The Yes Sayers

Chapter 1.

(April 15, 419 B.C.) Another silent woman, this one young and beautiful, moves among men, theoretically unseen. She ladles food into their alms bowls carefully, for they are Buddhist monks on their daily almsround, and she is a servant in a great house on Commerce Street. They receive the offering in humble silence, and although each is acutely aware of the ladler, they keep their eyes downcast. Except Venerable Sati. He is blatantly staring.

In her pale yellow sari, she is the image of Samana, once a servant in this very house. How long ago—when he first saw her, when he first fell in love? He gazes back through the years to his youth, a young monk standing at the edge of a conjugal possibility and not taking it.

He remembers the humiliation of having to confess his love in front of his fellow monks in the bimonthly monastic observance of confession called Uposatha. Routine it was, but not for him. He felt he would never overcome the shame. He didn’t regret having fallen in love—not for one instant—but that he had reached out to touch her and in thought had done much more, straying far from the monastic discipline of mind from which he was sure his brothers never departed an iota—for these, he was unable to forgive himself. He didn’t return to this house for many months. He later learned that Samana had been dismissed. It wasn’t exceptional that she, being a woman and a servant, had been the more severely punished, although he was the one who had transgressed.

Noticing his gaze, the young woman turns away, embarrassed. Sati’s attention jerks back to the present, and he drops his eyes.

Ummph! A second indiscretion on this spot, he chastises himself. Except this time I didn’t mean it. Completely unaware that I was looking at her—no custody of the eyes. Just like any layman.

Their alms bowls now filled, Sati and his companions silently begin the journey back to the monastery, Ghosita’s Park, where they will eat their meal. He is glad to leave.

No harm done, he assures himself silently.

Sati has grown past the tendency to berate himself repeatedly for every little lapse. Recognize it, yes; intend to be more mindful, yes; then drop useless self-criticism—that is his practice now.

Venerable Bhaddaji disagrees. Though he, too, should have maintained a lowered gaze, he noticed that Sati was staring at the woman. Part of Bhaddaji’s face is hidden by the kerchief that covers his nose to protect him from the dust-laden air, which makes him wheeze, but judgment blazes from his eyes like flaming darts.

Sati senses his hostility. Ah, friend Bhaddaji, he sighs, always judging. Will you ever grow up? He decides they need to discuss again the dangers of a mind stunted by judgment.

By the time a monk has been ordained for more than ten years and has become a senior, the formal mentor-disciple relationship that guided his formative years has evolved into a life-long bond of trust and gratitude. That is the theory. In Bhaddaji’s case, however, his relationship with his former mentor, Venerable Harika, never went that way. Neither had the aptitude. By the time Bhaddaji became a senior three and a half years ago, Harika was too feeble-minded to recognize him. He turned to Sati to fill the role of, if not mentor, at least an elder from whom he could seek guidance. Sati has never understood why. They are as different temperamentally as they are in their approaches to the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. Sati demurred at first, but he eventually agreed. The relationship has felt like a prison sentence ever since. Bhaddaji resists his counsel, and Sati struggles to overcome aversion every time he sees the younger monk.

He’s a reminder to let go. At least I can appreciate him for that, Sati wryly counsels himself. Monks train to live in an open, kindly presence, free from negativity. His relationship with Bhaddaji is evidence of how conspicuously he is failing.

The four orange-robed monks (or bhikkhus, in the Pali language) walk barefooted along the dusty margins of the cobbled streets in this great city of Kosambi. By this hour just before noon, sun-blasted cobbles are no friend to bare feet. The more congenial margins are highly trafficked.

Each monk tries to mindfully attend to the sensations their feet are experiencing as they walk, sometimes single file. Bhaddaji and Sati are having only spotty success.

Bhaddaji, erect, eyes downcast, gives an impression of keen mindfulness, but in fact he is enjoying the sticky delights of judgment.

Leering at a woman! Amazing! I thought he was beyond these things. You never know, even about the best of bhikkhus. It’s an offense. Surely, it should be confessed. Brooding on the moral implications of the matter, he decides he must, in good conscience, speak, not in front of others, of course—that wouldn’t be seemly—but certainly the next time he talks to Sati in private.

Sati’s thoughts, too, are skittering like willful children. They play tag with his mindfulness, touching in, then darting off and returning to Samana. They focus on her with such intensity that he forgets his irritation with Bhaddaji. Nor does he notice the naked ascetic from the Ajivika sect who is strolling past or the irate peasant cursing his overloaded donkey, which has called an early end to the workday and is refusing to budge.

Sati wishes her well, but the old guilt lingers. She was dismissed for an indiscretion that was his, not hers. Well, maybe slightly hers, he concedes. She did pause overlong in front him, she did stare. He’ll never forget that look or, rather, its effect on him. But the consequences to her of that tiny slip were onerous. May she be happy. He has wished her happiness a thousand times and does so again now, wherever she is. But I wouldn’t recognize her if we passed on the street, he muses. Nor she, me, I’m sure.

