A High Disciple, a Prophecy, and a Miracle
Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1931
The passages of the Buddhist Suttas here translated contain many things which illumine different sides of the Buddha’s character. There is, first, an often repeated formula which compresses counsels of supreme wisdom into a sentence. There is an illustration of the Buddha’s fine irony, this time directed to the chief among his high disciples. There is a prophecy, a very interesting comment on which was made a good many years ago in The Theosophist, while it was still under the guidance of its heroic foundress. Then there is the story of what it is customary to call a miracle,—in reality an illustration of a Master’s command of natural forces. First in order comes the counsel of wisdom:
And so, when the Master had remained at Rajagriha as long as seemed good to him, he addressed the noble Ananda, saying: “Let us go, Ananda, let us betake ourselves to Ambalatthika.”
“So be it, Sire!” the noble Ananda responded. And so the Master, with a great company of disciples, departed to Ambalatthika.
There, at Ambalatthika, the Master dwelt in the king’s palace. While the Master was dwelling there at Ambalatthika in the king’s palace, he addressed to his disciples this teaching abounding in righteousness, saying: “This is right conduct, this is contemplation, this is wisdom; contemplation enriched by right conduct bears much fruit and many blessings; wisdom enriched by contemplation bears much fruit and many blessings; the heart which is enriched by wisdom is altogether set free from the poisons, to wit, the poison of lust, the poison of the desire of life, the poison of false beliefs, the poison of unwisdom.” It has been said of Masters that they are great in wisdom, even greater in holiness, since right conduct, of which holiness is the perfect flower, is the first and indispensable step toward wisdom. It would be both interesting and profitable to consider how far the clouds of materialistic science, which are now beginning to break, owe their obscuration to the ignoring of this fundamental principle. The word just translated “heart” is chittam, which means the whole consciousness; only when developed and expanded equally can consciousness discern that reality, the perception of which is wisdom, and consciousness not responsive to the law of righteousness is not fully developed, it is lop-sided and incomplete. A good many scientists, especially those who are in the lower ranks, speak and think rather disparagingly of “mere morality”; they do not realize that they are thereby defining the limits of their perception. They may gather the fruit of knowledge, but not of wisdom. Right conduct is the first step, and is indispensable. The seeker for wisdom who is founded upon right conduct may then wisely enter into meditation, the patient brooding of the mind on a subject of thought, which leads to wisdom. A wise distinction is drawn by students of Western mysticism between meditation and contemplation: meditation is the preliminary work of the purified mind, distributing and setting in the best order the parts of a problem, and making thoughtful comparison with kindred problems; contemplation is the serene insight, kindled by the inner light, which falls upon the parts of a problem thus thoughtfully considered. But, for any true ordering of a problem, right conduct must come first. There must be white light. If the light be coloured by “lust, the desire of life, false beliefs, unwisdom”, the elements of the lower self, there can be no true seeing. Scientists take infinite pains, and, rightly, to exclude all foreign factors from a critical experiment; disciples must take equal pains to exclude the “poisons”, if they seek right perception. They must build upon right conduct. This is fundamental, and therefore we find the Buddha repeating these sentences again and again, so that they may be engraved on the memories and hearts of his disciples.
The story brings us next to the finely ironical reproof of Sariputta. The chief of the Buddha’s disciples, to whom tradition gives the title, “Leader of the Army of the Law of Righteousness”, held in the inner circle about the Buddha a position like that of Peter, traditionally named “Prince of the Apostles”, in the group of disciples chosen by Christ. There is a profoundly interesting contrast in tone between the reproof administered to Sariputta and the rebukes which the impulsive Peter drew down upon himself. The narrative of the incident begins:
And so, when the Master had remained at Ambalatthika as long as seemed good to him, he addressed the noble Ananda, saying: “Let us go, Ananda, let us betake ourselves to Nalanda.”
“So be it, Sire!” the noble Ananda responded. And so the Master, with a great company of disciples, departed to Nalanda. There, at Nalanda, the Master dwelt in the Pavarika mango grove.
