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.


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