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The Cave

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by Sangharakshita

Tape PO5: The Cave

by Sangharakshita The cave was situated in the middle of a sandstone ridge, three hundred feet above the rice fields and mango groves. It was a man-made cave. Just when a niche in the soft brown rock had been deepened and widened to form a cave no one knew, but it must have been hundreds of years before. But all events, for as long as even the oldest man in the village could remember, or remember his grandfather remembering, the cave had been occupied - especially during the rainy season.

It had been occupied by a succession of holy men, either singly or less frequently in twos and threes. Some of the holy men who occupied the cave went naked, others wore yellow or white or red cotton garments, or even garments of bark. Most were shaven-headed, while those who were not shaven-headed generally had shoulder length hair, or wore their long braided locks piled high up in coils on their heads. The holy men passed their time in a variety of ways. Some fasted, some meditated, some repeated the teachings they had heard, and some ­ those occupying the cave in twos and threes ­ engaged in discussion. They were even some holy men who did nothing at all, unless it were to watch the clouds moving across the sky, or listen to the shrill churring of the cicadas.

Sumana was shaven-headed, wore yellow garments and spent much of his time meditating, or at least trying to meditate. He had occupied the cave for nearly three years. Originally it had been his intention to occupy it only for the duration of the current rainy season. But having found staying in one place more conducive to meditation than wandering from village to village all the time, as he had been in the habit of doing, he had decided to stay in the cave indefinitely. Sumana was a follower of a famous if somewhat controversial teacher who had appeared in the middle country a few decades earlier. This teacher was generally known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One, though his Bhramin critics called him in derision, the mundika, or shaven-headed one.

Strange to relate Sumana had never actually met the Buddha, for though his wanderings had been quite extensive, he somehow had never managed to be in the same place at the same time as the Buddha, who was himself on the move for the greater part of the year. He had however been the personal disciple of a holy man who in his younger days had spent a whole rainy season in the company of the Enlightened One, and was never tired of singing his praises. Sumana had met the holy man six rainy seasons earlier not long after the memorable day, when at the age of nineteen, he had left his father's mansion in search of something that would give greater meaning to his life. In the teaching of the Buddha as explained by the holy man he had found what he was looking for. With the holy man therefore Sumana had stayed, and the holy man whose name was Aniruddha shaved Sumana's head and clad him in yellow garments. He had also taught him how to meditate, as well as teaching him the poems and the lists of doctrinal categories that summarised the Buddha's message, and had to be learned by heart. Then, when Sumana had been with him for two years, Aniruddha had told him that from now onwards he should wander from place to place.

"The water is pure that flows, the holy man is pure who goes," he had said, quoting a jingle that was very popular with the followers of the Enlightened One.

So Sumana had gone, and had kept on going. For nine months he had wandered from village to mud-walled village, and from town to orchard-girt town, rarely spending more than a single night in the same place. Usually he started out quite early in the morning, well before the golden or crimson disk of the sun had risen above the horizon, and when the sky was still bright with stars. In the hot season he started out thus early in order to avoid having to travel during the middle part of the day when the heat could kill. While in the cold season he did so because he would be too cold by that time to sleep any longer, and needed to walk to get warm.

Some mornings found him making his way along the narrow embankments between the rice-fields. Others found him following a desultory track through the jungle, or even taking advantage of a stretch of royal highway where he might pass a string of bullock carts on their way to market, or be himself passed by a horse-drawn chariot.

After walking for four or five hours, Sumana would generally come upon a village, or at least a cluster of huts, where he could beg his food.

Some holy men were want to bawl out, "Give Food!" on entering a village, but such was not the practice either of the Buddha himself, or those holy men who acknowledged him as their teacher and exemplar, and it was not Sumana's practice.

He would go from house to house, at each house standing silently outside the door until a handful or two of rice was dropped into his bowl, or until it became obvious that he was not going to get anything. Occasionally he would be roughly told to go away.

"We want no bald-heads here!" an unfriendly Bhramin might exclaim.

When his bowl was sufficiently full, Sumana would retire to a mango grove, or if there was no mango grove nearby, to the foot of the village banyan tree, or to a quiet corner in someone's veranda, or even to an empty cow shed, and there consume his one meal of the day, which in accordance with the practice of the Buddha and his holy men had to be finished by noon. His meal over Sumana would rest for a while, after which he might meditate, or talk with any villagers who had gathered round until it was time for him to seek a lodging for the night.

In some villages especially those in which the Buddha's name was already known and honoured, he would be asked to give an account of the teaching he professed to follow. Whenever that happened he would recite one of the poems, or one of the lists of doctrinal categories that he had learned from Aniruddha, and then explain it line by line or item by item in his own words. Often he would illustrate a point by telling a story, for the villagers liked to hear stories, and Sumana himself enjoyed telling them.

Occasionally questions would be forthcoming. Sumana would answer them. His answers would lead to further questions, and in this way there would develop a discussion that might last far into the night.

Not all Sumana's days had ended in this congenial fashion. More than once in the course of the nine months for which he had wandered, he had walked all day without coming upon a village or even a cluster of huts where he could beg his food. More than once therefore he had perforce slept on an empty stomach. On one dreadful occasion he had been lost in the jungle for three days and three nights together, and had had to live on fruits and berries. Nor had this been his only misadventure.

One morning as he picked his way among the boulders of a dried-up riverbed, he had been suddenly surrounded by five or six fierce looking men all armed with swords.

The men had seized him, bound his hands and feet with a length of creeper, and deposited him behind a rock. From their conversation he gathered that they were worshipers of the Great Mother, and were looking for a young man to sacrifice to her on the next new moon day. Whether he himself was to be the sacrifice, Sumana never discovered. His captors having fallen asleep [over] after emptying a pot of liquor, he had worked his hands free and untied his feet, and making a quick but quiet escape had carried on walking.

Thus Sumana had certainly obeyed Aniruddha's instructions. He had gone, and he had kept on going. But though he had gone and had kept on going to his dismay Sumana had found that the second half of Aniruddha's jingle was not being fulfilled.

The holy man had indeed gone, but the holy man was not pure. Purity of course meant mental purity, and mental purity was achieved through meditation, in which the mind freeing itself from attachment to earthly things rose to a higher, more radiant state of consciousness wherein Truth could be directly perceived. Since wandering from place to place had the effect of weakening a holy man's attachment to earthly things, wandering from place to place made it easier for him to meditate, and easier therefore for him to achieve purity of mind. Such at least was the theory.

In practice Sumana had not found matters quite so simple. Wandering from place to place might indeed have had the effect of weakening his attachment to earthly things, though he could not be absolutely sure of this. But it had also had the effect of making him restless and anxious, and restlessness and anxiety were he knew as much a hindrance to meditation (and therefore as much a hindrance to the achievement of mental purity) as was attachment to earthly things. He had tried to meditate twice a day, in the morning before setting out, and in the evening before lying down to sleep.

More often than not however he would be either too restless to be able to sit in the meditation posture for very long, or too worried about meeting with wild beasts, or not getting his daily dole of rice, to be able to collect his thoughts. Sometimes he would be simply too tired to meditate either because cold or hunger or the hardness of the ground had prevented him from sleeping, or because he had been walking all day.

After nine months he had therefore not been sorry when the hot season being at an end, and the rainy season about to begin, he was obliged to stop wandering from place to place at least for the time being, and could take up his abode in the cave.

He had found the cave by accident. He had entered the village towards the end of the afternoon when it was too late for him to beg his food. The villagers had been quite friendly and had not ...

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