The Fruits of Discipleship
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1925
The questions of King Ajatashatru, with the Buddha’s answers, make up the Sutta called The Fruits of Discipleship. There is a certain likeness between the position of the king and that of the young man who had great possessions, in the history of the Western Master. Ajatashatru, already endowed with power and wealth, longed for spiritual wisdom, a wisdom deeper and better than could be gained from the accepted teachers within his kingdom. So he came to the great Eastern Master seeking enlightenment. The resemblance comes out vividly in the Buddha’s comment at the end of the discourse, after Ajatashatru had departed, returning to his palace:
“Deeply stirred was the king, disciples; touched to the heart was the king. If, disciples, the king had not deprived of life his father, righteous, a righteous king, even here and now he would have gained the divine vision, passionless, stainless.”
Because of the barrier of this old crime, committed through the desire for great possessions, Ajatashatru went away, seeking no further light from the Enlightened. Though the path was open before him, he did not set his feet on it, determined to follow it to the end.
It was part of the Buddha’s fine courtesy that he did not rebuke the king when Ajatashatru, deeply moved, repented and confessed his sin of parricide, but sent him away with words of sympathetic understanding and consolation, recognizing in him one who earnestly longed for light.
That high, serene courtesy was habitual with Gotama Buddha, a part of his deepest nature; an unvarying graciousness of manner, and also the rarer intellectual courtesy, an attitude of sympathetic tolerance and forbearance toward views the very opposite of his own teaching. The editors of the Suttas have admirably described this mental and moral attitude in the Introduction to another Sutta:
“The Buddha, in conversation with a naked ascetic, explains his position as regards asceticism, so far, that is, as is compatible with his invariable method when discussing a point on which he differs from his interlocutor.
“When speaking on sacrifice to a sacrificial priest, on union with God to an adherent of the current theology, on Brahman claims to superior social rank to a proud Brahman, on mystic insight to a man who trusts in it, on the soul to one who believes in the soul theory, the method followed is always the same. Gotama puts himself as far as possible in the mental position of the questioner. He attacks none of his cherished convictions. He accepts as the starting-point of his own exposition the desirability of the act or condition prized by his opponent. He even adopts the very phraseology of his questioner. And then, partly by putting a new and a higher meaning into the words; partly by an appeal to such ethical conceptions as are common ground between them, he gradually leads his opponent up to his conclusion. This is, of course, always Arahatship; that is the sweetest fruit of the life of a recluse, that is the best sacrifice, that the highest social rank, that the best means of seeing heavenly sights, and a more worthy object. There is both courtesy and dignity in the method employed.”
The Sutta of The Fruits of Discipleship begins with one of those vivid, dramatically conceived pictures which so often introduce the discourses of the Buddha, graphically calling up before us a view of the India of his day and the personality and character of those to whom the discourse is addressed.
King Ajatashatru, ruler of Magadha, was seated among his ministers and friends on the upper terrace of his palace. It was the night of the full moon at the beginning of November, when the cold season had succeeded to the rains, the time when the white water-lily blooms. To his ministers and friends Ajatashatru spoke:
“Delightful is the luminous night; full of charm is the luminous night; fair to look upon is the luminous night; peaceful is the luminous night; auspicious is the luminous night. What ascetic or Brahman may we reverently visit, who, reverently visited, may fill our hearts with peace?”
The ministers, entering into the king’s mood, named, one after the other, six teachers, each the head of an Order, with many followers, famed, revered, who had sought wisdom for many years.
As each was named, the king remained silent. The king’s physician was seated near him. To him Ajatashatru said: “And you, beloved Jivaka, why so silent?”
“Your Majesty, the Master, the Arahat, supremely enlightened, is now resting in our Mango Grove, with a great company of his disciples. This fair fame has gone abroad concerning the Master Gotama, that the Master is an Arahat, supremely enlightened, perfect in wisdom and holiness, happy, with insight into the worlds, guiding men to righteousness, giving the good law to gods and to men, an awakened Buddha. Let Your Majesty reverently visit this Master, for, visiting this Master, he will fill the heart with peace.”
“Then, beloved Jivaka, bid them caparison the riding elephants.”
