Mornings continue to prove a challenge at the moment: woken by the sound of those up early for work at 5.00 a.m. I struggle to fall back to sleep, my slumber characterised by its very fitfulness. Fitful is an interesting term since it is associated with losing consciousness at an inappropriate time or to having something unhealthy or abnormal in one’s system.
In any case this is the undulating territory I travel, in fact even before then I have a sense in my dreams of anticipating this disturbance, and this doesn’t say anything about the times I think Tommy (the resident dog) has barked earlier in the night and no doubt brought me to just below the surface of being awake. So I have this period of debating whether to get up or not between after 5.00 a.m. until 7.45 a.m. this morning. Any idea of keeping a practice schedule has gone out of the window for the moment. I think fondly of the daily routine at The Buddhist House during the autumn months, often just Bob and I, sometimes with Sumaya, and sometimes others, perhaps visitors staying at the house. This has its benefits, pushing through the attraction, the strong tug on the mind and body of a warm cosy bed, inviting one to turn over and embrace the indulgence of dozing for another hour or more. And…well…having someone else sharing in the practice means mostly that you remain undivided on this issue about whether to rise or not since otherwise your companion becomes somehow morally superior (lets be honest) or you have to shoulder the guilt that you have abandoned them to face the cold morning alone.
This morning I have a lot to do since I need to print worksheets for the children’s Buddhist class. This isn’t as simple as it sounds since the printer has just come back last night from being repaired and I am worried that I will have to load up printer drivers and so on. I will also be waiting on Bupenda to go and collect a new cartridge, since the one that we have been refilling is clogged irreparably with dried ink. Actually when it comes to it firstly I discover that the printer has come back with inl leaking from the old cartridge that has been tried and left in; secondly, it has been returned without the power and connector leads; and, thirdly, the electricity goes off.
It is now 11.00 a.m. Suvidya has come back from do a little shopping for me and Bupenda is up on the roof with two of his students. I talk to him about the cartridge and ask him instead if he could get the worksheets printed and copied for me instead since to have a new one would be useless in any case. He’s happy to do this and comes back within half an hour with all that I need.
Suvidya and I have lunch. We then have twenty minutes or so in which we begin looking at the precepts for ordination. This is a new stage for the Amida community in Delhi as both Sunita and Suvidya have been invited to ordain with the Amida Order. Suvidya seems pleased to share this time. At 1.30 p.m. we leave to go over to Shanti Nagar. This will be the first class since Sahishnu’s last period here in the spring. I feel a little nervous, probably because I know how well the children know Sahishnu and her way of approaching things, and am concerned about how they will respond to me taking this lead position. We take an auto rickshaw down the Loni Road, having walked from the flat to Golshakar junction, and then walk from the main road to Saraswati’s. People as ever stop talking or look up when they catch a glimpse of me. Some acknowledge me with a nod of the head, which I return, others just follow me with their eyes, and yet others actively greet me in someway. I enjoy the ‘hi’s’ that I get from some, the ‘hulloo’ from others and say Namaste to one or two.
There are about twenty children of all ages for the class, about half of whom I recognise from earlier in the year or the year before. They seem quite settled and attentive. Despite struggling to remember the different tunes to the chant’s Sahishnu uses the afternoon goes well. I tell the story of the Buddha’s life today covering the period up to and including his birth up to the point where Mahamaya, Siddharta’s mother, as the legend tells us, falls ill and dies. I am impressed that some of the older children have retained some of the details from having heard the story before and are quick to chip in with answers when I ask questions about aspects of the Buddha’s early life that are not in this version of the story. I am also interested by my own process since I have recently read Stephen Batchelor’s book (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) which calls into question this whole elaboration of the life of the Buddha into a mythical narrative. I’ve also recently revisited Edward Thomas’ readable yet scholarly ‘Life of Buddha’ which is meticulous about identifying likely source material for the things some have come to accept as more or less axiomatic. Often what is in question given the difficulty to assigning provenance to many of the defining texts is whether we are looking at a story that is an example of an ancient myth that has been historicised or a popular legend that has been attached to a historical person. And then there is the question of whether this or that version or elaboration is communicating the Dharma.
In this part of the Buddha’s life we come across the sage Asita who visits - in the children’s version I am reading today – two days after the Buddha to be is born.
Though the stories vary, this follows the oldest given in the nalaka-sutta of the Sutta-nipata. This is the familiar version in which the infant it is prophesised will either become a great king or a Buddha. Asita weeps since he will not live to see the Buddha. This is as far as the children’s version goes, other than to have Suddhodana, his father say that he will make sure his son becomes ‘a King of Kings’. This is likely part of the fairy tale that has grown up around accounts of the Buddha’s early years.
In the nalaka-sutta Asita tells his nephew Nalaka to give up his life to see the infant when he is an adult and thus becomes the enlightened one.
The next significant story after his birth (5th day) is the naming ceremony in which eight Brahmins - of the many who visit – examine the marks on the infants body. Seven repeat what Asita has prophesised, the eighth Kondanna saying that the infant will assuredly become the enlightened one. The Brahmins also prophesise that the future Buddha will see the ‘four signs’. This prompts Suddhodana to post guards at the four quarters of the palace to prevent these four from coming into sight of his son and is what the story we read today summarises in voicing his intent to ensure he becomes a king and not a great spiritual leader.
The ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ name the child Siddhartha. The name can be translated as he whose aim is accomplished or he who has achieved his aim.
This name is challenged in some quarters as merely an epithet applied by his disciples and later rendered as a name and that stories about the name-giving are a mere elaboration without source.
As I sit with the children I think about the importance of trying to bring alive something of the spirit of Buddhism - as I experience it - through this story, and how some of the stories that have been built around very tenuous or non existent threads no doubt have been the attempts of writers and storytellers to capture what inspired them in the tales they were told. Batchelor’s ‘story’ does at times for me tend to dampen this quality, so whilst I am not for fabrication just for the sake of making a better narrative or one that appeals more to our modern sensibilities, I am also not for knocking the life and spirit out of it either by attending solely to what is known empirically, since it is often in the mystery that one is left with what leads us to being inspired in our faith.