The Dhammapada, verses nineteen & twenty: “Learning without practice is of no worth”

It’s been a long time, but I finally found an excuse to do a Pāḷi word of the day again: pariyatti, which means studying the Dhamma, and patipatti, which means practicing the Dhamma. Okay, so that’s technically two Pāḷi words of the day. So sue me.

19. Bahum pi ce sahitaṃ bhāsamāno —

na takkaro hoti naro pamatto

Gopo’vo gāvo gaṇayaṃ paresaṃ —

na bhāgavā sāmaññassa hoti.

“Though much he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who counts others’ kine. He has no share in the fruits of the Holy Life.”

20. Appam pi ce sahitaṃ bhāsamāno —

dhammassa hoti anudhammacārī

Rāgañ ca dosañ ca pahāya mohaṃ —

sammappajāno suvimuttacitto

Anupādiyāno idha vā huraṃ vā —

sa bhāgavā sāmaññassa hoti.

“Though little he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts in accordance with the teaching, forsaking lust, hatred, and ignorance, truly knowing, with mind well-freed, clinging to naught here and hereafter, he shares the fruits of the Holy Life.”

The heart of this teaching is hardly unique to the Buddha — indeed, almost every person, religious or not, is familiar with the concept of “walking the walk.”

Behind the verses is a story about two close friends who decided to become monks together. After their ordination, however, they realized that they had a big problem: they had apparently joined the Buddha’s order without knowing exactly what it was that monks were supposed to do. They approached their new teacher for guidance, and the Blessed One explained that His monks usually dedicated themselves to fulfilling one of two duties: that of practice (i.e. meditation,) and that of study. He gave a detailed description of each, and the two friends made their decisions: the older one would spend his time practicing meditation while the younger one committed himself to memorizing the Buddha’s teachings.

It should be noted that the commentary specifically states that the younger monk memorized the Tipiṭaka, even though the collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha and His disciples that make up the modern Pāḷi Canon wasn’t codified until about 230 years after His death; it wasn’t even committed to writing until sometime in the first century C.E. It’s possible that  the Buddha’s teachings were already being re-formulated into something like the suttas we have today for ease of memorization, but we’ll probably never know for sure. Some details regarding the origin and history of these stories are also worth mentioning: according to timeline of Buddhist history on Access to Insight, Buddhaghosa compiled the oldest commentaries at the Mahā Vihāra in Sri Lanka in the 5th century and translated them from their original Sinhalese into Pāḷi, presumably so that monks from all over could have access to them regardless of their native language. The Mahā Vihāra was the center of Buddhist orthodoxy at the time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Buddhaghosa inserted the reference to the Tipiṭaka himself to lend his sect’s recension of the teachings an air of authority.

I think it’s always good to be aware of these kinds of details and the possible motivations behind them, but at the end of the day I don’t think it matters much. The most important thing to do is to see through the frills and get to the essence of what the commentaries have to teach us. Let’s get back to story, shall we?

Both friends performed their chosen duties extremely well: the older monk eventually gained enlightenment thanks to his dedicated practice, while the younger monk, having memorized the entire body of teachings, became something like the Buddhist equivalent of American Christianity’s itinerant preachers. By the time they became theras, or senior monks, both of them had significant followings; the commentary tells us that the younger of the two friends became particularly influential as the mentor of eighteen different communities of monks! Like most monks in Buddhist literature, though, his enormous influence eventually went to his head.

At some point a group of young initiates came to the older to learn meditation, and all attained enlightenment thanks to his instruction and guidance. Once they had completed their training, they expressed a desire to finally meet the Buddha and pay their respects in person. Their teaching gave them his blessing, adding that they should give his regards to the eighty chief elders as well as his old friend. They did as instructed, but when they told the preacher who their teacher was, he scoffed. “But what have you learned from him?” he asked. “Of the Dīgha Nikāya and the other Nikāyas, have you learned a single Nikāya? Of the three Piṭakas, have you learned a single Piṭaka?” Leadership of so many communities of monks was apparently not enough for him; he resented his less-knowledgable friend had become the object of considerable respect despite not having learned “a single Stanza of four verses.” Determined to demonstrate his superiority, young monk decided to try and outwit his friend in a debate.

The next time the older monk came to visit the Buddha, the younger monk invited him to sit and keep him company. Luckily for him, the Blessed One knew exactly what was going on. It always amazes me that the monks in these stories seem to consistently forget that a Buddha has the power read minds; fortunately, He always seemed to use this ability to look out for people instead of trying to embarrass them or make them feel condemned for misguided thoughts or intentions. He saw that the young monk was about to accumulate a considerable amount of unwholesome kamma by trying to embarrass his friend, and decided to intervene out of compassion (more specifically, the commentary states that the younger monk was risking a rebirth in Hell, but that’s not the point.) He dropped whatever He was doing to go straight to the hut where the two friends were talking and came in to sit down. The Buddha knew that his student’s arrogance and lack of respect would get him into a lot of trouble; the best way to humble him was for the Buddha to ask some questions of His own.

The young monk had learned a lot about the theory of meditation — he was well-versed in the ideas and methods that the Buddha had explained to the monks — but he had never taken the time to put those teachings into practice. He had in a sense memorized the roadmap without actually going anywhere. The Blessed One started there, asking the young monk a series of questions about the different stages and degrees of concentration, all of which he answered correctly. But when he was asked about the first stage of enlightenment, the beginnings of insight into the way things really are, he was at a loss. Then the Buddha turned to the older monk and asked the same question. To his friend’s surprise, the older monk gave the correct answer right away. The Lord responded with the one show of approval that the younger monk, with all his followers, had never received: His own. He clapped His hands and joyfully lavished praise on the master meditator. Three successive questions were likewise answered immediately and insightfully, and each time the Teacher heartily congratulated his student. It’s said that even the spirits and invisible beings who populated the different celestial planes joined in to celebrate the older monk’s monumental accomplishment.

The commentary doesn’t tell us what happened afterwards, but I’d like to think that the young monk got up from where he was sitting and rushed out the door, determined to stop wasting time and get down to the business of liberation and show his master that he could be worthy of praise, too.

After all this had taken place, the preacher’s students were nonplussed; why had the Lord praised an ignorant old man like that and neglected their own teacher? Always on the lookout for even the smallest teaching opportunity, the Buddha came to them and asked what they were talking about. When they aired their grievances to Him, He answered with a simile: “Monks, your own teacher is in my Religion like a man who tends cows for hire. But my son is like a master who enjoys the five products of the cow at his own good pleasure.” He then summed up his teaching in the two verses quoted above.

