2021-05-18 Sutta Stories - Fruit of Spiritual Practice
3:03PM May 18, 2021
Today I will continue to recount some of the stories that occur in the suttas, the ancient discourses, texts that contain the teachings of the Buddha. Some of the reasons for these stories is that they contextualize the teachings, highlight what is important about the teachings, or illustrate them in some way.
Today's story comes from the second discourse in the anthology called "The Long Discourses of the Buddha." It is called "long" because these discourses, these texts, are relatively long compared to many in other anthologies. The second one is generally called "The fruits of the renunciant life" or "The fruits of the reclusive life." It is "Sāmaññaphala" – "phala" means fruit, "sāmañña" means someone who is a recluse, contemplative or renunciant. Like in the old days we would talk about someone who is a religious. A religious person or a religious generally meant someone who has dedicated themselves to the religious life. So this is someone in ancient India who dedicated themselves full time to the religious life of the times.
I think of this particular discourse as being operatic, with its huge pathos, a display of an operatic kind of suffering that is a context for the teachings. I don't know if I can describe this scene to be grand like an opera.
It begins with the greatest king of India at the time of the Buddha, a king by the name of Ajātasattu. It was a beautiful, full moon night with a clear sky. The king was on the high terrace of his palace, looking out across the scene above the treetops. Full moon, beautiful light and clarity. He is there with his ministers. He is exclaiming, "How beautiful, how wonderful the night is. The full moon is wonderful to see." He asks his ministers, "Who can I go visit? What spiritual teacher can I go visit?" Spiritual teachers often gathered on the full moon with their disciples, so it was a time to remember the spiritual life.
"Who can I go visit who might bring peace to my distressed heart?" The reason the king's heart is distressed comes up at the end of this discourse – we understand that he became king by killing his own father. This was troubling him. He wanted to find someone who could settle or calm his troubled heart.
The six ministers each suggested that he go see a particular religious teacher of the time. To each of them the king said, "No, no, I visited before and what the person said didn't help." A seventh minister did not say anything. He just was silent. The king, at some point, turned to that seventh minister, Jīvaka. (I think he was the king's left minister, but maybe the king's doctor.) "Jīvaka you are not say anything? Do you have a suggestion of who I might visit?" Jīvaka says, "Well, in fact, there is a religious teacher who is in town, nearby in the woods, who has a really good report. Is said to be not only a wonderful teacher for other people, but a wonderful teacher for the gods."
The word "god" in ancient India also meant king. (The Buddha) is so wonderful he is good for the gods but also so wonderful, he is good for the kings. And Ajātasattu was the king.
Hearing this wonderful report about the Buddha, (I guess he had never seen the Buddha), he said, "Let's go." They assemble a grand pageant – 500 elephants, a bit like Bradley tanks of the modern world. The ancient king would have all these war elephants. Five hundred of them were assembled for going into the woods to see the Buddha. On these 500 was the king and his 500 wives. This may be setting up a contrast of the largeness, power, the wealth of this great king, and his great involvement with sensual pleasures, which later we see is one of his primary occupations.
They march into the forest to go see the Buddha on the full moon night. As they get into the dark forest, the king gets really frightened. His hair stands up on end and he says to Jīvaka, "Jīvaka, are you taking us into the forest so my enemies can ambush me? Is this a trick?" Jīvaka reassures him, "No, no, it is not a trick." "But it is so quiet here. You told me there are twelve hundred and fifty monks with the Buddha. And I don't hear a peep from any of them." "Ah that is because these Buddhist monks are really well behaved and quiet. They are sitting listening to the Buddha."
Ajātasattu gets off his elephant and goes the final distance to where the Buddha sitting on foot. He says "Jīvaka, where is the Buddha, I don't see him anywhere," suggesting that Jīvaka is in the assembly with the other monks but doesn't recognize the Buddha. Jīvaka says, "The Buddha is up against that central pillar, facing all the monks. So the king goes up to the Buddha and offers his greetings.
The Buddha picks up on something and says, "Ajātasattu, King, are you thinking of the people you love?" The king says, "Yes, I'm thinking about my young son. I wish he could be this calm and settled as these twelve hundred and fifty monks, sitting here so peacefully and quietly listening to you. I wish my son could be this calm and quiet."
That is all he says about his son, but the audience, who is watching this opera or listening to this story, knows that the king killed his own father to become king. Because this story was told for centuries after the Buddha died, the audience knows that Ajātasattu's son later killed Ajātasattu to become king. This patricide continued. There is this pathos in the air around this sutta.
