Bhadda and the lion

The sages say that when we dream, our Self slips out of our mouth, like a little bird. Off she flies, to worlds unimaginable in the clouds. She fights, plays, makes love; she traverses the past and the future in an instant. And when she’s tired she pops back in, like a sparrow that folds its wings and returns to the nest. That’s why they say you should never wake anyone while they are dreaming – for who knows what would happen if the Self could not find its way home? What would happen to a dream in flight, if it took off from India in 500 BCE and, while it was still exploring the past and the future, its owner woke up?

Dreams of Bhaddā

Dreams of Bhadda
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Earli­est memor­ies. They stay, unvis­ited, for many years, like an attic that is only good for gath­er­ing dust. Then they spring up — why? a smell, a sound, a word? — and it’s as if they were never gone. Famil­iar, like a friend one sees every day, or like the path to the front gate. Maybe it’s some­thing ordin­ary, for­get­table. But some­times, an early memory is some­thing truly unfor­get­table, a defin­ing moment. For Bhaddā – our Bhaddā – her first memory was so excep­tional, so utterly without pre­ced­ent, that it blazed in her mind, brighter than sun­shine on the water. As she lay there on the floor, the bril­liant image came to her, more potent than real­ity itself.

And o! didn’t she laugh, didn’t she sing as she’s trip­ping and skip­ping up the hills. A new lamb dis­cov­er­ing life. Fair­ies fluttered under every bush, and under each stone was a jewel. She was too young to know what ‘naughty’ meant. She danced in the sun as it speckled the hill­side, like the poppy seeds that popped in her Gran’s hot pan. Heed­less, she pirou­et­ted over a shelf of rock and tumbled squeal­ing over the far side. She rolled madly down; her face hit the rock, mak­ing a bloody gash; and she would have been been badly hurt if she had not fallen into…

… a lion! Tum­bling over the stone, hardly before she saw it, she fell right into his paws, cradled against his belly.

This was not a lion in the sense of ‘big cat’; but a lion in the sense of ‘the sun come down to earth, soaked in piss, and wrapped in hot fur’. That kind of lion.

Do not think she was afraid. There are emo­tions that embar­rass fear, so that it slinks away, cheap and taw­dry. She was in won­der­ment, in a trans­port of awe, at that obscure cross­road where ecstacy romances horror.

That tiny child, in its little white dress, res­ted in the rank flesh of the sun. She rose and fell on the slow tide of its breath­ing. The lion yawned, a fur­nace of old meat, and noticed her as if for the first time. Lazy and mag­ni­fi­cent, he turned his head, with its halo of blaz­ing mane, and looked in her eyes. His eyes were plates of liquid gold set with per­fectly round pupils of black infin­ity. They held that gaze for an etern­ity. The sun rose in the sky, and set, and rose again. A year, a thou­sand years of the gods, a cos­mic aeon passed in that gaze, which the literal-minded could have meas­ured in seconds.

Then it leaned for­ward, opened its mouth and, with a rush of ran­cid breath, licked her face. Its tongue was rough as sand­pa­per, but he licked the blood clean away. There was just a hint of a sub­ter­ranean rumble that, in entirely dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, might have been called a purr. Sat­is­fied, it blinked, shif­ted a little, and went back to sleep.

Bhaddā thought this seemed like a won­der­ful idea. So she nestled against the warm, reas­sur­ing belly of the beast and took a little nap.

A while later, plaint­ive, gruff voices echoed: ‘Bhaddā!’ The lion tensed and stood, rolling Bhaddā awake. It shook its mane and van­ished in a heart­beat, so that you would not know it had been there.

They found Bhaddā a few minutes later. She ran to her father, say­ing hap­pily: ‘I fell into a lion-bed and went to sleep!’ They never believed her story, but the smell told them that some­thing was wrong; and the scar on her fore­head never faded.

Bhaddā’s father never let her out of the house alone after that. So star­ted Bhaddā’s enclos­ure. Hedged by love and fear, her hori­zons shrank as her body grew. Her wild­ness was con­tained, meas­ured, tamed. She was instilled with lady­like vir­tues. As she approached woman­hood, how­ever, this was not enough. Her father decided, for her own good, that she must spend a period of time isol­ated, pro­tec­ted from her own impulses in a gor­geous tower that he had built spe­cially for her. But there comes a time when any wall, no mat­ter how strong and sturdy, comes tum­bling down.

Bhaddā’s mother stormed into the room, her exas­per­a­tion barely hid­den beneath moth­erly love.

Be with us, Bhaddā. We’re a fam­ily. We can’t lose you.’

Am I lost? Let me just check… Nope, still here.’

Please, it’s been hours, sprawled on your stom­ach like a liz­ard. What are you try­ing to do, sink into the floor? You’ll send your old mum to her grave! Come back to us. Whatever happened to our little baby?’

Life happened. You might want to try it sometime.’

What on earth are we to think?’

Don’t think. Just do it!’

Bhaddā! The man Sat­tuka is a crim­inal! Do you have any idea what he did to that poor woman?’

Bhaddā fixed her mother with a livid eye­ball and said: ‘If I can’t have him, I’ll die right here.’

Hadn’t we bet­ter be get­ting up now, my dear?’

Down’s good.’

Mov­ing on, grow­ing as a per­son – that’s what it’s all about. They all say so.’

Well, dad, if they say so…’

That they do. Now, about this fel­low you seem inter­ested in…’

You kept me locked up in this tower since my first period.’ Bhaddā’s father shif­ted uncomfortably.

Three years! “Young girls burn for men,” that’s what you said.’

Well, I don’t see what that has to do with…’

You don’t see? Talk about a self-fulfilling proph­ecy! Hey, maybe if I’d had a “nor­mal” life I would have turned out “nor­mal”. But those words, hanging over my head like some Great Big Doom – I didn’t have a clue what you were on about. Stuck up here in this tower, all shuttered up, only Gran to talk to. How could I learn any­thing about life? I don’t know shit.’

Well, young lady, you seem to have learnt how to curse alright.’

She looked down and said quietly: ‘That’s all I have. That’s all you’ve left me.’

He sighed and crouched down beside her. ‘Bhaddā, you’re a woman now. What do you want to learn about life for? All we ever wanted was for you to be safe. Safe and sound. We’ve given you the best – and we want you to have the best hus­band, too. You deserve it. Someone who can take care of you. It’s time for you to be think­ing about a solid mar­riage with a good man.’ With his most win­ning smile, Bhaddā’s father said: ‘And, as it hap­pens, I think I’ve found just the man for you…’



Just leave me alone.’

[Back-up to yesterday…]

What the!?’

I think it’s some kind of parade…’

Parade my ass, that’s a riot. How cool is that?’

No, it’s just the spring festival.’

Gran, that is so not the spring fest­ival. Can’t I have just one peek?’

Now, Bhaddā, that is not the kind of thing a young woman should be inter­ested in. Be quiet and get on with your spin­ning.’ Gran busied her­self out of the room.

Bhaddā jumped up on her bed and tried to bend open the shut­ters to have a look. She’d tried this before; with a knife, they would give just so much, then they star­ted with an omin­ous creak. From the street below, the yells got closer. There was a crack, and again, like the snap of a twig, only squelchy.

Screw this.’ She stuck the knife in and bent it all the way. The shut­ter snapped open, broken forever – she’d never hide this from her dad! Rip­ping the shut­ters wide, she leaned out of the win­dow and gazed down at the street, the street she had not seen for three years.

It was a riot, all right. The street heaved with chaos and people. She could recog­nize some: Gopāla, Inda­jālinī, little Kāmarūpā. But her friends and neigh­bours, who had been part of her life until she was locked away in her room, were trans­formed by rage. They screamed and frothed, mad as the ocean.

In the middle of the mob a pla­toon of sol­diers tried to main­tain ranks around a pris­oner. He was barely vis­ible under the shower of rocks, of sticks, of cow dung. Shackled and naked, his long hair straggled over his massive shoulders. A whip ren­ded strips of flesh from his back. He was covered with dust the color of red brick, except where the blood or sweat cleared a track on his dark, lacer­ated skin.

Sud­denly he looked up; and Bhaddā saw a cer­tain still­ness in his eyes, full of dark­ness and sor­row. She felt like someone tipped a bucket of wrig­gling fish over her skin.

[that night…]

Bhaddā and her Gran sat down at the sew­ing table and star­ted their even­ing weav­ing. Their fin­gers held the yarn lightly, mov­ing smoothly through the long-practiced patterns.

So where were we then?’ said Gran. ‘Oh, yes, I remem­ber. We had come to the part when beau­ti­ful Sītā had been taken from hand­some Rāma by the hor­rible mon­ster Rāvaṇa, who imprisoned her in his beau­ti­ful but ter­ri­fy­ing palace in Laṅkā. And although Rāvaṇa had hun­dreds of allur­ing women in his harem, he wanted only one: Sītā. And she was the only one who would not yield to his desire…’


Yes, dearest?’

What would hap­pen if Sītā said yes to Rāvaṇa? What if, deep down inside, she really liked him? Wouldn’t she get bored being with Rāma all the time? And any­way, Rāma was sup­posed to be so good, but he didn’t trust her. He pun­ished her and threw her out, even though she didn’t do any­thing with Rāvaṇa.’

But Sītā didn’t know that, it doesn’t hap­pen till later in the story. And any­way, if Sītā was not faith­ful, she wouldn’t be Sītā.’

Not Sītā?’

Exactly. Sītā is who she is only because of what she does, because of her faith and love for Rāma – even if he was a bit…’

So who would she be, then?’

It just couldn’t be, that’s all. I’ve been hear­ing the Rāmāy­aṇa since I was a tiny little thing, and Sītā is always faith­ful. That’s how it’s always been.’

But doesn’t Sītā have a choice? How can she be good if everything she does is fate?’

Sītā chooses Rāma: that’s her fate. That’s how it’s always been.’

Gran went on with the story until late. Yawn­ing, they packed away their sew­ing, and Gran made sure Bhaddā was cosy in bed. As Bhaddā lay there so peace­ful, Gran gently kissed her, as she always did, on the little scar on her fore­head that had been there since the adven­ture with the lion.

That’s your luck, my darling,’ she whispered. ‘It will be with you always, like my love.’

Bhaddā lay for a long while chas­ing sleep. She looked around her room, glow­ing softly in the oil lamp. Her beau­ti­ful prison. The cloths (‘All the way from Kāsī’) hanging down vivid crim­son; the mur­als that brought the old stor­ies to bright life; the carved wood­work, with pea­cocks and dragons. Such sur­faces! On the table was a pol­ished sil­ver mir­ror. She thought how funny it was that a mir­ror would show you any­thing, except itself. It held a whole world of appear­ances, but there was noth­ing to it. You couldn’t feel the sub­stance of things in the mir­ror – not like her sil­ver brace­lets, with their fine work­ings and stud­ded pearls; or the gor­geous neck­lace that she would wear just for the joy of it. They were solid, shiny.

Her best friend was sleep­ing now: a par­rot in a gil­ded cage. He was a chat­terer, always say­ing things that he couldn’t under­stand, like the brah­mans mut­ter­ing their man­tras. Funny how she could under­stand what he said, but he couldn’t! Just before she joined him in sleep, she whispered:

Not Sītā.’

The horse rippled and poun­ded beneath her, ter­ri­fy­ing in its speed. Sir John held her hard, so she could hardly draw breath.

