Patacara’s tragedy

Easily one of the saddest stories in the Buddhist texts, if not the saddest, the story of Patacara:

“Pregnant with her second child, Patacara was returning to her parents’ home, along with her husband and small firstborn child, to give birth. 

Along the way, a great storm blew up, and she asked her husband to provide shelter for the family. As he was cutting grass and sticks to build a shelter, a snake bit him and he died of the poison. Unsheltered, and wondering at her husband’s long absence, Patacara gave birth and had to spend the night sheltering both her children against the rain and wind with nothing more than her body. The next morning, she found her husband dead. 

Distraught, she decided to return to her parents’ home. However, a river β€” swollen from the rain of the previous night β€” ran across her way. Unable to carry both children across the river, she left her first-born on the near bank and waded through the raging current carrying her baby. Placing the baby on the far bank, she turned back to fetch her first-born. A hawk, seeing the baby, took it for a piece of flesh, and swooped down on it. 

Seeing this, Patacara raised her hands and tried to chase it away, but to no avail: The hawk picked up the baby and carried it off. Meanwhile, her first-born β€” seeing his mother raising her hands β€” took it for a signal to cross the river. As he jumped into the raging current, he was carried off to his death. 

Overwhelmed with grief, Patacara returned to her parents’ home, only to learn that it had burned down from a lightning strike in the previous night’s storm. Her parents and brother were at that moment being cremated on a single pyre. At this point, she went mad and began wandering around half-naked. Only on coming into the Buddha’s presence did she recover her senses. He taught her the Dhamma, and eventually she ordained and became an arahant.”

This heart wrenching story was very likely based on true events, but we’re given a happy ending of sorts. Patacara is alone, and mad, suffering intensely. She has lost everything. But then she gains everything – she becomes an arahant under Buddha’s guidance and finds the joy of enlightenment. 

ο»ΏLaw for the whole world

No village law is this, no city law,
No law for this clan, or for that alone;
For the whole world β€” and for the gods too –
This is the law: All is impermanent.

– Verse attributed to Bikkhuni Kisa Gosami.

Kisa Gotami’s Child


This is a sad story from the Pali canon, which contains much wisdom about acceptance, and the universality of suffering:

“Kisa Gotami was the wife of a wealthy man of Savatthi. She had only one child. When her son was old enough to start running about, he caught a disease and died. Kisa Gotami was greatly saddened. Unable to accept that her son was dead and could not be brought back to life again, she took him in her arms and went about asking for medicine to cure him. Everyone she encountered thought that she had lost her mind. Finally, an old man told her that if there was anyone who could help her, it would be the Buddha.

In her distress, Kisa Gotami brought the body of her son to the Buddha and asked him for a medicine that would bring back his life. The Buddha answered: “I shall cure him if you can bring me some white mustard seeds from a house where no one has died”.

Carrying her dead son, she went from door to door, asking at each house. At each house the reply was always that someone had died there. At last the truth struck her, “No house is free from death”. She laid the body of her child in the wood and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth. She was awakened and entered the first stage of Arhatship. Eventually, she became an Arhat.”

The End of Ill

Now have I understood how ill does come,

Craving, the Cause, is dried up in me.
Have I not walked, have I not touched the End Of ill β€” the Ariyan, the Eightfold Noble Path.

– Verse attributed to Bhikkhuni Sangha.

The blind men and the elephant

A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, “Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?”

The Buddha answered, “Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, ‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind… and show them an elephant.’ ‘Very good, sire,’ replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’

“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.
“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”
Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,

“O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim,
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

– from the Tittha Sutta.

Believe nothing, no matter who said it…

This is not my usual type of post. Today I’m posting this fairly well known ‘quote’:

Believe nothing, no matter who said it, not even if I said it, if it doesn’t fit in with your own reason and common sense.

– Buddha?

But the reason I’ve put ‘quote’ in inverted commas like that is because this is not something that the Buddha is recorded to have ever said. 

And it’s misleading. 

The quote is a heavily paraphrased variation of something said in the Kalama Sutta:

“So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical deduction, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'”

– Buddha. 

The first one, the misquote, is dangerous if you intend to follow the middle path because it can be used by people to justify carving out their own path, picking and choosing from the teachings, and clinging to their own views (maybe even views trapping the person in samsara – and here lies the danger).

The second, the genuine quote, actually warns against this. “…by logical deduction, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability…”

What the Buddha is actually teaching here is to test everything. To gain insight through first hand experience. Learning teachings is easy, but knowing them for yourself is hard. You must put the teachings to the test, put your own views to the test, put everything to the test before accepting it.

How do we put them to the test? With open minded discernment, with wisdom and right view, ideally with the guidance of a teacher, with an acceptance that your judgement will change and grow over time. 

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are unskillful; these dhammas are blameworthy; these dhammas are criticized by the wise; these dhammas, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ β€” then you should abandon them.”

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dharmas are skillful; these dharmas are blameless; these dharmas are praised by the wise; these dharmas, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ β€” then you should enter & remain in them.”

– Buddha.