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The Caves of Bhaja

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by Sangharakshita


Tape PO4: The Caves of Bhaja As you've just heard, today, tonight is a full moon day, a full moon night. And it's associated in Buddhist history and Buddhist tradition with the Buddha's first enunciation of the dharma, the truth that he had discovered two months earlier, on another full moon day, or another full moon night, when he attained what we call samyak sambodhi, or supreme and perfect enlightenment.

So full moon days generally are very important in Buddhist tradition, in Buddhist spiritual life.

You've already actually celebrated Dharmachakra Day, which is actually today, because apparently it's more convenient to celebrate it on an Saturday or Sunday - more people can come. Though it does seem quite a few people have come [Laughter] this evening, for, as it were, a second Dharmachakra Day, a second Dharmachakra Day full moon celebration. But, personally, my thoughts, I must confess, are not so much on Dharmachakra Day today. My thoughts are much more with the second event which we are - I don't know whether `celebrating' is quite the right word. In a sense it is and in a sense it isn't. Perhaps in the final analysis it is, as I hope will transpire from my poem. Because one month ago, actually on an full moon day, on a full moon night, actually at twelve o' clock at night Maha Dhammavira died or at least initiated the process which did lead to his death. And as Dhammarati has told you, I was moved by his death to write a poem which I'm going to read in a few minutes, but before I actually read it, I'd like just to say a few words about Maha Dhammavira. This is not going to be a proper talk. Not even a talk, much less still a lecture, but I just want to say a few words about him, just to share a few thoughts with you about him; partly because I just want to do so, and partly by way of paving the way for the reading of the poem, giving you - those who do perhaps need it - just a little bit of background information. And it occurred to me as I was thinking this over a few minutes ago, that I'd like to mention, I'd like to draw out if you like, just a few lessons from the life of Maha Dhammavira. I know the word `lesson' isn't very popular nowadays but perhaps you'll get what I mean as I proceed.

As I thought about it it seems to me that the first lesson that one could learn from Maha Dhammavira's life, a lesson that some of us might be very happy to learn, was that it's never too late! [Laughter] It's never too late to start practising the Dharma. You might even have left it as late as, let's say, twenty five, [Laughter] But never mind! You can still practise the Dharma.

You might even have left it as late as thirty, or forty, or dare I mention fifty, sixty; but in the case of Maha Dhammavira, in a sense he left it even later than that because he didn't really start practising the Dharma, he didn't really come into contact with the Dharma, he didn't really come into contact with the Sangha, until he was past seventy, past seventy. And when I met him, on the occasion of his ordination into the Western Buddhist Order of Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha, he was seventy one. So that's quite late in life to make a new start. He'd actually left home, so to speak, several years before that. He's spent several years as a samanera, as a novice monk under the auspices of the Theravada Sangha, the Thai and Burmese Theravada Sangha in India, but he had found it didn't take him very far, it didn't give him what he really wanted, what he really needed. He was still quite hungry, quite thirsty for the Dharma, and, as he afterwards discovered, above all perhaps for the Sangha. So he made this very very late start, and he was a member of the Order, the Western Buddhist Order, the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha, only for four years. And in the course of that time I saw him only, in a sense, twice, because I made two visits to India during that period, though while I was there he'd spend time with me as he possibly could, but we couldn't have spent altogether more than perhaps twenty, thirty hours together. But he had made the contact, and even though it was so late in life in a sense, he'd made that fresh start, and was able, in a way, to reshape his life, redirect his life, all over again. So we can really see from this that - I won't say it doesn't matter how late you leave it, no the earlier the better - but even if you do for one reason or another leave it very late, perhaps due to no fault of your own. Perhaps you just don't make the right contact, the necessary contact, don't make the contact with the FWBO, say, until quite late in life when you've got all sorts of other interests, responsibilities, commitments, but never mind. You can still make progress, you can still develop, you can still change. Because this is in a way the essence of human nature, that it can change. You can change even later than that, you can change even at the moment of death itself. I remember in this connection reading in the life of Johnson - I forget exactly how it comes up - but I think he quotes at one point an epitaph which he had encountered, an epitaph of a man who'd led a rather dreadful life, and who was very fond of hunting, and he had an accident on the hunting field, he fell from his horse and he was killed, but in the instant of falling he had a complete change of heart, a complete change of heart, and the epitaph went something like this: Betwixt the stirrup and the ground Mercy he sought, mercy he found [Laughter] You can leave it late as that! [Laughter] But of course if you're wise you won't! [Laughter] The earlier you can start, the younger you can start, the better. But if it has so happened that you've come to the Dharma, come to the Sangha rather late in life, never mind. Just think, just reflect on the lesson of the life of Maha Dhammavira.