Superficially, the Buddha is telling us that paying lip-service to a principles and practices isn’t enough. What matters most is making a sincere effort to reflect those practices and principles in our behavior, and to allow them to make us into better human beings. Furthermore, while other verses in the Dhammapada have shown us that the early Buddhist community felt that knowledge — rather than age, social standing, or rank — is what makes one noble and worthy of respect, these verses and the story behind them tell us that there are two kinds of knowledge: knowledge obtained through learning, and knowledge obtained through direct experience. It’s not that knowledge is bad; after all, the Buddha Himself recommended study as a legitimate pursuit for monks. But there’s something even more important than knowledge: wisdom. In attempting to answer the Buddha’s questions, the young monk in our story showed that he had learned much but understood little; it was rather the deep and personal insights of the elder monk that the Buddha considered worthy of praise. This teaching isn’t the only valuable thing we can learn from the story though.

I’ll admit that there’s something that bothers me about the Pāḷi Canon: even though modern discussions of Buddhism really emphasize the value of compassion, I actually haven’t found many discussions of it in my study of the Buddha’s discourses themselves. It’s listed along with loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and detachment as one of the four objects of meditation that the Blessed One offered as gateways to deep meditation, but the Buddha doesn’t seem to explicitly urge his disciples to go out and do compassionate things like feeding the poor. As someone who grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture, that troubles me.

However, I appreciate this particular story because it shows the Buddha’s care for people trapped in saṃsāra. When He realized that the younger monk’s hubris would ultimately lead to more unhappiness and suffering, He went to him “out of compassion.” Even His seeming lack of appreciation for the young monk’s intellectual accomplishments is in fact an act of compassion, because He’s attempting to benefit him in two ways: firstly by diminishing his ego and teaching him the value of humility and respect, and secondly by reminding him that the heart of the practice is just that — practice. The goal isn’t to embarrass him, but to encourage him with a demonstration of positive reinforcement.

I think it’s worth noting that just because traditional Theravāda has an intense focus on personal practice and detachment — as exemplified in this story — it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a self-centered spiritual path. If I remember right, Ajahn Chah once referred to sincere and committed practice as “making the heart good.” How many people have done immense harm, not from a lack of good intensions, but because of delusion and wrong view? Who could be better suited to acting for the good of all people than someone who regards everything and everyone with perfect equanimity, and therefore perfect disinterest? Maybe early Buddhism didn’t explicitly emphasize social justice and activism because it’s assumed that someone who’s “made the heart good” will naturally feel moved to help others. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that only perfect love, perfect compassion, perfect empathy, and a complete lack of prejudice and self-interest — the very fruits of the brahmavihāras that the Buddha gave as a gift to the world — can lead to perfect service.


The Dhammapada, verse eighteen: “Happy are the righteous…”

Idha nandati pecca nandati —

katapuñño ubhayattha nandati.

Puññaṃ me katan ti nandati —

bhiyyo nandati suggatiṃ gato.

“Here he is happy, hereafter he is happy. In both states the well-doer is happy. “Good have I done” (thinking thus), he is happy. Furthermore, he is happy, having gone to a blissful state.”

This verse is part of a pair with verse seventeen, and while that verse was a warning, this one is a promise. Good and wholesome acts are rewarded with what is good and wholesome. Here the Buddha touches again not only on how one’s skillful or unskillful actions affect one’s destination, but on the impact that those actions have on the mind; whereas the evil person suffers even now due to guilt, the good person reflects on their good works and rejoices.

The commentary gives us the sad but touching story of a good-hearted laywoman as the context of this verse:

In the city of Sāvatthi lived two of the Buddha’s most important supporters. One was the successful businessman Sudatta, called Anāthapiṇḍika, and the other was a wealthy woman named Visākhā. Both of them financed the construction of delightful monasteries near the city in honor of the Buddha, and they loved to look after the Him and His monks. The well-being of their teacher wasn’t their only concern, though; they also gave abundantly to the less fortunate (Anāthapiṇḍika means “one who gives to those in need.) Giving was living to them, and they lived large.

After many years as the Buddha’s chief lay disciples and the Sangha’s most reliable caretakers, it came time for Anāthapiṇḍika and Visākhā to find someone to take their places in their old age. Visākhā appointed her grandson, while Anāthapiṇḍika appointed his oldest daughter Mahā Subhaddā, who fulfilled her new responsibilities admirably. Rendering service to the Buddha gave her an opportunity to hear the Dhamma, and eventually she became a sotāpanna, or stream-winner. Eventually, however, she got married and left to live with the family of her new husband. Anāthapiṇḍika asked his middle daughter, named Cullā Subhaddā, to take over, but things turned out in much the same way: she dutifully cared for the Buddha and the Sangha, became a stream-winner, got married, and left home. Now Anāthapiṇḍika had no choice but to turn to his youngest daughter Sumanā for help. Sumanā rose to the challenge, doing everything that her sisters did before her; she even managed to gain a deeper understanding of the Dhamma than they had. There was one important difference, however: despite all of her wonderful qualities, she couldn’t find a husband.

As time went on, Sumanā grew more and more dejected and depressed. It eventually got so bad that she wouldn’t leave her bed or even eat. When Anāthapiṇḍika’s servants told him that his daughter was asking to see him, he dropped everything he was doing and came immediately. When he asked her what was wrong, she said, “What say you, dear youngest brother?” Anāthapiṇḍika couldn’t have been more confused. When he told Sumanā that she was talking incoherently, she only insisted that she was not. Finally, tearfully, he asked, “Are you afraid, dear daughter?” With her last breath, his youngest child answered, “I am not afraid, youngest brother.”

Buddhist or not, Anāthapiṇḑika was devastated. Not only was his little girl gone, but she had died mumbling like a senile old woman. What could it mean? Even seeing to Sumanā’s funeral didn’t give him the closure he needed, so he went to the only person that could: the Buddha.

When His most generous benefactor came to him with tears streaming down his face, the Buddha was understandably concerned. “Householder, how is it that you come to me sad and sorrowful, with tears in your eyes, weeping?” Anāthapiṇḍika told Him what had happened. The Buddha tried to comfort him by reminding him that death is a natural and inevitable part of life, but Anāthapiṇḍika explained that there was something that was troubling him even more: Sumanā’s state of mind at the moment that she passed away. He told the Buddha about how his daughter didn’t seem to recognize him, but repeatedly called him “youngest brother.” The Blessed One knew immediately what had happened, and wasted no time explaining the matter to his disciple:

“Great treasurer, your daughter did not talk incoherently.”

“But why did she speak thus?”

“Solely because you were her youngest brother. Householder, your daughter was old in the Paths and the Fruits, for while you have attained but the Fruit of Conversion, your daughter had attained the Fruit of the Second Path. Thus it was, because she was old in the Paths and the Fruits, that she spoke thus.”

“Was that the reason, Reverend Sir?”

“That was the reason, householder.”

Even better, the Buddha told Anāthapiṇḍika that Sumanā had been reborn in the highest of all the celestial planes, the same place that Buddhas-to-be descend from, and where the families of Buddhas are said to live after passing away on Earth. The relief that Anāthapiṇḍika felt must have been enormous; if only all bereaved people could have that kind of comfort and certainty!

