No one has contributed more to the amazing life and teachings of Gautama Buddha than Satyapal Anand who comes to the realm of English poetry from the Orient, particularly of the Indian subcontinent. This book is a compendium of his poems that were first written in Urdu and Hindi under the common denomination of Tathagat Poems and then translated by him in the English poetic idiom. Using the time-honored format of Poetic Dialogue he puts two main characters on the stage, Viz. Lord Buddha himself and his first disciple, a namesake of the poet, Bhikshu Anand. The dialogue format allows the poet a free play: asking, inquiring, querying, and answering, explaining, and elucidating – become the warp and woof of this cosmically important drama that impinges on the human situation, then and now.
Anand quizzes his teacher and mentors mercilessly. Buddha is eloquently vocal, at times
ebullient and forceful. His answers are clear like a school teacher’s, vivid and impressive. He explains complicated and controversial points more like a village elder than a philosopher or a religious savant. Occasionally becoming colorfully graphic, his speech is simple and straightforward. The topics discussed include sex for pro-genitive purposes, married life, celibacy, meat-eating and vegetarianism, , rights and duties, life continuum in terms of awa gaman (the cycle of birth and re-birth) – and finally, how to achieve nirvana, final freedom from this cycle.
Contrary to the popular belief that Buddhism, in its original form, was a rigid and inflexible discipline at the level of the individual, these poems show a marked malleable approach, a relaxed and pliable viewpoint even on subjects like meat-eating, sex, non-violence, karma, dharma, participation in and yet independence from workaday life – and many subjects on which more than thirty-five sects of Buddhism today differ, not in essence, but in practice.
I was sent the manuscript by Professor Anand for my viewpoint as he thought that his comprehensive approach might injure some Buddhists’ religious feelings. After reading the text, I found that the opposite might be true in this case, that Buddhists of all color and creed would welcome a fresh wind blowing on some of their rigid principles and practices. Indeed, there is much in this book that could revolutionize the Buddhist scenario but let us understand, once for all, that this is a book of poems, and these poems, according to the poet, fall in the category of poetic fiction.
This said one must look at some of the poems to extract from them their juices in terms of their essential meanings. In the first poem titled Jesus Buddha prophesies that he is not going to get Nirwana after his death; that he has one more life span to live. Asked what that life-span would be, he answers:
“What kind of birth, O my revered Master?” /But Buddha spoke, clearly and meaningfully./ “It would be a life span in which all you /who are my disciples now,/ would be my disciples once again./All of you would forsake me./ You would deny my faith and call me an impostor./ You would let me be put on the cross and be crucified./ And then ….” Buddha’s voice sank but momentarily.
“My disciples, all of you, would agree / not with me, but with my crucifiers. / You would leave me upon others’ mercy to be jilted/ …..but as I said, that span would be my last life. /The crucifixion that I couldn’t get in this life /I will get in the next life. / Buddha hesitated, but just for a moment. / “I would be known as Jesus!” he said, “But he’s five centuries hence. You’ve not heard of him!”
The idea, that Buddha would take birth as Christ almost five centuries after his death, was first propounded by Yeno (Hui-Neng), the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism in a riddle that remained unsolved till the 19th century when Jesuits gave it a new meaning in terms of a foretelling of Christ’s birth.
In another poem, Anand hesitatingly brings up the subject of sex for discussion. The previous night he had had a wet dream and he wants to know how it befits a monk to have a sexual dream resulting in involuntary orgasm. Here is Buddha’s answer.
Anand blurted out his next question, / “O’ Master, do you have wet dreams also?” / Buddha didn’t hesitate. “Not now, O’ Anand, / but I had all kind of sexual reveries before …/ Yes, don’t have to ask, / I’m going to answer all your unasked questions. / Yes, even during my days of fasting penance.” /Buddha continued, / “You know that I was married. / I had a child. / I had had sexual experience umpteen times. / It was but natural that my mind should dwell upon it. /Many times I reached orgasm even during fasting./ Then it became fewer and fewer times. / Then, none at all. / And now, I have a feeling of aversion to it.”
In yet another poem the subject of Buddha’s renunciation and his supposed injustice to his wife and child comes to the fore. Anand seems to have an upper hand when he suggests to his teacher and mentor that his treatment of Yashadha, his wife was unjust. Firstly, he never discussed his moral or spiritual predicament with her. Then he just sneaked out of their nuptial bed chamber and never even looked back. He could overcome his sex urge through fasting and samadhi but his wife was published for no fault of hers. The following lines show how Buddha had fought his inner battle on this front – and finally, when he submits to Anand’s point of view and owns up his lapse, he seems to be relieved.
“Yes, sex-partner, that’s what I said / And that’s what your original question was. / ‘Partner for the bed’ was the term you had used. / Anyway, O’ Anand, Let me now say my last words. / Whereas in this battle of life, I know, / by killing my sex desire I have gained something / eternal and everlasting, something more valuable /
than a mere frame made of earth, water and wind, / she, a young lady barely eighteen years old, / poor slip of a girl, is neither here nor there. / She has lost the battle for her body and her soul. / …..And, O’ Anand, I am sorry for her.”
In yet another poem Buddha rummages through his long lost but newly found memories of his wife and child and answers Anand’s questions in a mixture of loss and remorse.
Buddha closed his eyes went deep inside his mind. / After some time, he opened his eyes. /
“Yashodha and I – and our child, all three / were bound together for countless birth spans./
To get out of the entangling net, one of us had to break out. / I was the only one who could do that / And, O’ Anand, I did that, / but not without hurting all three of us. / That was my first step on the thorny path of nirvana. ……./ “Sexual desire, O’ Anand, is the basic law of nature / There’s no deliverance from it. / If it is for one woman, with whom you’re bound,/I mean, bound by the karma of marriage / It is desire all right, but not lust / The kind of desire from which there’s no deliverance.”.
“If you think, O’ Anand, that after giving up Yashodha /I easily conquered my sex urge …. Then you are mistaken. / It took me many years to do so.”
We have already talked about Christianity and Buddhism. Satyapal Anand has weighed his intellectual wares in his mental weighing scale also. Elsewhere he has quoted from D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism that I reproduce here. “Jesus said, ‘ When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth; that thine alms may be in secret.’ This is also the secret virtue of Buddhism.” Our poet has as many as five poems in this book that discuss the pros and cons of alms-giving and alms-taking and the relationship between giver and taker.
One Hundred Buddhas is as much a book of poetry as a revised version of all that is know about Buddhism, in easy-to-read, simple-to-understand lines of poetry. I do not feel I am making a tall claim on behalf of the poet when I say that it is a ‘book for a lifetime.’
Joshua Hakuin (Dr.)
(Originally written in 2011 … Now being reproduced with the second edition)