In the Shadow of Shwe Dagon
By Ananda Maitriya (Allan Bennett)
Buddhism, Vol 1 Iss 1, 1903
NIGH to the great toiling City, where the lives of a lakh of men are lived for good or ill; nigh to the turmoil of the busy wharves that fringe the river, the chaffering of the bazaars, the endless work of Secretariat and the long routine of Government House, rises another town, a world apart:—the City of the Great Pagoda, true capital of Burma for six million hearts:—a town of shrines and temples clustering around the Golden Fane, where the Great Teacher’s first disciples enshrined His Relic and His Memory, whilst yet He lived in earth and taught the Ways of Truth.
Nigh to the great City, yet afar from it, other and apart. There burn the Fires of Life apace—Passion and Hatred and Delusion flaming to the sorrow of mankind; here are those fires dimmed, and all the air is redolent of Peace. There all is Transitory, full of Sorrow and Unreal; here men draw nearer to the Permanent, the Blissful, and the True. There, every building has its place in the workday life of Burma, stands for its commerce, its justice or its governance; here is each shrine a story carved in wood or stone, epitome of some fair fragment of the inner national life,—a memory of the Master, an old-time tale of human love and sacrifice, a page torn from the great volume of Burmese tradition, legend of Nat or Bhīlū sacred to youth’s bright days. There rules the Proconsul of a world-wide Empire, judge and police and soldiery the ministers of his will; here reigns another Lord, owing a vaster, immemorial Empire, His Law the Law of Love, His ministers but humble Monks, clad in the Yellow Robe their Master wore, begging their daily food even as He begged; their gentle rule maintained by the undying devotion of the people whom they teach.
Many are they whose eyes have seen all that is plain for eyes to see in the City of the Great Pagoda; who yet of its inner life have known naught at all. Idols wrought of stone and bronze have they beheld, where to those who know is the Symbol of a Life of Love; quaint carven forms of man and bird and beast, where the Burman reads long legends twined about his heart from childhood’s days; and they have heard but pagan litanies, where to the Buddhist lies the murmured secret of the Mystery of Life.
To him who knows it, all the City is instinct with life. Naught there but has its tale to tell; from the great sacred Bell which the Spirit of the River denied to sacrilegious hands, but rendered willingly to his own people; to the jewelled spire which crowns the central Fane, three hundred feet aloft in the resounding air. And yet again beyond all this, past stone and wood and legend and tradition, breathes another, deeper Life:—the Life that stirs in the hearts of those who know the City well.
When the calm of evening falls, and the busy throng of worshippers is past, in the silence of the night, in the swift glory of the dawning day, the gateways of that deeper Life are opened, and those who know pass in,—in to a Life Beyond, where Peace is ever raining, and all the world is known a dream. Then the Golden Fane tells to the longing heart its deeper meaning, and all the City of the Great Pagoda thrills to a new life and hope:—the promise of the Dawn of Love throughout the world, white glory of the Herald-star of Peace. They know it, these devotees with silvered hair who dwell there on the Holy days; the little nuns who kneel there in the dawn have learned its coming, the solemn Monks have know it, and partaken of its mystery. Weary of the day’s long toil, the merchant from his store, the clear from his office, the silk-seller from her stall, come in the hush of evening to seal its wonder in their struggling lives—lest peradventure they should forget the Peace, and all their ways be wasted in the world’s desires. Then, as they kneel there in the afterglow, hearts beating to a music past the life of earth, the haunting glamour of the place steals over them, and the vain cares of life are gone; then the soft chiming of the golden bells is heard no longer, and the mists of Act and Speech have faded from their minds: then do they gather light of the life beyond, gather new strength to live and love, out of the lesson of that inner Life.
What these have known and felt,—that hidden inner life,—speech cannot utter it, not written words reveal; for it dwells only in the hearts of those who have entered it and known. Yet here a little may be told, the burden of the outer life of the Pagoda City,—doings of man and beast about its precincts, tales of the lives lived beneath the Shadow of the Golden Fane. Some may thus learn a little of the Faith it teaches, a little of the lives it has inspired; and some, perchance, may gather from these tales an echo of its inner, glorious life, wherein these outer shows are melted in the Void that bore them, where Peace is reigning ever, and the Secret of the Silence is revealed.
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