The following narrative is the official origin story for the very first verse of the Dhammapada, alias Dh.1, as found in the Dhammapada Commentary. It is one of the best-known commentarial stories in Theravada Buddhism, and I’d guess that most serious, “literate” Burmese Buddhists are familiar with it; although possibly most Western Buddhists, having much less use for the commentarial tradition than their Asian counterparts, have never heard of it. So I include an English translation of it here, because I consider it to be well worth reading.
One reason why it is worth reading is simply that it is an interesting and entertaining story. It is the legend of a hero. However, unlike ancient Western heroes who were fighters and men of action, like Theseus, Hercules, and Beowulf, Cakkhupāla was a spiritual hero, more akin to Christian heroes like the desert fathers and the medieval saints. But, like heroes in general, our hero lived by his own rules, and behaved in ways that common worldlings considered to be unreasonable, or even foolish. Beowulf’s comrades considered him to be out of his mind, too, for fighting Grendel naked and weaponless; but Grendel himself fought that way, and Beowulf, being a hero, insisted upon a fair fight. Cakkhupāla is like this, in his own way.
Another reason why it is worth reading is that it shows a kind of Buddhism, and of spirituality in general, that is almost totally alien to what is found in the modern and postmodern West, and so it may serve as a source of perspective, a glimpse of a world more similar to the Buddha’s than our own. The Dhammapada commentary is a wealth of information for this kind of perspective, in addition to being much more engaging and more pleasant reading than most of what is in the Suttas.
This is not to say that the story faithfully describes what life was really like in the Buddha’s time; the tale is full of exaggerations, anachronisms, and just plain impossibilities (as are some of the Suttas). But that is how stories were told in the Buddha’s time, and for centuries afterwards. The ancient world was more surreal, and less objectively precise, than the world we live in nowadays. So despite the mythological flourishes and other presumed inaccuracies, the reader may still see what the attitude of Buddhists could be like in those days. But this is not the place for a subcommentary to the story. That will come after the tale is told.
The translation is my own, based on the Burmese Sixth Council edition of the text. One thing I realized while translating it is just how rusty my Pali is, so I hope I haven’t rendered any really gross inaccuracies. But I don’t consider translating dhammā as “ways of being” to be one of them.
manopubbaṅgamā dhammā / manoseṭṭhā manomayā //
manasā ce paduṭṭhena / bhāsati vā karoti vā //
tato naṁ dukkhamanveti / cakkaṁva vahato padanti //——
Ways of being are preceded by mind; they have mind as chief; they are mind-made;
If with a defiled mind one speaks or acts,
Then unease follows that person like the wheel follows the foot of the beast of burden.
Where was this Dhamma teaching spoken? In Sāvatthi. In what regard? With regard to the Elder Protector of Vision (Cakkhupālatthera).
It is said that in Sāvatthi there was a landowner named Great Gold, prosperous, of great wealth and many possessions, but childless. One day, having gone to a bathing ghat and having bathed, he was returning home, when along the way he saw a lord of the forest (i.e., a huge tree), laden with leafy branches, and he thought, “That must be inhabited by a very powerful spirit”; so having cleared the base of it he had a fence built around it, had the (enclosed) area strewn with sand, and had streamers and pennants put up; and having bedecked this lord of the forest he placed his palms together in respect and made the prayer, “If I were to obtain a son or a daughter, I would pay great honor to you”; and then he went on his way.
Then, not long afterwards, a child was conceived in his wife’s womb. Becoming aware of the conception of the child, she informed him of it; and he performed the rites for preserving her unborn child. After the passage of ten months she gave birth to a son. On the day of his taking a name, the rich man, since his own gain was on account of the protection of the Lord of the Forest, came up with the name Protector for him. At a later time she got another son; this one was given the name Little Protector, with the other being called Great Protector. Upon their coming of age they were bound by the bonds of their own households. Afterwards, their mother and father passed away, and the entire estate was inherited and managed by them.
