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October 1902 Issue [Article]

The Ordination of Asoka

MY invitation came from Oo-Dhamma-Nanda. That was his name “in religion.” Earlier he had been indicated by another, which implied, to those who knew it, an Irish diver employed in the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. But since the pearl-diver had gone forever, so, naturally, had his patronymic. There remained a priest of the yellow robe of Buddha called Oo-Dhamma-Nanda — “Lord of the Law of Happiness.” He himself chose the designation, he told me. “You were not afraid,” I said, “of such a name?”

“Oh, not at all,” he replied. “I thought I’d like it.”

He sat looking at me steadily and quietly, under the punkha in my friend’s drawing-room, from which one saw the evening light upon the Irrawaddy. His head was shaved, his bare feet were crossed on the floor. He was plentifully swathed in his saffron habiliments, but the upper one fell like a plaid, leaving the right arm and shoulder uncovered. It was curiously repellent, that bare arm and shoulder; it expressed a detachment that was almost an indecency. I found myself staring at it with unforgivable rudeness.

It had been hard to know exactly what to expect, hard to give any definition to one’s vision of a man of one’s own race dedicated to a religious ideal of the East. I had seen many priests of Buddha, poonghees — in throngs, in companies, or solitary upon the highways, humble and contemplative, holding their great palm-leaf fans between their eyes and temptation — he would not, I thought, be like those. But he was curiously like them. His shaven head was as disconcertingly smooth, the sun had tanned his skin almost as dark an olive. In his eyes, which were blue, sat the same look of withdrawal and of concentration, as if his spirit, intent upon inner examination, had turned its back upon the world.

When he spoke or answered it looked over its shoulder. And all with the strangest Hibernian echo, not only in his voice, but on his long upper lip, in the way his eyes darkened when he smiled—

Yes, he was like them. Every morning, for three years, he had taken the thabeik, the begging-bowl, and gone out barefooted, bareheaded, past the little bamboo houses of the people, collecting his daily food, asking nothing, rejecting nothing, saying no word of thanks, a mute opportunity for good works. Every day for three years he had eaten but twice, at nine and at noon, and gone to bed fasting to preserve the innocence of his dreams. Every day for three years he had walked with downcast eyes fixed never more than six feet in front of him, telling upon his rosary, “I worship the Buddha; I worship the Law; I worship the Assembly,” and hundreds of times every day had he whispered to himself, “Aneissa, dokka, anatta” — “Misery, pain, illusion” — when perhaps the sun was bright upon the padowk flowers, or the women laughed much at the well. He was vowed to no possessions, no desires; as he ate he assured himself that he took food to sustain the body only, and found a sin in its savor, making no haste at his meal, and always leaving, moreover, a mouthful upon the plate. He drank from his own primitive filter that he might not even take life invisible, and always he meditated upon the Law. I knew that he had done these things and many others that belonged to the part he had chosen. It was plain from his face that he had done them.

It was bound to be a catechism, and the results were bound to be meagre. The mere spectacle of him was too dramatic, too absorbing — the wide gulf he had stepped across on the bridge of his yellow robe. It was as though I hailed him, with my questions, from the other side, as if he shouted to answer me, though his voice was soft and his speech illiterate. That was extraordinary, his ignorant manner of speaking, quite discounted and, as it were, neutralized, by the refinement he had gathered somewhere — not in Dublin.

I asked him, of course, what determined him to the rule and the order he had adopted. He answered me carefully, picking his words; and though the brogue was thick upon them, I suspected that it was nothing to the richness that he suppressed.

“It first came before me, as you may say, in Ceylon. I studied it a bit there, and then I came up here to Burma to one of these kyaungs, which is Burmese for monasteries, and the priests they tuk me in hand and learned me till I was ready to enter the priesthud meself.”

It was quite like that. But he seemed to have no more relation to his language than to any other circumstance of the life he had discarded.

“Do you read Pali?” I asked.

“I do not — yet. The sacred texts has got to be expounded to me. It’s th’ new letters of th’ alphabet that comes hard to me — them an’ the new language together. The other priests” — he smiled gently — “has got the start o’ me there. They learned it as bhys, here in the kyaungs.”

