Written within stones: Lockdowns, Chittadhar & the epic of the Buddha

We’re approaching the end of 2020. When the year began I had little to warn me of the massive changes to come, in my life and writ large on the global tablet. Ten months. How did you fare? As we enter the next year, what have you let go of and what was taken from you/not you? What have you picked up and what have you woven a new into your life practice?

Has your life become an epic you could write about in captivity?

In February, I started a new path of practice: gardening. Enrolled in the Master Gardener program at Dalhousie University, I was well-armed with cardboard germination trays, potting soil, seeds, and batches of fertilizer for an experiment in nutrient impact on sunflowers. As each seed germinated and cast off the seed case, I would cheer them on! Because I tend to over-identify with my plants, when one little one remained stuck in the seed case, I agonized about releasing it or letting nature take its course. Perhaps nature is equanimous or indifferent; that’s a fine line to discern. Perhaps I tend to express wishful thinking as wise and discerning hope.

I set the little cotyledons free one morning and noted studiously that being held captive longer than its siblings, the lack of exposure to light had left its core streaked. I doted on it as it sprouted its true leaves – a fascinating realization that the first leaves or cotyledons are part of the embryonic package with the endosperm. No seriously, I was obsessed with this little plant. It was a labour of attending without power to effect any directional change. And the lesson was in the attention to those streaks of yellow as they did their job of nourishing the plant.

There must be an epic poem in this or even that Next Book. Alas, as the lockdowns and restrictions wore on my time was diverted to reactivating my work to online meetings and tending the vegetable garden.

However, the season of flowers and fruit taught me that being enclosed in safety is not sufficient for the germination of creative expression. It’s easy to fall into the mundane, distract with a sidebar of progress, or be absorbed into the constructed drama of rights and liberties. Try as we might, we cannot isolate ourselves from the tremendous tragedies, losses of lives and livelihood. The societal fractures that lay just below the surface, that persistently emerged pre-pandemic and were quickly dismissed as special-interest dramas are now inescapable for their truth – unless one wears one’s mask over the inner eye. Forced awake in the last ten months and in seeking safety through self-isolation, we have discovered that the true nature of safety is not in the external stones of our lives. It is in the choices we make with the intention to save all beings – from our darkest nature, from the consequences of our reactivity and ignorance. Under pressure, we forget that every thought, speech, and action is a gift we have given and received.

Yangshan said: Do not betray (what you have received by people’s support)… when it is cold, to wear socks for others is not prohibited.

(Case 47 Shōbōgenzō)

In gardening terms, the cotyledons have done their job giving us the energy to start. It is time to become nourishment for ourselves and others. For that, we will have to adapt, evolve, find the light, and turn towards it.

Now to Chittadhar Hrdaya. A Newari writer/poet in Nepal, he was imprisoned in 1940 for writing a poem titled “Mother”. The police considered it seditious claiming it was intended to accuse the government of “depriving the Newars of their mother tongue.” Despite Hrdaya’s insistence that the poem expressed his grief over the loss of his mother, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Initially depressed by the sentence, he responded to the death of his mentor a year later by committing to writing again. Under somewhat improved conditions in the second year of his imprisonment, he began to write the story of the Buddha’s life on scraps of paper torn from his prayerbook. These were smuggled out in food boxes that had a false lid. Published after his release in 1946, it became part of the surge in publishing when the Newari gained the freedom to publish in their own language.

The Epic of the Buddha or Sugata Saurabha (“The Sweet Fragrance of the Buddha”; Shambhala Publications) is a vibrant and lyrical poem of couplets. The rhythm and pace of the words (translated wonderfully into English by Todd Lewis and Subarna Man Tuladhar) conjure movement in every stanza. From the first chapter, Lumbini, to Entry into Nirvana, it flows breath after breath. The chapter, Yashodarā, is deeply moving as it begins with her heart-rending discovery that her beloved has gone. In fact, it is a welcomed view that the Buddha’s actions had painful consequences – an understanding not often explored. Initially, she is filled with fears that “something happened to the Noble One.” She progresses through consigning his absence to a “cruel fate”, trying to find solace in her newborn yet feeling abandoned to raising him without a father, hope when Chandaka returns, and rage when it is apparent her beloved is not with him. Yasodarā’s progression from the security of love to the realization that she had a higher calling is the moral teachings we need.

In Devadatta’s Sacrilege, Chittadhar gives new life to the story of the grieving mother who wanted the Buddha to bring her child back to life. In her pleading words, we see the investment we make in others – children, spouses, colleagues – to create a present and future reality for us. We discern that the “just world hypothesis” is deeply ingrained in our beliefs of reward- & blame-worthiness. The later sections of this chapter focus on the many ways Devadatta pours poison in the ears of the vulnerable and insecure around him. Again, intentions, actions, and consequences.

This is a book to savour. Place it on the shelf beside you. Pick it up and relish a chapter, a stanza, a couplet. It’s not fast food, take-out, or even a well-prepared dinner that’s done in a few minutes. It’s a cotyledon, willing to give its energy for our growth and later to nourish us through the winter into spring.

And, put on your socks – for yourself and others.

2 thoughts on “Written within stones: Lockdowns, Chittadhar & the epic of the Buddha

  1. Discovered you from your article in March’s Lion’s Roar magazine. Love your writing and your message. I’m reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching right now and in it he mentions often that we should consume media that helps us in our practice, I am adding your blog to my practice. Thank you for your words, your use of language, and your perspective on literature.

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