AS THE Silver body of our aircraft descended to Calcutta airport, the sun was setting. It must have been about seven o'clock in the evening. As we left the plane and approached the simple airport buildings, the smell of parched earth met our nostrils. It was November, 1964. The monsoon had ended, and India was in what is said to be her most pleasant time of the year. Still, it was as hot in Calcutta as it is in midsummer in Japan. In the waiting room - which reminded me of the kind of place one finds in the Japanese countryside - old-fashioned fans revolved slowly near the ceiling, forcing down a current of air so warm that it only made us sweat more profusely.
Eager to greet us were priests of the Maha Bodhi Society of India, including the vice-president of the society, Madhoram Soft, the venerable Nayaka Maha Thera Jinaratana, and Masayuki Takahashi of the temple Nihonzan Myoho-ji, in India. The Indian priests, who wore the traditional saffron-colored robes of Theravada Buddhism, presented a lei of jasmine flowers and another of marigolds to each member of the group as signs of sincere welcome to India. Looking at the robes and smelling the heady fragrances of the flowers, I realized that these Indian priests and I shared the same religious faith. Suddenly I felt that I had truly arrived in the land where Shakyamuni was born.
After shaking hands with Nayaka Maha Thera Jinaratana, I encountered some people I was surprised and pleased to see. Shortly after our arrival three Japanese had burst into the room. When initial greetings with the representatives of the Maha Bodhi Society were over, these three people bowed slightly to me and expressed their welcome and their happiness at seeing me in good health. They were members of the Toshima and Ota ward chapters of Kosei-kai in Tokyo and had been sent to India in connection with work. Two of the three, a married couple, had been living in Calcutta for six years; but the third, a married woman who had come to India with her husband more recently, had ridden for five hours on a train in order to come to the airport to greet me.
Although for twenty years I had cherished the desire to make a trip to India, the homeland of Shakyamuni and of Buddhism, that wish had been difficult to fulfill. Indeed, as little as a month before the trip, I had no plans to go. But suddenly, in connection with the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of its founder, Anagarika Dharmapala, the Maha Bodhi Society of India invited me to visit their country.
We organized a pilgrimage group consisting of nine members of Rissho Kosei-kai and including my wife and my oldest son, Koichi; it was the first time that the three of us had ever traveled abroad together. On the day after our arrival in India, I celebrated my fifty-eighth birthday. On the morning of that day, we made a tour of the Indian Museum, where we saw Buddhist sculpture dating from the second century B.C. to the thirteenth century of the Christian Era. All the works impressed the viewer with the age and splendor of Buddhist culture. The statue of a triple lion at the entrance to the museum reminded me of similar statues at the four corners of the Precious Stupa on the roof of the Great Sacred Hall in Tokyo. In the afternoon, we visited the headquarters of the Maha Bodhi Society.
Dharmapala was born in Colombo, Ceylon. His mother, Malika, who was a devout Buddhist, often prayed for the prosperity of Buddhism in Ceylon. She promised that if she had a child he would be devoted to the practice of the Buddhist religion. After she made this promise, Dharmapala was born. Although the family was well-to-do and the father, a businessman, saw to it that his son attended the Christian schools thought to be suitable for children of wealthy Ceylonese of the time, Dharmapala's mother educated him in the reverence for the Three Treasures and the Five Precepts and gave him ample opportunity to study the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Once, when Dharmapala traveled to Bodhgaya in the company of a Japanese priest named Kozen Shaku, he was appalled at the desolation of the grounds and at the ruin of the great stupa. Realizing then that if such a distressing condition was allowed to persist priceless Buddhist antiquities would be lost forever, he made up his mind to preserve and rebuild important Buddhist monuments throughout India. After founding the Bodhgaya Maha Bodhi Society of India, Dharmapala devoted the remainder of his sixty-nine years of life to this great project.
Today, the Maha Bodhi Society, which carries on Dharmapala's work, is a group of people who are trying to restore Buddhism to prosperity in the land of its origin. Madhoram Soft, the vice-president of the society, told me that he and his fellow members look to Japan as an advanced nation from which they can learn. He expressed his hope that Buddhists in both countries would join hands to work for world peace. I said that the teachings of the Buddha are able to transcend barriers of race and nation to bring peace to mankind. As he listened to me, Madhoram Soft had a glow in his eyes that reconfirmed my conviction that he is a man of true religious faith.
