That this kindness and compassion for animals has very far-reaching results no one can doubt. If you are kind to animals, you will be kind, too, to your fellow-man. It is really the same thing, the same feeling in both cases. If to be superior in position to an animal justifies you in torturing it, so it would do with men. If you are in a better position than another man, richer, stronger, higher in rank, that would—that does often in our minds—justify ill-treatment and contempt. Our innate feeling towards all that we consider inferior to ourselves is scorn; the Burman's is compassion. You can see this spirit coming out in every action of their daily life, in their dealings with each other, in their thoughts, in their speech. 'You are so strong, have you no compassion for him who is weak, who is tempted, who has fallen?' How often have I heard this from a Burman's lips! How often have I seen him act up to it! It seems to them the necessary corollary of strength that the strong man should be sympathetic and kind. It seems to them an unconscious confession of weakness to be scornful, revengeful, inconsiderate. Courtesy, they say, is the mark of a great man, discourtesy of a little one. No one who feels his position secure will lose his temper, will persecute, will be disdainful. Their word for a fool and for a hasty-tempered man is the same. To them it is the same thing, one infers the other. And so their attitude towards animals is but an example of their attitude to each other. That an animal or a man should be lower and weaker than you is the strongest claim he can have on your humanity, and your courtesy and consideration for him is the clearest proof of your own superiority. And so in his dealings with animals the Buddhist considers himself, consults his own dignity, his own strength, and is kind and compassionate to them out of the greatness of his own heart. Nothing is more beautiful than the Burman in his ways with his children, and his beasts, with all who are lesser than himself.
Even to us, who think so very differently from him on many points, there is a great and abiding charm in all this, to which we can find only one exception; for to our ideas there is one exception, and it is this: No Burman will take any life if he can help it, and therefore, if any animal injure itself, he will not kill it—not even to put it out of its pain, as we say. I have seen bullocks split on slippery roads, I have seen ponies with broken legs, I have seen goats with terrible wounds caused by accidental falls, and no one would kill them. If, when you are out shooting, your beaters pick up a wounded hare or partridge, do not suppose that they wring its neck; you must yourself do that, or it will linger on till you get home. Under no circumstances will they take the life even of a wounded beast. And if you ask them, they will say: 'If a man be sick, do you shoot him? If he injure his spine so that he will be a cripple for life, do you put him out of his pain?'
If you reply that men and beasts are different, they will answer that in this point they do not recognise the difference. 'Poor beast! let him live out his little life.' And they will give him grass and water till he dies.
This is the exception that I meant, but now, after I have written it, I am not so sure. Is it an exception?
ALL LIFE IS ONE
'I heard a voice that cried, "Balder the Beautiful Is dead, is dead," And through the misty air Passed like the mournful cry Of sunward-sailing cranes.' TEGNER'S Drapa.
All romance has died out of our woods and hills in England, all our fairies are dead long ago. Knowledge so far has brought us only death. Later on it will bring us a new life. It is even now showing us how this may be, and is bringing us face to face again with Nature, and teaching us to know and understand the life that there is about us. Science is telling us again what we knew long ago and forgot, that our life is not apart from the life about us, but of it. Everything is akin to us, and when we are more accustomed to this knowledge, when we have ceased to regard it as a new, strange teaching, and know that we are but seeing again with clearer eyes what a half-knowledge blinded us to, then the world will be bright and beautiful to us as it was long ago.
But now all is dark. There are no dryads in our trees, nor nymphs among the reeds that fringe the river; even our peaks hold for us no guardian spirit, that may take the reckless trespasser and bind him in a rock for ever. And because we have lost our belief in fairies, because we do not now think that there are goblins in our caves, because there is no spirit in the winds nor voice in the thunder, we have come to think that the trees and the rocks, the flowers and the storm, are all dead things. They are made up, we say, of materials that we know, they are governed by laws that we have discovered, and there is no life anywhere in Nature.
And yet this cannot be true. Far truer is it to believe in fairies and in spirits than in nothing at all; for surely there is life all about us. Who that has lived out alone in the forest, that has lain upon the hillside and seen the mountains clothe themselves in lustrous shadows shot with crimson when the day dies, who that has heard the sigh come up out of the ravines where the little breezes move, that has watched the trees sway their leaves to and fro, beckoning to each other with wayward amorous gestures, but has known that these are not dead things?
Watch the stream coming down the hill with a flash and a laugh in the sunlight, look into the dark brown pools in the deep shadows beneath the rocks, or voyage a whole night upon the breast of the great river, drifting past ghostly monasteries and silent villages, and then say if there be no life in the waters, if they, too, are dead things. There is no consolation like the consolation of Nature, no sympathy like the sympathy of the hills and streams; and sympathy comes from life. There is no sympathy with the dead.
When you are alone in the forest all this life will come and talk to you, if you are quiet and understand. There is love deep down in the passionate heart of the flower, as there is in the little quivering honeysucker flitting after his mate, as there was in Romeo long ago. There is majesty in the huge brown precipice greater than ever looked from the face of a king. All life is one. The soul that moves within you when you hear the deer call to each other far above in the misty meadows of the night is the same soul that moves in everything about you. No people who have lived much with Nature have failed to descry this. They have recognised the life, they have felt the sympathy of the world about them, and to this life they have given names and forms as they would to friends whom they loved. Fairies and goblins, fauns and spirits, these are but names and personifications of a real life. But to him who has never felt this life, who has never been wooed by the trees and hills, these things are but foolishness, of course.
To the Burman, not less than to the Greek of long ago, all nature is alive. The forest and the river and the mountains are full of spirits, whom the Burmans call Nats. There are all kinds of Nats, good and bad, great and little, male and female, now living round about us. Some of them live in the trees, especially in the huge fir-tree that shades half an acre without the village; or among the fernlike fronds of the tamarind; and you will often see beneath such a tree, raised upon poles or nestled in the branches, a little house built of bamboo and thatch, perhaps two feet square. You will be told when you ask that this is the house of the Tree-Nat. Flowers will be offered sometimes, and a little water or rice maybe, to the Nat, never supposing that he is in need of such things, but as a courteous and graceful thing to do; for it is not safe to offend these Nats, and many of them are very powerful. There is a Nat of whom I know, whose home is in a great tree at the crossing of two roads, and he has a house there built for him, and he is much feared. He is such a great Nat that it is necessary when you pass his house to dismount from your pony and walk to a respectful distance. If you haughtily ride past, trouble will befall you. A friend of mine riding there one day rejected all the advice of his Burmese companions and did not dismount, and a few days later he was taken deadly sick of fever. He very nearly died, and had to go away to the Straits for a sea-trip to take the fever out of his veins. It was a very near thing for him. That was in the Burmese times, of course. After that he always dismounted. But all Nats are not so proud nor so much to be feared as this one, and it is usually safe to ride past.
Even as I write I am under the shadow of a tree where a Nat used to live, and the headman of the village has been telling me all about it. This is a Government rest-house on a main road between two stations, and is built for Government officials travelling on duty about their districts. To the west of it is a grand fig-tree of the kind called Nyaungbin by the Burmese. It is a very beautiful tree, though now a little bare, for it is just before the rains; but it is a great tree even now, and two months hence it will be glorious. It was never planted, the headman tells me, but came up of itself very many years ago, and when it was grown to full size a Nat came to live in it. The Nat lived in the tree for many years, and took great care of it. No one might injure it or any living creature near it, so jealous was the Nat of his abode. And the villagers built a little Nat-house, such as I have described, under the branches, and offered flowers and water, and all things went well with those who did well. But if anyone did ill the Nat punished him. If he cut the roots of the tree, the Nat hurt his feet; and if he injured the branches, the Nat injured his arms; and if he cut the trunk, the Nat came down out of the tree, and killed the sacrilegious man right off. There was no running away, because, as you know, the headman said, Nats can go a great deal faster than any man. Many men, careless strangers, who camped under the tree and then abused the hospitality of the Nat by hunting near his home, came to severe grief.
But the Nat has gone now, alas! The tree is still there, but the Nat has fled away these many years.
