A six-tusked prophecy and an arrow-pierced swan, chariot shocks and bodhi trees; helping oneself in moderation to pillows and nirvana.
Continuing the series of introductions to India’s religions (see past posts about our classes on Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism), today we visited a Buddhist temple. Although the Buddha lived in North India around 563-483 BC and his faith spread across the country, by AD 1000 it was reabsorbed by Hinduism – Buddha joined its collection of gods– and is now only followed by about 0.8% of India. We were told this was the only Buddhist temple in South India (which I found hard to believe).
In the dimly lit hall we sat on a marble floor that reflected shining statues. A spiky-headed Buddha meditated in the lotus position between respectfully standing lower Buddhas and huge blue vases.
A young bikkhu or monk told us the story of Buddha’s life. His mother dreamed that a six-tusked elephant entered her womb. That can’t been comfortable, and then it was prophesied that her son would either be the greatest of kings, or a world-denying sage. Determined to avoid the latter, his father raised him in pampered opulence, but there were early hints of Buddha’s compassionate nature. At the age of eight, his cousin shot down a swan. Buddha pulled out the arrow, stuck it in his own hand to experience the pain, and nursed the bird back to health. He then quarrelled with his cousin over who owned the swan, arguing that life belongs to him who saves life, not destroys it.
At 16 years old, Buddha’s education was complete. He was married to a gorgeous cousin who bore him a son. He had three palaces. Anything he wanted was his.
At the age of 29, however, he rode his chariot through the streets and was upset by four sights. He saw an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse, shocking him with the shortness and suffering of life. On a fourth ride he saw an ascetic saint, serene in the face of the triple horror Buddha had just witnessed.
Leaving wife and child, palaces and pleasures – things that had brought him no peace – Buddha fled to the forest. For six years he practised extreme asceticism, fasting himself almost to death. He found no peace or freedom in this way either. Finally he abandoned both extremes for the “middle way”. Sitting under the bodhi tree in meditation, one day he attained nirvana: “ignorance was destroyed, darkness dispelled, knowledge had arisen, light had arisen.” Free from chasing pleasure or destructive self-denial, he was able to love all living things, expecting nothing in return.
Buddhism may be the original self-help faith. The monk explained that Buddha can’t give us this nirvana. If you are hungry, someone else can’t eat for you; if you are sick, another can’t take your medicine. He gave us all copies of the Dhammapada – as I shot golden Buddhas reflected in the floor – which says:
No one saves us but ourselves, no one can and no one may;
We ourselves must tread the path, Buddhas only show the way.
As the monk spoke to us, it seemed an attractive moderation. Avoiding both silky Armani suits and nakedness in ashes, Buddhist monks wear simple saffron robes – he said these came from cemetery shrouds, the cheapest garb, so there was no fear of theft. But I was disenchanted to observe several monks enter and take two or even three cushions to sit on. Surely the middle way between numb-bummed denial and somnolent softness would be just one? To put it bluntly, how come they sat serenely on stacks of pillows, showing precious little compassion as I squirmed on a single one?