Before going on with the story it is interesting to note that a famous university was later established at Nalanda by the followers of the Buddha; for a long time it was the centre of religious and philosophical culture in northern India. Pending that foundation, the Buddha and his disciples camped in the mango grove, a huge cavern of green coolness, with the dark brown stems of the mangoes growing in sandy soil and holding up the wide canopy of glossy leaves. So deep is the shade that there is little grass, but a smooth floor fitted for the setting up of booths well protected from the blaze of the Indian sky. The Buddha, as the “Birth Stories” show, was a lover and keen observer of birds, attributing to himself such births as the “Wise Partridge”; in the green gloom of the mango grove he would have seen the gold and black orioles flitting to and fro, uttering eloquent things in their rich contralto tones,—the orioles of India are close kin to the golden orioles of France; he would have seen striped hoopoes magnificent in their war-bonnets, stepping sedately across the sandy floor; he would have seen gray squirrels darting from tree to tree, chattering at each other excitedly. And, while so resting among these lovely things, he would have seen the approach of his chief disciple:
And so the noble Sariputta, coming near to where the Master was, and drawing near to the Master, respectfully saluted him and seated himself at one side. Thus seated at one side, the noble Sariputta spoke thus to the Master:
“So full of faith am I, Sire, in the Master, that I am persuaded that never has there been, never shall there be, nor in the present is there found any other, whether ascetic or Brahman, greater and wiser than my Master, that is, respecting the supreme illumination!”
The Master answered: “Lofty and magnificent are the words that thou hast spoken, O Sariputta, uttering, as it were, the triumphant roar of a lion: ‘So full of faith am I, Sire, in the Master, that I am persuaded that never has there been, never shall there be, nor in the present is there found any other, whether ascetic or Brahman, greater and wiser than my Master, that is, respecting the supreme illumination!’ Without doubt, O Sariputta, whatever Arhats, perfect Buddhas, there have been in the far-reaching pathway of the past, these Masters thou hast known, encompassing them in thy consciousness, so as to perceive that such was the righteousness of these Masters, such was their knowledge of the Law of Righteousness, such was their illumination, such was their conduct, so far had they attained to liberation?”
“Not so, of a truth, Sire!”
“Well then, Sariputta, whatsoever Arhats, perfect Buddhas, there shall be in the far-reaching pathway of the future, all these Masters thou hast known, encompassing them in thy consciousness, so as to perceive that such shall be the righteousness of these Masters, such their knowledge of the Law of Righteousness, such their illumination, such their conduct, so far shall they attain to liberation?”
“Not so, of a truth, Sire!”
“Well then, Sariputta, have I, as Arhat, as perfect Buddha of the present time, been so well known by thee, encompassing me with thy consciousness, that thou hast been able to say, ‘Such is the righteousness of the Master, such is his knowledge of the Law of Righteousness, such is his illumination, such is his conduct, so far has he attained to liberation’?”
“Not so, of a truth, Sire!”
“So, then, Sariputta, thou hast not a complete knowledge of the consciousness of the Arhats, perfect Buddhas, of the past, the future, and of the present time. Why, then, Sariputta, hast thou uttered these lofty and magnificent words, roaring, as it were, the roar of a lion?”
The Buddha conveyed more than one lesson in this rather crushing reproof administered to his chief apostle. He wished Sariputta to come to a realization of the real scope of his own words; it is, first of all, a lesson in meditation. At the same time, the Buddha awakens some intuition of the might, majesty, dominion and power of the Great Lodge of Masters, backward along the far-reaching pathway of the past, forward along the far-reaching pathway of the future, and in the everlasting Now; of the holiness, the wisdom, the liberation of the Masters. But there is one lesson more: their splendid humility. With fine irony the Buddha reproves the ecstatic outpouring of the over-zealous Sariputta; at the same time he rebukes the great disciple’s flattery, however sincere it may be. There is an inner unity of spirit here with the reply of Christ: “Why callest thou me good?”
Sariputta accepts the reproof, and makes a rejoinder which does credit at once to his devotion and to the quickness of his mind:
“It is true, Sire, that I have not a complete knowledge of the consciousness of the Arhats, perfect Buddhas, of the past, the future and of the present time. But I have a perception of the lineage of the Law of Righteousness. It is, Sire, as though a king possessed a city on the frontier, firmly founded, with firm walls and towers, and with one gate. There the king’s warden kept the gate, a man learned, experienced, possessing wisdom, so that he kept out those who were unknown, and admitted those who were known. So making the complete circuit of that city’s walls, the warden might not scrutinize every joint in the wall, every crevice in the wall, through which only a cat could find its way out. But he would know of a certainty that every considerable living being which entered the city or departed from it,—every one of them must enter or depart by the gate which he guarded. In just this way, Sire, is the lineage of the Law of Righteousness known to me. Whatsoever Arhats, perfect Buddhas, Sire, were on the far-reaching pathway of the past, dispelling the five obscurities (envy, passion, vacillation, sloth, and unbelief), these faults which darken the understanding, firmly established in the four degrees of recollection and meditation, thoroughly exercising themselves in the seven members of awakened spiritual intelligence (that is to say, in recollection, examination, valour, joy, serenity, contemplation, detachment), thereby enjoyed the unsurpassable supreme illumination. And I know that the same thing will be true of the Arhats, perfect Buddhas, on the far-reaching pathway of the future. I know, too, that this is true, Sire, of the Master in the present!”
