Tag Archives: Magadha

Part I (Cont’d) – Tree

8 Aug

The Emperor Ashoka ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC. He had consolidated his kingdom and dynasty through many brutal wars. He was a destroyer. But, after one particularly horrific battle where he was left alone to survey the carnage of rotting corpses, burnt villages, and destruction he and his army caused, he had an awakening. He was disgusted at what he had done and how meaningless it all was. At that moment, he felt a warmth come over him and he swore he would change his life. Buddhism had taken hold of much of the subcontinent during the 200 years since the Buddha had passed. The Sangha had grown and become strong. This community filled many parts of Ashoka’s kingdom and so Ashoka sought out the Buddhist monks in his midst. He converted to Buddhism and adopted the Buddha’s teachings as his own. Going forward, he would live his life and root his kingdom and legacy in the name of the Buddha and practice only non-violence and tolerance. He had two children from his first wife – a son called Mahindu and a daughter named Sanghamitta – whose name meant “friend of the Sangha.” His two children would devote their lives to Buddhism and Ashoka himself set out to visit the key sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, the Bodhi Tree at Magadha, the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and Kushinigar.

Bodhi Tree – Bodh Gaya

When Ashoka came to Magahda he saw the Bodhi Tree and he placed a grey sandstone slab under it to mark the spot where the Buddha had sat. Then, Ashoka commissioned the building of the original Mahadabodhi Temple. Ashoka loved the serenity of the forest and spent many days and nights sitting and sleeping under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that he spent so much time with the Tree that his wife became jealous. This jealousy drove her to the point where she poisoned the Tree and it rotted and decayed. Other traditions say that the Tree was toppled during a battle Ashoka had with another warring tribe who had sought to claim the forest and the remnants of the Magadha kingdom. We may not know what exactly happened to that original Bo Tree, but we do know that the young Princess Sanghamitta understood the importance of the Tree and was able to save a small cutting or sapling from the Tree after it had been felled. Fearing any reprisals from her mother or Ashoka’s enemies, she hid the small shoot in her long hair and took surreptitious care of it. Her brother, Mahindu, had already become a Buddhist monk and begun a mission to the south of the subcontinent — even as far as to the island nation of what is today, Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was determined to take the cutting of the Tree to where her brother was since she knew the Tree would be safe there. She traveled under the cover of night from village to village until she reached the end of the subcontinent. From there, she took a boat and sailed to the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The cutting of the Tree was kept in a golden vase during the crossing from India to Sri Lanka. Once she reached Sri Lanka an advanced guard of King Tissa met her and they took her to the royal capital of Anuradhapura where Mahindu had successfully passed on the Buddha’s teachings to an eager people. Mahindu himself had taken to living in a rock cave just outside of Anuradhapura. (Little did I know while I was reading this story at Bodhi Gaya about Mahindu, a year later I would be fumbling [barefoot again] down a ravine while getting followed by dubious looking dogs as I tried to find this rock cave. It was off a plateau now called Mihintale about 13km away from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A “mango tree” dagoba had also been built on the top of this plateau marking the location where Mahindu had first met King Tissa. A very holy site for Sri Lanka Buddhists).

Rock Cave of Mahindu – Mihintale, Sri Lanka

Mahindu traveled to Anuradhapura to meet his sister there and she gave him the vase with the sapling. Then, during an elaborate ceremony, Mahindu, Sanghamitta, King Tissa, members of the royal family, and other monks planted the tree in an elevated mound. This all took place in the 3rd century BC. For more than 2000 years afterwards, this sapling grew and was taken care of by successive members of the royal family and the monks who lived in Anuradhapura up to the present time. What happened next was that centuries later when the original Tree in Bodh Gaya was toppled again by an invading army, the Buddhist order in Anuradhapura took a sapling from their tree – reverentially called Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – and replanted it in Bodhi Gaya at the same site where the original Tree had sprouted. But, this Tree also was toppled and then in the late 19th century, the British viceroy or whatever who had control of th Bihar province had a new Bo Tree planted. It was this Tree that I saw in 2009. Although it was young (under a 150 years old), it was still mighty and massive with history. But, as I read the story about Sanghamitta I knew I would have to travel to Anuradhapura and see Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. And in 2010, I was in Anuradhapura — an electrifying plain strewn with enormous, bubble-shaped Dagobas which I will detail later — but first it was the Tree. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the oldest “human tended” tree in the world. The monks in Anuradhapura have meticulous records of how generation after generation their order has taken care of the Tree. There were golden shrouds tied around knobby elbows of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and various metal braces were placed around the tree in order to hold up and spread the weight of its lumbering branches. I had never seen such tender upkeep of any non-human being before. There were many pilgrims and lay people walking around the tree and praying in the covered shrines built around the tree. There was a rotating wheel of activity like being in a fair or carnival.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (2010)

