Thursday, May 27, 2010

Excerpts from 'Journey to the City of Six Gates' by Graeme MacQueen

For Buddha Purnima, here are excerpts from an adventure fantasy set in ancient India, long before the region acquired its name. Its heroes must discover how to deal with injustice without descending to the level of their violent persecutors. Through contemplative poetic incantation and robust, uncluttered prose, it weaves into its fabric, a deep, respectful love for the inter-connectedness of all things.

Dr. Graeme MacQueen is a specialist in Buddhism and has a great love of Indian storytelling. He has been a university professor and peace activist and has worked to promote peace and justice in eight countries on three continents.

The sadhu stared into the distance with his ancient eyes remembering a time long, long ago. "Many lifetimes before this one I was born as a dog. Times were hard, and food was so scarce that one day I found myself on the verge of starvation. I was about to breathe my last breath when a woman saw me. She took pity on my miserable scrawny body and gave me a piece of roti. Hot, buttered roti. Delicious! I have never been able to forget the taste. Even today I love roti, which is why people call me Roti Baba."
"A fascinating story, Holy One," said Mati. "But what does it have to do with your vow?"
"Vow? Oh, yes. Well, dogs have big hearts and they know what it means to feel grateful. So, right then and there, while the taste of butter was still in my mouth. I made a vow that I would always help that woman in the future. I vowed that in whatever lifetimes and whatever bodies we found ourselves, I would repay her kindness by doing a good deed for her children."
The sage looked at Mati and Satya. "Even," he said, "if her children were blockheads."
"But who was that woman?" cried Satya.
"Why, Sundari, of course. Your mother."
Mati went deep into the forest. She stayed there all day and all night.
On the morning of his departure, just after the sadhu had spoken to Satya, Mati ran into camp. Jaya was cooking over the fire. He was startled at Mati's wild look.
"They are!" she said breathlessly.
Roti Baba walked up to her and looked her in the eyes. "They are what?"
"Thirsty! Holy One, Banyan drinks because Banyan is thirsty. The trees feel it! They feel thirst! They feel cold and heat! They feel the wind! Holy One, they are as alive as we are!"
"So tell them you know! Tell them you are starting to wake up. Call them by the name they use for themselves: the Steady Ones. Maybe someday they'll tell you your own name."
And Mati ran into the woods, crying, "Steady Ones! Thank you! Thank you for telling me the secret! You feel the wind! You feel the rain! Forgive me for not knowing!"
And the wind carried Mati's voice through the forest.
Satya found out how to use the suppleness of small branches to fall gently into the next tree. He learned how to trust the branches of certain trees to snap back like a bow when he bent them with his weight, hurling him high into the next tree. He remembered how to save energy by rolling and how to use his teeth to hold on.
Satya recalled a time when his family had gone to the hill country for relief from the heat during a scorching summer. One evening they had watched the hill people dance. It was a circle dance, with men and women intertwined. An old woman in the centre of the circle banged a small drum and called out a verse, and all the other dancers held on to each other and sang out another verse.
On and on it went, the rhythm growing faster and faster, the dancers relying on the weight and movement of their neighbours. Satya had been fascinated by this dance. In his own kingdom dancers seldom touched each other when they danced, especially male and female dancers. How different the hill country dances were! Maybe these dances said: You are a poor villager and you will not survive in these hills unless you rely on your neighbour. You will not survive unless you become someone your neighbour can rely upon. You will not survive unless men and women work together.
These were the dances that Satya thought of as he repeated his verses and was tossed through the swaying trees.
He saw no climber
He saw nothing climbed
He saw two dancers
Now, trees put a high value on courtesy. It is important to speak to them in the right way and to be patient. Mati was learning to be good at these things. Also, she knew that the trees beside the River of Doubtful Crossing were special.
Trees that grow by a fierce river, who know that one day the river will sweep the earth from their roots and the wind will blow and they will be carried away, are honoured as heroes by all other trees. And a tree that is a hero must be spoken to with extra care. What is more, River Trees have the privilege of hearing the songs and stories the river carries downstream. There is nothing that trees like better than songs and stories, and it is an honour to be able to pass them on to other trees.
The trees by the River of Doubtful Crossing heard the verses of the finned creatures, the gossip of the birds, the whispers of the insects that skimmed over the surface of the water on wings. They listened to the delicate beat of moonbeam on the water. They heard the tales of the animals that gathered to drink upstream at the riverside. They heard the ballads the ferns had been passing on from generation to generation for millions of years.
They heard the songs Priti sang as she washed her clothes on a rock near her village many days journey to the north, and they heard the little rhymes Putli sang as she played with her friends in the icy streams at the foothills of the Cold Mountains. All these songs and stories they kept in their memories and passed on to the forest.

More about the book on the Tulika site.

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