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?


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