The following story is a re-telling of one that is told in Buddhist text. Intending only to give a face and a feeling of depth to what is a simple tale. Consider it an alternative reality story, if you like. Some of it may seem familiar, but slightly changed. The ‘what-if’ is the other story of characters we never see, and how the story played out in their lives.
The story in it’s original guise concerns Sujata, who was a cow herder remembered because she brought milk mixed with rice to feed to a starving man. This man thus ended six years of being an aesthetic in his spiritual journey, and from this turning point developed the ‘Middle Way’. After obtaining several more insights, this man became the one known as Buddha.
Sujata was one of the few women mentioned in the Buddha’s life, but after 2500 years, what can be known of her? I have changed a few details, such as giving her goats rather than cows, but the story itself is about her imagined niece, Anya. There is also a tree, which has predictably wriggled its way onto the stage, it is not the much-revered Bodhi Tree, pictured above, only an old sister to it, who is now gone to dust. Let us remember her part as well.
The title mentions ‘Transmission’, which is the passing of wisdom from teacher to student, using presence, rather than words. I wished to view this as a conduit opened, rather than a vessel filled; one of limitless causes.
In reading this, I hope you will be moved by compassionate allowing, and the possibility of one more Dharma Gate to open. Thank You.
Anya and The Smelly Man
(or Transmission is
a Two Way Street)
Anya was the much-loved daughter of the widow goat herder. At six, she was old enough to help with the herding, but still so young that it seemed to be mostly play. Her hair was dark, except where the sun had touched it red in places, as it had browned her face and tawnied her arms and legs. Around her neck, her Mama had knotted a string of blue beads; a knot between each bead, so only one would be lost if the string were to break during Anya’s forays into the world.
Anya loved to run. She ran after goats and their kids until she was so tired she would fall into the grass, breathless and laughing. She would run after the boys of their village and catch them, tugging their small caps from their heads. She would laugh as they gave chase in return and she out ran them and climbed old Grandmother tree, so fast and nimble they could only shout and threaten. Anya’s Mama and her Daadi (grandmother), as well as her Chachi (aunt), would shake their heads, but smile and look at each other, lifting a shoulder. All three were widows now, and Anya was the only child left to them. Much was forgiven. People of the village, too, would smile when they saw Anya running by, even the boys who had much to complain about, took a tolerant stance towards Anya, if any adult should complain.
One day, Anya followed some noisy birds to Old Grandmother Tree. When she stepped under the shade of her branches, which were sweeping nearly to the ground, a terrible smell caused her to jerk back and cough. But Anya was always curious and she wanted to know what might smell so bad where nothing had ever smelled bad before. She pinched her nose, opened her mouth to breath and slid under the branches to where Grandmother Tree kept things cool beneath her huge canopy. The ground was a floor of heart shaped leaves, some yellowed and soft lying on the older crisp, brown ones. She shuffled her feet a little through them, in case something did not wish to be surprised, and walked toward Grandmother Tree’s trunk.
Against this trunk, which was very wide and strong, there sat a man. He was only sitting, like any man in the village might sit, with his back straight, against a tree and his legs crossed. He was, however, much dirtier than any man that Anya might see in their little village, so close to the water of the River Niranjana, as they were. The men, women and children of their village washed themselves, and their clothing, often in the slow, brown river.
The man’s hair was twisted in long dirty strings, his skin was dark with dust and sweat, and his clothing, consisting of a simple cloth wrapping his lower body and another, draped over his upper body, were grey and nearly the same color as the tree trunk. He smelled very, very dirty. Anya was fascinated.
She sat down a few feet away and watched the man. After awhile she forgot to hold her nose and a little while later she shut her mouth. She only looked at him. He did not look to be asleep or hurt. He looked happy with his eyes partly open; he seemed to be looking at the ground near his feet. He had a small smile growing on the edges of his mouth and his breath came very slowly. His feet were bare and hard looking, but his hands, which lay loosely one on top of the other, palms up, looked soft and clean. Anya and the small birds that had preceded her, watched the man for a long time. Anya decided he looked like a nice man, because he looked so happy. She rested her chin on her fists and her elbows on her knees, so she could watch more comfortably. The smelly man shut his eyes and Anya sat up straight. Then he opened them and looked right at Anya. They both smiled wide happy smiles and reached out to touch each other’s hands for just a moment, like old friends meeting. Then the smelly man went back to sitting very still, eyes looking only a couple of feet in front of him.