Ajātasattu asks the Buddha, "What is the fruit of the renunciant life? What is the benefit of becoming a monastic and practicing the religious life?" The Buddha says, "Have you asked anyone else that?" He says, "Yes, I asked the six other spiritual teachers, but I wasn't satisfied with their answers." The Buddha says, "Well tell me." One of the teachings was there is no such thing as evil, badness or demerit. You can do whatever you want, and you won't do any evil. Someone else said that it doesn't exist really, people don't exist. They are empty. They don't really exist. If you chop someone's head off, you are not killing anyone because people don't exist.
Someone else said that the amount of suffering, pain and joy that you have is allocated when you are first born and you have to play it all out. It is all pre-determined and nothing you can do makes any difference. Someone else said that they did not know anything. They did not know. They simply did not know if there was any benefit or fruit to the practice and had no answer to give. These teachings went on. For all the teachings you can feel, as these teachings are recounted, that for someone who killed their own father, none of them really settled the heart. None of them touched or worked for him.
He came to the Buddha and asked the same question. The Buddha answered indirectly by asking a question of the king. The Buddha often did that rather than answering directly. He said, "Dear King, if you have a slave." (So here is the most powerful person in the world at the time, and the Buddha is talking about one with the least power, a slave.)
"Your slave decides that there is another way of living. He wants to do good in the world. He wants to acquire merit, and not do grunge work for the king for his whole life. The slave goes off to become a monastic – ordains, becomes a renunciant, lives a holy life. What would you do? Would you insist on the slave coming back and being a slave?" The king said, "No, no, if they were really living a renunciant life and a good life, then I would honor that person. I would bring them gifts – food, robes and support them." The Buddha said, "Well, is this one of the fruits of the holy life, of the renunciant life?" The king said, "Oh, yes, this would be one of the fruits if you lived that life, freed from slavery."
Then the king said, "Oh, tell me something more." The Buddha said, "Well, if someone was one of your workers, like a minister or something, and they left your employment to become a monastic, what would you do then?" "Oh, I would honor them and give them gifts and support them and protect them." "This too, is a fruit of the renunciant life."
Then Ajātasattu said, "Well, tell me are there any other fruits of the holy life?" The third time the king asks, the Buddha then gives some of his own teachings. There is an ancient tradition that you do not really teach someone until they ask three times. Ajātasattu says, "Well, as a person hears the teachings from the Buddha, or some person like that. Becomes a monastic, a renunciant, and they engage in the spiritual life."
As they engage in the spiritual life, the Buddha describes what is called the gradual path of practice – the practice of morality, of cultivation, of concentration – all the way to awakening. All these steps are described – many of the steps result in happiness and bliss, gladness and joy.
Once we get into the world of practice – living an ethical life, there is the bliss of blamelessness. There is contentment. As we practice meditation, and the hindrances abate, there is gladness that we are no longer enslaved by these powerful mind states. As we enter into the jhanas, there is all this deep joy, happiness and tranquility that comes along.
The Buddha is describing this wonderful gradual path where there is all this benefit – this fruit of joy, happiness and well being that comes along – all the way up to awakening. When the king hears all this, he says, "Wow, yes, this is the fruit of the homeless life. I'm so inspired. From now on, I go for refuge to the Buddha. Let the Buddha be my teacher."
The Buddha nods an assent. Ajātasattu, who has heard this great teaching and is so inspired, says something, "Well, I have a lot to do. The king has a lot of work to do, a lot of sensual pleasures to attend to. I have to go back to my job." The Buddha says, "Do as you wish," and the king goes off.
The Buddha is left and he tells his monks and nuns who were there that, "If the king had not killed his father, in hearing this discourse, he would have attained the first stage of awakening, his Dharma eye would have opened." With this heavy harm that he caused, the fruit of that, the consequence of that, is (he didn't say this literally, but my interpretation of it) that his heart is closed to the liberative effect of these teachings. That is a fruit of causing harm in this world, that your heart is much more closed.
Is it permanently closed or not? We don't know. My teacher in Burma told me lots of stories of people he had known. Not that they killed their parents, but soldiers who had killed people and the struggles they had to open up their heart. They always succeeded to open to the teachings and be changed.
This contrast between the king and the consequence of his actions, and the choice of a monastic and the consequence of their actions. Their practice and what arises, what is welcomed, what is received. The fruit that comes from the spiritual life is the theme of this operatic sutta.
So that is the story for today and we will continue tomorrow. Thank you.