I sat in a corner of the Tree complex and was covered by the shade of one of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’s large, leafy branches. I clearly remember the feeling I had of just how insignificant my own life was. I had the life span of a gnat in the eyes of this Tree. No question about that. There was something undeniably supernatural about being in the presence of another living thing that was over 2 millennia old. When I thought back to Bodh Gaya, the connection this Tree had to the Buddha himself, and the journey the Tree had made with Sanghamitta to get to this place – it was almost too much to comprehend. Every culture or religion has its share of myths and legends that sustain and define its identity. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been passed on by tradition as bearing forbidden fruit. The Bodhi Tree was just the opposite – it was a catalyst that led to the receipt of complete Knowledge in the case of the Buddha. The Tree was then an object to be revered and celebrated. Here, before me was its 2,200+ year old descendant. It had been cared for by the Sangha and would likely live on for another millennia, or until the Sangha was no more. Would there still be a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi without the Sangha’s care? Would the Sangha have still been able to be as strong as it was in Anuradhapura without something tangible like the Tree to motivate it and stay true to the Buddha’s teaching? The two’s destinies had been intertwined. Each needed the other, but if either was to over-indulge on their attachment to the other, then there would be conflict and loss of purpose. As I stood up and was ready to leave the Tree complex, I noticed a few twigs and leaves that must have fallen from Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. I picked up a couple of them and put them in my bag. I guess I needed to stay attached to this experience in some way. I had done the same thing at Bodh Gaya the year before. Back to Bodh Gaya then. From there, I set out like the Buddha had to the deer park.

