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To the flame of the pyre

Updated on October 22, 2015

To the flame of the pyre




“According to one of the ancient Indian metaphysical treatises, viz., Chhandogya Upanisad” began Rinchen Zangpo, a Tibetan Lama, while addressing a group of Indians, Tibetans and a few Europeans in a small hall in the railway junction town of Asansol in the state of West Bengal, India, “a person who has dedicated his or her life to vidya, knowledge, returns to Brahman upon death. Brahman as you all know is the receptacle for all we see in our phenomenal world, which appears, exists for a while and then disappears to reappear again in the future.” The Lama was speaking in Bengali, one of the Indian languages. It was the year 1976.

Bhola, a 40 year old Bengali taxi driver was listening intently, seated at the back of the hall. The word death or disappear makes him shudder because at the age of 10 in 1946 his whole family was hacked to death by their Muslim neighbours simply because they were Hindus in what was then known as East Bengal. He himself escaped because he was at school and survived by latching on to crowds of other Hindus, millions of them, who left all their possessions behind but saved their lives. They were reduced to begging, living on railway stations or the pavements of the huge city of Kolkata in West Bengal.

In the early days Bhola became a carrier of shopping usually for ladies. The only capital investment he needed was a large cane basket. He always selected his clients carefully from visitors to the city who came for a day's shopping. That way he could charge them arbitrary rates well above what was acceptable to the city folks. His object was to accumulate enough capital to provide himself with a comfortable life style and get away from the indignity of sleeping in the streets of the city. Bhola gathered a group of boys around him who looked after one another's interests particularly with regard to the safety of their money which they all saved.

At the age of 15 Bhola with two other boys who were also displaced from East Bengal but with their families intact started to burgle homes. Their technique was to wait till midnight, smear their whole bodies with mustard oil and wear very close fitting underpants only so that they could slip away if someone caught and grabbed them. They would steal gold ornaments and sell them to an unscrupulous goldsmith who paid them well below the market price. They also made a very large amount of money by acting as pick-pockets. Eventually Bhola paid the price and at the age of 20 in 1956 he got caught and spent a year in jail with hard labour. His friends looked after his money and also gave him his share from their joint ill-gotten income.

Once out of jail, Bhola bought a three wheeled motorised vehicle known variously as

tempu or tuk-tuk and plied the streets of Asansol because being a jail-bird he was now a persona non grata among the huge number of refugees whom the city corporation was still trying to house.

By the time he was 30 years old he made enough money to buy a car, a task not easy to achieve in India for ordinary people, which started his reasonably honest occupation of a taxi driver. In about another 5 years, he met Lama Rinchen Zangpo as a passenger who came from Dharamshala to take charge of the nearby Buddhist monastery. Within a year he became the Lama's personal chauffeur driving the car provided by the monastery and hired out his own car to another aspiring taxi driver. It was an easy life for him at last because the Lama was away from the monastery three days a week which were Monday to Wednesday and Bhola was provided with board and lodging. He did private taxi work illegally and kept bad company with goondas, ruffians, thieves and cheats.

Lama Zangpo allowed Bhola to sit at his lectures or someone else's if he attended them himself. Bhola understood fully what was said as time went on if the speaker delivered his talk in Bengali and partially if the lectures were in Hindi but not at all if in English. Bhola feared death and the state of his rebirth because he learnt enough to know that there was no nirvan for him. Even after some 30 years he remembered the scene of his grandparents, granduncles, parents, siblings and cousins lying bloodied and dead in the house. His elder brother was still just about alive when Bhola came home who said it was their next-door neighbours who organised their massacre. He urged Bhola to run to that part of Bengal which will remain as India.

Bhola called the Lama Guru Zangpo pronounced as Jangpo because z as a letter does not exist in the Bengali alphabet. He said of that lecture in 1976 as he drove the Lama to the monastery, “A person of vidya returns to Brahman that is he attains to moksha or mukti and never returns to the living world to sink in dukkha.”

“Did I say that?” asked the guru.

“Yes,” replied Bhola, “you said as a funerary specialist from the dom caste cracks the skull of the corpse soon after the pyre is lit, a non-corporeal frame, the size of one's little finger, escapes to enter the flame of the funeral pyre; from the flame it goes to day; from there to the bright half of the moon. It then wanders the six months of the summer solstice; from there to the year; from the year to the sun. From the sun it goes to the moon and then to lightning. The lightning makes it dazzle and a non-human shadowy frame grabs it and carries it away to Brahman. He remains there throughout the life of this vishwa, universe, free at last and in a state of ananda, bliss. Sansar cannot snare him.”

By then they arrived at the monastery. Bhola shed tears; tears of grief; tears of fearful emptiness; tears of foreboding.