At that time the Teacher, having set rolling the supreme Wheel of Dhamma, traveling from place to place, was residing at the great monastery of Jetavana—made by the great magnate Anāthapiṇḍika at the expenditure of 540,000,000 (silver kahāpaṇas)—and was establishing a great multitude on the path of heaven and on the path of liberation. Indeed, the Tathāgatha, with 80,000 families of relatives on his mother’s side and 80,000 families of relatives on his father’s side, spent only one rains residence at the great Banyan Monastery established by twice 80,000 families of relatives; but at the great Jetavana Monastery made by Anāthapiṇḍika he spent nineteen rains, and six rains at the Pubbārāma, made by Visākhā at the cost of 270,000,000 in wealth; so because of the greatness of virtue of these two families he spent 25 rains residences in the vicinity of Sāvatthi. Anāthapiṇḍika and the great female lay disciple Visākhā went faithfully twice a day to attend to the Tathāgatha; and going there, thinking, “The young novices will look to see what’s in our hands,” had never gone empty-handed. Going before the meal time, they would get staple foods and side dishes, among other things, and go; and after the meal time, the five medicines and the eight drinks. Furthermore, in each of their homes they had always 2000 seats prepared for bhikkhus. With regard to food, drink, and medicines, whoever wanted some was supplied with as much as he wanted.
Yet despite all this, never before, on any day, had the Teacher been asked a question by Anāthapiṇḍika. Thinking, “The Tathāgata is a highly refined Buddha, a highly refined nobleman, who, considering ‘This householder is of much service to me’ might become worn out with teaching me Dhamma,” out of extreme devotion to the teacher, he asked no question. But now at the moment he took his seat it occurred to the Teacher, “This rich man defends me when I have no need of being defended. For a hundred thousand world cycles beyond four incalculable eons I have perfected myself, having cut off my own head, torn out my eyes, torn out the flesh of my heart, renounced my son and wife equal to my life’s breath, in fulfilling the Perfections (pāramiyo) for the sake of teaching Dhamma.” Thinking “He defends me when I have no need to be defended,” he spoke to him a discourse on Dhamma.
At that time 70 million people lived in Sāvatthi. Of all of these, 50 million people, having heard the Dhamma teaching of the Teacher, had become Ariyan disciples, with 20 million people still common worldlings. There were two duties for those who had become Ariyan disciples: Before meal time they gave alms; and after meal time they went with scents, garlands, and so on in their hands, and also sending cloths, medicines, drinks, and so forth, with the purpose of hearing Dhamma. So one day Great Protector, seeing the Ariyan disciples going to the monastery with scents, garlands, and so on in their hands, asked, “Where is this great crowd going?” and hearing “To hear Dhamma,” he said, “I also will go,” and so he went to the Teacher, and after paying his respects he sat down on the outskirts of the congregation.
Now, when Buddhas are teaching Dhamma, they teach Dhamma with regard to the refuges, morality, renunciation, and so forth while being watchful with regard to the dispositions of the hearers; therefore on that day the Teacher, being watchful with regard to this, was teaching Dhamma by giving a gradual, systematic talk. About what? Talk about giving, talk about morality, talk about heaven, and clear explanation of the disadvantage, futility, and defilement of sensuality and the advantage of renunciation. Having heard this, the landowner Great Protector considered: “Going to the next world, sons and daughters, brothers, and possessions do not follow. Even one’s own body doesn’t accompany one. Why don’t I renounce the household life?” At the end of the discourse he approached the Teacher and requested ordination as a renunciant. Now the Teacher said to him, “Is there a relative close to you that you should consult?”
“There is my younger brother, Venerable Sir.”
“Then you should consult with him.”
Answering, “Very good,” he paid respect to the Teacher and, going home, he sent for his younger brother and said, “My dear, whatever is mine in this house, whatever wealth there is, either animate or inanimate, all of it is now your responsibility. You handle it.”
“And what are you going to do?” he replied.
“I am going to be ordained as a renunciant in the presence of my Teacher.”
“What are you saying, Brother? When Mother died you became like a mother to me, and when Father died, you became like a father. In your house you have a great estate. Even living as a householder it is possible to make merit. Don’t act like this.”