On returning to our hotel, we found that the management had prepared a birthday cake for me. At the celebration that ensued, the band played Japanese songs; and I expressed my surprise and delight at being able to have a birthday in India. I said that the wish of the Buddha had probably made such a thing possible and added that the birthday party would be a memory that I would long treasure.
The sky was the deep, cloudless blue of southern lands on the day that we traveled by bus to Bodhgaya. We rode on the tree-lined highway that had been paved as part of the commemoration of the two-thousand-five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Buddha. We saw small hills on our left and seemingly endless agricultural fields on our right. As we approached the outskirts of the city, the great stupa of the Mahabodhi Vihara came into view on our left. Exclamations of excitement filled the bus, and I experienced slight tension as we came closer to this stupa that marks the site where Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment.
Bodhgaya is a quiet forest of vast trees whose branches interlace overhead to provide welcome shade. From among the trees the great stupa rises to a height of about fifty-two meters. The massive and elegant building is made of blue tiles coated with lime; the blue shows faintly through the lime. It was first built in the third century B.C., during the reign of King Ashoka. It was rebuilt in the fourth century of the Christian Era by King Samudragupta and was repaired in 1880. As I slowly raised my eyes to the stupa, I thought of the millions of people who have enjoyed the same view during the thousands of years that the tower has been in existence. And it seemed to me that I could sense, rising upward from the very ground on which the tower stands, the silent voices of the people who had revered the teachings of the Buddha and had died firm in the same spirit of reverence.
After removing our footwear - as is the custom at holy Buddhist places in India - we entered the great stupa. I lighted incense and offered it before the seated statue of Shakyamuni in the inner room of the tower. Then readings from the Lotus Sutra began. We all took part in the readings, and our voices filled the building. At the conclusion of reading, we went out to tour the grounds. On the north side of the stupa are eighteen stone lotus platforms that were made to represent the eighteen lotus flowers said to have burst into bloom after the Buddha walked about at the conclusion of the meditation that led to his ultimate enlightenment. To the west of the stupa is a bodhi tree that appears quite ancient. Under the tree is the Diamond Seat, the place where Shakyamuni meditated and attained enlightenment.
More than two thousand years ago, at the place I visited on that memorable day at Bodhgaya, Shakyamuni became the Buddha after six years of ascetic discipline. At dawn on December eighth, according to tradition, this event - the greatest and most important in the history of mankind - took place under a tree on the very spot where I stood. As I put my hand on the trunk of the tree planted there now and gently closed my eyes, an image of the Buddha experiencing enlightenment under the pale light of the morning star traversed the millennia to reveal itself to me. Opening my eyes again, I saw my son Koichi standing with gaze fixed on the golden statue of Shakyamuni in a niche in the wall behind the Diamond Seat. Then I saw my wife standing with hands raised together in prayerful attitude in front of the Diamond Seat, and my heart filled with joy at being able to visit these holy places in the company of my own family. My next thought was of the membership of Rissho Kosei-kai, whose support made our trip to India possible. I found myself wishing that every member could make the same pilgrimage.
A few hundred meters from the great stupa at Bodhgaya flows the Nairanjana River, which passes through open plains dotted with dense groves of trees. One of these groves is called the Forest of Asceticism because it is the place where Shakyamuni and five monks engaged in religious ascetic practices before he attained enlightenment. In the distance rises the mountain called Pragbodhi. The young prince Siddhartha, who was later to become the Buddha, left his home, his beautiful wife, Yashodhara, and his son, Rahula, to enter an ascetic way of life in the hope of finding enlightenment. For six years, he engaged in severe austerities only to discover that asceticism does not bring enlightenment. On discovering this truth, he rose, bathed in the Nairanjana River, and sat down under a tree. A village maiden named Sujata came to him and gave him milk and gruel to eat. Refreshed by this food, he resolved to continue his search for enlightenment. To this end he climbed Mount Pragbodhi. Finding the pinnacle of the mountain unsuitable, however, he descended, went to Bodhgaya (near present-day Gaya), and sat under the bodhi tree where he finally attained enlightenment.
When I stood on the banks of the Nairanjana River, it was low because the rainy season was over. Still, its crystal clear water reflected the bright light of the sun. I took off my shoes and waded into the water, which came to just below my knees. The coolness of the river was stimulating and seemed to carry me back to the distant past.
