss had Faxian's journal not survived. When Faxian visited it seems there was no largescale monastery built at Nālandā as yet:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「從此西南行一由延到那羅聚落。是舍利弗本生村。舍利弗還於此中般泥洹。即此處起塔。今現在。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c7-9)
Going southwest from here one yojana one reaches the village of Nālandā. It is was the birth village of Śāriputra. Śāriputra returned here for his parinirvāṇa. They built a stūpa which is still extant.

It seems possible that the Śāriputra Stūpa presently found at the Nālandā site was rebuilt atop the original site which Faxian is referring to here. A lot of the buildings we can presently see at the Nālandā ruins were built atop older ruins.


Faxian then proceeded a short distance to the valley. The old capital of King Bimbisāra Rājagṛha used to be located inside the valley, with the mountains forming natural defense. The natural barrier was supplemented with additional fortifications which are still extant (assuming these were built during the Magadha Empire):


The need for such defenses suggests a strong concern for war. The geography of the surrounding plains is conducive to rapid troop movement. Judging from the Buddhist accounts, there was a great deal of bloodshed in the period around the Buddha's lifetime.

Later a new Rājagṛha was built just just north of the valley by Ajātaśatru, son of Bimbisāra, which probably more or less corresponds to the present town of Rajgir.

Faxian writes the following:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「從此西行一由延到王舍新城。新城者是阿闍世王所造,中有二僧伽藍。出城西門,三百步,阿闍世王得佛一分舍利起塔。高大嚴麗。出城南四里南向入谷至五山裏。五山周圍狀若城郭。即是蓱沙王舊城。城東西可五六里南北七八里。舍利弗目連初見頞鞞處。尼犍子作火坑毒飯請佛處。阿闍世王酒飲黑象欲害佛處。城東北角曲中耆舊於菴婆羅園中起精舍。請佛及千二百五十弟子供養處。今故在。其城中空荒無人住。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c9-19)
From here going west one yojana one arrives at the new city of Rājagṛha. The new city was built by King Ajātaśatru. In it there are two saṃghārāma-s (monasteries). Exiting the city's west gate three-hundred steps King Ajātaśatru obtained a part of the Buddha's relics and built a stūpa. It is tall and stately. Exiting the south of the city, going four li south, one enters into a valley surrounded by five mountains. The surrounding five mountains are akin to outer city walls. This was the old city of King Bimbisāra. East to west the city is about five or six li, and south to north it is seven or eight li. It is the place where Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana first saw Aśvajit. It is the place where the nirgrantha made a fire pit and poisoned rice, and invited the Buddha. It is the place King Ajātaśatru made a black elephant intoxicated with liquor, wanting to harm the Buddha. In the northeast corner of the city the Elder (Jīvaka) built a vihāra in the mango grove, where he invited the Buddha and his thousand two-hundred and fifty disciples in order to make offerings. It is still extant. It is vacant inside the city and nobody lives there.

His use of yojana here is important because we can discern his own understanding of the measurement as we know the general distance between Nālandā and Rājagṛha. According to Google Earth is roughly just under fifteen kilometers. Sometimes in his work his directions and measurements are off, but we can assume he was providing us with the details the locals provided or his best estimates.

Faxian then provides a description of Vulture's Peak:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「入谷搏山東南上十五里到耆闍崛山。未至頭三里有石窟南向。佛本於此坐禪。西北三十步復有一石窟。阿難於中坐禪。天魔波旬化作鵰鷲住窟前恐阿難。佛以神足力隔石舒手摩阿難肩。怖即得止。鳥迹手孔今悉在。故曰鵰鷲窟山。窟前有四佛坐處。又諸羅漢各各有石窟坐禪處。動有數百。佛在石室前東西經行。調達於山北嶮巇間橫擲石傷佛足指處。石猶在。佛說法堂已毀壞。止有塼壁基在。其山峯秀端嚴。是五山中最高。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c19-29)
Entering the valley and following the mountains southeast and then ascending fifteen li one arrives at Gṛdhrakūṭa. Three li short of the peak there is a cave facing south. The Buddha once sat here in meditation. Thirty steps to the northwest there is another cave. Ānanda sat in it in meditation. The Māra Pāpīyas manifested as a vulture in front of the cave and frightened Ānanda. The Buddha with his supermundane ability parted the stone and stretched out his hand to touch Ānanda's shoulder. His fear was then halted. The bird tracks and hole for the hand are all still extant. Now they call it the "Mountain of the Vulture's Cave". In front of the cave are where four buddhas had sat. Also the arhats each had their own respective caves where they sat in meditation, amounting to several hundred. The Buddha would walk east to west in front of the caves. From among the steep cliffs of the north mountain Devadatta hurled a stone at the Buddha, injuring his toes. The stone is still extant. The hall in which the Buddha taught the Dharma has been destroyed. There are just the brick foundations. The peak of the mountain has is green with vegetation and beautiful. It is the highest of the five mountains.