“Since hearing the Dhamma taught by the Teacher I am not able to live the household life. For, holding up to view the exceedingly fine and subtle Three Marks (of Impermanence, Unease, and No Self), the Dhamma taught by the Teacher is beautiful at the beginning, the middle, and the end. It is not possible to fulfill it by living in the midst of a household. I will renounce the world, my dear one.”
“Dear Brother, you are still young. Renounce the world when you are older.”
“Really my dear, to one who is old, even his own hands and feet become unreliable; they do not follow his own authority, to say nothing of his family members! So I will not do as you say. I will live to fulfillment the discipline of a philosopher.
Hands and feet grown feeble with age are unreliable;
How will he practice Dhamma when his strength is lost?
I will renounce the world, my dear.” Despite his (brother’s) outcry he went to the Teacher and begged for renunciation, received formal renunciation (as a novice) and full ordination (as a bhikkhu), spent five rains in the presence of a guide and a preceptor, and having performed the invitation ceremony at the end of his (fifth) rains retreat, he approached the Teacher, paid respect to him, and asked, “Venerable, Sir, what are the obligations in this Doctrine?”
“The obligation of texts, and the obligation of insight: these are the two obligations, bhikkhu.”
“And what, Venerable Sir, is the obligation of texts, and what is the obligation of insight?”
“Having learned, in accordance with the capacity of one’s own wisdom, one or two collections (of texts), or even the whole of the Three Baskets, and the memorization, recitation, and expounding of it—this is called the obligation of texts. And for one living simply, delighting in a secluded dwelling place, having taken to heart the (inevitable) decay and destruction of one’s own existence, maturing insight and attaining Arahantship through the power of steadfast endeavor—this is called the obligation of insight.”
“Venerable Sir, I have renounced the world late in life and am not able to fulfill the obligation of texts, so I will fulfill the obligation of insight. Please teach me an object of meditation.” So then the Teacher taught him an object of meditation capable of leading to Arahantship.
After paying respect to the Teacher and seeking out some bhikkhus to accompany him, he gathered sixty bhikkhus and set out with them, walking on a journey of 2000 yojanas; and upon reaching a large frontier village, he with his companions entered it for alms. The people, seeing bhikkhus endowed with discipline, were uplifted in mind and, preparing seats, invited them to sit, served them with drinks and food, and asked, “Venerable Sirs, where are you gentlemen going?” Upon being told “To a convenient place, lay disciples,” some intelligent people, realizing “The venerable ones are searching for a place to spend the rains retreat,” said to them, “Venerable Sirs, if the gentlemen were to spend these three months here, we would be established in the Refuges and take the precepts.” And so they accepted the invitation, considering, “In dependence upon these families we will make an escape from existence.”
The people, receiving their consent, set up a monastery, preparing places for spending the night and places for spending the day, and offered it. They entered that same village regularly for alms food. At that time a healer approached them and made an invitation to them, saying, “Venerable Sirs, in a dwelling place of many people indispositions are bound to occur. In such an event please tell me, and I will prepare a remedy.”
The Elder, on the day of entering the rains residence, called the other bhikkhus and asked them, “My friends, in how many bodily postures will you spend these three months?”
“In (all) four, Venerable Sir.”
“What now, friends, is that proper? Should we not develop ourselves with uncloudedness of mind (appamatta)? Really, we came here having taken an object of meditation in the presence of a real, live Buddha; and it is not possible that Buddhas could approve of cloudedness of mind. They would approve of you only by the beauty of your nature. For the clouded of mind, the four lower realms become like their own home. Be unclouded in mind, my friends.”
“And what about you, Venerable Sir?”
“I will spend my time in three of the bodily postures. I will not stretch out on my back.”
“Very good, Venerable Sir. May you be unclouded in mind.”
Now, for the unsleeping Elder, at the passing of the first month and the arrival of the middle month, a disease of the eyes became manifest. Like a stream of water from a cracked water pot, a stream of tears trickled from his eyes. Having done the work of a philosopher all night, at the advent of dawn he entered his room and sat. The bhikkhus, at the time of walking for alms food, went to the Elder and told him, “Time to go for alms, Venerable Sir.”
“Well then, friends, take your bowl and robe.” Having taken his own bowl and robe, he went out.
