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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Sutra Muni
by Durlabh Singh

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There was an island surrounded by the sea, a picturesque island but not with very fertile land, as the coastal area was built of the grounded rocks pulverized by the tides and the daily battering of wind and the waves. Though it was a good place for contemplation, for the meditating minds, of which there were not many in the village. The village consisted of about three hundred souls trying to eke out a living from only a tiny strip of fertile land commonly shared or out of the riches of the sea.

Muni lived in the village on his own but was friendly and on good term with all others. He was somewhat a timid and cautious person as far as other people were concerned but ready to help anybody whosoever in need.

Soon the villagers decided that they needed to have some spiritual guidance from some learned person to guide them through the troubled waters of their existence. They were mostly illiterate peasants and did not have any clue about what is contained in the holy and learned books. Their wisdom consisted of the experiences they had through their own lives.

They began to build a temple with their own labours to which they all contributed enthusiastically both in materials and with manual labour. It turned out to be a handsome construction overlooking the village, with a wide panorama of the sea and all its visible moods and changing colours. They persuaded a Buddhist priest from the mainland to run their temple and thus give teachings and spiritual guidance to them in their hours of need and emotional weakness. It pleased them that they had found a good priest who was not greedy and accepted a meager board and lodging at the temple in return for their spiritual guidance. The villagers promised to provide him with food, homespun clothing and occasionally a few pieces of silver to compensate for his annual travel to the mainland.

One day a week the priest began to treatise, straight from Buddhist scriptures, and to answer any questions posed by the villagers. The peasants were happy to have something more in their lives other than the daily grind and their farmlands. On the day of teachings they would finish their work earlier and flock to the temple. Muni thought himself an illiterate who would not have any inkling or comprehension about higher teachings and so wanted to avoid going to the temple to listen to the sutras, but was persuaded by his colleagues to come along and so he went there occasionally.

The priest was reciting from a sutra, or a sermon, given by Buddha to his audiences about two thousand years ago. Muni could not comprehend a single word of the sutra, which was being recited in its original Sanskrit, but the priest afterwards translated into the language of the peasants and it began to make sense. It analyzed human life with its daily, hard living and showed that most of it consisted of suffering, but strangely enough most people were satisfied with this unsatisfactory states of being.

As the recitation proceeded, Muni found it interesting and absorbing. He had never analyzed life in such a way and was pleased to recognize that the mind was the most complicated piece of some jigsaw, and to comprehend it at all was a gigantic undertaking in itself. He wished he was not illiterate and could read those sermons in original himself. The next best thing was to listen to it through the interpretation of the high priest, and thus he focused his full mind on each word. The priest was reciting portions from Lankavatra and Diamond sutras and he found these teachings riveting.

He came home but those words kept reverberating in his mind and slowly he began to appreciate them as words of great wisdom to be appreciated only by a receptive mind. He began to visit the temple more frequently and was fascinated by the man who uttered them in the first place. The priest found in him an earnest disciple in search of the truth, and began to tell him more about Buddha himself and his life. He came to know Buddha as a person who was born in Northern India to a provincial king, complete with all the luxuries of life as a prince, and so was brought up amid splendour and riches, which are the highest aspiration of the common man everywhere. Gautam (Buddha) was married to the prettiest girl of the land and then had a son Rahul.

Whenever he went to the temple, he requested the priest to recite him more sutras uttered by Buddha and then to give simple explanation as to suit a layperson like himself with a simple mind. Although illiterate, he began to ponder over their deep meaning, and soon began to acquire more sophistication in his understanding. His sincerity and devotion was very much appreciated by the priest, and as the priest talked about it to his other lay congregation, the news of Muni's zeal and enthusiasm began to spread among the villagers at large. They began to call him 'Sutra Man' which he did not mind and was actually proud.

He began to develop a real love for Buddha and his teaching, which he held in high regard, and began to consult the priest about the thorny questions of life and death. People noticed the great change which was coming over Muni and his life. He was no longer a timid person and was becoming more self-reliant and more courageous, as if he had conquered to some extent the day-to-day fears and tribulations of the majority of mankind. He became witty too and began to tell stories himself of Buddha's life to his colleagues and other householders of the village. People even began to consult him about their personal and moral tribulations.

It was time for the villagers to go to the mainland to buy provisions, new seeds and other bric-a-brac. The mainland was nearly a hundred miles from their island and their sailing ship was going to take about two days to reach the mainland. It was good to have Muni with them to keep them entertained with his wit and laughs.