Now, as I've said, I didn't see very much of him in the course of the four years that he was an Order member, but when I did happen to be in India after he was ordained I did at that time see quite a lot of him. He was always around. He stayed with me, he travelled with me. We attended so many meetings together, there were so many lectures he attended, so many ordinations he attended, so many retreats, meditations - he was always there. And I noticed several things about him. He really sort of stood out, partly because he was a very strong presence, even though he was seventy one and seventy three when I knew him, when I had personal contact with him, he was a very definite presence. He was a very strong robust sort of character, even though physically he was beginning to fail. So one couldn't help noticing him. And the most prominent thing about him that I can remember was that he was always cheerful. Whatever the difficulties, and sometimes there were difficulties, he was always cheerful. Sometimes travelling conditions were quite difficult. Sometimes, though he was an old man of seventy one or seventy three, he had to fight to get on the Indian bus, and those of you who've travelled in India will know how you have to fight sometimes to get onto an Indian bus, and sometimes when he got on there was no seat for him. He had to stand, maybe for two, three hours, going to a meeting, meeting up with me later on and Lokamitra and others, but he was always cheerful, never a word of complaint, never. And maybe when we had got to our destination there was no food ready, maybe there was no proper place for him to sleep, maybe there was no bedding, but never mind, he was always cheerful, he never complained. And I think if you question people coming from India who knew him, whether it's Lokamitra or Virabhadra or Ashvajit or Purna or Nagabodhi, I think they will tell you the same story, that they never saw Maha Dhammavira otherwise than cheerful. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the conditions. We think here in Bethnal Green we live under rather difficult conditions! [Laughter] We don't have very nice houses and flats, but you should see the conditions under which many of our friends live in India, and under which Maha Dhammavira lived, but he at least was always cheerful, always positive and always happy, and it was completely genuine, it was something that came absolutely from the heart. He really did feel cheerful, he really did feel happy and he beamed at you, quite literally whenever you met him or he met you.

And this leads me to the third point that I want to make, the third lesson. It's in a way connected with his cheerfulness, his positivity, and it is that he was always appreciative. He could never get over the fact that he'd been so incredibly lucky not just to come into contact with the Dharma, because he'd done that some years earlier, but to come in contact with the FWBO. He was always thanking his lucky stars. He was always blessing the day on which he came into contact with the FWBO, the day that he'd met Lokamitra, though that wasn't his very first contact - the day that he'd had a friendly talk with Dharmaditya, yes Dharmaditya's another quite old Order member in India. He's over seventy now I think, and I remember because - I didn't hear it at the time but I read about it in the little biography that Ashvajit wrote and which was published in Shabda some time ago. Apparently at that time, and this was before I actually met Maha Dhammavira myself, I wasn't in India then, apparently this was when he was a samanera, a novice monk still, and he was wondering what else he should do. He wasn't satisfied with being a samanera, he hadn't established proper contact with the Dharma, so he was thinking of going off to Buddhagaya where the Buddha gained Enlightenment, and becoming a fully ordained Bhikkhu, taking his upasampada, so this is what he was discussing with Dharmaditya whom he'd known before, and he said ...

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