Monday, April 26, 2010

A Question Of Mass Suicide

Recently a correspondent, Manfred from Germany, asked me a question. As I have been asked this same question several times before and have even thought about it myself, I thought I might a try to give an answer it on my blog. There is the question - There is a very odd story in the Tipitaka where the Buddha instructs some monks to do the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body and then goes on solitary retreat. While he is away some monks become so disgusted with their bodies that they commit suicide, and one of them even offers to kills the other monks wanting to be free from their repulsive bodies. Only when the Buddha returned from his retreat does he address the situation. My question is: How is it possible that the Buddha, who is regarded by Buddhists the “incomparable Teacher of gods and men”, and who had the ability to foresee the destinies of beings, let it come to this? If this story is true he can’t have been a very good teacher, one might say.
The incident that Manfred is referring to, admittedly a rather troubling one, is to be found at Vinaya III,68-71. Most scholars agree that the Vinaya in its present form is significantly later than the four Nikayas and its language, structure and the historical data it contains all confirm this. When we look at the mass suicide story the first thing we notice is that like many stories in the Vinaya it is formularistic, which suggests that it is artificial. We also have to consider the context in which the story is found. It occurs in the third part of the Parajika which deals with murder. Each situation or behavior that would or might be considered murder is illustrated by a story. Some of these stories are plausible and may have actually happened, others are rather forced and implausible. The mass suicide story looks very much like it has been constructed as an excuse to make a rule concerning encouraging a person to kill themselves or to assist them in killing themselves, rather than being an incident that actually happened. Can we really believe that 60 monks (that’s what the story says) a day killed themselves simply by doing the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body? So I would a suggest that the mass suicide is illustrative rather than actual.
Now we come to the second part of Manfred’s question – Was the Buddha really a ‘teacher of gods and humans’, could he really foresee the destinies of other beings making him a perfect teacher? Certainly the four Nikayas portrays the Buddha as an exceptional skillful teacher and I have no doubt that this portrait and the many examples of this teaching skills are authentic. I even believe that his wisdom was so sharp and his understand of the human psyche was so profound, that he was often able to know exactly what was best for a person as far as meditation. In fact, it was probably this ability that gave rise to the belief that the Buddha could unfailingly read everything in the mind of every person who approached him.


Anandajoti said...

This story also occurs in a shorter form and in somewhat varying detail in the Anapanasamyutta (Samyutta 54, sutta 9) PTS v. 320ff.

It seems to me inherently unlikely that anyone would make up such a story, especially in later times, and so I feel it must be based on a real incident.

Of course the numbers are suspect, but then everywhere they are, and they are probably not meant to be taken literally.

In neither account does it say that the Buddha gave them this subject for meditation, only that he had been speaking in praise of it.

After he went off into seclusion they took it upon themselves to work with the subject and became disgusted, etc. and eventually decided on taking their own lives.

I don't think this really incriminates the Buddha or his skills as a teacher in any way. Rather the monks themselves were incautious.

But it perhaps illustrates the old adage, that it is best, especially at the outset in meditation, to work with a teacher who can see what is developing.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Isn’t it annoying when someone is able to give a better explanation than you! But seriously, I was unaware that the story is to be found in the Nikayas, a failure on my part.

yuri said...

«Was the Buddha really a ‘teacher of gods and humans’, could he really foresee the destinies of other beings making him a perfect teacher?»
Nothing uncomfortable in the story unless you believe that the Buddha had the magical power of foreseeing the future of people. I do not think there is such magical power as the world and the law of kamma are so complicated and difficult to comprehend. The same «problem» I see in the story of Bahiya when, during his alms collecting round, the Buddha two times refused to comply with Bahiya's request for spiritual help. And it was Bahiya — not the Buddha — who made a very important point that we do not know what may happen next, and he pleaded for the third time. The Buddha then gave Bahiya a very Zen-like instruction which helped Bahiya achieve enlightenment. And in good time, as shortly after that Bahiya was killed by a bull.

Unknown said...

I have heard and then read myself the Nikaya version of the suicide story and I think there were only five monks in that version. One would have to know the destiny of those monks after their death/suicide, to determine the actual karmic status of their deed, don't you think ?

