The Sunday TimesPlus

25th May 1997



Lessons from episodes of the Buddha

By P.M. Wijekoon

Over 2500 years ago, the Buddha walked the highways, byways and rugged paths of Northern India, enlightening the people on the dhamma and exhorting them to lead lives of righteousness, marked by ethical correctness, moral uprightness and spiritual excellence, worthy of their humanity.

His words of wisdom, enshrined in his discourses and his utterances to men and women of different natures and varied temperament are as valid and binding today, as they were in those dim and distant days of history.

They will continue to remain so and be an effective civilizing force for all time.

When admirers showered praise on him, evil men and women abused him, bereaved mothers shed copious tears at his feet and an angry murderer ran after him with his weapon drawn. He remained calm and serene and acted wisely as the situation demanded. He neither flared up in anger nor trembled through fear, for, he had cast away those human frailties.

One day in Sravasti, the Brahmin Aggika Baradhwaja had completed the performance of Brahma Puja and was eagerly looking out for a lucky omen, that would confirm that, as a result of this ceremony, his future would be blessed with success and prosperity.

Instead of a good omen, he beheld to his profound disappointment and flaming anger, a shaven headed samana (monk) coming towards his house for alms. According to Hindu superstition, a samana and a person with shaven head are both ill-omens. The Buddha was a samana and he had a shaven head.

The Brahmin in anger, even after recognizing the samana as the Buddha, shouted, "Stay there O shaveling, stay there O wretched monk, stay there O miserable outcast". This was followed by a torrent of abuse.

When the Brahmin finally became silent, the Buddha, unruffled and with calm dignity said, "Do you know O Brahmin, who an outcast is or what goes to make an outcast?" The Brahmin was greatly surprised by the Buddha's courteous words and the gentle and kindly manner in which they were spoken.

He felt ashamed of himself for his outburst of anger and for his failure to control his tongue. He therefore replied with humility,

"Nay indeed, O Venerable Gotama, I do not know, who an outcast is or what goes to make an outcast." With great respect he then requested the Buddha to declare the doctrine.

The noble one then delivered the Vasala Sutra in which 34 qualities that go to make man an outcast are mentioned. Two of these are irritability and giving vent to anger.

The Brahmin then realised that it was he who was irritable and gave vent to anger. Being of high birth did not exempt him from becoming an outcast. It is the nature of one's qualities and actions that make him an oucast.

The Brahmin was convinced that he was at fault and thereafter became a humble follower of the Buddha. This incident shows kindness and gentle speech can drive away fiery anger and soften the hardest heart.

Once Upali, the millionaire and a follower of Niganta Natha Putta was so impressed by the Buddha's expounding of the dhamma, that he immediately met the Noble One and expressed his desire to become a follower forthwith.

The Buddha, calm and collected as usual replied, "Upali, a distinguished citizen like you should not arrive at hasty decisions. Think about the matter calmly, investigate and inquire with care and then make up your mind".

These words of wisdom of the Buddha made Upali more keen to become a follower of the lofty teaching of the noble teacher.

He then respectfully told the Buddha, "Lord had I joined as a follower of another teacher the adherents of that teaching would have taken me in procession round the town, proclaiming that such and such a millionaire became a follower of their teaching. You O! Lord, on the contrary advise me to think further, investigate and analyse, without being hasty".

He then appealed once again to the Buddha to take him as a follower. On realizing that Upali wanted to become a follower through conviction, He gave his consent. The Buddha advised Upali to treat his former teacher with respect and regard and to support him as usual.

This incident and the resulting conversation clearly shows that the Buddha's aim in disseminating the dhamma was not to swell the number of converts, but to change the hearts and minds of the people and draw them towards the Buddhist way of righteous living.

Even today there are thousands of people living in the West, who lead lives in conformity with dhamma but do not call themselves Buddhists. The Noble One's advice to Upali to support his former teacher shows that the sublime teaching of the Buddha does not speak of other religions or their teachers in disparaging terms.

The dissemination of the dhamma is done in the most civilized and cultured manner. No threats, coercion or other iniquitous methods are ever employed. The spread of the dhamma has been going on for over 2000 years. The hands of the dharmadutas were clean of blood, while not a single threat or even a harsh word escaped their lips. This is a good lesson to certain religious sects, that are very busy, particularly in developing countries trying their utmost to get a good "harvest" of converts.