It had all happened so sud­denly. He came from nowhere to their lonely home on the moors. Grave and gentle, he charmed May and her father over din­ner. After­wards, he sat at the piano and sang of mid­night. Listen­ing, May knew she was lost to him.

Sir John’s ref­er­ences were impec­cable. Of old landed gentry, he was wealthy and edu­cated. All in all, a great catch. But there was a sad­ness to him; his pre­vi­ous mar­riages had ended in tragedy, as a series of unfor­tu­nate acci­dents had taken his wives. But he reas­sured May’s father.

Mr. Colven,’ he said, ‘do not fear for your only daugh­ter. I will see for her as for my own blood.’

Father was so delighted, he presen­ted May with a price­less wed­ding gift: a golden neck­lace, stud­ded with pearls. Then she was taken.

Sir John gripped her firmly into the saddle and wrapped her in his dark cloak. Over the swell­ing hills they raced to the cliff.

May, my pretty May,’ he said. ‘I bring you to your bridal bed.’

She screamed.

Silence!’ he ordered. ‘Or I shall show you my true form.’

Look­ing down there was the end­less expanse of the sea, heav­ing in its foam. Far below, gulls were circ­ling. She turned, her arms reach­ing towards him as she fell, the scream chok­ing in her throat. She saw his out­stretched hands clutch­ing her neck­lace. And in the shadow of his hooded face she saw, one last time, his eyes: infin­itely dark, and infin­itely tender.

Bhaddā woke trem­bling. Her par­rot squawked: ‘Passāmi! Passāmi!’ Bhaddā wondered aloud whether her feathered friend would be be so kind as to SHUT THE $#@% UP!

Then she took a deep breath and lay on the floor.

Down­stairs, in the liv­ing room, Bhaddā’s par­ents were on the edge of despair.

She’s our daughter.’

But what can we do? She’s like a bunch of bones wrapped in skin. Three weeks! She’ll really do it, you know. She will lie there until she dies.’ Bhaddā’s mother hes­it­ated. ‘You know, they say that at his trial he claimed he was the leader of an inde­pend­ent vil­lage. That he was a just man, a scape­goat; that he had to be removed because he was a threat to the king.’

They say he ripped the throat out of a young girl. They say he drank her blood. They say she was not the first…’

Such stor­ies! Don’t they sound just a little… sensational?’

They sat in silence. Bhaddā’s father said, ‘You know, my sweet, some­times I won­der where in the six realms our daugh­ter came from. If we hadn’t kept her secluded for these years…’

Some­times she scares me.’

I don’t know… You know how she is. She’s sixteen.’

Our little baby…’

All grown up…’

Will we ever have her back again, such a darling little thing?’

She needs a hus­band – but not that one.’

Bhaddā’s mother said, ‘Why don’t they just kill him and fin­ish it all?’

Well, they take their own sweet time over these things. Who knows when they’ll order the exe­cu­tioner? And mean­while… And if they do kill him, what’ll she do then? Just get over it? Or play the devoted wife and join him in the next life?’

Darling, you know the Magis­trate. Talk to him. You can work out some­thing. She’s going to die.’

Bhaddā’s father had noth­ing to say. He scratched the ground with a stick.

Have you really thought this through, my friend?’ said the Magistrate.

What’s thought got to do with it? It’s my daughter.’

I know. I know.’ The Magis­trate sighed. ‘Well, I can free the man. That’s not dif­fi­cult. Declare him inno­cent – new evid­ence come to light. The usual. But a life must be for­feit. Crimes have been com­mit­ted – and the people will have blood. She will have blood.’

Is there any­one?’ said Bhaddā’s father.

There’s always someone,’ said the Magistrate.

Someone… accept­able?’

She’s not fussy. So yes, someone accept­able.’ He smiled grimly. ‘After all, that’s karma, isn’t it? Someone pays, every­one goes home happy. And then the wheel turns again.’



We made a deal. He’s com­ing. He’ll be here tomor­row. Your Sattuka.’

Slowly, Bhaddā turned. Like a drown­ing woman, she clutched at the hem of her couch and hauled her­self up.

What? But…?’

Please, have your­self some­thing to eat. And clean up, tidy this place. There’s a lot to do. Get ready – it’s really going to hap­pen. Tomor­row is your wed­ding day.’ Bhaddā’s father turned and left.

Under his breath he sighed: ‘And may the gods have mercy on us all.’

The day passed in a breath­less flurry of pre­par­a­tions. Bhaddā threw her­self at it as only she could. Her fam­ily dreaded Sattuka’s appear­ance, but at least they were relieved at the speed of Bhaddā’s recov­ery. It was late before she got to bed, to slip into an uneasy dream. It came to her in a song, like a memory of favor­ite things that are lost.

Spring­time, and red kaṇavera blos­soms
He bore on his brow like a lion from the moun­tains
From a win­dow, she saw him and straight away loved him
The thief, the killer, con­demned to the stake.

She freed him, she served him, her old love aban­doned,
The flowers of spring­time grew only for them.
But see­ing two cock­a­toos roost in a cage
The long­ing for free­dom grew strong in his veins.

His pas­sion was great, her neck was so fra­gile
She swooned and he left her to lie on the earth.
He took from her body the jew­els of her trade
And left her neck ringed with red flowers he made.

But Sāmā awoke, her lover depar­ted
She knew he could never have wanted her harm:
A gamble of pas­sion, an excess of love
And he fled, although inno­cent, fear­ing his life.

Sāmā searched high­ways and ques­tioned in tav­erns,
Every­where seek­ing her love once again.
In the end of des­pair, she turned to we min­strels,
And sent out her mes­sage in song for the world.

So listen you all: Sāmā still lives!
Sāmā who played with her love in the spring­time.
Maybe among you is one who remem­bers
The fra­grance of red kaṇavera blossoms.’

No! This can’t be! I refuse to believe it.
I saw her with these, my two trusty eyes.
Sāmā was dead, and dead she remains
And dead is all Sāmā can ever be.’

Sāmā’s alive, and pines just for thee,
She eats not, nor sleeps on a bed or a couch.
Take her, she’s yours in body and soul,
Without you her life is just fad­ing away.’

I can’t – I don’t know – I feel – I don’t know –
What am I to do, what is life now to be?
That Sāmā betrayed her lover before me –
I can­not return now to love her again.

Tell her, tell Sāmā, my good friends of song,
Her love has depar­ted from these nar­row shores.
As flowers in spring­time must shed all their petals,
So I must shed Sāmā and make for the sea!’

But when Bhaddā woke, all that was left was an echo of melody and a mirage of feel­ing. Shak­ing off the dream, she thought: ‘Today’s the day. Well, Bhaddā, you’d bet­ter do it right.’

When all the pre­par­a­tions were done, the rites pre­pared, and the guests seated, they brought Sat­tuka in. He entered with silence and an impen­et­rable pride. Washed and oiled, wreathed in a pure white cloth, he was like one of the princes of old – Arjuna him­self come once more to grace these dimin­ished times.

Sat­tuka stood alone in the cen­ter of the room, with the guests lin­ing the walls. Bhaddā entered, draped in red cloth from Kāsī, jew­els around her neck, gar­landed with red flowers, her eyes down­cast in mod­esty. With hands clasped in rev­er­ence, she circled him three times, keep­ing him to her right. Then she knelt before him, bowed, and said: ‘My hus­band, my lord, my life – I am yours.’

They sat down for din­ner. Not a word broke the silence.

Mum, could you pass a knife, so I can carve the tension?’


Can’t you at least try to be polite?’

Well, ahh, would you like a cha­pati?’ said Bhaddā’s mother.

Thank you,’ said Sat­tuka. He took the oiled flat­bread and lan­guor­ously tore it into pieces. The fam­ily watched in fas­cin­a­tion, their unease palp­able. He noticed, put down the cha­pati, and said,

Look, I know how you must be feel­ing right now. I’m the killer, she’s the vir­gin. It’s a clas­sic, isn’t it? But it’s more com­plic­ated than that. I was set up. You all know the king these days…’

We’ve heard the stor­ies,’ said Bhaddā’s father. ‘And I do know the king, what sort of man he is. Let’s just leave it at that.’

I was only saying…’

Well don’t say. She’s our only daugh­ter. She is our world. Any­thing hap­pens to her, any­thing at all, so much as a sour glance or a rough word, and you are going over Robber’s Cliff. Understand?’

Please, sir, do not worry,’ said Sat­tuka. ‘I love your daugh­ter. I know we only met this morn­ing, but just as she loved me at first sight, I have never felt any­thing like this. It must be our karma. How many lives have we been hus­band and wife? I don’t know, but the bond is strong. I could never harm her, even in thought.’

He looked into Bhaddā’s eyes, and as she looked back she all of a sud­den just wanted din­ner to be over. Let the night begin.

And for a time, it was good. Sat­tuka had a dig­nity about him that few could match. Bhaddā’s fam­ily came to accept that his story was true: he was a just man con­demned for polit­ical reas­ons. Bhaddā found him an intel­li­gent and sens­it­ive com­pan­ion, one who knew when to listen and when to laugh, when to caress her ten­derly, and when not. He showed her the world, took her trav­el­ling, spoke of polit­ics, of stars, of the real and the true. But she loved him most when she caught that look of sad­ness in his eye, a ten­der­ness that all his strength could not hide. And in his arms she finally knew the mean­ing of pleasure.

But things did not go so well with Bhaddā’s fam­ily. Although Bhaddā hardly noticed, hav­ing a con­victed killer at home was hardly a ticket to upward mobil­ity. Her father’s con­tract as a king’s Min­is­ter was not renewed. Old friends found new reas­ons not to visit. Neigh­bours kept their chil­dren indoors, and some of them moved away. Spells were muttered in door­ways as he passed. Bhaddā’s par­ents drew into them­selves, isol­ated, and ever more depend­ent on their daugh­ter and her out­land­ish husband.

For a year, her dreams stopped. But as spring came around again, and the flowers sent out their tender blooms, some­thing changed. One morn­ing, Sat­tuka rose early and sat brood­ing by the win­dow, look­ing out over the moun­tains. Bhaddā tossed and mur­mured in her sleep, then screamed.

Hey, my sweet thing, what’s up?’ Sat­tuka came from the win­dow and took Bhaddā’s hands. They were sweating.

What?’ said Bhaddā, only half conscious.

You were dream­ing. Let me get you something.’

God, it was ter­rible, like — death — was hunt­ing me. Some what thing?’

Some­thing milky. It was only a dream.’

But it’s not like other dreams. I’ve had them before.’


You know how when you dream, it’s you in the dreams – I mean oneself.’


But these dreams, it’s someone else, someone not me… ’

Then who?’

It’s some other time – past, future, I don’t know. I don’t recog­nize any­thing. There’s a girl… and a man.’

The man of your dreams? Call me jealous.’

No… he is the hunter.’

Hunt­ing… what?’ Sat­tuka grew grim. ‘What is he hunt­ing? Is it you? Is there some – creature – that pur­sues you in the night?’

They’re only dreams.’ Bhaddā paused for a long while before she said: ‘I’ll get my own some­thing, thanks.’

All that day Sat­tuka was with­drawn, while Bhaddā was dis­trac­ted. As even­ing drew in, Sat­tuka said: ‘Bhaddā, my sweet, I have an oblig­a­tion to the gods.’


When I was con­demned to die, I made a vow to the god­dess of Robber’s Cliff. If I should, by some mir­acle, be freed, then I would go each year to make an offer­ing of flowers.’

