The Tang dynasty monk Yijing (I Tsing), on a 20-year quest for Buddhist teachings, reached Nalanda University in North India in 670 CE. At Nalanda he learned through the writings of the great logician Dignaga about a Buddhist poet and grammarian, Bhartrihari, who had lived in the 5th century. Everything else certain about Bhartrihari could be engraved on a grain of rice. What he left is a philosophical treatise on grammar, the Vakyapadiya, and a few hundred poems, arranged by other hands into a book, the Shatakatrayam. No one is even sure if poet and linguist were the same man.

The jobs available in 5th-century India to an overeducated scholar-poet, adrift in a world of rich merchants, ruthless princes, and religious functionaries, were not many. He would most likely have served as a hired artist to decorate the courts of the warrior class. It was degrading work. Shamed by servitude on this narrow perch, Bhartrihari wrote: “Ruining my reputation / I ate in other men’s courtyards / stooped over like a fucking crow.” He watched wealth corrupt those around him. He saw that money, belongings, hereditary rank, and fast pleasure were the measure of life. Wise thought, love, and poetry had been reduced to ornaments. A few traditional stories say he quit the courts of the rich three or four times, preferring life as a forest or mountain yogin, but would then return, drawn by his love of companionship.

Spiritual urgency haunts his poems. Bhartrihari uses Buddhist terms: duhkha (suffering), anitya (impermanence), trishna (craving), and karma. He looks straight into what he calls the stormy froth of samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). How to cross samsara’s turbulent waters? How find refuge when karma is the unshakeable law and death’s the only certainty?

Indian scholars have long considered Bhartrihari a Shiva-worshipping Hindu. But his poems—quite popular in India for centuries—use Buddhist terms and ideas with such conviction that it seems pointless to identify him with one discipline or the other. I have lived alongside his poems for years. Recently I thought it time to “lock eyebrows,” as the old Zen term goes, with this Buddha ancestor by translating some of his verses.

Andrew Schelling

A human life is measured
at one hundred years.
Night takes half of it.
Childhood claims a portion,
so does old age.
The time that’s left you spend serving others,
you get sick,
your love affairs crumble—
it’s what Buddhists call duhkha.
Getting through life
is like fording a turbulent river.
Rocks, shoals, unseen reefs . . .
              can joy come on its waters?

A destitute man
craves only a handful
of barley.
Later, his belly full,
he counts the whole earth
a blade of straw.
No single measure
gives value or weight to a thing.
The circumstance
of the person who sees it
broadens or
narrows its worth.

Should I settle along
a holy river
and practice rigorous yoga?
Or court ladies who favor me with
exceptional passion?
Might I drink from that torrent
of ancient books—
the many poems, brimming, deathless,
passionate, juicy.
What to do—? in this life?
It’ll be gone
in an eye blink.

Avoid killing,
not to covet the wealth
of others,
to speak truth.
Giving money when you can.
Staying silent about
your escapades
with young women.
Resist the ongoing surge of desire,
praise teachers,
give every creature compassion.
This unobstructed path
is the highest,
all the books say.

When the yuga ends
Mount Meru
engulfed by fire will crumble.
Thick with huge fish
and legendary sea creatures
the ocean will dry out.
Even the earth
propped by solid mountains
comes to an end.
What then of this human body—?
say it trembles on the rim
of a baby
elephant’s ear.

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