12 August 2008

Letter 2.64

While the usefulness of the sessions was limited -- the limitations of a large group of uneven and different practice (the teacher knew what he was doing, but it was not what I was doing) -- at the very least I got in some days of intensive meditation, which did me good; practice tends to degenerate under the travelling conditions of the last two months.

After the sessions, I took a four hour bus trip north to Rajgir, ancient Rajagaha -- south of Patna (you won't find any of the Buddhist pilgrimage places on any map but a historical map): here is found the cave where the First Council met a few months after the Buddha's death to decide what to do with the Teaching; also are found many places where the Buddha lived, and they all have stories behind them, told in the Suttas. Rajagaha was the ancient capital of the Kosala Kingdom, and is surrounded by hills which provide a natural fortification, atop which huge walls, about 40 miles in length still stand today in partial ruins. There are many tales of the kingdom to be gleaned by scattered references in the Suttas. As there were 2500 years ago, there are natural hot springs, and public bathing tanks have been built. I found one item not mentioned in the tourist guide books: while searching for a particular place I made some wrong turn and got into some heavy bush atop a hill. As the cowtrack began petering out I stopped to look around and thought of turning back, when I smelt a penetrating, rather noxious odor, which was vaguely reminiscent of something. I looked around for the source and saw nothing, and then looked down -- almost at my feet was a rotting human corpse. Actually, to be accurate, it was only the top third of a corpse, from the chest up, without arms. It was probably one to two months old -- half the flesh on the skull still remained; but I'll spare you the details. I went back to an old Jain temple where some Indians were sitting and told them of what I'd found. They were curious to see it, so I took them back to it. They examined the corpse, and I was eventually able to learn that they knew who it was, and who had murdered him, but they had no intention of doing anything about it. As a matter of fact, neither did I, and for all I know it's still there. It's the first time I've seen a really ripe body -- seen? I nearly stepped on him. Although the Buddha suggested the contemplation of such things as a little exercise in reality -- the glorious future of every one of us -- it certainly put me off my lunch.

From Rajgir it's only a few miles to Nalanda, the site of one of the greatest ancient universities, where 10,000 students attended classes at its peak -- it was about 700 years old when it was destroyed in the Moghul invasion of the 13th century. A new university has been established close by the ruins, primarily devoted to 'Buddhist studies', and I stayed there with a Laotian monk I'd met in Bodh Gaya. In a spell of very wet weather, I trekked up to Vaisali, headquarters of the ancient Vajjian Kingdom: little had been done in the way of excavation there, although there are two stupas where small quantities of ash from the cremated body of the Buddha were unearthed, as well as one of Asoka's pillars unfortunately defaced at the base by tourists who had chiselled their names into the stone ('E.F. Simons, 1831, 'J.S. Stevenson 1790', etc.)

Kusinagar, where the cremation actually occurred, was next, a pleasant enough place, but aside from the death and cremation of the Buddha not much happened there, so a day of radiant sunshine later I went on to Savatthi, where the Buddha spent 25 years, and saw extensive ruins -- a large city existed there at one time, perhaps even bigger than Rajagaha -- amidst sparse jungle. By this time my capacity to absorb was getting pretty clogged, and I realized I wouldn't he able to get much out of Savatthi beyond surface impressions: too much happened there. So, after a couple days of wandering around, I called it quits, and went on to Lumbini, just across the Nepal border, where the Buddha was born. The site is marked by an old Asokan pillar, now cracked up the stem and with its capital in fragments. But a beautiful temple was there -- looked after by a fine old Nepalese monk -- full of ornately-carved woodwork of traditional Nepalese handicraft, Tibetan-style wall paintings, and many other fine touches. From Lumbini I had to re-enter India to get to Katmandu, there being no Nepal road, and it took an exhausting three days on narrow-guage trains and a rattletrap truck to reach Katmandu.

When the truck conked out at a pass of about 8200 feet (Katmandu's in a valley; only about 4500 feet) I got out and had the pleasure of making a snowball. I felt it was the least I could do, and -- since I did no more -- apparently the most I could do too…

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