Dharma

30 Jul

There would be many teachings in the Buddha’s long life, but the heart of these teachings was contained within the first sermon the Buddha gave to his 5 companions on that day.  There were 4 truths the Buddha wanted to share with them and each truth had to be recognized, its pursuit envisioned, and its attainment fully achieved in order for any person to become Awakened. “Think of these 4 truths as the footprint of an elephant,” the Buddha began. “Just as the footprints of all the other animals – tigers, deer, monkeys, and birds – in this forest can fit within the footprint of an elephant, in the same way, these 4 truths will provide the footprint for everything else you will ever learn.”  However, the Buddha prefaced his teaching of these 4 truths by explaining to his companions that one would never be able to pursue any of these truths through engaging in the practice of either extreme self-denial or extreme sensual indulgence. The companions had to follow the Middle Path in managing their lives and staying on the path that the Buddha could only map out for them. The first truth was based on those eye-opening visions the Buddha had experienced when he had gone outside the palace’s walls – sickness, old age, death, and the wandering stranger who spoke of suffering.  These realities of human existence could all be summed in one thing: there was suffering. From the moment of birth, each person took a step closer to aging, illness, and death. But, suffering did not manifest itself through the physical only. There was also mental and emotional suffering which most people had to face each day of their lives and this took the form of dealing with dissatisfaction in one’s life, being separated from what made one happy, and not getting what one wanted.  So, the Buddha told his companions that they had to accept the fact there was suffering in human life and they had to understand the physical and emotional incarnations of this suffering.  The second truth was acceptance of the underlying causes of suffering. Suffering was rooted in our attachments, our need to cling to things we believed made us feel better or made us look better in the eyes of someone else.  One’s desire to seek out that which was pleasing and to live a life only in pursuit of such desire was a common trait in all people.  And it was this same trait that had so many people become miserable in their lives because of how they could not cope with being cut off from what pleased them. The third truth the Buddha spoke of was simply the recognition that only when one detached and freed oneself from the innate desire to only seek out the pleasing could suffering end.  This was straightforward enough, but the spiritual practice and discipline that one had to apply to relinquish the blinding cravings for self-gratification that created suffering was not so easy. This was the fourth truth and it was more than just a statement. It embodied the same journey to Enlightenment that the Buddha had traveled and it was the essence of his teaching. After one accepts and understands the first 3 truths, one must recognize that the cessation of suffering will not occur through meditation and reflection alone. Again, extreme self-denial would not work. There had to be an active desire that would fuel one’s spiritual practice, but one could not let this desire to overcome and subvert the person.  The Buddha made sure to caution his companions about this. They would never be able to become Awakened if they only attached themselves to their cravings to attain Enlightenment. This compulsive  desire would have the adverse effect of creating suffering since they would become quickly dissatisfied with the clouded and forced nature of their findings. They would only awaken to the cessation of suffering through maintaining a Middle Way during their spiritual practice and the specific guidance the Buddha taught his companions for their practice consisted of 8 principles:  they each had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.  There was an ethical import to the “right” kind of mindset and conduct each of them would have to integrate in their actualization of these 8 principles.  The Buddha would illustrate the nature of each of these principles in many of his parables and lessons he would later teach. His sharing of these 8 guiding principles with his companions for the first time could be said to be similar to when Moses received the 10 Commandments.  When Moses was given the 2 tablets listing each Commandment he was told to share them with the Children of Israel so that they would have a set of principles to follow. These principles established ethical parameters around their dealings with one other and their worship of God.  Breaking of any of these of the 10 Commandments would bring with it penalties of either an earthly or divine nature depending on the transgression. The Buddha explained that following this 8-fold path of spiritual practice could lead to Enlightenment for his companions in their present lives.  There were no provisions for worshipping the Buddha or any creator of the world, and there were no penalties if one fell off this path — the only consequence would be that one would not attain the complete knowledge that came with being Awakened.  Further, the Buddha told his companions that after one had achieved Enlightenment, then the final goal was to consummate the end of suffering by extinguishing it fully – and that was when one reached Nirvana.  This was not Heaven as understood in the usual Western sense, but instead represented one’s passing into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – and it could be realized in life or upon death.  His companions absorbed all the Buddha spoke of on that day. They repeated the 4 truths and then discussed each of the 8 principles that they would incorporate into their spiritual practice going forward. They had become the Buddha’s first followers and wanted to travel with him to wherever he would go next. They had to spread his teachings and so they decided to go back to the site where the Buddha had attained his Enlightenment. The Buddha would return to see that king who had 6 years before asked him to rule the Magadha kingdom by side. The Buddha would now tell the king what he had learned and the king and all his subjects would convert to the Buddha’s teachings.  The Buddha knew he would need to establish a bond with the laity. He had to have a spiritual network that went beyond just those would follow him.  He would have to connect his ministry to the public and that meant creating a community. This community would then sustain him and his message.

