Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Someone said to me the other day that when you are in pain, emotional pain, nothing that is said to you registers; the gnawing thing soaks up all your attention. Yes. There is too that point when your mind is gouged to the founds and images flare. The puddle of rainwater reflecting the temple and the patterned bits of mirror in the temple wall reflecting the sky. Bodhgaya.

In Benares I was downed by a mysterious one day virus. For that day I was unable to move. Then after a deep calm sleep I got up feeling light, almost bodiless. I decided that before the long trip south I would visit the place of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha was enlightened. It's a short distance from Gaya on the Benares-Calcutta line. Every tourist should travel 3rd class unreserved in India. Once. When everyone that wanted to get into the carriage was in, the last man came in through the window, we set off. The ash streaked holy men with their high piled dung matted hair paid no attention to the notice 'ticketless travel is a social evil'.
It was dark when I got off at Gaya and found a place to put down my mat in the ticket hall. Lying on my back, a rug around me, I was soon asleep.

On waking I was too weak to resist the massage artist who began to knead my leg. It felt good and being paid 5 rupees, a day's wage at 7 in the morning must have surprised him. I took the first cycle rickshaw and struck a price for the four mile trip to Bodhgaya. Out in the country we stopped for tea at a roadside chai stall - a few sheets of galvanised stretched from a tree with some banana leaves on top. The tea dust was brewed with watery milk and strained through a muslin. It was poured from mug to mug to cool it, a yard long stream that was delivered up with froth. The fresh grass was lush on the verges and the fields were flooded for the rice planting.

The hermitage where I was directed to go was 1Rp. per night with use of fan extra. Swami in charge taking me to the large communal room asked me:

- You are coming from Ireland, what is your mission in India?
- I am just a traveller.
- Atchar, please enjoy, put your mat anywhere.

I walked up the road. Scraps of cloth and banners of silk fluttered in the branches of an enormous bodhi tree. The same tree? At its base slabs were set into the ground at intervals tall enough to act as blinds for the individual meditators. One ascetic sat there relaxed, his body braced by its posture.

The stupa to commemorate the Buddha's enlightenment was close by. Outside it two Tibetan monks were doing their 1008 full prostrations. I left them undulating and walked inside to the inner chamber where deep inside the cool silence was a golden statue of the Buddha. Round his feet some mice scampered nibbling on sheaves of wheat.

A flight of stone steps led to the first tier of the stupa which was open to the sun. In an alcove a standing Buddha stretched forth his hand. There were Greek folds in the drapery that lightened and gave mobility to the figure.

I heard the drum before I saw them. It was a funeral procession bearing a body on a litter of saffron cloth bound round two poles which was followed by a drummer lashing with a switch his deep bellied drum and two cavorting sadhus festooned with bones celebrating this oblation to the Divine Mother Kali.

Down at the local chai house and Brahmins restaurant I had the traditional speciality, milk rice, which Buddha is said to have had before he went to meditate. Two Americans were sitting there dressed in orange robes. Their heads were shaven. They had little orange purses. One said:

- That sunset last night was the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.
The other said:
- Every sunset is the most beautiful sunset.

That night I lay in muck sweat, the fan churning the thick air like a spoon in gruel.
In the morning coming from my shower I met a lean monk of the centre. The mosquitoes were swarming around my ankles - any pause gives them occasion.

- You are coming from which country sir, and what is your profession, what can you do?
- I'm Irish, and I'm afraid that I can do very little, I'm a teacher.
- That is a pity, what we need are doctors and nurses for our mission in the jungle. You are a thinker sir, have you found the peace of mind in India?
- No, I haven't.

This answer seemed to annoy him as if to say 'you can't have taken your medicine or you would be getting well, isn't it!

I suppose he was used to dealing with earnest seekers after wisdom. My mind wasn't at peace, it was quiet through exhaustion from the struggle all these months to explain to myself why she had left me. If mind is a way of seeing the world, construing it, making sense of it; I had no mind. Still everything was there as it arose and then it flowed away and I threw nothing after it. No part of my awareness adhered to it, to obscure its present life.

The face of the Tibetan Lama who took me into the shrine room rises like a bubble of air breaking the surface of a lotus pond. There was a painting of the Buddhas of the 4 Quarters with their attendant deities and their consorts around the seed Buddha at the centre. There were lunar thrones, horse thrones, peacock thrones, elephant thrones, lion thrones, fire enhaloed lotus thrones, a figure bearing a bowl, a skull filled with blood, coral, a book and a sword. To one dressed in yellow with staff and begging bowl he pointed and said:

- He here Shakya Muni Bodhgaya Buddha.
He then brought me to the great bell-like prayer wheel with 1008 words of power written all round it. Each turn you gave the wheel gained you their virtue. It was 7 tons weight yet it turned easily, a marvel of ballbearings and balance pinging like a typewriter at the end of each round.

