And a Life Sublime
by Venerable Professor Dhammavihari | 22,946 words
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa (Adoration to my Buddha, The Glorious, The Worthy, The Fully Enlightened One) To the cherished memory of Athandra Deepanie: a dear daughter and a loving sister This little gift of the dhamma is offered for the furtherance of her pursuit of the goal of Nibbana....
Today let us talk about the Buddhist attitude to nature. By nature I mean here the natural environment of man, including fauna and flora as well as the rivers, lakes, forests and mountains. We in the east have a special way of feeling about nature. This is particularly so of the Buddhists. The Buddhists, in their escalation up the ladder of religious accomplishment, finally have to meet at a stage of not differentiating materially between man and the world around him. Bring to mind here the aspiration of Thera Talaputa who expresses this idea as follows.
This is Thera Talaputas wish, living in the jungle as he did, to see no difference between the composition of his own being and the material things of the world like grass, dry wood and creepers. One thus gets naturally merged in the world in which one exists. There could then be no over inflation of an ego, which expands and spreads forcibly over every other thing around.
We will do well now to begin by quoting a revered Japanese Buddhist scholar, the late Professor D.T. Suzuki, on this subject. He says:
First of all, Basho was a nature poet, as most of the Oriental poets are. They love nature so much that they feel one with nature. They feel every pulse beating through the veins of nature. Most Westerners are apt to alienate themselves from nature. They think man and nature have nothing in common except in some desirable aspects, and that nature exists only to be utilized by man. But to Eastern people nature is very close." Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. p.2
But today it is lamentable to note that through the ruthless inroads of industrialization and mechanization, and the disastrous scientific appendages that come along with them, this very virtue of the Eastern world is rapidly getting eroded and denuded.
Let me begin with the Buddhist attitude to the forest as an integral part of the world we live in. It does not exist as a region unknown by man and avoided by him. It is no doubt spatially away from the town, the normal habitat of man. But what it can offer materially and offer for the benefit of the mind, are all too well known to man. Thus in this setting, man was appreciating the benefits he was constantly deriving from nature around him. So he deemed it his duty and responsibility not to damage it or deplete it of its richness. It is treacherous, says Buddhist thinking, to break the branches of a tree under whose shade one sits or sleeps. The ethics of this injunction appears to have been widely accepted in the Indian society of the day. In the Buddhist Jataka collection this verse appears in six different places, independent of one another [ Jataka Pali vv. 1503, 2129, 3478, 4329, 5713, 5851 ]. We find this idea picked up again in the Petavatthu and the verse is uttered as an ethical injunction, forbidding treachery towards a person who is ones friend [ Pv. v. 259 ]
Yassa rukkhassa chayaya nisadeyya sayeyya va
Na tassa sakha bha_jeyya mittadubbho hi papako.
This affinity of man to the forest and the warmth of his relationship to it is clearly evident from the records in Buddhist texts of planted man made forests [ ropita vana ] in the vicinity of Rajagaha which had on one side its own natural forest [ jata vana ] belt coming down from the Himalayan range. Apparently forest culture was part and parcel of Indian culture of the day. They had realized the indispensability the forest for the enrichment of human culture. Therefore the culture or growing and grooming of forests [vana ropa ] was listed high among the good deeds of men which entitle them to a much wished for birth in the heavenly worlds [ arama ropa vana ropa ..... te jana saggagamino S.1.33 ]. Its attractions are often the envy of the town dweller, particularly of those who are sensitively conscious of the corroding effects, both physical and mental, of urban culture.