After struggling with the last verse and its story, I’m so glad to have this as a palate-cleanser. Personally, I find the commentary itself much more meaningful than the verse that it’s meant to explain, and want to take a moment to explore the reasons why:

First of all, I find this story to be (mostly) believable. Now, do I buy the idea of a young girl starving herself to death because she’s so sad to be single? Not really. At the end of the day, though, this isn’t a history of ancient Indian social norms; it’s just a story of a father who deeply loves, and then loses, his little girl. That’s something that I can resonate with as a human being.

Now, I have to admit something: since I first began reading Buddhist texts seriously, Anāthapiṇḍika has appeared more than once. In all that time, I had only really learned two things about him — 1.) he was a chief lay disciple, and 2.) the guy made Donald Trump look like a custodial engineer. You read a lot about how much and how often he gave, but you don’t read hardly anything about what he was like as a person, as a working man with a wife and children. For me, this story makes him real. He doesn’t feel like some perpetually-cheerful doofus from an after-school special anymore. This was someone who felt all the things that we feel.

That’s especially important, because sometimes I think we American Buddhists feel that we should act like machines. “In order to be a good Buddhist, I have to be aloof to everything. I have to detach right now.” Then normal, human things happen: we get irritated because the dog won’t stop barking, we don’t really want to share our fries with that guy who always takes too many, whatever. And then we go, “Oh shit, I made a mistake. I’m a terrible Buddhist…” We have a crisis about it. But look at Anāthapiṇḍika: he was one of the Sangha’s most important supporters, a chief lay disciple. More importantly, he had access to the Buddha Himself. He heard Him speak on multiple occasions, waited on Him personally, and was able to count on His guidance when he was in trouble. And yet, despite all that — despite all of the things he learned and understood from the Buddha’s own mouth — he was still human. Human enough to do what we all do when we hurt. Human enough to cry.


The Dhammapada, verse seventeen: “The evil-doer laments here and hereafter”

Idha tappati pecca tappati —

pāpakāri ubhayattha tappati.

Pāpaṃ me katan ti tappati —

bhiyyo tappati duggatiṃ gato.

“Here he suffers, hereafter he suffers. In both states the evil-doer suffers. “Evil have I done” (thinking thus,) he suffers. Furthermore, he suffers, having gone to a woeful state.”

Here we have, unfortunately, yet another verse on the dangers of wrong-doing, and the Hellish destination reserved for people who live and act unvirtuously. I mentioned in my post on verse fifteen just how uncomfortable I am with the idea of Hell, and the mental acrobatics I sometimes have to do to accept (conditionally) the Buddha’s teachings on it in the Pāḷi Canon. I put off writing this entry because part of me dreaded having to wrestle with this concept yet again. However, today I came to an important conclusion: confronting my fear of Hell is the only way I can conquer it and finally be at peace. So I’m choosing to look at these posts as the spiritual equivalent of exposure therapy. Here we go.

The literal meaning of the verse is painfully obvious: bad things are bound to happen to bad people, not only here but also in the hereafter. One thing that interests me though is that the pain that someone experiences as a result of doing immoral things is caused by immense guilt. The fact that remorse is mentioned specifically in this concept is intriguing. It is, in a sense, a Hell of one’s own making. This ties into a key concept in Buddhism: as the Venerable Nārada says in a note on verse two, “Man himself is mainly responsible for his own happiness and misery. He creates his own hell and heaven.” It’s a relief to me to find that there’s some practical wisdom to be found in these ancient lines, despite the grim vision of punishment that they touch on.

The background story in the commentary is long and includes a lot of material that doesn’t really have anything to do with the topic we’re discussing here. The important part is the story of the Ven. Devadatta and his attempt to usurp the Buddha:

In the city of Anūpiya lived six princes who were cousins of the Buddha. One of them, named Anuruddha, decided that he would rather become a monk than spend his life struggling to make a living as a layperson, and his five relatives decided to join him. Accompanied by their barber Upāli, they went to ask the Buddha to ordain them. When they asked Upāli to go back to Anūpiya with all their worldly possessions, he refused; he wanted to go see the Buddha with them and ordain  too, a proposal which they gladly accepted. When they reached the grove where the Buddha and his order of monks were staying, they asked the Blessed One to accept them into the Sangha, but not before doing something pretty extraordinary: “We, Reverend Sir, are proud Sakyans. [Upāli] has been a servitor of ours for a long time. Admit him to the Order first; to him first we will offer respectful salutations; so will our pride be humbled.” And so this man  who in had spent his life in service to a proud royal family became there senior in the Buddha’s community, and the object of their reverence and respect.

All six princes made rapid progress and achieved various attainments as a result of their practice. Although the Ven. Devadatta was the least accomplished of the six, he did become capable of working various kinds of miracles. When the community moved to a monastery as Kosambi, their wisdom and virtue attracted numerous supporters and devotees. Although many of them sought out the Buddha and the Chief Disciples, no one seemed particularly interested in coming to Devadatta to make offerings or to ask for guidance. The neglected monk became more and more jealous of the copious gifts being given to his relatives; his ego demanded the same kind of fame, honor, and reverence. Most of all, though, he was greedy for offerings. He would have to hatch some kind of scheme to get them, and before long, he was doing just that.

Devadatta’s first order of business was to ingratiate himself with someone powerful and influential. The king of Kosala was unlikely to listen to anything that the devious monk had to say, and Bimbisāra, king of Magadha, was too devoted to the Buddha to agree to an alliance. However, his son Ajātasattu was naïve and knew nothing about either the Buddha and his merits or Devadatta’s untrustworthiness. He was, in other words, the perfect target.

Devadatta decided to try and dazzle the prince with his supernormal abilities; he transformed himself into a child adorned with live snakes, flew up above the palace, and lowered himself right into Ajātasattu’s lap. “Who are you?” asked the frightened young man. “I am Devadatta.” replied the greedy bhikkhu, who then returned to his natural appearance. The prince was undoubtedly awestruck by this miraculous display, and quickly pledged his support. With Ajātasattu as his patron, Devadatta soon got everything he had longed for. He attained fame, honor, and riches in abundance, but even that was not enough to satisfy his hunger for worldly gains. “It is I who ought to be at the head of the Sangha.” he thought to himself. It’s said that as soon as this thought came to his mind, Devadatta lost his wondrous powers.

On a later occasion, the Buddha was giving a talk to the king and to the congregation of monks. While He was still speaking, Devadatta came and bowed to Him and, feigning humility and reverence, said, “Reverend Sir, the Exaalted One is now worn out, stricken with years, and aged; let hHim live a pleasant life in this world, free from care. I will direct the Congregation of Monks; commit the Congregation of Monks to my hands.” The Buddha replied by calling him, for lack of a better word, a brown-noser. With a heart full of indignation and ill-will, Devadatta turned around and walked off. He had failed to tempt the Blessed One with promises of ease and luxury, and had been publicly shamed in the process. Now the only thing on his mind was revenge.

