There is a vast forest abounding in huge trees with thick foliage overshadowing and darkening everything underneath. Its inhabitants, being quite accustomed to its darkness, do not feel the real nature of the forest. The fruits of the trees which serve them as food bring on them a long slumber, in which they dream curious dreams, while worm-like reptiles emerge from the soil, waiting for opportunities to suck out their blood. When these unfortunate beings awake, they feel exhausted, thirsty, and hungry owing to the loss of blood. Then they eat the delicious but poisonous fruits, sip the juice thereof, and fall asleep, thus becoming a prey again to the blood-sucking reptiles. Very few see even faintly the frightful nature of this forest and even they are very forgetful of its dangers. One may rightly call this forest ‘an enchanted land’.
A man emerged from a distant thicket of this forest and was going somewhere in a hurry. He moved towards a glen near the edge of the forest. There he joined a company of persons who were apparently half awake. He held an interview with them, in the course of which he described the evils of this forest-dwelling and spoke to them of the value of finding a way out. ‘Well, brother, we too are searching for a way out. A guide we await and we expect one ere long,’ said they. The stranger said, ‘I require no personal guide. I have gathered much experience through which I have discovered that the further away from the forest I go the less are the dangers. I have discovered a herb which keeps me heedful. Being thus on the alert and using my strength, onwards I go till I find the Land of Bliss.‘ Having so replied, our pilgrim, in spite of the discouraging words of his companions, resumed his journey.
On and on he went, facing bravely and passing with courage various and innumerable difficulties. Before long he entered upon a path leading to a hillside on the outskirts of the forest. The further he went, the more refreshed and less tired he felt. Soon he found himself on the summit of a hill. From there far away he saw a light spreading out to cover the infinite ethereal sphere around.
Closer to the heart of this light was a second hill higher than the one on which he was standing now; and in front he saw a road leading to its summit. Soon he trod that road and before long reached the summit. The further he went, the more effective, he found, was the herb he used.
Seeing a third hill and a way thereto our pilgrim proceeded to reach it. From there he saw a higher plateau illuminated by the dazzling radiance of the light that was no longer a haze. Seeing the road thereto, he trod it and was on the summit of the plateau. This was the final climb and the highest level our pilgrim had to reach. He was now bathed in that blissful eternal Light which touched deep even into his bones and marrow so piercingly that he felt the pleasures of the Real Life, and realized that what he had experienced till then was but an illusion.
Full of life, perfectly cured, thoroughly awakened and thus supremely enlightened, our pilgrim breathed forth a joyous utterance: ‘I am now at last perfectly free and no more a prey to the blood-suckers of the forest and its other dangers.‘
He spent a short while there enjoying the bliss of Eternal Life and then, directing his penetrating sight from his exalted position towards the forest, saw the unimaginable suffering of the forest-dwellers.
Before long he descended into the forest and began to lead the forest-dwellers to the path which led to the Land of Bliss.
Innumerable were the lives saved from the dangers of the forest. A signpost he planted in the glen, showing the way out of the forest for the use of those who would care to be guided. At the foot of the signpost he left a stone slab, and painted thereon in clear bold letters a description of the dangers of the forest — why men who are caught in it cannot get out, the nature of the Land of Bliss and the way leading thereto. Not far from the post he built an inn for the use of the pilgrims emerging from the forest and bound to the Land of Bliss.
Thus fulfilling all his duties our pilgrim, the Guide to Infinite Light, left there his decaying body, which belonged to the forest, and became one with the Infinite Light, the Eternal Bliss. His admirers cremated his body in accordance with their manners and customs and then, embodying the remnants and ashes thereof, built memorials here and there in the forest in honour of the late pilgrim leader.
Those who set out for the Land of Bliss, on passing these monuments bowed their heads down in gratitude, and following the example of the foremost pilgrim, with no delay hastened on their way to their Goal. But, as time rolled by, others who came later went even to the extent of making images of their venerable Guide that posterity might be reminded of Him as one that should be followed. These statues they made according to their imagination and skill and were of many forms.
Those who really respected the Guide were they who, following His example, hastened out of the forest, for they read the words of the guide at the foot of the signpost.
The exact way of paying me honour and gratitude is to tread the path discovered and pointed out by me.