To the god­dess of the cliff? But the crim­in­als are tossed off there to die – doesn’t she receive enough offerings?’

I know – the king the way he is, she’s never hungry. But she is a just god­dess. That’s why I must ful­fill my vow – to ascend that ter­rible height in per­son, and make a right­eous offer­ing of flowers, to thank her for my deliv­er­ance, and to atone for the need­less blood.’

Then I’ll come with you.’

Bhaddā, you mustn’t. It’s a wild and dan­ger­ous place. I go alone.’

A wife’s place is by the side of her hus­band. Espe­cially when he is in danger. Remem­ber Sītā!’

If any­thing were to hap­pen, I could never for­give myself.’

Bhaddā laughed. ‘Noth­ing will hap­pen. It’ll be a pic­nic. What flowers should I bring?’

Sat­tuka paused a long time before reply­ing. ‘It’s spring­time. Bring the kaṇavera. And Bhaddā, since it’s our anniversary, we should wear our wed­ding clothes. You can wear your dia­mond necklace.’

Well, that’ll be fun.’

They stood at the cliff’s edge, hold­ing the flowers. Bhaddā looked out at the view.

It’s so amaz­ing! You can see the end of the world from here. Have you ever seen any­thing so beautiful?’

But Sat­tuka was silent.

Sat­tuka, you’re so serious!’


Is it some­thing I said?’


Speak to me!’

This is it, Bhaddā. It’s over.’

What? What’s over?’

Us. Whatever happened, it just happened.’

Bhaddā was so shocked, she could only say in a small voice: ‘What? Was it me? Did I not do…?’

Oh, no, Bhaddā – you’ve been great. Top class pro­fes­sional ser­vice. No, really. Up there with the best. I’ve really been able to cut back on my vis­its to the work­ing girls this past year. You could make a tidy profit with that skill set. Think about it.’

How can you say these things? Sat­tuka, look at me! I just can’t believe that you would… Why?’

You cretin! I’m here for the jewels.’

He looked at her with eyes become pitch. His words hung between them like an lower­ing storm.

You… what…?’

Take off your necklace.’

But my lord, I am yours! All this is yours! Why should you steal what is yours?’

I steal because it is my nature. Love – maybe that is your nature, Bhaddā…’

Bhaddā was still for a long moment. Finally, she said: ‘If it must be, let it be so. I will not be the first wife to die in faith for her hus­band. But allow me one last thing. Per­mit me to wor­ship my hus­band, who has brought me life, who has res­cued me from my prison, and who has shown me the joys of love. Allow me to pay homage to my lord before I die!’

Sat­tuka stood proudly. ‘That is not too much to ask.’

With care and rev­er­ence, Bhaddā knelt before him and bowed as she had when they first met.

My lord, if I have done any­thing to offend you, by way of body, speech, or mind, may you for­give me.’

She stood, and with her hands clasped in rev­er­ence, she stepped slowly, wor­ship­fully, circ­ling Sat­tuka three times. And on the third time as she passed behind him, she shoved him off the cliff.

He half-turned as he fell, and grabbed her wrist, pulling her with him. But she heaved back from the edge, and for a moment they stood poised there: Sat­tuka lean­ing out over the abyss, clasp­ing Bhaddā’s hand in des­per­a­tion as she struggled to keep her footing.

Bhaddā,’ he whispered. ‘For­give me.’

Bhaddā put her free hand on his, feel­ing the strain of him grip­ping her wrist. She looked for one long moment into his dark, fathom­less eyes; and ripped his fin­ger off her hand, hear­ing it snap.

Asshole,’ she said.

Bhaddā watched his body break on the rocks. Then she tore her neck­lace from around her throat and threw it after him, mut­ter­ing, ‘Well, that’s rooted, then.’ She was still hold­ing the flowers.

She stepped back from the edge, turned and stumbled off, a blank­ness in her mind. She staggered through the bushes, not both­er­ing to fol­low a path. The rocks stabbed her feet, the thorns ripped her skin. The sun beat on her through the shade­less scrub. Shad­ows were frac­tured. Rage, con­fu­sion, and hor­ror coursed through her veins in chaotic abund­ance, but none of them touched her. They just echoed in the empti­ness, the void in her chest that kept on get­ting big­ger and big­ger until the whole world fell into it. As the grey day ground to a bleary night, she came to a dell, an open­ing in the trees. She cast her­self down and lay there, star­ing into the moon­less night. It was brighter than her heart.

In the dark she could feel her love for her par­ents turn­ing into bit­ter, hope­less ashes. She had des­troyed their lives, driven by a com­pul­sion of fate, so it seemed. They would never recover. Shunned by their friends, their social pos­i­tion des­troyed, their fam­ily line ended, there was noth­ing left for them. And she had done this. She could never return, never remarry. Her child­hood was gone, her adult life in ruins. Sattuka’s words were a knife in her belly, for there was a truth to what he said. For an aban­doned wife like her, pros­ti­tu­tion was the only course left. Words like ‘irre­spons­ible’ or ‘ungrate­ful’ just couldn’t cover it. She, who had such a sharp intel­lect, had acted in the most stu­pid way ima­gin­able. And yet… that name­less some­thing she felt for Sat­tuka: it was still there.

Towards dawn she slipped into a thank­less sleep.

Thecla heard his voice from below. She could see in the street a crowd gathered around, all quiet and still. In the eye of the crowd was a man; small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, well-built, with eye­brows meet­ing, rather long-nosed, and full of grace.

Blessed are they that have kept the flesh chaste,’ he cried, ‘for they shall become a temple of God. And blessed are the bod­ies of the vir­gins, for they shall be well pleas­ing to God, and shall not lose the reward of their chastity.’

For three days and three nights Thecla did not rise from the win­dow, neither to eat nor to drink. She sat listen­ing as if enchanted. Her father became more and more wor­ried, and spoke to Thecla’s fiancée, Thamyris.

My daugh­ter is tied to the win­dow like a spider. She lays hold of what is said by Paul with strange eager­ness and awful emo­tion. Speak to her, for she is your beloved.’

Thamyris went to Thecla, kissed her and spoke kindly, and the rest of the fam­ily like­wise. But Thecla remained at the win­dow, trans­fixed by the word of Paul.

Thamyris became enraged by Paul’s preach­ing of vir­gin­ity, fear­ing that his future bride would be lost to him forever. He went before the judge and said with a great shout: ‘Hon­oured Sir! This man who calls him­self Paul, he makes vir­gins turn away from mar­riage. He is des­troy­ing our fam­il­ies and our hon­oured cus­toms.’ The judge had Paul imprisoned and bound in chains.

That night, Thecla took off her neck­lace and used it to bribe the jail ward. Paul spoke to her, and she sat before him kiss­ing his bonds. The next morn­ing they took Paul from the prison, while Thecla remained, wal­low­ing on the ground in the place where he had sat. When the judge heard the cir­cum­stances, he ordered that Thecla, too, be brought before him. She came, exult­ing with joy. He said to her:

Why do you dis­obey Thamyris, to whom you are betrothed accord­ing to the law of our people?’

But she stood look­ing earn­estly at Paul and did not speak. Her mother became dis­traught and cried out, saying:

Burn the wicked wretch! If she won’t marry, burn her, the ungrate­ful daughter!’

The judge was moved by this testi­mony. He had Paul and Thecla whipped and cast out of the city.

Thecla said to Paul: ‘I shall cut my hair and fol­low you wherever go.’

These are shame­less times and you are beau­ti­ful,’ replied Paul. ‘I am afraid that tempta­tion might come upon you.’

Only give me the bap­tism and tempta­tion shall not touch me.’

Wait with patience, Thecla,’ said Paul, ‘and you shall receive the baptism.’

They went to Anti­och together. But Thecla was seen by in the street by a man called Alex­an­der, who would have her as his lover. He approached Paul with gifts, but Paul turned away, say­ing, ‘I do not know the woman you speak of.’ Then Paul left that town.

Alex­an­der went to Thecla, and accos­ted her by force in the street. But tak­ing hold of Alex­an­der, she tore his cloak and pulled off his helm, so that he became a laughing-stock. Torn between love and shame, he denounced her before the court. The judge con­demned her to the wild beasts. The women were appalled and cried out: ‘Cruel judge­ment! Unjust judgement!’

Thecla’s clothes were torn off, and she was thrown naked in the arena. A raging lion­ess was loosed upon her. Thecla stood firm as the crowd of women wept. But the lion­ess crouched before Thecla and licked her feet, so that all the people there were aston­ished. Thecla stood alone in the middle of the arena and declared for all to hear:

I am Thecla, who has been bap­tised in your sight by the tongue of a lioness!’

The judge ordered her gar­ments to be brought, say­ing: ‘I release to you Thecla, the blessed.’ The women shouted aloud, so that the found­a­tions of the arena were shaken by their voice.

After this, Thecla left in search of Paul. She dressed her­self in a man’s cloak and took a group of young men and women with her. In Lycean Myra she found Paul speak­ing the word. Paul was aston­ished to see her.

She said, ‘I have received the baptism.’

And Paul replied, ‘Go, and teach the word of God.’

Thecla returned to her home and found Thamyris dead, but her mother alive. She sent for her mother and said to her: ‘Theocleia, my mother, do you believe in the Most High? For you desired a child; and I am stand­ing here beside you.’

After an age the dawn saw fit to do its thing. And then in the half light, lying alone in the track­less wil­der­ness, Bhaddā heard, very close, an old woman cackle.

That’s, uhh, a bit unnerv­ing …’ she ven­tured. A rock pushed into her hip.

So it seems that a woman is some­times smarter than a man!’ giggled the woman’s voice.

Shocked, Bhaddā sat upright.

Smart enough to get rid of him – as strong and mighty as he was. But is she smart enough?’

Who are you?’ said Bhaddā.

She can over­come him – but can she over­come her­self? Cry­ing like a little baby – when we both know she’s a killer.’

I’m not – a killer! It was self defence. He was going to murder me.’

Maybe so, maybe so. But per­haps she could have run away, or tripped him over, or found some other kind of trick. But she didn’t!’

There was noth­ing I could do,’ said Bhaddā. ‘And any­way, who are you? I can’t see… You’re not – the god­dess? The god­dess of Robber’s Cliff!’

The voice giggled again. ‘God­dess? Is that what you want? To make an offer­ing of flowers, and beg for the goddess’s pro­tec­tion? She wasn’t much use when the bas­tard tried to throw you over the cliff!’

He wasn’t a bas­tard. I loved him – I still love him,’ said Bhaddā. ‘He was just trapped in his karma – like all of us. Without the favours of the gods we are doomed.’

You speak half a truth, my dear Bhaddā,’ said the voice. ‘We are all trapped in our karma. But so are the gods! They are trapped, help­less, in the bonds of their past karma. Burn, burn, we must burn off our karma!’

Please,’ begged Bhaddā, ‘show your­self. I just can’t take it any more.’

Out of the bushes stepped the wild­est fig­ure Bhaddā had ever seen. A little old lady, starved almost to death, skin blackened by the sun, withered and broken, but with an unquench­able inner fire. Her hair grew in des­per­ate little clumps, and she wore only a single white rag. She was utterly filthy and stank as if she hadn’t bathed for dec­ades – which, Bhaddā later found out, was in fact the case. Over her face was tied a thin gauze, and she car­ried a little brush with which she swept the ground before tak­ing each step. Bhaddā could not have been more amazed if the god­dess her­self had appeared.

