The Soul of a People
by H. Fielding
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I met a little girl not long ago, a wee little maiden about seven years old, and she told me all about her former life when she was a man. Her name was Maung Mon, she said, and she used to work the dolls in a travelling marionette show. It was through her knowledge and partiality for marionettes that it was first suspected, her parents told me, whom she had been in her former life. She could even as a sucking-child manipulate the strings of a marionette-doll. But the actual discovery came when she was about four years old, and she recognised a certain marionette booth and dolls as her own. She knew all about them, knew the name of each doll, and even some of the words they used to say in the plays. 'I was married four times,' she told me. 'Two wives died, one I divorced; one was living when I died, and is living still. I loved her very much indeed. The one I divorced was a dreadful woman. See,' pointing to a scar on her shoulder, 'this was given me once in a quarrel. She took up a chopper and cut me like this. Then I divorced her. She had a dreadful temper.'

It was immensely quaint to hear this little thing discoursing like this. The mark was a birth-mark, and I was assured that it corresponded exactly with one that had been given to the man by his wife in just such a quarrel as the one the little girl described.

The divorced wife and the much-loved wife are still alive and not yet old. The last wife wanted the little girl to go and live with her. I asked her why she did not go.

'You loved her so much,' I said. 'She was such a good wife to you. Surely you would like to live with her again.'

'But all that,' she replied, 'was in a former life.'

Now she loved only her present father and mother. The last life was like a dream. Broken memories of it still remained, but the loves and hates, the passions and impulses, were all dead.

Another little boy told me once that the way remembrance came to him was by seeing the silk he used to wear made into curtains, which are given to the monks and used as partitions in their monasteries, and as walls to temporary erections made at festival times. He was taken when some three years old to a feast at the making of a lad, the son of a wealthy merchant, into a monk. There he recognised in the curtain walling in part of the bamboo building his old dress. He pointed it out at once.

This same little fellow told me that he passed three months between his death and his next incarnation without a body. This was because he had once accidentally killed a fowl. Had he killed it on purpose, he would have been punished very much more severely. Most of this three months he spent dwelling in the hollow shell of a palm-fruit. The nuisance was, he explained, that this shell was close to the cattle-path, and that the lads as they drove the cattle afield in the early morning would bang with a stick against the shell. This made things very uncomfortable for him inside.

It is not an uncommon thing for a woman when about to be delivered of a baby to have a dream, and to see in that dream the spirit of someone asking for permission to enter the unborn child; for, to a certain extent, it lies within a woman's power to say who is to be the life of her child.

There was a woman once who loved a young man, not of her village, very dearly. And he loved her, too, as dearly as she loved him, and he demanded her in marriage from her parents; but they refused. Why they refused I do not know, but probably because they did not consider the young man a proper person for their daughter to marry. Then he tried to run away with her, and nearly succeeded, but they were caught before they got clear of the village.

The young man had to leave the neighbourhood. The attempted abduction of a girl is an offence severely punishable by law, so he fled; and in time, under pressure from her people, the girl married another man; but she never forgot. She lived with her husband quite happily; he was good to her, as most Burmese husbands are, and they got along well enough together. But there were no children.

After some years, four or five, I believe, the former lover returned to his village. He thought that after this lapse of time he would be safe from prosecution, and he was, moreover, very ill.

He was so ill that very soon he died, without ever seeing again the girl he was so fond of; and when she heard of his death she was greatly distressed, so that the desire of life passed away from her. It so happened that at this very time she found herself enceinte with her first child, and not long before the due time came for the child to be born she had a dream.

She dreamt that her soul left her body, and went out into space and met there the soul of her lover who had died. She was rejoiced to meet him again, full of delight, so that the return of her soul to her body, her awakening to a world in which he was not, filled her with despair. So she prayed her lover, if it was now time for him again to be incarnated, that he would come to her—that his soul would enter the body of the little baby soon about to be born, so that they two might be together in life once more.

And in the dream the lover consented. He would come, he said, into the child of the woman he loved.

When the woman awoke she remembered it all, and the desire of life returned to her again, and all the world was changed because of the new life she felt within her. But she told no one then of the dream or of what was to happen.

Only she took the greatest care of herself; she ate well, and went frequently to the pagoda with flowers, praying that the body in which her lover was about to dwell might be fair and strong, worthy of him who took it, worthy of her who gave it.

In due time the baby was born. But alas and alas for all her hopes! The baby came but for a moment, to breathe a few short breaths, to cry, and to die; and a few hours later the woman died also. But before she went she told someone all about it, all about the dream and the baby, and that she was glad to go and follow her lover. She said that her baby's soul was her lover's soul, and that as he could not stay, neither would she; and with these words on her lips she followed him out into the void.

The story was kept a secret until the husband died, not long afterwards; but when I came to the village all the people knew it.

