A Buddhist Text

From Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy

‘Most translations give no adequate idea at all of Buddhist scriptures, and those in most anthologies are especially inadequate. The originals are so exceedingly long and repetitious that the translator or editor usually feels forced to omit most of the text, keeping the bare plot and at best indicating the omissions with dots. The result is as alien to the original as if we changed the tempo of a piece of music, speed­ing up a slow movement, and making up for omissions by syncopation.

‘Here is a story from the so-called medium collection, Majjhimanikayo, of the Pali canon of early Buddhist scriptures. I follow the German translation of Karl Eugen Neumann, who made no omissions and even followed the rhythms of the origi­nal. The chapter, Number 87, which I quote in full, is en­titled “What is dear to one.”’

This I have heard. At one time the Sublime One dwelt at Savatthi, in the Forest of Triumph, in the garden Anathapindikos.

At this time, some father’s only, much beloved little boy had died. And now that he was dead, the father did not care to work or eat. Again and again he went back to the corpse and moaned: ‘Where are you, only little boy? Where are you, only little boy?’

Then this father went to the place where the Sublime One dwelt, greeted the Sublime One reverently, and sat down side­ways. And to this father who was sitting there sideways, the Sublime One now turned thus:

‘Your features, father, are not those of a man spiritually composed: your features are disturbed.’

‘How, O Lord, should my features not be disturbed? After all, O Lord, my only, much beloved little boy has died! And now that he is dead, I do not care to work or eat. Again and again I go back to the corpse and moan: “Where are you, only little boy? Where are you, only little boy?”’

‘Thus it is, father; thus it is, father. What is dear to one, father, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.’

‘Who, O Lord, could possibly think: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear”? What is dear to one, O Lord, brings joy and satisfaction, which comes from what is dear.’

And the father, indignant and annoyed at the word of the Sublime One, rose from his seat and went away.

Now, at that time, there were assembled together, not very far from the Sublime One, many dice-throwers who were throwing dice. Then this father went to them and spoke thus:

‘I, O Lords, had gone to the ascetic Gotamo, had greeted him reverently and sat down sideways. And as I sat there, O Lords, the ascetic Gotamo turned toward me thus: “Your features, father, are not those of a man spiritually composed: your features are disturbed.” Thus addressed, O Lords, I replied to the ascetic Gotamo: “How, O Lord, should my features not be disturbed? After all, O Lord, my only, much beloved little boy has died! And now that he is dead, I do not care to work or eat. Again and again I go back to the corpse and moan: “Where are you, only little boy? Where are you, only little boy?”’

‘Thus it is, father; thus it is, father. What is dear to one, father, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair which comes from what is dear.’ ‘Who, O Lord, could possibly think: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear”? What is dear to one, O Lord, brings joy and satisfaction which comes from what is dear.’ Thus I spoke, O Lords, in­dignant and annoyed at the word of the ascetic Gotamo, rose from my seat and went away.

‘Thus it is, father; thus it is, father! What is dear to one father, brings joy and satisfaction, which comes from what is dear.’

Then the father said: ‘Then I am right according to the dice-throwers!’ And he went away.

Gradually, this conversation became known all the way to the court of the king. And King Pasenadi of Kosalo turned to his wife Mallika:

‘Hear, Mallika, your ascetic Gotamo has said: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and de­spair, which comes from what is dear.”’

‘If that is, great king, what the Sublime One has said, then it is thus.’

‘Whatever the ascetic Gotamo may say, this Mallika always concedes everything, simply everything: “If that is, great king, what the Sublime One has said, then it is thus.” Even as, whatever the teacher may say to the pupil, the pupil always agrees with everything, “Thus it is, Master; thus it is, Master,” even so you, Mallika concede everything, simply everything, whatever the ascetic Gotama may say: “If that is, great king, what the Sublime One has said, then it is thus.” Let it be, Mallika, stop it!’

Then Queen Mallika turned to the Brahmin Nalijangho and asked him:

‘Go, Brahmin, to the Sublime One and at his feet bring the Sublime One my greetings and wish him health and freshness, cheerfulness, strength, and well-being: “Mallika,” thus speak, “O Lord, the Queen, offers the Sublime One at his feet greetings and wishes him health and freshness, cheerfulness, strength, and well-being.” And then add: “Is it true, O Lord, that the Sublime One has spoken this word: ‘What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear’?” And how the Sublime One replies to you, that remember well and report to me. For the Perfected do not speak imperfectly.’

