Dawn: (noun) the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise.
Every story starts with the sun.
The light illuminating the page you are reading began its journey over one-hundred thousand years ago.
After it was created in the core of this star which mastered the dance of transforming mass into energy (four million tons of mass shifts into energy at every second), a photon travels for one-hundred thousand years at the speed of light — so stunningly fast it is still — through a zone of radiant plasma.
After negotiating its way through this thick miasma of sparkling particles, it speeds through the more limpid connective zone for a mere month until it skims the roiling skin of the burning star.
Eight minutes later, it illuminates your page, whether a book of sensuous paper and ink, or a sleek phone cradled in your palm.
The light now embracing you was created when homo sapiens were just beginning to explore this bracing, frightening, dazzling phenomenon of a world.
And yet, light traveling at light-speed is ageless.
Eternally young in its infinite patience.
As if it’s always been waiting, for you.
Dawn: (verb) become evident to the mind; be perceived or understood.
I have been waiting for you.
A short, slim Buddhist priest circles an altar bearing Amidha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, in a temple in the forested hills of Kyoto. Outside, a wintry sun circles the temple, illuminating this eternally rotating world with its rays of gold.
But something else illuminates this world as well: the human mind.
“Nembutsu nembutsu,” the monk chants, repeatedly, focusing his mind on the name of the enlightened one while emptying it of all the weariness, the samsara, of this world.
One day, this temple will be named for him, but he has no idea of this now. It is too much for a quiet, holy man to comprehend.
For now, he prays.
The temple is fragrant with smoky sandalwood and camphor.
The weather outside is clear, and cold. It is only February. A long time until Kyoto is adorned in the koyo — the cinnamon and gold glimmers of autumn. The koyo enhances the transcendent nature of Buddhist teachings — the shimmering certainty of incessant, often imperceptible, change.
He walks. One step after another. One step after another.
the priest stops.
Amidha Buddha stands in front of him. The idol has made the leap of faith into life.
“You are slow,” the Buddha says.
The priest stares into the golden eyes of the resplendent one. He does not move. He is not certain if he still breathes.
Am I dreaming? the priest asks himself, as the Buddha motions him to follow him, and turns.
The humble devotee takes one step. And another.
The Buddha turns his head around, to ascertain whether the priest is still following him. In that instant, a legend is born, although the priest doesn’t know it. He does not know that a golden statue of the Looking-Back Buddha will be honored in the temple of Eikan-do, in Kyoto for the next thousand years to come.
Does the priest, Eikan, really follow the Buddha? Is he dreaming? Or is the Buddha dreaming of him?
The only certainty he possesses is this: he has entered a state of a greater consciousness, more radiant than he ever could have imagined.
And in that instant, he understands: This is why I have followed in the feet of the Buddha my entire life. He floats, as he grasps the reason for his entire existence. This is why I have followed in the feet of the Buddha my entire life, he thinks. This longing for radiance.
I imagine Eikan’s thoughts, one chilly evening in November in 2011, amidst the many lit shrines of the Eikan-do temple complex in Kyoto just off the Tetsugako-no-michi, or Philosopher’s Path. Many people wander the complex, snapping pictures with assorted cameras. It is the first illumination of the season; and in the golden light of lanterns, goddesses, such as Kannon, the deity of compassion, as well as gods are blissfully alive.
A small green dragon roars upon a well. Inside an ornate chocolate-and-gold colored temple, the Looking-Back Buddha looks back.
He wants to make certain we follow him. As I leave, I look back. Japanese devotees clasp their hands in front of the Buddha and close their eyes. I lived for one year in Yokohama, in the early 1990’s, teaching English in companies such as Mitsubishi, Hitachi, or lesser-known ones, such as Makino Frice. My students always told me, “Japanese people have no religion. We are just Japanese.”
Very practical attitude. “Shinto for happy occasions. Buddhist for sad,” one middle-aged man told me in Hitachi.
Perhaps. But watching the hundreds of devotees, it is hard to fall into the snare of such pragmatism.
I reflect, among floating streams of fluid, honeyed, light, how the Buddha sees through us all.
“Come,” he whispers, “Follow me.”
Dawn: (noun) the beginning of a phenomenon or period of time, especially one considered favorable
“I am not following you!” one desperate voice whispers to another rapidly in French, “Are you crazy?” Midnight, June 1940. Somewhere in the Belgian countryside, a train slowly stops.
It is a Nazi train, full of POW’s fresh from the Battle at Dunkirk. The Nazis have ravaged Europe. Their next destination is the English Channel, and finally, Britain. Allied soldiers, French and British, have fought hard to defend the coast but now flee. The evacuation is a success; the battle will soon be known as the miracle at Dunkirk, as over 300,000 Allied soldiers are liberated by small ships ferrying fighting men over the English Channel back into Britain.
