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 — swollen from the rain of the previous night — 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 — seeing his mother raising her hands — 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. 

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’ — 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’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

– Buddha. 

Poisoned Arrow

It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, “I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural, or the lowest caste.” Or if he were to say, “I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name of family the man is — or whether he is tall, or short or of middle height …” Before knowing all this, the man would die.

Similarly, it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposite are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair…. I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to an absence of passion, to tranquility, and Nirvana. And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.”

– Buddha, paraphrased Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta.

Spoon in curry

Meditators who live close to their teacher, but who don’t understand him, are like a spoon in a pot of curry: It’ll never know how sweet, sour, salty, rich or hot the curry is.

– Ajahn Fuang Jatiko, Thai Forest Tradition.

Angulimala

There was once the son of a Brahmin (the highest “priestly” caste in India) in the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala, whose name was Ahimsaka. He was sent to Taxila for his studies. Ahimsaka was intelligent and obedient to this teacher; therefore he was liked by both the teacher and his wife. This made the other pupils jealous of him. So they went to the teacher and falsely accused Ahimsaka of having an immoral relationship with the teacher’s wife. At first, he did not believe them, but after hearing it a number of times, he thought it was true and vowed to have revenge on Ahimsaka. He thought that to kill him would reflect badly on him. His rage prompted him to suggest the unthinkable to the young and innocent Ahimsaka. He told his pupil to kill a thousand human beings and to bring the right thumb of each as payment for teaching him. Of course the youngster would not even think of such a thing, so he was banished from the teacher’s house and returned to his parents.

When his father learned why Ahimsaka had been expelled, he became furious with his son, and would hear no reason. On that very day, with the rain pouring down, he ordered Ahimsaka to leave the house. Ahimsaka went to his mother and asked her advice, but she could not go against the will of her husband. Next Ahimsaka went to the house of his betrothed (in accord with the ancient custom in India calling for betrothal of children long before their actual marriage), but when the family learned why Ahimsaka had been turned out of school, they drove him off. The shame, anger, fear, and despair of Ahimsaka drove him out of his mind. His suffering mind could only recollect the teacher’s order: to collect 1,000 human thumbs. And so he started killing, and as he killed, the thumbs he collected were hung on a tree, but as they were destroyed by crows and vultures, he later wore a garland of the fingers to keep track of the number.

Because of this he came to be known as Angulimala (finger garland) and became the terror of the countryside. The king himself heard about the exploits of Angulimala, and he decided to capture him. When Mantani, Ahimsaka’s mother, heard about the king’s intention, she went to the forest in a desperate bid to save her son. By this time, the chain around the neck of Angulimala had 999 fingers in it, just one finger short of 1,000.

The Buddha learned of the mother’s attempt to dissuade her son, and reflected that if he did not intervene then Angulimala, who was on the lookout for the last person to make up the 1,000, would see his mother and might kill her. In that case, he would have to suffer an even longer period for his evil kamma. Out of compassion, the Buddha left for the forest.

Angulimala, after many sleepless days and nights, was very tired and near exhaustion. At the same time, he was very anxious to kill the last person to make up his full quota of 1,000 and so complete his task. He made up his mind to kill the first person he met. As he looked down from his mountain perch, he saw a woman on the road below. He wanted to fulfil his vow to complete the 1,000 thumbs, but as he approached, he saw it was his mother. At the same time, the Buddha was approaching, and Angulimala had just enough presence of mind to decide to kill the wandering monk instead of his mother. He set out after the Blessed One with his knife raised. But the Buddha kept moving ahead of him. Angulimala just could not catch up with him. Finally, he cried out, “O Bhikkhu, stop, stop!”

And the Enlightened One replied, “I have stopped. It is you who have not stopped.”

Angulimala did not catch the significance of these words, so he asked, “O bhikkhu! Why do you say that you have stopped while I have not?”

The Buddha replied, “I say that I have stopped because I have given up killing all beings. I have given up ill-treating all beings, and have established myself in universal love, patience, and knowledge through reflection. But you have not given up killing or ill treating others and you are not yet established in universal love and patience. Hence, you are the one who has not stopped.”

On hearing these words Angulimala was recalled to reality, and thought, these are the words of a wise man. This monk is so very wise and so very brave that he must be the leader of the monks. Indeed, he must be the Enlightened One himself! He must have come here specially to make me see the light. So thinking, he threw away his weapons and asked the Blessed One to admit to the Order of the bhikkhus, which the Buddha did.

When the king and his men came to capture Angulimala, they found him at the monastery of the Buddha. Finding that Angulimala had given up his evil ways and become a bhikkhu, the king and his men agreed to leave him alone. During his stay at the monastery, Angulimala ardently practiced meditation.

Angulimala had no peace of mind because even in his solitary meditation he used to recall memories of his past and the pathetic cries of his unfortunate victims. As a result of his evil kamma, while seeking alms in the streets he would become a target of stray stones and sticks and he would return to the Jetavana monastery with broken head and blood flowing, cut and bruised, to be reminded by the Buddha: “My son Angulimala. You have done away with evil. Have patience. This is the effect of the evil deeds you have committed in the existence. Your evil kamma would have made you suffer through innumerable existences had I not met you.”

One morning while going on an almsround in Savatthi, Angulimala heard someone crying out in pain. When he came to know that a pregnant lady was having labor pains and facing difficulty to deliver the child, he reflected, all worldly beings are subject to suffering. Moved by compassion, he reported the suffering of this poor woman to the Buddha who advised him to recite the following words of truth, which later came to be known as Angulimala Paritta. Going to the presence of the suffering woman, he sat on a seat separated from her by a screen, and uttered these words:

“Sister, since the day I became an arahat
I have not consciously destroyed
The life of any living beings.
By this truth, may you be well
And may your unborn child be well.”

Instantly the woman delivered her child with ease. Both the mother and chid were well and healthy. Even today many resort to this paritta.

Angulimala liked living in solitude and in seclusion. Later he passed away peacefully. As an arahant, he attained parinibbana.

Other bhikkhus asked the Buddha where Angulimala was reborn, and when the Blessed One replied, my son Angulimala has attained parinibbana, they could hardly believe it. So they asked whether it was possible that such a man who had in fact killed so many people could have attained parinibbana. To this question, the Buddha replied, “Bhikkhus, Angulimala had done much evil because he did not have good friends. But later, he hound good friends and with their help and good advice he became steadfast and mindful in practicing the dhamma and meditation. Thus, his evil deeds have been overwhelmed by good kamma and his mind has been completely rid of all defilements.”

The Buddha said of Angulimala:

“Whose evil deed is obscured by good,
he illumines this world like the
moon freed from a cloud.”

The power of love and compassion are stronger than any evil, and are absolute conditions for awakening.

– The story as told by Ven. Walpola Piyananda Thera.

The original version from the Majjhima Nikaya can be found at Access to Insight, translated by the wonderful Thanissaro Bhikkhu.