Thursday, 31 January 2013

The science of mindlessness

I've spent the day in Bodh Gaya. In the process I received not enlightenment, but tea, from the monks of the Bhutanese monastery, who were busy playing with plasticene, or rather making ritual models for a ceremony at their chorten tomorrow, to which I'm invited. You've never seen a happier bunch of monks; like many of the sadhus I've met, they are content, smiling – I won't say jolly, that's too Friar Tuck, but they have a deep, childish enjoyment of life.

As with Kumbh Mela, Bodh Gaya is full of different kinds of Buddhists going about things in their own way. There are Tibetans stroking prayer wheels into action; Japanese Nichiren Buddhists chanting; there are Buddhists who sing hymns, Buddhists who chant scriptures, one solitary Buddhist singing from a sutra with a bell and a small drum. There are those who just sit (seon in Korean, Zen in Japanese). There are monks and nuns in saffron, in red, in white, in grey.; only their shaven heads – such a contrast with the long-haired, long-bearded Hindu sadhus – a common denominator. On one level it's chaos; but there's no conflict. Everyone seems to get along, tolerating other sects' or nations' ways of doing things.

What much Buddhist practice seems to have in common is a science of mindlessness. Trying to distract the conscious thoughts, the conscious cravings of the mind, by occupying the mind with mindless tasks. I saw one monk repeatedly filling a bracelet with beads, setting a little stupa on top, muttering a mantra, and then tipping the beads back into his lap to start again. It's a meditation on the nature of transience, but it also fills the mind; you can't think connected thoughts while you're doing it, so that thoughts flicker across the surface of the mind like swallows over water, and disappear.

Wooden prostration boards are laid out around the Mahabodi temple like sunloungers round a German swimming pool. Devotees – not just monks and not just Tibetans – raise their hands, palms together, to head, then to their chests, and then kneel and prostrate themselves, pushing their hands out towards the temple and laying their foreheads on the ground. Again and again and again and again. Some were even using electronic counters, like pedometers; spiritual exercise in every sense.

The monk with his little hand drum and bell, chanting, had three different rhythms working against each other, two different physical movements to make. Another with a prayer wheel and a rosary, again, had to keep both separate movements going at the same time; on the one hand a trivial exercise, like the old trick of rubbing your head and patting your belly at the same time, but on the other hand, an activity that keeps the concentration from wandering.

A nun was carefully walking on a kerb, placing one foot exactly in front of the other, pacing extremely slowly, drawing out every movement.

(Thinking about it now, in the quiet of the Burmese monastery guest house, I recognise quite a few of these exercises from my experience as an actor. Actors do them for a different purpose – but perhaps when an actor talks about 'being in the moment' what they mean is not all that far from Buddhist enlightenment.)

I had another free gift today. I was sitting under the bodhi tree (not the original, but grown from a sapling of the original taken to Sri Lanka but the emperor Ashoka's daughter) when a leaf fell, touching me on the knee before rattling on to the ground. I picked it up. Like tea with the Bhutanese monks, a gift of grace.

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