Mihintale--a Pilgrimage


CEYLON—and the glory of the tropics flooding the senses like a breaking wave of light and color. Life so urgent, so luxuriant, that surely these forest trees crowded with bloom, these vines trailing their splendors, cannot have the cool virginal sap of temperate zones flowing in their veins. The current of their life must be burning blood, pouring in a torrent from the mighty heart of Nature. The very leaves — huge carved leaves, thickly ribbed, and mottled like snakes with vivid splashes of color — are heavy with voluptuous languor, bathing themselves in the milkwarm air.

A tree stood beside me, fern-fronded like an acacia, but dripping with scarlet trails of blossom; and beyond it the oxidized silver of the gnarled pagoda trees, the chalices of their ivory flowers censing the air with the mystic perfume that in India and Ceylon breathes worship as they stand about the temples. Above, an ecstatic sky of unfathomable blue, raining down light upon the breaking jewels of the sea, the deeps of the all-surrounding jungle.

Here is a land of the Gods.

They have left their footprints very plain upon this ardent loveliness as they came and went. Ceylon has known many generations of them. Rama, the God-King of India, incarnation in human flesh of Vishnu the Preserver, here fought a war of the Gods and Titans to recover his divine wife, that lovely Sita whose name is a household word in India. Here, Ravana, the Demon King of Ceylon, held her in captivity; and in that older fight to recover a purer Helen, the army of Rama strode across the great bridge of scattered rocks between Ceylon and India. Still may be seen the gap that no strength, human or divine, could mend, where the mighty host was stayed until a little treesquirrel, for love of Rama, laid his small body in the hollow, and because love is the bridge eternal between the Two Worlds, the host passed over it, triumphant. But Rama, stooping from his godhead, bent over it and touched the dead fur tenderly as he passed, and to this day the tree-squirrels bear the marks of the divine fingers upon their coats of gray.

There is no demarcation in Asia between so-called animal and human life. Hama himself had passed through the animal incarnations of the upward way, and knew well what boats in the little heart beneath fur and feather.

In the wonderful Birth-Stories of the Lord Buddha he has recorded his memories of the incarnations of bird, animal, and lesser lives, through which a steadfast evolution led him to the Ten Perfections. How should he not know, and, knowing, love? Is it not written by one of the greatest of Buddhist saints, ‘To the eye of flesh, plants and trees appear to be gross matter; but to the eye of the Buddha they are composed of minute spiritual particles; grass, trees, countries, the earth itself, shall enter wholly into Buddhahood’? And does not science, faltering far behind the wisdom of the mighty, adumbrate these truths in its later revelations ?

We know too little of the wisdom of the East. The Magi still journey to Bethlehem, but only those who have the heart of the Child may receive their gold, myrrh, and frankincense.

Yet, for mere beauty’s sake, these stories of the East should be read. Men thrill to the mighty thunder-roll of Homer’s verse, but the two supreme epics of India are little known. If the West would gather about the storyteller as the East gathers, in bazaar or temple court, the stories should be told from these and other sources, until Rama stands beside the knightly .Hector, and Sita’s star is set in the same heaven where shines the lonely splendor of Antigone.

When the rapturous peace of the Lord Buddha could no longer be contained within the heart of India, it overflowed, and like a rising tide submerged Ceylon. And now, although India has forgotten and has returned to the more ancient faiths, Ceylon remembers. The Lotos of the Good Law blossoms in every forest pool. The invocation to the Jewel in the Lotos is daily heard from every monastery of the Faith, where the yellow-robed Brethren still follow the Way marked for them by the Blessed One who in Uruvela attained to that supernal enlightenment of which he said, ‘And that deep knowledge have I made my own — that knowledge, hard to perceive, hard to understand, peace-giving, not to be gained by mere reason, which is deeper than the depths, and accessible only to the wise. Yet, among living men are some whose eyes are but a little darkened with dust. To them shall the truth be manifest.’

If it be an aim of travel to see what is beautiful and strange, it may be also an aim to seek that spiritual beauty where it sits enthroned in its own high places; and my hope in Ceylon was to visit the land where that strait and narrow way of Buddhism is held which is known as the Hinayana — or the Lesser Vehicle. In Thibet, China, and Japan, I had known the efflorescence of the Buddhist Faith where, recognizing the mystic emanations of the Buddhas, it becomes the Greater Vehicle and breaks into gorgeous ritual and symbolism, extraordinarily beautiful in themselves, and yet more so in their teaching. Buddhism, in those countries, like the Bride of the Canticles, goes beautifully in jewels of gold and raiment of fine needlework, within her ivory palaces. In Ceylon, like the Lady Poverty of Saint Francis of Assisi, she walks with bared feet, bowed head, her begging-bowl in hand, simple and austere in the yellow robe of the Master— her rock-temples and shrines as he himself might have blessed them in their stern humility. Save at the Temple of the Tooth, the splendors she heaps upon his altars are those of her flowers. With these she may be lavish because his life was wreathed with their beauty. He was born in a garden, beneath a Tree he attained Wisdom, in a garden he died. A faith that is held by nearly every tenth living man or woman is surely worthy of reverence and study, even in these hurrying days when gold, not wisdom, is the measure of attainment.

