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Fa Ta, a man from Hung Province

india Updated: Feb 13, 2011 02:14 IST
Renuka Narayanan

I got the Tiger Mom mail, too. Well, of course we Asians swot, did our countries make colonial fortunes in the past to maintain us on dole today? But there’s also our timehonoured culture of academic austerities from tapovan and patashala.

While caste was rejected by Buddhism, many practices of Vedic culture were not, neither were its concepts and key words. People do that, like the Russians kept the ballet, books and palaces as essential ingredients of Russian-ness while saying no to the Tsar, whereas the Chinese and the Taliban did away with important artefacts of their own history.

But cultural instinct coded by centuries is harder to eliminate and why should we, where there are inspiring lives to learn from? A Chinese tale I like concerns Huineng (617-713) who stands nine feet tall in Zen Buddhism as the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an (Chinese Zen). It seems he was an illiterate woodcutter, gifted enlightenment in one flash.

(Xuanzang, who came to India and stayed in Nalanda for 12 years was about 15 years older and both belonged to the Tang period, the apogee of Chinese culture). Thomas Cleary of Harvard who translated many Zen classics did the first English version of Huineng’s own sutra and his commentary on Hiraka (Diamond) Sutra, back in 1998. Also illumining the book are bits from Lankavatara Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra and the important Lotus Sutra.

Alas, Huineng had to escape to the mountains from jealous people. Of the many seekers who went looking for him there was ‘Fa-Ta, a man from Hung Province’, who had left home at age seven and learnt Lotus Sutra by heart. He bowed to Huineng without his head touching the ground.

“This is not like bowing at all, what have you learnt?” chided Huineng. “I’ve recited Lotus Sutra 3,000 times,” said the fellow.

“Even 10,000 times without understanding is useless. ‘Fa-ta’ means ‘Arrival at Truth’. But have you ever arrived at Truth (ta-fa)?” asked the Master. Verse by verse the mistaken seeker realized that rote without understanding was value-less.

I can’t help chuckling at our old myth-makers, who left tons of practical advice disguised as such interesting stories that each generation just had to pass them on. Of course I mean Vyasa and Ganesha and not taking Mahabharata dictation without understanding each line first. Sure it’s work, but Fa-Ta and the Tiger Moms could relate to that.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture shebaba09@gmail.com