The earliest women ordained into the Buddha’s sangha some 2,500 years ago, experienced profound transformations that they rendered into poetry. Their poems came to be compiled as the Therigatha, literally ‘stories of women elders’. The 73 poems of the Therigatha delineate as if an inner courtyard, where the women shrug off the veils of personality and ego-self, bare their innermost experiences, and swap stories about their struggles and insights. This personal, feminine space frees their voices to speak of what is important to them, in an idiom they are comfortable with. One can almost picture a huddle of women with shaved heads, some young some old, sitting companionably during a vessa (monsoon) retreat, talking their hearts, revealing their selves.
They lament the darkness that hung heavy upon them, woven of loss and sorrow, dissatisfaction and frustration, until the light of dharma set them free. The famous parable of the mustard seed, where a mother learns to accept the truth of death, is one such. The mother, Kisa Gotami, begs the Buddha for a miracle that would revive her dead son. The Buddha says he will, provided she brings him a mustard seed from a home never visited by death. Kisa Gotami hunts for such a home to no avail, and by the time she returns, has understood the play of change and impermanence woven into the nature of life. She says:
It’s not just a truth for one village or town,
Nor is it a truth for a single family.
But for every world settled by gods (and men)
This indeed is what is true – impermanence.
[Thig A X.1, translation Andrew Olendzki]
The soul-songs of the Therigatha provide an intimate view of the concerns and issues particular to women on the path in a non-preachy, non-judgmental way. These have little by way of pulpy, lethargic sentimentality, nor are they dry and clinical. One could describe them best as examples of ‘telling it like it is’, with a clarity of mind and memory that might be expected of an arahat (realised being, which most of the theris were). Perhaps this is why the concerns mentioned therein feel immediate and true even across the chasm of centuries.
Whether it is Patacara mourning the loss of her family, or Gutta who pines for a child born of her womb, or Vimala the courtesan who exults in her beauty, or Anopama the heiress who is restless with her materialistic lifestyle, the theris articulate a uniquely feminine perspective on life, and life on the spiritual path. Their contexts might be dated, but when they speak of the imbalance of uncontrolled emotionality, the debilitation of obsessive attachment, the rigours of relationships, bondage to the body and its appearance, women of any era cannot but find their own challenges reflected in the theris’.
Two stories we have all heard at some point or another in our lives provide useful pointers to the human relationship with death. Both are ancient and Indian, yet the attitudes they describe are universally and recognisably human.
One is from the Mahabharata, in which a wise prince goes to quench his thirst and is questioned by the keeper of the lake, ‘What is the strangest thing in the world?’ The prince answers, ‘That we know we are going to die but pretend we will live forever.’
The other is from the Buddha’s life. A grieving mother brings her dead child to the Buddha and asks him to return it to life. The Buddha asks her to bring a mustard seed from a home that death has never visited. She tries but is unsuccessful, embracing in the process the inevitability of death.
When we are alive and well, the thought of our own death rarely enters our mind. Even if we are faced with it, it never feels immediate. When a loved one dies, we grieve and mourn, and try to grasp at their memory. Life does go on after a while, but if we haven’t used the opportunity to make our peace with the constant dance of change that is life, we continue to be thrown off balance every time we are faced with change, with death.
If we only look around us, at nature of which we are also a part, we can witness a perpetual dance of change. Not only our bodies change, so do our ideas, our behaviour, and the ways in which we deal with people and respond to situations. Though everything is real in the moment it happens, it quickly passes away, dies if you please, and in the next moment, something rises anew.
Because of constant change, nothing remains, everything passes. Just as there is never the same drop of water at one spot in two different moments in a flowing river, so it is in our lives. Death is not just a one-time event, it is happening right here, right now, in the space between two moments, in the gap between each in-breath and out-breath. Kaal, which in Sanskrit means both time and death, constantly churns, devouring everything in its path.
At the same time, navinam navinam, kshane kshane (‘newness, newness, in every moment’). The Sufi, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, says, ‘I died a mineral and became a plant. / I died a plant and rose an animal. / I died an animal and I was man. / Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?’ This indicates a profound understanding of death, arrived at by a mind unclouded by fears, insecurities and desires. The understanding of impermanence and unceasing change is a crucial aspect of understanding the mystery of death. Our worlds are consumed all the time and created anew, and in every moment, we die in some way and are renewed in another.
The Himalayas have some of the highest inhabited regions in the world, and perhaps some of the oldest as well. Much of Himalayan architecture, painting and sculpture traditions are rooted in religious practices. Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon Shamanism, and tribal cultures form the major wisdom traditions that have nurtured singular art forms in the Himalayas.
In the Buddhism of the Himalayas– Vajrayana – art objects are used as aids to spiritual practice. Thangkas, for instance, sacred paintings, help the practitioner visualise the deity – a key step in creative visualisation aimed at enhancing the positive qualities of the practitioner by using the power of his or her imagination. The thangka itself does not hold mystical powers – it is a utilitarian, and beautiful, object whose magic lies in what it can enable a practitioner to do. Idols of the Buddha, too, though given a lot of respect, are not worshipped in the strictest sense of the word. Rather, they are venerated as pointers to a state of perfection – Buddhahood – the potential for which is inherent in all of us.
