In Death as in Life

Based on a true story, circa 483 BCE.


I had no way of knowing, when I set out, that I would be the last of the disciples of the Tathagata, as he was called – “the transcendent one.”

He and his groups of attendants had left Pava and were on their way toward Kusinara, having gone afoot at daybreak. Knowing that he would appear before an assembled gathering in that village, I’d hoped to catch up with them while they tarried there. I’d had a restless night, contemplating the implications of his message after dinner in Pava, and had hoped to ask him my question before they departed from there. But after lying awake much of the night, I fell asleep before daybreak and awoke with the sun in my eyes.

They, mostly being older, would have a slower gait than I, so I was confident that – setting out right away – I would overtake them in time. So, I was surprised, when I was about half way on the dusty road from Pava, to come down over a rise and see the knot of his robed followers tightly gathered in the shade between two sal trees, a shouting distance away. They were unaware of my approach, the dozen or so of them huddled around and leaning over what was in their midst, and the few voices to be heard were muffled. A couple of them sat on their haunches – their water bags nearby, off their shoulders – and the one facing me looked up protectively as I drew near. He held up his hand, signaling me to halt. He said something to the others, some of whom turned to look at me, and he rose and came over. Where he had been, I could see – in the light between the men’s legs – a figure at their feet. The master? Had he been hurt? A viper bite?

I recognized the disciple as he drew near, the one with the long, thin face; I’d heard him called Yasa. He looked perturbed, but nodded in greeting:

“Hello, friend. You left the road. Do you mean to be of help?”

“Your master,” I stammered. “I’ve been hoping to ask a question of your master.”

“Ah, then. I see.” His countenance cleared. “Not possible right now.” He shook his head.

Impulsively I asked: “Is he injured?”

“No. Ill.”

“What is it? Do you know?”

“Not certain yet.”

We heard a groan, then vomiting. Yasa glanced anxiously over his shoulder, then turned to leave.

I called, “I’ll wait nearby. In case I can be of help.”

Without acknowledging me, Yasa melted back into the group. A pitched voice could be heard giving directions. Two men moved away, stringing a rope between the two trees. A wide cotton cloth was thrown over the rope. Rocks were moved into place to hold the shelter’s corners down. Bed rolls were unfurled. The mass of perhaps as many as twenty bodies were maneuvering as a unit, apparently moving their master’s prostrate form into the enclosure.

From where I sat, on a flat rock under a pipal tree, I could see just the backs of grey robes waving in deep shadow, and the plane of dun cloth above a few of the bobbing, shaved heads.

It felt good to sit in the shade. The sun was at its zenith, this day in May. Feeling hunger now, I drank from my water pouch and chewed on some betel leaves. Several of the disciples were sitting now, facing the enclosure. One soon rose, nodded to something being said, and he headed toward the road. As he came near where I was sitting, I recognized him: Achitanaya, Cunda’s son. I held up my hand in greeting; he shaded his eyes and looked in my direction, then came over.

“Subhadda!” He seemed surprised. “Why are you here?”

“I have a question to ask your master. But Yasa told me that he is ill. Can I be of help?”

“Not yet. I’m hurrying back to Pava, to bring Benai the herbalist. The master is weak, has a fever and stomach pains. He is resting, and Ananda is by his side. I must go!”

I nodded. “I’ll be waiting here.”

As I watched Achit ascend the dusty road, I fell into contemplation, with some images of past events appearing before the mind’s eye.

It was about a year ago when I had heard, from someone passing by my hermitage, that Achitanaya was leaving Pava, to join the Tathagata and his mendicants when they were rumored to arrive in Vesali. When Achit came back to Pava, a couple of months ago, for a visit with his family, he told me about the master and his teachings; and – challenging to me as an ascetic – how the master had transcended self-limitation after abandoning all purifying austerities. Achit also told his father about the Tathagata’s ability to show seekers the face of Brahman; and so Cunda, the goldsmith, gave Achit a full purse as a gift for the sangha and asked that he beg the teacher to visit Pava. I, too, expressed to Achit my desire to hear the teacher’s words firsthand, though I could give no gift.

So, leaving again to return to his master, Achitanaya learned they had gone to Beluva; and, there, he did ask the master to favor Pava with his presence. When the group arrived at Pava’s park, Achit summoned all of his family and their many friends, and sent someone to call me from my hermitage. Curious villagers began to gather around us, as well.

It was late afternoon. Achit explained to us, as the master sat among his resting attendants, that it was the sangha’s practice – when entering a village after trekking all day – to go house-to-house with their rice bowls, accepting offerings of food. After they had received enough for all of the group to share, they – and those villagers who were curious to hear what message he brought – would sit at the master’s feet and enjoy his presence.

Cunda was impatient to hear what the transcendent one could impart. He told Achitanaya to lead the group to his home; he could provide enough food for all. And so, everyone followed Achit to his father’s manse, with the mendicants by his side.