India is a land where poverty reigns supreme. On first acquaintance, Calcutta impressed me with the kind of desolation that I recall in the Tokyo of the days immediately after World War II. In the business parts of town, small dirty shops are crowded together. In the shops, where miscellaneous articles of trade are heaped under dim electric lights, two or three men can be seen gazing idly out into the streets. The city is packed with people, many of whom are as thin as rails and clothed in no more than simple rags. The instant an automobile pauses at a stoplight, beggars flock around and begin rapping on the windows. Day and night, in front of the train stations and in the various plazas, tens and hundreds of people of the lowest caste loiter. Some of them lie on the bare ground staring in front of them with dry, empty eyes. They have no homes, no work, not so much as a small square of land to cultivate. Most of them suffer from chronic malnutrition. They exist in a living death of semistarvation.
My wife often asked me how all these people survive if they do no work. It is amazing that they manage to face each new morning. Nor are they numbered in the thousands or even the hundreds of thousands: in India today there are more than seventy million people who fall into the lowest social caste. Yet Buddhism teaches that all men are equal, that all men can become buddhas. Jawaharlal Nehru once said that Buddhism died a natural death in India. After Buddhism perished there, the majority of the Indian people became believers in the Hindu faith; and it is the Hindu faith that today supports the rigid, irrational system of castes.
I had an opportunity to visit a temple at the Hindu holy place of Varanasi. In front of the imposing white building was a red curtain, and in front of the curtain were six men who intoned a magical liturgy as they swayed to and fro and struck the gongs they held. Finally the red curtain opened, revealing a statue of a strange goddess painted all white except for crimson lips. What I was witnessing appeared less mystical than fantastic. But the scene of people bathing in the Ganges was more surprising still.
The abundant waters of the Ganges flash reflections of the light of the hot southern sun. At the riverbanks, the water is muddy brown. In places along the shore concrete steps have been built to lead down into the water. Large numbers of men and women descend the steps into the river daily and wash their faces, rinse their mouths, or submerge themselves entirely. Upstream is a place on the river where women do their laundry. Not far from the bathing steps is a crematory, from which the ashes of the dead are cast upon the river. To our minds, these scenes on the river were only odd; but from the viewpoint of the Hindu believers, the Ganges is holy. To have one's ashes mixed with its waters is an ultimate happiness. Consequently, the followers of the Hindu religion wash their faces, drink the muddy river water with a sense of gravity, and happily bathe in it. These people are sincere in their belief, although to me it seems only an unenlightened custom.
Customs alter with the nation. There are a large number of Ceylonese and Tibetan Buddhist priests at the holy Buddhist places in India. At one of these places, a Tibetan priest approached me and thrust his long tongue out at me. "What can he mean by sticking out his tongue at a person he has never seen before?" I asked myself in consternation. I later learned that for Tibetans thrusting out the tongue symbolizes a sign of respect and a vow to speak only the truth.
Pasted on walls and fences in many places in Indian towns, I spied brown objects about fifteen centimeters in diameter and about the shape of a large cookie. In the center of each was a handprint. I wondered what these things might be; they did not look edible. Inquiry revealed that they are cow dung, the sole source of fuel for many people in India. Whenever they find a piece of cow dung in the streets, women pick it up, mix it with grass, and press it against a wall or fence, where it soon dries. When it has dried, the women collect it, add it to the other dung cakes in their baskets, and peddle the fuel from place to place. India is vast and has an immense population. I could not help thinking that, if the people would use everything as economically as they do cow dung and if they could know the joy of diligent labor, the nation might well experience rebirth.
I spent the night before my trip to Mount Gridhrakuta in a resthouse in an old royal fort at Rajgir, in the state of Bihar. The fort is surrounded by five mountains, of which Gridhrakuta is by far the highest and the most beautiful. The name of the mountain, which means Vulture Peak, derives from an imagined resemblance between its shape and that of the bird. The Buddha is believed to have expounded many sutras - including the Lotus Sutra - on Mount Gridhrakuta. The other members of the party and I arose and participated in sutra readings at six thirty on the morning of our trip. We did not board our bus, however, until nine o'clock. Rajgir was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. To the north of the old fort is the new fort built by King Bimbisara, a notable ruler of Magadha. Bimbisara is said to have erected a building in a bamboo grove where he heard the Buddha and came to believe his teachings. During the lifetime of the Buddha, however, Bimbisara was imprisoned and subsequently murdered by his own son Ajatashatru.
