The First Ashram

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Chapter Seven:  A Yoga Ashram

Indifferent to the feelings of tearful Chanda only because of his determination, the Bodhisattva entered the gates of the ashram overwhelming and sanctifying the place with his presence.  Now the prince who had once stepped like a lion was in deer territory, and as graceful as one of those animals, he drew the attention of all the inhabitants even without his princely garb. 

Tonga drivers, their wives still holding the yokes, stood gazing at the one who so resembled Indra, and were so transfixed by curiosity that they froze in the same poses as their oxen -- with their heads half lowered.

Brahmins who had gone outside for kindling -- those masters of knowledge and discipline, with their hands full of fuel, flowers, and kusha grass -- were drawn to see him instead of moving along to their cells.

The peacocks screamed as delightedly as if they had seen a dark-blue cloud arising. Abandoning the shoots of grass they had been grazing, the deer with their restless eyes approached, and some of the ascetics who had been browsing just like the deer stood still.

Seeing a relative of Krishna the Cowherd ["Lamp of the race of Ekshvaku"] shining there like the rising sun, the cows who had already been milked for the morning offerings were so filled with joy that they began to produce more! 

The yogis in astonishment said to one another right out loud, "It must be one of the eight Vasus; maybe it's one of the two Asvins come down from heaven,"  for just like Indra who embodies the glory of the universe, his presence lit up the entire glade. 

Then they formally welcomed him and invited him in, where he paid his homage to the saints there in a voice like that of a cloud in the rainy season.

In his longing for a means to liberation, he wisely went all over this ashram full of holy people, each one desirous of heaven, examining all the various and strange practices.

The Gentle One, having seen everything, wanted to know more about it all so he addressed one of those who was following him.  "Since this is the first time I have ever been in an ashram, I do not understand the concept of  penance. Would you kindly explain  what it is that motivates someone to do these sorts of things?"

So a brahmin who was an expert in the yogas of self-mortification told the Bull of the Sakyas -- and a very strong bull he was -- all the various kinds of austerities along with their benefits, one by one: "According to the sacred texts, the most beneficial food for yogins is a vegetarian diet consisting of wild foods found growing by the water, such as leaves, roots and berries, but the different kinds of discipline may vary.

"Some people live like birds on left-over cereal grains; others browse the grass like deer; still others live only on air like snakes and immobile, they seem as if they had turned into termite mounds.

"Others with great effort derive their nourishment from stones; still others eat hard kernels that they have to grind with their own teeth.  Some only drink the left-over broth from food they have boiled for others.

"Still others, recognizable by their long matted locks of hair all sprinkled with water, sing hymns to Agni, god of fire and make offerings to a sacred fire twice a day, and some stay immersed in water just like fish so their bodies get scratched all over by the tortoises.

"The longer they can stand these mortifications, the farther they get from this world and the closer they get to heaven, so that by means of the path of pain they eventually arrive at a state of bliss.  For pain, they say, is at the very root of merit."

But the king's son, having listened carefully even though he saw no lofty truth in the words, thought to himself, "This yoga is based on pain and many kinds at that, but the fruit of any  penance is mainly heaven at best.  And all the realms including heaven are still subject to change, so really there is little to be gained by practicing in one of these ashrams.

"Those who abandon their wealth, family and worldly objects to undertake vows for the sake of heaven, are only changing their worldly circumstances.  If they think that by doing these bodily exercises called penances without examining the inherent evil that lies in mundane existence they will improve their karma, then that is only seeking more pain by means of painful methods.

"All living creatures continually live in fear of death, and yet they do everything within their power to be born again, but where there is action, there must inevitably be dying, so (ironically) a person gets to drown in that [vicious] cycle just because he is afraid of dying.

"Some suffer for the sake of this world; others for the sake of heaven.  All living beings, disappointedly keep missing their aim, and for the sake of happiness keep falling into misery.

"It is not the effort itself which is to blame, for to cast aside the baser goals is to pursue a higher path. But wiser people, instead of doing this same work over and over, ought to attain that state in which nothing need ever be done again.

"If mortification of the body is considered religion (as it is at this place) then the body's happiness is irreligion.  And if, by means of such a religion a man can obtain happiness in the next world, [that really doesn't make any sense] for then religion here, creates irreligion there.

"Since it is through the mind's influence that a body either acts or doesn't, then what we need to do is to control the mind, for without it, the body is just a lump of wood.

"Also, if merit is gained by the sort of the food we eat --  its purity or its amount -- then deer have lots of merit as do the very poor, who get marginalized as a consequence of their karma.

"If the deliberate choice of pain is a cause for merit, why should it not be the same for pleasure?  And if you say that the kind of pleasure does not matter, then the same goes for pain.

"And about sprinkling water for purification -- that's only an imaginary thing; no amount of water can wash away sin.  Now, about water that's been touched by a saint --  if you're looking for sacred spots, that's the only kind there is.  For the only place worthy of pilgrimage is where there's a virtuous man -- water's just water."

As he was making all those various arguments to himself, the sun went down in the west.  