'I suppose he didn't care to stay,' said the headman. 'You see that the English Government officials came and camped here, and didn't fear the Nats. They had fowls killed here for their dinner, and they sang and shouted; and they shot the green pigeons who ate his figs, and the little doves that nested in his branches.'
All these things were an abomination to the Nat, who hated loud, rough talk and abuse, and to whom all life was sacred.
So the Nat went away. The headman did not know where he was gone, but there are plenty of trees.
'He has gone somewhere to get peace,' the headman said. 'Somewhere in the jungle, where no one ever comes save the herd-boy and the deer, he will be living in a tree, though I do not think he will easily find a tree so beautiful as this.'
The headman seemed very sorry about it, and so did several villagers who were with him; and I suggested that if the Nat-houses were rebuilt, and flowers and water offered, the Nat might know and return. I even offered to contribute myself, that it might be taken as an amende honorable on behalf of the English Government. But they did not think this would be any use. No Nat would come where there was so much going and coming, so little care for life, such a disregard for pity and for peace. If we were to take away our rest-house, well then, perhaps, after a time, something could be done, but not under present circumstances.
And so, besides dethroning the Burmese king, and occupying his golden palace, we are ousting from their pleasant homes the guardian spirits of the trees. They flee before the cold materialism of our belief, before the brutality of our manners. The headman did not say this; he did not mean to say this, for he is a very courteous man and a great friend of all of us; but that is what it came to, I think.
The trunk of this tree is more than ten feet through—not a round bole, but like the pillar in a Gothic cathedral, as of many smaller boles growing together; and the roots spread out into a pedestal before entering the ground. The trunk does not go up very far. At perhaps twenty-five feet above the ground it divides into a myriad of smaller trunks, not branches, till it looks more like a forest than a single tree; it is full of life still. Though the pigeons and the doves come here no longer, there are a thousand other birds flitting to and fro in their aerial city and chirping to each other. Two tiny squirrels have just run along a branch nearly over my head, in a desperate hurry apparently, their tails cocked over their backs, and a sky blue chameleon is standing on the trunk near where it parts. There is always a breeze in this great tree; the leaves are always moving, and there is a continuous rustle and murmur up there. A mango-tree and tamarind near by are quite still. Not a breath shakes their leaves; they are as still as stone, but the shadow of the fig-tree is chequered with ever-changing lights. Is the Nat really gone? Perhaps not; perhaps he is still there, still caring for his tree, only shy now and distrustful, and therefore no more seen.
Whole woods are enchanted sometimes, and no one dare enter them. Such a wood I know, far away north, near the hills, which is full of Nats. There was a great deal of game in it, for animals sought shelter there, and no one dared to disturb them; not the villagers to cut firewood, nor the girls seeking orchids, nor the hunter after his prey, dared to trespass upon that enchanted ground.
'What would happen,' I asked once, 'if anyone went into that wood? Would he be killed, or what?'
And I was told that no one could tell what would happen, only that he would never be seen again alive. 'The Nats would confiscate him,' they said, 'for intruding on their privacy.' But what they would do to him after the confiscation no one seemed to be quite sure. I asked the official who was with me, a fine handsome Burman who had been with us in many fights, whether he would go into the wood with me, but he declined at once. Enemies are one thing, Nats are quite another, and a very much more dreadful thing. You can escape from enemies, as witness my companion, who had been shot at times without number and had only once been hit, in the leg, but you cannot escape Nats. Once, he told me, there were two very sacrilegious men, hunters by profession, only more abandoned than even the majority of hunters, and they went into this wood to hunt 'They didn't care for Nats,' they said. They didn't care for anything at all apparently. 'They were absolutely without reverence, worse than any beast,' said my companion.
So they went into the wood to shoot, and they never came out again. A few days later their bare bones were found, flung out upon the road near the enchanted wood. The Nats did not care to have even the bones of such scoundrels in their wood, and so thrust them out. That was what happened to them, and that was what might happen to us if we went in there. We did not go.
Though the Nats of the forest will not allow even one of their beasts to be slain, the Nats of the rivers are not so exclusive. I do not think fish are ever regarded in quite the same light as animals. It is true that a fervent Buddhist will not kill even a fish, but a fisherman is not quite such a reprobate as a hunter in popular estimation. And the Nats think so too, for the Nat of a pool will not forbid all fishing. You must give him his share; you must be respectful to him, and not offend him; and then he will fill your nets with gleaming fish, and all will go well with you. If not, of course, you will come to grief; your nets will be torn, and your boat upset; and finally, if obstinate, you will be drowned. A great arm will seize you, and you will be pulled under and disappear for ever.
A Nat is much like a human being; if you treat him well he will treat you well, and conversely. Courtesy is never wasted on men or Nats, at least, so a Burman tells me.
The highest Nats live in the mountains. The higher the Nat the higher the mountain; and when you get to a very high peak indeed, like Mainthong Peak in Wuntho, you encounter very powerful Nats.
They tell a story of Mainthong Peak and the Nats there, how all of a sudden, one day in 1885, strange noises came from the hill. High up on his mighty side was heard the sound of great guns firing slowly and continuously; there was the thunder of falling rocks, cries as of someone bewailing a terrible calamity, and voices calling from the precipices. The people living in their little hamlets about his feet were terrified. Something they knew had happened of most dire import to them, some catastrophe which they were powerless to prevent, which they could not even guess. But when a few weeks later there came even into those remote villages the news of the fall of Mandalay, of the surrender of the king, of the 'great treachery,' they knew that this was what the Nats had been sorrowing over. All the Nats everywhere seem to have been distressed at our arrival, to hate our presence, and to earnestly desire our absence. They are the spirits of the country and of the people, and they cannot abide a foreign domination.
But the greatest place for Nats is the Popa Mountain, which is an extinct volcano standing all alone about midway between the river and the Shan Mountains. It is thus very conspicuous, having no hills near it to share its majesty; and being in sight from many of the old capitals, it is very well known in history and legend. It is covered with dense forest, and the villages close about are few. At the top there is a crater with a broken side, and a stream comes flowing out of this break down the mountain. Probably it was the denseness of its forests, the abundance of water, and its central position, more than its guardian Nats, that made it for so many years the last retreating-place of the half-robber, half-patriot bands that made life so uneasy for us. But the Nats of Popa Mountains are very famous.
When any foreigner was taken into the service of the King of Burma he had to swear an oath of fidelity. He swore upon many things, and among them were included 'all the Nats in Popa.' No Burman would have dared to break an oath sworn in such a serious way as this, and they did not imagine that anyone else would. It was and is a very dangerous thing to offend the Popa Nats; for they are still there in the mountain, and everyone who goes there must do them reverence.
A friend of mine, a police officer, who was engaged in trying to catch the last of the robber chiefs who hid near Popa, told me that when he went up the mountain shooting he, too, had to make offerings. Some way up there is a little valley dark with overhanging trees, and a stream flows slowly along it. It is an enchanted valley, and if you look closely you will see that the stream is not as other streams, for it flows uphill. It comes rushing into the valley with a great display of foam and froth, and it leaves in a similar way, tearing down the rocks, and behaving like any other boisterous hill rivulet; but in the valley itself it lies under a spell. It is slow and dark, and has a surface like a mirror, and it flows uphill. There is no doubt about it; anyone can see it. When they came here, my friend tells me, they made a halt, and the Burmese hunters with him unpacked his breakfast. He did not want to eat then, he said, but they explained that it was not for him, but for the Nats. All his food was unpacked, cold chicken and tinned meats, and jam and eggs and bread, and it was spread neatly on a cloth under a tree. Then the hunters called upon the Nats to come and take anything they desired, while my friend wondered what he should do if the Nats took all his food and left him with nothing. But no Nats came, although the Burmans called again and again. So they packed up the food, saying that now the Nats would be pleased at the courtesy shown to them, and that my friend would have good sport. Presently they went on, leaving, however, an egg or two and a little salt, in case the Nats might be hungry later, and true enough it was that they did have good luck. At other times, my friend says, when he did not observe this ceremony, he saw nothing to shoot at all, but on this day he did well.
