The Rainbow Road
AT THE SHRINE OF THE RECUMBENT BUDDHA
THE PLACE AT WHICH WE HAD ARRIVED with so much hope, and where we were to spend the next two weeks, was one of the most famous and ancient Buddhist shrines in India. With Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, and Sarnath it was, in fact, one of the four principal places of Buddhist pilgrimage, to which devout followers of the Enlightened One came to worship, to meditate, and to make offerings from all over the Buddhist world. Like Sarnath, it had been sacked at the time of the Muslim conquest, like Sarnath it had remained derelict and deserted for more than 600 years, and like Sarnath it had been reoccupied around the turn of the century after being disinterred by the spade of a British archaeologist. Like Sarnath, too, in addition to its two stupas it consisted mainly of a monastery and guest-house, a temple, a school, and an archaeological area. Unlike Sarnath, however, it was rather off the beaten track, and despite its importance was therefore a smaller and shabbier place, and much more rural in character. Indeed, with its weed-choked paths and shrub-infested masonry it had an air of having only partly emerged from the surrounding jungle. In atmosphere too Kusinara was unlike Sarnath. Though both were exceptionally peaceful places, at Sarnath the peacefulness was touched with joy, as of glad tidings imparted to mankind, whereas here it was tinged with solemnity, even with sadness, as of a great loss sustained. After all, Kusinara was the scene of the Great Decease, and though nearly 2,500 years had passed, the vibrations of the sublime pathos of the occasion still seemed to linger in the air.
As might have been expected, the resident monastic community of Kusinara was even smaller than that of Sarnath. In fact it consisted of only U Chandramani himself and an Indian monk, his disciple. There were, however, five or six shaven-headed, yellow-robed anagarikas. Though faithful observers of the Ten Precepts, these devoted women were not technically nuns, indeed could never be nuns, for according to the Theravada, the form of Buddhism predominant in South-east Asia, the tradition of ordination for women had died out many centuries ago and could not be revived. In addition to their personal religious duties, the anagarikas cooked and swept for the monks and did the rest of the menial work. The oldest and seniormost of them was a frail little old woman of about sixty-five known as Mother Vipassana, and it was to her that one of our letters of introduction was addressed. A Nepalese brahmin by birth, and for many years a widow, she had been drawn to Buddhism through her contact with U Chandramani and for the last few years had lived in retirement at Kusinara. Apart from keeping a motherly eye on the other anagarikas, all of whom were much younger than herself, she devoted her time to the study of the Pali texts and to meditation. Though it may have been less radiant, the smile that lit up her worn features had the same peculiar sweetness as that which had illumined the face of Mother Lakshmi, in the Sandalwood Country. From the very first she took a great liking to Satyapriya and me, and could never do enough for us. No sooner had she read the letter of introduction than she set about preparing us a meal, had a room in the guest-house swept out, showed us where we could take a bath and, most important of all, arranged for us to see U Chandramani.
The interview took place the following morning at the Chapter House, in the dim, practically unfurnished ground-floor room that was evidently both sitting-room and study. U Chandramani sat up cross-legged on an old cane-bottomed armchair, the only chair in the room; Satyapriya and I, who on entering had made the traditional three prostrations, knelt before him on the strip of worn and frayed carpet that one of the anagarikas had pulled out for us. As usual, Satyapriya acted as spokesman for us both. Once my eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, I was therefore free not only to take in our surroundings but to study the personage to whom we had been directed, and on whom all our hopes now centred. Draped in the dull orange robes of the Burmese Sangha, which left his right shoulder bare, U Chandramani was an impressive figure. Though he was well over seventy, and looked his age, his frame was sturdy and robust, while the deeply furrowed Mongoloid face with the sagging jowl and remarkably long ear-lobes expressed both strength and determination of character. As he sat there gravely listening to Satyapriya's highly circumstantial account of our joint history from the time of our meeting in Singapore down to the time of our disappointment at Sarnath he looked for all the world like the statue of a Lohan, or traditional Chinese representation of an Arahant. He sat impassive as a statue too. Only when my friend happened to dwell more on my own particular career did he glance in my direction, and I saw that his face, which had seemed stern at first, in fact wore a benevolent, even a fatherly expression.