I wondered whether I had ever before heard a creature from my own side of the world admit, for any purpose or under any circumstances, that an Oriental had “got the start” of him. This was humility indeed, astonishing and curiously sweet.

“You are the first European, are you not, to become a Buddhist priest in Burma?”

“I am,” he said, and just for an instant the old Adam looked out of his eyes in a ray of vanity. But he lowered them at once, and when he looked up again it was veiled. What I longed to get some inkling of was whether through mysticism and mortification he had really attained, even momentarily, another plane of experience; there was no reason, after all, why this should be contradicted by a brogue. I made a cautious approach.

“Do you meditate much?” I asked.

“Not so much as some. There’s some that does nothing else.”

“Then what —” I paused, being troubled for words. He, too, looked troubled, as if definition were an exercise for which he felt himself ill-equipped.

“Well, I keep the rules, amountin’ to two hundred and twenty-seven” — he looked at me as much as to say, “That’s something” — “and I travel around wherever I can do anny good against the missionaries —”

“The Christian missionaries?”

“The same. I have nothing to say against Christianity, but it doesn’t do here in Burma. I judge by results. I know the people that’s Buddhists, and the people that’s taken up with Christianity. It means that they’re worse than they were before — they’ve got no religion. Buddhyism,” he laid down with explanatory emphasis, “teaches them annyhow to lead good lives. Buddhyism is misunderstud. The Christian is apt to take it for idolatry.”

“One does sometimes, even in Calcutta, hear the image of the Buddha described as a Burmese idol,” I conceded.

“Well, there now,” said Oo-Dhamma-Nanda.

It was in no way my desire that our interview should assume a disputatious character, and silence fell between us. Only for a moment, but it was long enough to convince me that Oo-Dhamma-Nanda would be the easiest person to be silent with I had ever met. He simply retreated from his bodily presence, which became at once as unembarrassing as a piece of furniture. Looking at him, I felt that the essence of what he had acquired, of what laid on him that eloquent difference, was still to defeat me. I grasped at the inevitable question. “Can you tell me what Nirvana is?” I asked.

His eyes darkened again with his spiritualized Irish smile. “I don’t know as I could explain it, but if I maybe could, ye wouldn’t understand,” he said. “One thing’s certain, it don’t mean annihilation.”

“If any teach Nirvana is to cease,
Say unto such they lie;
If any teach Nirvana is to live,
Say unto such they err.”

I quoted, and Oo-Dhamma-Nanda said, That’s about it.”

“Are you happy?” I ventured.

“That’s none o’ my business,” he replied, and then as if to soften this asperity, he added, “Happiness in Buddhyism is different to happiness outside of it. Ye wouldn’t understand.”

I had a sense of compunction when he went on to say that if he might get his umbrella, which he had left at the back of the house, he would like to go now — a discreet idea that perhaps his happiness was none of my business, either. Something like apology trembled on my lips, but I am afraid I forgot it when he told me that, the second induction of a European into the Buddhist priesthood would take place the next morning at nine o’clock, “there or thereabouts,” and that I might come and see it if I liked. After all, to a person who had relinquished not only the world, but his birthright in it, what was an apology?

The kyaung stood back from the road under trees, as Burmese monasteries always do. They were beating a gong in front of it at nine o’clock next morning; but they beat a gong so often in Burma, and for reasons so obscure, that it mingles with the barking of the pariahs, and the cawing of the crows, and falls upon alien ears, dulled into a kind of constant accompaniment to life. It would not have called us, the Stoic and me; but we knew the address. The Stoic is an Administrator; let him go at that. He is captive to the service of this gentle country and his far-off King; he would call himself a Pagoda Slave, but that is too cruel a term even for bondage like his. Besides, I am not sure that the Stoic finds no hidden bliss in putting up with it.