Your rev­er­ence,’ said Bhaddā. ‘You must be a saint. Or are you some being from another realm, come to bless me – or to pun­ish me?’

I am neither. Not a saint, nor any appar­i­tion. Only a nun, a simple ascetic. My name is Cand­inī. I have gone forth out of faith in Purāna, the Great Hero, the Con­queror. For twenty years I have walked the path to lib­er­a­tion from all past karma.’

Can that be done? Killing my hus­band is a grave sin, I know. I can feel it stick­ing to my bones, like a can­cer in my soul. I dare not think of what might be to come. And my parents…’

Do not fear, my child,’ said Cand­inī. ‘Come with us. You have over­come your evil-hearted hus­band. Now see if you can over­come yourself!’

Bhaddā looked up with hope for the first time.

And Bhaddā…’ said the nun.


Leave the flowers behind.’

You’ve found… her jewels?’

Yes, the neck­lace. My men were search­ing down there all day.’

But my daugh­ter, where is she?’

I’m afraid,’ the Magis­trate shif­ted uncom­fort­ably, ‘it is unlikely we will obtain a pos­it­ive iden­ti­fic­a­tion. The, ahh, jack­als, you under­stand. And the vul­tures. There’s not much left.’

My Bhaddā?’

Bhaddā’s gone. I’m sorry, I just – I’m so sorry.’

Bhaddā fol­lowed Cand­inī to her small her­mit­age. Just a col­lec­tion of little huts, really. Some nuns looked curi­ously at this young girl, with her fine hair and her proud step. A group of nuns stood per­fectly still in the glare of the sun. They were ter­ribly emaciated.

What’s with the fash­ion vic­tims?’ said Bhaddā. ‘Try­ing to drop a dress size before Saturday?’

No, Bhaddā,’ said Cand­inī, ‘this is not about appear­ance, it’s about essence. These nuns are shed­ding the ines­sen­tial. They fast for many weeks, some­times longer.’

Whoa,’ said Bhaddā, ‘extreme nuns.’

These are the novices, Bhaddā,’ said Cand­inī. ‘The advanced yogis are not easy to see. You will train here first with the novices before seek­ing the deep wilderness.’

Hi,’ said Bhaddā to one of the young nuns.

Hi, sis­ter,’ she replied.

That must hurt.’

Well, you go kind of numb after a while. Then you need to find some­thing else to, you know, do the thing, get the pain going again.’

Oh,’ said Bhaddā. ‘And do you ever get the feel­ing back?’

Some,’ she nod­ded brightly. ‘You’re new here.’

You could tell.’

The dress…’

What’s wrong with the dress? Ok, it’s a bit messy, what with my night in the forest and all, but it’s got these darling flowers around the bor­ders…’ Bhaddā stopped and looked at the nuns’ raw hemp rags. ‘O, umm, you mean I should slip into some­thing a little more … mortify-the-flesh-ish?’

Cand­inī and the young nun exchanged glances, rais­ing their eye­brows, or at least the place where their eye­brows would have been if they hadn’t been plucked out.

Yes, that’s right,’ said Cand­inī. ‘We’ll sort some­thing for you. And over here is your hut.’ She showed Bhaddā a tiny struc­ture with walls of spliced bam­boo and a roof of grass. Hor­ri­fied, Bhaddā looked inside. There was noth­ing, lit­er­ally noth­ing, just a bare earthen floor.

Of course, we allow the novices a few lux­ur­ies,’ said Candinī.

Great – accessor­ies!’ said Bhaddā with a gleam of hope.

Yes, like a roof, for example,’ said Cand­inī. ‘Any­way, rest first. Tomor­row we start.’ She left Bhaddā star­ing at the earth floor, won­der­ing just how she was sup­posed to rest.

Cand­inī asked her what type of ordin­a­tion she wanted. Bhaddā said she wanted the highest of them all.

All right, then, Bhaddā,’ said Cand­inī. ‘Just you sit here and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll get the pincers.’

Sorry? Pin­cers?’

Yes, dear. We grab your hair with iron pin­cers and pull it out tuft by tuft. That’s what you want, isn’t it?’

Yes, of course. But won’t it, like, hurt? Me and pain, we’re going through some rela­tion­ship chal­lenges right now…’

Cand­inī smiled as she got the pin­cers. ‘Well, it might hurt just a little…’

She grabbed a clump of Bhaddā’s rich black hair, and jerked it out by the roots.

OOWWAA!’ screamed Bhaddā. ‘Nnggrrh.’

… or it might hurt a lot.’

Sorry, ahh, that wasn’t very nunly, was it? Okay, let’s try again.’

Cand­inī ripped out each hair of Bhaddā’s head, and with each jerk of the pin­cers the pain grew.

When they were fin­ished, Cand­inī said: ‘How are you now, my dear?’

I’ve felt worse. Oh, hang on – no I haven’t.’

Well,’ said Cand­inī, ‘you’d bet­ter get used to it. If you stay here long enough, things could get painful.’

Later, when the hair grew back, it came in tight curls, so they called her Kuṇḍalakesā, ‘Curly-hair’.

Cand­inī was near­ing the end of her life. She fas­ted for longer and longer peri­ods, defy­ing her scrawny body to sur­vive another day. But when she heard news that Purāna him­self, reputed to be an Omni­scient One, was near­ing Rājagaha, she took Bhaddā to see the great man in per­son. Cand­inī warned Bhaddā:

Bhaddā, remem­ber, the men will be naked. Purāna has not worn a stich of cloth­ing since I have known him these twenty years. And the other monks will be the same.’ She smiled. ‘Just don’t look, okay?’

They came to him by a stream in the after­noon sun. Purāna was sit­ting with his devotees on the near side as Bhaddā approached, sup­port­ing Cand­inī. The two nuns bowed to the Con­queror, and sat down near him. Purāna said:

Cand­inī, your time is close. Strive on, and soon you shall exhaust all karma. Noth­ing is more import­ant than this. Are you ready to take your final fast?’

O Con­queror, I feel I am ready,’ she said.

Then you may pro­ceed, with my bless­ing,’ said Purāna. ‘And who is this new stu­dent with you? She has not long gone forth.’

Con­queror, this is Bhaddā, who they call Kuṇḍalakesā. She is from a minister’s fam­ily in Rājagaha. Hers is a story of tragedy: her hus­band tried to kill her, and she threw him off Robber’s Cliff.’

Con­queror,’ said Bhaddā, ‘I have so much bad karma! I killed my hus­band, who I loved. It’s true he tried to kill me, but he was only fol­low­ing his nature. He was born as a brig­and, and his past karma made him do it. I knew this before we mar­ried – I saw it in my dreams. But o! my fam­ily who I love so much. I can’t go back. What they must have endured. I carry such a weight of karma on my poor girl’s back – the death of my hus­band, the betrayal of my fam­ily. I was lost, cry­ing in the wil­der­ness. Then Cand­inī found me. She has been my teacher and mentor. She makes me hope that I can find peace from my wicked deeds.’

For a time, Purāna was silent. His monks looked on in aston­ish­ment – they had never heard such a story; nor had they ever seen their teacher at a loss for words. Finally he spoke.

Bhaddā, I’m not here to judge you. But to escape your karma, you’ll have to flay your flesh into a bil­lion atoms of corus­cat­ing agony.’

What’s “corus­cat­ing”?’

Never mind. “Atoms of agony,” do you get that bit?’

Abso­lutely. I’m totally in tune with the whole “atoms of agony” thing. So this is a “tor­ture the body, free the mind” kind of deal?’

Exactly,’ said Purāna, satisfied.

And do they serve chips with that?’ Bhaddā inquired earnestly.

What?’ said Purāna.

I guess not.’

Bhaddā, you must under­stand this. The things you see around you, they are not yours. Your pos­ses­sions, your fam­ily, your hus­band – they are not yours, and you are not theirs. Even your body that you carry with you, this is not you. So leave aside your pride in your body! Now you are young and beau­ti­ful – soon you will be like Cand­inī, withered and decrepit. This body is but a nest of dis­ease and decay. It gives no pleas­ure, and must be sub­dued. To this end you must prac­tice the most power­ful of aus­ter­it­ies. I see it – your nature is sen­sual, wan­ton. With your mind you must crush your desires.

Do not bathe. Wear but one cloth. Tear out your hair. For food, take only the scraps that are offered from the poorest houses. Do not harm so much as a single insect – your karma is already crush­ing you, how much more so will be any harm­ful act you com­mit as a nun! Then you must pur­sue the higher aus­ter­it­ies. Reach the lim­its of pain and go bey­ond them.

Bhaddā, your past karma is haunt­ing you, and will pur­sue you bey­ond the grave. You must make an end of it! When you fol­low the highest aus­ter­it­ies, you will feel the power of tapas burn­ing up your limbs, raging like a fur­nace in your body. This is the feel­ing of karma being burnt off. It is karma that brings us back, again and again, into this world of pain. By pain we can burn up our past karma. By doing no harm, we do not accu­mu­late new karma. And those who can elim­in­ate all karma will know free­dom in this very life.

Remem­ber this, Bhaddā: pain is your gift, pain is your skill. Pain is what the world has delivered you, and pain is what will deliver you from the world. Use your gift. Do not fear it.’

Bhaddā nod­ded slowly. They sat together in silence while the even­ing drew itself around them.

A few days later, Cand­inī lay dying. She called Bhaddā to her.

Bhaddā, my dear, my time has come. I am soon to depart. Remem­ber what you have been taught. Do not doubt or waver! I look to liberation.’

Bhaddā hes­it­ated.

What is it, Bhaddā? Don’t be shy! We have so little time together.’

I just wish… my mum was here.’

Hush, child!’ said Cand­inī. ‘Your mother would be so proud if only she could understand.’

Cand­inī, you are the mother of my spirit. You have given me hope, and I fully intend to pur­sue this path for the end­ing of my karma. But still, I doubt.’

Tell me your doubts. This is the sign of your past karma obstruct­ing you.’

But if all is due to past karma, are not our present acts also due to past karma? How can we escape if everything is determ­ined by the past?’

Bhaddā, do not worry, it will all become clear. Has not the Omni­scient One taught us this doc­trine? He has reached the end­ing of all karma, so his word is truth itself. Have faith, Bhaddā. You will see.’

I do not wish to trouble you, my mother and my teacher,’ said Bhaddā. ‘But I need to know! Tell me, although I know the ques­tion is imper­tin­ent: can you see this truth for yourself?’

Cand­inī smiled. ‘I’m afraid, Bhaddā, for we women it is a little dif­fer­ent. You see, the male ascet­ics, like Purāna him­self, go com­pletely naked. But this is not suit­able for women, so we must keep a single cloth. Alas for our frailty! For this single cloth, this cov­er­ing of decency, is the sign of our own past karma. As long as we carry this, we can­not give up all our karma, and can­not know the bliss of omni­science in this life. But Purāna prom­ises us that when we pass away, even we women may dis­card all karma and ascend to the pin­nacle of Awaken­ing. This is my only wish, now, Bhaddā.’

She took Bhaddā’s hand in hers; and Bhaddā watched as Cand­inī slipped from the bonds of this world.

With the passing of her close teacher, Bhaddā with­drew from the nun’s her­mit­age and took to the remote hills, where she gave her­self over to the most severe austerities.

She stopped her nose, mouth, and ears with her hand, and sat without breath­ing until her belly felt like it was being sliced up with a sharp sword, like her whole body was being roas­ted over blaz­ing coals. She col­lapsed, heav­ing. When she recovered, she did it again. And again. And again.