Devadatta came to his supporter Ajātasattu in secret. After tempting him with promises of power and sovereignty, they made a pact: Ajātasattu would murder his father Bimbisāra and become the new king, while Devadatta would murder the Blessed One and become the new Buddha. The prince did as he was told, and it fell to Devadatta to devise a means of ending his former teacher’s life. He made multiple attempts, all of which failed: first, he sent a group of hitmen to assassinate the Buddha, but they ended up becoming His followers instead. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself, so the second time, Devadatta waited atop a cliff along a path that the Buddha was traveling. When He approached, Devadatta threw down a rock in hopes of crushing his rival below. Miraculously, the rock missed its mark, and the Buddha came away with nothing but a nick on his foot.

Finally, Devadatta set loose a raging elephant named Nāḷāgiri in the city where the Lord was walking on alms-round. Ānanda, who was accompanying the Buddha, saw the elephant barreling down the street and jumped in front of his teacher. Before Nāḷāgiri could trample them, the Blessed One tamed him by radiating the loving-kindness that He had cultivated over countless lifetimes. Devadatta had failed once again, and this time the people of the kingdom took notice. His machinations provoked an uproar, and Ajātasattu withdrew his support in order to save face. But Devadatta wasn’t ready to give up yet. He approached the Buddha once more, demanding that the monks’ code of conduct be made even stricter. The Teacher refused to make Devadatta’s proposed practices mandatory, saying instead that any monk could choose to take them up if they wanted to live more rigorously. Although the Buddha didn’t buy into Devadatta’s proposals, a number of the younger and more foolhardy monks did; when the traitorous monk departed, he’s said to have had 500 of the Buddha’s former followers in tow. However, Devadatta’s newly-founded order didn’t last long. The next day the Elders Sāriputta and Mogallāna appeared where they were staying and took the novices back with them while Devadatta slept. When he awoke and found out what had happened, he cursed the Chief Disciples, and at the same time fell deathly ill.

After wasting away for nine months, Devadatta was at death’s door. He called his few remaining followers to him, and told them that his final wish was to see the Buddha one last time. Initially they were reluctant; how could a man who had tried to murder the Buddha — not once, but three times — suddenly be begging for an audience with Him? He said, “I have indeed conceived hatred towards the Teacher, but the Teacher has not cherished so much as the tip of a hair’s hatred towards me.” In the end they agreed, and after placing him on a litter they set off to where the Blessed One was staying. When the monks told the Buddha that Devadatta was approaching, His only reply was, “Monks, he will not succeed in seeing me in the present existence.” When Devadatta’s litter was set down so that his followers could bathe in a nearby pond, he lifted himself up and set his feet on the ground. To his surprise, he immediately began to sink into the earth. Before disappearing completely, he used his last breath to take refuge in the Buddha. The Blessed One responded by re-ordaining him as a monk of His own order out of compassion, and in order that Devadatta could “look forwards with confidence to future existence.” In an aside, the commentator states that even Devadatta is destined to eventually become the pacceka buddha Aṭṭhissara.

The monks began discussing what had just taken place. When they ask where Devadatta had gone, the Buddha explained that he had been reborn in the Avīci hell; a description of the suffering he endures there, which I would prefer not to repeat, is included. After this, the Buddha recites the verse above.

I find this whole story incredibly sad. It’s honestly difficult for me to contemplate it without feeling pangs of the fear and anxiety that spring up every time torment in the afterlife is discussed; what little consolation I can find derives from what this story says about the Buddha as a person. Despite multiple attempts on His life, even Devadatta himself admits that not once does He think of His wayward cousin with malice or bitterness. His rejection of Devadatta’s proposals seem stubborn and harsh on the surface, but also provide examples of His interest in protecting the order of monks from negative influences. His taming of Nāḷāgiri through the power of mettā alone is inspiring. The moment that troubles me the most is the one where the Buddha is told that Devadatta wants to see Him. I want the Buddha to stand up, to rush to the sickly and repentant man and minister to him in his final moments. I suppose that it isn’t a question of whether the Buddha wanted to do these things or not, but rather of cause-and-effect; that Devadatta was unable to see the Blessed One before passing away was the fruit of his kamma, the ripening of which is, in many cases, unstoppable. At its core, this is simply another lesson on the principle of kamma, reminding us that what we do to ourselves and other people matters. That’s all I can really say.


The Dhammapada, verse 16: “Happy are the well-doers here and hereafter.”

Idha modati pecca modati —

katapuñño ubhayattha modati.

So modati so pamodati —

disvā kammavisuddhamattano.

“Here he rejoices, hereafter he rejoices. In both states the well-doer rejoices. He rejoices, exceedingly rejoices, perceiving the purity of his own deeds.”

Whereas the previous verse posits an unpleasant rebirth for immoral and cruel people, this verse promises a joyous rebirth for those who try to spend their lives doing good. As an encouragement for those who practice virtue, the commentary tells the story of the layman Dhammika:

Dhammika was the senior layperson in the city of Sāvatthi, the head of a group of five hundred laymen (and, presumably, laywomen,) each with a retinue of five hundred lay followers. He and his wife, were exceedingly generous: they delighted in giving alms, and they brought up their seven sons and seven daughters to do the same.

Eventually Dhammika was stricken by a serious illness, and he began to waste away. On his deathbed, he asked to be visited by some of the monks who were staying nearby in the company of the Buddha. Out of compassion and gratitude, the Lord sent along a group of monks to attend to their supporter in his final hours. When they arrived, Dhammika told them that his eyesight was failing him, and that he only wanted to hear a single sutta before he died: the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, known in English as the Foundations of Mindfulness. In the notes to his translation, Narāda Thera explains that, according to Buddhist tradition, the most important determining factor for what rebirth a person will take when they pass away is the state of mind at the moment of death; Dhammika probably wanted to end his life with full awareness and tranquility. The monks gladly complied with his request, and began to recite the sutta for his benefit.

At that exact moment, Dhammika had a vision of six chariots descending from the six heavenly planes, each beautifully adorned and drawn by a thousand horses each. In the chariots were six devas, each one a representative from their respective heavenly planes. “Permit us to convey you to our celestial realm.” they said in turn. “Even as one shatters a clay vessel and replaces it with a vessel of gold, even so are living beings reborn to take their pleasure in our celestial world.” His virtue was so highly regarded throughout the numerous planes of existence that each heavenly realm was competing for him! But Dhammika was more interested in hearing the monks recite the Dhamma than he was in hearing the devas’ entreaties. Unwilling to miss a single word, he cried out, “Wait! Wait!” Surprised, everyone present, including his sons and daughters, believed that he was pleading for the monks to stop. The children bemoaned their father’s apparent change of heart, and the monks rose and respectfully went away.

