A Serious Boy
According to the stories, Punyayashas came from a Brahmin family from Saketa, or perhaps from Pataliputra. He was a quiet, serious boy who became interested in the Buddhist religion and became a follower of the Sarvastivada, a school of Buddhism that no longer exists, but which has had substantial influence on some of the great figures of Buddhist history, both in what they agreed with and what they argued against. Getting involved in religion brought him out of himself and he joined a troop of travelling Buddhist minstrels. Thus he became involved in the bhakti style of Buddhist practice.
Bhakti was never a school of Buddhism but it was a widespread and popular style. It did not propose a philosophical system or particular interpretation of the sutras, but was a way of expressing one’s self-surrender. Bhakti is devotion. It is a yoga of total dedication and self-overcoming through song, dance, ritual and entrancement. Bhakti practice often involves chanting a mantra, or calling the name of a deity, and doing so with a fullness of love, emotion and reverence. It is to be in love with the divine. Such practice may lead to trance, rapture and ecstatic states.
Nowadays we tend to translate the term dhyana as meditation which has a rather cool, intellectual or disciplined and puritan feel, but the word may be better translated as rapture, referring to states of absorption rather than awareness. Bhakti, then, is a highly emotional approach to religion in which one immerses oneself in divine love and adoration. In India, Bhakti was eventually largely taken over by Hinduism, perhaps because more puritan forms became powerful in Buddhism. Some Westerners will have seen Hari Krishna devotees walking in the streets chanting and playing drums or other percussion instruments. This style of religion was formerly Buddhist and Punyayashas was a wandering practitioner of it.
We can tell from these stories that the tenor of Buddhism in those days may have been much more open than it has tended to become. We may remember that when Buddhism was becoming popular in the 1960s and 1970s it was associated with beatnik poets, happenings, and the alternative society. It was a religion of liberation in many senses of the word. Since then it has tended to attract people of a more straight-laced temperament. No doubt this is a pendulum that swings.
Practising Buddha-Bhakti, Punyayashas travelled about with the group of minstrels, young men and women who sang in the bazaars songs of ecstatic devotion, or sad melodies about the vanity of life.
One day Punyayashas met the Buddhist Master Parsva.
Parsva asked: From where have you come?
Punyayashas: My heart does not travel.
Parsva: So where do you live?
Punyayashas: My heart is not attached to a place.
Parsva: So you are unattached?
Punyayashas: Like all the Buddhas.
Parsva: You are not all the Buddhas.
Punyayashas was taken aback and went away. After twenty one days he returned and said: “As for all the Buddhas… then you are not the master either,” and they laughed together.
Punyayashas was a bit of a saint from very early in his life, but he became somewhat over serious about his religion to the point where people were alarmed by him. It is said that before his meeting with Parsva, where he went the ground turned golden. This is an ironic way of saying that he was too holy.
Parsva brought him down a notch and he took it to heart and let go of his attachment to Buddhahood. Then he and the master were able to laugh together. Being a Buddha and being a master are empty designations, even though they do mean something.
Parsva teased Punyayashas with a gatha:
I knew a sage would come
for the ground changed to gold.
He will sit under the Bodhi tree
and the flower of awakening will bloom.
Punyayashas replied more modestly than before with another gatha:
It is the master who sits on golden ground
forever teaching true realisation.
By turning his light upon me
I was allowed to enter samadhi.
Parsva then ordained Punyayashas saying: “The Treasury of the Tathagata’s Great Dharma Eye I now hand over to you to guard and cherish.”
A Buddha Child
Each person has their own form of koan. Being too holy is one. As a young man he took his religion very seriously. I remember that during the period of "flower power" one sometimes met people who called themselves "Jesus children." Everybody was into getting high in one way or another, and these people were high on Jesus. Perhaps the young Punyayashas was a bit like that.
Well, religion is a serious matter, but when a person takes it too seriously, it is usually themselves that they are taking too seriously. When we think we have got hold of the ultimate meaning of the universe, we can implicitly start to assume that we are something pretty special. So a koan also involves some kind of ego inflation. As we get established in life we each start to rely upon something.
Stepping Up is Stepping Down
In a certain way, every koan is a false refuge and every awakening is a matter of finding a better one. However, as we are self-invested in our chosen attachment, pride stands in the way of change. In order to let go one has to take a step down. Because Punyayashas trusted Parsva he was able to take the latter’s rebuff, go away and think about it seriously, and come back in a good spirit. Then they were about to meet on a more equal footing with all artificial roles dropped away. However, because they were able to meet in this way and Punyayashas was able to see that Parsva was not self-invested in being the master either, Punyayashas respected him the more and treated him as master thereafter.
Soon afterwards, Parsva died. Punyayashas continued his travels and in due course met Ashvaghosa who wanted to know what Buddha is, but that is another story.
I don't think you need another one, right now. Namo Amida Bu
I have not heard talking about this Bhakti practice, and It seems to be beautiful, full of heart. I like it very much.
It makes me think about all those things we are attaining in life and place us in a concrete position or role. If I am a teacher, or a mother, housewife or lawyer, a dancer or a disciple…again we are facing the matter of identity. I know that all of them are empty since they are only forms changing all the time.
Despite this we tend to attach to these forms and crumble when they break down. (“As we get established in life we each start to rely upon something”)
These days we are living this at home. My husband has just been fired , and we are feeling fear because all our life, as we know it, seems to be at risk. I think that it is some sort of shock, a process of mourning. I feel weak, vulnerable and empty in some way…Then I look backwards and realize a greater amount of humility had been necessary. Many people says that now it is the moment to look only forward but I also think that it is necessary to gain perspective and learn something from this situation. As Punyayashas I need to retire a little bit and meditate about it in order to start again with a good spirit.
However when you feel empty, in spite of the sadness or the strain, there is a sense of love and compassion specially present… Of course refuge is all I need
Namo Amida Bu
Dear Nati, i am very sorry to hear about Luis losing his job. That must be a huge set-back. I hope he can find a new position soon. i realise and feel how much of an impact this must have upon your lives. Namo Amida Bu.
Thank you very much David from the heart. Your words are always a great support for us. I will transmit him your kind message.
I hope things get better soon. :)
Namo Amida Bu