Alone in the ragged hills, she fled all human con­tact. She stood on the black rocks in the mid­day sun, scorch­ing her skin. For one day she stood, then for two days, up to one week. Later she would stand for a month at a time, without mov­ing. The anim­als crawled over her skin, and she let them feed on her flesh. The weeds star­ted to curl around her calves. For weeks on end she took no food. Her skin turned black, so that passers-by thought she was a charred corpse. Her back­side became like a camel’s hoof, her ver­teb­rae stuck out like beads on a string, and her ribs were as gaunt as the crazy rafters on an old roof­less barn. The gleam sank inside her eyes, like the gleam of water sunk far down a well. And when she broke her fast, she ate only cow dung.

Later, when she returned to a vil­lage for alms, filthy and bedraggled, the people abused her and threw rocks and clods of earth. Bleed­ing, her clay bowl broken, she depar­ted in silence, the dogs snap­ping at her heels. She went to the char­nel ground, where the newly depos­ited corpses were rot­ting, and stood silent and still among them. This time, she stood on one leg. The vul­tures circled nearby.

Purāna returned to Rājagaha, and the ascet­ics gathered to see him. Bhaddā came to see her teacher once more. As she approached the gath­er­ing, a hush settled over them. They drew back in awe at Bhaddā’s pain. It was unpre­ced­en­ted for someone so young to have endured so much. Only Purāna him­self, so went the whis­per, could sur­pass Bhaddā’s austerities.

See­ing her, Purāna smiled. ‘My daugh­ter, my true child, wel­come! Here, see you all: this is the fore­most of all my dis­ciples in intens­ity and ded­ic­a­tion. She has done all I asked of her and more, with no ques­tion or com­plaint. She is truly a mas­ter of the body, an accom­plished one! She has burnt away very much of her past karma. Now she has only the subtlest traces of karma left. Soon she will have reached the pin­nacle that can be attained in a female form.’

Bhaddā bowed, embar­rassed by the praise. Inside her burned a fero­city of will, yet her pain remained. She felt like a fraud. Nervously, she gave voice to her doubts.

O Con­queror! You say I have burnt away much of my karma. But I can­not see this. I can­not see this karma that you speak of. I do not know how much karma I have burnt away, nor how much karma remains, nor how much longer I must con­tinue with these aus­ter­it­ies. I tell you truly, I will give myself until I die – I have no fear of des­troy­ing my body. But under­stand­ing eludes me. Please help me: I have done dread­ful crimes and must atone for them.’

Bhaddā,’ said Purāna, ‘do not con­cern your­self with such mat­ters. Whether you see it or not, your karma is being des­troyed. Per­severe! It will not be long now.’

Bhaddā bowed once more and left. She returned to her little cave in the moun­tains. It was even­ing, and she watched the sun go down over the hills of Magadha, the sky blush­ing as if it was embar­rassed at the shame­less­ness of the day. She smiled at the thought.

In a tree nearby, two par­rots were roost­ing. One ate the fruit, while the other watched over without eating.

The next day, Bhaddā took her bowl and walked away from Rājagaha, away from her life with the ascet­ics. She headed north, and the jagged hills of Rājagaha receded behind her. Com­ing to Nālanda, she wandered for alms and took her meal. Then she went to the town gates and made a little pile of earth. In the pile she stuck a sāla tree branch. Then, as people were com­ing and going about her, she said loudly:

I am Bhaddā, who they call Kuṇḍalakesā! If there is any ascetic or philo­sopher in this place, let them come forth. Let them match their wits against mine!’

The people looked at her curi­ously; but this was India, and an eccent­ric ascetic was no unusual sight. Word spread of her chal­lenge, and reached the ears of a group of wan­der­ing philosophers.

I’m not going,’ said one. ‘She’s impossible! Did you hear what she did?’

Me neither,’ said another. ‘She murdered her hus­band – what will she do to me? Sañ­jaya, you do it.’

Sañ­jaya said: ‘I’ll never be beaten by a woman. I’ll squeeze her out like a wet cloth through a wringer!’

Look­ing for­ward to a good debate, the three wan­der­ers went to the town gates and approached Bhaddā. The passers-by gathered to watch the show.

O lady!’ said Sañ­jaya, the leader of the three. ‘I will debate with you. But I must know the stakes.’

Bhaddā looked him up and down, and said: ‘If you win, I will be your dis­ciple. If I win, you must sal­vage your pride as best you can.’

Sañ­jaya cleared his throat. ‘All right then. As I have accep­ted your chal­lenge, I have the right to start with whatever ques­tion I wish.’

So be it.’

Sañ­jaya looked about him at the expect­ant crowd, and said: ‘Lady, this great earth rests upon water, and the water rests upon space. But upon what does space rest?’

Bhaddā did not hes­it­ate. ‘Space, my friend, rests not. What we call “space” is merely the absence of the four ele­ments. Your ques­tion is invalid.’

Delighted, the crowd roared its approval. Sañ­jaya inclined his head in accept­ance of her answer. Now it was Bhaddā’s turn.

Good sir, do you hold the doc­trine: “All this is due to past karma”?’

It is gen­er­ally accep­ted in the world that all we see, taste, smell, touch, and think is formed by our acts in past lives. This is evid­ent to any think­ing person.’

Leave aside the opin­ions of the crowd. I ask you for your own view.’

Then indeed, yes, I hold the view that all this is due to past karma.’

Bhaddā said: ‘Then tell me: how can any action that we per­form in this life end what was done in the past?’

At this, Sañ­jaya fell silent. The crowd roared. Bhaddā scattered the pile of sand, threw away the branch, and left that town, choos­ing a ran­dom path. The three wan­der­ers left in another direction.

Town after town, Bhaddā repeated her per­form­ance, always seek­ing for someone to answer her ques­tion. Her repu­ta­tion spread, and as she neared a town, the ascet­ics and philo­soph­ers left in fear, while the crowds came in. Only the bold­est would stand up to her, but none could answer. Before long, though she fol­lowed every road, she could find none to debate with.

One day, she arrived at the cross­roads out­side of a dusty, gen­eric town. Stand­ing all day long with her little tree-in-the-sand, she fell to chat­ting with an old mer­chant who happened by, hawk­ing his trinkets.

These so-called “philo­soph­ers” – they say they love wis­dom, but never a scrap of it do they have. Per­haps we only love that which is fur­thest from us.’

The trav­el­ler said, ‘I’ve heard of a new teacher in Magadha. He hails from the Śaky­ans, the Got­ama fam­ily. They call him the Buddha.’

The Buddha! “Awakened” – that’s some title to live up to.’

Well, he does have a repu­ta­tion. They say that the thou­sand fol­low­ers of the Kas­sapa broth­ers have gone over to him. And Sañjaya’s dis­ciples Upa­tissa and Kolita have joined him, too.’

Sañ­jaya,’ said Bhaddā. ‘He’s the dumbest of the lot. His stu­dents deserve bet­ter. So what does this so-called Buddha have to offer?’

I’m not really sure,’ said the trav­el­ler. ‘But I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion in the street between one of his close dis­ciples and Upa­tissa. Upa­tissa – he was still with Sañ­jaya then – saw this monk Assaji wan­der­ing for alms. He went up to him and spoke, I just happened to be nearby.’

What did they talk about?’ said Bhaddā.

Not much, to be hon­est. I couldn’t fig­ure out what was the big deal. Upa­tissa said he wanted to know what the Buddha was teach­ing, and Assaji said that he was only new, that he didn’t know much. But Upa­tissa would not be put off; he asked for just the essence. And Assaji said, I think it was some­thing about causes – things that arose from a causes, their arising and ces­sa­tion. It didn’t sound like much of a teach­ing to me; but Upa­tissa was obvi­ously taken by it. He went straight away to his friend Kolita, and they left Sañ­jaya, tak­ing most of his stu­dents with them. He was spewing.’

Bhaddā got a gleam in her eye. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘there’s no joy here. Looks like I’m off to Rājagaha.’

Three days walk­ing, and she was back in her home town. She returned to her old cave at the back of the Vulture’s Peak. In the morn­ing she took her bowl and walked for alms. On a whim she took a road she had avoided for many years: the road past her old house. She walked slowly, per­mit­ting her­self only a peek out of the corner of her eye. The house looked sombre, run down. She had heard noth­ing of her par­ents since that day with Sat­tuka. How could she face them? Easier to face the tor­ture of her body. Let them think she was dead, that Sat­tuka had done away with her. It was bet­ter so. They could not help her. Her karma bore her bey­ond their reach.

But as she passed the door, it opened.

Daugh­ter,’ came a call. ‘Wait just a minute.’

Bhaddā hes­it­ated. Since going forth, she had kept the strict ascetic rule not to wait when called for. But as she paused in inde­cision, a fig­ure appeared in the door­way. Her old Gran! Now truly decrepit, bent double and half-blind, she shuffled along crookedly.

Bhaddā stood still as her Gran approached and dropped a spoon of rice in her bowl.

Ahh, my dear, it’s so nice to serve you,’ said Gran. ‘I am lonely now. All alone in such a big house – it’s not right. There used to be noise, and laughter, the games of child­hood. But no more. My son died before me, it’s not nat­ural. He and his wife just wasted away after… Well, you don’t want to hear the prat­tling of an old woman. Begone, child, and bless you. But let an old woman give you a kiss first!’

Bhaddā was taken aback – this was against all cus­tom and etiquette for an ascetic. Before she could think, her Gran reached up and took her face in her withered hands, brought it down and placed a soft kiss on her fore­head. Gran stopped in shock: her lips felt the shape of Bhaddā’s scar.

But… it can’t be,’ she said. ‘Bhaddā? My sweet Bhaddā? Can it be you?’

The years of reserve melted, and Bhaddā took her Gran in a deep embrace.

It’s me, Gran,’ she wept. ‘I’ve come home.’

They spent that whole day talk­ing, catch­ing up, laugh­ing and cry­ing at the silly sad­ness of things. As even­ing came, Bhaddā would not accept her Gran’s offer of a com­fort­able bed. Prom­ising to visit again, she returned to her cave.

A great dream came to her that night.

Prin­cess Khemā woke and sat up, her arms out­stretched, mur­mur­ing: ‘Catch the Golden Eagle’. The sun softly peeped through the cur­tains, and she real­ized that it had been just a dream. Her attend­ants giggled a little at the sil­li­ness, but she ignored them. She stayed still in the memory for a time, then lay down again. The morn­ing wore on and she remained on her crim­son couch, all layered with silk and sprinkled with jew­els. Even­tu­ally her father, King Brahmad­atta, called to see her.

My dear, are you well? I hope noth­ing is both­er­ing you.’

Father,’ she said, ‘I had a dream. I saw a Golden Eagle. He came here and … and he gave me his heart! But now he is gone, and it is lost.’

That’s lovely, dear,’ he said.

No, you don’t under­stand. I must have the Golden Eagle.’

But Khemā,’ said the king, ‘there is no such thing. Golden Eagles aren’t real. It was only –’

I do believe,’ inter­rup­ted Khemā, ‘that if you say it was only a dream, I may well be sick. I will have it – the heart of the Golden Eagle. If I do not get it, I will die right here.’ She turned away from him and would say no more.