No comment of the Buddha on this fine piece of special pleading has been recorded. But he must have smiled in serene enjoyment of his great disciple’s intellectual resourcefulness. The narrative continues:
There, at Nalanda, the Master dwelt in the Pavarika mango grove. And there he addressed to his disciples this teaching abounding in righteousness, saying: “This is right conduct, this is contemplation, this is wisdom; contemplation enriched by right conduct bears much fruit and many blessings; wisdom enriched by contemplation bears much fruit and many blessings; the heart which is enriched by wisdom is altogether set free from the poisons, to wit, the poison of lust, the poison of the desire of life, the poison of false beliefs, the poison of unwisdom.”
And so, when the Master had dwelt at Nalanda as long as seemed good to him, he addressed the noble Ananda, saying: “Let us go, Ananda, let us betake ourselves to Pataligama.”
“So be it, Sire!” the noble Ananda responded. And so the Master, with a great company of disciples, departed to Pataligama.
The lay-disciples who were at Pataligama heard that the Master had come to Pataligama. Therefore these lay-disciples betook themselves to the place where the Master was, and, respectfully saluting the Master, seated themselves at one side. Being thus seated at one side, the lay-disciples of Pataligama said: “Sire, let the Master take up his abode in the rest-house!” The Master by his silence gave consent.
And so the lay-disciples of Pataligama, seeing that the Master had consented to be their guest, rose from their seats, respectfully saluted the Master, keeping the right hand toward him, and betook themselves to the rest-house. Betaking themselves thither, and fully preparing the rest-house for occupation, they set seats in order, brought a jar of pure water, set up an oil lamp, and, having completed their preparations, went back to the place where the Buddha was, and, respectfully saluting him, stood at one side. Standing thus at one side, these lay-disciples of Pataligama spoke thus to the Master:
“Sire, the rest-house is fully prepared for occupation, seats have been set in order, a jar of pure water has been brought, an oil lamp has been set up. The time has come for the Master to do what he thinks fitting!”
And so the Master, donning his robe and taking his bowl, went with the company of his disciples to the rest-house, washed his feet, and entered the rest-house, taking his seat at the central pillar and sitting with his face toward the East. The disciples of the Order thereupon also washed their feet, and entered the rest-house, taking their seats against the Western wall, setting themselves with the Master in front of them. Finally, the lay-disciples of Pataligama washed their feet also, entered the rest-house and seated themselves against the Eastern wall, facing the West, and respectfully taking their places with regard to the Master.
And so the Master thus addressed the lay-disciples of Pataligama: “There are five miseries which beset the wrong-doer because he has fallen from right conduct. What are the five?
“First, householders, because the wrong-doer fallen from right conduct is overcome by sloth, he incurs the loss of his possessions. This is the first misery that besets him.
“Once again, householders, the wrong-doer fallen from right conduct is overtaken by ill repute. This is the second misery that besets him.
“Once again, householders, concerning the wrong-doer fallen from righteous conduct, whatever society he enters, whether a gathering of Kshatriyas, a gathering of Brahmans, a gathering of householders, or a gathering of ascetics, he enters that gathering devoid of confidence, downcast. This is the third misery that besets him.
“Once again, householders, the wrong-doer fallen from right conduct, when he reaches his appointed time, is afflicted with dismay. This is the fourth misery that besets him.
“Once again, householders, the wrong-doer fallen from right conduct, when he is separated from the body after death, finds himself in an unhappy state of affliction, woe, punishment, retribution. This is the fifth misery that besets him. These, then, householders, are the five miseries that overtake the wrong-doer who has fallen from right conduct.
“And likewise there are five blessings which rest upon the man of good conduct, who follows after righteousness. What are the five?
“First, householders, the man of good conduct who follows after righteousness, since he does not fall into sloth, gains much stored-up wealth. This is the first blessing that rests on him.
“Once again, householders, the man of good conduct who follows after righteousness, gains fair fame and repute. This is the second blessing that rests upon him.