‘Yes, Mistress!’ Nalijangho, the Brahmin, replied obediently to Mallika, the Queen. And he went to where the Sublime One was dwelling, exchanged polite greetings and friendly, memo­rable words with the Sublime One, and sat down sideways. Sitting sideways, Nalijangho, the Brahmin, spoke thus to the Sublime One:

‘Mallika, O Gotamo, the Queen, offers the Lord Gotamo greetings at his feet and wishes him health and freshness, cheer­fulness, strength, and well-being; and she added: Is it true, O Lord, that the Sublime One has spoken this word: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and de­spair, which comes from what is dear”?’

‘Thus it is, Brahmin; thus it is, Brahmin. What is dear to one, Brahmin, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and de­spair, which comes from what is dear. Therefore, Brahmin, one must always judge according to the circumstances how what is dear to one brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and de­spair, which comes from what is dear. One day, Brahmin, some woman’s mother had died here in Savatthi. Frenzied and de­ranged in her mind by this death, she ran from street to street, from market to market, and cried: “Have you not seen my mother? Have you not seen my mother?” Therefore, Brahmin, one should judge according to the circumstances how what is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and de­spair, which comes from what is dear.

‘One day, Brahmin, some woman’s father had died here in Savatthi – brother, sister had died; son, daughter had died; hus­band had died. Frenzied and deranged in her mind by this death, she ran from street to street, from market to market, and cried: “Have you not seen my husband? Have you not seen my husband?” Therefore, Brahmin, one should judge accord­ing to the circumstances how what is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.

‘One day, Brahmin, some man’s mother had died here in Savatthi – father had died; brother, sister had died; son, daughter had died; wife had died. Frenzied and deranged in his mind by this death, he ran from street to street, from market to market, and cried: “Have you not seen my wife? Have you not seen my wife?” Therefore, Brahmin, one should judge according to the circumstances how what is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.

‘One day, Brahmin, some woman had come into the house of her relatives here in Savatthi. And these relatives forbade her to live with her husband and wanted to marry her to another man; but she did not want him. And she implored her husband: “These relatives, O husband, tear me away from you and want to marry me to another man; but I do not want him.” And the husband killed his wife and took his own life: “Dead, we shall be together.” Therefore, Brahmin, one should judge according to the circumstances how what is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear’

And Nalijangho, the Brahmin, pleased and satisfied with the speech of the Sublime One, rose and returned to Mallika, the Queen, and related to her, word for word, the entire conversa­tion which the Sublime One had had with him. And Queen Mallika now went to King Pasenadi and-spoke thus:

‘What do you think, great king: is your daughter Vajiri dear to you?’

‘Certainly, Mallika, my daughter Vajiri is dear to me.’

‘What do you think, great king: if something happened to your daughter Vajiri, if something harmed her, would you feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘If, Mallika, something happened to my daughter Vajiri, if something harmed her, my own life, too, might well be done for: how then should I not feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘But this, great king, is what he considered, the Sublime One, the Prober, the Seer, the Holy One, the Perfectly Awakened One, when he said: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.” What do you think, great king: is the Princess Vasabha dear to you?’

‘Certainly, Mallika, the Princess Vasabha is dear to me.’

‘What do you think, great king: if something happened to the Princess Vasabha, if something harmed her, would you feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?

‘If, Mallika, something happened to the Princess Vasabha, if something harmed her, my own life, too, might well be done for: how then should I not feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘But this, great king, is what he considered, the Sublime One, the Prober, the Seer, the Holy One, the Perfectly Awak­ened One, when he said: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.” What do you think, great king: is General Vidudabho dear to you?

‘Certainly, Mallika, General Vidudabho is dear to me.’

‘What do you think, great king: if something happened to General Vidudabho, if something harmed him, would you feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘If, Mallika, something happened to General Vidudabho, if something harmed him, my own life, too, might well be done for: how then should I not feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘But this, great king, is what he considered, the Sublime One, the Prober, the Seer, the Holy One, the Perfectly Awakened One, when he said: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.” What do you think, great king: am I dear to you?’

‘Certainly, Mallika, you are dear to me.’

‘What do you think, great king: if something happened to me, harmed me, would you feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘If, Mallika, something happened to you, harmed you, my own life, too, might well be done for: how then should I not feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘But this, great king, is what he considered, the Sublime One, the Prober, the Seer, the Holy One, the Perfectly Awakened One, when he said: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.” What do you think, great king: is your realm of Benares and Kosalo dear to you?’

‘Certainly, Mallika, my realm of Benares and Kosalo is dear to me: it is by virtue of the power of my realm of Benares and Kosalo that we own silk and sandalwood, jewelry and sweet. smelling salves.’

‘What do you think, great king: if something happened to your realm of Benares and Kosalo, if something harmed it, would you feel hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair?’

