Monday, January 28, 2008

the face of the bride

"at last i have my daughter-in-law," said mrs. agrawal, the mistress of the house where i am renting a room in sarnath. for four years they had been searching for a suitable match for their son and only child. time and again the astrological charts of the son and the prospective brides did not match. time and again they went back to the portfolios that families prepare when putting their daughters on the marriage market, portfolios that feature a sort of CV listing the would-be bride's character traits (open your thesaurus: the more synonyms for docile, gentle, and obedient, the better), a description of her skin-tone (extremely fair, very fair, quite fair, etc.), her educational qualifications (a definitive plus in many circles these days, when two-income families are no longer unthinkable) and detailed accounts of her relatives' names, marriage alliances, professions, and subcaste. oh, and a photo of the bride in a traditional sari.

but finally, a 25-year old local girl turned out to have been born under precisely the right stars for this family's beloved son. the son was educated in india's best private schools and, with the assurance of access and privilege that comes with that, went on to a management position in microfinance or something like that, off in hyderabad. his parents, from whom we rent rooms, have done all they could to assure that he had all the best in life indeed, and he has done very well for himself.

one afternoon, the son had gone to see the prospective bride in person after the charts were found to match, approved the girl and proceeded straight from the meeting to the airport to fly off to his job. he will not come back to varanasi until the wedding itself, planned for april.

meanwhile, for mrs. agrawal, a truly gentle and mild-mannered woman who had no daughters and has spent her years as an adult caring for the two men in her life, husband and son, the joyful anticipation of welcoming a daughter-in-law into her close circle was clearly genuine and deeply felt.

the next major event in the cycle of formalities leading to the actual wedding was the presentation of the bride to the groom's extended family. for with all the curiosity an extended and inwardly focused family can generate, the relatives gathered for 'high tea' on our lawn. after a day of bustle - the casual sort of bustle they do best here - in which a sign-painter was still calmly retouching the sign to their house as guests were pulling up in their cars, mr. and mrs. agrawal seemed stiff and nervous to be hosting this big event. after hearing of the inauspicious astrological charts of all the other prospects, i and the other nun staying here, jampa tsedroen la, were also invited to come see the bride.

her portfolio was quite accurate in many regards: she is very fair, and does indeed work in the operations department of a life insurance company, a fact in which she expressed considerable pride. as for the string of adjectives describing her compliant character, time will tell - a whole lifetime of married life in this new and fine family.

for more on arranged weddings, see this from the first year in india

photos are of mrs. agrawal with jampa tsedroen-la, the bride, an assortment of guests and the buffet table - sumptuous indeed though curiously lacking the 'tea' which i had expected to have for my 'high tea'...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

the confidence of 'it is so, it is so'

i just noticed that a transcript of the teachings that impacted me so deeply by his holiness the karmapa in bodhgaya has been made available online. you can view it here. the first day's teachings are of general interest. the teachings on days two and three are more for committed buddhist practitioners...

for a little taste, here is a bit of what his holiness said during the first teaching:

"Sometimes when we are meditating on loving-kindness and compassion, if we are thinking about a big group of people without seeing them as individuals, we just say, “May everyone be happy!” That is easy. For example, when we think about a lot of people, such as all the people in this hall, it is easy to think, “May they all be happy.” That’s just thinking in a general way. However, when we pick out one individual and try to meditate on love and compassion for him or her, that is something different.

"You should really think about it beforehand, otherwise when you think you are meditating on love and compassion for everyone and say, “May all be happy,” you don’t really know whether that thought is genuine or not. So beginners should begin by testing themselves with one person and seeing what the extent of their love and compassion is for that one person. If we don’t do that, and instead think from the beginning that we love everyone, that has no substance. Meditating toward everyone is like air, which fills everything but does not have much substance. Then, when you get to meditating on an individual, you’d have second thoughts. There’s the danger this could happen to you.

"I have thought of an analogy. If we bought a huge piece of fabric in Gaya and covered everyone’s heads with it, that would be easy. We’d just put it on top of everyone, and there would be no problem of it fitting. But if we took the fabric, cut it up, and made each and every person a hat, then there would be many different-sized heads to account for. We’d have to make the hats smaller for some and larger for others so they’d fit each person’s head. It would not be nearly as easy as just covering everyone with the huge piece of fabric. Similarly, if we just cover everyone with the huge fabric of love and compassion, that’s easy. There wouldn’t be so many lumps and bumps. But, like making hats, considering each individual person is not all that easy, so that is something we need to think through.

"But if we need to think about each individual person, how many are there? There are probably a thousand or two here in this hall. If we need three or four days, or even a week, to meditate on love and compassion for one person, then meditating for a thousand people would end up taking twenty or thirty years. How long would it take to develop love and compassion for all sentient beings throughout space? We don’t know.