So I came to Ceylon.


Near a little town in the hills stands a Wihara — a monastery — dreaming in the silent sunshine. The palms are grouped close about the simple roofs — so close that the passing tourist could never guess that the Head of the Buddhist Faith in Ceylon, a great saint, a great ruler of seven thousand priests, dwelt there in so secret, so complete an austerity.

He was a very old man when I came, but his ninety-two years sat lightly on him and each year had laid its tribute of love and honor at his feet. He was known as the Maha Nayaka Thero; and in religion, for love of the Master, he had taken the Master’s human name of Siddartha. It was strange indeed to see the simplicity of his surroundings — to me it appeared singularly beautiful: it breathed the spiritual purity that had made him beloved throughout the island.

A great scholar, deeply learned in Sanskrit and Pali and in the abstruse philosophy that is for the elders of the Law, he was yet the gentlest of men, and his very learning and strength were all fused into a benignant radiance that sunned the griefs of the world he had cast so far behind him.

I was glad to wander about in the quiet monastery — the little one-storied quadrangle on the side of the hill. It offered—it invited — the life of meditation, of clear thought, of delicate austerity. The noise of great events (so-called) was like the dim murmur of a shell when they reached the Wihara and the ear of Sri Siddartha. But he heard, he noted the progress of science, even to the possibilities of aviation, because to a Buddhist saint all spheres of knowledge are one, and all nothing, in the Ocean of Omniscience.

So the people brought their grievances and troubles to the aged Archbishop. You were in the presence of a very great gentleman when you entered and found him seated, his scribe crosslegged at his feet to record what passed. The people would approach him softly and with the deepest reverence, and with permission would seat themselves on the ground at a due distance.

‘Venerable Sir, we are in trouble. We seek your counsel.’ That was the cry. And always, in spite of his many years, he listened and counseled and comforted.

Soon after my arrival his birthday was celebrated with much rejoicing. The Bhikkus (monks) had put up little festive bamboo arches, fluttering with split palm-leaves like ribbons, all about the Wihara, and troops of Bhikkus came to lay their homage at his feet. The roads were sunshiny with their yellow robes as they flocked in from remote places — jungle, cave-temples, and far mountains. The laity came also, crowding to see the Venerable One. He received them all with serene joy, and pursued his quiet, way, thinking, reading, meditating on the Three Jewels — the Lord, the Law, and the Communion of Saints. And the Bhikkus departed, believing that he might be among them for many days.

But so it was not to be; for, a few days later, while he was sweeping the garden walks, a duty he had made his own, he felt a sudden loss of strength, and lying down, in two hours he passed painlessly away.

I was permitted to visit Sri Siddartha as he lay in death. The room was very simple and bare. Many of his Bhikkus stood about him, and there were flowers, flowers, everywhere. Beside him burned a perfumed gum, sending up its thin blue spirals of fragrance.

I was received with perfect kindness, and especially by his favorite disciple and pupil — a young monk with a worn ascetic face, who stood in deep meditation at the head of his Master. He looked up and smiled, and raised the face-cloth that I might see, and looked down again at the brown face, calm as a mask of Wisdom with its closed lips and eyes. Even closed, they looked old — old. A Bhikku, standing by, told me that all had loved him and were bereaved in his going; ‘But for him — he is in the Nirvana of Paradise.'

The strange phrase awoke in my mind the words of the Blessed One, and I repeated them as I stood beside that quiet sleep.

‘But this, O Bhikkus, is the highest, this is the holiest wisdom — to know that all suffering has vanished away. He has found the true deliverance that lies beyond the reach of change.’

And I remembered the symbolic fresco in Ceylon, representing the Lord Buddha borne dead on a chariot in a garden. The gardener digs his grave, but the Lord awakes from death, and bids the man know he is not dead but living. The Buddha stands majestic by the open grave — the gardener recoils in fear. Death has no more dominion.

So I left Sri Siddartha lying in the mystery where all the wisdoms are one.