So the elephants were caparisoned, and, surrounded by torch-bearers, they went forth into the luminous night. The Mango Grove belonged to Jivaka, the king’s physician, and his inviting Gotama to abide there, makes it appear that Jivaka was himself an adherent of the Buddha. It may be noted in passing that it is still the custom to pitch a camp in the deep shade of a mango grove, where the tall, clean stems and thick covering of glossy leaves make an ideal shelter from the almost vertical sun, which is oppressively hot even in November, at the beginning of the cold season, as it is called by comparison with burning May.
Then comes a charming bit of literary art, through which the composer of the Sutta brings out the admirably quiet manners that were distinctive of the Buddha’s Order.
The cortege drew near to the Mango Grove. As they drew near, there was fear, there was stupor in the heart of King Ajatashatru, so that his flesh crept. Alarmed and excited, he said to Jivaka:
“Are you not tricking me, beloved Jivaka? Are you not laying a trap to deliver me to my enemies? For how could there be so many disciples, and not even the sound of a cough or a sneeze?”
It is worth noting that Ajatashatru, who had ensnared and murdered his father, should in his turn dread a treacherous attack. But the good physician answered:
“Fear not, king! I am not tricking Your Majesty, nor laying a trap to deliver you to your enemies. Go forward, king! Go forward, for there in the pavilion the lamps are burning!”
So Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha, went forward as far as the elephants could go; then alighting, he proceeded on foot and came to the entrance of the pavilion. There he spoke thus to Jivaka the physician:
“Beloved Jivaka, which is the Master?”
“That is the Master, O king! That is the Master, seated at the central pillar, facing the east, in the midst of his disciples!”
As Ajatashatru stood there, looking at the assembly of disciples, still and serene as a quiet lake, he breathed this ardent wish:
“Would that my boy Udayi Bhadra might be endowed with quietude such as these disciples possess!”
“Your thought has gone, O king, where your love is!”
“I love the boy; therefore I would that he were endowed with such quietude as these disciples!”
Then the king, when he had saluted the Master, and with joined palms had saluted the Order, seated himself at one side, and addressed a question to the Master. This is the question which was earlier summarized thus:
“All practical arts and sciences show visible and immediate fruit. Thus the potter makes vessels which are useful to mankind, and the sale of which brings him money. So with the carpenter, the builder and others. Now, I wish to know whether there is in the life of the disciple any visible, tangible and immediate fruit like the fruit obtained by the potter, the carpenter, the builder!”
In the text, no less than twenty-five professions and occupations are enumerated, with the completeness of detail which is so characteristic of the Buddhist Suttas, even beyond the measure of other Oriental writings. Their visible rewards are detailed in the same way: they maintain themselves in happiness, they maintain their mothers and fathers in happiness, they maintain their children and wives in happiness, they maintain their friends and companions in happiness; to ascetics and to Brahmans they give gifts which bring a spiritual reward, which lead to heaven, which bring happiness, which have heaven as their reward. Can the Master make known a like fruit in the case of the disciple, a fruit visible even here?
The Buddha follows his almost invariable custom of answering a question by asking a question:
“Do you acknowledge, O king, that you have addressed this same question to other ascetics and Brahmans?”
“I acknowledge, Sir, that I have addressed this question to other ascetics and Brahmans!”
“Then, O king, if it be not displeasing to you, tell how they answered.”
“It is not displeasing to me, where the Master or those like the Master are concerned!”
This is the introduction to a very full description of the character and teachings of the six ascetics who had been suggested to the king as worthy of a visit on that luminous night. It would be exceedingly interesting, did space permit, to study at some length the views of each one of them. For the present it must suffice to say that they were all in their way sincere. They had all set forth to seek the path of wisdom. They had all strayed from the Path. While some of them were materialists and nihilists with a degree of thoroughness of which we have hardly any conception, they were not materialistic in the modern sense. They were all ascetics. They had renounced the world with its pomps and vanities.
They were not ensnared by the allurements of the senses or the desire of wealth. They were ensnared by the processes of their own minds. Finding a keen delight in elaborate dialectics, they had fixed their whole attention on the workings of the mind machine, and had become altogether absorbed in its various and endless activities. And, as a result, they had quenched the light of the spirit. Each in his tragic way, they illustrate the mind as the slayer of the real. Since they had fallen back from the light of the spirit into the meshes of the mind, they had failed to escape from the domination of self. As a result, they are argumentative, dogmatic, self-assertive, egotistic.
