2021-05-19 Sutta Stories - The Lady and Her Servant
3:33PM May 19, 2021
I will continue today with some stories from the suttas, the ancient discourses of the Buddha. The Buddha himself was a storyteller. He tells innumerable stories as part of his teachings. Some of them may be events that he experienced. Some of them, I think he made up for the purposes of teaching. He also makes up many analogies and metaphors. He is a wonderful storyteller. He has a rich vocabulary of storytelling techniques for helping us understand better.
Here is a story the Buddha told. It seems that there was a monk who would easily get upset, get angry, when someone pointed out that he was not behaving properly. So the Buddha told this story,
Once there was a lady, Vedehikā, who was known for being gentle, kind, and peaceful. She had a reputation around town that this was how she was. This lady had a servant by the name of Kāḷī. Kāḷī worked hard. She was very clever, competent and neat in her work. She cooked delicious food and did everything for the household, which made everything go smoothly and easily.
One day Kāḷī, the servant, thought to herself, "It seems that people have this idea that the lady is kind, gentle and peaceful. I wonder if this is really the case. Let me find out." The next morning, when usually Kāḷī would wake up before the lady and get everything ready for the day. But on this day, Kāḷī slept in.
The lady woke up and found that the servant was still sleeping. She said to her, "What is the matter, Kāḷī, that you are sleeping?" Kāḷī said, "Nothing is the matter. I am just sleeping in." The lady got upset and angry, and spoke harshly to her. "Don't do that again. You shouldn't. You can't. You have to do your work."
On the next day, Kāḷī slept in again. The lady asked, "What's the matter?" Kāḷī said, "Nothing is the matter. I am just sleeping in." The lady got even more upset, and spoke even more harshly. The following day the same thing happened. This time the lady got really upset. She got a rolling pin from the kitchen and started hitting the servant over the head. "Terrible, you're wicked, you're bad. How could you do such a thing?"
With blood running down her face, the servant ran out in the street and said, "Look, everyone, you thought that the lady was kind, gentle and peaceful. But it doesn't take much to provoke her. Actually underneath she carries a lot of anger. That anger given half a chance, even a mild chance, will surface. Look what she is capable of doing." From then on the lady's reputation in that town was no longer one of being kind, gentle and peaceful.
I imagine the Buddha made this story up. Maybe we don't like the story too much. But still it is an example of him using a story as an analogy, because he goes on and says that there are five ways that people might speak to you.
He is talking to the monastics. He says, "Either someone might say something that is true or not true. Someone might speak in a timely or not timely fashion. Someone might speak gently or harshly. Someone might speak with loving-kindness, or not with loving-kindness. Someone might speak to benefit others, or to harm them." These are the five ways it is possible to speak.
"Regardless of how they speak to you, you should have loving-kindness for them. You should have kind regard for them. You should care for their welfare and their happiness." In other words, do not succumb to anger, bitterness, resentment, if they speak to you in a way that is not kind, not beneficial, that is harmful, untimely, or false. That is not a reason to get angry, to get upset, or to be distressed. You should always maintain a heart of kindness.
That does not mean that we are a pushover. It does not mean that we go along with what they want. It means that we find our way without getting angry.
He goes on to make some analogies. He says, "What do you think? If a person comes along with a shovel, and maybe a wheelbarrow, and starts digging up the dirt from the earth to take it away? Could that person succeed at hauling away all the dirt from the earth?" I imagine those listening laughed and said, "No, you cannot take the dirt away from the earth. Where are you going to put it?"
"In the same way, you should make your mind like the earth. No matter what comes your way, you are undisturbed. You are balanced. You are not disturbed. You are unchanged by the harshness or when people speak to you in unkind or untruthful ways. Rather, you should continue to spread loving-kindness."
"Suppose," he said next, "that a person comes along with paint, all kinds of beautiful colored paints, and a paintbrush. Dips the brush in the paint and starts painting in the air. Would that person make any kind of painting?" They say, "No, you cannot paint that way. You have to paint on something. You cannot just wave your brush in the air."
"In the same way, make your mind like empty space. Whatever words come your way, they do not paint a picture on your mind. Your mind does not react. It does not take the colors that are thrown at you if people are unkind or speak harmful words. Rather maintain loving-kindness. Stay concerned and care for the welfare of this person. Start with that person and then spread that care and goodwill to everyone in all directions."
"If you put a little bit of dye ..." (I think this is right. I don't have an historic, 100% accurate, so you have to be a bit generous. I'm being a storyteller myself in some of the details.) He says, "Imagine the Ganges River and someone puts a few drops of dye in the Ganges River. Would that change the river? Would it color the river?" And the person said, "No, a few drops might change the color in a small glass of water, but it has no impact on the Ganges River."
"In the same way, make your mind like the Ganges River: broad, wide, and flowing. The words that other people say to you, let it be like those few drops so that it has no impact on you. It has no effect on you. So that you can maintain a heart of kindness, goodwill, loving-kindness for this other person. You can maintain care. You can stay caring for their welfare and happiness – even if they want to harm you. Cultivating your loving-kindness with that person, then spread it out to all beings everywhere."
The first story, of the lady and Kāḷī, is about underlying tendencies we have. We can behave one way, but deeper in the mind, there might be triggers for us to get angry, upset, hostile, or even violent. The point of Buddhist practice is to touch the deeper place, to transform and change it. So that our kindness is not superficial, feigned, or pretend. It does not really come from who we are – so we are not in danger of causing harm ourselves.
This is one of the reasons why we want to develop concentration in meditation. There is something about concentration that can sometimes bring us deeper under the surface concerns we have – the surface mind, preoccupations, concerns, and stories we tell ourselves. It can bring us deeper down, to really see what is there.
Sometimes we find underlying layers of resentment, anger, upsetness, fear, or greed. That is something good to touch and to see, so we know it is there. Then we can practice with it, and resolve it, dissolve it, solve it. All these words with "solve" in them have to do with releasing, untying – from the Latin root, to untie it.
And to cultivate loving-kindness. Not just to be neutral as we untie the knots of the heart, but to cultivate loving-kindness. No matter what. Even if people are speaking words that are difficult for us to hear.
It is a tall order. It is a challenge with the lives that we live. Here the Buddha is pointing to the role of practice. We practice because this is a valuable way of living. This is a valuable way, not as a moral obligation to be kind or to uproot our anger. But this is working both for the welfare of ourselves and the welfare of others.
To uproot our underlying tendencies to anger. And to cultivate the ability not to succumb to anger and hostility, no matter what people say to us. This preserves our own peace and well being – for our own welfare. As we do this, we are also creating the conditions that help other people work for their own welfare. So that other people might relax. Making it possible for other people to be at peace. If they know how to use peace – how to allow for it.
Thank you. And we will continue with a few more stories this week.