Chapter 1. The Waterjar Incident

The leaves dance in the light breeze, casting a fluttering shadow around his feet in the little grove of rosewood trees known as simsapa. Although it is only February 23rd, the weather in Kosambi is turning hot early this year, 446 BCE. Already everything is going dry and brown. Some of the leaves, delicately heart-shaped, have begun to fall; others will live on for another season but have lost the brightness of youth. Sati isn’t noticing color however; he is entranced by the shadowy movement. It occurs to him that the leaves are bearing quivering witness to their common fate.

Sati’s large eyes, which are usually bright with intelligence, take on a remote cast. At 17, he is slightly taller than average, with a strong body and a broad sensitive face, a fair complexion and regular features. If he had hair, it would swirl in a small cowlick atop his forehead, but his head is shaven, for he is a novice in the Buddha’s order.

Sati is escaping boredom. He is supposed to be meditating. That’s what monks do at this time of day. After the noonday meal, after a nap if they are inclined, now—now is time for a long afternoon of meditation. Sati envisions the good monks of the monastery sitting cross-legged on meditation mats on their small porches—it’s too hot to sit inside—all deeply immersed in mindfulness or bliss or other some other heavenly state. Not him! Sati’s thoughts simply will not cooperate with his intentions. Ignoring his repeated admonitions, they run every which way like panicky ants whose hill has been leveled. It has been going on like this all afternoon and Sati is worn out. He’s tired of futile efforts. Why did he ever think of becoming a monk?

So it was a relief to notice the need for a little trip to the latrine. Ah, a break! Sati happily takes his time now, dawdling in his favorite part of the monastery, the simsapa grove, watching the dancing leaves and their shadows flitting over the forest floor, which is covered with generations of the leathery fallen ones and their remains, parched and brown. And all around, a host of downy simsapa shoots, heads still bowed as though praying for light and space to grow. How many will make it to maturity he wonders. Then his attention is caught by a small dark beetle, and he watches closely as she makes her way among the downed leaves. She seems to know exactly where she is going. Slowly, carefully, nothing to do but walk up and over or under each leafy obstacle, one tiny step at a time. Sati doesn’t realize that his thoughts have dropped into a natural accord with the woody environment, becoming quieter than they were when he tried to still them in meditation this afternoon.

Now, as if from a distance, a growing inner pressure nudges him out of his reverie and brings him back to the matter at hand. I could do it here, he thinks, right here in the grove, nobody would know. His hand on the gray-brown trunk of a mature tree, its bark peeling in narrow strips, he envisions squatting and peeing. But Sati is aware that if peeing everywhere were common practice, the smell in the monastic park during the dry season would be overpowering. There’s even a rule against it. He shakes his head ruefully. Rules, always rules.

Sati acknowledges the need for them if you are going to live in community; however, the profusion of restrictions governing all aspects of monastic life, major and minor, is a continual aggravation. The no-peeing-in-the-park rule makes sense, but a lot of them don’t, not as far as he can see, anyway. Well, there’s no rule against complaining to myself. Or is there? he smiles wryly at that one and continues on his way to the latrine.

In Ghositarama or Ghosita’s Park, a refuge dedicated to the use of the Buddha’s order, the lavatory is situated for hygiene purposes at a distance from the monks’ huts. You need to walk through the small stand of simsapas back toward the city ramparts, which form part of the monastery wall, a short distance from the northern bank of the Yamuna River. Sati resumes his modest mission. How long has he been standing here? Glancing up through the leafy canopy, he marks that the sun has traveled significantly on its westward journey through the afternoon sky.

Urgency makes him pick up his pace now, though he still walks with mindful restraint—as befits a monk, a bhikkhu. Another rule: A bhikkhu should walk with dignity. Well, he thinks, not exactly a rule, but certainly it’s a strict standard, a protocol—we do it like this, not like that—it’s one of those. Will I ever remember them all? The Venerable Migajala flashes into his mind. He seems to observe the nuances of the Discipline naturally, even though he has only been ordained eight months. Like a fish in water, Sati grumbles. How does the man manage it? He throws a quick prayer to the Buddha for help with his own sad case, but he’s doubtful. Rules don’t suit him.