Wilderness

22 Jul

Siddhartha was lost in the forest. He had made a break from all trappings of his former life and had nothing more than his conviction. He needed to learn to quiet his mind and realized he needed a teacher. He had heard of 2 Hindu masters and so he searched for them.  When he found them he explained his quest and how he could not keep his mind from darting from idea to doubt and back again.  The masters agreed to take on Siddhartha as their student and he studied all night and day with them. Weeks rolled by and then months. They taught him how to focus on his breath and to breathe in the world around him in the correct way. They showed him how to tame his body with his mind and to balance.  They explained that Siddhartha would never get on the true road that would lead towards the answers he wanted until he could still the world first and become one with it so that there was no external or internal but only one breath that rose and fell in unison.  Siddhartha mastered the art of meditation and his teachers were very pleased with him. Yet, within the deepest beatitudes of his meditative journeys, he still had not come any closer to discovering the way to end suffering.  His restlessness was noticed by his 2 masters and they told Siddhartha that perhaps he should go to another forest. This forest was much further south and in the heart of a thriving kingdom at that time. In that forest, there were others like Siddhartha living simply and freed of the shackles of attachments. So, Siddhartha began another long walk and headed toward Magadha.  He crossed parched plains and his feet were cracked and deep red like the clay he walked on day after day.  When at last he reached the forest, he saw that it was different from where he had just come from. This new forest was not densely stacked, but instead sprinkled with umbrella branched trees scattered across hills and gulleys with lakes and ponds in between.  Siddhartha felt an immediate connection to the area as if this was where he had been born. But, of course he was now far from Lumbini. He had entered a new land with its own King. This King had seen Siddhartha as he had entered into the kingdom and was intrigued by his presence. There was an air of determination about Siddhartha that captivated the King and so the King had summoned Siddhartha before him. When the King learned that Siddhartha himself had once been a prince, the King could barely contain his excitement. He knew there had to be reason why Siddhartha had so roused him. The King asked Siddhartha to stay in his palace and to help him rule. Siddhartha smiled and said he was after something else and that he only asked for the King’s consent to let him go into the forest of Magadha.  The King agreed but asked Siddhartha that should he ever find the answers to what he was looking for that he would return and teach it to him.  Siddhartha saw many different individuals in the forest. There were Brahmins, yoginis, sadhvis, and others.  But, Siddhartha was drawn to 5 individuals in particular who reminded him of that wandering man he had encountered. All 5 were ascetics and practiced the most extreme type of self-denial.  They only drank a spoonful of water after their mouths had completely dried and they thirsted like a man near death. They only allowed themselves individual grains of uncooked rice when they hungered. They slept on the forest floor with no matting and spent nearly all their time in meditation or in debate over how close each was to overcoming suffering in this world.  They each believed that through concentrated willpower they could conquer the sufferings normal people had to endure and achieve some kind of sublime peace of mind.  But, they did not how to articulate this in a way that they themselves could understand and they were also competitive with one another. They pushed the limits of their physical austerities.  When Siddhartha joined them they were leery at first. He seemed to be like any other interloper who was looking for some quick path to actualizing some limitation within him.  Yet, when they saw his seriousness and his highly skilled meditation practices, they grew to respect him and accepted Siddhartha within their ranks.  The 5 then became 6.  Day after day, they drove each other further and further as they took on more and more exposure to the elements around them. They accepted pain, hunger, the heat of the midday sun, the pounding rains of the monsoon, and the wild animals around them.  6 years went by like this and Siddhartha had become nothing more than an exposed rib cage with hollowed out eyes and drooping earlobes.  He had gotten no closer.  Doubt began to cloud his concentration and he was not able to maintain his meditation. He was just like that sick man he had first seen. He had become frail and weak and it was not just his body but his mind too. How could he get to the answers he sought when he barely had energy to draw in a breath?  As he lost his focus and came out of his meditation, his ears caught some faint echoes of music. He tapped into whatever reserves he had left in order to attune to the source of these sounds and heard strings being plucked and strummed. A musician must have been passing through the forest.  The music was so harmonious. He knew that to have such melodies come out of one instrument that instrument had to be in balance. The strings could not be too tight otherwise the notes would be sharp. If they were too loose, they would be flat. There had to be a tempered slackness to the strings so they could be struck and blend together. A compromise had to be attained between the sharp and flat.  He slowly came out of his repose and steadied himself with a stick as he found his legs. He was nothing more than a skeleton  and he was covered in dirt and rot. He went towards a river and began to wash himself. There, a woman appeared who planned on making an offering to the forest spirits who had blessed her with a child. When she saw Siddhartha, she thought he was one of those spirits and presented him with the milk rice dish she had prepared. Siddhartha nodded and accepted the bowl from the woman. What he did not know was that his 5 ascetic companions had been watching him. They had seen him break his meditation and followed his meander to the river. They were disgusted by the sight of Siddhartha accepting the food and eating it. This act had confirmed their initial doubts about him. The prince inside Siddhartha had won out and Siddhartha was not true to the spiritual quest like they were. They turned away from him and left the forest. They went out in search of a new wilderness in order to continue to their practice free from the abomination they had just observed. Siddhartha was enjoying his meal so much that he did not notice his companions leave. Siddhartha felt his body become alive again, and soon he felt that familiar stirring and it sharpened his mind.  He thanked the woman and told her he was not a spirit but only a man. A man searching for a path that would lead to the end of all suffering. Thanks to her, he had the strength now to get on that path. And for the first time he himself had a clear picture of what this was. A middle path.

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