The Dhammapada, verses nine & ten: The pure are worthy of the yellow robe but not the impure

The Pāḷi word of the day is bodhisatta, the term for a being on their way to becoming a fully-enlightened Buddha. Here, it refers specifically to the one who would eventually be born as Siddhattha Gotama, or Gotama Buddha.

9. Annikasāvo kāsāvaṃ

yo vatthaṃ paridahessati

Apeno damasaccena —

Na so kāsāvam arahati.

“Whoever, unstainless, without self-control and truthfulness, should don the yellow robe, is not worthy of it.”

10. Yo ca vantakasāv’assa —

sīlesu susamāhito

Upeto damasaccena —

sa ve kāsāvam arahati.

“He who is purged of all stain, is well-established in morals and endowed with self-control and truthfulness, is indeed worthy of the yellow robe.”

The immediate significance of these verses is important. People tend to respect authority figures, especially the religious kind. This is partly because of the immense reverence that people have for the values that these figures represent, which I think is very wholesome. However, it’s also due to the influence of tradition; we’re told to pay homage to these people, and we do. It’s important, however, to remember that the clothes do not make the man (or woman.) This goes for any person in a position of power, be they a Catholic priest, a rabbi, a police officer…the list goes on. The countless cases of abuse at the hands of people from all of these professions is ample evidence that it’s the character of a person, rather than their rank or title, that makes them worthy of respect.

Due to things like the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, Watergate, and the numerous police shootings of unarmed citizens, people nowadays people seem to assume that corruption comes with the job. However, many would be surprised to learn that Buddhism — the religion of “the fat, happy guy” — is just as guilty of crimes against humanity. As I’m writing this, men in Burma wearing monks’ robes are stirring up hate against ethnic Muslims. These people aren’t real bhikkhus, no matter what kinds of clothes they wear. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with Buddhism — just as the Church’s role in the abuse of children doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with Christianity — but unfortunately, it does mean that somewhere, somehow, Buddhism isn’t doing its job.

We can take some solace in knowing that this is not a modern problem; even with the Buddha there to guide them, there were monks giving His dispensation and community a bad name. His own cousin, Devadatta, is perhaps the most prominent example of this in Buddhist legend; he would eventually attempt to divide the sangha and take power for himself, even resorting to an attempt on the Blessed One’s life. He was extremely corrupt, and the commentarial story behind the above verses gives just one example of how the admiration of the laity caused him to receive something that he didn’t deserve:

On one occasion, the Buddha’s two chief disciples, the Elders Sariputta and Mahā Moggallāna, went on alms round in the city of Rājagaha. Out of gratitude for the alms that they received, Sariputta gave a talk on the benefits of giving, and on the ideal giver: one who gives, and encourages others to give too. Afterwards, a lay disciple invited Sariputta to take the next day’s meal in his own home. When he was told that the venerable monk had a retinue of a thousand bhikkhus, the layman was unfazed; he merely saw it as an opportunity to make even more merit. In fact, he gladly invited all of them to come along!

The Ven. Sariputta accepted the invitation, and the layman went through the streets of Rājagaha, calling the citizens to work together so that they could provide the monks with enough food. The whole city eagerly set to work, with each person offering dishes according to their means; there was no need to worry about who gave more or who gave less. Since the meal was a single offering, the merit accumulated as a result would be shared equally among rich and poor alike.

Concerned that their combined resources would prove insufficient, one particularly wealthy layman offered the head of the project an extravagant robe worth a hundred thousand panas, which the community could sell if they ran out of money for food. When all was said and done, however, they found that nothing was lacking, so the leader suggested that they offer the robe to some worthy monk. Sariputta was renowned as an excellent bhikkhu, but he was very focused on his practice and on fulfilling his monastic duties. Devadatta, on the other hand, was accustomed to socializing often with the laypeople, no doubt intending to endear himself to them and receive more respect and better offerings as a result. Accordingly, it was Devadatta who was chosen as the recipient by a very slim majority.

However, once he had tailored the robe and begun wearing it  — probably without much humility — a funny thing happened: the laypeople found that it actually didn’t look that good on him. There was something strange about seeing a person like him dressed in such excellent clothing. “This robe does not become Devadatta, but does become the Elder Sariputta,” they said. “Devadatta is going about wearing under- and upper- garments which do not become him.”

When a certain monk came to Sāvatthi to see the Buddha and pay his respects, the Lord asked him about the well-being of His two chief disciples. After hearing the whole story of Devadatta and the opulent robe, the Blessed One said, “Monks, this is not the first time Devadatta has worn robes unbecoming to him.” Then He told a story about how the unscrupulous bhikkhu had done the same thing in a previous birth.

Now, I know that this post is already really long, but the story told above is really just a frame narrative for the tale of Devadatta’s previous life. The tale itself gives us even more to consider in regards to status, power, and the relationship between monastics and laypeople, so I’m going to tell it whether you all like it or not. Get ready.

Long before the time of the Buddha, the being who was to become Devadatta was born as a greedy elephant hunter, and he made his living selling ivory, flesh, organs…if it used to be part of an elephant and someone was willing to buy it, he sold it. In a nearby forest, there lived a herd led by the Bodhisatta, who had been born as a bull elephant. You can see where this is going.

It just so happened that a group of paccekkabuddhas, individuals who had become enlightened on their own, lived in that very same forest. Every time that the herd passed by, each elephant would stop and pay obeisance to them before moving on. The hunter saw an opportunity; he figured out that the elephants identified the paccekabuddhas by their robes. He reasoned that, if he could get his hands on a set of his own, he would be able to disguise himself and thin the herd at his leisure. So, one afternoon he crept up to the edge of a pool where one of the paccekabuddhas was bathing, grabbed their robes, and took off. His plan was in motion.

For the next few days, the hunter stationed himself near the herd’s customary path, with the yellow robe over his head to hide his face (I guess some of the elephants would have recognized him on sight otherwise.) Each day the elephants would kneel down before him in turn, and each day he would kill the last in line with his spear when the rest had gone their way. This went on for some time until the Bodhisatta noticed just how many of His family and friends had mysteriously disappeared. “Where do these elephants go that this herd has become so small?” He asked those remaining. “That we do not know, master.” He began to suspect that the mysterious ascetic whom they passed by each day was up to something, so He formed a plan of His own.

The next day the herd was traveling along its customary route, but this time the Bodhisatta trailed behind the rest. When they came up to the elephant hunter and paid him homage, He was prepared. The hunter thrust out his spear, the Bodhisatta evaded it, and moved in to attack. The hunter scurried away and took shelter behind a big tree; hoping that his stolen yellow robe might save him, he removed it and held it out for the Bodhisatta to see. The Lord couldn’t bring himself to stoop so low as to attack someone clad in saffron robes, no matter who they were, and instead admonished the hunter with the pair of verses quoted above. When He had concluded the story, the Buddha repeated those verses to the monks, saying again, “Monks, this is not the first time Devadatta has worn a robe which was unbecoming to him; he did the same thing in a previous state of existence also.”

It’s the duty of priests, monks, and other religious leaders to tend to the needs of their communities with open hearts; for that, we should be grateful. Unfortunately, there are plenty of wolves in sheep’s clothing, men and women who take on the appearance of holiness for the sake of personal gain. As Buddhists, it’s easy for us to believe our own hype: that our religion’s history is free of violence, corruption, and ignorance. We’re encouraged to think that we’re somehow above that, somehow smarter than other people of faith. Unfortunately, that image of Buddhism isn’t borne out by the facts, and we have to be just as cautious as everyone else. Even if your robes are yellow, it isn’t worth a damn if your heart is black.

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