I must confess that this story is to me full of the deepest reality, full of pathos. It seems to me to be the unconscious protestation of humanity against the dogmas of religion and of the learned. However it may be stated that love is but one of the bodily passions that dies with it; however, even in some of the stories themselves, this explanation is used to clear certain difficulties; however opposed eternal love may be to one of the central doctrines of Buddhism, it seems to me that the very essence of this story is the belief that love does not die with the body, that it lives for ever and ever, through incarnation after incarnation. Such a story is the very cry of the agony of humanity.

'Love is strong as death; many waters cannot quench love;' ay, and love is stronger than death. Not any dogmas of any religion, not any philosophy, nothing in this world, nothing in the next, shall prevent him who loves from the certainty of rejoining some time the soul he loves.


[2] The hereafter = the state to which we attain when we have done with earthly things.



'The gate of that forest was Death.'

There was a great forest. It was full of giant trees that grew so high and were so thick overhead that the sunshine could not get down below. And there were huge creepers that ran from tree to tree climbing there, and throwing down great loops of rope. Under the trees, growing along the ground, were smaller creepers full of thorns, that tore the wayfarer and barred his progress. The forest, too, was full of snakes that crept along the ground, so like in their gray and yellow skins to the earth they travelled on that the traveller trod upon them unawares and was bitten; and some so beautiful with coral red and golden bars that men would pick them up as some dainty jewel till the snake turned upon them.

Here and there in this forest were little glades wherein there were flowers. Beautiful flowers they were, with deep white cups and broad glossy leaves hiding the purple fruit; and some had scarlet blossoms that nodded to and fro like drowsy men, and there were long festoons of white stars. The air there was heavy with their scent. But they were all full of thorns, only you could not see the thorns till after you had plucked the blossom.

This wood was pierced by roads. Many were very broad, leading through the forest in divers ways, some of them stopping now and then in the glades, others avoiding them more or less, but none of them were straight. Always, if you followed them, they bent and bent until after much travelling you were where you began; and the broader the road, the softer the turf beneath it; the sweeter the glades that lined it, the quicker did it turn.

One road there was that went straight, but it was far from the others. It led among the rocks and cliffs that bounded one side of the valley. It was very rough, very far from all the glades in the lowlands. No flowers grew beside it, there was no moss or grass upon it, only hard sharp rocks. It was very narrow, bordered with precipices.

There were many lights in this wood, lights that flamed out like sunsets and died, lights that came like lightning in the night and were gone. This wood was never quite dark, it was so full of these lights that flickered aimlessly.

There were men in this wood who wandered to and fro. The wood was full of them.

They did not know whither they went; they did not know whither they wished to go. Only this they knew, that they could never keep still; for the keeper of this wood was Time. He was armed with a keen whip, and kept driving them on and on; there was no rest.

Many of these when they first came loved the wood. The glades, they said, were very beautiful, the flowers very sweet. They wandered down the broad roads into the glades, and tried to lie upon the moss and love the flowers; but Time would not let them. Just for a few moments they could have peace, and then they must on and on. But they did not care. 'The forest is full of glades,' they said; 'if we cannot live in one, we can find another.' And so they went on finding others and others, and each one pleased them less.

Some few there were who did not go to the glades at all. 'They are very beautiful,' they said, 'but these roads that pass through them, whither do they lead? Round and round and round again. There is no peace there. Time rules in those glades, Time with his whip and goad, and there is no peace. What we want is rest. And those lights,' they said, 'they are wandering lights, like the summer lightning far down in the South, moving hither and thither. We care not for such lights. Our light is firm and clear. What we desire is peace; we do not care to wander for ever round this forest, to see for ever those shifting lights.'

And so they would not go down the winding roads, but essayed the path upon the cliffs. 'It is narrow,' they said, 'it has no flowers, it is full of rocks, but it is straight. It will lead us somewhere, not round and round and round again—it will take us somewhere. And there is a light,' they said, 'before us, the light of a star. It is very small now, but it is always steady; it never flickers or wanes. It is the star of Truth. Under that star we shall find that which we seek.'

And so they went upon their road, toiling upon the rocks, falling now and then, bleeding with wounds from the sharp points, sore-footed, but strong-hearted. And ever as they went they were farther and farther from the forest, farther and farther from the glades and the flowers with deadly scents; they heard less and less the crack of the whip of Time falling upon the wanderers' shoulders.

The star grew nearer and nearer, the light grew greater and greater, the false lights died behind them, until at last they came out of the forest, and there they found the lake that washes away all desire under the sun of Truth.

They had won their way. Time and Life and Fight and Struggle were behind them, could not follow them, as they came, weary and footsore, into the Great Peace.