The former history of all Nats is not known. Whether they have had a previous existence in another form, and if so, what, is a secret that they usually keep carefully to themselves, but the history of the Popa Nats is well known. Everyone who lives near the great hill can tell you that, for it all happened not so long ago. How long exactly no one can say, but not so long that the details of the story have become at all clouded by the mists of time.
They were brother and sister, these Popa Nats, and they had lived away up North. The brother was a blacksmith, and he was a very strong man. He was the strongest man in all the country; the blow of his hammer on the anvil made the earth tremble, and his forge was as the mouth of hell. No one was so much feared and so much sought after as he. And as he was strong, so his sister was beautiful beyond all the maidens of the time. Their father and mother were dead, and there was no one but those two, the brother and sister, so they loved each other dearly, and thought of no one else. The brother brought home no wife to his house by the forge. He wanted no one while he had his sister there, and when lovers came wooing to her, singing amorous songs in the amber dusk, she would have nothing to do with them. So they lived there together, he growing stronger and she more beautiful every day, till at last a change came.
The old king died, and a new king came to the throne, and orders were sent about to all the governors of provinces and other officials that the most beautiful maidens were to be sent down to the Golden City to be wives to the great king. So the governor of that country sent for the blacksmith and his sister to his palace, and told them there what orders he had received, and asked the blacksmith to give his sister that she might be sent as queen to the king. We are not told what arguments the governor used to gain his point, but only this, that when he failed, he sent the girl in unto his wife, and there she was persuaded to go. There must have been something very tempting, to one who was but a village girl, in the prospect of being even one of the lesser queens, of living in the palace, the centre of the world. So she consented at last, and her brother consented, and the girl was sent down under fitting escort to find favour in the eyes of her king. But the blacksmith refused to go. It was no good the governor saying such a great man as he must come to high honour in the Golden City, it was useless for the girl to beg and pray him to come with her—he always refused. So she sailed away down the great river, and the blacksmith returned to his forge.
As the governor had said, the girl was acceptable in the king's sight, and she was made at last one of the principal queens, and of all she had most power over the king. They say she was most beautiful, that her presence was as soothing as shade after heat, that her form was as graceful as a young tree, and the palms of her hands were like lotus blossoms. She had enemies, of course. Most of the other queens were her enemies, and tried to do her harm. But it was useless telling tales of her to the king, for the king never believed; and she walked so wisely and so well, that she never fell into any snare. But still the plots never ceased.
There was one day when she was sitting alone in the garden pavilion, with the trees making moving shadows all about her, that the king came to her. They talked for a time, and the king began to speak to her of her life before she came to the palace, a thing he had never done before. But he seemed to know all about it, nevertheless, and he spoke to her of her brother, and said that he, the king, had heard how no man was so strong as this blacksmith, the brother of the queen. The queen said it was true, and she talked on and on and praised her brother, and babbled of the days of her childhood, when he carried her on his great shoulder, and threw her into the air, catching her again. She was delighted to talk of all these things, and in her pleasure she forgot her discretion, and said that her brother was wise as well as strong, and that all the people loved him. Never was there such a man as he. The king did not seem very pleased with it all, but he said only that the blacksmith was a great man, and that the queen must write to him to come down to the city, that the king might see him of whom there was such great report.
Then the king got up and went away, and the queen began to doubt; and the more she thought the more she feared she had not been acting wisely in talking as she did, for it is not wise to praise anyone to a king. She went away to her own room to consider, and to try if she could hear of any reason why the king should act as he had done, and desire her brother to come to him to the city; and she found out that it was all a plot of her enemies. Herself they had failed to injure, so they were now plotting against her through her brother. They had gone to the king, and filled his ear with slanderous reports. They had said that the queen's brother was the strongest man in all the kingdom. 'He was cunning, too,' they said, 'and very popular among all the people; and he was so puffed up with pride, now that his sister was a queen, that there was nothing he did not think he could do.' They represented to the king how dangerous such a man was in a kingdom, that it would be quite easy for him to raise such rebellion as the king could hardly put down, and that he was just the man to do such a thing. Nay, it was indeed proved that he must be disloyally plotting something, or he would have come down with his sister to the city when she came. But now many months had passed, and he never came. Clearly he was not to be trusted. Any other man whose sister was a queen would have come and lived in the palace, and served the king and become a minister, instead of staying up there and pretending to be a blacksmith.
The king's mind had been much disturbed by this, for it seemed to him that it must be in part true; and he went to the queen, as I have said, and his suspicions had not been lulled by what she told him, so he had ordered her to write to her brother to come down to the palace.
The queen was terrified when she saw what a mistake she had made, and how she had fallen into the trap of her enemies; but she hoped that the king would forget, and she determined that she would send no order to her brother to come. But the next day the king came back to the subject, and asked her if she had yet sent the letter, and she said 'No!' The king was very angry at this disobedience to his orders, and he asked her how it came that she had not done as he had commanded, and sent a letter to her brother to call him to the palace.
Then the queen fell at the king's feet and told him all her fears that her brother was sent for only to be imprisoned or executed, and she begged and prayed the king to leave him in peace up there in his village. She assured the king that he was loyal and good, and would do no evil.
The king was rather abashed that his design had been discovered, but he was firm in his purpose. He assured the queen that the blacksmith should come to no harm, but rather good; and he ordered the queen to obey him, threatening her that if she refused he would be sure that she was disloyal also, and there would be no alternative but to send and arrest the blacksmith by force, and punish her, the queen, too. Then the queen said that if the king swore to her that her brother should come to no harm, she would write as ordered. And the king swore.
So the queen wrote to her brother, and adjured him by his love to her to come down to the Golden City. She said she had dire need of him, and she told him that the king had sworn that no harm should come to him.
The letter was sent off by a king's messenger. In due time the blacksmith arrived, and he was immediately seized and thrown into prison to await his trial.
When the queen saw that she had been deceived, she was in despair. She tried by every way, by tears and entreaties and caresses, to move the king, but all without avail. Then she tried by plotting and bribery to gain her brother's release, but it was all in vain. The day for trial came quickly, and the blacksmith was tried, and he was condemned and sentenced to be burnt alive by the river on the following day.
On the evening of the day of trial the queen sent a message to the king to come to her; and when the king came reluctantly, fearing a renewal of entreaties, expecting a woman made of tears and sobs, full of grief, he found instead that the queen had dried her eyes and dressed herself still more beautifully than ever, till she seemed to the king the very pearl among women. And she told the king that he was right, and she was wrong. She said, putting her arms about him and caressing him, that she had discovered that it was true that her brother had been plotting against the king, and therefore his death was necessary. It was terrible, she said, to find that her brother, whom she had always held as a pattern, was no better than a traitor; but it was even so, and her king was the wisest of all kings to find it out.
The king was delighted to find his queen in this mood, and he soothed her and talked to her kindly and sweetly, for he really loved her, though he had given in to bad advice about the brother. And when the king's suspicions were lulled, the queen said to him that she had now but one request to make, and that was that she might have permission to go down with her maids to the river-shore in the early morning, and see herself the execution of her traitor brother. The king, who would now have granted her anything—anything she asked, except just that one thing, the life of her brother—gave permission; and then the queen said that she was tired and wished to rest after all the trouble of the last few days, and would the king leave her. So the king left her to herself, and went away to his own chambers.
Very early in the morning, ere the crimson flush upon the mountains had faded in the light of day, a vast crowd was gathered below the city, by the shore of the great river. Very many thousands were there, of many countries and peoples, crowding down to see a man die, to see a traitor burnt to death for his sins, for there is nothing men like so much as to see another man die.
Upon a little headland jutting out into the river the pyre was raised, with brushwood and straw, to burn quickly, and an iron post in the middle to which the man was to be chained. At one side was a place reserved, and presently down from the palace in a long procession came the queen and her train of ladies to the place kept for her. Guards were put all about to prevent the people crowding; and then came the soldiers, and in the midst of them the blacksmith; and amid many cries of 'Traitor, traitor!' and shouts of derision, he was bound to the iron post within the wood and the straw, and the guards fell back.