It was a calm day and the sea shone in all its glory. There were all the shades of the blue in its reflected waters. The ship was slicing through the liquid sheets of water creating white foam, which soon became the playground for a shoal of dolphins. They were diving in and out of the water, just keeping ahead of the ship front as if playing a game with the hull. Pleasant sunshine and gentle breeze created an atmosphere of calmness to which the people on board soon succumbed and were lulled to sleep.

They reached the mainland and the big town, the destination of their visit and business deals. The villagers scattered in different directions and promised to meet the following day on the waterfront for their return journey.

Previously Muni had seen statues of Buddha in the temple in his village and he liked to look at those often because those conveyed to him something beyond words. It occurred to him that human eyes were evolved much earlier than the birth of language and as such eyes might have accumulated more knowledge than language. He further remembered the talk of the priest when he recited them an episode from the Buddha's life.

In the evenings Buddha used to talk to the congregation of lay people about human life, its sufferings and of life at large in all its deeper aspects. One day he sat on the dais, and people came to pay homage and to listen to him impart words of wisdom and of human salvation. There were large numbers of people sitting there, waiting for his sermon to start. He did not say anything but sat there rapt in Samadhi. Half the people got fed up and moved away. After some time he took a flower and held in his hand high in front of the public. Nobody understood and they moved away as they thought he was not going to utter a single word that evening. In the end only one man was left and Buddha asked him why he still was there when others had moved away, and the man answered, 'Reverend. Tonight you have given the greatest sermon of your life and it was the greatest privilege to be present.' Tears of gratitude and joy were rolling down his face. Muni understood immediately what that lone seeker felt.

Muni opened his handkerchief in which were tied coins of different denominations, which he had saved during last few months. It took him a considerable time to add up the total amount of money in his possession. He went around different shops which sold statues of Buddha that did not meet his expectations. Most were carved out of stone and were too bulky, and their flat expressions did not exactly match his taste. Someone told him of a woodcarver who was a master of his craft and Muni went to see him. Truly this man was an artist and through his carving conveyed something of the otherworldly reality of the Buddha's looks. He selected one, paid the price, wrapped it up in a piece of cloth and went to the waterfront to board the ship.

When the ship sailed homeward bound, it was a bit cloudy though nothing dangerous, but as the day progressed, more clouds started building up. The villagers were looking over the seas to the distant horizon and soon saw black streaks covering the horizons, which they took as the arrival of some heavy rains and winds. Soon they saw flashes of lightening and gradually it advanced towards their ship. They were terrified of the coming storm and soon it began to rain heavily and the wind picked up. It was frightening and alarming and the captain announced that they were going into a big storm whipped up by gale force winds.

The people on the ship were in great stress regarding the fate of their ship and their own lives. They began to run around the ship clutching at their meager possessions. There was not much they could do and so huddled together in tears, moaning about their ill fate and bad karma.

Storm force increased and soon they heard deep gurgling noises in the bottom of the ship as if the ship was breaking up. The huge waves were tossing the ship like a toy, it rolled, going first one way and then the other way, touching the water's edge at each turn and a huge amount of water was splashed across the decks. All the frightened folk took shelter in the lower decks, clinging to the wooden benches. Some were discussing the frightening experience they would have if they were tossed onto the open seas in the darkness, when they would surely devoured by sharks or other sea monsters. Pity they would never see their families again and might be doomed to be reborn in the realms of hell.

There were only two people aboard who kept their sanity, the first one was the sea captain who was busy trying to maneuver and save the ship, and the other one was Muni who spread his bedding in the lower deck and prepared to sleep for the night. People were aghast at his callousness and asked him how could he sleep in that uproar, but he kept his calm

Muni replied, 'There is no use in panicking and crying. I pray to Buddha to save the ship and that is all we can do. If we are going to die, that is his will. Anyhow I trust Buddha to save us.' And so he went to sleep and slept soundly.

The storm lasted whole night; the captain struggled all night to maneuver the ship in spite of the sails being torn and masts destroyed.

It was morning when Muni awoke. 'Are we still in Samsara or have we arrived in the land of non-suffering of Buddha's heaven?' he asked, and looking at the worn out and ugly faces of people around him, he concluded that they were still living in the land of Samsara.

Muni reached his home; he washed and ate to appease his hunger. He unpacked the statue and put it on a pedestal, burnt incense before it. He called the villagers to come and pay homage to Buddha, which they did with all their reverence. Sunlight poured in and the statue looked splendid in its new surroundings. The villagers stated they could detect a distinct smile on Buddha's face.

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