Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud II | Impermanence

This is my second post on Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud because there is really a lot in this book that I want to share. I have mentioned earlier that Sun Shuyun's book really picked up for me when her narrative reached India.

Sun tells the story of the destruction of the Sakya clan, ruled by the Buddha's own father. (The Buddha would have been king of the Sakya clan if he had not chosen the spiritual path):

The Buddha sat in the middle of the road under the scorching sun. The king who led the attack stopped and asked him why he did not seek shade under a leafy tree nearby. The Buddha replied: 'My clan is like the leaves. Now you are going to cut them off, I have no shade.' Three times he managed to persuade the king to turn back. But the fourth time, the king swept past him. He killed all the men, buried all the women and burned down the capital of Kapilavastu. For all his power, the Buddha was powerless to prevent it. Nothing is permanent, he would say. A thousand years of Buddhism, a thousand years of Islam. The only inevitablity is change.

A part of me wondered: if the Buddha had been king, would he had been able to prevent the destruction of his clan in his own lifetime at least? For when the Buddha was still a child, old man told his fortune and said he would either be a great teacher or a great king - but perhaps it would only have delayed the process. Nothing lasts forever.

India was the birthplace of the Budddha and Buddhism. Yet by the time Xuanzang reached India, Buddhism was already in decline. By the 11th century, the Afghan invaders dealt the final blow: jungles swallowed all the thousands of Buddhist monuments, and mosques or Hindu temples were built on their foundations.

According to Sun, until 150 years ago, both the Indians and people in the West had little idea who the Buddha was. She cited the Encyclopaedia Brittannica from 1942, with its entry on Buddhism - it defines Buddha as "one of the two appearances of Vishnu". It baffles the mind that Buddhism could have been forgotten in the land of its birth - and yet it is. We imagine that society and culture advance naturally as time progresses, and knowledge is incremental. We are blind to the fact that as we push forward in some areas, many things are also lost through neglect.

The story behind the rediscovery of the Buddha in India is remarkable, because it seems to bring the story full-circle to Xuanzang. In the 1850s, Fa Xian's Record of Buddhist Countries and Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions were translated into French an English. The two accounts had always existed in China, and they were suddenly 'discovered' by European orientalists. The two books mapped out a thousand years history of Buddhism, with all the significant sites and their importance, with details of monastries and the monks who inhabited them. Heinrich Schliemann found the location of Troy through a close reading of The Iliad and Alexander Cummingham, the first Director of the Archaeological Society of India -- decided to use the Chinese monks' records as guide to shed light on the history of Buddhist India. So his quest led to the excavations of Bodh Gaya in Bihar, where the Buddha became enlightened; Sravasti, where he spent most of his life teaching and many other important sites in Buddhist history.

When Xuanzang set out on his journey to India, his intention was to bring back to China the true teachings of the Buddha. He felt that over the years, Buddhism as it was practiced in China has been diluted and he had questions that had to be answered. How was he to know that one day the Buddhist faith itself would be erased from India, the land of its birth? Or that Xuanzang's records would be the catalyst to bringing back Buddhism to India?

Nothing lasts forever. Yet paradoxically, nothing is ever truly lost.


Dr Prabhat Tandon said...

Thanks for sharing the reading material !

Nymeth said...

"We imagine that society and culture advance naturally as time progresses, and knowledge is incremental. We are blind to the fact that as we push forward in some areas, many things are also lost through neglect."

This is very true.