Both Faxian and Xuanzang took the time to detail many of the local legends and myths in the places they visited. Buddhist bards early on naturally formulated these tales based on earlier stories, both fictional and historical (although admittedly that dichotomy is a modern one), and the sites became further sanctified as a result.

The caves mentioned here are still extant. The whole area's geology is conducive to cavern formation. The Jains in ancient times also made use of the area. Vulture's Peak is within easy walking distance of the old and new cities, so it would have been ideal for mendicants living in the caves. Faxian bought necessary items from the nearby town before spending the night at the peak:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「法顯於新城中買香華油燈。倩二舊比丘送法顯到耆闍崛山。華香供養然燈續明。慨然悲傷抆淚而言。佛昔於此說首楞嚴。法顯生不值佛。但見遺跡處所而已。即於石窟前誦首楞嚴。停止一宿。還向新城。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c29-p. 863, a5)
I went into the new city and bought incense, flowers and oil lamps. I asked two old bhikṣus to take me to the Gṛdhrakūṭa mountain. With flowers and incense offered and burning lamps bright I sadly wept and wiped away the tears saying that the Buddha long ago taught the Śūraṃgama [ Samādhi Sūtra ] – I could not meet the Buddha in this life, but could only see vestiges. We recited the Śūraṃgama Samādhi Sūtra in front of the cave entrance and stayed the night before heading back to the new city.

It is noteworthy here that Faxian “buys” the items. The Chinese verb here mǎi 買 unmistakably means to buy, and not to barter or beg. It seems Buddhist monks in north India, at least in this period, did not object to possessing and using money and/or precious metals. A few centuries later Yijing 義淨 (635-713) also notes how the inheritance system for monks works in India (probably specifically at Nālandā):

《南海寄歸內法傳》卷4:「先問負債囑授及看病人。... 所有券契之物。若能早索得者。即可分之。如不能者。券當貯庫。後時索得充四方僧用。若諸金銀及成未成器貝齒諸錢。並分為三分。一佛陀。二達摩。三僧伽。佛物應修理佛堂及髮爪窣覩波所有破壞。法物寫佛經料理師子座。眾物現前應分。」(CBETA, T54, no. 2125, p. 230, a28-c24)
First of all one should make an inquiry as to whether he had any debts, or he has left a will, and if anyone nursed him while he was ill. ... Those receipts for loans that are claimable at once may be divided right away. If not claimable at once, they should be kept in the monastic treasury, and when the money is reclaimed at a later time, it should be used to replenish the fund of the community of monks from the four quarters. All gold and silver, either wrought articles or unwrought ingots, should be divided into three portions for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The portion for the Buddha should be spent on repairing the Buddha halls and the stupas containing [the Buddha's) hair and nails, and for mending other dilapidation. The portion for the Dharma is used for copying scriptures and maintaining the lion seat. The portion for the community of monks should be shared by them right away.[1]

Yijing also notes that beds inlaid with jewels as well as weapons and armor are to be dealt with as well. That of course begs the question why would a monk possess such items, but nevertheless it seems at least some of the clergy at the time amassed plenty of wealth.

Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664) also visited Vulture's Peak while travelling in India between 633-645. His travel account records the following:

