We live in a rather unforgiving society that prides itself in always doing things by the book, unconsciously applying a judgemental, “one size fits all” principle to condemn or punish every mistake, misdemeanor or indiscretion we encounter.
While some who have erred are punished less often than others, defended by familiar phrases like “honest mistake” or “no blame culture”, Singaporeans often lose their jobs because of various indiscretions which have absolutely nothing to do with their work. Very often, even private lives are linked to job performance. There is a common saying that “if your spouse can’t trust you, why should we?”
The greater your responsibilities, the higher your chances of making disastrous mistakes. People in senior positions that are not quite at the top often get it worst. Woe betide the teacher who has marked a right answer as wrong and the parent finds out. A lot of the excellence and efficiency of our society is attributed to our impatience and intolerance to mistakes. We have “zero tolerance” towards many kinds of behaviour. It is a self-centered imposition on others and unless we’re in elite circles, we can always take the place of “others”. It is thus a stressful world in which everyone is watching everyone else, ready to pounce on a mistake.
Interestingly, while we expect our teachers, doctors and holy men to be flawless, but did you know that even the Buddha himself had made mistakes? Not only that, he readily admitted his mistakes and “worked” tirelessly to undo the damage.
After Prince Siddhartha Gautama left the palace at Kapilvastu (present-day Nepal), all the guidance he had was based on Hindu practices. He did not become enlightened when he left the palace. He was far from it. As Buddhist philosophy was yet to be born, he quite naturally adopted the ways of the Hindu Sadhus, practising self-mortification in a cave at Dungeshwari.
Siddharta refused food and exposed himself to the element. He did not clean himself or cut his hair. Impressed by his endurance, he had a good number of followers who would listen to his sermons. After 6-7 years, fasting to the brink of death, Siddhartha Gautama realised that he was on a dangerous and unproductive path. If he had gone on that way, he would only be in constant hunger and discomfort. He would die eventually without achieving anything. At risk of losing all his followers, Siddharta abandoned asceticism, finally breaking his fast by accepting an offering of a highly nutritious milk rice from a wealthy devotee by the name of Sujata.
He decreed that those set out on the path of Enlightenment must at least clean and nourish themselves. Asceticism is not the right way. He then walked about 13km to present-day Bodhgaya where he sat under a bodhi tree to meditate. After 49 days, spending 7 days at 7 locations around a bodhi tree, he attained Enlightenment.
Dungeshwari isn’t a main attraction for pilgrims. Most go to Bodhgaya and give this place a miss. That’s because there really isn’t much to see here. Teh holy site now houses a temple on a knoll situated on a relatively barren landscape some 13km from Bodhgaya.
I went there by tuk tuk and it’s a most interesting ride that gives you a glimpse of what life in one of the poorer places in India is like. There are fields of wheat where most of the harvesting and thrashing are still done manually by large families; the larger the family, the greater the supply of manpower.
The flimsy walls of the huts are riddled with holes and gaps. Unbelievably, these bad excuses for walls seemed far more capable of playing the role of a drying rack for cow dung than offering shelter. Cooking gas is too expensive for these folks. The tuk tuk just sputtered noisily along. Life just rolled along their different paths. Earlier on, I thought I had paid for the whole tuk tuk, but the driver ended up picking up a few more passengers. At times like these, it’s difficult to argue when it’s easy for the driver to pretend not to understand your complaints and protests. What can you do? Steal a few pictures from the free riders.
It was a fast, dusty and rattling ride which fortunately didn’t last very long. At the parking area at the foot of Dungeshwari, is a road that leads to the Tibetan temple attending to the holy Mahakala cave. I didn’t see any big tour buses. Most of the visitors were monks, lamas or independent travellers. Though the path to the temple was considerably longer but not more difficult than the path leading to the Tree Top Walk at MacRitchie, there were guys on motorbikes touting their services to the unfit.
The final approach is presumably out of bounds to motorbikes, being too noisy and inanimate. But where the bikes couldn’t go, the beggars and vendors could and they were obviously allowed to do so. Capitalising on Buddhist compassion (and perhaps generosity), was a long row of beggars and vendors selling what we might recognise as Hindu offerings in the form of garlands and incense. As one approaches the entrance to the holy shrine, the beggars and vendors recognised the next barrier.
In contrast with the squalid conditions outside, the temple at Dungeshwari was neat and dignified with an immaculate stupa and new prayer flags strung from one wing of the building to the other. The whiteness, cleanliness and noiselessness of the compound were a stark contrast with Hindu temples, showing that Buddhism has spread its wings and left its Hindu origins far behind.
A flight of stairs from the main temple complex rises to a platform and the opening to the cave has been made into a low and narrow doorway, above which many pilgrims have contributed gold foil. The entry and exit of pilgrims was quiet and orderly. In spite of the smallness of the enclosure, there was no traffic jam. Inside the dark cave, I saw the answer to a nagging question. Apart from the statue of the fasting Buddha, there was also a statue of a Hindu deity.
Both “deities” received offerings but there were also Hindu offerings before the Buddha. The Mahakala which also resides in the cave, is a deity recognised by Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. Hindus see Mahakala as a manifestation of Shiva. Some Tibetan Buddhists see the deity as a wrathful protector. As a very prominent and successful minority, it’s nice to see that Buddhists have been sensitive and accommodating, sharing a place of worship with Hindus. Regrettably, the sheer squalor and poverty outside this pristine temple will take a lot longer to equilibrate.
Unlike the Mahabodi Temple at Bodhgaya, Dungeshwari is a lot less glamorous and sees far fewer pilgrims. But to me, it bears a huge significance on the art of forgiving. Perfection does not exist in real life. It didn’t even exist in the Buddha’s life. We humans make mistakes all the time. If we realise that even the Buddha had made mistakes before Enlightenment, what unintentional mistakes by mere mortals like us can be so unforgivable that completely strangers would recommend the most severe punishment imaginable?
On social media, we often see mistakes that had gone viral attracting the harshest condemnation and the most sadistic punishments imaginable. Why do people keep baying for the blood of strangers without fully understanding the circumstances of the offence? Punish wrongdoers, yes, but as long as the one who has erred has no intention to harm or exploit, could we not adopt the principle of 得饶人处且饶人？
The trip to Dungeshwari has been as humbling as it has been educational. I encounter arrogant intellectuals who refuse to concede even after being proven wrong, but resort to all means to defend the indefensible. Even the Buddha could cast his ego aside and abandoned the wrong path. How highly must these folks be thinking of themselves when they keep arguing just to save face? There are also folks who seek to annihilate others over a few critical remarks. They all lack wisdom, discipline and compassion. The human race has a long way to go. There is much to learn at Bodhgaya but also at Dungeshwari.