In scarcely an hour, Cunda had a feast prepared (his whole family following his orders) while the mendicants sat quietly in the courtyard, around their master, the group appearing to be in deep contemplation. Achit, meanwhile, called me over to the main entrance: the villagers who were at the park had gone home to tell their families that Cunda was preparing a feast; there would not be enough food for both the sangha and the curious villagers, so he was going to close the outer gate. He wanted me to watch over the room and tell anyone, who might try to enter, why the gate had been closed. When he saw my hesitance, he said in assurance that the Tathagata would return to Pava in two days, after a visit to Kusinara, and would appear before the villagers, at the park. So, I agreed to act as sentinel.

From my position at one end of the main room, I was able to observe the mendicants’ entry from the courtyard. They moved so fluidly, as a group, that it was difficult to be sure of their number. And it took me a few moments to conclude which of them was the Tathagata: Achitanaya had told me that the master was eighty years old, but that two of the disciples were yet older. Only by the deference of the others, to the one who seemed least noticeable, was I able to determine their teacher. As soon as they had drawn near the serving table, Cunda loudly addressed everyone. My eyes were on the teacher. The group’s eyes were on the food, but they looked up respectfully when Cunda spoke. Except for the teacher: his eyes were fixed on one of the two dozen bowls of food.

Cunda boasted, as usual: his was the good fortune, he said, to host the Tathagata and his monks; Brahma had rewarded him with success in his trade because of his sacrifices and devotion. Tonight, he was expressing his gratitude for the visit of the transcendent one; and each of the different dishes offered was prepared separately, with his personal supervision. He himself, in anticipation of this honor, had harvested herbs, foraged mushrooms, and selected the vegetables. After the guests could enjoy his humble offering (he finally concluded), he would be blessed with any words of advice they might bestow.

The monks bowed in gratitude. Achitanaya bowed to the Tathagata and indicated that he choose the first dish. The master bowed to his disciple, now his host, and chose the mushroom dish that he had been regarding. The others each followed with their choice of dish; warm chapatis were given to each by Cunda’s wife; and the group sat together in a circle, quietly enjoying Cunda’s offering.

Cunda’s wife asked me to go to the puja room and prepare it. I lit candles, lit incense, took a place near the corner of the room, and waited. Shortly, Cunda and his family lead the guests to the room; the family sat along one wall, Cunda at the forefront; teacher and disciples sat along the opposite wall, the transcendent one toward the middle. Achitanaya sat with his master. The monks lowered their eyes, and remained in silent contemplation until Cunda, growing restless, broke the silence.

“Venerable sadhu, I’ve heard that you have been in the presence of Brahman. How may a humble servant like myself enjoy such a grace as that?”

The transcendent one looked into Cunda’s eyes, and spoke of our lives as unsatisfied, unfulfilled desire; even the hope to know the unknowable. Hopes and ambitions that life renders into disappointment and distress; and out of this distress, a cycle of even greater hopes and desires – pulling us and pushing us, until it all vanishes as quickly as a dream…at the end of our allotted time. When, in the morning, a dream vanishes, do you concern yourself with what the dream figures were intent on accomplishing? Do you go about the day arguing the opinions that these dream figures expressed; or righting the wrongs which were done them? A dream is impermanent, it has no worth; all that is impermanent vanishes in time. Is this body permanent? This mind? This self? What remains when all else comes and goes? Is that present now?

The Tathagata fell silent. All were silent; breathing, and the sputtering of incense, was all that could be heard. After a while Cunda sighed, rose, and lead his family out, after inviting the monks to rest the night in the puja room. Achitanaya gathered their water pouches, and I refilled them at the well, while he went to a storeroom and brought each monk a small cotton bedroll.

I was eager to get out into the night air and the quiet walk back to the hermitage. “What remains when all else comes and goes?” Not the body. Not the mind. Not the self. These are all impermanent. What is permanent? What does not come and go? Is it present now? If I purify myself and overcome my imperfections, I hope to be graced with seeing it face-to-face. Hope to… Hope… desire… unsatisfied… unfulfilled. “Hope to know the unknowable.” Disappointment… distress. What is present now, that does not come and go? Why had the Tathagata forsaken austerities? What did he discover when he gave up all hope of self-perfection… self… dream figures… come and go… what doesn’t come and go?

“Is that present now?” I endured a restless night. The moon was nearly full. Its phases will come and go like dreams. My practice…fourteen years…his was six years (Achit said) and nearly brought him to death…eating fallen leaves and drinking river water…hoping to be pure enough. “Is that present now?” I was looking at the moon; and then the sun was in my eyes.

The sun was again in my eyes. I had leaned back against the pipal tree, with eyes closed in contemplation of what had brought me here. The sun had lowered, the shade had passed. Sounds from the road roused me, Achitanaya hurrying past with Benai the herbalist. They pass through the circle of monks; there is murmuring, heads bobbing, movement near the enclosure, collecting of water pouches. A long wait. Benai re-emerges through the group, with Achit, who hands her a small purse. Benai hands it back, shaking her head. Benai hoists her goatskin bag onto her shoulder and heads toward the road, back to Pava. I raise my hand to catch Achit’s eye, and he comes over. He reaches into his robe and hands me a dry rice ball. I bow in thanks.

“The illness…?,” I query.