"So what should we do? Fortunately, there’s a way around this. We can look at how people are similar and see what they are like. Of course, there are many different types of people, but we can think about them generally in terms of the reasons we should have love and compassion for them. If we look at one aspect, everyone wants to be happy and free of suffering, so in that regard everyone is the same. Of course everyone has their own character, but when we think about one aspect and then really recognize it in terms of one person, we can feel the same way toward all the similar kinds of people."

photo was taken during these very teachings, courtesy of

Friday, January 11, 2008

the cowherd's story

thanks to mindrol-la for her enthusiastic request for the sequel to the frog's story. in it, we hear what happened to the cowherd after he heard the entire teachings by the buddha. (for frog's story, read here.)

as background, you need to know that that buddha has just given an exquisite teaching that uses the image of a log moving down a river as a metaphor for the course we take through life after life, often getting stuck along the way, but sometimes flowing strongly towards the ocean of liberation. here is the text that follows that teaching in the vinayavastu; translated from the sanskrit:

At that very time, Nanda the Cowherd was standing near the Lord. Leaning on his cane, he was grazing his cows. A frog was pinned by the cane, his skin pierced, his joints dislocated. He generated the thought, ‘If I should move my body or emit a sound, this would be the cause for Nanda the Cowherd to be distracted from the story.’ Having decided that, he made his mind inspired with faith in the presence of the Lord and died. He was reborn among the devas of the Four World Guardian Kings.

Then Nanda the Cowherd set his cane down to one side and went towards the Lord. Having approached, he prostrated with his head at the feet of the Lord, and stood off to one side. Standing off to the side, Nanda the Cowherd said this to the Lord, "Sir, I will not get caught on this bank, I will not get caught on the far bank, I will not get caught in the middle, I will not come out onto dry land, I will not be grabbed by humans, I will not be grabbed by non-humans, I will not be grabbed by a whirlpool. I will not become putrid inside. Sir, may I attain renunciation, full ordination and monkhood in the well-spoken Dharmavinaya. May I practice celibate discipleship in the presence of the Lord.”

“If so, Nanda, you have given the cows to their owners?”

“No, Sir.”

“Why not?”

“Sir, since they are cows who have young calves, they know their dwelling places. They will each return to their respective homes. Sir, may I attain renunciation, full ordination and monkhood in the well-spoken Dharmavinaya. May I practice celibate discipleship in the presence of the Lord.”

“Nanda, although they are cows who have young calves at a tender age, know their dwelling places and will each return to their respective homes, nevertheless this is the duty of a cowherd, who has accepted the owner’s food and clothing.”

At that, Nanda the Cowherd prostrated with his head at the feet of the Lord, and left the presence of the Blessed One. Then he began to run, crying loudly, ‘Danger! Danger!’ Along the path, 500 cowherds related to him saw him. They said, “What danger is to be feared?”

“The danger of birth. The danger of aging. The danger of sickness. The danger of death.”

They too began to run behind him. When they were seen by other cowherds, horse drivers, porters carrying grass, porters carrying kindling, people living from the street and people gone astray living from the street, these too began to run. Servants saw them shouting in this way and questioned them, “What is this, Sirs?”

They said, “There is danger!”

“Danger of what?”

“Danger of birth. Danger of aging. Danger of sickness. Danger of death!”

After hearing this, they too turned back. At a certain point, they reached the vicinity of a district capital. Then the group of people living around the district capital saw the huge group of people and became alarmed, [and ran about] this way and that. Some fled. Some hid their goods. Some armed themselves and stood their ground. Others, the courageous people, advanced and questioned them.

“What is this, Sirs?”

They said, “There is danger!”

“Danger of what?”

“Danger of birth. Danger of aging. Danger of sickness. Danger of death.”

At that, the group of people living around the district capital were relieved.

At that time, on that occasion, Venerable Śāriputra had joined and was seated in that very assembly. Venerable Śāriputra noticed that Nanda the Cowherd had been gone for a long time, and said this to the Lord, “Sir, why did the Lord encourage Nanda to Cowherd, who was desirous of renouncing in the well-spoken Dharmavinaya, to go home?”

“Śāriputra, there is no chance that Nanda the Cowherd will remain within his home as a householder again. Having experienced deposited treasure, will he enjoy the objects of desire? There is no possibility of that. Nanda the Cowherd will now surrender the cows to their owners and come back. After seeing that for the sake of which children of good families shave their hair and beard, put on saffron clothes and go forth with only the correct devotion from their homes into a homeless state - the supreme culmination of celibate discipleship - and having realized for himself the Dharma, actualized it and attained it, he will proclaim, ‘For me, birth has ended. My celibate discipleship is completed. My duty is done. After this existence I will know no other.’”

Meanwhile, after surrendering the cows to their owners, Nanda the Cowherd came to where the Lord with a retinue of 500. Having approached he said this to the Lord, “Sir, may I attain renunciation, full ordination and monkhood in the well-spoken Dharmavinaya. May I practice celibate discipleship in the presence of the Lord.”

And Nanda the Cowherd attained renunciation, full ordination and monkhood in the well-spoken Dharmavinaya, together with the retinue of 500. Having thus renounced, he became venerable... "

and thus ends the story of Nanda the Cowherd, a disciple of the Buddha whose renunciation the frog helped make possible...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

hh karmapa in sarnath

soon after the prayer festival in bodhgaya that was the topic of a recent post, his holiness the karmapa traveled to sarnath and is here still.

this past weekend he led an animal liberation and offered a chenrezig empowerment, accompanied by a dharma talk. i will not attempt here to describe how moving both these events were for me. the photos will have to do instead.

both these images come from the website of HH karmapa's north american seat in woodstock, new york