The queen sat and watched it all, and said never a word. Fire was put to the pyre, and it crept rapidly up in long red tongues with coils of black smoke. It went very quickly, for the wood was very dry, and a light breeze came laughing up the river and helped it. The flames played about the man chained there in the midst, and he made never a sign; only he looked steadily across at the purple mountain where his home lay, and it was clear that in a few more moments he would be dead. There was a deep silence everywhere.
Then of a sudden, before anyone knew, before a hand could be held out to hinder her, the queen rose from her seat and ran to the pyre. In a moment she was there and had thrown herself into the flames, and with her arms about her brother's neck she turned and faced the myriad eyes that glared upon them—the queen, in all the glory of her beauty, glittering with gems, and the man with great shackled bare limbs, dressed in a few rags, his muscles already twisted with the agony of the fire. A great cry of horror came from the people, and there was the movement of guards and officers rushing to stop the fire; but it was all of no use. A flash of red flames came out of the logs, folding these twain like an imperial cloak, a whirl of sparks towered into the air, and when one could see again the woman and her brother were no longer there. They were dead and burnt, and the bodies mingled with the ashes of the fire. She had cost her brother his life, and she went with him into death.
Some days after this a strange report was brought to the palace. By the landing-place near the spot where the fire had been was a great fig-tree. It was so near to the landing-place, and was such a magnificent tree, that travellers coming from the boats, or waiting for a boat to arrive, would rest in numbers under its shade. But the report said that something had happened there. To travellers sleeping beneath the tree at night it was stated that two Nats had appeared, very large and very beautiful, a man Nat and a woman Nat, and had frightened them very much indeed. Noises were heard in the tree, voices and cries, and a strange terror came upon those who approached it. Nay, it was even said that men had been struck by unseen hands and severely hurt, and others, it was said, had disappeared. Children who went to play under the tree were never seen again: the Nats took them, and their parents sought for them in vain. So the landing-place was deserted, and a petition was brought to the king, and the king gave orders that the tree should be hewn down. So the tree was cut down, and its trunk was thrown into the river; it floated away out of sight, and nothing happened to the men who cut the tree, though they were deadly afraid.
The tree floated down for days, until at last it stranded near a landing-place that led to a large town, where the governor of these parts lived; and at this landing-place the portents that had frightened the people at the great city reappeared and terrified the travellers here too, and they petitioned the governor.
The governor sought out a great monk, a very holy man learned in these matters, and sent him to inquire, and the monk came down to the tree and spoke. He said that if any Nats lived in the tree, they should speak to him and tell him what they wanted. 'It is not fit,' he said, 'for great Nats to terrify the poor villagers at the landing-place. Let the Nats speak and say what they require. All that they want shall be given.' And the Nats spake and said that they wanted a place to live in where they could be at peace, and the monk answered for the governor that all his land was at their disposal. 'Let the Nats choose,' he said; 'all the country is before them.' So the Nats chose, and said that they would have Popa Mountain, and the monk agreed.
The Nats then left the tree and went away, far away inland, to the great Popa Mountain, and took up their abode there, and all the people there feared and reverenced them, and even made to their honour two statues with golden heads and set them up on the mountain.
This is the story of the Popa Nats, the greatest Nats of all the country of Burma, the guardian spirits of the mysterious mountain. The golden heads of the statues are now in one of our treasuries, put there for safe custody during the troubles, though it is doubtful if even then anyone would have dared to steal them, so greatly are the Nats feared. And the hunters and the travellers there must offer to the Nats little offerings, if they would be safe in these forests, and even the young man must obtain permission from the Nats before he marry.
I think these stories that I have told, stories selected from very many that I have heard, will show what sort of spirits these are that the Burmese have peopled their trees and rivers with; will show what sort of religion it is that underlies, without influencing, the creed of the Buddha that they follow. It is of the very poetry of superstition, free from brutality, from baseness, from anything repulsive, springing, as I have said, from their innate sympathy with Nature and recognition of the life that works in all things. It always seems to me that beliefs such as these are a great key to the nature of a people, are, apart from all interest in their beauty, and in their akinness to other beliefs, of great value in trying to understand the character of a nation.
For to beings such as Nats and fairies the people who believe in them will attribute such qualities as are predominant in themselves, as they consider admirable; and, indeed, all supernatural beings are but the magnified shadows of man cast by the light of his imagination upon the mists of his ignorance.
Therefore, when you find that a people make their spirits beautiful and fair, calm and even tempered, loving peace and the beauty of the trees and rivers, shrinkingly averse from loud words, from noises, and from the taking of life, it is because the people themselves think that these are great qualities. If no stress be laid upon their courage, their activity, their performance of great deeds, it is because the people who imagine them care not for such things. There is no truer guide, I am sure, to the heart of a young people than their superstitions; these they make entirely for themselves, apart from their religion, which is, to a certain extent, made for them. That is why I have written this chapter on Nats: not because I think it affects Buddhism very much one way or another, but because it seems to me to reveal the people themselves, because it helps us to understand them better, to see more with their eyes, to be in unison with their ideas—because it is a great key to the soul of the people.
DEATH, THE DELIVERER
'The end of my life is near at hand; seven days hence, like a man who rids himself of a heavy load, I shall be free from the burden of my body.'—Death of the Buddha.
There is a song well known to all the Burmese, the words of which are taken from the sacred writings. It is called the story of Ma Pa Da, and it was first told to me by a Burmese monk, long ago, when I was away on the frontier.
It runs like this:
In the time of the Buddha, in the city of Thawatti, there was a certain rich man, a merchant, who had many slaves. Slaves in those days, and, indeed, generally throughout the East, were held very differently to slaves in Europe. They were part of the family, and were not saleable without good reason, and there was a law applicable to them. They were not hors de la loi, like the slaves of which we have conception. There are many cases quoted of sisters being slaves to sisters, and of brothers to brothers, quoted not for the purpose of saying that this was an uncommon occurrence, but merely of showing points of law in such cases.
One day in the market the merchant bought another slave, a young man, handsome and well mannered, and took him to his house, and kept him there with his family and the other slaves. The young man was earnest and careful in his work, and the merchant approved of him, and his fellow-slaves liked him. But Ma Pa Da, the merchant's daughter, fell in love with him. The slave was much troubled at this, and he did his best to avoid her; but he was a slave and under orders, and what could he do? When she would come to him secretly and make love to him, and say, 'Let us flee together, for we love each other,' he would refuse, saying that he was a slave, and the merchant would be very angry. He said he could not do such a thing. And yet when the girl said, 'Let us flee, for we love each other,' he knew that it was true, and that he loved her as she loved him; and it was only his honour to his master that held him from doing as she asked.
But because his heart was not of iron, and there are few men that can resist when a woman comes and woos them, he at last gave way; and they fled away one night, the girl and the slave, taking with them her jewels and some money. They travelled rapidly and in great fear, and did not rest till they came to a city far away where the merchant would never, they thought, think of searching for them.
Here, in this city where no one knew of their history, they lived in great happiness, husband and wife, trading with the money they had with them.
And in time a little child was born to them.
About two or three years after this it became necessary for the husband to take a journey, and he started forth with his wife and child. The journey was a very long one, and they were unduly delayed; and so it happened that while still in the forest the wife fell ill, and could not go on any further. So the husband built a hut of branches and leaves, and there, in the solitude of the forest, was born to them another little son.
The mother recovered rapidly, and in a little time she was well enough to go on. They were to start next morning on their way again; and in the evening the husband went out, as was his custom, to cut firewood, for the nights were cold and damp.
Ma Pa Da waited and waited for him, but he never came back.
The sun set and the dark rose out of the ground, and the forest became full of whispers, but he never came. All night she watched and waited, caring for her little ones, fearful to leave them alone, till at last the gray light came down, down from the sky to the branches, and from the branches to the ground, and she could see her way. Then, with her new-born babe in her arms and the elder little fellow trotting by her side, she went out to search for her husband. Soon enough she found him, not far off, stiff and cold beside his half-cut bundle of firewood. A snake had bitten him on the ankle, and he was dead.
So Ma Pa Da was alone in the great forest, but a girl still, with two little children to care for.
But she was brave, despite her trouble, and she determined to go on and gain some village. She took her baby in her arms and the little one by the hand, and started on her journey.
