The Teachings of Ignorance

For my Buddhism class, we had the option of either writing a 15 page research paper or doing a creative project; I suspect this was largely to encourage people to do a creative piece instead. I opted to work on an epic poem, but unfortunately did not have the idea for it until late in the semester, at which time I scrapped all my previous work and began writing The Teachings of Ignorance. As such, what I have completed in time for the due date is only a first, rough draft, because this story deserves a lot more work and expansion than I had time for.

You can read the poem below, but if you’re really interested in seeing the final product, be sure to either subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this page, or subscribe to the site in general. You can also, down at the bottom of the page, check a box and put in your email address to receive updates that way. I will continue work on this as quickly as I’m able, but don’t expect it to be complete until February 2009, and potentially as late as July 2009 if next semester goes as poorly (read: is as busy) as I expect.

The Teachings of Ignorance

Marahasvu declares the jewels:
the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha,
the Guru, capstone of strength and wisdom-
without him the structure falls,
built ignorantly and without thought.

Think on this:

Canto I

Once a great nation stood on peace.
For ten generations it lived by the jewels
and gathered from the fields of merit.
This nation was loved by its neighbours,
trading in fine spices and livestock.
None could find fault in its rulers-
its people were happy and content.
None could question their scholars,
who were wise and filled with sympathy.

In this time, a son was born to the king.
The nation rejoiced for he was most beautiful and strong,
and the child was cared for by all the people.
He was tutored in the ways of his land
and by scholars from afar that he might understand
the world. Art and music surrounded him always,
and all was pleasant. The child never wanted,
but he was ever-gracious as well. Unspoiled
by wealth was this child, and his parents
and tutors looked on with wonder.

Kahavu grew into a beautiful and wise prince,
with eyes that could perceive the stars and feet
that outran the leopard. His arms were well-formed
and stronger than oxen; his face was gentle and kind.
Kahavu excelled in all things, and most excellent was his devotion
to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.
No guru abided in the kingdom.

Kahavu had known only peace, and his father
was a just ruler. War was not found in all the land,
and the kingdom’s neighbours liked them well.
The peace was like bright, high light, though,
for it brought both good and bad: its good
had persevered for so long that evil was unknown.
When darkness came, it was not recognized.

This king grew old, and in his age became brittle.
His justice wavered, his mind saw threats
in every corner, and his fear grew. Soon, he saw spies
among his neighbours’ trade caravans, and enemies
among his own councilors. Such was the king’s fear
that he allowed no dissension, and he began to mutter of war.
His own peace was shattered, and wisdom had fled
from his halls. No teacher remained to correct the king,
and he listened not to the three jewels. His councilors,
once filled with respect, began to hate and plot against the king.

Though no sparks truly fell, soon a fire raged
in the king’s mind, consuming all wisdom.
The king was filled with fear, and his fear brought anger
to his once-peaceful halls. Anger brought hate to his palace.
Hate brought suffering to his kingdom.

War was beginning.

Canto II

It fell to Kahavu to do the will of the king.
Trained in the arts of war and strategy,
Kahavu was a strong leader,
well loved of all the armies. He could not be bested
with the sword, and his chariot was swifter
and stronger than all the king’s charioteers.
Kahavu’s arrows flew like pigeons to their roost,
not halting until they found their target. His intellect
was like lightning, his arm like iron, and his will implacable.
But greater still was his honour, for Kahavu would ask nothing
that he would not himself give. He thought himself no greater
than the least foot soldier.

But Kahavu had never seen battle,
so complete was the peace of his kingdom.
No bandits roamed, no neighbours threatened.
He followed his father’s command to lead the army to war,
but he did not know death. Likewise, the troops
were like children, going off to play
with no thought of dying. Like children they marched,
full of stories and grand dreams with roses and scarves
tied ’round their arms.

The enemy would flee at the gleam
of their swords, at the rattle of their shields and armour.
The enemy would shudder and fall
at the sound of their chariots, at the thunder
of their hooves and the roar of their battle chants.
The soldiers fought for love of their king,
not knowing the madness that sent them
to this field; their motivation was pure.