`So you want to be ordained, do you?' he said with a chuckle, apparently by no means displeased at the idea, when Satyapriya had at last finished. `Well, well, we shall have to see.' For the next hour we were therefore subjected to an interrogatory which, though kindly, was extremely searching. What U Chandramani particularly wanted to know was whether we had been properly initiated into Buddhism by taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a monk in the traditional ceremonial manner, for unless this had been done, and we were already upasakas or lay brothers, it would hardly be possible for us to be ordained as shramaneras or novice monks, which represented the next highest degree of initiation. Fortunately neither of us had any difficulty in satisfying U Chandramani on this point. I had taken the Refuges and Precepts, five years earlier, from the scholar-monk U Thittila, then working as a stretcher-bearer in London; Satyapriya, less fortunate, had taken them two years ago in Calcutta from His Holiness. When he learned of my connection with U Thittila, who like himself was Burmese, U Chandramani showed both surprise and pleasure. Indeed, he seemed to regard it as a good omen. The rest of the interrogatory was concerned with questions of a more general nature. How many Precepts had we been observing? What was our understanding of the Doctrine? Which method of meditation were we practising and what results had we achieved? Eventually it was all over. If we had not passed with flying colours, we had at least not done too badly, and judging by the nods of approval that he had given from time to time U Chandramani was not dissatisfied with our replies. He would consider our request, he now told us, and let us know in a few days' time whether or not it was possible for him to accept the responsibility of giving us ordination. Meanwhile, we could make ourselves comfortable at the guest-house, the anagarikas would see to our meals, and we could explore the sacred site at our leisure. There was much that was worth seeing. With a good-humoured wave of his hand he dismissed us. Scarcely able to believe that our application had not been rejected out of hand, we prostrated ourselves three times and withdrew.
For the next few days we followed U Chandramani's advice and explored Kusinara. Our first halt was naturally at the Maha Parinirvana Stupa which, according to tradition, marked the spot where the Buddha, coming to the end of his last journey, had laid himself down on a stone couch in the sal grove of the Mallas and allowed his Enlightened consciousness to dissociate itself from the physical body. Though smaller than the Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath, it was in a much better state of repair, having in fact been practically rebuilt by U Chandramani with the help of funds donated by Burmese Buddhists. On completion of the work, the whole dome had been gilded, but that was years ago, long before the war, and now all that remained of this evidence of devotion were a few patches of gold leaf that gleamed in the morning sunlight. Not far from the Stupa was the Temple of the Recumbent Buddha. This was a place of no architectural pretensions whatever. Indeed, it was nothing more than a whitewashed brick shed, long and narrow, with a barrel roof that had been put up to protect the celebrated image which, next to the Stupa itself, in the heyday of Kusinara had been the principal object of worship at the sacred site. This image, which belonged to the Gupta period, was about thirty feet in length, and represented the Buddha at the time of the Great Decease. One foot on top of the other, head supported on right hand, stiff and solemn he lay there in his gilded robe, the great face serene and majestic in the hour of bodily death as ever it had been during life. Though the temple was so small that there was barely room to circumambulate the image, to me, at least, the dimensions of the place were exactly right. As we knelt there in the gloom, with only two or three lighted candles flickering between us and the placid features of that enormous face, so deep was the silence, and of such inexpressible solemnity, that we seemed to be present at the very deathbed of the Master. Before many days had passed, the Stupa and the Temple had become the twin centres of our spiritual existence. Every evening, at sunset, we sat and meditated in front of the Stupa, stirring only when it loomed a black shape against the star-filled depths of the sky. Every morning, long before dawn, having chanted our praises in that unsleeping ear, we sat and meditated beside the stone couch of the Recumbent Buddha. During the rest of the day we studied, talked with Mother Vipassana and, of course, continued our explorations.
