The Hunter in the Wilderness of Sansara

A long time ago, sixteen leagues from our village, Navagaththegama, there lived the hunter. The area was called Mullegama Galkanda. The hunter lived on Mullegama Rock and in the surrounding jungle.

The impenetrable area between our village and the Thammannar-Anuradhapura road was covered by thick jungle. Regardless of its length and breadth, it is the wilderness proximate to Mullegama Galkanda, which lay sixteen leagues from our village, that is of importance to our story, and that’s because this is where the hunter lived.

The hunter had lived there as long as the jungle existed. First, civilization was overtaken by the jungle. Next it was erased by the felling of the jungle. Among the caves around the rocky outcrop called Mullegama there stood an ancient temple which witnessed the encroaching jungle as well as its clearing. A Hamduruwo resided in this temple. The hunter was there to protect him. The jungle protected both the hunter and the monk. The hunter took care of the jungle. The jungle survived while the hunter was alive. His death signaled the end of the jungle and the end of the creatures of the jungle.

The hunter was not always a hunter. It was only after he picked up the gun that he became a hunter. (I shall reserve the narration of how he took up the gun for later.) Before he became a hunter his name was “Golu Puncha.” Some even called him “Walas Puncha” on account of the ravine-like scars left on his face by a bear cub that he had brought up as a pet. “Puncha” though he was called, he was by no means a small man. Seven feet in height, this dark-skinned man with a muscular frame that gave him the appearance of a gorilla was “Puncha” because he was a little one to the Hamuduruwo.

As was customary, the Hamuduruwo spent the pre-dawn hours in meditation. Leaving his cave at dawn, the Hamuduruwo walked to the Esatu tree and assumed the lotus posture. Then he drew his thoughts together. As the first rays of the sun streamed through the birdsong that enveloped the surroundings and touched the time-contoured face of the Hamuduruwo, he opened his eyes to a wondrous world.

“Punchaaaa … aaah . . .”

Thus he called out as he contemplated for a moment the mists that caress the treetops at the bottom of the hill. Thereafter he waited with patience and compassion until the hunter, obedient to his summons, arrives.

Having spent the night roaming the jungle, the hunter is invariably climbing the rock and in the vicinity of the temple around this time. He doesn’t take the gun to the sacred precincts of the rock-temple. He places it in the crook of an indalolu tree at the foot of the hill.

Like the last of an ape species from a different age altogether, the hunter walked slowly across the rock toward the Hamuduruwo. As always, his eyes were half-hidden by the meaty thickness of his eyelids, which drooped down toward his cheeks. At any rate it was not on account of sleep deprivation. He never slept with his head on the ground. His nights and days were spent standing, sitting, or walking and he himself did not know when he was asleep and when awake.

It may be that he slept when leaning against a tree or a rock or when he spent hours standing upon a rock or in the middle of some elephant trail in the jungle. But then again at any given time his eyes remained half-closed, always to the same extent.

The hunter walked toward the Hamuduruwo slowly and with utmost composure. Passing a kaku-bo bush that had sprouted upon the rock, he turned back and walked toward it. There was a small bird’s nest among the branches. Three red beaks peeked brilliantly out of the nest. Although the hunter did not know any arithmetic, he sensed that the voice of one of the baby birds was absent. He stood tall, like a giant, as though trying to fathom something. Then he looked at the foot of the bush, trying to remember.

The Hamuduruwo waited for him. The Hamuduruwo had all the time in the world to wait for the hunter. For these two who lived in the jungle, time was neither short nor long. The Hamuduruwo watched the hunter who had been walking up to him and was now staring at the nest.

After a moment, the hunter bent down to the bush. He stuck his extremely long index finger into the nest. The three little birds began to clamor, their beaks open wide. He thrust his finger among them. What he was looking for was not there in the nest. Then he bent down further and dug into the pile of dried leaves at the foot of the bush. The truth that he was seeking lay beneath a single dried bo leaf. He found the dead bird.

Having understood what had happened, he shook his head and thought. He had watched the mother of the little birds feeding them the previous two days. Whenever she arrived with food, the little ones would start shrieking and pushing out their wide-open beaks. One of them was not as strong as the rest. Perhaps its neck was not long enough. Perhaps it was too weak to compete with its siblings. Anyway, the food fell only into three mouths. The fourth had died of hunger. The mother has not exercised intelligence in feeding her offspring. The only wise thing she had done was to thrust the dead bird out of the nest and cover it with a fallen leaf. Whatever had to be said of a mother’s love, the three surviving offspring continued, regardless, to compete with one another, beaks outstretched.

