The Ascension of Buddha

As told to Marco Polo during his visit to Sri Lanka:

There once lived a prince who, unlike other princes, forsook the riches of his father’s kingdom and all earthly temptations. His spirit was so holy that he had no interest in worldly matters. He would not listen to any discussions of human affairs. He had no mind for concerns. He remained a virgin. And he rejected his father’s throne.

His father, having no other son, was desperate to pass on his kingdom to Shakyamuni (known as Sagamoni Borcan in Mongol, meaning Shakyamuni the Deity; or Gautama Buddha more commonly today) that he built a great big palace for him, filled it with the most beautiful female servants in the world and all the luxuries of earth so to try to convince his son that the world was worth enjoying and that he should become king.

Shakyamuni meditated every day in that palace to resist the temptations placed there to lure him into the mortal world. One day, he left. When on a roadside he saw a man lain dead, he asked one of his guards what this man was doing. The guard told him that he was dead. Having never seen a dead man before, he asked if all men die. The guard said yes.

Next along the road there walked an old man, hunchbacked and toothless, moving at a snail’s pace. Shakyamuni asked his guard why this man looked so decrepit. The guard answered that he is old. “Do all men get old like this?” Shakyamuni asked. “Yes, should they not die first,” the guard answered.

Shakyamuni had been so sheltered all his life that he had never seen a man dead nor crippled nor sick nor failing in age. His disappointment with this decay that the earthly world had to offer further emboldened his intent to remain free of it. So, one day soonafter, he took to a high, unconquerable mountain that had no roads or trails up it. He climbed to its peak and stayed there, isolated, with no one able to find or reach him. And there, he meditated in peace.

It came to pass that the prince died there on that mountaintop, or at least his body did. From a prince he reincarnated into an ox, then into a horse, then 80 more times he died and reincarnated into a different animal, until the 84th time he died. Then, he became a god.

All the while, people had searched for the prince wondering where he had gone. Time passed and the search continued. Eventually, there was found there at that mountaintop some teeth and some hair. And these were praised as the teeth of Shakyamuni, the prince who became Buddha.

This mountaintop was Mount Sri Pada in Sri Lanka, also known as Adam’s Peak, where a giant footstep is found crushed into the ground still today. They say it is a footstep Buddha took during his ascension. Others say it is the first footstep Adam took after being cast out of Eden. As for the hair and teeth, well, the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan purchased them in the late 13th century with an inconceivable sum of treasure. And as for the whereabouts of these holy relics, perhaps they have gone the way of Buddha’s teachings: shared around the world.

Mount Sri Pada or Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka
Mount Sri Pada, Sri Lanka – credit: Jithey / CC BY-SA

Source: Polo, Marco, Henry Yule, and Henri Cordier. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition : Including the Unabridged Third Edition (1903) of Henry Yule’s Annotated Translation, As Revised By Henri Cordier, Together With Cordier’s Later Volume of Notes and Addenda (1920). New York: Dover Publications, 1993.

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