|Once the Auspicious One stayed at
Rajagaha, at the Squirrels' Feeding-ground in the Bamboo Grove. At that time a certain
monk named Thera lived alone and praised living alone. Alone he entered the village for
alms, alone he returned, alone he sat in private and alone he used the ambulatory. Then
some monks told the Auspicious One of this monk's lifestyle, and the Auspicious One spoke
to a certain monk, saying, "Come, monk, tell Ven. Thera, 'The Master calls you,
"Very well, sir," replied the monk, and called Ven. Thera.
"Very well, friend," replied Ven. Thera, and he came to the Auspicious One, bowed down, and sat beside him.
The Auspicious One said to him, "Is it true what they say, Thera, that you live alone and praise living alone?"
"That is so, sir."
"How, Thera, do you do so?"
"Here, sir, alone I enter the village for alms, alone I return, alone I sit in private and alone I use the ambulatory. Thus, sir, I live alone and praise living alone."
"That is living alone, Thera. I do not say it is not living alone. But, Thera, I will tell you how living alone is perfected in detail. Listen well. I shall speak."
"And how, Thera, is living alone perfected in detail? Here, Thera, that which is past is given up, that which is future is renounced and, in the present, through development of mind and heart desire and lust are fully dispelled. Thus, Thera, living alone is perfected in detail."
The Auspicious One said this. Then the Wellfarer, the Master, said further:
Bhikkhu Samyutta 10
The third alternative was to set up on my own, as 'Sumana had done. I left the Hermitage with a list of places to check out and, by bus and foot, traveled around the country, finding out how rare suitable places were. Here it was too wet, there too hot, at a third place the villagers were too poor to support a monk. The North of Ceylon was impossible, for it was all Tamils, a Hindu minority who felt oppressed in a Buddhist land and would not likely consider it a privilege to support me.
South of them were the plains, dull and mosquito-plagued. The beautiful East Coast desert was nearly uninhabited. The South and West coasts were heavily populated, heavily farmed. The picturesque Upcountry, where it wasn't cultivated for tea by hopelessly poor Tamil workers, was unpeopled jungle, dense with fogs and menace. The edge of Upcountry, around Kandy, had good climate and fine rolling hills, as 'Rasa had told me; but everywhere there were people.
There was a time limit: during Vas, the rains-retreat, bhikkhus stayed in one place. If I hadn't managed something by then there would be no alternative but to return to the Hermitage. Just as bad, I was running out of places to check out. At each likely-looking locale I stopped for a few days at the nearest vihara, met local upasakas, and explored. The viharas were all musty with years of tropical decay and lost plaster. Sometimes the upasakas showed me places they thought might suit my needs. None of them did.
"This one is too far from the village. It would take me all morning to go on pindapata from here."
"The people from the village would wish to bring your danas to you, sir, and to receive the pańca sila and hear Dhamma-talk and worship Lord Buddha."
Elsewhere, "This one is too near the village. Listen to the noise. Look at the traffic."
"But reverend, here you'll be safe from the tigers."
And, "This one is just the right distance from the village, sir, as you specified."
"Yes, but it is right beside the pond where the women do laundry. You can see the problem there, can't you?"
"Sir, we could build the kuti with the door opening on the other side."
When finally I didn't know where else to look I returned to the Kandy area to linger in its good climate a while. Outside of Kandy was a monastic residency used largely by monks from the Colombo vihara and the Hermitage. The building was damp concrete; the steel doors clanged no matter how gently they were closed; but it was located in some fine hilly forest where I could hang out for a while and ponder my choices. I didn't want to return to the Hermitage to reclaim my kuti from Crackers; but of the places I'd seen the best of the lot still promised to be, at most, barely adequate.
Since there was a village not too far off from the residency I went on pindapata daily. Once as I returned from the village, walking along the footpath, I noticed for the first time the faint tracings of a path leading off to one side of the footpath, and I wondered where it might lead to.
The bowl was heavy in my hands; it had been a steep climb from the village and I wanted to get out of my warm outer robe. I hesitated, then decided to have a quick look anyway.
The path took a gentle curve and within a few paces led to a clearing of several acres that had been entirely hidden from the footpath. It was the only clearing I'd found in the entire forest. It looked West across to more forested hills, a coconut estate, and, beyond, to the graceful bald peak which dominated the landscape. I listened for several minutes and heard, once, the distant honking of a car horn. The surrounding jungle protected the clearing from most noise and, I guessed, most weather. I decided: if I could get the support necessary I would live here. As soon as the decision was made I felt something cold and moist touch my feet. I looked down to see several leeches fastening themselves to me.