In the hunter’s mind there welled up thoughts that took objection to injustice. Another unfortunate thing happened just then. Drawn by the cacophony of her little ones the mother bird hastened toward the nest. She didn’t have time to ascertain the fact that the hunter was angry. She flew quickly to the nest to find out what the excitement was all about. She did not take notice of the hunter. He was familiar to her. She had got used to even sitting on his shoulder at times.

The hunter looked at the bird in anger. The fourth little bird had perished on account of her negligence. The bird instinctively felt that the hunter was angered. She was just turning toward him when she was caught in a flash among his enormous fingers. She could not squeak even once, not once could she petition her cause or plead mercy. She was crushed to death. The hunter opened his hand with great satisfaction. The bird lay motionless and dead and infinitely small upon his massive palm.

He bent down and placed her dead body next to that of the little bird and covered it with two bo leaves. He stood up and wiped his hands on his loincloth. He felt the lightness of having accomplished a specific task he had set himself. He turned and started walking toward the Hamuduruwo slowly.

The Hamuduruwo was in the lotus posture as usual, his body perfectly straight. He had turned his head and was looking at the hunter. As the hunter walked toward the Hamuduruwo, measuring heavy steps, gazing at the Hamuduruwo’s face, his mind became burdened by another thought. He looked at the Hamuduruwo through his half-closed eyes. The next moment he turned and made his way back to the nest. He stood before the nest, looking at the little birds, who had now resumed their noisy agitation.

He turned and went toward a rich clump of grass and grabbed a fistful of grass seeds. He returned to the nest. He wanted to feed the birds, one seed at a time. But how could those little creatures, so used to their mother’s delicate beak, adjust to the hunter’s large, rough hands? He tried various methods, he tried long. The more he tried to feed them, the more the little birds wanted to be fed, the more seeds fell to the ground.

He did his best to toss one seed at a time into each individual beak. When this failed, he moved his palm close to them, but they were too small to pick up food. Finally it appeared that the hunter had once again become angry. Whether he was truly angry or not, what issued forth was a violent act. In an instant he threw the nest, birds and all, down the hill. Although he wiped his hands as though he had completed this exercise successfully, it was clear that he was still not at ease. He pushed aside the dried leaves at the bottom of the bush, picked the two dead birds and flung them down also. Then he picked up the remnants of the nest from the bush, rolling these into a ball in a systematic way and threw them away. He wiped his hands again and stood up. It caused him joy that there was no sign whatsoever that there had been a nest and in it some little birds.

All this had made him very tired. He took a few moments to catch his breath.

He started walking again toward the Hamuduruwo and sat down beside him in veneration.

Up to this point, everything was done by the hunter. All that the Hamuduruwo did was to observe. And yet it was as though they both partook of some perfectly ordinary morning exercise. The hunter engaged in a certain hunting expedition early in the morning. The wise Hamuduruwo, in accordance with the customs of his asceticism, participated fully and as was appropriate in a morning’s sport. It appeared as though it had tired him, but only on account of age. In the light of the morning sunrays, the hunter could see that the imprints of ancient life that marked the Hamuduruwo's face, were washed in heavy perspiration.

The Hamuduruwo looked at the hunter and turned his gaze upon the brine-marked horizon. Many miles away a wisp of smoke pierced the mist and made its solitary way into the sky. It may have been the residual mark of a chena that had been set on fire the previous day.

As the monk’s thoughts traversed the horizon, they were overtaken by a faint trace of sadness as well as compassion. Perhaps into those compassionate thoughts had strayed a tinge of pity for himself, for all mankind, and the hunter.

His thoughts went to his teacher, Gautama Buddha, who had lived many centuries before. The Lord had arahats, those who had attained the ultimate goal of nirvana, who could share with him the splendor of a beautiful morning even in a lonely world laden with sadness just like this. One day, as the Lord, having woken up early, paces in meditation, Arahat Kashyapa the Great comes toward the Exalted One. To Lord Buddha’s eyes are gifted the calm face of Arahat Kashyapa, as clear as an autumn sky upon which the full moon has spread itself.

“O Kashyapa,” he asks, “did you spend the night in pleasant slumber? Did you suffer any discomfort?”

It is not necessary to respond in word. In their eyes reside both question and answer. Nevertheless arahats and Samma Sambuddhas, just like any of us, see worth in the conventions related to the courtesies of pleasant conversation. And thus the Reverand Kashyapa indulges in convention.

“Yes, Lord, I slept well indeed. I believe you too, Lord, spent a night of pleasant slumber.”