When their father came to his senses, his sons and daughters explained what had happened. Dhammika explained to them that he was not trying to interrupt the monks, but was chastising the devas who even then remained hovering in the air before him. Unbelieving, his children asked him where these mysterious invisible chariots were. He responded by asking them to bring a wreath of flowers, after which he asked, “Which celestial world is the most delightful?” “Dear father, the most delightful is the world of the Tusita gods, the abode of the mothers and fathers of the Buddhas and of all the Future Buddhas.” He asked them to toss the wreath of flowers into the air, and say, “Let this wreath of flowers cling to the chariot which came from the World of the Tusita gods.”

They did as he asked, and the wreath clung to the chariot from the realm of the Tusita gods just as they had commanded. “This wreath hangs suspended from the chariot which came from the World of the Tusita gods.” Dhammika told his children. “I am going to the World of the Tusita gods; do not be disturbed. If you desire to be reborn with me, do works of merit even as I have done.” So, having comforted his children and encouraged them to develop and cherish their virtue and generosity, the great lay supporter died and way conveyed to a heavenly abode.

Back at the monastery, the monks told the Buddha about the mysterious goings-on in Dhammika’s home. The Buddha reassured them that he didn’t mean to interrupt their recitation, but to silence the devas who were distracting him. He comforted them by telling them exactly where he had gone, and said, “They that are heedful, be they laymen or monks, rejoice in both planes equally” before reciting the verse above.

I think that this verse and its backstory are important, primarily because it serves as a lesson on the value of both good works and purity of heart; not only did Dhammika dedicate his life to serving and caring for others, but he died with a mind and heart full of reverence for the truth. In some ways, I think this mirrors Christian teachings on grace and repentance — even if someone spends their life doing little good, Buddhist tradition promises us that they can be assured a decent rebirth if they die with a penitent heart full of faith. The original text’s elaborate descriptions of the glory of such heavenly rewards are really beside the point. Like the one before it, this verse is essentially reminding us that our actions, and even our thoughts, make a difference. If we try our best to purify and elevate both, something good is bound to happen either in this world or the next.


The Dhammapada, verse 15: “Evildoers suffer her and hereafter.”

15. Idha socati pecca socati —

pāpakārī ubhayattha socati

So socati so vihaññati —

disvā kammakiliṭṭham attano.

“Here he grieves, hereafter he grieves. In both states the evil-doer grieves. He grieves, he is afflicted, perceiving the impurity of his own deeds.”

If there’s one problem I have with religion, it’s the concept of Hell. The idea of a place of eternal suffering, or of utter separation from the source of light, warmth, and goodness, that awaits unbelievers and sinners is abhorrent to me. Unfortunately, even Theravāda Buddhism asserts the existence of Hell-like realms; the texts describe some of them in gruesome detail. This is the “hereafter” referred to in today’s verse, the tone of which is essentially cautionary: if you spend this life doing bad things, you’ll regret it in the next. However, I think it’s interesting that the verse itself doesn’t mention physical torment, but rather the pain that comes from immense guilt. One suffers having “[perceived] the impurity of [one’s] own deeds.”

In the commentary on this verse, Buddhaghosa tells the story of a butcher who meets an unfortunate end:

Cunda was a pork butcher by trade, and he used pork both as food and as his source of income. The commentary says that he would wait until a famine hit, then go into a village with some pots of rice and come back with piglets bought on the cheap. He would pen them up near his house and feed them with a mixture of shrubs & excrement.

When the time came, he would butcher the animals in the most inhumane way imaginable. After binding the pig, he would beat it with a club to tenderize the meat. Then he would force boiling water down its throat, which would pass through and clean out the digestive tract. The remaining water was poured over the pig to peel off its skin, its bristles were burned off with a torch, and finally it was decapitated and cooked in its own blood. His family would eat their fill, and whatever was left was sold at the market for a profit. Cunda lived this way for fifty-five years, and it was said that in all that time he never engaged in charity or good works.

Finally, he was overcome by a strange illness. While he was sick, he saw the fires of Hell rise up before his eyes, and after this vision he went completely mad. He fell to the ground and started crawling around on all fours, grunting and squealing like the pigs that he had tortured his entire life. Try as they might, the members of his household were unable to restrain him; they finally had no choice but to barricade the door in order to prevent his going outside. For seven days the terrible noise made it impossible for his neighbors to sleep, and on the seventh day, Cunda died and was reborn in Hell. The commentary states that the tortures he endured there are described in the Devadūta Sutta; I won’t bother to enumerate them here.

Before he died, a group of monks passed by Cunda’s door on their way to see the Blessed One. When they arrived, they seated themselves and told Him what they had heard. They supposed that he had been slaughtering pigs during the week in preparation for a sacrificial feast, but the Buddha corrected them, explaining that the whole time Cunda had been suffering the consequences of his evil deeds, and that he had finally been reborn in Hell. After that, he delivered the lines which are the subject of today’s post.

I struggle constantly with the idea of Hell, and I was immensely disappointed when I discovered that there were texts in the Tipiṭaka where the Buddha preached about it. I thought I had finally found a religion that had no use for the concept of punishment in the afterlife, but it appears that, when it comes to religion, fire and brimstone come with the territory. I think a lot about this issue, and I have a few thoughts on the story and its implications:

  1. Unlike in other major religions, Buddhism does not require me to believe in anything; the Buddha Himself said that we don’t have to accept anything that is neither good nor useful, nor should we accept anything without investigating it for ourselves. In other words, I don’t need to believe in Hell to be a good Buddhist, whether the scriptures talk about it or not.
  2. Cunda’s is an extreme case. This was a person who not only practiced a violent trade, but did it in the most brutal way imaginable, with no love or compassion for the animals whose lives were sacrificed to feed him, his wife, and his children. What’s more, he engaged in no good works to speak of that might balance out his wrongdoing.
  3. I take some comfort in the thought that, horrible or not, Buddhist Hell is at least temporary. Even for the worst and most terrible people in history eventually leave these realms and are reborn on Earth, where they have a chance to get it right. In a sense, Hell isn’t even a good word; it immediately brings to mind images of eternal torment or unending darkness. A temporary state of suffering, during which bad kamma is exhausted, is not comparable.
  4. In Buddhism, suffering after death has an essentially punitive function. Cunda spent his life subjecting living beings to unimaginable pain and suffering without a thought. Maybe he needed to feel that pain, to know for himself what he had put other beings through for years, in order to be sure that he would never do such a thing again in future lives.