On my way through the compound of the Tibetan monastery I saw the lone meditator of the day before. He was washing rice in a little pot, swirling the water round and pouring it out with the same easy absorption. It was the cheapest half polished red rice, begged that morning.

Had he the peace of mind, or even skilful irony in stirring times? I was wandering at the edge of the picture amid all the exoticism and the seeking. Perhaps I was beginning to accept the sweet teaching of failure having sat at the feet of unqualified resentment. She, she, she. The reality of any ease was tested by her memory. Empty.

Now my mind had stopped. It was the way of exhaustion: so far into the maze, being blocked, out again and back in by the same route.

I stayed in Bodhgaya for two more days. Once I ate some milk rice and sat under the tree but I didn't notice any difference.


ktismatics said...

The story begins with a kind of joke: "Someone said to me the other day that when you are in pain, emotional pain, nothing that is said to you registers..." -- and yet it did register enough for you to repeat it. But it's not a very funny joke, gouging at the pain. Or is it that you are getting ready to tell us about a time of pain, but the pain has receded now, making you receptive again to others? And you presume that your reader too is painless enough to hear what you're about to tell him. It's a fine beginning.

But then from an opening reflection on emotional pain you move to a memory of physical pain. The virus lifts and sleep descends: the light and bodiless state would seem ideal for a transcendent enlightenment. But the emotional pain doesn't lift so easily; while as reader it starts to recede behind the details of the story, the mood doesn't shift and lift with viral agility. The mood permeates the experiences and the words describing them, even if as reader I don't know the source of the mood.

The story is rife with material details, revealing that the writer was attentive to these experiences. Maybe for the distraught it is the tangible that registers and is remembered, even if words are not. And so in reading the words of the story I begin to get a sense that the physical trumps the spiritual. But maybe it's emotional pain that cancels out the enlightenment. Deeper than the words and the details to which they point, the mood gnaws at the enlightenment and soaks it up, leaving behind only the material husks. I start to think that enlightenment must have something to do with what is said, and that what is said in enlightenment can be grasped only by those who are already free of emotional pain. But this thought comes from remembering the whole story in light of rereading the first paragraph. I'll have to read the whole story again when I come back...

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks for your careful reading. I just wrote it straight off more than 10 years later.
That excursion had a preparatory effect for what was to come afterwards which I have also written about (unpublished). Purgation was required. The follow up story is here
baba's place
It's a rough uncouth bit of work but reasonably honest. Don't feel the need to make extensive comment, or even read it for that matter. It may not be your sort of thing.
It's late her - and so to bed.

ombhurbhuva said...

that link may be broken

ktismatics said...

I experienced a spiritual rebirth that was quite similar to yours in several respects, Michael. Backpacking through a third-world country, I stopped at a religious commune. As I hovered between wakefulness and sleep I suddenly experienced a profound and pervasive peace. The country was Morocco; the religion, Christianity.

ombhurbhuva said...

Have you written about it? Rational Psychology does not have much to say about these profound changes that occur in the depths of the heart but they are not uncommon. Maslow notes the phenomena but does not if I remember correctly offer any means of evoking it. For the experiencer it seems a matter of pure grace. It seems to lack a proper causal chain.

john doyle said...

"If mind is a way of seeing the world, construing it, making sense of it; I had no mind."

Maybe this is enlightenment. It's a turning point in the story, the thrones ascending.

"balance pinging like a typewriter at the end of each round."

Enlightenment and virtue are being written.

"Perhaps I was beginning to accept the sweet teaching of failure having sat at the feet of unqualified resentment. She, she, she. The reality of any ease was tested by her memory. Empty. Now my mind had stopped."

This juxtaposition again, of the clever enlightenment with the mindless one.

The last sentence feels like a letdown, but perhaps again not noticing difference is the mindless and empty enlightenment that you did not seek but that found you.

It's a fine story.

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks John. Occasionally stories get away and live their own independent life. It's one I don't mind rereading whereas others make me avert my eyes. I'm glad you liked it.

john doyle said...

I'm quizzing myself as to what I recall from this story before rereading it: You joined up with a girl at an ashram in India; now the girl has left; you remain, living in primitive conditions; a holy man does or says something that influences you profoundly, and you are converted. Plot points evidently, which may miss critical junctures or be flat-out mistaken; not ideas, not language. A melancholy reflexive mood. I'll leave it at that for now while I go do an errand (No, not voting: I did that early; I remember the name of the presidential candidate I voted for, as well as the party affiliations of my undercard selections, though not their names.) I may not get to the reread until late afternoon or evening.

john doyle said...

I just reread the story -- clearly I failed the recall exam. Even at the lower level memory threshold of recognition I am found wanting -- it's as if I'd never read it before, though infused with a vague uncanny sense of deja-vu familiarity. I agree with my original assessment though: this story, like the identical one I read nearly 5 years ago, is excellent.