Next to the Maha Parinirvana Stupa and the Temple, and apart from the excavated ruins that made up the archaeological area, the most interesting relic of Kusinara's glorious past was the Angar Chaitya, the mound marking the spot where the earthly remains of the Buddha had been cremated. Interesting as this was, however, we had not gone more than half-way round it before we came upon something more interesting still. Near the Chaitya grew an enormous peepul tree, and high up in the tree, half hidden by the dense foliage, there was perched a strange figure in a saffron-coloured loincloth. As soon as he caught sight of us he let out a loud whoop, apparently of welcome, and with amazing agility swarmed chuckling and gibbering down the tree until he stood balancing himself only a few feet above our heads. We then saw that he was Chinese, and that his arms, shoulders, and chest, which were bare, were covered with a multitude of burns. Though he seemed to know a little Hindi, his pronunciation was so uncouth that it was impossible for us to make out more than a few words. In response to his gesticulations, however, we looked up into the tree, and eventually saw among the branches a kind of rough platform, so clumsily put together from half a dozen planks as to seem like the nest of some enormous bird. It was here that the strange figure lived. As we afterwards learned, he had lived in the tree for a number of years, and though he moved about freely among the branches he never set foot on the ground. Periodically he applied lighted candles to different parts of his body and allowed them to burn down into the flesh. This was, of course, an extension of the Far Eastern Buddhist practice of burning wax cones on the head at the time of ordination, as a sign of one's willingness to suffer for the sake of Supreme Enlightenment, and was not without precedent in traditional Chinese Buddhism - or indeed, without canonical sanction in the White Lotus Sutra. Whatever visiting Buddhists may have thought of these bizarre practices, the local Hindus were full of admiration, and Cheenia Baba, as they called him, was held in high esteem. Some of the villagers, indeed, would bring him candles to burn on himself in the belief that whatever prayers they offered up while he was doing so were sure to be granted.
A less eccentric figure than Cheenia Baba, and of more importance for the history of modern Kusinara, was one whom it was no longer possible to see in the flesh. This was Mahavir Swami, a faded full-length photograph of whom, discoloured by damp, hung in a worm-eaten frame on the front veranda of what had formerly been the main Vihara. A veteran of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, he had settled in Kusinara towards the end of the last century after being ordained in Ceylon. At that time Kusinara was completely in ruins. So desolate was the place, indeed, that it was popularly believed to be haunted, and no one dared go anywhere near it. Undeterred, Mahavir Swami had built a bamboo hut and then, in 1902, the first Buddhist monastery to be erected in modern India. Unfortunately, by the time Satyapriya and I visited it the building was somewhat dilapidated, and Mahavir Swami's portrait looked down on cracked cement floors and crumbling brickwork that was rapidly becoming covered by green mould. U Chandramani had come and joined Mahavir Swami in 1901, the year before the Vihara was built, and had not only resided there without interruption ever since but continued his predecessor's work of restoring the ruined shrines of Kusinara and making the place once more a living centre of Buddhism. Half a century of service to the Dharma! Half a century of single-minded dedication! When we had finished exploring Kusinara, and seen all that the old man had achieved, we could not help thinking that even if we had visited all the Buddhist centres of India we could hardly have found a more suitable person to ask for ordination.
But to ask was one thing, to be given quite another. Some days had now elapsed since our first interview. Vaishakha Purnima, the thrice-sacred anniversary of the Buddha's Supreme Enlightenment, was drawing near. Moreover, from remarks let fall by Mother Vipassana, we gathered that at least one person in Kusinara was not happy at the idea of our receiving ordination from U Chandramani. The Indian monk, it seemed, had objected to it on the grounds that if we were ordained we would become entitled to a share of the Vihara property after the Maha Thera's death! But we need not have worried. When the moon that rose every night above the shadowy dome of the Maha Parinirvana Stupa was almost full, U Chandramani called us to his room and with his customary affability told us that he was prepared to accede to our request. We would be ordained immediately after breakfast on the morning of the Vaishakha Purnima Day. It would have to be clearly understood, however, that in giving us the shramanera ordination, he would not be accepting any responsibility for our future training, nor would it be possible for us to stay with him at Kusinara. As we could see for ourselves, the resources of the Vihara were limited, and he was not in a position to support two more disciples. But if it was only ordination we wanted, he said, with evident warmth and sincerity, then he would ordain us with the greatest pleasure and we could have his blessing, too, into the bargain.
Ex-brahmin that he was, Satyapriya was at first shocked by the idea of our being ordained after breakfast, and not before it, while still fasting. But after breakfast it was definitely to be. Buddhism attached no importance whatever to ritual purity and impurity, we were reminded, and an empty stomach was no more holy than a full one. At nine o'clock on Thursday, 12 May 1949, therefore, after we had eaten our breakfast in the old Vihara, we received the long-expected summons to the Chapter House. Here U Chandramani handed us our robes, tied up in a bundle, and told us to go and take a bath and put them on. Our heads had already been shaved the previous day. The robes for which we now exchanged the informal saffron of the last two years were of the regulation size, shape, and colour, and along with the rest of the permitted articles - girdle, water-strainer, needle, and razor - had been presented to us by Mother Vipassana and the other anagarikas, who in order to have them ready in time for the ceremony had, in fact, sat up stitching the complicated seams until late at night. U Chandramani himself had presented us with our begging-bowls. On our returning to the Chapter House, duly `robed and bowled' as the texts have it, we were made to squat on our heels with our elbows resting on our knees and our hands joined together at our foreheads. This was an extremely difficult and uncomfortable position. Indeed, after a few minutes the pain in various parts of my body became excruciating. As I afterwards realized, the position we were made to adopt was that of the child in the womb, for the ordination represented the process of spiritual rebirth, and `at the birth of a child or a star, there is pain'.