Once more, the narrator takes advantage of this situation to draw a picture of Ajatashatru’s considerateness. Let the king tell it in his own words:
“When I asked each of them concerning the visible fruit of discipleship, he set forth his own teaching. It was as though, asked about a mango, he had described a breadfruit, or asked about a breadfruit, he had described a mango. Then, Sir, I bethought me thus: ‘How should such a one as I think of causing displeasure to any ascetic or Brahman in my dominions?’ So expressing neither approval nor disapproval, neither accepting nor rejecting his teaching, I arose from my seat and departed.” It will be remembered that, when these same teachers were named to the king, as he rested on the terrace of his palace, he exercised the same forbearance, not even telling his ministers that he had already tried them all and found them wanting, but remaining silent.
In quoting the editors of the Suttas regarding the fine courtesy of the Buddha, we passed without comment the phrase: “One who believes in the soul theory.” It is misleading, and therefore the complementary assertion, that the Buddha controverted the soul theory, is equally misleading. The word used is Atta, the Pali modulation of Atma, but in Pali the meaning is restricted to the personal self, the principle of egotism; Atta-vada is not the assertion of the supreme Atma, but self-assertion, self-centred egotism, self-love. What the Buddha taught, just as Shankaracharya later taught it, was that the personal self has no lasting being, no reality. He saw, with vision surpassing that of mortals, that, until the tyranny of self was broken, until this grasping egotism was completely overthrown and annihilated, the disciple could not advance upon the Path; could not safely draw near to the Path. It is the teaching of all Masters, and the most vital. When the author of the Imitation of Christ records his Master as saying:
“If thou knewest perfectly to annihilate thyself, and to empty thyself of all created love, then should I be constrained to flow into thee with great abundance of grace,” he does not for a moment think that this self-annihilation means the final blotting out of consciousness, the end of spiritual life; it is rather the beginning.
The teaching of the Buddha is exactly the same, and with the same end in view. He knew very well that the disciple who had fought the great fight and won the victory, annihilating self, would make his own discoveries, and he was content to await that hour of illumination, rather than risk the carrying forward of the poisonous thought of “self” into a wider world. The Buddha is not controverting “the soul theory,” he is denying the reality of the “self.” But the soul, in his teaching, is not a circumscribed being, changeless throughout eternity; it is not static but dynamic; not an iceberg or a landlocked pool, but a flowing stream that shall become a river, a mighty river moving toward the ocean of Being, and losing there its last limitations.
To come back to the questioning of Ajatashatru; he asks the Buddha, as he had asked the six teachers, whether the Buddha could show him any visible fruit, in this world, of the life of the disciple.
The Buddha again answers with a question, and his answer appeals to a feeling, profound, deeply rooted in the heart of every Oriental: the instinctive reverence for those who have entered the religious life, a feeling only the vestiges of which linger in our western lands, as when Sisters of Charity go confidently into the slums of a city, where even the law goes armed and alert against some treacherous attack.
He asks Ajatashatru to imagine one of his own people, a slave, busy with the king’s work, rising earlier, going to rest later than the king, one faithful in act, pleasant in word, watching the king’s every look. Should such a one, contrasting his slavery with the king’s power and wealth, bethink him that the king was reaping the reward of great merit, and, to win merit for himself, determine to enter the religious life, would the king, hearing that he had donned the yellow robes, wish him to return and become once more a slave?
The king answers that he would greet such a one with reverence, rising to receive him, bidding him be seated, and bestowing on him such things as a religious may use.
This, the Buddha comments, is a visible fruit of discipleship. It is impossible not to recognize the art, as well as admire the sympathy, with which the great Teacher begins at the point of Ajatashatru’s common experience and habitual feeling; impossible not to see also that he is seeking to touch the king’s heart, to awaken in him the latent homesickness for discipleship, and to strengthen it until it becomes intolerable. Therefore he goes on to instance another who has entered the path, this time a freeman, a householder. Would the king wish such a one to renounce the path and to return to his village?