The practice and growth of religious life in Buddhism, mainly its aspect of mind culture, is very intimately and closely tied up with residence in the forest. Gone to the forest or gone to the foot of a tree - ara__a gato va rukkhamala gato va - is a recurrent statement in Buddhist texts which deal with admonitions to monks who are intent on mind culture. The Girimananda Sutta [ A.V.108ff ] is one of the finest examples of this. Six out of the ten items of mind culture or dasa sa__a here refer to the forest dwelling monks. It is also extremely refreshing to note that some of the loveliest rendezvous in Buddhist sasana history between the Buddha and some of his disciples or between some of the most outstanding disciples of the sasana have taken place in sylvan retreats. Sasana history wise, the staggering meeting between the Venerable Shariputra and the Venerable Punna Mantaniputta took place in the depths of the forest called Andhavana in the vicinity of Savatthi. For the sheer love of meeting two noble personalities of rare distinction one must read this account of the dialogue in the Rathavinita Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya [ M.I. 146-151 ].
Equally touching is the story of the Buddhas endeavor, which enabled his young son Rahula to attain arahant hood. It is said that the Buddha, knowing the spiritual maturity and the readiness of young Rahula to attain arahant hood [ paripakkha kho Rahulassa vimutti paripacanaya dhamma M. II 77 and S. IV. 105 ], after concluding his alms round at Savatthi, invited Rahula to join him to spend the rest of the day in the Andhavana forest. It is at this meeting, in the serenity of this forest grove, that the Buddha led his son to the attainment of the goal of Nibbana, through a gradual process of instructions through questioning [ amasmiu kho pana veyyakaraoasmim bha__amane ayasmato Rahulassa anupadaya asavehi cittau vimucci ].
It is repeatedly stated that the Buddha held the forest as a charming, attractive place. Let me alone to the forest resort, the place much praised by the Buddha", says Thera Ekavihariya [ Handa eko gamissami ara__au buddha vaooitau. Thag. 537 ]. Its solitude is obviously its main attraction : phasuu ekaviharissa. This, of course, is a positive virtue of a negative quality. But the more one tries to adjust oneself to the environment; one is drawn closer to the forest by its virtues. Wild life in the jungle is something that thrills the man of cultivated taste. He does not need to level down everything around him in order to get himself into harmony with his environment. Instead, he integrates himself sensibly with the rest of his environment, giving each its own place. Thus the infuriated free roaming elephant of the wild is legitimately a source of delight: yogipatikararu rammau matta ku_jara sevitau [ Thag. 539 ]. It is said to delight the mind of the yogin, the ardent pursuer of the religious way.
There being the possibility of utilizing every aspect of the natural environment as a source of joy and inspiration, we see the forest dwelling sage commenting on the flora as well. He sees the beauty of the forest in bloom, he senses the cooling power of mountain streams in the forest, and he notes with joy and satisfaction the aroma in the refreshing breeze: malute upavayante sate surabhigandhake. This often appears to be the appropriate atmosphere most conducive to spiritual uplift. For this same Thera Ekavihariya whose favorable reactions to his environment we have noticed so far, tells us that perched on a mountain top there he would finally tear asunder the veil of ignorance which keeps him out of reach of the spiritual goal : avijjau dalayissami nisinno nagamuddhani [ Thag. 544 ].
Another Thera by the name of Sankicca, showing us the charm of the forest, says:
Crags where clear waters lie, a rocky world,
Haunted by black faced apes and timid deer,
Where cloaked in watery moss the rocks stand
Those are the highlands of my hearts delight.
I ve dwelt in forests and in mountain caves
In rocky gorges and haunts remote,
And where the creatures of the wild do roam.
What is revealed here by Thera Sankicca [who we are told was young in years at this stage], with regard to the psychology of the forest dwelling monk is extremely interesting. The forest dweller is constantly in the midst of wild and ferocious beasts [vaeamiga nisevita ] who strike fear into the heart. But the monks reaction is not one of aggressive challenge. As Thera Sankicca says, it is an attempt to adjust and accommodate oneself to the real situation. In such an atmosphere, hostility is the last thing to show itself up. It is indeed looked upon as vulgar [ anariya ].He says 1 do not recollect any such evil wishes as may these beings perish, may they be destroyed or may they suffer pain and anguish .
ame ha__antu vajjhantu dukkhau pappontu paoino
Saikappau nabhijanami anariyau dukkhasamhitau.