Having to remain in such a position throughout the ceremony was by itself ordeal enough, but for me at least the difficulties of ordination were by no means over. The Three Refuges - the Refuges in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha - had not only to be repeated thrice each but repeated in both Pali and Sanskrit. This was to make sure that the novice monk was able to distinguish between the two kinds of pronunciation, for in the early days of Buddhism, when the Buddha's Message was preserved and transmitted exclusively by oral means, the slightest carelessness in matters of phonetics could in the course of time result in a serious distortion of the letter of the Teaching leading, perhaps, to eventual loss of its spirit. Try as I might, however, my English tongue could not manage to reproduce the elusive Indian sounds. U Chandramani, for his part, was determined that the requirements of tradition should be scrupulously respected. Time and again he intoned the sacred formulas, patiently coaching me in the production of aspirated consonants, nasalized terminations, and palatal sibilants. After much effort on my part, and much exercise of patience on his, I eventually succeeded in repeating the Refuges to his complete satisfaction in both Pali and Sanskrit and we were able to pass on to the next part of the ceremony, which consisted in the taking of the Ten Shramanera Precepts. This time reciting in Pali only, and with less regard to pronunciation, Satyapriya and I undertook to abstain from injury to living beings, from taking the not-given, from unchastity, from false speech, and from intoxicants, as well as from untimely meals, from song, dance, instrumental music and indecent shows, from garlands, perfumes, unguents and other worldly adornments, from large and lofty beds, and from handling gold or silver. All these precepts we were already observing, but the kindly, simple, and good-humoured manner in which U Chandramani explained each one gave them a fresh significance, and we felt that we would die rather than be guilty of the smallest infringement. The more formal part of the proceedings ended with the Maha Thera solemnly adjuring us in the last words which the Buddha had addressed to his disciples, as he lay on his deathbed in the Sal Grove, only a few hundred yards away: `With mindfulness strive on!'
We were now fully-fledged shramaneras! The desire of our hearts had been fulfilled! We had been spiritually reborn! The ordination ceremony was over! But not quite over, it seemed. Having been born anew, we had to be given new names. As we relaxed our cramped limbs, U Chandramani asked us on which day of the week we had been born. Neither of us knew. Well, well, murmured the old man, mildly astonished at such ignorance, but evidently not disposed to be over-strict about a matter of secondary importance, he would have to manage as best he could without the information. In Burma each day of the week was associated with certain letters of the alphabet, and a monk's name had to begin with one of the letters belonging to the particular day of the week on which he had been born. In our case, since it would not be possible for him to follow this procedure, he would have to name us at random, as he himself thought best. Satyapriya would be known as Buddharakshita. Dharmapriya would be known as Dharmarakshita. With these names, which placed us under the protection of the first and the second Refuges, we were well content. Whether on account of the forgetfulness of old age, however, or for some other reason, U Chandramani had overlooked the fact that he already had a disciple called Dharmarakshita. This disciple was the same Indian monk whom we had met at Sarnath, the one who had given us our letters of introduction, and he was even now in Kusinara, having arrived shortly before our ordination. On hearing that I had been given the same name as himself he came rushing over to the Chapter House. If there were two Dharmarakshitas, he protested, there would be endless confusion. People would not know which of us was which. My letters would be delivered to him. What was worse, his letters would be delivered to me. Neither of us would ever know where we were. `Oh well,' said our preceptor, dismissing all this fuss and bother about names with a gesture of good-humoured impatience, `Let him be Sangharakshita!'
