Issue 16: Winter 2011/12


Bhadrapala and the Radiant One – A Tale of Long Ago

By Kogan Muju

“It is wonderful, truly marvellous, how serene is the good Gotama's appearance, how clear and radiant his complexion, just as the golden jujube in autumn is clear and radiant, just as a palm-tree fruit just loosened from the stalk is clear and radiant, just as an adornment of red gold wrought in a crucible by a skilled goldsmith, deftly beaten and laid on a yellow-cloth shines, blazes and glitters, even so, the good Gotama's senses are calmed, his complexion is clear and radiant."

Brahmin Sonadanda

Long, long ago beloved ones in a land far, far away where the great mountains of the eternal snow touch the blue sky with their hoary heads there lived the old sculptor Bhadrapala, who made statues for temples and shrines. By his craft he earned enough, only just enough to keep a roof over his head and to buy enough rice and lentils to feed his wife Candrabhaga and him. They lived far away from the city, far away from the towns, far away from villages. In fact they lived quite alone in the middle of a deep jungle amidst the great baobabs, sals, teak, walnut and sheesham trees where all day and often all night the wild creatures would play. Beside the simple bamboo house thatched with palm leaves a river bubbled and sang its way down the hillside on a journey to meet the mighty Brahmaputra. Far away the waters of these rivers would merge with the vast salty ocean which spreads in the 16 directions. The old man and his wife were content living here quite alone with only the animals of the forest and the songs of the river for company. Occasionally a priest or a monk from one of the temples would come to order a statue or to take a finished one away on the big ox carts they brought with them. The sculptor and his wife would bring rice and palak paneer on banana leaves and serve their guests fragrant tea in the beautiful bowls he had made. Many a time a priest would ask if he could buy one of these bowls but the old man always politely refused saying that they were flawed, certainly not good enough for the lips of holy men and eminent teachers. Although they always enjoyed these visits the couple were glad when they could once more have time to rejoice in the animals and birds at play amidst the trees of their jungle home where the songs of the river lulled them to sleep.
Once a year the sculptor would make the long journey to the city of Isipatana where he would buy the special tools he needed for his work. This journey took several days and often wearied him. It was at such a time that something strange and wonderful happened to him beloved ones. Indeed it was so strange and wonderful that his life and the lives of countless others since were changed by the event. It was on his journey home that this occurred. The sculptor had awoken early, washed in the cold clear water at the fountain and eaten a simple meal of rice and chapatti. Taking around his strong shoulders the heavy basket of tools he set out as the sun in the east tipped the mountains with light. Ahead of him he saw the morning star rising in the shadowy blue of the west. He was quite alone. At this early hour the air was cool and beneath his feet the track was damp and soft. It was then that he felt the ground dance, a slow meditative dance, with the earth stepping gently. Then he felt it turn, curtsey and return to stillness again. He put down his bag and looked around wondering at his lack of fear. There was no danger just this graceful movement of the earth gently lifting as it were the hem of her sari as she stepped across a puddle. Bhadrapala waited but the monkeys chattered as usual in the trees, and the birds flew in the sky as if nothing had happened, yet he knew something had happened. He felt it in his heart. A great event had taken place but he had no idea what it was. He took up his bag and walked slowly on wondering about all this. He approached an ancient Pipal tree that he recognised for it was a welcome sign that his home was but half a day’s journey away. The great tree hung its dark leafy shadows and gnarled limbs over the track. It was then that he saw beneath it against the massive trunk sitting upright was a handsome young man, his body strong, his dark hair curled on his head, his hands folded sedately in his lap, a smile of deep serenity on his face. Then oh beloved ones Bhadrapala saw something beautiful and wondrous! Around this beautiful young man was a radiance, a soft golden radiance that pierced the shadows and illuminated them with peace, joy and compassion. Bhadrapala fell to his knees and prostrated himself many times.
The young man remained in his posture steadfast and upright the radiance growing in intensity so that it attracted the deer of the forest who came and sat at his feet and birds of all kinds came and alighted on his shoulders. Bhadrapala had many questions he wanted to ask but as time passed he thought of his wife Sandrabhaga worrying about him and reluctantly decided he must continue his journey home. He laid one of the delicious ripe mangoes he had bought for his wife at the feet of the holy man and walked on. He pondered deeply on all that had occurred and especially about the young man beneath the Pipal tree. It all meant something he felt that in this heart but even as he described the journey to Sandrabhaga it became more and more puzzling, more enigmatic.