And for a time all went well, till at last she came to a stream. It was not very deep, but it was too deep for the little boy to wade, for it came up to his neck, and his mother was not strong enough to carry both at once. So, after considering for a time, she told the elder boy to wait. She would cross and put the baby on the far side, and return for him.
'Be good,' she said; 'be good, and stay here quietly till I come back;' and the boy promised.
The stream was deeper and swifter than she thought; but she went with great care and gained the far side, and put the baby under a tree a little distance from the bank, to lie there while she went for the other boy. Then, after a few minutes' rest, she went back.
She had got to the centre of the stream, and her little boy had come down to the margin to be ready for her, when she heard a rush and a cry from the side she had just left; and, looking round, she saw with terror a great eagle sweep down upon the baby, and carry it off in its claws. She turned round and waved her arms and cried out to the eagle, 'He! he!' hoping it would be frightened and drop the baby. But it cared nothing for her cries or threats, and swept on with long curves over the forest trees, away out of sight.
Then the mother turned to gain the bank once more, and suddenly she missed her son who had been waiting for her. He had seen his mother wave her arms; he had heard her shout, and he thought she was calling him to come to her. So the brave little man walked down into the water, and the black current carried him off his feet at once. He was gone, drowned in the deep water below the ford, tossing on the waves towards the sea.
No one can write of the despair of the girl when she threw herself under a tree in the forest. The song says it was very terrible.
At last she said to herself, 'I will get up now and return to my father in Thawatti; he is all I have left. Though I have forsaken him all these years, yet now that my husband and his children are dead, my father will take me back again. Surely he will have pity on me, for I am much to be pitied.'
So she went on, and at length, after many days, she came to the gates of the great city where her father lived.
At the entering of the gates she met a large company of people, mourners, returning from a funeral, and she spoke to them and asked them:
'Who is it that you have been burying to-day so grandly with so many mourners?'
And the people answered her, and told her who it was. And when she heard, she fell down upon the road as one dead: for it was her father and mother who had died yesterday, and it was their funeral train that she saw. They were all dead now, husband and sons and father and mother; in all the world she was quite alone.
So she went mad, for her trouble was more than she could bear. She threw off all her clothes, and let down her long hair and wrapped it about her naked body, and walked about raving.
At last she came to where the Buddha was teaching, seated under a fig-tree. She came up to the Buddha, and told him of her losses, and how she had no one left; and she demanded of the Buddha that he should restore to her those that she had lost. And the Buddha had great compassion upon her, and tried to console her.
'All die,' he said; 'it comes to everyone, king and peasant, animal and man. Only through many deaths can we obtain the Great Peace. All this sorrow,' he said, 'is of the earth. All this is passion which we must get rid of, and forget before we reach heaven. Be comforted, my daughter, and turn to the holy life. All suffer as you do. It is part of our very existence here, sorrow and trouble without any end.'
But she would not be comforted, but demanded her dead of the Buddha. Then, because he saw it was no use talking to her, that her ears were deaf with grief, and her eyes blinded with tears, he said to her that he would restore to her those who were dead.
'You must go,' he said, 'my daughter, and get some mustard-seed, a pinch of mustard-seed, and I can bring back their lives. Only you must get this seed from the garden of him near whom death has never come. Get this, and all will be well.'
So the woman went forth with a light heart. It was so simple, only a pinch of mustard-seed, and mustard grew in every garden. She would get the seed and be back very quickly, and then the Lord Buddha would give her back those she loved who had died. She clothed herself again and tied up her hair, and went cheerfully and asked at the first house, 'Give me a pinch of mustard-seed,' and it was given readily. So with her treasure in her hand she was going forth back to the Buddha full of delight, when she remembered.
'Has ever anyone died in your household?' she asked, looking round wistfully.
The man answered 'Yes,' that death had been with them but recently. Who could this woman be, he thought, to ask such a question? And the woman went forth, the seed dropping from her careless fingers, for it was of no value. So she would try again and again, but it was always the same. Death had taken his tribute from all. Father or mother, son or brother, daughter or wife, there was always a gap somewhere, a vacant place beside the meal. From house to house throughout the city she went, till at last the new hope faded away, and she learned from the world, what she had not believed from the Buddha, that death and life are one.
So she returned, and she became a nun, poor soul! taking on her the two hundred and twenty-seven vows, which are so hard to keep that nowadays nuns keep but five of them.
This is the teaching of the Buddha, that death is inevitable; this is the consolation he offers, that all men must know death; no one can escape death; no one can escape the sorrow of the death of those whom he loves. Death, he says, and life are one; not antagonistic, but the same; and the only way to escape from one is to escape from the other too. Only in the Great Peace, when we have found refuge from the passion and tumult of life, shall we find the place where death cannot come. Life and death are one.
This is the teaching of the Buddha, repeated over and over again to his disciples when they sorrowed for the death of Thariputra, when they were in despair at the swift-approaching end of the great teacher himself. Hear what he says to Ananda, the beloved disciple, who is mourning over Thariputra.
'Ananda,' he said, 'often and often have I sought to bring shelter to your soul from the misery caused by such grief as this. There are two things alone that can separate us from father and mother, from brother and sister, from all those who are most cherished by us, and those two things are distance and death. Think not that I, though the Buddha, have not felt all this even as any other of you; was I not alone when I was seeking for wisdom in the wilderness?
'And yet what would I have gained by wailing and lamenting either for myself or for others? Would it have brought to me any solace from my loneliness? Would it have been any help to those whom I had left? There is nothing that can happen to us, however terrible, however miserable, that can justify tears and lamentations and make them aught but a weakness.'
And so, we are told, in this way the Buddha soothed the affliction of Ananda, and filled his soul with consolation—the consolation of resignation.
For there is no other consolation possible but this, resignation to the inevitable, the conviction of the uselessness of sorrow, the vanity and selfishness of grief.
There is no meeting again with the dead. Nowhere in the recurring centuries shall we meet again those whom we have loved, whom we love, who seem to us to be parts of our very soul. That which survives of us, the part which is incarnated again and again, until it be fit for heaven, has nothing to do with love and hate.
Even if in the whirlpool of life our paths should cross again the paths of those whom we have loved, we are never told that we shall know them again and love them.
A friend of mine has just lost his mother, and he is very much distressed. He must have been very fond of her, for although he has a wife and children, and is happy in his family, he is in great sorrow. He proposes even to build a pagoda over her remains, a testimony of respect which in strict Buddhism is reserved to saints. He has been telling me about this, and how he is trying to get a sacred relic to put in the pagoda, and I asked him if he never hoped again to meet the soul of his mother on earth or in heaven, and he answered:
'No. It is very hard, but so are many things, and they have to be borne. Far better it is to face the truth than to escape by a pleasant falsehood. There is a Burmese proverb that tells us that all the world is one vast burial-ground; there are dead men everywhere.'
'One of our great men has said the same,' I answered.
He was not surprised.
'As it is true,' he said, 'I suppose all great men would see it.'
Thus there is no escape, no loophole for a delusive hope, only the cultivation of the courage of sorrow.
There are never any exceptions to the laws of the Buddha. If a law is a law, that is the end of it. Just as we know of no exceptions to the law of gravitation, so there are no exceptions to the law of death.
But although this may seem to be a religion of despair, it is not really so. This sorrow to which there is no relief is the selfishness of sorrow, the grief for our own loneliness; for of sorrow, of fear, of pity for the dead, there is no need. We know that in time all will be well with them. We know that, though there may be before them vast periods of suffering, yet that they will all at last be in Nebhan with us. And if we shall not know them there, still we shall know that they are there, all of them—not one will be wanting. Purified from the lust of life, white souls steeped in the Great Peace, all living things will attain rest at last.
There is this remarkable fact in Buddhism, that nowhere is any fear expressed of death itself, nowhere any apprehension of what may happen to the dead. It is the sorrow of separation, the terror of death to the survivors, that is always dwelt upon with compassion, and the agony of which it is sought to soothe.