The monastery was built of brown unpainted teak. It stood on piles and looked sleepily at a radiant world from under its many high-pitched roofs; its appearance was rickety. As we climbed the outer staircase, Oo-Dhamma-Nanda appeared at the door of the landing. He explained genially that all was not yet ready; I believe they were shaving the candidate. The place was full of Burmans, both priests and the laity, full of talk and laughter and cheerful bustling. The candidate was abandoning the garments of this world. Would we wait? Wouldn’t we! But if we might have a couple of chairs under the mahogany-tree furthest from the gong, we thought we would prefer to wait there.

They brought us chairs, the laity, detailed in two comely Burmese maidens, each with a rose above her ear, each in a fresh pink silk tamein and spotless while jacket. Then they brought a table and spread a cloth upon it, and on this they set forth madeira-cake and a plate of those terrible little Italian confections, mostly of almond paste, which lure us in the East, and to these they added long glasses and a bottle of cider.

“Oh, Stoic,” said I, “behold your breakfast,” but he only smiled indulgently and cut the madeira-cake. There are stoics who regard the feelings of other people even before they repress their own. A gay-colored group gathered at a respectful distance to watch our enjoyment of the feast, and among them was a little Burmese boy. I hope it was not very wrong; I beckoned to the little Burmese boy, who came willingly.

An idea seized one of the rose-decked maidens; she fled away as fast as her tightly wrapped petticoat would permit, and presently reappeared with two large brimming cups of tea. “The intention is excellent,” remarked the Stoic, “but the milk is of the bazar,” and he said something in Burmese which meant, I believe, that we were the kind of people who never drank tea. They received this with perfectly cheerful understanding; but they began to think of other things, and to run into the monastery and get them — pink lemonade and chocolates. We could only submit, passively, and the Stoic ate everything he could. Time passed, and without intermission they beat the gong.

“Do you realize,” I said, “that we are taking part in a feast to celebrate the relapse of a Christian into paganism?”

“Let us hope,” replied the Stoic, “that he will make a good pagan.”

“It is a strange change.”

“ ‘The universe is transformation, life is opinion,’ ” quoted the Stoic.

“But whence this opinion?” I begged to know. “What wandering current from the heart of an exotic ideal thrilled Oo-Dhamma-Nanda and bade him follow? It must have had to penetrate so much.”

“Perhaps he worships his daemon. Perhaps, unknown to his kind, he has always worshipped it. Buddhism provides generously for that. We of the West worship our activity, or our ambition, or our sense of beauty; we never worship our daemons. And to do it in real comfort you must make your body a negation, and dress it contemptuously in yellow cotton, and obey the Law.”

“Oh,” I said. There was no time to say more; it was ten o’clock, and midway on the grass between us and the monastery appeared Oo-Dhamma-Nanda, beckoning.

Most of the assemblage had drawn to one side of the room, and there it crouched on the floor upon its heels. On a mat before the people sat the old Sadaw, the abbot. He had the most benevolent face I have ever seen in the world; his eyes wandered about him as if they dreaded meeting pain, and he smiled constantly, as water will ever ripple. It was as if he wished to ward off sadness with his smile. I watched it, fascinated, for a long time, wondering if he succeeded. A younger priest hovered about him, others huddled in the background. There was not a semblance of order; quite as many Burmans, men and women, were walking about and talking as were sitting in rows on the floor. The women specially bustled and laughed at the other side of the room, bending over baskets of eatables, not in any way humbled by the occasion, rather in their way mistresses of it. The room was divided by a long row of pagoda-shaped lacquered ôk, which cover the food offerings to the priests. I saw no furniture except the couple of chairs which were found for the Stoic and me, and the table which pursued us from outside, to be immediately placed at our elbows, laden with fresh confections. A few Chinamen mingled with the Burmans, and many in whom the races were plainly blended. Oo-Dhamma-Nanda moved among them with lifted, anxious eyebrows ; his glance was deprecating when it fell on us, but we could not be sure whether we were the subjects or the objects of his apology. The place was open all round; we could see through the wooden lattices the sun flaming on the trees outside. From mid-roof hung the ghost of a once marvellous dragon-lantern, torn and tarnished. Sparrows had built in it and flew constantly in and out, adding their tribute to the festival. It seemed, as it hung there, a type of nugatory incarnations. “Yet we,” said the Stoic, “perpetually ask for truth, and always the sparrows build.”

