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Gautama and Bahiya

It is morning; the sun is hot but not yet overwhelming and a man named Bahiya scours the streets of Shravasti. His gaunt frame is covered by a rough tunic that is stitched together from pieces of tree bark and he is weary after walking night and day from India’s west coast. But he draws little attention from the townspeople, who recognise him as a holy man: a part of the tide of spiritual seekers that washes constantly through the city.

Shravasti is the capital of the kingdom of Kosala and a major metropolis of the culture that thrives in the central Ganges Valley. We have no detailed descriptions of its streets to fill out the scene, but the city’s ruins have been partially unearthed and reveal that it was a large town, guarded by huge ramparts, at the junction of three important trade routes. A slightly later text evokes the profusion of such a city: furnished with solid foundations and with many gateways and walls . . . behold the drinking shops and taverns, the slaughterhouses and cooks’ shops, the harlots and wantons . . . the garland-weavers, the washermen, the astrologers, the cloth merchants, the gold workers and the jewellers. With such clues we may imagine the scene that confronted Bahiya: the wattle-and-daub houses with domed roofs of tiles or thatch, the sturdier brick-built civic buildings and homes of the wealthy; the main streets clogged with mules, oxen, chariots and pedestrians; the elephants lumbering impassively along the roadway laden with produce; the alleys spidering out from the main thoroughfare, thick with smells and resounding with the cries of food-sellers.

As Bahiya jostles through the press, he catches sight of a singular figure and knows instantly that it is the man he seeks. He is in the middle years of his life and the Bahiya Sutta — the account of this meeting in the ancient Buddhist scriptures — describes him as ‘pleasing, lovely to see, with calmed senses and tranquil mind, possessing perfect poise and calm’. He stands silently at a doorway, his eyes cast downwards, as the woman of the house places a little food in his bowl. Like other townspeople, he wears lengths of cloth draped around his midriff and across his shoulder to make a robe. But their mud-yellow fabric is much coarser than the embroidered muslin used by the rich, or even the plain cotton of the poor. It is a patchwork sewn together from scraps gathered on rubbish heaps or from the charred remnants of the shrouds that covered corpses in the cremation grounds. These robes, along with the bowl made from dried palm leaves that he holds before him, a needle and thread, a girdle, a razor and a water-strainer, are the sum of his possessions. Most people call him ‘Gautama’, the name of the clan into which he was born in Shakya, Kosala’s north-eastern province; but his disciples address him by a host of titles, especially ‘Bhagavat’, meaning Blessed Lord; ‘Tathagata’ — ‘the one who is like that’ and ‘Buddha’ — the Awakened.

The encounter is intense and dramatic. Bahiya throws himself at Gautama’s feet and cries: ‘Please teach me! Teach me the Truth that will be for my lasting benefit.’ Gautama spoke to no one when he was collecting food, so he tells Bahiya, ‘Come to me later and I will answer your questions.’ But Bahiya insists he cannot wait. ‘It is hard to know how long you or I will live!’ At the third time of asking, Gautama turns to face Bahiya and speaks a few spare words:

Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In the seen will be merely what is seen. In the heard will be merely what is heard. In the sensed will be merely what is sensed. In the cognised will be merely what is cognised. In this way should you should train yourself . . . Then, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that’. When you are not ‘in that’, then you will be neither here nor beyond nor between the two. Just this, is the end of suffering.

A sudden moment of communion cocoons the men beyond time or place, and something happens to Bahiya. Exactly what is hard to say, but its effect is shattering. It is bound up with the meaning of Gautama’s words, but that meaning is mixed with the sense that Gautama, himself, embodies them completely and has inwardly expanded into the open spaces they disclose. A shift occurs deep in Bahiya’s consciousness — a silent opening. And then the moment is over. The street noises return, Bahiya walks away and Gautama returns quietly to his alms round.

(from the Introduction © Vishvapani Blomfield)