An evening in the sangha

Towards the later years of his teaching life, the Buddha was once spending a few weeks in the Amravati forest. All day the bhikkus would practise meditation and at sunset, they would gather around a large banyan tree where the Blessed One would give a teaching. He would sit cross legged in front of the trunk, facing the 40-odd monks who had dedicated themselves to this way. It was a small monastic community.

As the last birds flew home, the Blessed One would speak of the secrets of existence to the soft music of the twittering sparrows. The sky would turn from blue to crimson to black, and a slight chill would permeate the air. By the time the crickets sang in unison, the teaching would be over. There would be some questions, which the Blessed One answered with clarity, and then all would disperse for a night’s sleep. Such was the routine of those days when the sangha was young and small. A few weeks later, they would walk the country again, being a few among the numerous renouncers who, in those days, had taken to the life of nomadic wandering – resting at night, walking in the day, sometimes in groups, sometimes in solitude.

This was the time in the history of our land that the orange robe could be spotted every once in a while, in the countryside, on an uninhabited hill, in the vast desert, and in the dense forests. It was becoming a symbol of the quest for freedom from the sorrows of the world. Once we had been nomads, then we made cities and villages to live out our ambitions. The ambitions, instead of helping us live, bound us in their own cages. And a few of us broke away from these cages, the Blessed One being among the most illustrious of these.

One day, at the expected time, the bhikkus gathered at the banyan tree. The Blessed One came and sat down. Before the teaching began, Ananda, one of the bhikkus, stepped forward and offered to the revered teacher a small, white flower that had fallen in front of Ananda as he walked to attend the evening’s teaching. Sitting cross-legged, the teacher held the flower between the thumb and index finger of his right hand, his palm resting on his right knee. A gentle smile was on his face, and his gaze was turned slightly downward.

Like every other evening, the last birds were flying back to their homes in flocks of ten, fifty, sometimes hundred. A great elegance marked their flight. There was a twitter in the trees, energetic yet soft and gentle. A cool breeze caressed everyone’s face, blowing the monastic robes gently. The Blessed One did not speak. He sat there quietly, holding the flower. The monks too sat quietly, uncertain of what was happening.

A long time passed, but there was silence. The sky had begun to change its colours. At the centre, it was a dull white. On the edges it burnt in red. The joyous sounds of the birds, the gush of breeze, and the touch of the earth beneath – cooling down slowly, all become more and more intense in the silence. Everything was intensely alive, and a spirit of quiet dignity and containment enveloped these 40 bhikkus and their teacher, as they sat there one evening. Perhaps an hour passed. Perhaps more. Nobody knew.

Gradually, the shadows disappeared, the sun left the sky for the night, and darkness began to sink into the atmosphere. The moon could now be seen clearly. It was a full moon. It brought peace to everyone’s hearts.

When it was completely dark, the Blessed One’s face was only mildly visible in the moonlight. Now, he spoke: “This, bhikkus, was today’s teaching”. With quiet elegance, he stood up, turned, and walked away to his resting place for the night, with the same flower in hand.

2500 years later, the sangha remembers this as the Flower Sermon.

I was there then, and so were you.

~ by tdcatss on October 27, 2015.

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