During the time of the Buddha there lived in Sravasti a young woman called Kisa Gotami. She was lean and tall and nature had denied her the comely looks of a maiden of her age. She, however, possessed and inner wealth of high virtues and noble qualities.

A merchant impressed by the admirable qualities of Kisa Gotami married her. In time, to the delight of both husband and wife, Kisa Gotami gave birth to a child, a son, who grew up to be a lovable toddler. All the problems and worries of the parents vanished when they were with their active and charming child.

One day, however, a fatal malady struck the child and soon he lay motionless - dead. Kisa Gotami was almost mad and refused to believe that her child was dead.

She carried the child and appealed to everyone she met to give some medicine to cure the child.

People knew that the child was dead and they thought it best to send Kisa Gotami to meet the Buddha as He would be able to bring the bereaved mother back to sanity. She accordingly met the Buddha and placing the dead body on the ground, appealed to the Buddha to give her medicine to cure her child. The Noble One at once realizing the position said, "Well, Sister, I can give you some medicine you must bring me some mustard seed". With hope springing in her heart she started forthwith to get some mustard seed. The Buddha then said, "Remember Sister, the mustard must be taken from a house where no death had occurred."

Being a master psychologist, the Buddha on meeting Kisa Gotami did not tell her that the child was dead as it would have been a severe blow to her already troubled and confused mind. This would have made her a mental wreck for life.

Through his boundless compassion and kindness He therefore agreed to give her some medicine and told her to fetch some mustard seed from a household, where no death had occurred. These words of the Buddha brought her hope and a fair amount of happiness, while she regained the ability to think rationally.

The technique employed by the Buddha worked, for, going from house to house from morning till evening she could not find a single dwelling, where no death had taken place. She began to think and soon came to the realization that death was universal and no one young or old is exempt from the touch of its cold hand.

She buried her child, hastened to the Noble One, told Him about her realization about death. She was admitted as a bhikkhuni determined to attain the deathless state of nibbana.

Once Bhikkhu Putigatta Tissa was stricken by a serious skin disease. Sores covered his entire body, causing him severe pain. Pus from the infected sores not only soiled his robes but also gave out a most offensive smell. His companion bhikkhus unable to bear the smell and unwilling to change the soiled robes, left the ailing bhikkhu, rendering him utterly helpless.

When the Buddha heard about this sad situation, He along with some bhikkhus visited the sick monk. He censured those monks, who left their ailing companion as it was a grave wrong to abandon a sick person without leaving someone to attend on him.The Noble One got the sick monk washed in warm water and replaced his soiled robe with a clean one. The bhikkhu was greatly relieved and he felt comfortable. The Buddha then delivered a sermon as a mental tonic to the ailing bhikkhu. The Noble One said, "He who tends the sick, tends me" showing the supreme importance of attending on the sick.

This incident shows the unbounded compassion of the Buddha in going to the help of a bhikkhu stricken by a serious ailment and forsaken by his companions at a time when he needed help most. This shows the callous disregard of the companions of the sick bhikkhu for one in pain and distress. By abandoning their companion, when he needed care, attention and help, they abandoned all their noble qualities as well.

The Buddha, in saying, "He who tends the sick, tends me" emphasizes the fact that, it is a sacred duty of every man worth his humanity to help anyone laid low by sickness for, he is then rendering a selfless service of the highest order.

The Buddha one day went to the Jalini Forest in Kosala to meet Angulimala. The murderous robber, was terrorizing the people in the area. Overjoyed on seeing the Buddha, the compulsive murderer decided to make him one more of his victims. He therefore lost no time in running after the Noble One with sword drawn. The Buddha through his psychic powers created obstacles on the way to prevent Angulimala from getting close to him. Panting, Angulimala stopped and cried out, "Stop ascetic". With calm serenity, Buddha replied, "Though I walk yet I have stopped."

Angulimala was puzzled and he told the Buddha "You are walking, ascetic, and yet you say you have stopped. What is the meaning of your words?"

The Noble One replied in soothing words, "Yes, I have stopped Angulimala, for evermore, violence towards living beings. Holdest not thy hand against thy fellow men".

The intelligence of Angulimala the erstwhile student of Taxila came to the fore and he realized that the great ascetic was none other than the Gotama Buddha, who, out of compassion had come to save him.

Angulimala threw away his weapon of death, became a follower and at his request was admitted to the order of bhikkhus.

This is another act of the deep compassion of the Buddha. It also shows that compassion, soothing words and psychological techniques can transform even criminals into saintly persons.

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