Anya waited for a while to see if anything else would happen. She was still smiling when she noticed that the cloth that wrapped his upper body had fallen to one side when he had reached out to her. Anya could see that every bone in his chest was clearly showing through his skin.
Anya jumped to her feet and ran fast, calling out to her Chachi in the house. Her Mama was too far away to hear, on the other side of the village with the goats.
“What is it child?” said her mild and patient aunt.
“There is a very nice man under the Grandmother Tree and I think he needs to eat. He is very hungry!”
Anya’s Chachi narrowed her eyes and tilted her head when she heard this. Anya had never been given to exaggeration or stories.
“How hungry?” she asked softly.
As always, the softer and quieter her Chachi became, the more still and thoughtful Anya became. Anya thought for a moment and answered.
“More hungry than I have ever been, more hungry than you or Mama have ever seemed to me.”
“And how do you know this?” her Aunt asked, smiling.
“Because he is only bones now, and it makes me feel very sad.”
Anya’s aunt pulled back sharply at this, and paused, but only for a moment. She swiftly pulled out the pot with this mornings rice in it and spooned a bowl full, then she poured goats milk over it all and lifting her skirts with the other hand, walked briskly and confidently, toward Old Grandmother tree. Anya danced around her, back and forth to help hurry her along.
Under the tree, Chachi gasped from the stench, but shutting her jaw tight and smoothing her face, moved forward to where a man sat, thinner and dirtier and happier than anyone she had ever seen. She squatted down at his side and he looked over at her with an easy smile. Chachi smiled back and pushed the bowl into his hands. The man looked down at the bowl as if he did not know what it was, then he smiled even more. With shaky hands, he lifted the bowl and bowed to Anya’s Chachi.
They sat and waited for the man to finish eating. He ate neatly, for all his trembling. First drinking off the milk and then rolling the rice into small balls, which he slid into his mouth with what appeared to be unfeigned ecstasy. When he finished, he sat breathing loudly and deeply as if he had just run a long way. Then he grew quiet and handed the bowl back to Anya’s Chachi.
“What is your name?” He asked.
“My name is Sujata,” she answered with a smile. “Do you feel better?”
“I feel much better, Sujata. Thank you! I will never forget your kindness.”
“This was but a little rice, it was nothing.”
He only smiled back and repeated “I will never forget” nodding for emphasis.
Sujata, who was also Anya’s Chachi, tilted her head and said “Wait here with Anya for a moment”, as if, being fed, he could have now have stood and hurried away. She returned soon with a staff and small rolled bundle, which Anya recognized as her Uncle’s old clothing. These her Aunt had saved all the ten years of her widowhood. Together, they three, walked to the edge of the river so that the man could bathe and put on the clean clothes. Sujata turned her back in modestly, but Anya, always the curious one, had to be reminded with a quick tap to her shoulder.
Before the sun was high, they watched him walk slowly down the path and away from the village, staff in hand. They never saw him again, but they told the story many times to each other over the years. They did not forget either.
In the ten years that followed, Anya grew in height and knowledge. She could herd the goats with her mother and find the best grazing to make the goats strong and happy. She could cook everything that her grandmother had taught her, choosing just the right spices to grind into smooth paste, which even Daadi called the best she had ever tasted. She helped keep their home clean and their things mended.
In the village she was still as well loved, as she had been as a child. Though she stood tall and held her chin high, she always had a small thoughtful word for everyone, and though she always went her own way, no one called her proud or willful. If they called her anything, they called her happy, and they too smiled. Of the child that Anya had been, there remained the love of the wind in her face, of running fast and of sitting very still and watching. On the days when her Mama might leave her to watch the goats alone, Anya could sit for hours and hours, seeing everything, hearing everything to the last small chirp or rustle. Anya delighted in it all.
At last, near the end of her 16th year, Anya’s Daadi took her aside and told her that she had good news.
“What is that my dearest Daadi?”
“I have found you a worthy husband.”
“Oh!” said Anya, for she had not thought of this change in her life at all, even though the other girls her age were getting married, her life here seemed too complete to change.