That the dying man himself should require strengthening to face the King of Terrors is hardly ever mentioned. It seems to be taken for granted that men should have courage in themselves to take leave of life becomingly, without undue fears. Buddhism is the way to show us the escape from the miseries of life, not to give us hope in the hour of death.
It is true that to all Orientals death is a less fearful thing than it is to us. I do not know what may be the cause of this, courage certainly has little to do with it; but it is certain that the purely physical fear of death, that horror and utter revulsion that seizes the majority of us at the idea of death, is absent from most Orientals. And yet this cannot explain it all. For fear of death, though less, is still there, is still a strong influence upon their lives, and it would seem that no religion which ignored this great fact could become a great living religion.
Religion is made for man, to fit his necessities, not man for religion, and yet the faith of Buddhism is not concerned with death.
Consider our faith, how much of its teaching consists of how to avoid the fear of death, how much of its consolation is for the death-bed. How we are taught all our lives that we should live so as not to fear death; how we have priests and sacraments to soothe the dying man, and give him hope and courage, and how the crown and summit of our creed is that we should die easily. And consider that in Buddhism all this is absolutely wanting. Buddhism is a creed of life, of conduct; death is the end of that life, that is all.
We have all seen death. We have all of us watched those who, near and dear to us, go away out of our ken. There is no need for me to recall the last hours of those of our faith, to bring up again the fading eye and waning breath, the messages of hope we search for in our Scriptures to give hope to him who is going, the assurances of religion, the cross held before the dying eyes.
Many men, we are told, turn to religion at the last after a life of wickedness, and a man may do so even at the eleventh hour and be saved.
That is part of our belief; that is the strongest part of our belief; and that is the hope that all fervent Christians have, that those they love may be saved even at the end.
I think it may truly be said that our Western creeds are all directed at the hour of death, as the great and final test of that creed.
And now think of Buddhism; it is a creed of life. In life you must win your way to salvation by urgent effort, by suffering, by endurance. On your death-bed you can do nothing. If you have done well, then it is well; if ill, then you must in future life try again and again till you succeed. A life is not washed, a soul is not made fit for the dwelling of eternity, in a moment.
Repentance to a Buddhist is but the opening of the eyes to see the path to righteousness; it has no virtue in itself. To have seen that we are sinners is but the first step to cleansing our sin; in itself it cannot purify.
As well ask a robber of the poor to repent, and suppose thereby that those who have suffered from his guilt are compensated for the evil done to them by his repentance, as to ask a Buddhist to believe that a sinner can at the last moment make good to his own soul all the injuries caused to that soul by the wickedness of his life.
Or suppose a man who has destroyed his constitution by excess to be by the very fact of acknowledging that excess restored to health.
The Buddhist will not have that at all. A man is what he makes himself; and that making is a matter of terrible effort, of unceasing endeavour towards the right, of constant suppression of sin, till sin be at last dead within him. If a man has lived a wicked life, he dies a wicked man, and no wicked man can obtain the perfect rest of the sinless dead. Heaven is shut to him. But if heaven is shut it is not shut for ever; if hell may perhaps open to him it is only for a time, only till he is purified and washed from the stain of his sins; and then he can begin again, and have another chance to win heaven. If there is no immediate heaven there is no eternal hell, and in due time all will reach heaven; all will have learnt, through suffering, the wisdom the Buddha has shown to us, that only by a just life can men reach the Great Peace even as he did.
So that if Buddhism has none of the consolation for the dying man that Christianity holds out, in the hope of heaven, so it has none of the threats and terrors of our faith. There is no fear of an angry Judge—of a Judge who is angry.
And yet when I came to think over the matter, it seemed to me that surely there must be something to calm him in the face of death. If Buddhism does not furnish this consolation, he must go elsewhere for it. And I was not satisfied, because I could find nothing in the sacred books about a man's death, that therefore the creed of the people had ignored it. A living creed must, I was sure, provide for this somehow.
So I went to a friend of mine, a Burman magistrate, and I asked him:
'When a man is dying, what does he try to think of? What do you say to comfort him that his last moments may be peace? The monks do not come, I know.'
'The monks!' he said, shaking his head; 'what could they do?'
I did not know.
'Can you do anything,' I asked, 'to cheer him? Do you speak to him of what may happen after death, of hopes of another life?'
'No one can tell,' said my friend, 'what will happen after death. It depends on a man's life, if he has done good or evil, what his next existence will be, whether he will go a step nearer to the Peace. When the man is dying no monks will come, truly; but an old man, an old friend, father, perhaps, or an elder of the village, and he will talk to the dying man. He will say, "Think of your good deeds; think of all that you have done well in this life. Think of your good deeds."'
'What is the use of that?' I asked. 'Suppose you think of your good deeds, what then? Will that bring peace?'
The Burman seemed to think that it would.
'Nothing,' he said, 'was so calming to a man's soul as to think of even one deed he had done well in his life.'
Think of the man dying. The little house built of bamboo and thatch, with an outer veranda, where the friends are sitting, and the inner room, behind a wall of bamboo matting, where the man is lying. A pot of flowers is standing on a shelf on one side, and a few cloths are hung here and there beneath the brown rafters. The sun comes in through little chinks in roof and wall, making curious lights in the semi-darkness of the room, and it is very hot.
From outside come the noises of the village, cries of children playing, grunts of cattle, voices of men and women clearly heard through the still clear air of the afternoon. There is a woman pounding rice near by with a steady thud, thud of the lever, and there is a clink of a loom where a girl is weaving ceaselessly. All these sounds come into the house as if there were no walls at all, but they are unheeded from long custom.
The man lies on a low bed with a fine mat spread under him for bedding. His wife, his grown-up children, his sister, his brother are about him, for the time is short, and death comes very quickly in the East. They talk to him kindly and lovingly, but they read to him no sacred books; they give him no messages from the world to which he is bound; they whisper to him no hopes of heaven. He is tortured with no fears of everlasting hell. Yet life is sweet and death is bitter, and it is hard to go; and as he tosses to and fro in his fever there comes in to him an old friend, the headman of the village perhaps, with a white muslin fillet bound about his kind old head, and he sits beside the dying man and speaks to him.
'Remember,' he says slowly and clearly, 'all those things that you have done well. Think of your good deeds.'
And as the sick man turns wearily, trying to move his thoughts as he is bidden, trying to direct the wheels of memory, the old man helps him to remember.
'Think,' he says, 'of your good deeds, of how you have given charity to the monks, of how you have fed the poor. Remember how you worked and saved to build the little rest-house in the forest where the traveller stays and finds water for his thirst. All these are pleasant things, and men will always be grateful to you. Remember your brother, how you helped him in his need, how you fed him and went security for him till he was able again to secure his own living. You did well to him, surely that is a pleasant thing.'
I do not think it difficult to see how the sick man's face will lighten, how his eyes will brighten at the thoughts that come to him at the old man's words. And he goes on:
'Remember when the squall came up the river and the boat upset when you were crossing here; how it seemed as if no man could live alone in such waves, and yet how you clung to and saved the boy who was with you, swimming through the water that splashed over your head and very nearly drowned you. The boy's father and mother have never forgotten that, and they are even now mourning without in the veranda. It is all due to you that their lives have not been full of misery and despair. Remember their faces when you brought their little son to them saved from death in the great river. Surely that is a pleasant thing. Remember your wife who is now with you; how you have loved her and cherished her, and kept faithful to her before all the world. You have been a good husband to her, and you have honoured her. She loves you, and you have loved her all your long life together. Surely that is a pleasant thing.'
Yes, surely these are pleasant things to have with one at the last. Surely a man will die easier with such memories as these before his eyes, with love in those about him, and the calm of good deeds in his dying heart. If it be a different way of soothing a man's end from those which other nations use, is it the worse for that?
Think of your good deeds. It seems a new idea to me that in doing well in our life we are making for ourselves a pleasant death, because of the memory of those things. And if we have none? or if evil so outnumbered the good deeds as to hide and overwhelm them, what then? A man's death will be terrible indeed if he cannot in all his days remember one good deed that he has done.
'All a man's life comes before him at the hour of death,' said my informant; 'all, from the earliest memory to the latest breath. Like a whole landscape called by a flash of lightning out of the dark night. It is all there, every bit of it, good and evil, pleasure and pain, sin and righteousness.'