“Once again, householders, concerning the man of good conduct who follows after righteousness, whatever society he enters, whether a gathering of Kshatriyas, a gathering of Brahmans, a gathering of householders, or a gathering of ascetics, he is confident, not downcast. This is the third blessing that rests upon him.
“Once again, householders, the man of good conduct who follows after righteousness, when he reaches his appointed time, is serene of heart. This is the fourth blessing that rests upon him.
“Once again, householders, the man of good conduct who follows after righteousness, when he is separated from the body after death, finds himself in a happy state of blessedness. This is the fifth blessing that rests upon him. These, then, householders, are the five blessings that rest upon the man of good conduct who follows after righteousness.”
And so, when the Master had instructed the lay-disciples of Pataligama far into the night, encouraging them in good works, filling them with vigour and delight, he dismissed them, saying: “The night is far gone, householders! It is time for you to do what is fitting!”
“So be it, Sire!” responded the lay-disciples of Pataligama, answering the Master, and rising from their seats they respectfully saluted the Master, keeping the right hand toward him, and took their departure. And the Master, not long after the lay-disciples of Pataligama had taken their departure, entered the chamber in which he might enjoy solitude.
So far, the journey to Pataligama, which, being interpreted, means the Village of the Sweet-scented Trumpet-vine. Two aspects of this incident are worth noting: first, the sense of courtesy and order which invariably ruled all acts of the Buddha and the members of the Order, illustrated here by the seating of the Buddha, his full disciples, and the lay-disciples of Pataligama, whom he was visiting, as well as in the careful preparations which these lay-disciples made for his reception; second, the directly practical nature of his teaching at Pataligama, exactly suited to the problems of men who, adhering to his spiritual leadership, yet remained in their own homes, and there met the ordinary problems of daily life. The clear distinction between the members of the Order who were seeking the transmutation of full discipleship, and these excellent and devoted lay-disciples, who were not directly seeking that transmutation, is fully brought out by the scope and character of the lessons in the rest-house. And here, as always, the Buddha used iteration to make it easy for his hearers to remember,—to make it almost impossible for them to forget. The narrative resumes:
At that very time Sunidha and Vassakara, chief ministers of Ajatashatru, King of Magadha, were building a stronghold at Pataligama as a defense against the Vajjians. At that time also many thousand devatas (ethereal powers) had taken possession of the region of Pataligama. In whatever place devatas of great power take possession of the region, they turn the hearts of rulers and chief ministers of great power to build residences in that place. And so the devatas of middle power or of lesser power constrain the hearts of rulers and chief ministers of middle or lesser power to build dwellings.
So it befell that the Master with divine vision, pure, surpassing the vision of the sons of men, saw these thousands of devatas that had taken possession of the places in Pataligama. And so, as night was lightening to dawn, the Master arose and said to the noble Ananda:
“Ananda, who is building a stronghold at Pataligama?”
“Sunidha and Vassakara, Sire, the chief ministers of Magadha, are building a stronghold at Pataligama as a defense against the Vajjians!”
“They act, Ananda, as though they had taken counsel with the Thirty-three Celestials, these chief ministers of Magadha, Sunidha and Vassakara, in building a stronghold at Pataligama as a defense against the Vajjians. In this very place, Ananda, I beheld with divine vision, pure, surpassing the vision of the sons of men, thousands of devatas who have taken possession of the region of Pataligama. And in whatever place ethereal powers of great influence take possession of the region, they turn the hearts of great rulers and chief ministers to build residences in that place, and so with the ethereal powers of middle or lesser influence, who constrain the hearts of rulers and ministers of middle or lesser power. to build dwellings. So far, Ananda, as the Aryan people have their dwellings, so far as merchants wend their way, this shall be the chief city, Pataliputra, a central city. Nevertheless, Ananda, three dangers shall threaten Pataliputra,—the dangers of fire, of water and of dissension between friends!”
Pataligama, the Village of the Sweet-scented Trumpet-vine, was on the south bank of the Ganges, just below the point where the Sôn river enters it from the south, close to longitude 85° East, not far from the modern city of Patna. As the Buddha foresaw and foretold, the village became a great and wealthy city, under circumstances thus set forth in an authoritative historical study entitled “Shakya Muni’s Place in History”, which was printed in The Theosophist and reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy:
“Quite independently of the Buddhist version, there exists the historical fact recorded in the Brahmanical as well as in the Burmese and Tibetan versions, that in the year 63 of Buddha, Susinago of Benares was chosen king by the people of Pataliputra, who made away with Ajatashatru’s dynasty. Susinago removed the capital of Magadha from Rajagriha to Vaisali, while his successor Kalashoka removed it in his turn to Pataliputra. It was during the reign of the latter that the prophecy of Buddha concerning Patalibat or Pataliputra—a small village during His time—was realized.”