Vast swathes of the Himalayas, from Tibet and Bhutan to Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Lahoul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, are overwhelmingly Vajrayana Buddhist. Afghanistan represents an even earlier phase of Buddhist art, in fact its very first one. At some point between the second century BCE and the first century CE, the historical Buddha was sculpted for the first time in Gandhara, which covered parts of modern-day north Pakistan and eastAfghanistan. Before this, he was alluded to through symbols, such as the bodhi tree, a stupa, and so on, in accordance with his own wish not to be idolised and worshipped.
The fact that the Gandhara sculptures came to exist at all was a result of a split in the community of followers. Two groups emerged – the Theravadins, who wished to preserve the dharma as it was, and adherents of Mahayana, ‘the great vehicle’, who wished to welcome winds of change.
One of the changes that occurred was the appearance of images depicting the Buddha as a human being. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great circa 330 BCE, Gandhara must have been a hotbed of Hellenic culture. Sculptors mixed themes from the Buddha’s life with Greek sculpting techniques, and Buddhas with perfect aquiline noses, thin lips, wearing togas and sandals emerged, destined to become the definitive image of the Buddha, the way we imagine him all these centuries later.
That on the same soil from where his first images emerged, the Buddha’s likeness should be blasted out of mountainsides at Bamiyan in the twentieth century, is an irony that is indicative of the truth of the Buddha’s own teaching – that of impermanence and change.
As we celebrate the festival of nine nights of the goddess, Navaratra, let us consider a lesser known feminine divinity – the Dakini. She is a minor figure in Indian traditions and iconography, but assumes great significance in Tibetan Buddhism as the essence of feminine wisdom. That she is feminine points towards the Tantric influence on Tibet’s Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana owes some of its distinct character to Tantra, where the Divine Feminine had an exalted presence. For instance, a sloka from the Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘Do not question woman. Adore her everywhere. In her real nature, she is Bhagavati (Perfection of Wisdom); and in this empirical world Bhagavati has assumed the form of woman.’
The Dakini principle, called ‘khandro’ in Tibetan (literally ‘sky dancer’), represents a dynamic flow of energy with which the yogic practitioner must work in order to become realised. The dakini might appear as a person in order to impart crucial teachings, benevolent or wrathful, according to the situation. The practitioner must invoke different aspects of the Dakini principle in order to fully understand the play of energy in the phenomenal world.
The Dakini is thus a deity, visualised and invoked, as well as a ‘spiritual midwife’ who acts as catalyst and helps in the birthing of true wisdom in the seeker. She is said to appear at crucial moments in a practitioner’s sadhana, when a shift must be made for further growth, and mostly this is a shift from a purely intellectual pursuit to an experiential way of understanding.
She is the practitioner’s connection with practical, intuitive wisdom, and quickly takes him or her to the heart of the practice by demonstrating how to decisively cut through delusions and attachments. This is illustrated in the story of Abhayakaragupta, a monk and a scholar, who was offered a piece of meat by a young woman. Taken aback, he shoved it away. The young woman was a dakini who had come to teach him the crucial lesson of breaking out of habits, even if they were the ‘golden rules’ set by the Buddha. Where there is negativity, the Tantric practitioner must work with it and transform it, rather than take recourse in cultural, or spiritual, conditioning, as Abhayakaragupta did.
The Dakini principle is dynamic and direct, and brings about true realisation unfettered by punditry when she assumes the form of a teacher. It is said to be possible to recognise a dakini only through intuitive understanding, for she does not reveal herself. The Dakini is believed to have been embodied and expressed in real women throughout the history of Buddhism in Tibet, such as Yeshe Tsogyel, consort of Guru Padmasambhava, among others.
After nirvana, for some time, the Buddha remained silent. Seven weeks later, he made his way to the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Banaras, where he met his five former ascetic companions. To them, for the first time, he spoke about his realisation. It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to teaching the truth to as many who desired to know it.
Even as he took on a teacher’s role, his emphasis remained on self-effort. He certainly did not wish to spoonfeed students his teachings. The Majjhima Nikaya quotes him as saying, ‘Vibhajjavado aham, naham ekamsavado,’ that is, ‘I am an analyst, not a doctrinaire.’ He clearly positioned himself not as a propounder, but a questioner, of doctrines. In this sense, he would have seen his path and teachings more as a ‘theory of existence’, a science of the mind, not to be followed as such, but lived and experienced.
Somewhat like a latter-day scientist, the Buddha is said to have urged his followers not to take anything for granted, not even what he said. They were to verify each statement and doctrine for themselves, by living it and questioning it. Clarifying the importance of individual striving, and also his relationship with his followers, the Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada as having said, ‘You yourself should make the exertion. The Tathagatas (Buddhas) are only teachers.’
In fact, this was also the very last thing the Buddha told his followers. As he lay dying, his foremost disciple, Ananda, asked him for a final teaching. ‘Be lamps unto yourselves,’ said the Buddha, as he fell silent to embrace his approaching death. This, like so many others, appears to be a jewel of understanding gleaned from his own experience. He had followed teachers and learned from them, but true realisation came when he sat under the bodhi tree and became a lamp unto himself.