Ultimately, there’s no empathetic or compassionate way to justify something as terrible as Hell. Even the temporary Hellish existences described in Buddhist texts last innumerable eons; how could that be a fit punishment for less than fifty-five years of cruelty? I don’t know, and I probably never will. The only sensible thing that I can do is try to see the essential point of the story: that what we do, especially to other living things, matters, and that it’s in our best interest to try to live right. If we keep that in mind, we can avoid creating a Hell for ourselves and for others right here.


The Dhammapada, verses thirteen & fourteen: “Lust pierces the hearts of the undeveloped but not those of the developed”

The Pāḷi word of the day is rāga, meaning lust or greed.

13. Yathā’gāraṃ ducchannaṃ —

vuṭṭhi samativijjhati

Evaṃ abhāvitaṃ cittaṃ —

rāgo samativijjhati.

“Even as rain penetrates an ill-thatched house, so does lust penetrate an undeveloped mind.”

14. Yathā’gāraṃ succhannaṃ —

vuṭṭhi na samativijjhati

Evaṃ subhāvitaṃ cittaṃ —

rāgo na samativijjhati.

“Even as rain does not penetrate a well-thatched house, so does lust not penetrate a well-developed mind.”

The background story for these verses happens to be one of my favorites. Normally, the Buddha is depicted as a stoic sage, a skillful teacher, a masterful debater — but here, we discover Gotama the trickster, a man with a mischievous side and a very human sense of humor. The narrative itself also ends on an amusing and somewhat ironic note the likes of which I haven’t found elsewhere in the Canon. We’ll get to that later, though; for now, we’ll take a look at the meanings of these verses.

Here the Buddha uses an interesting and very appropriate simile for two very different states. The mind that’s underdeveloped is obsessed with sensual pleasure, and is like a house with holes in the roof that leave the person inside exposed to the elements. The well-developed mind, on the other hand, isn’t disturbed by the push-and-pull of sense desire. The commentarial narrative makes it clear that the meaning of the word translated here as “lust” corresponds in this case with modern usage, referring specifically to the desire for sexual gratification. However, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extend this to the desire for other pleasant stimuli — the sight of something beautiful, the sound of lovely music, the taste of delicious food, or the feeling of a warm bath.

It’s not so much that these things are bad; they’re part of life, and the Buddha, for all His marvelous qualities, was a human being who lived in the world. He’s quoted in the scriptures as acknowledging beautiful and pleasant places, pleasant sounds, the quality of food, and other things. The problem with sensual pleasure is that it becomes the object of an endless pursuit, a game we can’t really win because real gratification always slips through one’s fingers like sand. The verses are encouraging us to cultivate, through the practice of meditation, a certain immunity — not to the REALITY of pleasant things, but to the negative effects that our thirst for those things has on our minds and hearts. By uttering them, the Buddha is urging us to seek out something better.

Okay, enough pontificating. Time to get to the good stuff.

The Buddha had a big family, and was up to His neck in cousins. One of them was named Nanda, and around the time that the verses above were uttered, Nanda was about to become a very happy man. He was engaged to be married, to a girl named Janapada-Kalyāṇi, who was renowned for her beauty. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – life had other plans: on Nanda’s wedding day, the Buddha, who was staying nearby, happened to drop in for a meal and a visit.

After the meal was over, the Blessed One did something very strange: He rose from His seat, took his bowl, and dropped it right into Nanda’s hands. Then He turned on His heel and waltzed right on out the door. Unbeknownst to him, His cousin was about to go on a wild ride.

When Janapada-Kalyāṇi heard that her groom had followed the Buddha out the door, she panicked. She knew what that meant: when the Tathāgata left a house with a husband in tow, they usually didn’t come back. Wives & girlfriends? SOL. She ran out and chased after them, demanding that Nanda return immediately; unfortunately for her, he didn’t have it in him to turn his back on someone he respected so much. What’s the worst that could happen anyway? The Buddha had to realize that He’d forgotten his bowl sometime, take it back, and Nanda would be on his merry way. Or so he thought.

He was confused and probably more than a little irritated by Siddhattha’s behavior, but he didn’t dare demand that the Blessed One take His bowl back; he had too much reverence for his cousin’s wisdom and power. He had no choice but to follow silently behind and hope that, at some point, the Buddha would turn and take His bowl back. No such luck. The Teacher had something else in store for his hapless relative, and led him straight to the monastery gate. There He turned around, looked Nanda dead in the eye, and said, “Nanda, would you like to become a monk?” I like to imagine that a little smile played on the Buddha’s lips as He asked that faithful question.

Apparently there was one rule in ancient India: never say no to an all-knowing superbeing. Nanda suddenly found himself in the hot seat, and not knowing what else to say, he answered, “Yes.” He was ordained immediately, and poor Janapada-Kalyaṇi was left at the altar. Gotama the Budda, the Fully-Enlightened One, the Thus-Gone, the Ultimate Homewrecker.

At this point, Buddhaghosa interrupts Nanda’s adventure briefly to describe a separate incident. I’m including an account of it because I think it can add to our discussion of the themes in the main story, and maybe answers a few questions raised by the Buddha’s behavior.

A few days after Nanda’s ordination, the Buddha’s former wife Yasodharā called their son Rāhula to her, saying, “Dear son, go look upon this monk possessed of a retinue of twenty thousand monks, possessed of a body of the hue of gold, possessed of the beauty of form of Mahā Brahmā. This monk is your father. To him once belonged great stores of treasure. From the time of his Great Retirement we have not seen him. Ask him for this your inheritance, saying, ‘Dear father, I am a royal prince, and so soon as I shall receive the ceremonial sprinkling, I shall become a  Universal Monarch. I have need of wealth; bestow wealth upon me; for to a son belongs the wealth which formerly belonged to his father.”

Rāhula went off, found his father in the middle of His morning meal, and greeted Him affectionately. When He had finished eating, the Blessed One got up and started walking back to the monastery. Rāhula followed close behind, repeating his one request over and over: “Monk, give me my inheritance.” The Lord’s attendants did their best to shoo him away, but the Buddha made no such attempt. By the time they had reached the monastery, He had a plan: Even if He still had the treasure that Rāhula was looking for, He knew full well that giving it to him would never make him happy. On the contrary, He foresaw that the stresses and complications of vast wealth and of royal power would ruin the young man some day. The Lord decided that he would give Rāhula his inheritance — but not the kind of inheritance that he was expecting. “Well then, Sāriputta,” He said to His Chief Disciple, “make a monk of Prince Rāhula.”

The commentary doesn’t record Yasodharā’s reaction to the news that her son had become a monk — perhaps she knew that this would happen all along — but the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, was devastated. He had already lost his only son to the call of the religious life; to lose his little grandson in the same way was almost unbearable. He went to the Blessed One and made a request: that from then on no child would be made a monk or nun without his or her parents’ permission. The Buddha agreed. That wasn’t the extent of the Lord’s efforts to console His father, however; on a later occasion, while He was visiting the royal palace, He told Suddhodana a story about how he had demonstrated great faith in a formerlife. When He was finished, His father had attained the third stage of Awakening; Suddhodana’s need to weep & wail had disappeared, and he was on his way to full enlightenment.