In this unceremonious manner was I placed under the special protection of the Sangha, or Spiritual Community, rather than under that of the Dharma, or Teaching. Even before the matter of names had been sorted out, however, Mother Vipassana and the other anagarikas were thronging round us not only to offer congratulations but to salute our feet in the traditional manner, just as we had already saluted the feet of U Chandramani and the other monks. These symbolic acts served to remind us that our ordination had not only an individual but also a social significance. As shramaneras we belonged to a community, to a spiritual community, the community of the spiritually reborn. In this we had a definite place, and our relationship with other members of the community, lower or higher than ourselves in the hierarchy, was not only clearly defined but governed by a strict protocol. With Mother Vipassana our relationship was of a very special kind. Next to our preceptor, she was for us the most important person at Kusinara. In the absence of our own mothers, who in a Buddhist land would have taken a prominent part in the proceedings, she had constituted herself our Dharma Mata or Mother in Religion, and besides organizing the preparation of our robes, she offered the customary ceremonial meal to U Chandramani and all the other monks at Kusinara including, of course, Buddharakshita (as I must now call him) and myself. Indeed, as we afterwards learned, when the Indian monk had objected to our ordination she had spoken up strongly and warmly on our behalf. But for her, therefore, we might not have been ordained at all.
Though it meant so much to us, for most of the people who had come to Kusinara for the Vaishakha Purnima our ordination that morning was only a very minor incident in the events of the thrice-sacred day - if, indeed, they knew of it at all. What mainly interested them was the procession that took place in the afternoon when, strung out behind the glittering instruments of the brass band, a long line of orange-robed monks with red Burmese parasols, white-clad laity with black umbrellas, and schoolchildren with books or handkerchiefs on their heads, wound their way through the fields from the Vihara to the neighbouring villages. Unfortunately, before the brass band had got more than half-way there the sky became overcast, thunder crashed and boomed, lightning flashed, and the rain came down in such torrents that the procession had to be abandoned, together with the rest of the day's programme. The rainy season had begun!
Buddharakshita and I had intended to leave Kusinara on the fourth day after our ordination. The bowls we had been given were of iron, and before we could use them they had to be lacquered to prevent rust. U Chandramani himself showed us how this was done. After being coated with a certain kind of oil, very thick and dark, the bowls were baked for a couple of hours in a specially constructed oven. The whole process had to be repeated eight or nine times. Even so, the results were not very satisfactory, and far from presenting the smooth, black, glossy appearance of some bowls we had seen ours looked as though they had been coated with cheap brown varnish. When the lacquering was finished, however, and we were ready to set out on our travels again, Bhikkhu Dharmarakshita asked us to stay for two more days and join him and the rest of our fellow disciples in celebrating U Chandramani's seventy-third birthday. We could hardly refuse his request. Indeed, though it meant a slight readjustment in our plans, we were glad to have an opportunity of showing how much we appreciated our preceptor's achievement, and I undertook to compose a poem in honour of the occasion. This time the day's celebrations were not interrupted by rain, and the procession and the public meeting passed off as planned. At three o'clock the following afternoon, having paid our respects to U Chandramani and the other monks, and said goodbye to the anagarikas, Buddharakshita and I left Kusinara. U Chandramani had asked us to go and preach the Dharma to his disciples at Butaol and Tansen, in southern Nepal, and both he and Mother Vipassana had provided us with letters of introduction. On the way we could visit Lumbini, where the Buddha had been born, which was just across the Indo-Nepalese border. From Tansen we hoped to go up to Pokhara, in central Nepal, and from there perhaps to Muktinath, the sacred mountain that was a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus alike. It might even be possible for us to penetrate into Tibet. Equipped with our robes and our bowls, as a bird with its two wings, there was now no limit to where we might go.
THE FIRST THING WE DID after leaving Kusinara was to get lost. In fact, though we did not really have far to go, our journey that day was difficult in a number of ways. Since for the time being we had decided to head due west, we had the sun shining in our faces all the time. Moreover, there was no proper path, and the people of the villages through which we passed always seemed to misdirect us. One man, indeed, refused to direct us at all. When we stopped and asked him the way he only looked at us with surly suspicion and inquired, none too politely, who and what we were. We were Buddhist monks, we told him, and were on our way from Kusinara to Lumbini. `Oh,' he exclaimed, turning away with a hostile sneer, `You are the people who have dismembered Dharma as the Muslims have divided India into Hindustan and Pakistan!' He was, of course, a brahmin. Eventually, after walking for twelve or thirteen miles, we reached the village of Raggerganj, on the outskirts of which there was situated the hermitage of an ascetic. Though the place was not much more than a ganja club, the ascetic himself was quite friendly, and not only offered us sugar-water but allowed us to sleep under a tree in the courtyard. In the middle of the night a storm blew up, and we were forced to retreat into the porch of the hermitage. We did not pass a very restful night.