The king makes the same reply. On the contrary, he would greet such a one with reverence, rising as before, and giving him gifts. This also is a visible fruit of discipleship. So far, the Buddha has spoken only of the liberation of the religious life and the reverence paid to the religious, things instinctively recognized by Ajatashatru, as by all Orientals.
The Buddha now goes further:
“Suppose, O king, that a Tathagata is born in the world, an Arahat, fully awakened, endowed with wisdom and righteousness, benign, knowing the worlds, unsurpassed as a guide of men, a teacher of bright beings and of mortals, a Buddha, a Master. He of himself thoroughly knows and sees face to face the universe, the world of bright powers, the world of dark powers, the world of the formative divinities, the world of ascetics and of Brahmans, the peoples of the earth, the bright powers and mankind, and declares his knowledge to others. He proclaims the Law, lovely in its beginning, lovely in its progress, lovely in its consummation, in the spirit and in the letter, he reveals the spiritual life in its fulness, in its purity. This Law a householder hears, or a householder’s son, or one born in any other class. Hearing this Law, he gains faith in the Tathagata. Filled with faith in the Tathagata, he considers thus within himself: ‘Hard is the life of the householder, a path of dust and passion; free as air is the life of him who has renounced. Not easy is it for him who is a householder to live the spiritual life in its fulness, in its purity, in its perfection. Let me then be shaven and, donning the yellow robes, let me leave my dwelling and enter the way of renunciation.’ Then in no long time leaving his portion of wealth, be it small or great, and his circle of relatives, be they few or many, he is shaven and, donning the yellow robes, departs from his dwelling and enters the way of renunciation.”
This brings us naturally to the question whether the literal abandonment of home and family, and of the ordinary means of livelihood, is indispensable, if the life of discipleship is to be complete. A living Aryan Master, who looks up to the Buddha as his supreme Master and Lord, writing to one who was a householder with wife and child depending on him, gives a profound and inspiring answer:
“Does it seem to you a small thing that the past year has been spent only in your ‘family duties’? Nay but what better cause for reward, what better discipline, than the daily and hourly performance of duty? Believe me my ‘pupil,’ the man or woman who is placed by Karma in the midst of small plain duties and sacrifices and loving-kindness, will, through these faithfully fulfilled, rise to the larger measure of Duty, Sacrifice, and Charity to all Humanity; what better paths toward the enlightenment you are striving after than the daily conquest of self, the perseverance in spite of want of visible psychic progress, the bearing of ill-fortune with that serene fortitude which turns it to spiritual advantage, since good and evil are not to be measured by events on the lower or physical plane. . . . Your spiritual progress is far greater than you know or can realize, and you do well to believe that such development is in itself more important than its realization by your physical plane consciousness.”
Yet there are serious difficulties in the path of the aspirant who seeks to combine the life of the householder with the life of the disciple. We have heard a good deal, of late, concerning the presence of carbon monoxide in our cities, and the injury it causes to the trees in the parks. Perhaps there is also a moral carbon monoxide in the inner atmosphere of a city which, while it is not an absolute barrier to the higher degrees of development, makes their attainment much harder. But it is certain that the grossness, the selfishness, the craving for excitement which our cities are full of, are absolute barriers to discipleship and to its fruits. The disciple may be in the world; he cannot be of the world. The Western Master expresses exactly the same truth, when he says:
“The sons of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they that are accounted worthy to attain to that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: for neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”
It would seem, therefore, that the “going forth” of the householder, like the shaven head and the yellow robes, is a symbol, and something more. Whether he dwell in a palace or a hermitage, he who would be a disciple must have renounced all grossness and sordid interests, all selfishness and self-seeking, with the completeness which is typified by the householder’s going forth. He seeks to enter a new order of being, a new world, and he must comply with its conditions. So we come back to the Buddha’s answer to the king:
“Thus he who has gone forth dwells obedient to the rules of the Order, rejoicing in righteousness, seeing danger in the least transgression, accepting and training himself in the precepts, righteous in word and deed, innocent in his livelihood, righteous in conduct, keeping the door of the senses, recollected in consciousness, happy.
“With heart and mind thus concentrated, purified, cleansed, free from stain, supple, active, steadfast, unwavering, he builds up a body of the substance of mind, concentrating heart and mind on the task. From the physical body he builds up another body, a form of the substance of mind, with all its parts and members, not lacking any power.