It’s not as though his childhood were spent without rules. It’s just that his family really didn’t fit anywhere; they seemed to be an exception to all the social rules. Born of the noble class, Sati has spent over half his life among fisherfolk, who are outcastes, beyond the pale of the four classes in the hierarchy that has already begun to define the social order in the Indian subcontinent. Sati’s father was a government official in Kosambi, the capital of Vamsa, until he lost his post. There had been political intrigue— his parents didn’t talk much about it—and, when Sati was eight, their small family moved away from government circles in the capital and downward, down into the suburbs and into the anonymity of the classless. They were nobles living as outcastes and not accepted by either.

They were happy though. Unlike most in their society, Sati’s family lived in a nuclear group because their relatives found their social disgrace hard to accept. Ostracization made relations among the three of them closer. They were each other’s world. As far as is possible for family members to live together in harmony, respect and love—nothing is ever perfect—Sati’s family did.

A movement ahead makes Sati stop on the path. The Venerables Migajala and Harika are standing in the covered entranceway to the latrine. I was just thinking about you, Sati observes silently, looking at Migajala. The pair is whispering, their heads together like conspirators.

It is clear who is dominant. At twenty-six, small and thin, Migajala is looking at the ground and listening intently, while the Venerable Harika gesticulates and speaks vigorously, though softly. Harika is thirty-one, and having been ordained for five years, he is one of the more senior bhikkhus in the young order where monastic rank depends on the date of ordination. All in all, his body is unremarkable, you hardly notice it. That’s because Harika hardly notices it himself. Of medium height and build, he is round-shouldered, as though hunched under the weight of a great hoard of thoughts. Indeed, Harika views his body as a mere conveyance for his intellect, which, if questioned, he would assert is located in his heart, because everybody knows that the brain is simply the marrow of the skull. No matter, wherever it resides, Harika’s intellect is his master, and right now, from Sati’s perspective, it seems to be communicating important information to the younger monk.

The two men are so engrossed they don’t notice Sati. After a moment, the novice instinctively ducks behind the trunk of an old simsapa that stands just before the clearing. What are they about? Something’s wrong—it’s more than unseemly for monks to conspire, but for all the world that’s what they seem to be doing. Then a brief inner caution, uh oh, judgment, Sati, you’re making a judgment. And look who’s being conspiratorial—me, hiding behind trees. Talk about unseemly! But he stands there anyway, his eyes riveted on the pair. Sati trusts his intuition.

He watches Harika reach over to the low shelf in the entranceway and pick up one of four gourds that are used as waterjars. Harika turns to the cistern nearby, takes off the lid and tips it to allow a small stream of water to flow into the vessel. In silence, too, Harika holds the gourd aloft, showing it to Migajala as though it were a trophy; his usually grim features break into a smile. It isn’t a friendly smile. A slight nod of understanding passes between them, then the younger monk turns and leaves. Sati stiffens and takes a small step further behind the tree’s hospitable trunk, hoping Migajala won’t notice him. He can’t move further around because he’d be in Harika’s line of vision.

Walking quickly and full of purpose, Migajala doesn’t notice. The young man exhales in relief. But Harika is still to come, and he’s more observant. Sati watches, holding his breath again while Harika waits a few moments, then follows. Sati inches back around the tree as Harika comes on, careful not to trip over a young sucker growing from the tree’s root. He dearly hopes the crunch of leaves underfoot as he moves out of sight won’t draw the venerable’s attention. Harika walks slowly in an upright, monkly manner, and he carries the half-full gourd with him. He doesn’t notice Sati.

Once Harika disappears around the turn in the path, Sati emerges from his hiding place. Not a moment too soon! A good deal of time has passed since he left his hut on this mission and his kidneys are now signaling an all-out emergency. He dashes into the latrine, grinning at his unseemly pace. But his heart is beating rapidly—something important is about to happen. He can’t imagine what, but he senses it won’t be for the better. He’ll follow and find out; first, however, bodily need.