Our main preoccupation next morning was to find a place where we could start putting our begging-bowls to the use for which they were intended and go for alms. Now that we were shramaneras we were resolved to do this in strictly traditional fashion. We would beg from door to door until we had obtained enough cooked food for our one meal of the day, not skipping so much as a single house. We would not accept people's invitations, nor would we even sit down inside a house in order to eat the food that we had collected. After walking from 5.30 until 10.30, with only a little chatua to sustain us on the way, we were feeling rather hungry. But at the first township to which we came we found the atmosphere so forbiddingly commercial that our courage failed us and tired as we were we decided not to stop there. Luckily there was a village only a mile further on. Before reaching the village proper, which was called Barspar, we halted at a well and asked a woman who was drawing water there to pour some into our lotas or brass pots. Respectfully she refused. She belonged to the Chamar or leather-worker caste, she explained, and for high-caste holy men like ourselves contact with anything that she had touched would mean pollution. Buddharakshita and I could hardly believe our ears. The woman at the well was saying exactly the same thing as the Matangi woman had said to Ananda, cousin and personal attendant of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago, and saying it in exactly the same circumstances. History was repeating itself. Making exactly the same reply as Ananda had done, we told the woman that what we wanted was water, not caste. Whereupon she gladly filled our lotas. India had not changed much since the days of the Buddha, it seemed.
Having quenched our thirst, we made our way to the woman's hut, which was situated nearby, on the outskirts of the village, and stood silently in front of the door with our bowls in our hands. Before very long a man came out and after looking at us in a rather puzzled manner asked us what we wanted. When begging at orthodox Buddhist doors, of course, a monk never spoke, but here there seemed to be no alternative, and we therefore told the man that we had come for alms. On hearing this he went inside and quickly returned with a small quantity of paddy or unmilled rice. This we refused, saying that we accepted only cooked things. He thereupon offered us money; but this too we refused. Either there was no cooked food in the hut or, what was more likely, he was afraid to give it on account of his caste. Not wishing to cause him further embarrassment, we quietly departed.
On entering the village we took our stand at the entrance to what was probably either a brahmin or a Kshatriya house, where a number of people had assembled on the veranda. After gazing at us for some time with undisguised astonishment they asked us what we wanted, to which we again replied that we had come for alms. Like the man in the hut, they at first wanted to give us some paddy, but on being told that we accepted only cooked food they eventually dropped into our bowls a handful of puffed rice, which, having been parched, was not in orthodox Hindu eyes cooked food in the technical sense that boiled rice was. From the buzz of comment that rose from the veranda it was clear that astonished as they were by the unfamiliar cut and colour of our robes, and by the fact that we stood holding our bowls in silence instead of shouting out `Give alms!' as the Hindu ascetics and holy men did, the villagers were still more astonished by our insistence on accepting only cooked food. In their experience, holy men were strict observers of the caste system, and avoided the risk of pollution by accepting as alms only uncooked food. Since from our complexion, dress, and deportment we were, so far as they could see, high-caste holy men, they were completely mystified by our disregard of the conventional code. For our part, we could now see that by obliging his homeless disciples to beg from door to door without regard to caste, and to accept only cooked food, the Buddha had initiated a social revolution - a revolution that had been checked, in the end, by the forces of brahminical reaction.
Our next stop was at a Muslim house. On learning what we wanted, the sarong-clad occupant told us to go round to the back door. If the Hindus saw him giving us alms, he said, he would be in danger of a beating. Who was it that had really divided India, we wondered. Besides giving us alms himself, this friendly son of the Prophet accompanied us to all the other houses we visited and his explanations saved us a lot of trouble. Indeed, thanks to his exertions we were able to complete the remainder of our almsround in silence. Some of the people at whose doors we stood were sympathetic, others sarcastic. One well-to-do brahmin asked us to come in and sit down, saying that since he had just finished eating and there was nothing left he would prepare a meal specially for us. This kind offer we refused, as we already had something in our bowls, and our refusal impressed him more than ever. Another brahmin, who had also just eaten, poured into each of our bowls a pint of milk, in which the puffed rice, boiled rice, curried vegetables, fruits, curds, pickles and all the other things we had been given were soon afloat. Before long we had more than enough for our requirements, and we therefore made our way to a mango grove on the outskirts of the village. Since this was the first time we had gone out begging in the traditional Buddhist manner, the occasion was one of unprecedented importance in both our lives, and it was with a sense of elation that we sat down in the deep, cool shade of the handsome trees. Apparently it was something of an event in the life of the village too, for we were followed to the mango grove by a crowd of about a hundred people who, with the dull curiosity of sheep or cows, stood staring at us from among the trees as though they intended to do so for the rest of the day. Feeling a little uncomfortable under all those eyes, and wishing to be left in peace, we asked them to go away until we had finished our meal. This they eventually did, though not without much urging on the part of our Muslim friend and many backward glances at us over their shoulders.