* * * * *
Against the rhythm of the crickets a night bird sang two notes. Against the close of day the muezzin called the hour of prayer: a mosque in Kandy served the Moorish community, who were Moslem. Then behind the wail I heard, like distant thunder, the beating of large-boweled drums: the Temple of the Tooth. I set my teacup on the packing case by the kuti doorway and came in with a 7/8 on the water jug. It was a mismatched band, but it was the only one in town.
I'd been to the Temple of the Tooth once, in company with an elderly Cambodian monk. When we'd entered the building the full force of the drums reverberating against the massive walls had made my bone marrow echo. Against that thunderous rhythm the piercing runs and trills of the clarinet-like instruments danced with a compelling solidity that lacked all grace. It reminded me of the temple music in Nepal. It had been long since I'd lived in the magic of the Himalayas. That was a place I'd return to if I ever happened to go back to India. Some day it might be nice to revisit my teacher, Ven. Dharmapal.
Over a moat, up turnings of stairs, through ornate doors hung with gold lamé curtains, up another stone staircase, and past intricate frescoes depicting scenes of lore. Around us people bustled, performing their appointed tasks, carrying silver trays, censers, and water jugs of beaten and wrought metals. Here, as much as Anuradhapura, was the heart of the traditional Buddhism that ruled Ceylon. Piety and reverence pervaded the walls of the Temple like settled smoke of long-dead incense.
Reverence had been done to this tooth for twenty-five hundred years now, for here, preserved by zealous monks through centuries of shifting fortunes, was the very tooth with which the Buddha had eaten his almsfood. And that tooth -- a canine, it had looked to be -- was still not done with alms (as, long since lost, destroyed, or decayed, were the other thirty-one), for unavoidably close by was the collection box. People slipped bills into the box and placed offerings of flowers and incense on a table whose every oil-lamp was filled and burning. Nobody, as far as I could see, offered toothpaste or a toothbrush.
Afterwards, as we'd walked along the shores of the Kandy tank, the old monk had said in a very kind and very wistful voice, "Very joyous and good, dat. But two tousand five hunnerd years -- dat pretty old for a toot. I don' know. I don' know." And he'd gently shaken his head, quietly and a bit doubtfully.
I held the water jug between my legs as I made rhythms. It had a long narrow neck. The mouth was just the right size for my palm, and by shaping my cupped palm I could weave tonal effects through the rhythms I beat out. It was, I told myself, my evening pirith.
"Making music, are you, V?"
Startled, I nearly dropped the jug. If it were to break there'd be a mud patch on the earthen floor.
"Scared you, did I?" Crackers came into the kuti.
"Yes, a bit."
"Didn't mean to. But I just got in. I've been on carika."
"I heard you'd left the Island again." Crackers had been up to Kandy once before to help when the kuti was being built.
"I'm coming from Upcountry." He set down his bag.
"Yeah? I found Upcountry quite refreshing, what little I saw of it." I set down the water jug.
"Good for carika, maybe. Not for setting up." He bowed: he was still only a samanera.
"Good for tea, too. Like some?" I made a small fire to heat some water.
"Playing a bit of music there, were you?"
"Just a rhythm, actually. I wasn't expecting anyone."
"I bet you weren't. Aren't rhythms considered music?"
"I don't know. But sometimes I just have to do it to get it out of my system."
"A water jug's a good idea. I had a guitar string, myself, until it broke. Used a desk drawer as a sounding board."
"I'm glad it was you and not one of the villagers. They already think I'm peculiar enough."
"Why, what else do you do? Howl at the moon?"
"Nobody saw me, but one night I went dancing naked down the hillside."
Unlike samaneras, bhikkhus didn't lose their ordination taking off the monastic cloth. Bound by vows, a bhikkhu remained bound regardless of what he wore (although deviation from accepted dress was a lesser fault) unless he either committed an offence entailing defeat or formally announced his intention to disrobe.
"You hope nobody saw you. How'd you escape the leeches?"
"It was dry. They only come out when it's wet."
"Too bad you didn't have some village girl to romp with."
"Thanks for the suggestion. I'll try to not think about it."