Sigh­ing, King Brahmad­atta left. Think­ing there was no choice, he summoned a gath­er­ing of hunters. They came into the palace court­yard, rough unshaven men look­ing decidedly uneasy amid the royal pomp. The king told them of the quest, and offered a rich reward for any­one who could bring the heart of the Golden Eagle for his daugh­ter. They scoffed, say­ing: ‘How can we hunt some­thing that does not exist?’ Dis­gruntled, they began to leave.

Then a late­comer arrived and forced his way his way to the front of the crowd. He was a coarse, ugly fel­low, thick of body, with yel­lowed broken teeth stick­ing out at crazy angles, covered in scars, hairy and squat.

I will seek the Golden Eagle,’ he said. ‘But if I should suc­ceed, I will name my own reward.’ The king agreed, and the hunter left by the north­ern road.

Khemā lay lan­guor­ous on her couch, facing the north­ern win­dow. She could see the town and the fields bey­ond, bounded by the great river. The far side of the river was dark forest, and on the clearest days she could just make out, in the farthest dis­tance, the moun­tains with their white peaks shin­ing in the sun. Inside her was a yearn­ing that would not die.

The hunter passed quickly over the inhab­ited lands and crossed the river. On the far shore of the river was a trad­ing town. They dealt in the goods of the forest: tim­bers, metals, anim­als. Trade was brisk, as the wild things were always in demand, and the world of man spread ever wider. Com­ing to the cent­ral square, the hunter approached a group of mer­chants, drink­ing and mak­ing deals. He asked them about the Golden Eagle.

Golden Eagle?’ said one of the mer­chants, ‘I’ve been trad­ing these parts for years, and I’ve never heard of it.’

Oh, hang on,’ said another mer­chant, ‘is that like a big yel­low bird that talks?’

Yes, that’s it!’ said the hunter.

Sure, there’s one in the neigh­bour­hood,’ he said. ‘Just go to the end of the square there, and turn right – into Ses­ame Street!’ Laugh­ing and jeer­ing, they pushed the hunter away. He got furi­ous and lashed out. A short but vicious brawl ensued. The hunter emerged more than a little the worse for wear and tear.

He left that town behind and pen­et­rated farther into the forest. He came to a second vil­lage, smal­ler, with tumble­down shacks and bored chil­dren. He asked about a Golden Eagle, and they just looked at him strangely. But an ancient crone, bent double as she squat­ted by the cook­ing fire, answered him.

Aye, me lad­die, I’ve heard tell of a Golden Eagle. Me old gramma told me when I’s a young ’un like these here brats,’ she said, slap­ping a little hand that was get­ting too close to the pot. ‘All shinin’ like the sun, so they say. But ’tis only stories.’

Thank­ing her, the hunter con­tin­ued until he reached a third vil­lage. Hardly even a vil­lage, just a few leaf huts in the foot­hills, where simple people eked out a bare liv­ing from the forest. The chil­dren screamed and hid when they saw the hunter. They spoke an alien lan­guage, and he could find no-one who could under­stand his ques­tion, until one man arrived back from his for­aging. Taller and more con­fid­ent than the oth­ers, he was evid­ently the head­man of the village.

’Im Gold Eagle? I seen ’im. Boy time, me, like ’im,’ he said, point­ing to one of the chil­dren peep­ing out from a hut. ‘Eagle, ’e come down, come down big hill…’ Over­whelmed by the memory, he trailed off into silence and seemed to go into a trance. Sud­denly he roused him­self and said: ‘Long time, no more!’ When pressed for inform­a­tion, he just said, ‘No more!’ and stalked off.

Press­ing on, the hunter left the paths of men behind and climbed the foot­hills. The great moun­tains were so close now, they seemed to hang over him like a thun­der­cloud. Although he had spent his life in the wilds, he had never been this remote.

At the very base of the moun­tains, he came to a cave where there lived an ancient her­mit, a seer they called the Sybil. Long ago, she had been the oracle of kings, her proph­ecies widely renowned and her wis­dom much sought after. But no-one came to hear her any more, for her proph­ecies had the dis­con­cert­ing qual­ity of being incom­pre­hens­ible, and the even more dis­con­cert­ing qual­ity of com­ing true. Spurned as a mad­wo­man, she had retreated to this remotest of caves, mut­ter­ing her dooms to the four winds.

The hunter entered her cave, but before he had the chance to say any­thing, she cackled hys­ter­ic­ally, ‘The Golden Eagle, the Golden Eagle!’ This was, appar­ently, the fun­ni­est thing she’d heard in a while.

Um, yes,’ said the hunter. ‘I seek the Golden Eagle.’

Ring-a-ring-o-bed-bugs,’ she said, still gig­gling. ‘Bite ya tongue off and spit it on the dais­ies! Oops – cat’s got it – ain’t she? Run, ya bug­gers, run!’

Okay, that’s all very nice, ma’am,’ said the hunter, ‘but I really do need to find that Eagle.’

Her face fell and she screamed: ‘Death! Death! They’re all going to die! Oceans of blood and moun­tains of bones…’ Sud­denly coy, she smiled and put out her hand: ‘Don’t go. Stay here… with mother.’

Where,’ he said grimly, ‘is the Eagle?’

Aaargh,’ she said in exas­per­a­tion, and all of a sud­den became lucid. ‘There are seven circles – unclimb­able moun­tains, sheer and hard, with peaks of treach­er­ous snow. Between each circle is an impen­et­rable bar­rier. The first is a thicket of thorns hard as iron; the second is quick­sand; the third is a plague of mon­strous spiders; the fourth is a moat of mol­ten rock; the fifth is rent by howl­ing tor­nadoes; the sixth is the haunt of flesh-eating, blood-sucking giants. The Golden Eagle is the most ter­rible of all: no man may look upon him and live. He lives in the sev­enth circle.’

Thank you kindly, ma’am,’ said the hunter. He left, with the ban­shee screech­ing of the Sybil echo­ing off the moun­tain side.

He approached the first moun­tain and began the climb. The rock was frozen and brittle, with barely a crevice for hand or foot. Inch by inch he made his way. Higher up, the rock was covered in slip­pery ice. By the time he reached the peak his fin­gers were all bleed­ing. Frozen near death, he barely man­aged to force his way across the deep snow of the peak. Half stum­bling, half crawl­ing, he made his way down the far side of the moun­tain, only to be con­fron­ted by the first valley.

The Sybil had not exag­ger­ated. He had expec­ted just a dense jungle, but this was like tangles of barbed wire. After hours of hack­ing with his sword, he suc­ceeded only in clear­ing a few brambles. Exhausted, he stopped to rest and catch his breath. Rest­ing, he noticed some­thing: the bright sun seared the ground. An idea came to him. Focus­sing the reflec­tions from his sword and knife on a little dried grass, he kindled a flame. Care­fully he nur­tured it until the thorn bushes star­ted to catch, then he retreated to a safe dis­tance up the moun­tain and watched as the val­ley burned. When the smoke cleared, there was only ashes left.

He crossed the val­ley and star­ted up the second range of moun­tains. It was higher than the first, and steeper.

At the second val­ley he stopped at the marsh, and mind­ful of the Sybil’s warn­ing, he care­fully tested it out before step­ping into it. He tossed in a stone, and it sank. He sat by the side of the mire and waited. After a while, he got up with a smile. There were reeds grow­ing by the marsh. He cut one and tossed it in: it floated clear above the mud. So he set to with his sword, har­vest­ing the reeds and tying them in bundles so that he could make a bridge across the quicksand.

In this way he crossed the second val­ley, and ascen­ded the third moun­tain; which was, of course, incom­par­ably tougher than the first two.

Com­ing down to the third val­ley he could see the spiders. No ordin­ary arach­nids were these, but bloated black mon­sters, each one as big as an ox. The val­ley was full of them, sit­ting on their webs that were spun in a dense maze through the entire val­ley. The hunter sat down to watch. He noticed that whenever a bird or bat, or even a little moth, would fly into the web, they were stuck fast and the spiders, sens­ing the vibra­tions as they struggled, would swiftly des­cend to con­sume them.

After some time, a plan occurred to him. Com­ing to the edge of the val­ley, he stripped naked and wrapped his few pos­ses­sions in his robe. Tak­ing his sword, he care­fully shaved his entire body so that he was a bare as a baby. Then he took out the tube of oil that he used to moisten his cracked feet, and smeared him­self all over. Finally he wrapped all his pos­ses­sions in his robe and, whirl­ing it around his head, tossed it clear across the val­ley. Step­ping for­ward with extreme care, he slipped between the strands of the webs. Each step was pre­cari­ous. He gently bent a strand to make his way through, and just as gently brought it back into pos­i­tion. He made no more move­ment than the slight­est of breezes, and the spiders did not know him as he passed among them. Across the val­ley he recovered his pos­ses­sions and put on his clothes; but he had to leave his beard behind!

Then there was the fourth moun­tain, in com­par­ison with which the pre­vi­ous moun­tains were like a stroll through a care­fully ten­ded park with a good friend on a warm, pleas­ant day, after a deli­cious lunch and a glass or two of red wine, all the while look­ing for­ward to a cosy even­ing snuggled by a fire­place in a rock­ing chair with a good book.

Stand­ing at the peak of the fourth moun­tain, he saw far below the moat of mol­ten rock, burn­ing and bub­bling with a fury, and com­pletely cov­er­ing the val­ley floor. After some thought, he hit upon a plan. He scanned the moun­tain range, and crossed over to the point that seemed least stable and most treach­er­ous. Set­ting to with his sword, he levered a huge rock out of place, and tumbled it down the slope. It quickly built into a thun­der­ing ava­lanche, which plunged into the moat with a roar and a hiss as great clouds of steam exploded out. Mean­while the hunter made his way down the slope as quick as he could. As the steam cleared, there was a tent­at­ive bridge of frozen rock left across the lava moat; but it was quickly melt­ing into the stream. The hunter leapt on the bridge and made it across, just before it collapsed.

The fifth moun­tain range was very, very tough. So tough, there’s no point even men­tion­ing how incred­ibly tough it was because no-one would believe it anyway.

Climb­ing down to the fifth val­ley, he could already feel the winds tug­ging at him, want­ing to pull him off the cliff. But the val­ley itself was a mael­strom of shred­ding gales, with dust and rocks tossed around like dice in a casino. He watched it for a while, then slowly circled around the val­ley, search­ing. Finally he saw what he knew must be there: a little black hole under a rock. Smil­ing he said to him­self, ‘There’s always a way!’ and he crawled into the hole.

It was scarcely big enough to wriggle on his belly. The thin light from the entrance hole soon faded away, and the dark­ness was more abso­lute than he had ever known. The ground was uneven, by turns rocky and muddy. Invis­ible creatures shared the dark­ness with him – worms, bugs, centi­pedes, and name­less things that squirmed over his skin. Onwards he crawled, through the end­less night, until he col­lapsed exhausted in the thick blackness.

How far have I come?’ he thought. ‘How much fur­ther to go? Does this tun­nel even have an end?’ And he cried to think that his jour­ney would end there, unknown and uncelebrated.

There’ll be no-one to sing your song,’ he thought. But then, as the tears rolled down his face, he felt a slight breeze cool their wet­ness; and he knew that the tun­nel had another open­ing. Find­ing new strength he struggled on, and even­tu­ally he saw the light of day before him.

After that he had to cross the sixth moun­tain range. For­get about describ­ing it, even think­ing about it is brain-searingly agon­iz­ing, so you’ll for­give me for not.