A man cannot escape from his life even in death. In our acts of to-day we are determining what our death will be; if we have lived well, we shall die well; and if not, then not. As a man lives so shall he die, is the teaching of Buddhism as of other creeds.
So what Buddhism has to offer to the dying believer is this, that if he live according to its tenets he will die happily, and that in the life that he will next enter upon he will be less and less troubled by sin, less and less wedded to the lust of life, until sometime, far away, he shall gain the great Deliverance. He shall have perfect Peace, perfect rest, perfect happiness, he and his, in that heaven where his teacher went before him long ago.
And if we should say that this Deliverance from life, this Great Peace, is Death, what matter, if it be indeed Peace?
 These five vows are:
1. Not to take life. 2. To be honest. 3. To tell the truth. 4. To abstain from intoxicants. 5. Chastity.
THE POTTER'S WHEEL
'Life is like a great whirlpool wherein we are dashed to and fro by our passions.'—Saying of the Buddha.
It is a hard teaching, this of the Buddha about death. It is a teaching that may appeal to the reason, but not to the soul, that when life goes out, this thing which we call 'I' goes out with it, and that love and remembrance are dead for ever.
It is so hard a teaching that in its purity the people cannot believe it. They accept it, but they have added on to it a belief which changes the whole form of it, a belief that is the outcome of that weakness of humanity which insists that death is not and cannot be all.
Though to the strict Buddhist death is the end of all worldly passion, to the Burmese villager that is not so. He cannot grasp, he cannot endure that it should be so, and he has made for himself out of Buddhism a belief that is opposed to all Buddhism in this matter.
He believes in the transmigration of souls, in the survival of the 'I.' The teaching that what survives is not the 'I,' but only the result of its action, is too deep for him to hold. True, if a flame dies the effects that it has caused remain, and the flame is dead for ever. A new flame is a new flame. But the 'I' of man cannot die, he thinks; it lives and loves for all time.
He has made out of the teaching a new teaching that is very far from that of the Buddha, and the teaching is this: When a man dies his soul remains, his 'I' has only changed its habitation. Still it lives and breathes on earth, not the effect, but the soul itself. It is reborn among us, and it may even be recognised very often in its new abode.
And that we should never forget this, that we should never doubt that this is true, it has been so ordered that many can remember something of these former lives of theirs. This belief is not to a Burman a mere theory, but is as true as anything he can see. For does he not daily see people who know of their former lives? Nay, does he not himself, often vaguely, have glimpses of that former life of his? No man seems to be quite without it, but of course it is clearer to some than others. Just as we tell stories in the dusk of ghosts and second sight, so do they, when the day's work is over, gossip of stories of second birth; only that they believe in them far more than we do in ghosts.
A friend of mine put up for the night once at a monastery far away in the forest near a small village. He was travelling with an escort of mounted police, and there was no place else to sleep but in the monastery. The monk was, as usual, hospitable, and put what he had, bare house-room, at the officer's disposal, and he and his men settled down for the night.
After dinner a fire was built on the ground, and the officer went and sat by it and talked to the headman of the village and the monk. First they talked of the dacoits and of crops, unfailing subjects of interest, and gradually they drifted from one subject to another till the Englishman remarked about the monastery, that it was a very large and fine one for such a small secluded village to have built. The monastery was of the best and straightest teak, and must, he thought, have taken a very long time and a great deal of labour to build, for the teak must have been brought from very far away; and in explanation he was told a curious story.
It appeared that in the old days there used to be only a bamboo and grass monastery there, such a monastery as most jungle villages have; and the then monk was distressed at the smallness of his abode and the little accommodation there was for his school—a monastery is always a school. So one rainy season he planted with great care a number of teak seedlings round about, and he watered them and cared for them. 'When they are grown up,' he would say, 'these teak-trees shall provide timber for a new and proper building; and I will myself return in another life, and with those trees will I build a monastery more worthy than this.' Teak-trees take a hundred years to reach a mature size, and while the trees were still but saplings the monk died, and another monk taught in his stead. And so it went on, and the years went by, and from time to time new monasteries of bamboo were built and rebuilt, and the teak-trees grew bigger and bigger. But the village grew smaller, for the times were troubled, and the village was far away in the forest. So it happened that at last the village found itself without a monk at all: the last monk was dead, and no one came to take his place.
It is a serious thing for a village to have no monk. To begin with, there is no one to teach the lads to read and write and do arithmetic; and there is no one to whom you can give offerings and thereby get merit, and there is no one to preach to you and tell you of the sacred teaching. So the village was in a bad way.
Then at last one evening, when the girls were all out at the well drawing water, they were surprised by the arrival of a monk walking in from the forest, weary with a long journey, footsore and hungry. The villagers received him with enthusiasm, fearing, however, that he was but passing through, and they furbished up the old monastery in a hurry for him to sleep in. But the curious thing was that the monk seemed to know it all. He knew the monastery and the path to it, and the ways about the village, and the names of the hills and the streams. It seemed, indeed, as if he must once have lived there in the village, and yet no one knew him or recognised his face, though he was but a young man still, and there were villagers who had lived there for seventy years. Next morning, instead of going on his way, the monk came into the village with his begging-bowl, as monks do, and went round and collected his food for the day; and in the evening, when the villagers went to see him at the monastery, he told them he was going to stay. He recalled to them the monk who had planted the teak-trees, and how he had said that when the trees were grown he would return. 'I,' said the young monk, 'am he that planted these trees. Lo, they are grown up, and I am returned, and now we will build a monastery as I said.'
When the villagers, doubting, questioned him, and old men came and talked to him of traditions of long-past days, he answered as one who knew all. He told them he had been born and educated far away in the South, and had grown up not knowing who he had been; and that he had entered a monastery, and in time became a Pongyi. The remembrance came to him, he went on, in a dream of how he had planted the trees and had promised to return to that village far away in the forest.
The very next day he had started, and travelled day after day and week upon week, till at length he had arrived, as they saw. So the villagers were convinced, and they set to work and cut down the great boles, and built the monastery such as my friend saw. And the monk lived there all his life, and taught the children, and preached the marvellous teaching of the great Buddha, till at length his time came again and he returned; for of monks it is not said that they die, but that they return.
This is the common belief of the people. Into this has the mystery of Dharma turned, in the thoughts of the Burmese Buddhists, for no one can believe the incomprehensible. A man has a soul, and it passes from life to life, as a traveller from inn to inn, till at length it is ended in heaven. But not till he has attained heaven in his heart will he attain heaven in reality.
Many children, the Burmese will tell you, remember their former lives. As they grow older the memories die away and they forget, but to the young children they are very clear. I have seen many such.
About fifty years ago in a village named Okshitgon were born two children, a boy and a girl. They were born on the same day in neighbouring houses, and they grew up together, and played together, and loved each other. And in due course they married and started a family, and maintained themselves by cultivating their dry, barren fields about the village. They were always known as devoted to each other, and they died as they had lived—together. The same death took them on the same day; so they were buried without the village and were forgotten; for the times were serious.
It was the year after the English army had taken Mandalay, and all Burma was in a fury of insurrection. The country was full of armed men, the roads were unsafe, and the nights were lighted with the flames of burning villages. It was a bad time for peace-loving men, and many such, fleeing from their villages, took refuge in larger places nearer the centres of administration.
Okshitgon was in the midst of one of the worst of all the distressed districts, and many of its people fled, and one of them, a man named Maung Kan, with his young wife went to the village of Kabyu and lived there.
Now, Maung Kan's wife had born to him twin sons. They were born at Okshitgon shortly before their parents had to run away, and they were named, the eldest Maung Gyi, which is Brother Big-fellow, and the younger Maung Nge, which means Brother Little-fellow. These lads grew up at Kabyu, and soon learned to talk; and as they grew up their parents were surprised to hear them calling to each other at play, and calling each other, not Maung Gyi and Maung Nge, but Maung San Nyein and Ma Gywin. The latter is a woman's name, and the parents remembered that these were the names of the man and wife who had died in Okshitgon about the time the children were born.
