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Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 12, 2013
Following Buddha
Travelers share experiences of visiting sacred sites in India

Robert Englebach and Don Thurston in India

Robert Englebach, center, and Don Thurston, right, stand with two Indian women who asked to be photographed with them at the Ajanta Caves in India. Recently, Thurston and Englebach shared stories from their 2012 trip to India.

Photo courtesy of Don Thurston

by Jessica Brophy

While only a small percent of India’s massive populace follow Buddhism—a million versus one billion who follow Hinduism—India is the home of the most sacred sites in Buddhism.

Donald Thurston and Robert Englebach traveled to India at the end of 2011 and into 2012, visiting those sacred sites, including Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal, Bodh Gaya in India where Buddha first achieved enlightenment at the age of 35, and Kushinagar, where he died.

Thurston and Englebach shared their story, along with many photographs, at the Brooksville Public Library on Tuesday, July 30.

Thurston, a history professor at Union College, gave a brief sketch of Buddha’s life as part of the presentation. “Buddha lived to be 80, and lived 500 years before Christ,” said Thurston. After achieving enlightenment, Buddha traveled and taught for more than 40 years.

“Buddhism spread slowly until the third century AD,” said Thurston. “Emperor Ashoka was determined to spread Buddhism.” That emperor visited many of the same sites in the late 200s that Englebach and Thurston visited, erecting pillars marking his travels to the holy sites.

“Buddhism spread all over India, and traveled north and east to China and Korea, and to Myanmar and Thailand,” he continued. During the 900s and 1000s, Buddhism in India was absorbed by Hinduism, which is now the majority religion. “The coup de grace for Buddhism was Islamic invaders that destroyed many of the sites,” said Thurston.

A resurgence of Buddhism in India has been seen since 1959, when the Dalai Lama was allowed asylum in India from Tibet.

Thurston said there is the historical Buddha, and the Buddha that is worshipped as a deity. Some of the stories of Buddha are based on his historic legacy, and others—such as his ability to walk at the moment of birth—are part of the religion.

Englebach and Thurston talked about each of the sites they visited, as well as many of the people they met along the way, such as helpful translators, scholars and friendly locals.

Thurston, who said he is not a practicing Buddhist or an expert in Buddhism, said the pair found the trip to be a wonderful experience.