The greater the number of pilgrims grew at the inn, the less was the number of those who actually proceeded to the Land of Bliss. Instead of going along the way some began to decorate the letters on the slab at the signpost and added garlands and other decorations to the post itself.
Time rolled by. The post was now nearly buried in garlands. The letters could hardly be read, and still there were others who came and added more ornaments to the letterings and decorations. There was no space left on the slab and others found it necessary to widen it by adding more slabs to it. These hieroglyphics described or attempted to describe geographical, astronomical, geological, botanical and zoological aspects of the forest and life therein.
Centuries passed by. Incalculable was the crowd at the inn now and many were the discussions as to the interpretations of what had been written on the slab at the signpost. Some professed to know what the original exactly meant and others disagreed and consequently discord arose, parties were formed and actual progress ceased. Those who showed special brain skill and capability to interpret the symbols on the slabs at the post and those who were honoured and looked upon by others for numerous other reasons now became leaders of each party.
Offerings of gratitude to the statues and monuments, by this time, was the one thing on which the leaders laid great emphasis. A tremendous change! There were now thousands gathered round the signpost or round each statue or monument, heaping up flowers, burning incense of sweet fragrance, lighting thousands of lamps, and offering whatever food or drink the people were accustomed to take. Offerings of songs and music soon began to accompany the worship. Each article came to be offered with the chanting of a special ‘mantram’. Time rolled by. It was a very difficult task to find a pilgrim now who progressed beyond the inn. The dwellers of the inn, though they set out on the Way, claimed to be the pilgrims of right kind. The ignorant folk supported them, thinking it to be their duty to do so merely because they were the descendents of the ancient pilgrims.
To this scene of offering and worship now and then some people come and ask the so-called pilgrim-teachers to guide them. They teach them a sort of ritualism and ceremonialism. Some of them can understand what is on the slab and say that such worship and the chanting of ‘mantram’ cannot, as they think, lead them even a single pace forward. Then the elders in the inn say, ‘The road was closed long ago. Now neither you nor we can get on to the path. Join us. Keep our property. Live here worshipping and chanting mantrams at usual hours and make aspiration: “May I reach the Land of Bliss by the power of this meritorious deed.” At this time it is impossible to get onto the path. In the future a benign Guide will appear and he will carry us along the path to the Land of Bliss.’
Hearing these words many get discouraged and remain with those pseudo-pilgrims. Some, paying no attention to them, wend their way along the path directed by the signpost. But the inn-dwellers, the worshippers, the pretend pilgrims, like the stagnant water that has collected at a pool gathering more and more impurities with age, remain at the inn, belittling the real pilgrims only because they are out of their clutch. They discuss terms and theories and stay there, satisfied with whatever they get from the forest, being daily nourished by the poisonous fruits and consequently falling into the slumber, in which state they become prey of the reptiles.
The forest is samsara, the round of rebirth, the world of sorrow.
The first pilgrim is the Bodhisatta. His reaching the final summit is his attainment to Buddhahood.
The fruits in the forest are the things necessary to keep life going but leading to sense pleasures.
Reptiles are passions, mental depravities.
Dreams are the worldly enjoyments.
The herb is the contemplation which keeps mindfulness.
The glen is the spiritual level, a bit higher than that of a morally good man — the stage in which one’s mind is bent to the practice of samadhi.
The path from the forest through the glen leading to the vicinity of the first hill is the preliminary practice of self-analysis.
The four hills are the four holy stages.
The Light is Nirvana.
The inn near the glen is the Order, the fraternity of practitioners, i.e. the sangha.
The signpost with the slab underneath is the teaching.
The way to the summits is the holy path.
Ananda Maitreya (1896-1998) was one of the most highly respected Sri Lankan Theravadan monks. He is pictured here (second from left, facing the camera, holding a cup of tea) whilst attending a London Buddhist Society summer school at High Leigh, Hertfordshire, in the early 1970s. To his left is an Australian monk, Pannavado Bhikkhu (Douglas Barrow-Burt), later to disrobe and work at the Buddhist Society, and then a couple of years later to reordain and travel to Malaysia. Sitting next to him is Richard St Ruth and then Diana St Ruth writing at the table. Photo: © Lester Halhed.
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First published in the August 1991 Buddhism Now.