Then, while we all still talked and feasted, from an inner room appeared the candidate. He was dressed in robes of the priestly cut, but they were all white, and he stood in them a bent old man. His shaven head was as white as his garments, and so was his skin; his deep-set timid eyes had speculation and shrewdness in them; his nose was sharply aquiline, his lips tightly drawn. Surely, one thought, it was late. He desired to find peace and to annihilate sorrow, but would there be time? His steps could be so few upon the way; would the journey be worth the departure?

They all looked upon him kindly as he came forward among them, but the chatter did not cease until Oo-Dhamma-Nanda, through an interpreter, demanded silence. Then there was something like it, and the scattered groups melted upon the floor. The candidate was guided forward and shown where to kneel down. He carried his yellow robes in his arms, awkwardly. The officiating priest stood over him, the old abbot fixed his benignant gaze on him. The candidate kneeling, lifted his head and looked up at them, with affection and confidence and docility and submission, between man and man indeed a curious regard — across this gulf of race and tradition . . . how is one to write of the strange pang it brought? Out of the attitude, the delicate profile thrown back, the look of exaltation chosen and conviction desired, flashed a seizing resemblance. I looked at the Stoic and he at me. Together we ejaculated, “Cardinal Newman!” The image was the merest kaleidoscopic suggestion of dissolving circumstance, which immediately carried it away, but on the illusory scene of things we saw it for an instant painted before us.

The officiating priest began to speak, and the candidate repeated after him these things in Pali, addressing the abbot: “Grant me leave to speak. Lord, graciously grant me admission to deacon’s orders. Lord, I pray for admission as a deacon. Again, Lord, I pray for admission as a deacon. A third time, Lord, I pray for admission as a deacon. In compassion for me, Lord, take these yellow robes and let me be ordained, in order to the destruction of all sorrow, and in order to the attainment of Nirvana.”

This prayer he also repeated three times. Leaning forward, the abbot took the bundle of robes and gently threw a band about the candidate’s neck, thus formally clothing him, I suppose, with righteousness. At this the candidate again retired with the priest. Some circumstance attended his going; they made way for him. He moved bent and rigid and slow from among us — a corpse in its grave-clothes he strangely seemed, going with volition to its burial. In the inner room, we learned, he changed into the yellow livery, saying after the priest: “In wisdom I put on the robes, as a protection against cold, as a protection against heat, as a protection against gadflies and mosquitoes, wind and sun and the touch of serpents, and to cover nakedness — that is, I wear them in all humility, for use only, and not for ornament or show.”

Again he came out and knelt before the abbot: “Lord, I pray for the refuges and the precepts.”

* “I put my trust in Buddha; I put my trust in the Law; I put my trust in the Priesthood.”

“Buddham sáranam gacchámi; Dhammam sáranam gacchámi; Sangham sáranam gacchámi,”* sonorously repeated the priest, and quaveringly the old man said it after him. He stumbled over some of the words — there was pathos here — and the cadence he gave to some did not satisfy the priest, so that, looking up like a child, he was obliged to say them several times. The words of the precepts were harder still — that by which he vowed to abstain from beautifying his person with garlands contained twenty syllables — and here the candidate often broke down, shaking a discouraged head. The dignity and the solemnity fled away from him; he became only a bewildered old man, a puppet in a play which it was doubtful whether he wholly understood. The kindly eyes of the abbot alone redeemed the situation, and the devotion of an old Burmese woman who stretched out joined hands before this miracle, with a flower in them.