As soon as they had gone we put our hands into our bowls, kneaded the contents into a uniform if rather sticky mess, and started on our meal. While we were eating someone came running up with an enormous tray piled high with rice, curries, and lentil soup. Although we already had all that we really wanted, we accepted a small quantity, and asked that the rest should be distributed as prasad. According to the Scriptures, the first time the future Buddha had tried to eat almsfood he had nearly vomited with disgust. Either we had been brought up less delicately than he had, or we were more fortunate in what we had collected. Far from feeling any disgust, as soon as we got used to the idea of eating everything mixed up together we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. What was left over we scattered at the foot of a tree for the birds. When the villagers saw that we had finished they started drifting back to the mango grove, whereupon, having collected them together and made them sit down on the ground, Buddharakshita addressed them on the necessity of leading a moral life and the importance of observing the Five Precepts of ethical behaviour. Though this was probably drier spiritual fare than that to which they were accustomed, they listened attentively, and we had the satisfaction of repaying them for their hospitality by preaching the Dharma in the traditional manner. At three o'clock we left for Maharajgunj, a village about a dozen miles away.
Our second experience of begging our food in the traditional manner was not unlike our first. Having spent the night at Maharajgunj, where we slept on a stone platform under a tree, we set out again before six o'clock and after walking all the morning, and passing through four or five villages, some large and some small, we eventually made our way to the village of Tehri with the intention of going for alms there. As we entered the place we saw an aged Vaishnava ascetic with a big rosary round his neck sitting on a bedstead making a kamandalu, the special waterpot carried by orthodox Hindu monks. Without pausing in his work, he called out to us rather roughly and asked us what we wanted. When we explained that we had come for alms he told us, none too politely, that he could not give us anything. The first house outside whose door we stood did not give us anything either, but at all the remaining houses the womenfolk proved wonderfully kind and generous. On hearing that we were willing to accept cooked food from them even though they belonged to the Aheer or dairy farmer caste, a very low caste indeed, they gave us rice, unleavened bread, vegetable curries, lentil soup, and curds in such profusion that both our bowls were quickly filled.
Since there was no mango grove at Tehri, we had to finish our second meal of almsfood in whatever shade was available, after which we walked a short distance along the riverside until we came to a fine shady mango tree where we rested for a while, and where an old woman brought us drinking water. We then continued our journey, following the river for a few miles until we came to another village. Though late afternoon, it was still scorching hot, and having quenched our thirst at the Forestry Department pump we were glad to sit down for a few minutes at the edge of a grove of sal trees. Shortly after this, for the second time since leaving Kusinara, we lost our way. In the absence of any road, we had been forced to try and find our way across the fields, with the result that before long we found ourselves wandering round in circles uncertain in which direction we ought to go. We were still wandering in this manner when we stumbled, quite by accident, upon a small village, where an old Shaivite devotee received us with the greatest respect and insisted on giving us sugar-water to drink. He and a Muslim neighbour then not only directed us which road to take but were also good enough to accompany us for a short distance so as to make quite sure that we did not miss it. From then onwards we had no difficulty. After being given more sugar-water to drink, this time by a sympathetic shopkeeper, we met up with our old friend the railway line, and after following it eastward for a mile, reached the township of Nautanwa.
On our arrival at the Lumbini Rest House, a tiny building not far from the centre of the town, we were at once warmly welcomed by the thin and elderly, but extremely active and energetic, Sinhalese monk who had been posted there by the Maha Bodhi Society to look after the needs of pilgrims on the last stage of their journey to the birthplace of the Buddha. Despite his great seniority in the Order, Venerable K. Sirinivas Nayaka Maha Thera was no stickler for protocol, and seeing how hot and tired we were, cheerfully set about lighting a fire and preparing tea. What if we were only shramaneras, and he an elder, he declared, brushing aside our protests. We obviously needed a cup of tea, and since the servant had gone home for the night and would not be back until morning, he would prepare it.
