The Body is Precious
from the River Neranjara was a village called Uruvela. The village chief
and his wife had a daughter called Sujata. One day, when Sujata was
thirteen, her mother asked her to bring a basket full of fruits, cakes
and sweets, and a jug of milk as offerings to the spirits of the forest.
Dressed in her new pink sari, Sujata set off for the forest situated on the other side of the river. She knew the route well. She and her friends often went there to play. She would cross the river just at its shallowest part where some big flat boulders served well as a bridge. Once on the other side, she would keep to the small paths that had been cleared by some men from her village. One of these paths led to a small clearing in the forest. There, Sujata and some friends had built a simple altar from wood logs. They planted flowers of different colors all around it.
It was to this altar that Sujata was bringing her offerings on that particular day. When she arrived at the river crossing, she found a man lying on his back. Startled, she did not know whether she should turn back. She decided to hide behind some bushes on the side where she would observe the man. A few moments passed, and the man did not move at all. Cautiously, she moved towards him. Soon she was standing directly over the man; she thought that he might be dead. He had very long hair and a beard, and he was wearing a thin robe. His body and robe were wet. It was obvious that he had just crossed the river. She shook his shoulder gently but still the man did not respond. She crouched down and lifted his head. The man was still alive but unconscious. She noticed how terribly thin he was.
“Either he is starving or he must be very sick! Father once told me that there were these men that lived in the forest all by themselves in search of the truth. He calls them the forest ascetics and he has a lot of respect for them. This man looks like one. He must have come from the forest. In any case, I should help him.”
Sujata took out the jug of milk from her cloth bag. Realizing that the
man was too heavy to lift, she rolled up her empty bag and tucked it
under the neck of the man like a pillow. She took out her pink handkerchief
and soaked it in the milk. Carefully and slowly, with one hand, she
wrung the milk from the handkerchief onto the man’s lips. With her other
hand, she opened his mouth to let the milk drip in. She repeated this
at least a dozen times before a faint sigh was
audible. The man slowly opened his eyes and saw a pair of black eyes
looking at him. He managed to sit up. Sujata handed him the half-empty
milk jug. “You should drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”
“Thank you,” said the man and very slowly, he started to drink the milk.
“There are some fruits and cakes in this basket if you want. My village is not far from here. You could come home with me and rest there until you are recovered.”
The man smiled, “What is your name?” he asked.
“Sujata. What’s yours?”
“Siddhartha. I shall be fine now. These last six months, I practised self-mortification. Some friends told me about it. I totally ignored my body. I treated my body like it was my enemy. I did not sleep. I hardly ate. I did not achieve anything with this practice, except that I nearly died. I was too eager to push on with my meditation. That was a big mistake. It was totally the wrong practice. You saved my life. Thank you.” Sujata smiled and thought how wonderful it was that she found him in the nick of time.
Siddhartha then continued, “In fact, I know now that my body supports my mind. I went too long without adequate food. My body had almost no energy left so I couldn’t meditate anymore. When I realized it, it was too late. I remember I waded across the river then I must have fallen down here unconscious. I was on my way to the village to beg for some food...”
“Are you a forest ascetic?” asked Sujata.
“You could think me that, I suppose,” replied Siddhartha.
“What is meditation?” Sujata asked as she reached into her basket and offered Siddhartha a piece of cake.
Siddhartha tried to answer Sujata in words that she could understand. “Sujata, meditation is a very profound practice. The way we are now in this world, we are constantly caught up with the people and the world around us. There is no time for us to know ourselves more deeply. Meditation is a method of looking inside us, to find out how we think, how we talk, how we act and how we feel. And Sujata, because how we think, talk, act and feel are related to our minds, we really need to understand our minds. By quietly and gently sitting, we can get in touch with our inner thoughts, our inner selves, and gradually over time, we will come to know our minds.”
“Do you know your mind now? How long have you been doing it, this meditation?” Sujata had always been very curious about the hermits in the forest. She remembered seeing one sitting cross-legged, back straight, under a tree once.
“I understand my mind a little bit better now than I once did. But I still have not found what I set out to find, not yet. I still have not found a way for us to free ourselves from suffering, from the cycle of life and death. It has been six years now since I left home, so you could say I’ve been at it for six years. Speaking of time, you have been here a long time now. Your parents might be worried about you.”
“Yes, I did promise my mother that I wouldn’t stay too long. I have to go to the forest now to give an offering. I could come back tomorrow. I can bring you food every day in the early afternoon. This will save you a trip to the village.”
Siddhartha nodded, “I’ve learnt that this human body is very precious. I should eat once a day. So I thank you and accept your very kind offer. I too am going back into the forest. We could go together now.”
Sujata was more than happy to have some company. She showed Siddhartha where to cross the river without getting wet. She led the way to the small clearing where the altar was. Sujata then took an apple from the basket. She put it on the altar. She joined her palms together and looked up into the sky. “This bright red apple I offer to you today. Please look after Siddhartha.”
Extending her arm, she offered the basket of food to Siddhartha, “This is for you,” she said with a big smile.
Siddhartha accepted the kind offer and asked, “Would you walk with me a little further in?” He then headed into the forest with Sujata at his side. They did not have to walk far when they came to a huge and beautiful pippala tree. The branches were strong and gently turned in as if to protect and to shelter the space beneath. Here, Siddhartha stopped. “Will you come here to meet me tomorrow?”
“Sure! I can come tomorrow.” Just then, Sujata remembered her dear mother at home worrying. It was getting late. She turned to hurry home. Sujata was very excited that she had connected with this very special person. She really had many questions about what Siddhartha had said earlier. She thought she should wait till tomorrow. She turned around and waved, “ Bye!”
Siddhartha waved back and smiled.
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