After Rāhula’s ordination, the Buddha took his monks to Anāthapin.d.ikA’s newly constructed monastery at Jetavana. On one occasion during their stay there, the Ven. Nanda was talking to some of his friends. He told the other monks that he was tired of the monastic life, and intended to dusrobe and go back to the life of a layman. The monks, of course, immediately went to their Teacher and spilled the beans.

The Buddha’s response was typical: He told them to bring Nanda to Him. He would take care of the rest.

After asking his cousin a few questions, the Buddha took him by the arm, and used His supernormal power to head up to the realm of Sakka (the Vedic god Indra,) king of the devas. On the way, He shows Nanda a greedy monkey who had lost her ears, nose, and tail in a fire. Believe me, I know how bizarre this stuff sounds. It all ties together, I promise.

When they arrived in Sakka’s Heaven of the Thirty-Three, the Buddha pointed out the five-hundred pink-footed celestial nymphs who wait on their king day & night. He asks Nanda, “Nanda, which do you regard as being the more beautiful and fair to look upon and handsome, your noble wife Janapada-Kalyāṇi or these five hundred pink-footed celestial nymphs?” Nanda didn’t miss a beat, saying that the nymphs are just as superior to his wife as she is to the burned monkey that the Blessed One had shown him on the way; indeed, they are “infinitely more beautiful and fair to look upon and handsome.”

The Buddha told His cousin to take heart; if he were to continue to live the life of a monk, the Blessed One  he would be assured to receive these same nymphs as a reward. The Ven. Nanda eagerly agreed, and they descended back to Earth.

As soon as they returned, the news spread throughout the Sangha like wildfire: Their friend Nanda was just in it for the nymphs. It wasn’t long before the lusttful monk became the butt of everyone’s jokes; he was nothing but 
“a hireling,” “one bought with a price.” Nanda didn’t mind though; he was the one with five-hundred gorgeous nymphs coming his way. Itching to start living it up, he withdrew from the others to meditate his ass off in private.

Ironically, the immense effort that Nanda put forth for the sake of those five-hundred nymphs brought him to the point where any interest he had had in the opposite sex totally disappeared. The Buddha had successfully duped him into becoming enlightened.

That night, a celestial being approached the Blessed One to report that the Ven. nanda had finally become a true mink, an awakened being. The Buddha then encompasses His cousin’s mind with His own, and sees that he scheme had paid off. The Ven. Nanda likewise approached the Teacher and told Him that He was released from His promise. The Buddha replied that, as soon as the Ven. Nanda had become enlightened, their contract was rendered null & void.

When his brother-monks approach the Ven. Nanda and asked him if he was still dissatisfied with the monastic life, he replied that he was “in no wise inclined to the life of a layman.” Convinced that he must be lying, the monks went to the Blessed One & told Him. The Buddha corrected them right away, comparing His cousin’s old personality to an ill-thatched house. Now, he said, Nanda’s mind was like a well-thatched house, utterly sealed off from the rains of sensual desire. Finally, his heart was secure within, no longer subject to the tyranny of the elements.

Now we can discuss something that I struggled with for a long time: how should we feel about these stories where the Buddha basically breaks up families? How should we look at the man, Himself, who taught the cultivation of compassion & selflessness, but abandoned His own wife & infant son? It’s almost like the Buddhist elephant in the room: no one likes to talk about the ethical implications of this stuff.

A lot of non-Buddhists find these things to be totally unacceptable, and I’ll admit that there are days where I feel the same. This story, though, has brought me some peace of mind; I’ll try to explain how I’ve come to look at the issue in the following paragraphs.

We should start by considering the cultural context of the practice of renunciation at that time. As strange as it may seem from the perspective Western, Protestant culture, it seems to me leaving behind one’s home, family, and friends was a fairly common occurrence in the Buddha’s time. It wasn’t expected, or even preferred, but renunciates as a whole appear to have received a lot of respect and support from those who chose to lead more mundane lives.

Secondly, although it may appear extremely selfish to modern people, the Buddha saw the quest for enlightenment as incredibly important, even urgent. Celestial rebirths were thought to delight and intoxicate the senses so that heavenly beings failed to see how unsatisfactory sensual indulgence was. Life on lower planes, on the other hand, was too hard. A birth in the human sphere was ideal, but the exact conditions required arose extremely rarely. So it was of tantamount importance that any human being take full advantage of the rare opportunity they had been given; otherwise, who knew when they might get a second chance?

It’s also useful to consider these people’s motivations for leaving home in the first place, and what they did once they achieved their goal. I’ve come across several instances already of renunciate parents, children, and spouses returning to give those they had left behind, helping them along their own paths to ultimate security and everlasting peace. The story of Rāhula and his father is one such example; a canonical collection of poetry traditionally ascribed to enlightened monks includes verses by Rāhula himself. He had been hoping for material riches, but instead of filling Rāhula’s coffers with gold, silver, and precious gems, the Buddha filled His only son’s heart with deep wisdom, true peace, and transcendent happiness — with treasures that last forever.

Of course, the most important example is the Buddha Himself. When He was still an unenlightened bodhisatta, He chose to leave the people He held most dear behind in order to discover a deeper, more lasting happiness, but it wasn’t a happiness that He kept for Himself. On the contrary, as the above story shows, He returned to share that happiness with His friends and family; as it just so happens, both His wife and His mother are said to have ordained as nuns, practiced hard, and reached enlightenment themselves. From a Buddhist perspective, the Buddha gave up his own temporal joys in order to open the doors of the Deathless to all beings. Isn’t that something worth sacrificing for?


The Dhammapada, verses eleven & twelve: “Right perception leads to the realization of truth”

The Pāḷi word of the day is sammādiṭṭhi, meaning “right view.” It’s the first factor of the Eightfold Path, and refers to understanding things as they really are.

11. Asāre sāramatino — sāre casāradassino

Te sāraṃ nadhigacchanti —


“In the unessential they imagine the essential, in the essential they see the unessential, — they who entertain (such) wrong thoughts never realize the essence.”

12. Sārañ ca sārato ñatvā —

asārañ ca asārato

Te sāraṃ adhigacchati —

sammā saṇkappagocarā

“What is essential they regard as essential, what is unessential they regard as unessential,– they who entertain (such) right thoughts realize the essence.”