‘If, Mallika, something happened to my realm of Benares and Kosalo, if something harmed it, my own life, too, might be done for: how then should I not feel hurt and misery, suf­fering, grief, and despair?’

‘But this, great king, is what he considered, the Sublime One, the Prober, the Seer, the Holy One, the Perfectly Awakened One, when he said: “What is dear to one, brings hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair, which comes from what is dear.”’

‘Wonderful, Mallika, extraordinary, Mallika, is the way in which he, the Sublime One, sees, wisely penetrating, wisely. Well then, Mallika, praise on!’

And King Pasenadi of Kosalo rose from his seat, bared his shoulder, bowed reverently in the direction where the Sublime One was dwelling, and thrice sounded this greeting:

Reverence to the Sublime One,

The Holy Awakened Lord!

Reverence to the Sublime One,

The Holy Awakened Lord!

Reverence to the Sublime One,

The Holy Awakened Lord.

‘To the Western reader this story seems intolerably long and repetitious: he is eager to get on to something new and begins to skip in the hope that something different may be ahead, but is disappointed. He does not want to take the time to listen slowly, the Buddha might say, it will take him a long time to attain salvation; he may be reborn many times and repeat the same experiences over and over and over again un­til one day he may be ready to take the time to listen.

‘The story was not written to give information or to fill a gap in an anthology, or to be sampled. That the reader gradually loses interest constitutes no objection whatsoever to the story: its whole point is to make the reader lose interest. In the be­ginning we share the father’s grief as he loses his only son; but before long, we do not care any more. It is the point of the story to get us not to care any more.

‘The story is indigestible: that is why it must be quoted in full. The reader who lets this one story address him may un­derstand more of Buddhism than a reader who skims through a whole anthology, streamlined for quick reading.

‘The perfect antithesis of this story, and especially of the early paragraphs which relate how the “father’s only, much be­loved little boy” died, may be found in Genesis 22:

‘“After these events God tested Abraham and said to him: Abraham! And he said: Here I am. Then he said: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…”

‘Few stories in world literature are as laconic as this story in Genesis which takes up scarcely more than a page and yet makes the reader feel all of Abraham’s emotions. If we retold this story after the manner of the Buddhistic story, we should falsify its style, sensibility, and impact as completely as most English versions falsify the scriptures of Buddhism. The nar­rative style of the Hebrew Scriptures is generally characterized by superlative economy, and the same applies to the Talmud, as our quotations have shown. The style of the Buddhistic scriptures goes to the opposite extreme.

‘The Jewish religion emphasizes the unique, that which hap­pened once only. There is only one God and he created only one world, once. We live only once, and in most of the Old Testament there is no life after death.

‘Buddhism denies the unique and tries to show us that our sufferings are anything but unique. What grieves us has grieved others before us and will grieve us again as long as we live, many times, and in lives to come, over and over again.

‘Some scientists tell us that in our own galaxy there are at least 100,000, and more likely 1,000,000, planets like the earth which might well support life and beings like ourselves; and that our galaxy is by no means the only one: even if we con­fine ourselves to galaxies which are within reach of our tele­scopes, there are about 100,000,000 galaxies. To Jews and Christians this is a bizarre idea. The idea of ten trillion cruci­fixions on ten trillion planets is out of keeping with the spirit of the Bible. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, has long indulged in similar conceptions. In the Saddharmapun­darika Sutra (in Volume X of the American edition of the Sacred Books of the East), a ray of light from the Buddha’s forehead illuminates 18,000 Buddha fields, and 80,000 bo­dhisattvas are beheld; and a story is told of two Buddhas who once put out their tongues for 100,000 years. There have been many, many Buddhas in the past, and at one point one is re­called who is said to have lived 5,400,000 myriads of 10,000,­000 cycles ago.

‘What matters is not the literal truth of these stories any more than the question whether the long story quoted here happened precisely as it is told: what matters is the world feeling, the rhythm of breathing and living, the involvement or detachment.

‘Buddhism does not offer 102 great ideas which are waiting for a compiler or a synthesizer who will check off the ideas also encountered in the West and amalgamate the remainder with the Occidental outlook. Buddhism offers four truths which are the theme of our story: the universality of suffering, its causation by attachment which in turn is due to ignorance, and the thesis that the removal of the cause will remove suf­fering, too. The fourth truth is that adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path will lead to this end – and our story is part of that path. It tries to lead to detachment by way of knowledge­ – not some esoteric gnosis but the simple knowledge, available to all, that suffering is universal. But it will not do to jot this truth down on a file card, or to record it in the mind along with other things: we must accustom the mind to dwelling on these truths – for example, by taking the time to read the whole story without omissions, more than once, and by meditating on it.’—Walter Kaufmann

Read other Buddhist writings.

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