Not everyone is rescued.
In the Belgian countryside, the night holds its breath in expectation; something dazzling and daring is happening on that train.
A young French soldier, whose hair is as dark as the terror of war, whispers to another,
“Now. We need to go now.”
A furious, soft frightened response, “You are crazy. We will be shot.”
“If you don’t come with me now, I will tell everyone in Lille that you were a coward.”
The second man stares at the first. He cannot see the latter’s eyes; it is too dark.
“Louis,” he mutters.
Louis turns, right hand pressed against the door of the train. No guard in immediate sight.
Behind him, the security of prison.
In front of him, the uncertainty of freedom.
For Louis, there is no choice.
He jumps, his comrade following behind. They hit the earth hard, and roll down a hill.
What to do now? Louis thinks only one thought: Our clothes. We need to change our clothes.
Many years later, in her apartment in Tours, the largest city in the chateau-sprinkled Loire Valley, Louis’ widow tells me, “He and his cousin changed out of their clothes. They rolled down a hill, and found a farmhouse, where the people there gave them civilian clothes. Then they managed to find their way back to Lille. And then we got married.”
What a tale. Almost too romantic to be true.
Five children, innumerable grandchildren.
I met Madame Eglantine Menget when chance, or rather, from the hindsight of three decades, destiny brought us together in 1988. I spent my junior year abroad in France. I felt I’d be living in a magical world. Before my fellow students and I hit the big city of Paris, we spent one month in Tours, to prepare our French, and to prepare ourselves.
We were randomly placed with willing families. Madame Menget’s husband Louis had just died the previous year, and she started taking in American students. One young Afghan student, Ibrahim, already lived in a room above her garage in her spacious wartime jewel of a residence. The home was situated in a suburb of Tours that had a name as poetic as the French language itself: St. Cyr-sur-Loire.
And the heart of this jewel? The garden. Where Madame grew tomates, champignons, aubergine. courgettes, piments, laitue. Each day a freshly grown vegetable found its place in the lunches she prepared and which I relished upon returning from class during my two-hour (!) lunch break.
Le dejeuner always began with a sliced grapefruit. We sat at the dining table, watched the news, and I listened as she lamented upon the assorted miseries in the world. “Oh là là,” she said. “Le chomage, la guerre,”—unemployment, war—“Oh là là,”. (War, unemployment…not much is so different thirty years on, except, of course, for the precarious state of our earth.)
A centerpiece of lunch, of course, was le fromage. As a South Indian vegetarian, I had never eaten cheese with such formality. Madame taught me how to slice the fromage-whether Camembert, Brie, or a variety of regional flavors— just right. A light dessert ended the repast, usually un petit yaourt, but sometimes a fragrant tarte aux amandes, or tarte aux pommes.
Madame passed away a few years ago. I wonder now… what if Louis had not jumped off that train? I found out later she and her husband hid in the forests of Langeais during Nazi occupation. She’d just had her first child.
She also told me that Louis had no fear of death before he died. He was a man loyal to his Catholic faith; thus, death was but another dawn.
Upon my departure from France, she gave me a French soap, scented Eglantine. “Eglantine,” she said, giggling. “It means le rose sauvage.”
Wild Rose. No other name would suit her better.
Dawn: (verb) to come into existence. Personified by the Vedic goddess Ushas:
“She, like a dancer, puts her broidered garments on;…Creating light for all the world of life, the Dawn hath laid the darkness open… We have beheld the brightness of her shining; it spreads and drives away the darksome monster. We have o’erpast the limit of this darkness; Dawn breaking forth again brings clear perception.”
Here in St. Louis, in autumn 2022, the leaves of the ash behind the back door are turning lemony green while the aged ash in front appears as youthful as ever, in burgundy-wine-orangish leaves.
Crisp deep yellow catalpa leaves skip upon the patio while the foliage of silver maples is just beginning to touch gold.
I watch dying leaves dance upon the driveway, and think, as I have nearly every autumn of my life, of classical Indian dance. I am a classical Indian dancer and am now at the helm of Dances of India, one of the oldest classical Indian dance companies in the US. My mom is Artistic Director. My late dad, a quiet research scientist, loved classical music and dance of both East and West, and with my mom began Dances of India in the 1970’s. We are now in our 45th season.
Every season, since 1977, we have presented a dance performance. For the last fifteen years, I have written and narrated our original productions. For nearly my entire life, I have performed on stage every autumn.