It is astonishing to note here the circumstances, which set in motion the line of thinking which prompted this young Thera to be thus awakened and pursue his argument in this manner. It is the ill omened black raven of the charnel ground who signaled to him the grim reminder about death and the triviality of life, which led him to a true spirit of detachment [Thag. 599]. And this in turn led him to infer that detachment leads to a delightful state of ease and happiness [ Thag. 600 ]. Pursue here a young mind like that of Thera Sankicca acquiring such dignified detachment to leave behind, without batting an eye lid, a world in which one has been accustomed to live. Here are Sankiccas own words in their original.
Here we correct the Psalms of the Brethren [ v. 600 ] and offer this new translation.
He whom others do not guard,
And he too who hath none other to guard,
Such a Bhikkhu dwells in happy ease.
For on gratifying his senses,
Hes not set his heart.
It is elsewhere indicated that the beauty of the forest does not always come within the grasp of the average person [ Ramanayani ara__ani yattha na ramati jano. Thag. 992 = Delightful indeed are the forests which do not please the man at large]. It requires a cultivated outlook to behold the beauty therein : vataraga ramissanti na te kamagavesino [loc.cit ]. For they are not seekers after lustful pleasures. The engrossment in the raw worldly pleasures screens its beauty away from the worldling. Here are vivid examples of the new realms of beauty, which can be viewed only through new vantage points. The upland glades through which the trumpeting of elephants reverberates holds out a special attraction to Thera Maha Kassapa: Ku_jarabhiruda ramma te sela ramayanti mau [Thag. 1062 ]. This is in the same refrain of Thera Ekavihariya quoted above[ Thag. 539 ].
Among the attractions which please him and of which he eloquently speaks are
Rocky heights with hue of dark blue clouds
Where lies embosomed many a shining tarn
Of crystal clear cool waters, and whose slopes
The herds of Indra cover and bedeck.
Ps. B. 1063
He is equally sensitive to the
Fair uplands, rain refreshed and resonant
With crested creatures cries antiphonal,
Lone heights where silent Rishis oft resort.
Ps. B. 1065
An aesthetic sensitivity as well as an artistic temperament can equally well respond to the call of these, which appear to be remotely beautiful things. It is no mean artist who describes a mountain in the following style.
Clad with the azure bloom of flax, blue flecked
As sky in autumn; quick with crowds
Of all their varied winged populace:
Such are the braes wherein my soul delights.
Ps. B. 1068
To one who has acquired the capacity to look upon his environment with this new richness, life in the forest, with its unique solitude [ anakiooa gahannhehi ] is far from distressing [ Te sela ramayanti mau Thag. 1069 = Those rocks give me great delight. ]. Such a one longs for it. Thera Maha Kassapas is a telescopic view of the world, seeing many things of beauty, which an average naked eye could never see. It is then not surprising when he says that his new penetrative vision of the dhamma [ samma dhammau vipassato ] gives him far greater joy than does the music of the best orchestration in the land [Na pa_caigikena turiyena rati me hoti tadisa. Thag. 1071 ]. To the common man of the world [ puthujjana ] such a stage is an unrealized reality of a world which does truly exist.
In a similar strain, Thera Talaputa is seen here reaching out for it.
When shall I come to dwell in mountain caves
Now here, now there, unmated [with desire]
And with the vision gained
Ps .B. 1069
The new vision which he is longing here for is aniccato sabbabhavau vipassau which the Commentary exhaustively explains as the ability to view all forms of existence, i.e. kama , rapa and arapabhavas in terms of anicca , dukkha and anatta. In such a life there are new thrills and new adventures.
O when will [ break above my head ]
The purple storm cloud of the rains,
And with fresh torrents drench my raiment in the woods,
Yea, when shall this thing come to be ?