When the bhikkhus saw the tears trickling from his eyes they asked him, “What is this, Venerable Sir?”
“The wind hurts my eyes, friends.”
“Weren’t we invited by a healer, Venerable Sir? We will speak to him.”
“Very good, friends.”
They spoke to the healer, and he cooked up some (medicated) oil and had it sent.
The Elder, when he was applying the oil into his nose, did it just in a sitting position; and having applied it he entered into the village. The healer, upon seeing him, said, “Venerable Sir, I have heard that the wind hurts the gentleman’s eyes.”
“Yes, lay disciple.”
“Venerable Sir, some oil was prepared by me and was sent. Did you apply the oil into your nose?”
“Yes, lay disciple.”
“How is it now?”
“It’s still painful, lay disciple.”
The healer, thinking “The oil sent by me was sufficient to cure him with just one application. Why is the disease not cured?” asked him, “Venerable Sir, did you apply the oil sitting, or lying down?” The Elder remained silent; and being questioned again and again, he would not speak. Thinking “I’ll go to the monastery and have a look at the Elder’s dwelling place,” the healer said, “Well then, Venerable Sir, carry on.” After sending him off he went to the monastery, and looking at the Elder’s dwelling place, and seeing only places for walking meditation and for sitting, and seeing no place for lying down, he asked, “Venerable Sir, did you make the application while sitting, or while lying down?” The Elder remained silent. “Venerable Sir, don’t act like this. It is only by maintaining the body that one is able to do the work of a philosopher. Make the application after lying down”; he pleaded with him again and again.
Saying, “Please go, friend. Having taken counsel, I will know (what to do),” he dismissed the healer.
But the Elder had no family members at all there, no blood relations; so with whom would he take counsel? Taking counsel with his kamma-born body he said, “Please tell me, friend Protector: Will you look to your eyes, or to the Message of the Buddha? In the beginningless round of Samsara there is no counting of the times your eyes have been blind; and many hundreds of Buddhas, many thousands of Buddhas are past. And of those Buddhas, not one of them did you honor by practicing his teachings. Now, during this rains residence, I will not lie down for three months; for three months I will exercise steadfast energy. So let your eyes fail, or let them be destroyed, and uphold the message of the Buddha, not eyes.” And thus admonishing his physical body, he spoke these verses:
“Let my own eyes waste away,
Let my ears waste away, and the body as well;
Let all of it waste away that is dependent on a physical form;
What use are you, Protector, if you are clouded in mind?
“Let my own eyes wear out,
Let my ears wear out, and the body as well;
Let all of it wear out that is dependent on a physical form;
What use are you, Protector, if you are clouded in mind?
“Let my own eyes be destroyed,
Let my ears be destroyed, and the body as well;
Let all of it be destroyed that is dependent on a physical form;
What use are you, Protector, if you are clouded in mind?”
Having thus admonished himself with three verses, and having applied the nasal treatment to himself in a sitting position, he entered the village for alms. The healer, seeing him, asked, “Venerable Sir, have you applied the nasal treatment?”
“Yes, lay disciple.”
“How is it, Venerable Sir?”
“It is still painful, lay disciple.”
“Did you apply the nasal treatment while sitting, Venerable Sir, or after lying down?” The Elder remained silent; and being questioned again and again, he didn’t say anything. Then the healer said to him: “Venerable Sir, you do not do what is proper. From today onwards, do not say ‘That fellow prepared medicated oil for me,’ and I will not say that I prepared the oil for you.” Abandoned by the healer, he went to the monastery, thinking “Now you’ve even been abandoned by the healer. Do not give up the bodily posture, philosopher.
“Rejected by the medical art, renounced even by the healer,
Subject to the King of Death, why, Protector, should you be clouded in mind?”
Admonishing himself with this verse, he did the work of a philosopher. And then, at the passing of the middle watch of the night, not earlier, not later (that is, at the very same moment), his eyes and his defilements were destroyed. Having become a dry-visioned Arahant, he entered his room and sat down.
(to be continued...)
(to be continued...)
"Blind Monk," by Ming Hwan Yeoh