It actually took reading the  background story for me to really understand these verses. When I first read them, the meaning of the term “essential” was, in this context, unclear to me; apparently, in this case “essential” refers to “what is true,” or maybe “the Truth.” In any case, I guess the verses are essentially correct: if you don’t see things clearly, it’s not possible to arrive at a correct understanding of reality. The commentary uses a story about the Buddha’s two chief disciples to illustrate the point:

Before the Bodhisatta attained enlightenment, two women whose families were fast friends bore sons, and named them after the villages in which they were born. One was called Upatissa, the other Kolita. As they  grew, they became inseparable; when one went to the bank of a river or a delightful garden to amuse himself along with his retinue of servants, the other inevitably came with his. In this way they passed the years in pleasure and at ease, until one day they decided to go to a popular local celebration called the Mountaintop Festival. For several days they watched the performances being put on there, enjoying themselves immensely: when something funny happened, they laughed heartily; when something sad happened, they wept with equal gusto. After a while though, something changed.

Suddenly it occurred to the two young men that all this frivolity was ultimately meaningless. What was the point in shallow amusements while the big questions were left unanswered? It was then that they decided to leave their worldly lives behind and become ascetics under some respected teacher. They chose to follow a guru named Sañjaya, who had recently come to the city with his students. They learned so quickly and so well that their reputations spread, and brought their master great renown as a spiritual leader.

Unfortunately, their talent had a downside: we’re told that, after only a few days, they had mastered everything that Sañjaya had to teach them. When they went to ask him whether or not he had anything else to offer, he said no. Convinced that they wouldn’t reach enlightenment under his guidance, the two friends decided to leave and seek out someone else to show them the way. They wandered all over India, talking to every teacher they could find, but to no avail. Eventually they returned to their homes, and before setting out again they made a pact: whichever one of them found the way to Awakening first would come back to inform the other.

A short time after the friends had separated, the Buddha came to Rājagaha to spend the rainy season at Veḷuvana Monastery. From there, he sent his enlightened disciples to spread the Dhamma throughout India. However, the arahant Assaji decided to stay near the city. One morning, while Assaji was on alms round, Upatissa happened to pass by him. When he saw the elder, Upatissa was captivated by his serene appearance. Convinced that this must be an awakened being, he decided to follow Assaji until his alms round was complete; then, he would take advantage of the opportunity to ask who his teacher was, and what it was that he practiced. Once Assaji was finished collecting alms, he stopped to eat. Upatissa offered him a stool to sit on, as well as water to drink. When the meal was over, he asked his questions. “Calm and serene, brother, are your organs of sense; clean and clear is the hue of your skin. For whose sake, brother, did you retire from the world? And who is your teacher? And whose doctrine do you profess?”

Seeing an opportunity to reveal the depth of the Buddha’s teaching to someone from a rival sect, Assaji decided to answer. He chose to do so, however, in an unusual way. He claimed that he was just a novice, and wouldn’t be able to explain the Lord’s teaching in-depth. When Upatissa insisted that a long lecture was unnecessary, he gave as simple an answer as he could: “Of all things that proceed from a cause, of these the cause the Tathāgata hath told.” This was all that Upatissa needed; with these simple words, he knew that the Buddha was the teacher he and his friend had been looking for. The elder then finished his teaching as simply as it had begun, saying, “And also how these cease to be, this too the mighty monk hath told.” Having heard this powerful utterance, Upatissa asked where the Blessed One resided. He told Assaji to go on ahead; he had a promise to keep. Afterwards, he and his friend would to meet the Teacher.

When Upatissa approached his friend, Kolita could tell right away that he had discovered something wonderful. Upatissa told him that he had found the way to enlightenment, and recited the very stanza that he had heard from the Elder Assaji. Like his friend before him, Kolita was immediately convinced of the efficacy of the Buddha’s teaching, and suggested that they go to meet Him at once. Upatissa, however, had another idea: they would pay a visit to their old teacher Sañjaya first, share their discovery with him, and bring him with them to see the Buddha. Kolita agreed, and they set out.

When he saw them, their old teacher asked, “Friends, did you succeed in finding anyone able to show you the Way to the Deathless?” “Yes, teacher, such a one have we found. The Buddha has appeared in the world, the [Dhamma] has appeared, the [Sangha] has appeared. You, sir, are living in vain unreality.” They then invited him to come with them to see the Blessed One in person. “You may go; I cannot go. ” he replied. “For what reason?” “In the past I have gone about as a teacher of the multitude. For me to become a pupil again would be as absurd as for a chatty to go to the well. I shall not be able to live the life of a pupil.” They did their best to persuade Sañjaya to change his mind, but he was firm in his resolution to stay. “Friends, which are more numerous in this world, the stupid or the wise?” “Teacher, the stupid are many, the wise are few.” “Well then, friends, let the wise men go to the wise monk Gotama, and let the stupid come to stupid me. You may go, but I shall not go.” The commentary goes on to relate two odd, supernatural occurrences, but I don’t think these details are particularly relevant to our discussion; rather, it’s the first half of the commentary that provides the most food for thought.

The narrative of Sāriputta’s and Moggallāna’s spiritual journey and eventual ordination are incidental, really. What interests me most is what the story has to say about Sañjaya. His refusal to become a student again certainly stems from arrogance on his part, but he’s not unique in this respect. Who hasn’t acted like Sañjaya at one point or other? It’s easy to close ourselves off to new information and experiences out of pride, even if they present a valuable opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, most of us don’t ever pass up something as huge as a chance to become enlightened, but Sañjaya can still act as a mirror of our own behavior and tendencies. His statement about his own stupidity, on the other hand, can be interpreted in one of two ways: it can be seen as an admission of something he knows that he lacks, namely wisdom; or his questions and answers, beginning with”Friends, did you succeed in finding anyone able to show you the Way to the Deathless?” can be read sarcastically. I think that either interpretation has something to offer. The first reinforces the image of a stubborn and overly-proud person who nonetheless knows he’s making the wrong choice; the second, that of someone who is truly ignorant, deluded, and disrespectful.

Of course, a sarcastic and defensive response on the part of Sañjaya may not be totally unwarranted; after all, even though the Chief Disciples came to him out of compassion and gratitude, their assertion that he is  “…living in vain unreality” comes across as awkward, blunt, and insensitive. For all his stubborness, who would ever respond positively to an accusation like that? Sāriputta and Moggallāna hadn’t attained perfect enlightenment yet, so maybe they simply lacked the wisdom to guide their former teacher in a gentler, more skillful way. I’d prefer to think that their imperfection was the real issue here; their intentions were good, but their way of expressing their concern was not. In fact, most of us can sympathize with that, too. I’d need a whole Hell of a lot of hands to count the number of times that I’ve tried to steer someone away from making a bad decision or placing themselves in a difficult situation, only to put them on the defensive by getting preachy.

So there we have two important things to keep in mind here: the danger of pride, arrogance, and stubborness, and the importance of gentle and skillful speech, for your own sake as well as that of others’. The commentarial narrative isn’t just a practical teaching, though; it includes a miracle story, an unpleasant supernatural death, and something like nine past-life stories. Even as a Buddhist, I can never be sure if these details are true or not; but what a marvelously powerful teacher the core story is.