The prophecy has just been quoted. King Ajatashatru appears several times in these Suttas: as the king who visited and revered the Buddha, but was debarred from becoming a full disciple because he had slain his father. Perhaps it was the karmic retribution for this parricide that led the people of Pataliputra to “make away with Ajatashatru’s dynasty”: he appears again as fulminating against the Vajjians and as sending his Brahman minister Vassakara, the Rain-maker, to find out from the Buddha whether he could hope to overcome them. Evidently the oracle which the Rain-maker brought back dissuaded him from making his contemplated attack, but he determined to build a fortress at Pataligama to prevent the Vajjians from attacking him. Therefore he sent his two ministers to see to the building of a new stronghold near the village. The year 63 of Buddha, that is, 63 years after the Great Decease, corresponds to the year 480 before our era. The Kalashoka mentioned in the historical essay cited, who is also called Chandragupta, belonged to the Rajput family of the Moryas. At a later date Pataliputra is named in the fifth Edict inscribed on the rocks at Girnar by order of Dharmashoka, the great Buddhist convert and emperor. The excellent monograph, Asoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India, by Vincent A. Smith, late of the Indian Civil Service, tells us that:
“The ancient city of Pataliputra, like its modern successor (Patna), was a long and narrow parallelogram, about nine miles in length and a mile and a half in breadth. The wooden walls seen by Megasthenes, which were protected by a wide and deep moat, were pierced by sixty-four gates and crowned by five hundred and seventy towers. Asoka built an outer masonry wall, and beautified the city with innumerable stone buildings so richly decorated, that in after ages they were ascribed to the genii.”
Thus the first part of the Buddha’s prophecy was fulfilled. The small village, in whose rest-house he and his disciples were so hospitably welcomed by the lay-disciples, became the first city of the Indian world, the imperial capital of Asoka. Concerning the three dangers which threatened the great city, still unbuilt, we may quote from the monograph already cited:
“The greater part of the ancient city (Pataliputra) still lies buried in the silt of the rivers under Patna and Bankipore at a depth of from ten to twenty feet. In several places the remains of the wooden palisade mentioned by Megasthenes have been exposed by casual excavations, and numerous traces have been found of massive brick and magnificent stone buildings. The excavations, as far as they have been carried, fully confirm the accuracy of the accounts given by Megasthenes and the Chinese pilgrims of the extent and magnificence of the Maurya capital.”
So far the prophecy and its fulfillment. Now concerning the miracle. Since King Ajatashatru had great reverence for the Buddha, and had expressed this reverence to his chief minister, the Rain-maker, it was wholly natural for the Rain-maker and his ministerial colleague to show the Buddha every attention, to press hospitality upon him, which he accepted, graciously returning thanks on behalf of himself and his disciples. The narrative goes on:
And so the Master, having thanked Sunidha and Vassakara, chief ministers of Magadha, arose and departed. And the two chief ministers followed after the Master, saying: “By what gate the ascetic Gotama departs, that shall be named Gotama Gate; and by what ferry the ascetic Gotama shall cross the river Ganga, that shall be called Gotama Ferry.” So the gate by which the Master went out was named Gotama Gate.
And so the Master went on to the Ganga river. At that time the Ganga river was full to the brink, so that a crow standing on the bank might drink. Some of the men who were there sought a boat, some of them sought a raft, some of them sought a float of branches, desiring to cross to the other shore. But the Master, just as a mighty man might stretch forth his arm, or, having stretched it forth, draw it back again, disappeared from the hither bank of the Ganga river and immediately was standing on the farther bank, with the company of his disciples.
The Master saw the men seeking boat or raft or float, and, seeing them, sang this song:
“They who cross the watery waste, after building a causeway,
While fools seek floats of boughs·,-they are indeed the wise.”
The story of this crossing of the Ganges may remind us of the story of another Master, who likewise had command over the wind and the waves:
“Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.”
Thus that Master carried his disciples with him to the other shore. Those who are ready to accept the view that great Masters have such power over the elements, will see in both narratives a record of that power. Others may be content to see in the two events an eloquent symbol of a Master’s protective power over his children, whom he takes with him to the farther shore, the shore of salvation, across the “watery waste” of psychical illusion.