In the last light we could just see the clearing, pinned in place on the steep hillside by a scattering of thorny berry bushes and three-foot high ant mounds. Marigolds grew in profusion: I'd introduced the first seeds to the clearing and they'd taken a liking to the place, as had I.
"So the villagers think you're peculiar, do they?"
"They don't quite know what to make of me."
"Of course they don't. They're not monks."
"It goes farther than that. The monk who lives in the village doesn't know what to make of me either."
"I don't go to laypeople for understanding. I go to them for food."
"But when I go to them for food or anything else they treat me as if I were either a saint or a lunatic. They won't relate to me as a human being, and I find myself falling into posturing.
"You still get your pindapata from the village, though?"
"I still get a good bowl of food."
"I'll go with you tomorrow.
"They'll like that. Double-merit day."
Tucked away at the bottom of the hill, out of sight like the outhouse, was the village where I collected food. I visited each -- outhouse and village -- once a day in its turn. I made the almsround before mid-morning and ate my one meal early, unlike at the Hermitage, where I used to spend the last part of each morning waiting for the bell to announce dana. How Pavlovian my reactions had become to ringing bells!
"How's the carika been, Crackers?"
"It's over. I'm heading back to the Hermitage."
"You don't sound enthused by the idea, though."
"What else can I do? I tried to find a place to set up on my own. But I've been kicking around from one unsatisfactory situation to another ever since I left the Island."
"I was lucky to have found this place, or I'd have gone myself." I'd just finished the Vas, my third as a bhikkhu, in this kuti.
"What else can I do?"
"You could continue on carika."
"Carika! How can you even suggest that?"
"What's wrong with suggesting it?"
"You know. When you came back to the Hermitage after your first carika you were negative about the whole thing, too."
"I remember saying how grueling it had been, but that concerned my own capacity for solitude without diversions; it wasn't a comment on carika. But that's only what I recall."
"It's strange that my memory of it is so different."
"That shows how unreliable the past is for getting at truth."
"History and biography must have some relevance to understanding."
"Not if they're taken as just history or just biography. They're only relevant if they're used as mirrors."
When the tea was prepared we sipped at it in silence, looking out to the jungle which bordered the clearing.
"Somewhere there must be another place."
"Even if you find the place, don't forget the hassles you saw me go through while I was getting this place built. There was so much involvement with activity I started getting headaches. I never used to have headaches."
"But it was worth it. Look what you've got."
The kuti's walls were stone, under three feet high. In good weather the area between the top of the wall and the roof was open. Straw mats hanging beneath the cajan roof could be unrolled to keep out bad weather. There had been no point to installing a gate in the entranceway.
"It's great. But once you've got it what do you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you don't just build a kuti and then sit down and spend all your time meditating. It's not that simple."
"That's the trouble with the world. Nothing is ever simple.
"That comes from addiction to structuring time and space."
"That's why carika is so difficult. It's so unstructured."
"And it's also why living in one place is so difficult. It's so easy to get settled, like dust."
"It's easy enough to get unsettled. In fact, getting settled was the hard part."
"But as soon as I got settled my life got structured. It began with maintenance things. Then there were repair things, improvement things, and now there are book things. I'm making a thorough review of the Suttas."
"That doesn't sound like a bad thing."
"I'm hardly the one to condemn Sutta-knowledge. But between the books and the other tasks I almost have to schedule unstructured time."
"You can only meditate for so long. Then you've got to do something and let being assert itself."
"Anyway, books are a harder habit to give up than opium ever was. And it's so easy to get lost in them." By now, though, I was able to manage with only the sort of books that recommended giving up books (as well as all other addictions).
"Anyway, I remember you saying the Hermitage was like a hospital for addicts, so maybe I should go back there."
"I said the Sangha was a hospital, not just the Hermitage, even though so few patients take the prescribed treatment, or even know that a treatment has been prescribed. Most of them don't even know they're sick with greed, hatred, and delusion."
"Maybe this kuti is an isolation ward."
"And maybe carika is the intensive-care unit."
"I don't know if I can survive that much care."
"But there's a certain exhilaration that goes with the hardships of carika, an exhilaration well-earned, like a mountaineer of the spirits."
"If you feel that way, why don't you go off on carika yourself? I'll stay here and watch your kuti for you. That way we'll both be happy."
I looked at him, startled by the suggestion as I'd been startled at his arrival, caught drumming.
"You don't think I'd do that, do you?"
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