Monday, February 25, 2013

Subhadda And The Three Sticks

Subhadda was the last person converted by the Buddha. Once, the Buddha said:  “Even if you have to carry me around on a stretcher (because of sickness or old age) there will be no change in the clarity of my wisdom. If anyone were to speak rightly of me they could say that a being not liable to delusion has appeared in the world, for the good of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good and happiness of gods and humans.” (M.I,83). In this sense the Buddha was true to his word. Only a few hours before his passing, as he lay surrounded by his disciples, the wandering ascetic Subhadda pushed his way through the crowd wanting to ask him some questions. Ananda held him back saying: “Enough Subhadda, do not disturb the Tathagata, for he is weary.” The Buddha heard this and told  Ananda to let the ascetic come to him  “for whatever he will ask is because he is questing for enlightenment.” Subhadda sat before the Buddha and the two men spoke for a while. Subhadda took to heart what the Buddha said and later he attained enlightenment (D.II,149). Such was the Buddha’s compassion that he taught the Dhamma almost to his last breath.
Ancient depictions of the Buddha’s passing   often  include images of a person grieving and another of a monk meditating. This first figure represents the Mallas sobbing, as mentioned in the Maraparinibbana Sutta. The meditating figure represents the monks who were enlightened who spent the evening the Buddha died meditating or discussing the Dhamma, again as mentioned in the sutta. However, not infrequently, the meditating figure is  flanked by what looks like a tripod supporting some round object. What is this curious thing?  
 In the Anguttara Nikaya  the Buddha mentions a sect of ascetics called the Tedandika, Those of the Three Sticks (A.III,276). This same  sect is also mentioned in some early non-Buddhist texts, and an ascetic in the Jataka is mentioned as having three sticks (tedanda, Ja.II,3160). It seems that these ascetics carried a three-piece staff  over their shoulders on the end of which they suspended their begging bowl water pot or water filter. When they rested they assembled the staff into a tripod and used it to support their accoutrements.  Nowhere in the Tipitaka is Subhadda mentioned as being a Tedandika but there must have been an early tradition that he was. So when the the meditating monk depicted in parinibbana scenes is shown with a tripod he is not representing the monks who remained calm after the Buddha’s passing, but rather Subhadda, the Buddha’s last disciple. 
The tripod in the third picture is clearly shown supporting a water pot with a spout rather than a bowl.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Handful Of Leaves


On one occasion the Lord was staying at Kosambi in a grove of simsapa trees. Then he took  a handful of simsapa leaves and said to the monks; “What do you think? Which is the more numerous, this handful of leaves or those in this grove?” “Lord, the leaves in your hand are few but the leaves in this simsapa grove are many.” “So too, monks, those things I know directly but have not taught you are many, while the things I have taught you are few in comparison. Any why have I not taught you those many things? Because they are not connected  with the goal, not fundamental to the holy life, they do not conduce to the good,  to turning away, to fading, to calming, to higher knowledge or to Nirvana. And what have I taught? The Four Noble Truths. And why have I taught this? Because it is connected with the goal, fundamental to the holy life, conducive to the good, to turning away, to fading, calming, higher knowledge and to Nirvana.” (S.V,437-8)
This sutta tells us that enlightenment makes available to  those who attain  it vistas of knowledge that we can only imagine. It also underlines the Buddha’s pragmatism, that his   principle concern was to free us from dukkha, and by implication, that it should be our main concern too. But the sutta might also raise curiosity in some people at least about the simpapa tree and leaves.  For your information simpapa is Indian Rosewood, (Dalbergia sissoo) and here is a picture of its leaves  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Darn Good Read

