12 July 2008

Letter 2.35

Being the most important tourist/pilgrimage site in Ceylon, Anuradhapura, overflows with many things, many strange people fulfilling -- or not fulfilling -- strange destinies. And being the rainy season, Anuradhapura overflows also with flood waters. Even the most ordinary citizens, in the currents and whirlpools of enthusiasm they have worked up in order to convince themselves of their religious certitudes, manages to cover his ordinary plain surface until all that is visible of him are his peaks, a few humps of personality protruding, like Mt. Ararat, above the floodtide of his ebullience, seeking doves with leaves in their bills.

The available leaves are all from the species ficus religiosa, or bo-tree for the main attraction, in the moistest center of the arena, is Sri Maha Bodhi, a tree of aforesaid species which according to legend -- and legend is probably correct in this case -- entered into the world as a branch of the tree under which the Buddha sat on the night of his enlightenment, which branch, having taken root, was brought to Ceylon by the daughter of King Asoka (whom H.G. Wells called the greatest king in the history of mankind) some 2200 years ago, making it the oldest tree in the world still living.

The Sinhalese make a very big to-do about it. Such a big to-do, in fact, that it is impossible to get close enough to have a decent look at it – surrounded as it is, by a gold-plated fence, not of barbed wire but of pickets -- and then an ordinary wall on a lower level and finally a third wall through which one can glimpse the branches of the tree -- which are thin and supported by iron posts -- and the leaves, which are of a peculiar reddish sheen unlike the normal green of the species -- more like the color of poinsettia leaves, I'd say -- and certainly there's no way anybody's going to sit down under it (which, of course, is the only reasonable thing to do with the tree). Therefore Ñānasuci was disappointed.

Because I had the foresight to put up in a resthouse close to the river running through town, I was able to become a refugee. The weather has been abominably wet (until a few days ago when it cleared up -- sunshine today) and one day the police came and told the resthousers that the water in the irrigation lakes had risen to the danger point and we had to leave because that night they would open the floodgates to release the flood and the waters would engulf the place. So I found refuge elsewhere in a derelict school-house smelling of cleaning solutions and mildew, where they fed me eggs until I was ready to burst open with the new supply of protein vitality and am stimulated protein-wise almost as much as the Sinhalese tourists (who insist upon calling themselves and me as well as 'pilgrims') are stimulated by their holiday-making orgies of faith (which, as Maugham correctly notes, is the most powerful intoxicant the world has ever known).

Perhaps the most interesting of those I've met so far is the 66 year old gentleman who, beginning at Maharama (near Hambantota) has bicycled here and intends to continue up to Calcutta, across Burma, and as far as Singapore before taking a ship to Japan. He has a shock of black hair, partly braided, and a double-wedged beard of white, baby smooth skin, burning eyes, a bicycle with no brakes, a T-shirt carrying slogans of the Family Planning Association in green and a wealth of self-contradictory ideas culled from various Eastern teachers. He speaks perfect English and says he has at various times been a tea planter, a teacher, a businessman, and a hermit (for some years) in the jungle living on roots, leaves, berries, and jungle fruits.

In the Anuradhapura area are many fine forests -- not jungles, but nearly parks, with tall trees (jungle trees are usually scrub) amidst lawns kept closely cropped by cattle and waterbuffalo and also some hills with caves in them in very beautiful surroundings. Several hermitages are here also, but I wouldn't be happy with the weather, which, I'm told, is either intolerably wet or intolerably hot, and although my mosquito net is proving invaluable I'd rather be in a place where it was not so useful.

Would you like a leaf from the Sri Maha Bodhi? (These leaves are not easy to get, and are available to me only on the basis of my white skin and brown robes -- if everyone who came here got one the tree would be stripped bare in a few days.) But this may have a religious significance for you that would be objectionable (although it has no religious significance at all for me -- its value is more as a symbol or reminder of my own work).

Wandering is hard, comfortless, and free. But freedom is a comfort. A state of mind rather: the ability to give up what one would keep. Therefore wandering is hard, comfortable, and free. But what is comfortable is not hard, Therefore wandering is soft, comfortable, and free.

In the two years since I last went out wandering I've acquired the strength to be able to appreciate -- i.e. understand -- freedom in a greater degree. Therefore I am progressing.

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