So the parents thought that the souls of the man and wife had entered into the children, and they took them to Okshitgon to try them. The children knew everything in Okshitgon; they knew the roads and the houses and the people, and they recognised the clothes they used to wear in a former life; there was no doubt about it. One of them, the younger, remembered, too, how she had borrowed two rupees once of a woman, Ma Thet, unknown to her husband, and left the debt unpaid. Ma Thet was still living, and so they asked her, and she recollected that it was true she had lent the money long ago.
Shortly afterwards I saw these two children. They are now just over six years old. The elder, into whom the soul of the man entered, is a fat, chubby little fellow, but the younger twin is smaller, and has a curious dreamy look in his face, more like a girl than a boy. They told me much about their former lives. After they died they said they lived for some time without a body at all, wandering in the air and hiding in the trees. This was for their sins. Then, after some months, they were born again as twin boys. 'It used,' said the elder boy, 'to be so clear, I could remember everything; but it is getting duller and duller, and I cannot now remember as I used to do.'
Of children such as this you may find any number. Only you have to look for them, as they are not brought forward spontaneously. The Burmese, like other people, hate to have their beliefs and ideas ridiculed, and from experience they have learned that the object of a foreigner in inquiring into their ways is usually to be able to show by his contempt how very much cleverer a man he is than they are. Therefore they are very shy. But once they understand that you only desire to learn and to see, and that you will always treat them with courtesy and consideration, they will tell you all that they think.
A fellow officer of mine has a Burmese police orderly, a young man about twenty, who has been with him since he came to the district two years ago. Yet my friend only discovered accidentally the other day that his orderly remembers his former life. He is very unwilling to talk about it. He was a woman apparently in that former life, and lived about twenty miles away. He must have lived a good life, for it is a step of promotion to be a man in this life; but he will not talk of it. He forgets most of it, he says, though he remembered it when he was a child.
Sometimes this belief leads to lawsuits of a peculiarly difficult nature. In 1883, two years before the annexation of Upper Burma, there was a case that came into the local Court of the oil district, which depended upon this theory of transmigration.
Opposite Yenangyaung there are many large islands in the river. These islands during the low water months are joined to the mainland, and are covered with a dense high grass in which many deer live.
When the river rises, it rises rapidly, communication with the mainland is cut off, and the islands are for a time, in the higher rises, entirely submerged. During the progress of the first rise some hunters went to one of these islands where many deer were to be found and set fire to the grass to drive them out of cover, shooting them as they came out. Some deer, fleeing before the fire, swam across and escaped, others fell victims, but one fawn, barely half grown, ran right down the island, and in its blind terror it leaped into a boat at anchor there. This boat was that of a fisherman who was plying his trade at some distance, and the only occupant of the boat was his wife. Now this woman had a year or so before lost her son, very much loved by her, but who was not quite of the best character, and when she saw the deer leaping into the boat, she at once fancied that she saw the soul of her erring son looking at her out of its great terrified eyes. So she got up and took the poor panting beast in her arms and soothed it, and when the hunters came running to her to claim it she refused. 'He is my son,' she said, 'he is mine. Shall I give him up to death?' The hunters clamoured and threatened to take the deer by force, but the woman was quite firm. She would never give him up except with her life. 'You can see,' she said, 'that it is true that he is my son. He came running straight to me, as he always did in his trouble when he was a boy, and he is now quite quiet and contented, instead of being afraid of me as an ordinary deer would be.' And it was quite true that the deer took to her at once, and remained with her willingly. So the hunters went off to the court of the governor and filed a suit for the deer.
The case was tried in open court, and the deer was produced with a ribbon round its neck. Evidence there was naturally but little. The hunters claimed the deer because they had driven it out of the island by their fire. The woman resisted the claim on the ground that it was her son.
The decision of the court was this:
'The hunters are not entitled to the deer because they cannot prove that the woman's son's soul is not in the animal. The woman is not entitled to the deer because she cannot prove that it is. The deer will therefore remain with the court until some properly authenticated claim is put in.'
So the two parties were turned out, the woman in bitter tears, and the hunters angry and vexed, and the deer remained the property of the judge.
But this decision was against all Burmese ideas of justice. He should have given the deer to the woman. 'He wanted it for himself,' said a Burman, speaking to me of the affair. 'He probably killed it and ate it. Surely it is true that officials are of all the five evils the greatest.' Then my friend remembered that I was myself an official, and he looked foolish, and began to make complimentary remarks about English officials, that they would never give such an iniquitous decision. I turned it off by saying that no doubt the judge was now suffering in some other life for the evil wrought in the last, and the Burman said that probably he was now inhabiting a tiger.
It is very easy to laugh at such beliefs; nothing is, indeed, easier than to be witty at the expense of any belief. It is also very easy to say that it is all self-deception, that the children merely imagine that they remember their former lives, or are citing conversation of their elders.
How this may be I do not know. What is the explanation of this, perhaps the only belief of which we have any knowledge which is at once a living belief to-day and was so as far back as we can get, I do not pretend to say. For transmigration is no theory of Buddhism at all, but was a leading tenet in the far older faith of Brahmanism, of which Buddhism was but an offshoot, as was Christianity of Judaism.
I have not, indeed, always attempted to reach the explanation of things I have seen. When I have satisfied myself that a belief is really held by the people, that I am not the subject of conscious deception, either by myself or others, I have conceived that my work was ended.
There are those who, in investigating any foreign customs and strange beliefs, can put their finger here and say, 'This is where they are right'; and there and say, 'This belief is foolishly wrong and idiotic.' I am not, unfortunately, one of these writers. I have no such confident belief in my own infallibility of judgment as to be able to sit on high and say, 'Here is truth, and here is error.'
I will leave my readers to make their own judgment, if they desire to do so; only asking them (as they would not like their own beliefs to be scoffed and sneered at) that they will treat with respect the sincere beliefs of others, even if they cannot accept them. It is only in this way that we can come to understand a people and to sympathize with them.
It is hardly necessary to emphasize the enormous effect that a belief in transmigration such as this has upon the life and intercourse of the people. Of their kindness to animals I have spoken elsewhere, and it is possible this belief in transmigration has something to do with it, but not, I think, much. For if you wished to illtreat an animal, it would be quite easy, even more easy, to suppose that an enemy or a murderer inhabited the body of the animal, and that you were but carrying out the decrees of fate by ill-using it. But when you love an animal, it may increase that love and make it reasonable, and not a thing to be ashamed of; and it brings the animal world nearer to you in general, it bridges over the enormous void between man and beast that other religions have made. Nothing humanizes a man more than love of animals.
I do not know if this be a paradox, I know that it is a truth.
There was one point that puzzled me for a time in some of these stories of transmigration, such as the one I told about the man and wife being reborn twins. It was this: A man dies and leaves behind children, let us say, to whom he is devoutly attached. He is reborn in another family in the same village, maybe. It would be natural to suppose that he would love his former family as much as, or even more than, his new one. Complications might arise in this way which it is easy to conceive would cause great and frequent difficulties.
I explained this to a Burman one day, and asked him what happened, and this is what he said: 'The affection of mother to son, of husband to wife, of brother to sister, belongs entirely to the body in which you may happen to be living. When it dies, so do these affections. New affections arise from the new body. The flesh of the son, being of one with his father, of course loves him; but as his present flesh has no sort of connection with his former one, he does not love those to whom he was related in his other lives. These affections are as much a part of the body as the hand or the eyesight; with one you put off the other.'
Thus all love, to the learned, even the purest affection of daughter to mother, of man to his friend, is in theory a function of the body—with the one we put off the other; and this may explain, perhaps, something of what my previous chapter did not make quite clear, that in the hereafter of Buddhism there is no affection.
When we have put off all bodies, when we have attained Nirvana, love and hate, desire and repulsion, will have fallen from us for ever.
Meanwhile, in each life, we are obliged to endure the affections of the body into which we may be born. It is the first duty of a monk, of him who is trying to lead the purer life, to kill all these affections, or rather to blend them into one great compassion to all the world alike. 'Gayuena,' compassion, that is the only passion that will be left to us. So say the learned.