The Green Buddha of The Grotto

From The Buddha In The Jungle by Kamala Tiyavanich.

The Green Buddha of The Grotto

Western Explorers and thudong monks who traveled through the forests of Siam and Laos often saw Buddha images, large and small, in sacred caves. Between 1881 and 1893, when James McCarthy was conducting surveys for Siam's government that took him all over the north, he investigated many caves. When he was in Nan, a principality in northern Siam ringed by high mountains, McCarthy wrote, "We visited the cave opposite the mouth of the Nam U, the ascent to which was made easy by a flight of steps. It was not very large but contained from one to two hundred images, varying from 3 inches to as many feet. A beautiful little pagoda built within looked charming in the glorious sunlight." Local people generally believed that many of the Buddha images in the caves had been there since ancient times. Upon entering a cave or a wat they usually paid homage to the Buddha images there. Villagers did not keep Buddha images in their homes. In the days when village life was not yet ruled by money, it was unthinkable that anyone should wish to remove images from caves or monasteries.

Unlike devout villagers, Westerners who came upon Buddha images in caves had no fear of guardian spirits. Those who wished to take a few images home with them did so without scruple. A Dutchman identified only by his last name, Klaasen, came to Northern Siam during the first decade of the twentieth century when the mountains and jungles were still formidable places. Klaasen, who lived and worked in Siam for thirty-five years, was not an antique hunter and knew the law forbidding the removal of religious statuary, but when he saw a green jade Buddha image in a jungle cave somewhere beyond Chiang Mai, he could not resist the temptation to take it.

Many years later, in the 1950s, Klaasen met Ludwig Koch-Isenburg, a German zoologist, at a hotel in northern Thailand. The Dutchman proposed a trek to the cave. Klaasen, who knew his way around, persuaded a government official in Chiang Mai to give them permission to stay at a solitary forest rangers' station high up in the mountains. Koch-Isenburg, who wrote about their trek, described the scene .. ..

"We had come to the bottom of a wide ravine whose floor was completely covered by a shallow, crystalline stream. Holding our shoes in our hands, we leaped from stone to stone in the bed of the river. ... The ravine narrowed." Suddenly, he cried out in amazement. "A gigantic recumbent Buddha had been carved out of the rock. One arm was outstretched along the body, the other was propping up the head; the eyes gazed, mysterious and unfathomable, into the timeless green and golden virgin jungle. .. I realize that we had entered a mighty grotto in the rock. In front of the Buddha's face stood a vessel containing rods of incense, and I saw with some surprise that my Dutch friend was lighting them. .. "

Klaasen led Koch-Isenburg to a little niche in the rock at the feet of the Buddha. "Carefully he picked up a carving that stood there and handed it to me. I stared spellbound at the ancient image. .. .. A tremendous feeling of happiness surged through me. I felt a deep sense of gratitude, though I could not have said for what." The Dutchman then told the German scientist that the statue had this effect "upon everyone who sees it". Klaasen next confessed that he had once been so "overwhelmed" by it that he "became a thief".

In the 1920s, Klaasen told his young friend, " ... ... I had to fight a terrible battle with myself," he told his companion, "before I reached out my hands and plucked the statue from the spot where it had probably stood for centuries. ... And in fact, the very moment I put the sculpture into my pack, I thought I heard a burst of insane laughter. ..."

After reasoning that he would soon be returning to Holland, where avenging spirits could not follow him, he found no peace. He bought a small statuette of Buddha made of solid gold. Its money value, Klaasen said, "must be approximately the same as the value of the stolen jade Buddha ... We materialistic Westerns think we can balance everything by arithmetic and pay for anything on earth. I travelled back all that enormous distance and set the gold Buddha in the empty place on the altar. But this act of restitution did not buy me inner peace. Nevertheless, a few months later, I was ready to start for Holland, and by that time I had at least regained enough peace of mind so that I could sleep at night."

Klaasen succeeded in smuggling the statue out of the country, but "back in misty Holland, whenever I looked at my Buddha," he said, "I felt a stabbing pain in my chest. What an earthly paradise I had given up! I would sit lost in thought for hours, and all the magic beauty of that ravine in the jungle would pour through my heart."

After working out a new contract with his firm, Klaasen returned to Siam. As soon as he could get away from his job, he traveled back to the north. He had decided to return the green Buddha to its home. "By now it had become completely clear that I must return my stolen Buddha to the sanctuary if I were ever to be a free man again."

The closer he got to the cave temple the better the Dutchman began to feel. But when he entered the grotto, he said, he "sprang back in horror. Before the altar an ancient monk in yellow robe was kneeling. The pedestal of the jade Buddha, on which I had placed the golden image, was empty. The monk rose as if he had sensed my presence and came toward me. His eyes held a look of infinite kindness as he bowed his head and raised his clasped hands to his forehead in greeting. Like a sinner caught in the act, I stood before the man. The stolen Buddha burned like fire in my hands, and, acting under a mysterious compulsion, I held it out to him. A repressed smile played around his lips - or so it seemed to me - and quietly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, he turned and replaced the statue on its pedestal."

The monk said quietly, "I have waited for you, Brother."

Klaasen learned that the monk, a hermit, had watched the theft from his cave in the rocks above the grotto. He could have stopped Klaasen, "But true to the rules of his religion, with its respect for others," the Dutchman told the German, "he had let me commit the robbery. He could have called out to me, but had he done so the farang [Westerner] would have lost face, would have been shamed."

Taking a deep breath, Klaasen revealed to his German companion that he then became a Buddhist and for a long while "wore the yellow robe and trudged about the country with the begging bowl," returning to the gorge from time to time. "All our European haste and disquiet has fallen away from me. I have come to realize that quiet equanimity is the highest good that we can achieve in this life," the Dutchman concluded.


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