Before him lay the sixth val­ley, the val­ley of the can­ni­bal giants. These were primeval mon­sters, rem­nants of a more bru­tal age. Each one was as huge as a hill, with thick green skin covered in warts, and yel­low fangs like sabres. They car­ried clubs made of the trunk of a huge tree. The hunter crept up to the val­ley, and sat down to watch their habits. They cease­lessly patrolled the val­ley, and squashed even tiny beasts that ven­tured in. They never slept. The hunter waited for a plan to occur.

When it didn’t, he thought ‘Bug­ger this!’ and leapt out, sword in hand. A giant yelled ‘ROOAARR!’ and rushed at him, smash­ing his club down like a moun­tain; but the hunter skipped aside. The club made a hole you could park a bus in. Other demons rushed in, and they crowded around try­ing to get a good swing, but the hunter was too fast. He dar­ted between them, and their blows didn’t come close. Get­ting ever clum­sier in their fury, one club missed its mark and split the skull of one of the giants. The mon­ster crashed groan­ing to the ground.

Oi! You hit Bill!’ said another giant. ‘He’s me brother, you stinkin’ lump!’ And he swung his club down on the first. Then it was a free for all; and before the giants real­ized it, the hunter had scampered away.

Before him was the sev­enth circle of the moun­tains, which… oh, for­get it.

And then there was the Garden. The jagged moun­tains were left behind, and all was gentle undu­la­tions. Soft grass was adorned with abund­ant flowers, and every­where grazed beasts of every descrip­tion: deer, horses, zebra, rab­bits, kangaroos. Pea­cocks and lyre­birds strut­ted about, while par­rots and night­in­gales filled the air with col­our and song. The hunter wandered out in a daze, and in the warm air his hun­ger and exhaus­tion faded away from him. He jumped when he came across a tigress; but she was con­tent to rest, feed­ing her kit­tens. Lambs suckled together with the tiger cubs. The hunter passed great lakes of purest water, filled with rain­bow col­oured fish, and covered with end­less vari­et­ies of lotus and lily. Swans landed in a rush, and leis­urely pulled up the water plants. But­ter­flies fluttered by, while bees fed on thorn­less roses, and man­goes, peaches, and durian were all in fruit.

In the centre of all this abund­ance, the heart, as it were, of the valley’s life, was a Crys­tal Moun­tain. It was taller than all the moun­tain ranges, and per­fectly sheer; height upon staggered height, with nowhere a crevice or a flaw. It soared up the the very heav­ens, and on the top was a plat­form. But the plat­form was empty.

That must be the roost­ing place of the Golden Eagle,’ thought the hunter. ‘He will return in the even­ing. But what man­ner of beast can this be? Surely he will not be over­come by strength or by cun­ning. I shall have to rely on treachery.’

The hunter removed his clothes and gear, leav­ing them hid­den, and wore just a ragged loin cloth like a harm­less ascetic. But in the cloth he slipped a small knife. He went to the clear­ing before the Crys­tal Moun­tain, and sat cross-legged in the open. The day passed and he remained per­fectly still; for still­ness is the supreme art of the hunter. As even­ing drew down and the sun­light with­drew from the val­ley, the Golden Eagle returned. He swept down from a great height and res­ted upon his plat­form. At such a dis­tance he seemed no more than a speck, but the hunter knew he must be a beast of prodi­gious size. As the sun’s last rays struck the pin­nacle of the Crys­tal Moun­tain, the Golden Eagle spread his wings and uttered a hymn.

Hail to the One King, who sees all,
Whose divine light dis­pels the dark.
Homage to thou, Glor­i­ous One!

From delu­sion lead me to Truth;
From dark­ness lead me to Light;
From death lead me to the Deathless!’

The sound of the hymn res­on­ated through the entire val­ley. As the echoes died away, the val­ley grew quiet and still, and all creatures slept.

All except the hunter. He stayed, unmov­ing, erect through the night, and was still there as the dawn slowly crept into the val­ley. Far above, the Golden Eagle shook him­self, spread his wings, and in the first rays of the morn­ing sun, sang his hymn before launch­ing off and soar­ing into the sky. When he returned in the even­ing, the hunter was still there.

For six days he sat; but on the dawn of the sev­enth day the Eagle des­cen­ded with a mighty rush of air. The trees bent over and the lakes tossed up in waves as the Golden Eagle landed in the Garden, his massive body over­tower­ing the hunter.

Lord of the Sky­ways,’ said the hunter, ‘in whom is woven the Light and the Dark, I come to you as a humble ser­vant. Long have I searched for you, though oth­ers scorned, say­ing you did not exist. I have paid a great price, but never have I doubted.’

The Golden Eagle pos­sessed the Eye of Truth, and for him the hunter’s lie was as trans­par­ent as a wisp of fog in the morn­ing light. And yet he said:

For one of great faith, who has not faltered before any task, I must grant a boon. Ask – whatever you wish will be granted.’

Lord,’ said the hunter, ‘if it were my wish, then it would be noth­ing. Hav­ing seen you I would die a happy man. But I come at the will of Prin­cess Khemā. She will have your heart.’

Ahh,’ said the Golden Eagle. He paused for a long moment. ‘Then so be it. Long have I lived. In the ages before man­kind, I was sole Lord over all. And then the men came, with their axes and their bows. My creatures were slaughtered and my forests des­troyed. I with­drew to this, my last sanc­tu­ary in this world. But now my doom has fol­lowed me. She seeks for my heart, for she craves immor­tal­ity. I will give it, although you came to me falsely, as a deceiver. There is no pro­tec­tion in this world. All my devices and con­ceits have proven hol­low, for you are stand­ing before me.’

The hunter stood amazed. Hes­it­at­ing, he said: ‘Lord, I-I can’t… reach. P-please, would you…’

The Eagle lay his great bulk gently on the ground, and allowed the hunter to step on his radi­ant golden feath­ers. He raised his claw and poin­ted to his chest: ‘Here; my heart is here.’

The hunter got out his knife. His lips were dry and his hand trembled. He brushed aside the massive feath­ers to find the Eagle’s flesh, until he could see the steady pulse of the Eagle’s heart. He read­ied the knife, and looked once more at the Eagle. A single tear welled in the corner of the Eagle’s eye, and dropped to splash like liquid gold on the ground. The hunter hes­it­ated. He had killed count­less beasts before, and yes, men too. Never had one offered him­self up like this. He thought of the Eagle’s grace, his power and bene­vol­ence; and love, so long bur­ied by his hard life, sprang up and filled his heart. He dropped the knife.

I can­not,’ he said, fall­ing to the ground sob­bing. ‘For­give me! I can­not take your heart.’

But the Golden Eagle whispered: ‘You already have.’

The hunter blinked; and when his eyes opened he was back in the palace, in the very cham­ber of Prin­cess Khemā. She rose from her couch and went to him, say­ing: ‘My prince, my prince…’

Bhaddā awoke in the early dawn. Far in the dis­tance she could hear the man­tras of the brah­mans: ‘… dhiyo yo naḥ pra­co­dayāt…’ She knew the Buddha was stay­ing in his favor­ite cave at the very top of the Vulture’s Peak, and would soon be des­cend­ing with a large group of monks. She wanted to be ready.

She washed in a little cold water, and swept her cave. She could feel an open­ing, a palp­able sense of light that grew with the dawn­ing. Inside the light was some­thing unknown. She care­fully arranged her single cloth around her body. Break­fast was a glass of water fresh off the moun­tain. She rearranged her few pos­ses­sions, and ran through a couple of man­tras. For all her cour­age and inde­pend­ence, she felt as nervous as a girl on her first date. She real­ized that she was just fuss­ing around to put off the inev­it­able, so she steeled her­self and set off.

Com­ing down the moun­tain, she saw, way up in the sky, an eagle, lit by the sun’s first rays, and head­ing north. She laughed and said to her­self, ‘Well, if I believed in omens, that would be a good one!’ Still laugh­ing, she roun­ded a corner, only to stumble in shock: she knew this place, she had been here before, long ago when she was a little girl, maybe four. The time she ran away from home and fell into a lion.

As Bhaddā stood, absorbed in her earli­est memory, the Buddha came and stood by the stone. He could go no fur­ther, as Bhaddā stood right in the middle of the path.

The Buddha stopped before her and said: ‘Bhaddā, you’re block­ing my path.’

Bhaddā pulled her­self together quickly. ‘So,’ she said, ‘it seems the Monk Got­ama, although he him­self blocks the path of many, can’t stand hav­ing his own path blocked! The Monk Got­ama has no prob­lem with block­ing the path of the group of five ascet­ics, or the fire-worshipping Kas­sapa broth­ers, or Upa­tissa and Kolita and the fol­low­ers of Sañjāya, but he can’t stand hav­ing his own path blocked by me, a sol­it­ary woman!’

There is a sense, Bhaddā, in which you could say that I have blocked the paths of all those people. For after hear­ing my Teach­ing the path to suf­fer­ing has been blocked for all those people. But per­haps that’s not what you meant?’

If what you say is true, then it seems that your teach­ing leads to the end of all suf­fer­ing – for men!’

Don’t say that, Bhaddā! I do not teach think­ing of “man” or “woman”. Any­one who thinks “I am a man”, or “I am a woman”, they are the stu­dent of Māra the Deluder, not the Buddha. For my part, I teach for one who feels. The con­cepts of “man­hood” or “woman­hood” are irrel­ev­ant. But by prac­ti­cing the Middle Way one can leave behind all suf­fer­ing in this very life.’

So it seems,’ said Bhaddā, ‘that you teach a Dhamma for all beings, not just for men. But leave that be. Monk Got­ama, I ask about karma. Do you teach a doc­trine of karma?’

Yes, Bhaddā, I am a teacher of karma.’

But,’ said Bhaddā, ‘if all this is due to past karma, how can present action make an end of karma?’

You over­step the mark, Bhaddā,’ said the Buddha. ‘I did not say that all this is due to past karma. If this were so, then the spir­itual path would indeed be closed, for, as you say, by act­ing in the present we can never make an end of what was done in the past. One’s present choices would be fixed by past causes, and the cycle of karma would be endless.

Take ill­ness, for example. It is appar­ent that some ill­nesses are caused by an imbal­ance in the body’s ele­ments; some ill­nesses are caused by changes in the weather; some by unac­cus­tomed activ­ity; and some by acci­dent. Some ill­ness, I say, is also con­di­tioned by past karma. But since a vari­ety of causes is observed, how can all be caused by past karma?’

In that case,’ said Bhaddā, ‘what is karma?’

Well, Bhaddā, let me ask you a ques­tion. You may answer as you wish.’

Whatever,’ said Bhaddā.

What do you think, Bhaddā,’ said the Buddha, ‘is karma formed by the body or by the mind, or by both, or how do you see it?’

Karma is formed by both body and mind,’ said Bhaddā.

But Bhaddā, if a flood arises and drowns a city, does the water cre­ate any karma due to that?’

No. The water has no mind, no inten­tion. A flood arises because of an imbal­ance in the forces of nature.’

Even so, Bhaddā, it is inten­tion that I call karma. Hav­ing formed an inten­tion, a per­son com­mits a good or bad deed through body, speech, or mind. The res­ult of that karma will be exper­i­enced in this life, or the next, or some­time after that.’

Do we always exper­i­ence the res­ults of karma?’

It is like a spoon­ful of salt. If we place it in a glass, the water is very salty. But if we place the same salt in a great lake, there is no taste at all.’

But can there be an end­ing of karma?’