Invariably, fall brings to mind my identity as a dancer. It is astonishing: here, in the heart of the Midwest, at a time when there was barely any knowledge of India, my parents took a chance and started a company of classical Indian dance. Bharata Natyam came into being here, within our home, in a suburb of St. Louis graced with trees.
And while I can’t say I fit in completely in St. Louis, even though I was born and raised here, I can say I feel at one with its — and Missouri’s — and even America’s — enchanting trees.
When I think of the many road-trips my family took when I was a kid, I think of trees upon trees. The many woods — hickory, oak, sumac, maple — of Missouri as we’d travel to Silver Dollar City in the Ozark Mountains or Meramec Caverns, huge inky-black caves where the outlaw Jesse James once hid from the eyes of the law in complete darkness. The hilly forests of buckeye, sassafras, honey locust in Pennsylvania on the way to the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh. (At the time, that was the only major Hindu temple in the U.S.) Tropical red mangroves in Florida along the sea-green spring-fed Weeki Wachee River. Firs, witchhazels, and Kentucky Coffee trees shrouded in clouds in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where we visited the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville and the quaint town of Chattanooga. (I remember my grandma in her sari seemed so incredibly foreign in the Opry that a tour guide asked me loudly, “Does she speak English?” My grandma’s English, which was peppered with British grammatical constructions, was probably better than hers!)
The Great Smoky Mountains are indeed smoky. My dad and uncle navigated us carefully through threatening ogres of hungry fog. Driving through Pennsylvania, I’d spot a lonely cabin or home high atop a wooded hill and dream of what it would be like to live there.
To wake up to nothing but a world of trees.
The oaks and bald cypresses draped in Spanish Moss in Louisiana felt like royal phantoms to me, ghosts of long-ago gorgeous queens come back to experience the world as arboreal beauties crowned in smoky flushed grace. They appeared aged, all-knowing goddesses against elegant plantation homes stained with the pain of slavery. I drove to New Orleans in college with three friends and then on to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. I remember snapshots: sweetgum and tulip trees framing black families sitting on porches in Mississippi, watching the road (what fiery history they have survived), lush magnolia trees heralding the early spring of Tennessee, slender, cool, longleaf pines in Birmingham outside my friend’s home which surprised me with their height.
One of my favorite things to dream about while driving anywhere in the US is about the Native American relationship with the land. (“Missouri” is a term French colonialists adapted for the tribe along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. It means “One who has a dugout canoe.”) This continent must have been hypnotically beautiful; I can only imagine awakening each day to nothing but skies, rock, water, trees, and bison, millions and millions of these humpbacked bulky creatures grazing on the land. I don’t deny that life was difficult then and plagued with wars, disease, strife, but I do think endless technological distraction has robbed us of the great treasure of the Native American worldview: intimacy with the mystery in which we live.
I found that intimacy in Arizona, in the Petrified Forest, a place of wild, unrestrained stillness. This forest is crafted not of living, breathing, trees, but of their dismembered limbs which, at 225 million years old, have fossilized into radiant rock. I sat on one of the huge fallen tree trunks and stared out into ochre, bronze, and beige brushstrokes of the Painted Desert, stunned at the masterwork of rocks composed of color-rich compounds of iron and manganese. How has so much time passed upon this earth? How in the world am I experiencing the fruits of infinite patience? For these shining gems of rock were created slowly in a natural, unimaginably long dance of wind, earth, and volcanic energy.
The composition of these petrified trees (the species is now extinct) began before their decomposition. Their gentle, gradual waltz into quartz began when the trees were buried in sediment splashed with volcanic ash. Earthen water filtered silica from the ash which found a home in the many hermetic cells of the trees. Slowly, ever so slowly, the silica crystallized into quartz, scattering the Painted Desert with jewels no human could create.
I tried to imagine the giant amphibians, crocodile-like reptiles, and myriads of small dinosaurs that once ran, swam, and walked through the very spot of earth on which I sat.
Rivers once ran through here, alongside forests with a tropical feel, as the land that is Arizona was once so much closer to the equator. I longed to make that prehistory my own history, to understand the life-story of this earth upon which my own life passes.
It is a longing of great length; for no matter how hard I try to stretch my imagination, to visualise aeons of geologic transformation and animal life untouched by human thought, it is difficult.
How many dawns have passed since the forest now petrified first took root?
Perhaps I identify with trees for their silence and stolidity. Trees don’t weep thinking of the thousands of weeks they have lived, and don’t worry about the weeks ahead. They live from one dawn to the next.
Night and its billions of scattered stars intervene before the light that left our stunning sun once more emerges above our horizon.
And then we wake.
Nartana Premachandra is a Contributor at Panorama.