War was like poetry, like music
and all the arts, something to be looked upon
and studied. Picket lines and tents erected neatly,
like in a master’s piece, each night’s camp a picture
of peace and camaraderie, and when the day of battle came,
the army lined up like toy soldiers, like the figures
on the strategy board Kahavu had studied.
They rattled their spears and stomped their feet,
grinning across the field at their quiet foes.
They laughed, glad to know
they would return home soon as heroes.

Great cries came from mouths
as they charged, the infantry’s feet
shaking the ground, the chariot’s wheels
filling the sky with a great, dark cloud.
Kahavu rode with them, his armour gleaming
in the sun like a great god coming to deliver wrath
on the enemies of the king. But all during the charge,
his eyes swept the battle line, deciding
which side might be weaker,
which pieces might need reinforced.

And then Kahavu saw a man behind the enemy’s lines,
naked but for a binding around his waist,
a gnarled stick upheld in his hand. The man’s arms
stretched out to encompass the field, his mouth moving
with great weight as if the words were heavy.
Kahavu wondered at the man, whose voice he could not hear.

Their eyes seemed to lock, Kahavu
and the man with the great words,
with the naked and dirty body,
and it was as if the distance shrunk to a moment
while expanding to an ocean. For a heartbeat, the battle
was frozen while Kahavu stared at the man,
but the man just closed his mouth, then nodded,
then drove his staff into the earth before him.

With a great crash, the wheel flew
from Kahavu’s chariot, throwing him
from its back as horses screamed
and the infantry stumbled. The dark cloud
of dust seemed to settle on Kahavu, robbing all thought
and sight, and it was long and long before he awoke.

Kahavu awoke to silence, for the battle had long ended.
Rising, he saw the enemy’s back, their army retreating
to their homes, leaving the battlefield
in the way they had come. Exultant, Kahavu
turned rejoice, but slowly ignorance fell from him.
The enemy walked calmly, unpursued and at peace.
Kahavu’s eyes found the field littered with his army.

For Kahavu, the world was like a perfect glass orb.
Whole, it is strong and pure, and cannot be scratched
nor cracked. The glass orb is filled with light,
and cannot be harmed. But if weakened and struck
with the right force in the right place, it will fragment
beyond repair. For Kahavu, the world had changed
in a way he could not understand, but could not be escape.

The enemy had fought dishonourably, had defeated
his army before they even met, had undone
his friends and comrades. Blood soaked the field where
footmen had fallen on their swords, where horses
had collided and kicked in fear, and no one stirred
except Kahavu. Tears washed trails in the dirt, the cloud
that covered his face, as his eyes darted around the field,
feet spinning while hands grasped again and again
at nothing that can be grasped.

For Kahavu, the enemy’s dishonour was inconceivable
yet it had won the battle. Kahavu was defeated, but
he thought he had learned. Still gasping
to breathe, he picked up his sword and began
walking, for the battle had been on the border
between two nations. Kahavu had learned from war,
from the naked sorcerer, and would strike without honour,
without warning like a python that blends
with the grass. He would stalk his enemies
and defeat them all.

Canto III

Kahavu dwelt on the past, examining every memory
and lesson to find its flaws. In wisdom, he knew
that his education had been incomplete, and in ignorance
he went to war. To meditation and reflection Kahavu turned,
to learn that which he had missed,
and he re-walked every day of his life
until his defeat.

The battle replayed a hundred times a hundred,
Kahavu examining imperfections
from every angle, holding to them,
digging his nails into the cracks
that he might grasp more tightly the knowledge
that escaped him.

From the enemy he had learned strength
in dishonour, and the path of the detestable.
Wandering his enemy’s land, he evaded capture
while cutting through the innocent. Farmers
and traders were not safe from him, and bandits,
deserters, and other evil men began to follow Kahavu.
His intellect had discovered the path of the unclean,
and his untutored strength grew.

Whispered rumours of Kahavu’s power spread:
that he commanded spirits, and ghosts cowered
at his approach, doing his will; of dark rituals
that gave Kahavu the future; of inhuman strength
gleaned from the blood of enemies. Detestable
acts Kahavu committed, the seeds of his father’s madness
watered by the trauma of his defeat.