And of those who were left behind, of those who stayed in the glades to gather the deadly flowers, to be driven ever forward by the whip of Time—what of them? Surely they will learn. The kindly whip of Time is behind: he will never let them rest in such a deadly forest; they must go ever forward; and as they go they grow more and more weary, the glades are more and more distasteful, the heavy-scented blossoms more and more repulsive. They will find out the thorns too. At first they forgot the thorns in the flowers. 'The blossoms are beautiful,' they said; 'what care we for the thorns? Nay, the thorns are good. It is a pleasure to fight with them. What would the forest be without its thorns? If we could gather the flowers and find no thorns, we should not care for them. The more the thorns, the more valuable the blossoms.'

So they said, and they gathered the blossoms, and they faded. But the thorns did not fade; they were ever there. The more blossoms a man had gathered, the more thorns he had to wear, and Time was ever behind him. They wanted to rest in the glades, but Time willed that ever they must go forward; no going back, no rest, ever and ever on. So they grew very weary.

'These flowers,' they said at last, 'are always the same. We are tired of them; their smell is heavy; they are dead. This forest is full of thorns only. How shall we escape from it? Ever as we go round and round we hate the flowers more, we feel the thorns more acutely. We must escape! We are sick of Time and his whip, our feet are very, very weary, our eyes are dazzled and dim. We, too, would seek the Peace. We laughed at those before who went along the rocky path; we did not want peace; but now it seems to us the most beautiful thing in the world. Will Time never cease to drive us on and on? Will these lights never cease to flash to and fro?'

Each man at last will turn to the straight road. He will find out. Every man will find out at last that the forest is hateful, that the flowers are deadly, that the thorns are terrible; every man will learn to fear Time.

Then, when the longing for peace has come, he will go to the straight way and find it; no man will remain in the forest for ever. He will learn. When he is very, very weary, when his feet are full of thorns, and his back scarred with the lashes of Time—great, kindly Time, the schoolmaster of the world—he will learn.

Not till he has learnt will he desire to enter into the straight road.

But in the end all men will come. We at the last shall all meet together where Time and Life shall be no more.

This is a Burman allegory of Buddhism. It was told me long ago. I trust I have not spoilt it in the retelling.



This is the end of my book. I have tried always as I wrote to remember the principles that I laid down for myself in the first chapter. Whether I have always done so I cannot say. It is so difficult, so very difficult, to understand a people—any people—to separate their beliefs from their assents, to discover the motives of their deeds, that I fear I must often have failed.

My book is short. It would have been easy to make a book out of each chapter, to write volumes on each great subject that I have touched on; but I have not done so—I have always been as brief as I could.

I have tried always to illustrate only the central thought, and not the innumerable divergencies, because only so can a great or strange thought be made clear. Later, when the thought is known, then it is easy to stray into the byways of thought, always remembering that they are byways, wandering from a great centre.

For the Burman's life and belief is one great whole.

I thought before I began to write, and I have become more and more certain of it as I have taken up subject after subject, that to all the great differences of thought between them and us there is one key. And this key is that they believe the world is governed by eternal laws, that have never changed, that will never change, that are founded on absolute righteousness; while we believe in a personal God, altering laws, and changing moralities according to His will.

If I were to rewrite this book, I should do so from this standpoint of eternal laws, making the book an illustration of the proposition.

Perhaps it is better as it is, in that I have discovered the key at the end of my work instead of at the beginning. I did not write the book to prove the proposition, but in writing the book this truth has become apparent to me.

The more I have written, the clearer has this teaching become to me, until now I wonder that I did not understand long ago—nay, that it has not always been apparent to all men.

Surely it is the beginning of all wisdom.

Not until we had discarded Atlas and substituted gravity, until we had forgotten Enceladus and learned the laws of heat, until we had rejected Thor and his hammer and searched after the laws of electricity, could science make any strides onward.

An irresponsible spirit playing with the world as his toy killed all science.

But now science has learned a new wisdom, to look only at what it can see, to leave vain imaginings to children and idealists, certain always that the truth is inconceivably more beautiful than any dream.

Science with us has gained her freedom, but the soul is still in bonds.

Only in Buddhism has this soul-freedom been partly gained. How beautiful this is, how full of great thoughts, how very different to the barren materialism it has often been said to be, I have tried to show.

I believe myself that in this teaching of the laws of righteousness we have the grandest conception, the greatest wisdom, the world has known.

I believe that in accepting this conception we are opening to ourselves a new world of unimaginable progress, in justice, in charity, in sympathy, and in love.

I believe that as our minds, when freed from their bonds, have grown more and more rapidly to heights of thought before undreamed of, to truths eternal, to beauty inexpressible, so shall our souls, when freed, as our minds now are, rise to sublimities of which now we have no conception.

Let each man but open his eyes and see, and his own soul shall teach him marvellous things.



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