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Lions Roar : May 2019
Shantum Seth, a Buddhist teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition as well as a guide with his tour company Buddhapath, has for many years taken groups of people to practice in rock-cut caves in India. When I ask him why, he says that we bring these places back to life when we use them as they were originally intended. And, he adds, “I love caves. I like sitting under a tree, but trees are more distractive. A cave gives you a strong sense of being in a womb. When you come out, you see the light, and it’s like you’re making a new birth. It’s much easier to go within when you’re in a cave.” The kind of affinity with caves that Seth is talking about is not limited to Buddhists, and indeed not all rock-cut caves in India have Bud- dhist connections. Hindus and Jains also made extensive use of such caves, and some, such as the celebrated Ellora Caves, which are just sixty miles from Ajanta, contain Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monuments. Today in the West we tend to put Bud- dhism in its own little box, separate, for example, from Hinduism. Yet for the people of ancient and medieval India, spirituality was generally something much more fluid. Case in point, the construction of the Ajanta Caves was funded by wealthy rulers who could perhaps best be described as Hindus with Buddhist leanings. But the big question for me is why would any- one—Hindu or Buddhist—be motivated to finance the Ajanta Caves? While the construction clearly required an enormous amount of resources, the caves are, even today, remote and rather onerous to get to. If you’re going to build something so grand, why not do so in a city, or at least near a city, where more people will presumably see it? According to Richard Cohen, the motivation was both spiritual and political. Although the horseshoe-shaped ravine of Ajanta is secluded, it was on a north–south trade and pil- grimage route. “So,” says Cohen, “ it was not on top of a mountain where nobody would come unless they were going just to sit in a cave for three years.” The intention was that traders and pilgrims from all around would pass through and be amazed by what this reigning king and his court had accomplished. The message, Cohen continues, was that “they were good people, they were holy people, and they were powerful people.” In other words, the builders of the Ajanta Caves were not to be messed with. Merit making was another motivation for patron- izing Ajanta. In all likelihood, the same rulers who paid for Ajanta were also responsible for urban monasteries that were equally stunning, if not more so. But being made of wood, those constructions have not sur vived to the present day. Building into the rock of the mountain ensured longevity. Because merit was believed to be accrued for patrons every time someone made use of their gift, endless use meant endless merit, says Cohen. In one patron’s ancient inscription, Ajanta is described as “a memorial on the mountain that will endure for as long as the moon and the sun con- tinue.” And while that strikes me as a bit ambitious, I am moved that—so many centuries later—the Ajanta Caves are still awing pilgrims like me. By the time I finish exploring, one of my shoe coverings has torn. I slip the other one off, and then—trying to avoid the many cheeky monkeys—I head back to my tour bus. ♦ According to pilgrimage guide Shantum Seth, we bring these cave temples back to life when we use them as they were originally intended: for practice and study. PHOTOBYBYJEAN-PIERREDALBÉRA—FLICKR,CCBY2.0 LION’S ROAR | MAY 2019 47