The next morning Bhadrapala set to work gathering the mud from the river bank kneading and working it so that all the stones and grit were removed. When it was dark and perfectly smooth he began to shape it with his strong sculptor’s hand. He remembered again the radiant young man beneath the Pipal tree, the dance of the earth beneath his feet, the brightness of the morning star. Then his hands began to move as if in a trance. He no longer thought about what he was doing, a powerful energy moved through him, through his shoulders and arms and inspiration shone from his eyes. He would not stop his work even when Sandrabhaga called him for his meal at noon, he did not cease until the sun began to sink behind the jungle trees. Then he was finished, the statue was complete. The couple gazed at it with amazement it was like nothing that he had ever made before. It was not a striding lion to guard the temple gates, not one of the fierce guardians at the shrine doors, not even one of the many sacred gods of the inner shrines. This statue was of a handsome young man sitting steadfastly upright, a golden glow surrounding him, his eyes half closed, his lips smiling and his right hand raised in blessing. Immediately Bhadrapala knew it was his finest work, indeed that that this was his life’s works. When Sandrabhaga questioned him all he would say was, ‘it is the young man I saw beneath the Pipal tree on the road home.’
It was then that problems arose. The only statues that Bhadrapala would now sculpt were of the young man. All of these were as beautiful and graceful, as blessed, as the first one but no one would buy them. Priests and monks would often admire them and would ask him what strange deity or god this was but Bhadrapala always answered in the same manner as he had answered his wife. The couple became poorer and poorer as the years went by. The little workshop became full of these wonderful statues. It was then that the couple quarrelled. They had little food, the roof of the bamboo house leaked during the rainy season and Sandrabhaga asked her husband to make at least one statue for the local temple she knew if she went to the priest it would sell immediately for Bhadrapala’s work had once been renowned. The sculptor shook his head. He could not do it. It was no longer his work. This was his work and he nodded in the direction of the rows of wonderfully sculpted figures sitting upright in deepest contemplation. Sandrabhaga hissed in frustration and walked away. The sculptor went back to work. He shaped the strong torso and shoulders crafted carefully the folded legs, the right arm raised in blessing and then began to work on the head. It was then that disaster struck Bhadrapala shaping the left side of the face let his thumb slip in dark cool clay. In an instant the features of the statue were disfigured the left eye drawn down the fine cheek bone destroyed but the smile the serene smile escaped. The sculptor was dismayed and despairing. He took up the statue intending to throw it in to the river but as he approached the bank the statue seemed to become heavier and heavier until he was forced to put it down. In despair he came back to the house and the couple ate the last of the rice together in heavy silence. As the moon rose the old sculptor arose and took his wife by the shoulders and they walked down to the river which shone and glistened in the moonlight. Putting his warmest shawl around them they sat together watching the water listening to its songs. Together they sat, the statue beside them, through days and nights that turned into years, decades and centuries. They sat in deep peace and love until the jungle grew dense around them, upon them the leaves fell, creepers wound around them and the dark earth encrusted them.
Many aeons passed and it was then beloved ones that Avalaokiteshvara the bodhisattva, the great being was passing around the earth with her starry cloak of compassion flowing behind her. She, with her lustrous eyes, noticed far, far below a radiance piercing the deep shadows of the green jungle. In a swirl of glowing jewels she swung down and landed gracefully on her white feet at the very place where Bhadrapala and Sandrabhaga had sat together for many centuries and now were dissolved into earth and sky. Avalaokiteshvara the bodhisattva, the great being, with her infinite wisdom saw their purity of their hearts shining out. Beside them was the Buddha with the damaged face, its left eye drawn down, its cheekbone broken but she saw also the gentle smile, as beautiful, as peaceful as ever and around its body strong and upright there was a golden radiance. She prostrated herself numberless times at the feet of Bhadrapala and Sandrabhaga and the simple earth statue shining with such a pure light. She lay a white palm in blessing above the old sculptor and his wife and took the statue in her long white arms and ascended with it to an old, very remote ruined monastery high in the mountains of the heavenly snows. There it remains to this very day an object of veneration to pilgrims who travel from the farthest ends of the earth to sit within its radiant glow. So it was beloved ones in the days of old when the earth was young and the birds in the sky were numberless, the fish in the sea and animals and trees were beyond counting. In those days when we were very, very few.

Kogan Muju

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