Of course, the teacher is present to point out the way. But that is what he is – the finger that points to the moon, which should not be confused with the moon of truth. In his very first sermon, the Buddha presented a clear vision of the path. It consisted of the ‘four noble truths’ – pithy statements that contain the distilled essence of the Buddha’s understanding of the human condition, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path, following which one could live a balanced, meaningful life. It included developing the right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
The Eightfold Path emanates from the very heart of the attitude that has come to be known as Buddhism’s ‘middle way’ approach to spiritual seeking, and indeed, to life.
Published as a column in the Asian Age newspaper on January 31, 2012.
UPUL NISHANTHA GAMAGE is the resident meditation teacher at a tranquil spiritual retreat – the Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre near Kandy in Sri Lanka. His deep understanding of the practice of meditation as well as the travails of modern life make him a wise and compassionate kalyanamitra (dharma friend) to many around the globe. In this, he carries forward the legacy of the Centre’s founder, Godwin Samararathne, a lay teacher who was widely respected for his wisdom and skill in guiding people on the path.
I spoke with Upul at Nilambe on a quiet morning, after a centring meditation session.
How can one balance one’s spiritual quest with living in the world?
We must understand that we have a responsibility towards ourselves, just as we have towards family, partner, parents, children, and society. If we know this, we will find the time for spiritual practice.
It is easy to confuse responsibility towards oneself with earning and consuming more.
I can give you an example. Most hotels have gyms now where you can go and exercise to reduce cholesterol, blood sugar, and so on. Next to the gym is a restaurant. Half the time, people are either in the restaurant or the gym, and the other half they have to earn to pay for the restaurant and the gym! So, there is no time for the mind.
Do you think de-stressing is a good enough motivation to meditate?
More than half the meditators start because of personal problems. You can see meditation as a medicine. Doctors send patients to meditate to overcome physical sicknesses, psychosomatic diseases. Some come because of psychological, emotional or relationship problems. Some want to know about themselves. Some want to achieve psychic powers. Some want to meditate because their religion recommends it. Any reason is fine.
You can use meditation as medicine, therapy, psychological exercise to increase memory and brain activity. You can use it as a microscope or a telescope, to see your life clearly, or to understand the world. The important thing is the practice. If you know how to practise, you can use it as and when you need it. If you don’t have problems, you can still meditate to develop spiritual qualities like joy, peacefulness, loving-kindness, compassion.
While meditating, we might achieve peace and equanimity. Do these automatically translate into our daily living, or must we cultivate them?
It does affect daily life up to a point. If we sit in the morning, we can go to work with a fresh mind. That peacefulness and freshness remain for some hours, but gradually decrease. Sitting meditation is important, but it is not good enough. We have to learn how to apply meditation in daily life. This is why in the Centre’s daily schedule we have ‘working meditation’ – how to work mindfully, and remain in the present instead of thinking of the past or future. Both these thoughts lead to stress. If we can focus on our current work, we will be relaxed.
Also, we want to choose what we like to do, and reject what we do not. This is not always possible. If we do not know how to do work that we do not like, then we struggle. There are complications and resistance. The body suffers as a result. We have to learn how to let go of our likes and dislikes, and to see the importance of the work.
The other important thing is selfless action. We like to work for ourselves and our loved ones. We have to learn to work for others. Sometimes, we might not know who they might be. It does not matter. We can still do something. We can sweep the path even if we do not know who will walk on it.
At work, we can see our clients as meditation teachers. Because of them, we can develop metta (friendliness), tolerance, compassion, and equanimity, especially if they are demanding and unappreciative. There are many opportunities in daily life to practise meditation. Actually, if you live in a forest, you can cultivate only one side of spirituality. The other is immature. I tell people, ‘Do you want to be spiritually paralysed, where only one side is working?’ Good sitters are not necessarily good meditators. When they go back to their normal lives, they might not know what to do, how to face their emotions. It is good to have a retreat, but then we must go back and test ourselves.
How can we bring mindfulness to our relationships?
We have pre-conceived images of ourselves and others, and we expect them to behave accordingly. We react to our image of the other, without understanding. We think, ‘This person is like this.’ This is especially true of spouses. I tell them, ‘You married an image, not the person.’ Let go of your images, models, frames. Be open to the other person and understand him or her.
Also, if you expect something from the other, say it. Communication is important. Meditation can help us have a friendly dialogue instead of arguments, listen to others, observe and understand them.
Mindfulness and metta help increase your inner capacity, so you have enough space for different opinions and ideas. A spacious mind does not react. It can accept and absorb. To have a wider and deeper mind is important. Otherwise, you always expect the other person to live within your frame.
The meditation techniques you teach are based on the Buddha’s teachings?
Yes, like awareness of breath, contemplating the body, meditating on physical sensations, watching thoughts and emotions, cultivating positive qualities like kindness, compassion, metta, living in the present moment. Also, investigating what is happening now and why it is happening.