Two days later, having passed the time pleasantly enough in the company of our friendly and communicative host, we left Nautanwa for Lumbini. With us were Brahmachari Munindra, a Barua Buddhist whom we had met at Sarnath, and two young friends of his, Arun Chandra, an Indian, and U Thaung Aung, a Burmese, all of whom had arrived late the previous night, long after Buddharakshita and I had finished talking with Venerable Sirinivas and gone to bed. Since Aung was travelling with a certain amount of luggage, a coolie had to be engaged in the bazaar, a process which occasioned some loss of time and no little trouble. Eventually we were all ready to start. After walking for nearly two miles we came to the river that marked the boundary between India and Nepal. At this time of year it was a river bed rather than a river, and we had no difficulty in wading through the sluggish trickle of muddy water that still flowed in the deepest part of the channel. On the other side a broad dirt-track led through the sparse jungle of the Terai, and following this we traversed two villages, at the second of which Munindra and Aung stopped for a drink of milk. On the way we saw a black antelope and a small herd of red deer browsing among the sal trees. Lumbini was now quite near, the coolie told us. Quickening our pace, we traversed two more villages, and before long could see in the distance two mounds of earth surmounted by small brick towers with a diminutive temple in between.
During the couple of days that we spent at Lumbini our feelings were divided between joy at being at the very spot where the future Buddha had first seen the light of day, and a sense of regret, even outrage, at the desolate and neglected appearance of the sacred place. It was as though the tide of Buddhist revival, which flowed strongly at Sarnath, and none too feebly at Kusinara, had as yet hardly touched Lumbini. The only modern building to be seen was the Rest House erected by the Government of Nepal for the benefit of pilgrims, where we installed ourselves soon after our arrival, and where the caretakers provided us with a meal. Those other than pilgrims found it convenient to use the Rest House, however. Either because there was no other accommodation, or because in this land of autocracy even the lowest representative of authority was accustomed to behave in a high-handed manner, touring government officials regularly treated it as a sort of caravanserai. On the evening of our arrival a police inspector turned up with twenty of his men and soon the peace and silence of the place were lost in uproar. Next day it was even worse. While their master was busy squeezing money from the local landlords, who from time to time arrived on elephants, bearing with them the customary gifts, some of the inspector's men slaughtered a goat in the compound and without removing its hair, hide or anything else cooked it whole over an open fire. Though Munindra, Arun Chandra, and Thaung Aung were by no means vegetarians, on seeing this gruesome sight all five members of our little party felt like making a strong protest. But on reflection we decided not to do so. The police inspector had been drinking since early morning, and to judge from the way in which he was behaving with the landlords he was not the sort of person who would be amenable to reason. All the same, we could not help thinking how sad it was that the First Precept, the precept of abstaining from injury to any living being, should be so flagrantly violated in the very birthplace of the Buddha.
Apart from the two mounds, which rose like two volcanic islands out of a perfect sea of loose bricks, and seemed to have once formed the lower half of twin stupas, the only ancient building of which any trace remained above ground was the Rummindei Temple. This was so small as to be a chapel rather than a temple, and in an extremely dilapidated, not to say ruinous, condition. On our first visit to the place, soon after our arrival, we found the door locked, and it was not until the evening of our second day at Lumbini that it was opened by the old Hindu woman who kept the key and was responsible, so it seemed, for the rudimentary worship that kept alive the religious traditions of the place. The interior of the temple was disappointing. The only object of interest was a stone slab so well worn, and so thickly smeared with vermilion, that the figure of Mahamaya holding on to the branch of a sal tree as she stood giving birth to the future Teacher of Gods and Men was barely discernible. On our questioning the old woman it soon became clear that she had not even heard of the Buddha or of Buddhism and that she was under the impression that the temple was dedicated to a Hindu goddess.
More easy of access was the Ashoka Pillar nearby, which stood beneath the open sky behind a low iron railing. On its highly polished surface the ancient Brahmi letters were cut deep and clear, and we could still spell out the announcement `Here the Blessed One was born.' For some reason or other, I felt even more deeply moved here than I had done either at Sarnath or Kusinara. The truncated stone shaft stood so calmly and so simply beneath the cloudless blue sky; it seemed so unpretentious, and yet to mean so much. Lingering behind when Buddharakshita and the others had moved on in the direction of the mounds, I gathered some small white flowers and with a full heart scattered them over the railing at the foot of the column.