Thinking of this exchange now, the Hamuduruwo looked upon his abiththaya with a sense of self-pity. This giant of seven feet with a body of an elephant, this pruthagjana, this hulking physical form, in comparison with the vast spaces that surrounded them, was indeed a tiny man.

The hunter was looking on with a sense of curiosity. Although the Hamuduruwo’s mind enveloped the heavens, extended to the faraway sea and traveled through the past, present, and future, the hunter was not privy to its inner chambers. He only noticed the Hamuduruwo’s face, which appeared to be wearied from some conflict or another.

Finally the Hamuduruwo himself understood the meaning of the hunter’s gaze. After a few moments of reflection, the Hamuduruwo spoke falteringly.

“Yes, you are correct. I am unable to meditate in peace. In the early hours of the morning one of Mara’s daughters arrives in the form of an angel. She caresses my entire face with her soft fingertips. My composure is shaken. I close my eyes tight and refuse to look at her. She does not leave me. She leaves, but returns to me again.”

The Hamuduruwo remained for a long time with his eyes closed.

“You are a hunter. It would be good if you protected me from tonight onward instead of the jungle that surrounds me. I can then meditate in peace in the knowledge that these evil females will not arrive, knowing that you are by my side.”

It took the hunter a long time to understand this directive. He had not realized even after he took the gun, that he had become a hunter. And yet he did not remember the monk ever having told him to expend his services in this way, by his side.

After a long time something strange had transpired on top of this rock that stood in the middle of the jungle. The hunter tried to carry out his diurnal tasks as though nothing strange had happened. He roasted rice in the kitchen hearth, turned it into flakes, mixed it with honey and offered the noonday meal to the Hamuduruwo along with some fruit. With this, the heaviest task of his day was done.

In the evening he cut open three pomegranates, squeezed the juice out and made ready the offering to the Buddha. The two remaining parts he poured into the Hamuduruwo’s bowl. The Hamuduruwo took the poojawa to make his offering to the Buddha. The hunter took one pomegranate and tore into it as would a gorilla, and started down the hill.

Halfway down the rock, there was a pond filled with ice-cold water. The moment his eyes touched the water, he got goose bumps. The hunter, who never wears a stitch of clothing apart from his loincloth, never felt the cold, not even in the coldest nights of January. The water here was still and yet the moment his eyes fell on it his muscles reacted in the manner of a wild animal. He got goose bumps.

The Hamuduruwo had called him a hunter. He remembered this again. He wanted to walk past the pond but his legs carried him toward it. The conflict in his mind did not last long. He looked at the hole in the rock at the far end of the pond more out of habit than anything else. He loosened his loincloth and lay down on the rock in full view of the cave. The sun went down in the western sky and the sounds of day subsided and gave way to those of the night. His eyes and ears were oblivious to all this. Like the Hamuduruwo he was as though in deep meditation, his half-closed eyes directed at the cave. He had involuntarily taken hold of one end of his thick mustache. Like a buffalo chewing its cud, he sucked on it.

The objective of his anticipation arrived, sliding out of the cave. She was the Naga Manavikava that spends days upon days within the cavernous bowels of the rock and emerges on certain evenings. She came out and stood still. He was convinced that she was looking at him.

At the same moment he heard a sound, poosh . . . poosh, behind him. He knew this sound very well. It was the Naga Raja that guarded the treasure hidden behind the temple. He knew that the cobra was looking at the Naga Manavikava beyond him and signaling her as he approached. The hunter did not turn to look.

The hunter was hypnotized by the small, beautiful hooded head of the Naga Manavikava. He deliberately avoided looking at the Naga King. He didn’t look at the splendid and handsome creature—almost as though such a glance would evoke in him a jealous hatred. The Naga Manavikava unfolded her hood and began swaying to and fro in the manner of beginning a dance. His peripheral vision caught sight of the Naga slithering toward her. At the same time the snake that had been still and quiet within him began to come to life and uncoil. It too struggled with the desire to proceed toward the Naga Manavikava. And yet the hunter stood his ground like an enormous tree that had sunk its roots deep into the soil. All he did was to spread his legs just enough for the Naga Manavikava to be able to see the slow dance of his snake. The Naga King who protected the treasure was now by her side, hood touching hood, bodies entwined in slow dance. If the hunter so wished, his Naga Raja would in an instant be grappling with the Naga King in deadly battle.

