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.

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