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The Caves of Bhaja

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by Sangharakshita

... to Dharmaditya, `I think the best thing that I can do is just to go to Buddhagaya and take my upasampada, be a fully fledged Bhikkhu, receive full acceptance', as it is called. So Dharmaditya said, `No. I don't think you should do that.' `Why?' So Dharmaditya said in effect - in fact I think he used the word - `You're just looking for promotion!' [Laughter] So this rather struck Maha Dhammavira. So he said, `Well, yes, yes, that could be so, but what could I do? What could I do?' So Dharmaditya apparently saw that the moment was ripe, he said, `Well, there's going to be an FWBO retreat - come!' But Maha Dhammavira said `Well, I don't have any bedding, I don't have any blanket or anything, any meditation cushion, how can I come?'. So Dharmaditya said, `Never mind, just come.' So Maha Dhammavira went on that retreat and he met Lokamitra, which was apparently a quite overwhelming experience for him, [Laughter] and he was caught. He realised he'd actually come into contact with the Dharma as actually practised, at last. He's actually come into contact with the Sangha, a real Sangha, a real spiritual fellowship, a real brotherhood and sisterhood, and he couldn't get over this. As I say he was always just thanking his stars and blessing the day on which that happened, blessing the day that he made that contact, and this was his state the whole time. He was so happy. I used to sort of marvel at it myself sometimes! [Laughter] Yes. I do get now, I'm glad to say, quite often even, letters from people - I might have received even from some of you - letters saying, `I'm so happy that I've made contact with the FWBO.' Sometimes it's after a retreat or after a meditation, or after a talk with somebody, but most often perhaps after a good retreat. People write and say, `I'm so happy I've made contact with the FWBO.' But in his case, he was so happy that he'd made contact with this spiritual movement, he was absolutely beyond words, and he always expressed this. There was never any diminution, he never got disappointed with anything. Not that people out there are perfect. He could see that they weren't perfect but the imperfections just didn't matter in comparison with the overwhelming importance of that contact that he had made and what was being offered. He was so incredibly appreciative, and he most of all appreciated his contact with fellow Order members. He couldn't do enough for them, even though he was an old man, over seventy, and beginning to be not as robust as he was, he like to help. He didn't mind what he did - a bit of gardening work, washing-up, washing clothes for somebody, drawing water, chopping wood, or having a chat with them about the Dharma - he didn't mind what he did. He was just so overflowingly happy and so appreciative, and this was really quite striking, quite extraordinary, because, yes, people come into contact with the FWBO, and yes they are very appreciative, almost always, for the while. And unfortunately the freshness of that appreciation wears off a bit.

They start seeing faults, they start perhaps finding fault. The gloss goes off things a bit, so yes, it's not that the FWBO is perfect by any means. Yes, there are masses of imperfections in all sorts of people, right from the top to the bottom you could say, but [Laughter] the Dharma is there, the Sangha is there, and in the midst of the Dharma, in the midst of the Sangha, yes there is the Buddha. So one has made that contact with the Three Jewels and with the Three Refuges, and the value of what you've actually been able to make contact with so infinitely transcends all these other little weaknesses and imperfections that your attention should be actually on the ideal which is embodied and not on the imperfections of the embodying medium, and I think this is a very great lesson that we can learn from Maha Dhammavira. That we just give our appreciation, that we don't carp, we don't criticise. Yes, if something needs to be pointed out for everybody's sake, just so that it can be put right, fair enough. But nonetheless appreciation should be the keynote. Appreciation should be the key word in fact. This is something that I think of very very much when I think of Maha Dhammavira.

So when, a month ago, I think within a few hours of its actually happening, I heard that he was no more, that he was dead, that in fact he'd terminated his own life, well obviously I felt very very moved and very very stirred, very deeply stirred, and at that time I was in the midst of writing my memoirs or writing the latest chapter which was rather dragging. I was rather deeply immersed in this, but when I heard the news of Maha Dhammavira's death, I at once felt like expressing whatever it was I felt, or at least something of it. So I at once set to work. As I matter of fact it was early in the morning. I woke up, I think it was still dark, and just the first few lines came into my head, just a few lines came into my head quite spontaneously, and I thought `well maybe they'll develop into a poem.' I wasn't too hopeful because I hadn't been doing much poetry writing recently, because other work usually doesn't permit, because to write poetry you need a bit of leisure, you need a bit of time. You need even to waste time as I sometimes say.