“It is as though a man were to draw forth a reed from its sheath, clearly seeing that this is the reed, this the sheath; the reed is one, the sheath is other; from the sheath, the reed has been drawn forth.”
The Buddha is here quoting the very words of a famous passage in the Katha Upanishad:
“The spiritual man, the inner Self, dwells in the heart of men. Let the disciple draw him forth, firmly, like the reed from,the sheath; let him know the spiritual man as the pure, the immortal.”
As the spiritual man, thus born from above, the son of the resurrection, he then enters a new order of life, a new world. The remainder of the Sutta is devoted to an enumeration and description of the powers and faculties which he inherits, as the proper endowment of this new life. We have only space to outline them, leaving a fuller consideration for a future occasion.
“With heart and mind thus concentrated, purified, cleansed, free from stain, supple, active, steadfast, unwavering, he directs and concentrates heart and mind on the forms of spiritual power. He enjoys spiritual power in its various degrees: being one, he becomes manifold, being manifold, he becomes one; he becomes visible or invisible; he passes unhindered through a wall or a mountain; he descends and ascends through the earth as through water; he walks on the water as if on the earth; seated in meditation, he traverses space, like a winged falcon; he touches moon and sun with his hand; he attains even to the world of Brahma.
“He concentrates heart and mind on the power of divine hearing. With clear divine hearing, surpassing that of mortals, he hears sounds both divine and human, both afar and nigh at hand.
“He concentrates heart and mind on the insight which penetrates the heart. With his own heart penetrating the hearts of other beings, of other men, he understands them. He discerns the hearts and minds of others as clearly as a woman sees her face in a mirror.
“He knows his past births without number, as though a man, going from one village to another, and from that to another, and then returning home, should say, ‘From my own village I came to that other. There I stood in such and such a way, sat thus, spoke thus, was silent thus. Then I came to that other village, stood thus, sat thus, spoke thus, was silent thus. And now from that other village I have come home.’
“With clear divine vision, surpassing that of mortals, he sees beings as they pass from one form of existence and take shape in another; he recognizes the mean and the noble, the well favoured and the ill favoured, the happy and the wretched, passing away according to their deeds; these he sees as clearly as though one should watch men entering and leaving a house, or walking on the street.
“He perceives the truths concerning misery, the origin of misery, the cessation of misery, the path that leads to the cessation of misery, as one, standing by a pool among the mountains, looking down into the pool, may see the sand and pebbles at the bottom, and the fish in the pool.
“These are the fruits of discipleship.”
When the Master had thus spoken, Ajatashatru, king of Magadha, thus addressed him:
“Excellent, Lord! Excellent, Lord! Just as though one should set up what has been overthrown, or reveal what has been hidden, or show the way to him who has gone astray, or bring light into darkness that men might see, so by the Master has the truth been revealed to me.
“Therefore, I take my refuge in the Master, I take my refuge in the Law, I take my refuge in the Order of disciples. May the Master accept me as a lay disciple, come to him as my refuge, from today so long as life endures. Sin overcame me, Lord, a fool, deluded, beset by evil, in that, for the sake of sovereignty, I deprived of life my father, righteous, a righteous king. May the Master accept this sin confessed, that for all time to come I may have the victory over it!”
“Sin indeed overcame you, O king, as a fool, deluded, beset by evil, that you deprived of life your father, righteous, a righteous king. But as you see your sin and rightly confess it, it is accepted by me. For this is according to the rule of the noble one, that he who sees his sin and rightly confesses it, shall for all time have the victory over it.”
Then said Ajatashatru, king of Magadha, “Now, Lord, we must go. There is much work, much for me to do!”
“Do, O king, as you think fit!”
Then Ajatashatru, delighted and rejoiced by the words of the Master, reverently saluting the Master, went his way.
When the king had departed, the Master said to his disciples:
“Deeply stirred was the king, disciples; touched to the heart was the king. If, disciples, the king had not deprived of life his father, righteous, a righteous king, even here and now he would have gained the divine vision, passionless, stainless.”
When the Master had thus spoken, the disciples were rejoiced and glad of heart.