Achit slowly shakes his head, as if denying something. “Nothing to be done. Benai could only give some herbs to reduce pain, fever and vomiting.” Achit lowers his head, as a tear forms.

“Poisoning.”

“How can Benai know it’s that?!”

“The master knows.”

“Mushroom poisoning?,” I ask slowly.

“Yes. The master….” He nods.

“That bowl, last night. He had first choice…”

“My father gathered the mushrooms. He never bothered to gather them before. He knows nothing about them!” Achit wiped his eyes.

“You told me your master lived in the forest for six years. He must have known them on sight. Why didn’t he tell Cunda?”

“Ha. You know my father. Proud, arrogant. He would have eaten a handful, insulted at having his judgment questioned. Then he would have passed the dish around, bristling if others declined to sample it!” He sobbed, and added. “The master knew.” A long pause. Then, with irony, he recalled, “He once said, ‘who begs for food, eats what’s offered’!” More sobbing.

We were silent. Then I asked, “While the master is alive, could I ask him a question?”

“I don’t know. We’ll see now.” He motioned to me to follow. I left my water pouch and rice ball; we made our way to the ring of disciples, who parted for us. Some were quietly weeping. The one known as Ananda sat outside the cloth enclosure, an old man looking very tired.

Achitanaya bent over and said something to him. Ananda looked up sharply at me: “You would disturb the Tathagata? He is very ill, and not inclined to answer a sannyasi’s questions now.” A guttural voice from the other side of the curtain called out, “Ananda!” Ananda ducked under the curtain. Achit and I turned to leave. Ananda came out from under the curtain, and tugged on Achit’s robe: “The Tathagata would like the sannyasi to ask his question.” He held up a corner of the curtain, for me to enter.

The faint smell of herbs, and vomit, greeted my nostrils. Waning sunlight lit the back of the enclosure, making it difficult for me to see the features of the master. He was lying on his side, on a thick mat of sal leaves, his head propped up by a couple of bed rolls. His only covering was a jute blanket.

He raised himself on one elbow. I can only remember his eyes: alert like a dog’s – impersonal, but attentive. He looked at me silently, searchingly. Did he remember seeing me last night, I wondered. Sensing Ananda would be impatient, I blurted, “You renounced your austerities…?”

A slight smile, as if he were amused. “Sadhu, renounce even renouncing.” A pause. “But is that your question?”

I relaxed; my attention focused. “That which doesn’t come or go; it’s not the self?” I squatted near him.

“Not self. But all selves.”

“So, it is this yogi and all yogis?”

“All that is; and all that is not.” He raised a finger: “Tathagata, Gautama, sadhu, monk, teacher, master, beggar, fool. Different names for one thing. Why these names? Because no one can know that one thing. Immanent, yes. And transcendent, yes. Being all things, it is unknowable – except to the knower of that: and the knower is just another name for the unknowable. Sadhu, having no separate identity, it is not knowable. It is all that is known, thus all-knowing.”

“It is what knows,” I ventured. “That is another name for it.”

“Present now and always. Permanently impermanent.”

He shuddered in a grip of pain, and closed his eyes. He then looked at me again, with a slight smile.

“Existence and non-existence are the same, then?,” I asked.

“All things.”

“I see no fear in you. Is that why?”

His finger touched my hand. “That which doesn’t come or go: it is all that is, and all that is not. Present now and always. All is the same, always.”

I quickly recognized that what was speaking and what was listening were the same; what was dying and what was living were the same. My eyes must have widened, as my sense of separateness dissolved into what is always present. He tapped my hand, smiled with a grimace, and laid back down.

I rose, and said aloud: “I need not fear!”

“Yes,” he said with closed eyes.

Ananda glimpsed my feet, raised the curtain, waved me out, and went in. I parted, again, through the somber circle. Now tear’s were appearing in my eyes too. Achitanaya walked with me, head bowed, to the pipal tree, where I took up the water pouch and rice ball. I bowed to him in thanks.

“Ananda said that Benai told him,” Achit said faltering, “the Tathagata will not see another sunrise. Between us, we will carry his body to Kusinara, where a pyre can be built. So, we will likely be there for two days. Then the master wants us to return to Vesali, where land was given for a winter encampment. I don’t expect to return to Pava. Please tell my father that I will remain with the sangha.” He continued:

“The master asked Benai, Ananda said, to tell my father about the accident, and to say ‘accidents can happen to any one of us: we need feel neither remorse nor reproach. Accidents happen, and can happen to any of us. We need feel no sorrow.’ So, assure my father that the Tathagata has died in peace, and he is grateful for the gifts bestowed on the monks. This is his message to my father: to find the lasting fulfillment that he seeks.” Achit wiped his eyes. I responded:

“Yes, I will speak about the master, and how he died without fear or regret. I will then spend one day at the hermitage, and join you monks before you leave for Kusinara. I want to be with the sangha as it prepares the winter retreat. Will Ananda approve of my interest?,” I queried.

“Yes. Yes.” Achit seemed pleased.

We embraced as brothers, and I headed toward Pava, as the sun began to set for the master’s last time – and for my first time, as his disciple.