Ken and Visakha said...

Isn't it standard procedure to ask three times, and be twice refused? That happened often in the suttas and commentaries, didn't it?

Times Eye said...

great post

yuri said...

Dear Ken and Visaka, I do not think it was just etiquette. Though it is indeed mentioned in many suttas. But the Buddha did propose to Bahiya to wait till alms-collecting round was over.
Probably the idea behind three repeated questions is that the answer-seeker was really insistant and saw his enquiry as very important, or in the case of Bahiya very urgent. And after the third repetition of the question, etiquette demanded that the question had to be unswered.

Ken and Visakha said...


To help you with your sceptical doubt about the Buddha being teacher of gods and men you might benefit from reading "Teacher of the Devas" by Susan Elbaum Jootla

As for the story of Bahiya from the Udana, here's the Bahiya Sutta. I treasured the story more after visiting Supparaka and learning that the seaside where Bahiya was staying was near Mumbay! From there he walked across India to see the Buddha. Did the Buddha know that? Did the Buddha know that he would soon die? Did the Buddha give him the precise teaching that would lead him to arahatship? Didn't the Buddha describe him as "Your companion in the holy life" to his bhikkhus?

Ken and Visakha said...

Bahiya Sutta

Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying near Savatthi in the Jeta Wood at Anathapindika’s monastery. At that time Bahiya of the Bark-cloth was living by the seashore at Supparaka....

While in seclusion, this reflection arose in the mind of Bahiya: “Am I one of those in the world who are arahats or who have entered the path to arahatship?”

A devata who was a former relation of Bahiya understood his reflection. Being compassionate he said: “You are neither an arahat nor have you entered the path to arahatship. You do not follow that practice whereby you could become an arahat."

“Then, who is an arahat?"

“There is, Bahiya, in a far country a town called Savatthi. There the Lord now lives who is the Arahat, the Fully Enlightened One and teaches the path to arahatship.”

Then Bahiya of the Bark-cloth, profoundly stirred then and there left Supparaka. Stopping only for one night everywhere along the way, he went to Savatthi.

Bahiya approached the bhikkhus and said: “Where, revered sirs, is the Lord now living, the Arahat, the Fully Enlightened One?”

“The Lord has gone for almsfood among the houses.”

Then Bahiya entered Savatthi, saw the Lord walking for almsfood, approached, fell down with his head at the Lord’s feet, and said: “Teach me Dhamma, Lord; teach me Dhamma, Sugata, so that it will be for my good and happiness for a long time.”

The Lord said to Bahiya of the Bark-cloth: “It is an unsuitable time, Bahiya."

A second time ....

A third time ....

“Herein, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: ‘In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.’ In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya.

“When, Bahiya, for you in the seen is merely what is seen... in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘with that,’ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that,’ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.”

Now through this brief Dhamma teaching of the Lord the mind of Bahiya of the Bark-cloth was immediately freed from the taints without grasping.

Not long after the Lord’s departure a cow with a young calf attacked Bahiya and killed him.

Knowing this the Lord said to the bhikkhus: “Bhikkhus, take Bahiya’s body, put it on a litter, carry it away and burn it, and make a stupa for it. Your companion in the holy life has died.”

Taking Bahiya’s body, they ...

Then those bhikkhus said to the Lord: “Bahiya’s body has been burnt revered sir, and a stupa has been made for it. What is his destiny, what is his future birth?”

“Bhikkhus, Bahiya of the Bark-cloth was a wise man. He practiced according to Dhamma and did not trouble me by disputing about Dhamma. Bhikkhus, Bahiya of the Bark-cloth has attained final Nibbana.”

Where neither water nor yet earth
Nor fire nor air gain a foothold,
There gleam no stars, no sun sheds light,
There shines no moon, yet there no darkness reigns.
When a sage, a brahman, has come to know this
For himself through his own wisdom,
Then he is freed from form and formless.
Freed from pleasure and from pain.

This inspired utterance was spoken by the Lord also, so I did hear.
– Udana I. 10