Suddenly, the moment doubles: He is back in the skin of the young, besotted novice, and simultaneously he is holding the young monk with the tender gravity of his maturity. Side by side, then and now—two different worlds. How did it happen, this marvel of his transformation over the years? His heart expands with gratitude for the wonder of spiritual training, for he has found ease in life as a bhikkhu.

Then, with a start, he remembers that yesterday, too, there was a moment of double vision, also on almsround: He was walking with others through the fish market when the smells, shouting fishermen touting their wares, haggling wives and servants crowding in to get the best buys, hands extended, demanding—all transported him. For an instant, he inhabited his youthful self, the boy Sati squatting beside his father, selling fish in that market. A lifetime ago.

Born of the warrior class, Sati had, improbably, grown up among fisherfolk. He was eight when his family had moved from the city to the suburbs, outside the city walls near the fishing community. His father learned to fish and to sell at the market. Sati prided himself on helping.

“What would I do without you?” his father said often. How he loved his father! But there was pain, too. Living alongside the fisher community was a disgrace. Class distinctions in this hierarchical society were sometimes porous, but not for fisherfolk. They were outcasts, and they knew their place. They had no choice but to be servile when interacting with those from the classes. Sati and his father often experienced the indignation of buyers who, assuming them to be fishermen, resented their unapologetic demeanor. Their sales suffered. He watched his father adopt a humble attitude as he struggled with the dilemma. This hurt the boy.

Later, when he was a young novice passing through the same market on almsround, he squeezed into the middle of the group of monks with whom he was walking, hoping for invisibility. But often enough fish sellers saw him and called out. Their veneration for ascetics didn’t allow them to be openly irreverent, but he knew: They were privately jeering at his newfound respectability. Worse, children playing by their parents’ stall tagged after him, laughing. He shriveled, fearing he would be rejected by his new monastic brothers. Nightmares dogged him then. So did the smell of fish. As a child, he had hardly noticed the odor; it was simply part of life. But as a young monk, he would check his arms and outer robe after he returned from the market. The smell seemed to linger for days. It gagged him, and the old troublesome questions arose: Why did we live like that? Outcastes. We weren’t fishermen. Why were we pretending? Were we so poor that we had to sell fish? His parents were evasive. By the time he was sixteen, both had died, and his curiosity remained unsatisfied. All he had learned was that politics were somehow involved.

He doesn’t wonder much any more. These days, he is abbot of Ghosita’s Park, and he receives only reverential gestures when passing through the market. Many of the fish sellers from his boyhood have died. Those still alive seem to have forgotten, and the smell of fish no longer bothers him. But yesterday, for a few moments, it was there: His young self walked beside him, immersed in the stink, and he gagged.

Now on the journey back to the monastery, he ponders the two experiences of double-vision. Signs, maybe? Are they auspicious? He has generally freed himself from the superstition that grips most people. They hold a rock-solid belief in omens and astrological calculations. The Buddha teaches the importance of seeing things as they are, devoid of conjecture and judgment, not to mention of superstition. But still…still, the mystery of existence does show up in everyday life. Where else would it appear? And for him now, the two experiences highlight his spiritual progress. Surely they were blessings, signs of good things to come. Elation courses through Sati like a soaring bird. He sternly reminds himself that he still has far to fly.

Nearing Ghosita’s Park, which is just inside the city’s east gate, the little party of bhikkhus hears the solemn beat of a drum announcing a funeral procession on its way south for a cremation on the riverbank. Sati doesn’t need to look up to know that the wrapped body on a pallet is borne by the eldest son, who is robed in white with a shaven head, as are other pallbearers. He needn’t look up to see the brahmin priests, also at the forefront, carrying water pots and decked with garlands of water plants. It must have been a person of status, he thinks, judging by the number of feet moving past. The feet leave in their wake a rag-tag group of children, who are shouting and playing with sticks. A brown and white puppy gambols among them until one of the boys hits him with a stick. Sati sees the strike. The puppy yelps and scampers, tail between his legs, toward the monks, perhaps sensing that they are safety.

“You mean, terrible boy!” a girl shouts over her shoulder at the culprit as she dashes after her dog. It gets tangled in Sati’s feet. He reaches down to soothe the puppy as she arrives. Breathless, she scoops the animal in her arms and cuddles him.

Sati smiles. Then, glancing past her, he catches sight of a woman and man in an oxcart rumbling down the street. They are sweaty and wilted, their possessions piled on the cart. Travelers, he thinks. The woman stares at him, and Sati is inexplicably startled. He drops his gaze.

The puppy wriggles in the girl’s arms and licks her grimy face. “It’s all right, Raja baby,” she croons. “He’s a bad boy. I won’t let him do it again. I promise.” She smiles sweetly at Sati and turns to her friends.

Children, travelers, a funeral—youth, maturity and death. It’s like Bhagava’s story, he muses, using in thought the reverential title with which monks frequently address the Buddha. As a young man of a leading family in Kapilavatthu in the foothills of the Himalayas, Siddhattha Gotama had gone into town on three occasions and had seen an old man, a sick person and a corpse—old age, sickness and death. According to the tale circulating among followers, the encounters caused him to leave home and begin the search from which he emerged a Buddha, a fully enlightened one.