“Would you like to be such a person?” asked the Lama with great sympathy.

“I would. I would,” shouted Bhola emphatically. “I have nightmares; every night

guru Jangpo, I smell blood. I stroke limbless torsos. I cry as my family falls away from me.”

Next month Bhola listened as the guru talked to a group of mature college students

reading philosophy and language. He said, “There are three marks of life, viz., (a) Anitya. impermanence; (b) dukkha, suffering and (c) anatma, no atma.

Anatma was the subject of Gautam Buddha's second discourse. He said that there are five skandhas, heaps. They are interrelated and are as follows:

(1) Rupa, form made up of earth, water, fire and air.

(2) Vedana, feelings which provide sensations from encountering objects by our organs of action, such as eyes or tongue.

(3) Samjna, perception which makes a person aware of what he is conscious of.

(4) Samskara, volition which is the act of choosing.

(5) Vijnana, consciousness.

The skandhas are in a perpetual state of flux and are impermanent. They concatenate to form a jiv, a living being, which in its lifetime is a ceaseless perishing product of physical and mental interactions. That is, a living being of this moment is not the same as that being a fraction of a second later. As the skandhas disentangle, the jiv

ceases to be.

Gautam Buddha said that the idea of atma is a delusion. Belief in it makes a person self-important and self-centred. A jiv nucleates to grow as a result of the stored energy of the karmas executed in previous lives. As in the previous lives the current life forms as an aggregate of the five skandhas. The current jiv cannot escape the inevitability of carrying the burden of punya (credit) and pap (debit), commensurate with the nature of karmas in many a past life before this.”

As the years passed, Lama Zangpo provided Bhola with a small bungalow in the monastery compound and made him in-charge of the maintenance of the building and garden. He was given a salary but he volunteered to act as the personal chauffeur of the Lama without additional emoluments.

One day the Lama said that he would like to go to the north-eastern border area of India and cross over to Kham where he wanted to see Norbu Yul-gyal the snow mountain which is enclosed in the Zilthang mountains of Derge. It was an ideal place to stay for a while and pass the time in contemplation. He planned the route carefully and chose stops at ashrams and monasteries as required for rest. Bhola was game for it although the distance involved was very large and roads not quite kind to cars.

Bhola was now 50 as he started his journey to the north reaching Darjeeling without any problems. They stopped overnight at Tejpur in Assam and then entered the frontier state of India. They passed Itanagar, Ziro, Daporijo, Along and stopped at Ningguing; another 20 miles would bring the Lama to Kham.

Bhola learnt that Tibet was a large area with four main regions; Ngari on the west and U and Tsang as one goes east followed by Kham to the north of which was Amdo.

The invaders from the north whom the Lama called Guests, occupied Tibet easily because Tibetans were resisting mainly with sticks and stones while the Guests came prepared with modern weapons of destruction which killed from a distance. The Guests were sly and absorbed Kham and Amdo in the provinces of their own country so that their existence would be forgotten even by future Tibetans.

Even some 40 years after running away from his ancestral home Bhola talked about death. In particular he became apprehensive about his after-life. The Lama told him that as a very bad man in this life he will go to the tortuous world of narak. He advised Bhola to mend his ways.

In due course, they came to an ashram within 2 miles from what was the border of Kham and started to walk. As they crossed over, the Lama prostrated but as he got up he saw 3 Guest soldiers standing in front of him with one of them pointing his firearm at him. The soldier shouted “You spy.”

Bhola moved quickly, shielded his guru facing the soldier and his arms coiled against the Lama. The gun cracked and Bhola fell to the ground dead. “You are not escaping”

sniggered the killer and took aim at Lama Zangpo but staggered and collapsed as an arrow pierced his neck. The other two Guest soldiers died in a similar manner as they aimed their guns at the Lama.

Half a dozen Tibetans armed with bows and arrows approached the Lama and dismounted their horses. “We are the remnants of the resistance to these barbarians,” said one of them. “The world does not want to know but we will not give up. We will regain our country and culture even if it takes centuries.”

They carried Bhola back to India, found specialist funerary attendants belonging to the dom caste who built a pyre by the banks of river Brahmaputra. The headman asked Lama Zangpo to say a mantra who thought for a brief moment and said, “Take me to the opposite shore; take me further away from the shore.” He chanted:

“Om, Hari Om,

Gate gate par gate,

Par sangate,



According to custom, the Head dom cracked open the skull of the corpse by hammering it with a long wooden staff as the combustibles of the pyre lit up. Guru Lama Rinchen Zangpo looked with incredulity as a non-corporeal, very tiny silhouette escaped through the crack in the skull and floated to the flame of the pyre to be seen no more.



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