In the garden, in the riot of tropical blossom and beauty, a Bhikku was standing in the perfect, stillness that is a part of the discipline. He greeted me, and we spoke of my quest.

‘Go,’ he said, ‘to Mihintale, ’where the Law first came to this island by the hands of Mahinda. Seek also the great Dagoba where stand the images of the Buddhas that have been and of Him who is to come. And under the Tree which is a part of that Tree beneath which the Blessed One received illumination, meditate on Truth.’

I delayed only that I might see the flames receive the discarded body of the Venerable One; and the ceremony took place next day amid a vast gathering of the people and the great companies of the Bhikkus. They flooded the ways with sunshine in every shade of yellow, from deep primrose to a tawny orange. The roads were strewn with rice like snowflakes, stamped into star-shapes. A strange, melancholy music went with us. So, climbing a steep hill, we came to the pyre, heaped with the scented and aromatic woods of the jungles, and closed from human view by a high scaffolding draped with bright colors. On this pyre he was laid, and one of his own blood, holding a torch, applied the pure element to the wood; and, as he did so, the assembly raised a cry of ‘Sadhu, Sadhu!’ and with that ascription of holiness a sheet of flame swept up into the crowns of the palms, and the scent of spices filled the air. And even as the body of the Blessed One passed into gray ash, passed also the worn-out dwelling of Sri Siddartha.

I made my way next day to a temple hollowed in the rock, the ceiling of which is frescoed with gods and heroes. It is taught that here the Canon of the Buddhist Scriptures was first committed to writing about. 450 B.C. Here five hundred priests, learned in the Faith, assembled, and collating the Scriptures, chanted every word, while the scribes recorded them with stylus and palm-leaf as they heard. Burmese, Thibetans, Indians, all were present, that so the Law might be carried over Asia, and the Peace of the Blessed One be made known to men.

Here, too, the discipline was fixed. The Bhikku must not be touched by a woman’s hand. He must eat but twice a day, and not after noon. He must keep the rule of the Lady Poverty as did Saint Francis. He must sleep nowhere but in Wiharas and other appointed places. And these are but a few of the commands. Yet, if the rule is too hard for him, the Bhikku may relinquish it: at his will, and return to the world a free man — a fettered man, as the Master would have said, but free according to the rule of the Transient World. It is said that few accept this permission.

It took little imagination to people the silent temple with the Assembly — the keen intellectual Indian faces, the yellow robe and the bared shoulder, seated in close ranks in the twilight of the temple. Now it was silent and empty, but a mysterious aura filled it. The buildings of men’s hands pass away, but the rock, worn not at all, save where feet come and go, preserves the aspect of its great day, when it was the fountain-head of the Truth.

A solemn gladness filled the air. Surely the West is waking to the message of the East — that message, flowing through the marvelous art of China and Japan, through the deep philosophies of India, the great Scriptures of the Buddhist Faith, and many more such channels. And we who have entered the many mansions through another gate may share and rejoice in the truths that are a world-heritage.


It was time now that I should visit the holy places, and I took the road through the jungle, intending to stay at the little rest-houses which exist to shelter travelers. The way is green with grass in the middle; there are two tracks for wheels — narrow and little used. Even the native huts may sometimes be forty miles apart. And on either side runs the huge wall of the jungle, holding its secrets well.

Great trees, knotted with vines and dark with heavy undergrowth, shut me in. Sometimes a troop of silver-gray monkeys swept chattering overhead; sometimes a few red deer would cross the road, or a blue shrike flutter radiantly from one shelter to another. Mostly, the jungle was silent as the grave, but living, breathing, a vast and terrible personality; an ocean, and with the same illimitable might and majesty. Traveling .through it, I was as a fish that swims through the green depths of water.

So I journeyed in a little bullock cart — and suddenly, abruptly, as if dropped from heaven, sprang out of the ocean of the jungle that bathed its feet a huge cube of rock nearly five hundred feet high, with lesser rocks spilt about it that would have been gigantic were it not for the first — the famous Sigurya.

An ancient people, led by a parricide king, took this strange place and made of it a mighty fortress. They cut galleries in the living rock that, like ants, they might pass up and down unharmed from below; and on the head of the rock — a space four acres in extent — they set a king’s palace and pleasance, with a bathing-tank to cool the torrid air. Then, still desiring beauty, this people frescoed the sheer planes of this precipitous rock of Sigurya with pictures that modern Sinhalese art cannot rival. These vast pictures represent a procession of royal and noble ladies to a shrine, with attendants bearing offerings. Only from the waist upward are the figures visible; they rise from clouds as if floating in the sky. The faces have an archaic beauty and dignity. One, a queen, crowned and bare-bosomed, followed by attendants bearing stiff lotos blooms, is beautiful indeed, but in no Sinhalese or Indian fashion — a face dark, exotic, and heavy-lidded, like a pale shadowed orchid. It is believed the whole rock was thus frescoed into a picture-gallery, but time and weather have taken toll of the rest.