So it is for me now, thinks Sati, still elated. Not fully enlightened, but progress is happening. It’s happening!

He silently blesses the children, even the boy who hit the dog and the dog, too, for it is a sentient being. “May you be healthy and carefree,” knowing that each will face challenges as yet of undreamed of. He sends the travelers a blessing, “May you be well and reach your destination soon.” And the funeral, it is not just a corpse being borne through crowded streets on the way to cremation on a hot morning; it is like a mountain, high as the clouds, one of those, as the Buddha teaches, that moves in and crushes all beings. No matter that mountains don’t actually move. The point is that no one escapes death. Which is why, the Buddha explains, it is important to train hard now and not squander the precious opportunity to achieve freedom.

When they arrive at the monastery, Bhaddaji, the junior-most among them, sets his alms bowl on a table that is situated outside the entrance for this purpose. The pottery alms bowls hold the food that sustains life, and bhikkhus handle theirs with care. They never set it directly on the ground and thoroughly clean and store it after eating. At this moment, Bhaddaji is especially precise, placing his bowl in the middle of the table, neither too far forward, nor too far back. With both hands on the gate’s wooden handle, he pulls it open, walks backward with measured step, then stands aside, his slender frame at near military attention, to allow his three companions to pass through.

The four bhikkhus move toward the dining hall to eat and share food with any brother who has not received enough. They will eat in silence, as they have walked, because silence promotes mindful attention. Entering, Sati recognizes that his mind has had a busy time of it this morning, and he smiles.

Chapter 2

(April 15, 419 B.C.) Monks refrain from looking at their reflection in water and mirrors, but Sati has seen his. He is looking at it now.

As a young teen, when he leaned over the side of the fishing skiff to haul in a catch, his image danced before him on the water. It was just a face, nothing much to think about, until a fishergirl told him he was handsome. Then, a stirring changed him forever.

Orphaned at sixteen, he joined the Buddha’s monastic order in Kosambi and dedicated himself to the brahmacarya, the chaste and holy life. He reaffirmed that commitment when he renounced his attraction to the beautiful servant on Commerce Street, but his resolve didn’t hold. Three years later, far to the east, when he was traveling, as was customary among the Buddha’s monks, enthrallment with another beautiful woman overpowered him. He left monastic life, married her and became a farmer. Daily he filled wooden buckets with water from the Sona River and carried them to the rice fields. Sometimes, before hoisting the pole to his shoulders, he paused to peer into the buckets. Was his face as beautiful to his wife as hers to him? In time, however, he realized that, though beautiful and lusty, Siha was a stranger to the spiritual longings that moved him deeply. Envisioning a life of endless bucket-carrying, he left her and the village where he had never been welcome and took monastic robes again.

Now, twenty-three years later, Sati is still a Buddhist monk, and, until this moment, he hasn’t looked on his face since he re-ordained. Standing in front of him is a woman whom a fellow monk has escorted to his hut. It is afternoon, a time when merciless heat hammers all into inertia. Leaves languish, flowers droop, birds perch.

Relaxing on the portico of his small hut where he had hoped to catch an errant breeze, Sati saw the monk and woman making their way down the dusty path. She walked with the upright grace of one accustomed to balancing a water jar.

A peasant, he thought. She’s alone. Extraordinary—no male companion. As they neared, he stood and descended the single step to greet them.

The monk, who was sweating profusely and wished only to be back in his hut napping, dropped his gaze and joined palms at his forehead in the gesture of respect known as anjali. “This woman is here to see you, Venerable,” he said, with a nod in her direction.

Both observed her as she likewise joined palms and lowered her gaze. Then she looked up and stared boldly into Sati’s face.

The traveler in the oxcart! No dirt. She’s washed and changed clothes.

The monk turns away, relieved to let the venerable deal with this staring peasant who is so deplorably lacking in womanly deportment. He throws a disapproving glance over his shoulder as he departs.

Who is she? Sati wonders, unwilling to admit that he knows.

“I’m Kasi,” she says in a voice low-pitched for a woman. Her accent is rural and familiar. The same broad face, the regular features but with a feminine cast. A fair complexion and a cowlick at the top of her forehead, where, if his own head weren’t shaven, a cowlick would also swirl.

The walls of the moment shatter. For an instant Sati is paralyzed. Then, without thought, he leans forward and opens his arms to pull her close. She starts to respond, but before she can move, monastic restraint, the inner inviolable command, reasserts itself. His arms lower, and he straightens. Tears pool in his eyes, though he is barely aware of them.

Kasi recoils. Rejected! She has been rejected again. She knows monastic rules forbid physical contact and sees his tears, but the sudden shift unleashes a fury that has boiled for a lifetime. There’s no modesty now, no downcast eyes. Her eyes bore into his and she hisses, “Why? Why did you leave?”