The Jataka is a book in the Kuddhaka Nikaya, the fifth  part of the Sutta Pitaka which in turn is one of the three divisions of the Pali Tipitaka, the earliest record of the Buddha’s teachings. The date of the Jataka is very problematic but some of the stories are depicted on the railings of the Bharhut stupa (1st/2 st centuries BCE) and the gateway of the Sanchi stupa (1st century BCE) so they must earlier than this. Some of the stories certinally predate the Buddha and may be very old, others are distinctly Buddhist, but in their present form they all probably date from the time of the Buddha to perhaps the Asokan age. Throughout the centuries the Jatakas were Buddhism for the majority of people. Other than the life story of the Buddha himself, the Jatakas gave the overwhelming percentage of Buddhists their ideas of Dhamma. Their influence on moulding the character of people in Buddhist lands, on art, literature, theatre, poetry, etc, cannot be overestimated. Despite this, Western Buddhists are yet to discover the value of the Jatakas. They are usually dismissed as “good for kids.”  Hopefully this attitude will change.
There still is only one complete English translation of the Jatakas, that done by E. B. Cowell, Robert Chalmers, W. Rouse, H. T. Francis and R. A. Neil under the editorship of Cowell and published in 1895 in six large volumes. As a pioneering work it  is a remarkable achievement.   So-called ‘orientialism’ is a derogatory term nowadays and its assumptions  belittle  the dedication, skill, patience and  scholarship of people such as Cowell and his team, and many others scholars as well, who laboured to make the wisdom of the East  accessible to the West.  The Pali Text Society now publishes  Cowell’s Jatakas in three large volumes.
There are plenty of re-tellings of selected Jatakas but few actual translations. The best to come out of late is Sarah Shaw’s Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta published by Penguin, which contains 20 stories. The biggest re-telling of Jatakas, 217 stories altogether, is K & V Kawasaki’s three volume Jataka Tales of the Buddha available from  Undoubtedly the most beautifully retelling is  Ellen C. Babbett’s Jataka Tales and More Jataka Tales, each a little literary masterpiece. The first has 18 and the second 28 stories in it. Incidentally, Babbitt’s life was almost a Jataka story in itself. See if you can find a biography of her.
And one more thing. Two excellent books on the origins, history, structure and influence of the Jatakas and of their place in Indian literature are Anomi Appleton’s Jataka Stories in Theravada Buddhism and W, Rhys Davids’ Buddhist Birth Stories. Happy reading!   

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Year Of The Snake

Today is the first day of the Year of the Snake in the 12 year cycle of the Chinese calendar. In myth, religion and symbolism snakes are almost universally regarded as positive. Ophion was a sort of Greek creator or overseer of the world. Mercury and Hermes the Roman and Greek messengers of the gods carried a staff with two intertwined snakes on it. The rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, had a snake twisted up it. Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent was the Aztec creator, and the Egyptian pharaohs always had a snake on the front of their crowns, although I don’t know why. One of the few malign snake deities was the Egyptian Apep, god of chaos. It was probably he who caused the ancient Hebrews to  regard the snake as evil, and hence the Bible creation myth of Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan in the form of a snake. 
In Buddhism the snake occasionally has a negative role as when it represents hatred in the centre of the Wheel of Life, the pig representing delusion and the cock greed, the three always depicted biting the other. But as with most traditions  Buddhism more often gives it a positive associations. The most significant of these, as mentioned in the Vinaya, is the incident that took place during the Buddha’s third week after his enlightenment. A violent rain storm broke out and the naga (snake or dragon) Mucalinda coiled himself around the Buddha seven times and opened his cobra-like head over him to shelter him (Vin.I,3).   
Some say it points to the Buddha’s seven chakras being opened, chakra meaning ‘coiled energy.’ Ingenious but unconvincing. The numerous tantric texts give different numbers of chakras, from one to over 30. And charka does not mean ‘coiled energy’, it just means circle or centre. Another explanation, perhaps more convincing, is that the story was meant to give a role, albeit a minor one,  to the various snake spirits and deities worshipped in Magadha at the time, to sideline them as mere minders or bodyguards to the guy who really mattered – the Buddha.
Anyway Xin Nian Kuai Le to all my Chinese readers.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Love In The Extreme

The  Jataka  tells of a group of  friends who do a range of practical things for the benefit of travelers, the very things the Buddha encouraged at  S.I,33. They repaired the roads, cut down trees that struck and broke the axles of passing vehicles, construct bridges, dug water tanks and built wayside rests houses. This aroused the jealousy of a corrupt local official who made false accusations against them to the king. Without investigating the matter the king ordered the men to be trampled to death by an elephant. Immediately dragged off to face their grim fate they had  no chance to defend themselves. As they lay in front of the elephant who was to crush the life out of them their leader, actually the Buddha in one of his former lives, addressed them, saying; “Keep the Precepts in mind and develop metta towards the liar, the king and the elephant as you would to yourself” (Ja.I,199-200).  
Of course this is a deliberately extreme story.  It is meant to make us contemplate how quickly, easily and over the most minor matters, we are provoked to animosity and bear grudges. It is saying, in effect, don’t worry about whether it is possible or even good to have love  towards those who would conspire to kill you. See if you can just have a bit of love and forgiveness  for the driver who cuts in front of you, your selfish neighbor, the shop lady who short-changed you, and that guy at work who always contradicts everything you say.  

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Fields Of Magadha

According to the Vinaya the Buddha asked Ananda to sow the pieces of cloth making up monk’s robes in the pattern of ‘the fields of Magadha’ (Magadhaketta, Vin.I,287). While in India in December I saw  this scene as  I looked out of the window of the vehicle I was travelling in, the identical pattern of the robe I was wearing.