On the way from the old fort to the new one are a number of ruins, some of which we visited on our way to Mount Gridhrakuta. At ten in the morning, we arrived at the stone-paved road called the Way of Bimbisara because the king had it paved so that he could be carried over it to the mountain to hear the Buddha. Moving up the fairly steep road, we chanted the Daimoku, Namu Myoho Renge-kyo. As we went higher, the royal fort came into view.
At the top of the mountain is a plaza, on the edge of which is a brick ruin said to be the platform from which the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra and other teachings. I was deeply moved by the sight of this platform because it brought to my mind's eye a vivid impression of the time when the Buddha was alive on this earth. I made an incense offering on the platform, brought my hands together in prayer, and meditated profoundly for a few moments before beginning to read from the Lotus Sutra. As I stood there in silence, I felt strength welling up from deep in the earth. Reading the sutra as I stood on top of Vulture Peak and looked at the greenery of the neighboring mountains gleaming in the blazing sunlight was an experience that will always remain precious.
After a brief rest, we examined some caves in which Ananda, Maudgalyayana, and Shariputra, major disciples of the Buddha, have left traces of their religious pursuits. Then we descended to the base of the mountain. Even after we had left it, Mount Gridhrakuta remained a joy in our hearts.
Sarnath is famous as the place at which the Buddha first rolled the Wheel of the Law, that is, where he preached his first sermon. The Maha Bodhi Society built a middle school and a high school in Sarnath some years ago and planned to construct a college there as part of the celebration of the centennial of the birth of Dharmapala. We visited the grounds of the schools during our trip to Sarnath; and as we entered the gates, all seven hundred of the students gathered in the courtyard rose as if at a signal and welcomed us with voices filled with youth and strength.
After we had toured the school facilities, I was asked to decide the position of the foundation stones for the college. Agreeing to do as requested, I followed my guide to a trench dug to a depth of about two meters. In the bottom of the trench I laid five bricks, on top of which construction workers would later pour concrete for the foundations. At the conclusion of this brief ceremony, I was thanked and asked to make a few remarks. I felt that I must comply. As I spoke to the young people from the high speaker's platform, I could not help believing in a Buddhist relation that led to my making a speech for the first time in India at the place where the Buddha first rolled the Wheel of the Law.
Some time after this experience, I learned that to be invited to attend the ground breaking of a school is among the highest honors an Indian can afford his guest. I was happy that the Maha Bodhi Society had been courteous enough to invite a delegation of Buddhist believers from Japan to take part in such a prestigious occasion. I was further pleased by the profound significance I attached to concluding our pilgrimage in India on the site of a school devoted to stimulating the prosperity of Buddhism in its homeland.
The name of India is said to come from a Persian word meaning "the land of the Indus River." This river has undoubtedly played an important part in the development of India. It was on its shores that the Indus Valley civilization - possibly the oldest in human history - emerged and reached a level of urban sophistication that entitles it to be ranked with the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. In more recent times, the Indus valley has produced such great leaders as the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore, the advocate of the theory of passive resistance Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and the great politician Jawaharlal Nehru.
Today, however, religious evil has sent roots deep into the very daily lives of the Indian people to create conditions of appalling poverty and famine. Why did Buddhism, which originated and once prospered in India, fail there? Perhaps the upper classes did not react well to the Buddha's teachings of universal equality. Perhaps the lower classes failed to understand the greatness of the Buddha's teachings, even when they were permitted to come into contact with them. The conjunction of these two factors may explain the failure of Buddhism and the gradual rise of Hinduism in India. Reflecting on the condition of India made me intensely aware of this truth: no matter where the Buddha first taught, unless the people understand its meaning and put it to practical application, the Law, which is otherwise a priceless treasure, has no value. A great Buddhist teacher in the fourth century A.D. prophesied that the Buddha's Law would come to be closely related to the Orient. Just as he foresaw, today, we in Japan have the good fortune to be bathed in the light of the Law. When I saw the way in which Buddhism can be said to exert hardly any influence at all in India today, I became even more deeply impressed with the gravity of the mission of Rissho Kosei-kai. For the sake of the protection of the Law - one aspect of our mission - and as a way of demonstrating gratitude to Shakyamuni, I proposed establishing an arrangement whereby serious Indian students may come to Japan to study Buddhism so that they may carry the teachings to their homeland again.
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