Article — From the October 1902 issue

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?

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