Ps. B. 1102
The secret of this miracle is that a true disciple, instead of being enslaved by the mind, brings the mind under his own command. The key to this success is his spirit of contentment. Thus Thera Talaputa sings with an admirable depth of conviction.
Thus will I do even as a master should.
What ever is got, be it enough for me.
Iill lead thee in my power by force of will,
Like a fierce elephant by skilled mahout.
Ps. B. 1139
There is undeniably something unusual in this approach to happiness. But this non conformity in itself has no stigma. It can indeed have a therapeutic effect. Watch this same Thera Talaputa picking up the cry of the peacock in the woods and using it as a clarion call, which summons him to spiritual mustering. His own words are as follows:
O when shall I, hearing the call adown the woods
Of crested, twice born peacock [as I lie
At rest] within the bosom of the hill,
Arise and summon thought and will
To win the Ambrosial --
Yea, when shall this come to be?
Ps. B. 1103
It is also evident from the words of Thera Talaputa that this kind of forest dwelling, or rather shall we say forest loving person acquires the skill to charge with new life and meaning even the commonplace and neglected things in nature. It is an artistic ingenuity of re integration and re interpretation. See the poet, artist, and philosopher in Talaputa from what he says below:
On fastness of the crag
Bright plumaged passengers of air,
Greeting great Indras thunder with their cries,
Do give him joy who ponders in the wood.
Ps. B. 1108
Is it not an inspiring alliance that is suggested here, between the animate and the inanimate, between peals of thunder and the re echoing cries of the birds of the forest. This magnanimous and sympathetic understanding of the world we live in and the contents thereof must become the core of Buddhist life.
It is as though the Buddhist cannot and cannot afford to look at life differently. Note the recurrence of this idea in a slightly different form in the following.
Fair plumed, fair crested passengers of air
With deep and many hued wing,
Give greeting to the muttering thunder cloud
With cries melodious, manifold; tis they
Will give thee joy whilst thou art musing there.
Ps. B. 1136
Exploring the depths of the forest, the man of vision finds that joy is not far to seek. It is perhaps for this reason that many countries in the world which can boast of a high level of culture have thought it fit to have forests or semblance of a forest within the reach of their city life. Parks and sanctuaries in miniature [ bois and woods ] provide these. More and more home gardens now come to be laid with this end in view. With a reassuring tone a Buddhist disciple tells us:
O [ Thou will love the life ], be it on crest
Of caverned cliffs, where herd boar and gazelle,
Or in fair open glade, or in the depths
Of forest freshened by new rain - tis there
Lies joy for thee to cavern cottage gone.
Ps. B. 1135
Finally, in the patronage offered by the forest by its fauna and flora, not only in their mild form, but even by the fierce and the wild, one begins to find great comfort and confidence. Such is the triumph of bhavana, which is none other than the culture of human attitudes in the direction of successful self correction. Thera Talaputa is once again full of conviction when he says:
There in the jungle ringing with the cries
Of peacock and of heron wilt thou dwell
By panthers and tigers owned as chief.
Ps. B. 1113
To live like this, to live with this orientation, is a training that one goes through in the process. It appears totally rigorous and ascetic, but it is a training that suitably and subtly qualifies one for flights into spiritual heights. Talaputa was confident of what one could attain through such training and he fittingly concludes his stanza by adding
And for thy body cast off care;
Miss not thine hour, thine aim !
Ps. B. 1113
Kaye apekkhau jaha ma viradhaye.
Compare this line with the Buddhas succinct admonition to the aged Thera Pingiya who was anxiously looking out for the conquest of ills of life, of birth and decay [ jati jaraya idha vippahanau at Sn. v. 1120ff. ].
Discard thy body [ i.e. the attachment to the body ]
In order that
You may not be
Born again and again.
To be able to do this is undeniably to the Buddhists the peak of cultural accomplishment, which is attainable by the humans.