The hunter knew that his cobra would easily slay the Naga King. He also knew that if it so happened it would spawn a hatred that would live from one lifetime to the next and the next thereafter and so on for centuries upon centuries. Knowing well the signs of such altercations and their adverse effect on the natural patterns of existence and coexistence in the jungle, the hunter caught hold of his Naga Raja in his hand and held it still.

Once or twice it escaped his grip and directed its hood, which was filled with blood-desire and blood-hatred, toward the Naga Manavikava. The hunter recalled the sorrow-filled countenance of the Hamuduruwo who spent his days and nights in the exercise of self-control. And in an instant the Naga Raja spit out the hatred and desire that had so filled its being and like a heart that becomes lifeless, trembled, and then lay still. The hunter fell as though his body had become like an empty anthill. Wearied by the torture of desire and the grip of the hunter’s strong fingers, the Naga Raja began to retreat into the empty anthill body of the hunter.

The hunter felt that his entire body had been warmed as would an anthill heated by the lava deep within the earth’s bosom. He left his loincloth upon the rock and stood up. He entered the pond. He did not feel its cold now. His flesh did not break out in goose bumps. He stayed in the water for a full half hour. As on land, his eyes remained half-closed, half-open. And in the water countless number of tiny creatures of countless colors began dancing the dance that spoke of the countless creatures across the limitless universe.

Fully satiated by the cool water, the hunter put on his loincloth and began descending the rock once again. By the pond, the premises of the Naga Manavikava was but an empty cave. His being was filled with thoughts that spoke of the coexistence of all creatures, those with legs and those that slithered. In the great earth there were countless other caves, other crevices. He too was but just another empty cave. And in this earth there were countless other snakes. 

***

The hunter went to the indalolu tree at the foot of the hill and saw the gun among its leaves. He looked at it long. The night was star-laden and although it was not too dark where he stood the darkness had congealed within the covering of leaves. And yet his keen eyes were able to see the gun clearly. He took it out, stood it against the tree and gazed at it for a long time.

The Hamuduruwo had once again addressed him as “hunter” that day.

He looked among the remains of a kumbuk log that he had set fire to the previous day and found a live glowing ember beneath the ash. He kindled a small fire out of it. He sat by the fire, picked up the gun and emptied the gunpowder completely. He cleaned the gun carefully. He reloaded and once again wiped the gun carefully. He did nothing in haste but with slow deliberation. He had not had opportunity to engage in this kind of important hunt from the day the gun came into his hands. He did not forget to put out the fire completely. A fire can cause harm to the unwary and overly curious creatures in the forest. The smallest spark could cause a wildfire. He was not stupid enough to leave a live fire unattended, having lived in harmony with the wilderness.

After the fire was out, he decided to ascend the rock. He picked up the gun and kept it over his shoulder. He turned toward the rock. Two bear cubs, one chasing the other in play, ran between his legs. The next moment their parents, chasing after the little ones, stood facing him. In the dim starlight he saw that the she-bear’s nose had been hurt in an accident. Two days previously she had not carried such a wound. He was certain about this. He instinctively stretched his hand toward her. The she-bear did not show any interest in his curiosity, or his need to offer some kind of salve and kindness. She avoided his hand, looked at the bear, and ran after the cubs. The bear on the other hand was slow. It looked at him and followed the female in slow, lumbering steps as though greatly wearied.

The hunter stood frozen, looking on as one who had been confronted by an unexpected obstacle. He felt that the gun on his shoulder had quietly acquired some additional weight. He turned and walked to the indalolu tree and placed the weapon in the crook. He stretched outward the fingers in his palms and watched the calluses break. He started his ascent once more, this time empty-handed.

He was not wont to hunt even the more dangerous of wild animals in the jungle, such as bear, for example. What dangerous creature was there to turn a gun upon from atop a rock that rose above the tree line when even elephants, bears, and leopards were tame animals and not hunters? It had to be assumed from the Hamuduruwo’s hint that what was troubling him was a species far more potent than the creatures of the jungle. What kind of beast could torment the Hamudurowo by running “soft fingertips” across his cheeks? It was as though he had concluded that whatever the identity of the tormentor, a gun would not be needed to face it. If he was unable to fend off the detractor with his hands tonight, if necessary he could tame it the following day with gun, whether the threat was greater than that posed by a lion or tiger. The hunter dragged his great limbs up the Mullegama Galkanda, without weapon, in the manner of one who had decided that the gun would be used only if necessary and this too only on the following night.

He was not used to dwelling too long on “delicate fingertips” and “animals that torment with caresses.”