How can there not be?’ said the Buddha. ‘Karma is a con­di­tion, and like all con­di­tions, it passes. It will go by itself – if you let it. Let go! Don’t hang on to your past any longer – you have suffered too much. Allow your­self to find peace.’

How can I do this?’ said Bhaddā. ‘How can I learn to let go?’

This is what I call the Middle Way. Avoid both the indul­gence of the body and the tor­ture of the body. Develop the noble eight­fold path: right view, right inten­tion, right speech, right action, right live­li­hood, right effort, right mind­ful­ness, and right tran­quil­ity of mind. This is the way that leads to the end­ing of all suffering.’

As Bhaddā listened to the Buddha’s words, they seemed to sink into her heart. She felt an open­ing, and watched as the dead weight of her guilt and dread just drained right out of her. There came a light­ness that she had never felt before. And as she stood there, a vis­ion of the truth arose before her: Everything that has a begin­ning must also have an end. With tears of joy, she knelt before the Buddha and said:

For­give me, Blessed One! I did wrong in that like a fool, blun­der­ing and con­fused, I tried to obstruct your path and trap you with words like dag­gers. May you accept my con­fes­sion out of com­pas­sion so that I may restrain myself in the future.’

Yes, Bhaddā, your con­duct was rude and dis­respect­ful. But I for­give you, since you see your fault as a fault, and wish to restrain your­self in the future. Bhaddā, you can­not doubt the truth any more – you have seen it for your­self. You have no need for blind faith, and no need to be depend­ent on another.’

Bhaddā said to the Buddha: ‘I wish to receive the going-forth under the Blessed One, I wish to receive the full ordin­a­tion into the state of a bhikkhuni!’

Then the Buddha said: ‘Come, Bhaddā! The Dhamma is well pro­claimed. Live the holy life for the com­plete end­ing of suf­fer­ing!’ And that was Bhaddā’s full ordination.

Bhaddā returned to her cave. For the rest of that day, she sat silently, enrap­tured in bliss­ful med­it­a­tion. In the even­ing, before enter­ing her cave, she washed her feet. She watched the stream of water wash the dust off her feet, and saw as if for the first time. The water was just water, the ground was just ground, her feet were just feet. When the dust clung to her feet, it was simply fol­low­ing its nature; and when it was washed from her feet, this too was simply its nature. When feet are unwashed, they can­not be clean; and when they are washed, they can­not be dirty. As the water dis­ap­peared into the ground, her mind was finally freed from all grasping.

At that time there were five nuns liv­ing in a nearby her­mit­age, engaged in pain­ful and dif­fi­cult ascetic prac­tices. When they saw Bhaddā, they said to her: ‘Your face is serene, sis­ter, the col­our of your skin is bright and clear. Can it be that you have seen the Deathless?’

Bhaddā replied to them in verse.

Formerly I wandered in a single cloth
With plucked hair, covered in mud
Ima­gin­ing flaws in the flaw­less
And see­ing no flaws in the flawed.

I came out from my day’s abid­ing
On the moun­tain Vulture’s Peak
I saw the spot­less Enlightened One
Accom­pan­ied by the Bhikkhu Sangha.

He then taught me the Dhamma
the senses, the aspects, and ele­ments.
The Leader told me about imper­man­ence,
suf­fer­ing, and not-self.

Hav­ing heard the Dhamma from him
I pur­i­fied the Vis­ion of Dhamma.
When I had under­stood the true Dhamma
I asked for the going forth and full ordination.

Then I humbly bowed down on my knees
And in his pres­ence bowed to him.
Come, Bhaddā!” he said to me –
That was my full ordination.

When I was fully ordained,
I saw a little stream of foot-washing water dis­ap­pear.
I under­stood the pro­cess of rise and fall
And reflec­ted that all con­di­tions were of the same nature.

Right on the spot my mind was released
Totally freed through the end of grasping.’

While Bhaddā was speak­ing, the vis­ion of the Dhamma arose in those nuns: ‘Everything that has a begin­ning must also have an end.’

And those nuns said to Bhaddā: ‘We also wish to receive ordin­a­tion in the Buddha’s teaching.’

So Bhaddā took the five nuns to where the Buddha was stay­ing. Hav­ing bowed down to the Blessed One, Bhaddā stood to one side and said to the Buddha: ‘Blessed One, these nuns also wish to receive ordination.’

Then the Buddha said: ‘Come, bhikkhunis! The Dhamma is well pro­claimed. Live the holy life for the com­plete end­ing of suf­fer­ing!’ That was those five nuns’ full ordination.

Then Bhaddā said to the Buddha: ‘Blessed One, when women seek ordin­a­tion, how should we proceed?’

And the Buddha replied: ‘Bhaddā, I am free from all fet­ters, whether human or divine. You, too, are free from all fet­ters, whether human or divine. Well then, Bhaddā, you yourselves should give ordin­a­tion to women.’

From that day on, Bhaddā felt no weight of con­fu­sion or remorse in her heart. In light­ness and ease, she trav­elled the land of India, teach­ing the Dhamma for those who wanted to hear. For a full fifty years she wandered, cross­ing Aṅga, Magadha, Vajjī, Kāsī, and Kos­ala. Even after the Buddha him­self passed away, she con­tin­ued the work of free­dom. Hav­ing plunged to the depths and ascen­ded the heights, her swift­ness of wis­dom was unsurpassed.

Cen­tur­ies later, tales were still told of the indom­it­able woman. Names and places changed, details were redrawn. And dreams of Bhaddā fol­lowed the sun, wreathed in clouds like a mane of gold.

A History of Mindfulness

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is the most influ­en­tial scrip­ture in Buddhist med­it­a­tion. It is the found­a­tion text for the mod­ern schools of ‘vipas­sanā’ or ‘insight’ med­it­a­tion. The well-known Pali dis­course is, how­ever, only one of many early Buddhist texts that deal with mind­ful­ness. This is the first full-scale study to encom­pass all extant ver­sions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, tak­ing into account the dynamic evol­u­tion of the Buddhist scrip­tures and the broader Indian med­it­at­ive cul­ture. A new vis­ion emerges from this ground­break­ing study: mind­ful­ness is not a sys­tem of ‘dry insight’ but is the ‘way to con­ver­gence’ lead­ing the mind to deep states of peace.

Sects & Sectarianism

Why are there so many schools of Buddhism? Are the dif­fer­ences just cul­tural, or do they have fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent vis­ions of Dhamma? This work assesses the claims of the tra­di­tions, and takes into account to find­ings of mod­ern schol­ar­ship. It pays spe­cial atten­tion to the ori­gins of the mon­astic orders. If we are to under­stand the dif­fer­ences, and some­times ten­sions, between the schools of Buddhism today, we must exam­ine more closely the forces that spurred their formation.

White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes

Enchant­ing, power­ful, hor­rific, beau­ti­ful, wise, deadly, com­pas­sion­ate, seduct­ive. Women in Buddhist story and image are all these things and more. She takes the signs of the ancient god­dess – the lotus, the sac­red grove, the ser­pent, the sac­ri­fice – and uses them in aston­ish­ing new ways. Her story is one of suf­fer­ing and great tri­als, and through it all an unquench­able long­ing to be free. This beau­ti­fully illus­trated work is as layered and sub­vers­ive as myth­o­logy itself. Based dir­ectly on authen­tic Buddhist texts, and informed with insights from psy­cho­logy and com­par­at­ive myth­o­logy, it takes a fresh look at how Buddhist women have been depic­ted by men and how they have depic­ted themselves.

A Swift Pair of Messengers

Serenity and insight are the two great wings of Buddhist med­it­a­tion. They each have a spe­cial role to play in the path to Awaken­ing. While some mod­ern approaches seek to mar­gin­al­ize serenity in favor of ‘dry’ insight, the Buddha’s own dis­courses place serenity right at the cen­ter of the path. This book col­lects vir­tu­ally all the sig­ni­fic­ant pas­sages on this topic that are found in the early dis­courses, care­fully elu­cid­ated for the mod­ern reader.

Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies

Although his­tor­ic­ally mar­gin­al­ized, Buddhist nuns are tak­ing their place in mod­ern Buddhism. Like the monks, Buddhist nuns live by an ancient sys­tem of mon­astic law, the Vinaya. This work invest­ig­ates vari­ous areas of uncer­tainty and con­tro­versy in how the Vinaya is to be under­stood and applied today.

The Ironic Assumptions of Gregory Schopen

Gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars, from the incep­tion of the mod­ern study of Buddhism, have estab­lished a long-lasting and rel­at­ively stable con­sensus regard­ing the texts and his­tory of early Buddhism. While inev­it­ably sub­ject to the usual kinds of uncer­tainty, incom­plete­ness, and evol­u­tion, this con­sensus has provided a frame­work for the pos­it­ive devel­op­ment of our under­stand­ing of the Buddha, his teach­ings, and his com­munity. This con­sensus has been chal­lenged by the prom­in­ent Amer­cian aca­demic, Gregory Schopen. His essays have been the most influ­en­tial reas­sess­ment in the his­tory of Buddhist stud­ies. Many of his ideas are regarded as vir­tu­ally canon­ical in mod­ern aca­demia, and have per­meated far bey­ond the nor­mal reach of Buddhist aca­demic work. How­ever, his argu­ments are far bet­ter regarded among non-specialists than among those who actu­ally study early Buddhism. This essay shows a num­ber of flaws and prob­lems with Schopen’s work on early Buddhism, by implic­a­tion sup­port­ing the tra­di­tional consensus.

Why Devadatta Was No Saint

Devad­atta is depic­ted as the archetypal vil­lain in all Buddhist tra­di­tions. Regin­ald Ray has argued for a rad­ical reas­sess­ment of Devad­atta as a forest saint who was unfairly maligned in later mon­astic Buddhism. His work has been influ­en­tial, but it relies on omis­sions and mis­taken read­ings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap between the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devad­atta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is untrue. On the con­trary, the man­ner in which Devad­atta is depic­ted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly sim­ilar to the Sthavira accounts. Such dif­fer­ences as do exist are lit­er­ary rather than doc­trinal. The stor­ies of Devadatta’s deprav­ity became increas­ingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a nor­mal fea­ture of the myth­o­lo­giz­ing pro­cess, and has noth­ing to do with any ant­ag­on­ism against forest ascet­ics. In any case, the early sources are unan­im­ous in con­demning Devad­atta as the instig­ator of the first schism in the Buddhist community.

Bojjhangas in EA: A brief study

Below I offer two trans­la­tions of the stand­ard pas­sage on the seven awakening-factors. These pas­sages occur in the sut­tas trans­lated in the BSR. In both cases, how­ever, the trans­lat­ors seem not to have recog­nized this very com­mon pas­sage – an indic­a­tion of the prob­lems with the text. In the second ver­sion, indeed, the omis­sion of […]

Ekottara Agama Abbreviations

A Aṅgut­tara Nikāya (PTS) Akanuma C. Akanuma, The Com­par­at­ive Cata­logue of Chinese Āga­mas and Pāli Nikāyas, Nagoya 1929, Delhi 1990. BHSD F. Edger­ton, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dic­tion­ary, New Haven 1953. CBETA Revised T edi­tion of the Chinese Buddhist Elec­tronic Text Asso­ci­ation, Taiwan 2000. D Dīgha-nikāya (PTS). Dhp Dhammapāda, ed. S. Sumaṅgala, Lon­don 1914 (PTS). Divy […]