There was still the selection of a name, the new name on the old tombstone of an Englishman. This, according to the usage, was at the candidate’s choice, several being submitted to him. It was plainly an interesting moment; the old abbot leaned forward and whispered, the officiating priest bent down, and the others drew around; even the audience — should I say the congregation? — gathered closer, freely offering suggestions, and Oo-Dhamma-Nanda hovered over all. “Oo-Sri-Visuddha,” “Venerable Lord of Purity”; Oo-Candimâ,” Lord of the Moon”; “Oo-Dhamma-Sami,” “Lord of the Written Law” — should it be any of these? The candidate hesitated; his fancy was not caught. “Oo-Asoka!” contributed an intelligent layman in a queue, smiling broadly (“That chap,” said the attentive Stoic to me, “is a clerk in the Finance Department”), and the old man turned at the suggestion. “I’ve heard of Asoka,” said he, vacillating. Oo-Dhamma-Nanda settled it. “Call him Asoka,” said he with authority, and it was agreed.

“Do you like your name?” asked an English-speaking Burman, good-naturedly. “Oh, it’s a nice name,” quavered the old man, “but I’m not equal to Asoka.”

I think they scamped the service; we were in Lower Burma, where orthodoxy, of late years, has suffered some dilution; but it had at least one feature super-added to the ritual of Shin-Gautama. Oo-Dhamma-Nanda, through an interpreter, addressed the assemblage. He held up his bare arm and they listened, many of them devoutly; the old woman still stretched out her flower. For that instant he was the pictorial priest, all to them that he could ever be. Then — ah me! — then he spoke. Alas, he addressed them as “Ladies and Gentlemen”; he made them a speech. It was about “the work,” the work of the Society for the Propagation of Buddhism, of which Oo-Dhamma-Nanda appeared to be a cornerstone. “The object of this soci’ty,” said he, “is that we should spread Buddhyism in all people whatsoever color they are.” He spoke slowly, with his fingers joined at the tips, and at the end of every sentence he swayed forward on his toes and back — he might have been a ward politician addressing a crowd in the interests of Tammany. He referred to the new-made deacon — “this gentleman who ye see here with the specs” — as the society’s ripest fruit. He made the inevitable appeal for support. “They say union is stren’th,” said he. He related, with modesty, some of his own exploits in defence of the indigenous faith. He had shut up no less than three mission stations, he told us, mainly by force of public argument, and he gave us details of one polemical struggle in which the missionary was fairly routed in the eyes of the audience, because he was unable to produce “anny sort of proof” for the story of Joshua and the sun. He was modest, but he also gloried. If anny one gives throuble on these subjects,” said he, “just you refer him to me. I don’t think there’ll be much more anxiety for public controversy so long as I’m around.”

“It’s Buddhyism cum shillalah,” whispered the Stoic; and indeed the simple grotesqueness of it did appear. But the same flash showed Oo-Dhamma-Nanda in plainer revelation — his Western energy in full fling, all his vigor going out to preserve and proselytize, a figure of absurd and inconsistent violence vainly trying to merge itself in the great placid passive army of the yellow-robed. It proclaimed the compromise by which the spirit of the East might be brought to inhabit the blood of the West. The interpreter forged along, and the good Burmans, some of them large subscribers to the “Society,” listened without obvious exultation, but appreciative and gratified. It was really not unlike a missionary-meeting at home; one saw the same depressed interest and respectful attention to the laborer returned from heathen vineyards. If the ladies had worn bonnets, the resemblance would have been complete.

One thing remained to finish the ordination of Asoka; he was to taste at once the essence of the abandonment of the body, to know without delay the new strange carelessness for the morrow which he was pledged to entertain. The priests put his begging-bowl into his hands and sent him among the women at the other side of the room. They heaped it heartily, one after another, with good things, rice and cakes fried in butter and condiments, putting in their packages with many jokes among themselves. Oo-Asoka, who moved gravely upon his quest, looked a little dazed at the laughter. . . .

We went down with the crowd, which showed as perfunctory a spirit as ever issued from a Broadway church. Nor did it lack its touch of cynicism, which came from the subordinate official in the queue, and was addressed to a paddy-broker in a checked silk petticoat. The clerk clapped the broker upon his fat shoulder. “ ‘They are happy men,’ ” said he, smiling jovially, “ ‘whose natures sort with their vocations.’ ”

My Stoic lifted his eyebrows. “Bacon!” said he — “Bacon — the ruffian!”

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