The government has put steps and climbing rails, that the height may be reached. Half-way up is a natural flatness, and above it soars the remainder of the citadel, to be climbed only by notches cut in the rock, and hand-rails as a safeguard from the sheer fall below. And here this dead people had done a wonderful thing. They had built a lion of brick, so colossal that the head towered to the full height of the ascent. It has fallen into ruin, but the proportion of the great cat-paws that remain indicate a beast some two hundred feet high. There is a gate between the paws, and in the old days they clambered up through the body of the lion and finally through his throat, into the daylight of the top. Only t he paws are left, complete even to the little cat-claw at the back of each. Surely one of the strangest approaches in the world! Here and there the shelving of the rock overhangs the ascent, and drops of water fall in a bright crystal rain perpetually over the jungle so far below.

Standing upon the height, it was weirdly lovely to see the eternal jungle monotonously swaying and waving beneath. I thought of the strange feet that had followed these ways, with hopes and fears so like our own. And now their fortress is but a sunny day’s amusement for travelers from lands unknown, and the city sitteth desolate, and the strength of their building is resumed into the heart of nature. The places where men have lived are dead indeed in their ruin, but the places where men have worshiped and lifted their hands to the Infinite are never dead. The Spirit that is Life Eternal hovers about them, and the green that binds their broken pillars is the green of an immortal hope.

The evening was now at hand, and, after the sun-steeped day, the jungle gave out its good smells, beautiful earth-warm smells like a Nature-Goddess, rising from the vast tangle of life in the mysterious depths. You may gather the flowers on their edge and wonder what the inmost flowers are like that you will never see — rich, labyrinthine, beyond all thought to paint.

The jungle is as terrible as an army with banners. Sleeping in the little rest-house when the night has fallen, it comes close up to you, creeping, leaning over you, calling, whispering, vibrating with secret life. A word more, — only one, — a movement, and you would know the meaning and be gathered into the heart of it; but always there is something fine, impalpable, between, and you catch but a breath of the whisper.

Very wonderful is the jungle! In the moonlight of a small clearing I saw the huge bulk of three wild elephants feeding. They vanished like wraiths into the depths. The fireflies were hosting in the air like flitting diamonds. Stealthy life and movement were about me: the jungle, wideawake and aware, moving on its own occasions.

A few days later I was at Anaradhapura. Once a million people dwelt in the teeming city. Now it is a village, but inexpressibly holy because it contains in its own temple the sacred Bodhi Tree which is an offshoot of that very Tree beneath which the Lord Buddha received the Perfect Wisdom. Ceylon desired this treasure, and they tried to break a branch from the Tree, but dared not, for it resisted the sacrilege. But the Princess Sanghamitta, in great awe and with trembling hand, drew a line of vermilion about the bough, and at that line it separated from the Tree, and the Princess planted it in perfumed earth in a golden vase, and so brought it, attended by honors human and superhuman, to Ceylon — to this place, where it still stands. It is believed to be 2230 years old.

With infinite reverence I was given two leaves, collected as they fell; and it is difficult to look on them unmoved if indeed this Tree be directly descended from that other, which sheltered the triumphant conflict with evil.

The city itself is drowned in the jungle. In the green twilight you meet a queen’s palace, with reeling pillars and fallen capitals. beautiful with carved moonstones, for so are called the steps of ascent. Or lost in tangle, a manger fifty feet long for the royal elephants, or a nobly planned bath for the queens, where it is but to close the eyes and dream that dead loveliness floating in the waters once so jealously guarded, now mirroring the wild woodways. A little creeper is stronger than all our strength, and our armies are as nothing before the silent legions of the grass.

Later, I stood before the image of that Buddha who is to come — who in the Unchanging awaits his hour: Maitreya, the Buddha of Love. A majestic figure, robed like a king, for he will be royal. In his face, calm as the Sphinx, must the world decipher its hope, if it may. Strangely, in most of his images this Savior who shall be is seated like a man of the West, not like an Asiatic, and many learned in the Faith believe that this Star shall rise in the West. May he come quickly!


I set out next day for Mihintale, in a world dewy, virginal, washed with morning gold, the sun shooting bright arrows into the green shade of the trees — a cloud of butterflies lovely as little flower-angels going with me. One splendor, rose-red, velvet-black, alighted with quivering wings on the mouse-gray shoulder of the meek little bull that drew my cart.