Schooled in strategy and all the fine arts, Kahavu
adopted what he knew of his enemy’s strategy for himself,
and seeing the power of dishonour, for dishonour
bore his downfall, Kahavu delved into darkest tantras
and spread disease throughout his enemy’s land.

And so the guru was summoned
to the king of that land, who asked for aid
in stopping this sorcerer who spread death
and disease wherever he tread, wreaking anguish
and suffering throughout the kingdom. The guru
had helped them win a mighty battle
against their neighbours, and his wisdom,
courage, and power was great.

The guru was beholden to none, his tantras
freeing him from obligation, but he knew
from the king’s tale who the destroyer was,
and felt the wrongness of the prince’s mind.
He agreed to help the king and free the prince
from his suffering, as well as those
upon whom the prince inflicted
all his evils.

Traveling alone, the guru walked, staff in hand
to find the prince, for he needed neither guard
nor guide. Each town he passed begged his blessing,
giving food and shelter in turn and praising
the Buddha for the guru’s teaching and stories.
Mind turned inward and outward, spinning
nowhere and everywhere, the guru
was concerned not with Kahavu, but instead
he sang as he walked, enjoying the beauty
of the fields.

Canto IV

The guru placed himself in Kahavu’s path,
and perched at the top of a cliff above the forest.
There he meditated for three days, emptying
himself as the cosmos poured into him,
the guru like a pot overflowing with water.

As Kahavu and his disciples journeyed,
they came upon the guru, he upon the cliff
and they below, but Kahavu recognized
the man who had destroyed his army
and his life, while at the same time teaching
Kahavu what he needed to gain the power
he now commanded.

Kahavu left his followers and scaled the cliff,
climbing gleefully up to the guru, and leaped
over the edge to reach the man. Kahavu drew
his sword, looming over his destroyer and
unwitting mentor, panting through his grin,
and began to speak.

“You thought to undo me, my father,
and his armies with your tricks, those tantras
that grant you power in your indecency, those magics
steeped in dishonour. But instead
you have armed your enemy by showing
what unclean acts can bestow, and taught
Prince Kahavu how to grasp power.
Thank you, my teacher, for freeing my mind,
and giving me the strength to defeat you
and the king you defend.”

The guru now opened his eyes, legs uncoiling
as he stood and planted his staff
at his side that he might lean, for Kahavu
towered over the old man, a mad gleam
in Kahavu’s eye and sweat beading down his arms.
Their gazes met, again in battle, and the closeness
became a distance like a thousand years.
The guru smiled, curling his arm up,
his hand flexing straight to rest
perpendicular between them.

“You observed my strength
and wanted it for your own;
there is no shame in such a desire.
But young Kahavu, you are filled
with ignorance and fear, and delved into
tantras with no wisdom or guidance. Corrupted
you have become, and in turn corrupted
the tantras and the land. Your evil
has no balance, your uncleanness results
in no strength. You do not learn
from detestable things, but instead revel in them
and so become weak.

“Your spirit suffers, and shares its suffering
with those around it, sending ripples
through the cosmos to bring trauma
to all you meet. Your existence is a blight
and your mind is broken; I cannot repair,
but I offer purification to Kahavu,
to break this path of suffering
so you might repent, and also free
those you might harm from your hands.”

With three low words, the guru
chanted the tantra through his hand
as Kahavu’s eyes widened and his arm
tensed, sword swinging to cut
the guru’s ritual short. But Kahavu
was lost long and long ago, his teaching
flawed and incomplete, his learning shallow
and detrimental. Like a dull knife,
it proved more dangerous than helpful, and
the guru’s chant released.

Words became like a gale, like a tree
falling into Kahavu, like a waterfall
rushing towards the cliff that he could not resist.
Kahavu fell and broke, his followers scattering
like geese when they sense a hunter near,
their shrieks like clamorous honks.

The guru
stamped his staff three times and turned;
once for the Buddha, once for the dharma,
once for the sangha, and each step he took
a prayer of thanks for his guru.

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