Unless you are free to waste time, you probably can't be a very good poet. If you are a busy sort of person it's very unlikely that you'll do much in the way of poetry writing. At least this is what I find. So I wasn't really expecting these few lines of poetry to develop very much, but anyway I thought perhaps they will, so when I got up, which was quite early I think that morning - about four, four thirty - I thought `well let me just try', so I wrote out the lines that had occurred to me spontaneously and went on writing and writing and writing, and, to cut a long story short, that day I wrote a hundred lines, which was pretty good for me, even though they were unrhymed lines they were in meter. And the next day I wrote another hundred lines, and the next day I wrote nearly another hundred lines. So I wrote altogether a poem of three hundred lines which is the longest that I have written since my adolescence! [Laughter] I hope the poem does not represent a return to my adolescence! [Laughter] Though in some ways I might be happy to return to my adolescence. In some ways. I don't know how good a poem it is. I don't even know whether it is a good poem at all. It may not be. But I'm going to read it anyway! [Laughter] Because I'm sure you're hearing this sort of thing from poets around the movement all the time! I'm going to read it anyway because it does express at least something of what I felt when I heard the news of Maha Dhammavira's death. I probably haven't been able to express everything that I felt. I think if I had been able to do that well I probably would be quite a great poet instead of being one of the not quite so great poets. [Laughter] But, yes, the poem does spring very much from my feeling for Maha Dhammavira, especially my feeling for him when I heard what was for me, despite the ennobling circumstances, the quite sad and tragic news of his death.

So I am going to read the poem first and then, as you've already heard, we're going to have the puja. I haven't read the poem aloud before, so I haven't really had any practice, but I'll do my best.

The poem is called `The Caves of Bhaja', and perhaps I should just say a word of explanation.

The Caves of Bhaja are ancient Buddhist caves. I think are Third or Fourth Century AD, and our retreat centre in India, which is in between Bombay and Pune is located at a spot just a few hundred yards, or maybe about a mile, from these Bhaja caves. The name of that retreat centre is Dhammadipa, and I stayed there for ten days or so in the course of my last visit, which was the last time I saw Maha Dhammavira. So I've called the poem `The Caves of Bhaja'.

Often, now, I find myself Thinking of the Caves of Bhaja, Thinking of the silent valley Where they look down on the rice-fields.

Carved out of the living rock-face In the Western Ghats, I see them, Steeped in shadow in the morning, Pierced by sunlight in the evening, Cell and meeting-hall and stupa, All so silent and deserted.

Once the yellow-robed and shaven- Headed monks harmonious dwelt there.

Every day at dawn assembling In the pillared meeting-hall They would kneel before the stupa, - Lofty stupa, hung with garlands, - They would chant the Buddha's praises, Chant the praises of the Dhamma, And the Sangha's, deep-intoning.

Then, as starting with the eastern Quarter, all the sky above them Turned one living dome of azure, And the sun in all his glory Rose up from behind the mountains, Some would to the distant village Trudge for almsfood for the brethren, Older monks would teach the younger, And the younger serve the older.

Some again would ply the mallet And the chisel, cutting deeper, Deeper in the living rock-face, Hollowing out another cavern, Making little doors and windows, Decorating shaft and lintel, While their nimbler-fingered brethren On palm-leaf with iron stylus Copied ancient manuscripts Or recorded oral teachings.

Others still, in neighbouring thickets Spent the hours, so swiftly flying, Plunged in deepest meditation.

Thus the day passed. Every evening In the pillared hall assembling They would kneel before the stupa, - Lofty stupa, hung with garlands, - They would chant the Buddha's praises, And the praises of the Dhamma, And the Sangha's, deep-intoning, Till above the Caves of Bhaja Rose the moon, and with its radiance Turned the whole facade to silver.

Now the ruined cells are empty, And the meeting-hall deserted.

Only buzzards can be seen there, Circling high above the rock-face, Or else bats, that in the ...

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