The Hill of Mihintale rises abruptly as Sigurya from the forests, and the very air about it is holy, for it was on this great hill that Mahinda, mysteriously transported from India, alighted bewildered as one waking from a dream. Here the King, Tissa, seeing the saint seated beneath a tree, heard a voice he could not gainsay that called his name three times; and so, approaching with his nobles, he received the Teaching of the Blessed One.

The hill is climbed by wonderful carved shallow steps, broken now, but most beautiful with an overgrowth of green. At the sides are beds of the Sensitive Plant, with its frail pink flowers. They faint and fall if touched, and here you would not even breathe roughly upon them, for the Buddhists regard the shrinking creatures as living and hold it sinful to cause such evident suffering.

Descending the gray steps, the shade and sunshine dappling his yellow robe and bared shoulder with noble color, came a priest, on his way to visit the sick of the little village. He stopped and spoke. I told him I had come from visiting the shrines of Burma, and he desired me to give him a description of some matters I had seen there. I did so. and we talked for some time, and it was then mentioned that my food, like his own, necessitated no taking of life. Instantly his whole face softened as he said that was glad news to hear. It was the fulfilling of a high commandment. Would I receive his blessing, and his prayer that the truth might enlighten me in all things? He bestowed both, and, having made his gift, went upon his way with the dignity of perfect serenity. That little circumstance of food (as some would call it) has opened many a closed door to me in Asia.

At the top of the hill is a deep shadowy rock-pool, with a brow of cliff overhanging it; and this is named the Cobra’s Bath, for it is believed that in the past there was a cobra who used, with his outspread hood, to shelter the saint, Mahinda, from the torrid sun, and who was also so much a little servant of the Law that none feared and all mourned him when he passed upon his upward way in the chain of existences. Here, above the pool where he loved to lie in the clear cool, they sculptured a great cobra, with three hooded heads, rising, as it were, from the water. It was most sinuously beautiful and looked like the work of a great and ancient people, gathering the very emblem of Fear into the great Peace. On the topmost height was the stupa, or shrine, of Mahinda, encasing its holy relic, and the caves where his priests dwelt and still dwell. I entered one, at the invitation of a Bhikku, an old man with singularly beautiful eyes, set in a face of wistful delicacy. He touched my engraved ring and asked what if might mean. Little enough to such as he, whose minds are winged things and flutter in the blue tranquillities far above the earth!

The caves are many, with a rockroof so low that one cannot stand upright — a strange, dim life, it would seem, but this Bhikku spoke only of the peace of it, the calm that falls with sunset and that each dawn renews. I could not doubt this— it was written upon his every gesture. He gave me his blessing, and his prayer that I might walk forever in the Way of Peace. With such friends as these the soul is at home. Peace. It is indeed the salutation of Asia, which does not greet you with a desire for health or prosperity as in the West, but only — Peace.

I would willingly tell more of my seekings and findings in Ceylon, for they were many and great. But I pass on to the little drowsy hill-town of Budalla, where the small bungalows nest in their gardens of glorious flowers and vines. I sat in the churchyard, where the quiet graves of English and Sinhalese are sinking peacefully into oblivion. It was Sunday, with a Sabbath calm upon the world. A winding path led up to the open door of the little English church, a sweet breeze swayed the boughs and ruffled the long grass of the graves; the butterflies, small Psyches, fluttered their parable in the air about me. A clear voice from the church repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and many young voices followed. It was a service for the Sinhalese children who have been baptized into the Christian Faith. They sang of how they had been brought out of darkness and the shadow of death and their feet set upon the Way of Peace.

Surely it is so. When was that. Way closed to any who sought? But because man must follow his own categorical imperative, I repeated to myself, when they were silent, the words of the poet Abdul Fazl, which he wrote at the command of the Emperor Akbar as an inscription for a Temple in Kashmir: —

O God, in every temple I see people that see Thee, and in every language they praise Thee.

If it be a mosque, men murmur the holy prayer, and if it be a Christian church they ring the bell from love to Thee.

Sometimes I frequent the Christian cloister, and sometimes the mosque, but it is Thou whom I seek from temple to temple.

Thine elect have no dealing with heresy or orthodoxy, for neither of these stands behind the screen of thy Truth.

Heresy to the heretic and religion to the orthodox!

But the dust of the rose-petal belongs to the heart of the perfume-seller.

Yes — and an ancient Japanese poet, going yet deeper, says this thing: ‘So long as the mind of a man is in accord with the Truth, the Gods will hear him though he do not pray.’