Exactly at midnight, as though he had been prompted by an hour-marker, the Hamuduruwo made his way with utmost calm to the Esatu tree and sat under it in the lotus position. The hunter went to the kaku-bo bush, took up position behind it and gazed through the leaves in complete silence. It was as though the memory of the incident of the bird’s nest had been totally erased.

It was a completely silent night. Apart from the usual sounds of forest creatures there was nothing to be heard. The only difference that he detected was that the group of three elephants roaming in the jungle behind him the previous day had arrived at a patch of trees on his right. The baby elephant’s stomach rumbled louder than usual, indicating that it had been suffering from indigestion for several weeks.

The hunter didn’t know if the Hamuduruwo had remembered that surveillance on account of possible enemies had been solicited or obtained. It was clear however that the Hamuduruwo did not pause to see if the hunter was around. The Hamuduruwo had begun his meditation seated under the Esatu tree at the other end of the rock as was the custom from as far back as the hunter could remember.

The Hamuduruwo stood still, his back erect and hands folded over one another. The hunter, seated some fifty yards away, could see vein, sinew, and other markers that decorated the landscape of that serene face as clearly as he could see the lines on a Bo leaf less than a foot away.

Dawn was approaching. Although there was less rhythm than in the cry and timing of their tame counterparts in the villages, a couple of jungle fowl announced the arrival of the dawn. The hunter heard.

Instantly his sense of alertness became heightened. He immediately detected a certain change in the time-scarred facial muscles of the Hamuduruwo. The Hamuduruwo’s cheek was convulsing with intense feeling and indeed torment. It made the skin convulse. The Hamuduruwo was straining to keep his eyes tightly shut. There was a thin stream of desire rolling down his cheek followed immediately by one of immense sorrow. At that very moment the hunter saw the strangest creature. A giant ant of proportions he had never previously encountered had started walking all over the Hamuduruwo’s face.

The hunter had stood up without himself noticing this fact. He approached the Hamuduruwo in the manner of stalking a prey. He took care to approach from downwind in order not to alert the creature to his presence and approach. As he was closing in stealthily another amazing thing happened. The ant began to shrink in size. By the time he was about a foot away, the ant had become extremely tiny but was still crawling over the Hamuduruwo’s face. The hunter felt that his breathing was louder than usual. He held his breath and stretched his finger very slowly toward the Hamuduruwo’s face. The tiny ant left the Hamuduruwo’s face and crawled up the hunter’s finger.

The face of the Hamuduruwo, wrinkled beyond wrinkling in the agonies that had manifested themselves up to that point, instantly became calm and composed. The tightly shut eyelids opened slowly and with utmost calm. By the time the eyes were fully opened, the hunter had crushed the ant to death with his other hand. He placed the dead ant in his open palm and extended it the Hamuduruwo, in the manner of an offering to eye and gaze at.

The Hamuduruwo cast his eyes on the dead ant. He continued to gaze at it. The hunter remained with palm open in perfect stillness. An hour passed. Then another and yet another. The Hamuduruwo did not take his eyes away. Finally, just as the first rays of the morning sun kissed the rock, a slight and mysterious smile, and one had not been seen in many centuries, dawned upon the Hamuduruwo’s countenance. The Hamuduruwo closed his eyes quietly. The hunter for his part withdrew his hands, placed them on his knees and gazed upon the Hamuduruwo’s face as though in the clutch of hypnosis.

As the sun rose, the Hamuduruwo’s vein-ridden face with line and wart wrought by time appeared to take on a golden hue. The Hamuduruwo’s body was by this time covered by a certain glow.

After the hunter closed and opened his eyes, for the first time from nightfall to daybreak, he saw the Hamuduruwo looking at him. It was a face he had never seen before. There was peace and equanimity of the kind he had never encountered before in the shine of his gaze, and his voice, when he spoke, was different from the one he had become accustomed to hearing).

“Where is that she-ant you held in your palm? She was my wife four times in sansara. Many thousands of times she was a prostitute, a bitch, a cow-elephant, a doe . . .

“I triumphed over all the kleshas, all ants. You who came to my assistance will also one day slay all the kleshas at the end of sansara and attain the supreme bliss of nirvana.

Thereafter the Hamuduruwo raised his eyes to the sky very slowly. He let out a long, an extremely long, sigh. The hunter looked at the sky and for a moment felt faint. His eyes were blinded for a fraction of a second by a strange glow that had enveloped the entire area. When he next opened his eyes, the Hamuduruwo in the majestic manner of a lion lay at the foot of the Esatu tree in the sublime and incomparable pagoda of parinirvana.

© Simon Navagaththegama. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Malinda Seneviratne. All rights reserved.