Then he entered the grove where the practices were now over and the trees gray with the smoke of evening offerings.  Individual fires had been kindled, and the place was crowded with holy hermits who had finished their evening ablutions, and the shrines of the deities echoed with muttered mantras.  Everything seemed alive with the practice of religion.


He spent several nights there, at a certain remove -- like the moon, just observing.  Then he left that ashram feeling that he had fully comprehended the nature of the way of penance.

The inhabitants followed him, all their attention on his obvious greatness, as if they were in The Mahabharat watching the receding figure of Dharma, god of Righteousness, as he abandoned the undeserving.

He looked back at all those ascetics with their matted hair, bark-cloth garments, the tattered bits of cloth fluttering.  But when he stopped under an auspicious and noble tree by the side of the road to  think about their penances, some of the yogis approached him.  

An old man addressed him respectfully in a gentle tone of voice, "When you first arrived, the hermitage seemed to become full, but it seems quite empty now that you have left.  Surely, my son, you won't desert it, for then it will be like a body when life fled.

"In front of us there, is Himavat, the holy mountain ['Hem hant' near Rishikesh] where there are Brahma-rishis, Raga-rishis and Sura-rishis, and the fact that they are right over there multiplies the merits of our penitential practices.

"We are also near several holy pilgrimage spots that are considered true ladders to heaven.  They are visited by holy men and saints, devoted souls who have mastered their minds.

"Over there, you can go north to [Tibet] a land so suited to acquiring merit that if you compared it to any of our southern ways, it would be as if we here never even made any progress at all.

"But are you going because there is something here that you do not approve of?  Have you seen anyone in this ashram neglecting their ritual practice, or who does them incorrectly, or who should not be here because he or she is outcast or impure?  Just say so and we'll rectify the situation.  These yogis would really like you to stay and practice here with them, for you seem to have plenty of discipline.  They would really like to be with someone who resembles Indra -- who would benefit even Brihaspati himself."

The Maharishi Siddhartha, who had made up his mind to totally put an end to existence, listened to the leader of the group of rishis, and told them what was truly on his mind:  "Here we have real examples of righteousness and devotion, and the gracious hospitality you have shown me indicates that right here is a genuine example of a saint.  Your kindness towards me has touched me in a way that actually reveals some truth in the doctrine of a Higher Self.

"I am deeply touched by your gentle words and you have enabled me to, once again, feel the joy I experienced when I first got the idea of dharma.  I feel really sorry that I have to go and leave you all to your own practice of dharma, for you sheltered me and have been so exceptionally kind that I feel now the same as I did when I had to leave my own family behind.

"But your devotion is for the sake of being reborn in heaven, while my desire is that there be no new birth at all; so I realize that this ashram is not for me, since the nature of cessation is quite different from that of activity.

"So (please understand,) it is not from any dislike on my part or any wrong doing on another's that is making me leave here.  You are all behaving perfectly, like great sages of the past, as you follow their examples and faithfully observe orthodox religious tradition."

Having heard the prince's gracious and dignified speech; profound, gentle and yet firm, the ascetics bowed very deeply to him.

But a certain brahmin who was lying there covered in ashes, tall, with reddish eyes and a long, thin nose, his hair in a topknot and wearing bark cloth, his lota [water pot] in his hand, spoke up, "Muni, your purpose is really a courageous one for someone so young.  To have understood the evils of birth and considered which goal to pursue -- heaven or liberation -- and then to have chosen complete liberation, why that's a truly brave thing to do!

"It's those who are still caught up in emotions and in desire who strive for heavenly rewards.  They are the ones who perform all those sacrifices, penances and vows, but truly determined people -- ones who have wrestled with desire as if it were their very worst enemy -- those are the ones who dare choose liberation.

"If that is your firm intention then hurry to the Vindhyakoshta, for Muni Harada who has gained an insight into absolute bliss lives there.  You will hear about the path to truth from him and if you want to pursue that path, you will get the chance.  But I predict that you will want to go much further than that and will finally reject his theory.

"Your facial characteristics indicate that you are very intelligent -- with a nose like a thoroughbred, large long eyes, a red lower lip, sharp white teeth, and a fine red tongue -- you will readily absorb a whole ocean of knowledge.  There is something extremely profound about you -- a certain majesty that, in combination with all those special marks, indicate that you will definitely become one of the finest teachers this earth has ever seen -- a teacher of a calibre unequaled even by the Seven Rishis of ancient times."

The prince replied, "All right," and bidding the group of yogis goodbye, he went on his way, but not before all the hermits had made their obeissances and returned to their ashram among the trees.

_________________________________________________________________________

ashram: Often used today to refer to a camp or a center for yoga or other spiritual practice, ashrama actually means "stage" or "station."  That is, it refers to the stages of life that orthodox Indian men of the three higher castes experience. The four ashrama are
brahmacharya-ashrama (student-stage,) grihasth'ashrama (householder-stage,) vanaprasth'ashrama (forest-dweller stage) and sannyas'ashrama (surrender-stage.) 

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