Her Grandmother looked at her long and lovingly before she took her hand and said, “You will not be too far away. I knew his grandmother when I was your age; they are kind and generous people. They are much respected in their village.” “It is also time for you to be married.” She added firmly.
Anya bent her head and was quiet, and then she smiled, took a deep breath and let it go. Raising her eyes, she looked deeply into her grandmother’s eyes and nodded her understanding. Her grandmother realized she had been holding her own breath, and taking Anya into her arms, sighed deeply.
The next weeks were filled with planning and stitching and cooking. Anya would go to her new life with new clothing, fresh spices and many goats. She would have new silver earrings and silver beads would be strung among her blue ones. Anya’s father had been a prosperous goat herder and careful of his gains. His widow, once she had put aside her tears and her daughter could stand alone, had followed the same path; raising better goats to go to better markets and diligently saving the profits. With great care and determination, the family had saved Anya’s dowry. All three women of the house had bent their heads and their hearts to the task of finding Anya the best match they could.
The day came and an ox cart was hired to seat the four of them and all the gifts, dowry, food and flowers. Two small neighbor boys were hired to herd the goats, which were a part of the dowry, and all who could claim some relation, and several who could not, walked behind the cart to the bridegroom’s village, a half a days journey up river.
As Anya sat in the cart, watching the river run back toward her home, while she herself traveled ever farther away, her family told her about her new life.
“You will need to be obedient, don’t be too quick to do things your own way!” her mother told her.
“They will love you for who you are, just as we do. Just be the Anya you have always been!” her Daadi leaned forward to add. Her Chachi was quiet, but held her hand and smiled into Anya’s eyes, whenever she looked up.
At the same time the bridegroom, Rujul, who was as simple and honest as his name, listened to his three uncles giving him advice. Rujul was a year younger than Anya and not yet tall like his uncles. Though he did not know it yet, he was a head shorter than his new bride.
“You must be sure she understands her place. Do not let her tell you what to do!” said his eldest uncle.
“Remember you are your father’s son and be proud. Your father was a strong man!” said his youngest uncle.
His middle uncle simply smiled and ruffled his hair, saying “You remind me of him today.” Then shaking his head at his two brothers, added; “He was graceful and kind. Remember that.” Then he walked away with his hands linked behind him.
Rujul, who had lost both mother and father when he was very small, had been raised in his grandmother’s house, and had run in and out of his uncles houses, playing with his cousins. All of his uncles seemed like fathers to him, and he wished to please them, now that he was going to be a married man, just like them. He bowed to his uncles and with a beating heart, turned toward the sound of the approaching wedding party.
The day was both long and short; seeming to go on and on, full of food and music, flowers and gifts, and suddenly, too suddenly, over. Anya and Rujul did as they were told for all the rituals, both careful and conscious of propriety. Their families seemed well pleased with them, smiling over the heads of the guests, at each other and nodding their approval of a marriage well chosen.
Night came and now they found themselves in the small house that had belonged to Rujul’s parents. Long neglected, it had been scrubbed spotless, given a new roof, a new bed festooned in flowers, and bits of furniture from all the family. In the sudden quiet, Anya gratefully pulled the flower headdress off and set it on a bench. She then hitched up the heavy dress that she would likely never wear again, and sat cross-legged in the center of the bed. Her new husband regarded her in dismay and in uncertain silence.
Anya leaned her elbows on her knees and looked at him, much as she would have looked at anything of interest in her world. Rajul felt himself grow hot and uncomfortable. Then Anya sat up and smiled, as if she had made up her mind. For a moment Rajul simply looked back at her, frozen in surprise. Then he turned his head quickly down and away, but not quickly enough to hide his answering smile.
“Come sit down with me and talk, so we can become friends.” Anya smoothed the comforter before her.
Rajul felt a bubble of lightness and ease float through him, lifting his head with it, as it burst into the air. Folding his stiff coat onto the bench with her headdress, he settled into the space she had indicated. They sat quietly for some time, in the stillness that had fallen. Looking into one another’s eyes, wonder and a strange clarity filled Rajul. Then, all at once, both smiled wide happy smiles and reached out to touch each other’s hands for just a moment, like old friends meeting.