《大唐西域記》卷9:「宮城東北行十四五里,至姞栗陀羅矩吒山(唐言鷲峯,亦謂鷲臺。舊曰耆闍崛山,訛也)。接北山之陽,孤摽特起,既棲鷲鳥,又類高臺,空翠相映,濃淡分色。如來御世垂五十年,多居此山,廣說妙法。頻毘娑羅王為聞法故,興發人徒,自山麓至峯岑,跨谷凌巖,編石為階,廣十餘步,長五六里。中路有二小窣堵波,一謂下乘,即王至此徒行以進;一謂退凡,即簡凡人不令同往。其山頂則東西長,南北狹。臨崖西埵有甎精舍,高廣奇製,東闢其戶,如來在昔多居說法,今作說法之像,量等如來之身。精舍東有長石,如來經行所履也。傍有大石,高丈四五尺,周三十餘步,是提婆達多遙擲擊佛處也。其南崖下有窣堵波,在昔如來於此說《法花經》。精舍南山崖側有大石室,如來在昔於此入定。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 921, a20-b7)
Going northeast for fourteen or fifteen li from the palace city, I reached Gṛdhrakūṭa Mountain (known in China as the Vulture peak or terrace, and formerly mistranscribed as as Qishejue Mountain). It links with the south side of the North Mountain, protruding all alone to a great height, where vulture's perch, and also resembles a high terrace. The verdurous mountain presents a distinct color in contrast with the sky. During the fifty years of his missionary career, the Tathāgata stayed on this mountain on many occasions to preach the wonderful Dharma.
In order to hear the Buddha's preaching, King Bimbasāra sent men to build a road leading from the foot of the mountain to the summit, more than ten paces wide and five or six li in length, across valleys and over rocks, with stones piled up into steps. There are two small stupas on the way. One is known as the place of alighting, from where the king started to walk on foot to proceed on his way, and the other as the place of preventing ordinary persons from going further [with the king). The summit is oblong from east to west and narrow from south to north. On the brink of the west side of the precipice is a brick shrine, high and spacious, built in a marvellous style, with its door opening to the east. The Tathāgata preached the Dharma in it many times. Now there is a life-size statue of the Tathāgata in the posture of delivering a sermon.
To the east of the shrine is an oblong stone on which the Tathāgata walked to and fro. Beside it is a great rock fourteen or fifteen feet high and more than thirty paces in circumference. This was the place where Devadatta hurled a stone from a distance to hit the Buddha. To its south and below the cliff was the place where the Tathāgata preached the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra in olden times. To the south of the shrine and beside a steep rock is a cave where the Tathāgata sat in meditation in days of yore.[2]

The caves he describes, like Faxian, are open to the public. I went and sat inside one of them for a bit and discovered some bats were hanging inside, so I cautiously exited.


You can clearly see many centuries of pilgrims have visited the site. The influx of Tibetans in recent times has ensured plenty of stones with carved mantras are left there along with prayer flags strung all around. A lot of the protruding rocks which make for good grips when climbing up the peak are polished from centuries of use, though the site seems to have been forgotten for several centuries after the disappearance of Buddhism from that part of India.

Incidentally, a long tradition of sacred mountains is found in Mahāyāna literature. One noteworthy example is in the Lotus Sūtra where Vulture's Peak is the site of the Buddha's teachings. In chapter sixteen “The Tathāgata's Lifespan” there are the famous verses where the Buddha declares his omnipresence in the world, which is centered at Vulture's Peak. The relevant part reads as follows.

    《妙法蓮華經》卷5〈16 如來壽量品〉:
    時我及眾僧,  俱出靈鷲山,
    我時語眾生:  『常在此不滅,
    以方便力故,  現有滅不滅。』
    餘國有眾生,  恭敬信樂者,
    我復於彼中,  為說無上法。
    汝等不聞此,  但謂我滅度。
    我見諸眾生,  沒在於苦惱,
    故不為現身,  令其生渴仰,
    因其心戀慕,  乃出為說法。
    神通力如是,  於阿僧祇劫,
    常在靈鷲山,  及餘諸住處。

    (CBETA, T09, no. 262, p. 43, b24-c5)

    At that time I and the sangha will emerge from Vulture's Peak,
    I will then say to beings: I am always here, not perishing.
    With the power of skilful means I thus manifest perishing and not perishing.
    In other lands there are beings, reverent and faithful.
    It is there that I teach the unexcelled Dharma.
    You all do not hear this, only thinking I have passed away.
    I see beings drowning in suffering.
    Thus I do not manifest myself, to make them thirst.
    When their minds are longing, I then emerge and teach the Dharma.
    Supermundane powers like this, for an asaṃkhya kalpa,
    I am always present at Vulture's Peak and other dwelling places.

Countless other works highlight the sacred quality of the mountain. This tradition of orienting holy sites on mountains was emulated in China as well. Mt. Wutai came to be associated with Mañjuśrī in the pan-Buddhist world (Indian monks and not just the Chinese in ancient times acknowledged the mountain as Mañjuśrī's earthly abode).

I always find it interesting to compare these ancient accounts to what is presently extant. In an earlier post Revisiting Ancient Buddhist India we looked at some period accounts of Kushinagar, Kapilavastu and Lumbini. When you visit these places and know this history, the whole experience is far more enriching. I also feel it is a way of connecting to past figures in a spiritual sense. When I read the works of Faxian and Xuanzang, for example, I am always reminded of the same places we visited, albeit in different centuries.


  1. English translation by Li Rongxi. See Buddhist Monastic Traditions of Southern Asia (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000), 157-161.
  2. English translation by Li Rongxi. See The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1996), 270-271.


by Indrajala (Jeffrey Kotyk)