Saturday, January 26, 2013

When Godhika Took the Knife

     Well, let's face it: Pali Buddhist texts tend to be pretty dry. For one thing, they are so repetitive that even the official editions of the Tipitaka, in the original Pali language, contain plenty of abbreviations (called peyyāla) to shorten the redundant parts. The Pali texts were composed with ease of memorization in mind, and I can speak from experience when I say that when one is memorizing a text, repetitions are welcome, as they make the job easier. This however doesn't fully account for why Dhamma is told in such a repetitive way. If I see three cows in a field, a red one, a black one, and a spotted one, does it make sense for me to say, "Today I saw three cows in a field. What were these three cows like in that field? Listen, and I will tell you. Today I saw a red cow in that field; that was what the first cow was like. And today I also saw a black cow in that field; that was what the second cow was like. And today I also saw a spotted cow in that field; that was what the third cow was like. That was what the three cows were like that I saw today in the field." I think not. It doesn't work for me. Some discourses are unnecessarily expanded out to many times the length necessary to say what needs to be said. Sometimes it is rather tedious to read. I suppose this is one reason why Burmese laypeople usually prefer to read books written by modern Burmese monks, and why American laypeople usually prefer to read books written by modern Western lay teachers. Less tedious, even though the Dhamma therein may be secondhand at best.
     Even so, the Pali texts are the closest documents we have to the Buddhism taught by Gotama Buddha himself, and the Tipitaka contains some real treasures---inspiring profundity as well as fascinating stories. Also if one looks one may find some refreshingly mind-bending strangeness. One may have to do some patient searching, however.

     Some of you may have noticed that I like looking at Dhamma from unusual points of view. It helps to keep the Doctrine fresh and interesting, and also helps one to stay out of some of the deeper dogmatic ruts. So my favorite Pali Suttas tend to be unusual in some way or other. Some, like the Suttas of the Aṭṭhakavagga, or the Dīghanakha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, are fascinating because they teach a profound and radically different sort of Buddhism than do most Pali texts. Others, like the Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna, contain an extraordinary story of ancient India in addition to some deep philosophy. I like the following discourse because of its strange story (with an unexpected view of suicide) and also because it seems to endorse an interpretation of enlightenment which has become unorthodox and unacceptable to developed Theravadin tradition. It is from the Sayutta Nikāya (S.1.4.23).

Godhika Sutta: The Discourse on Godhika 

     Thus have I heard: At one time the Blessed One was living at Rājagaha, in the Bamboo Grove, at the squirrels' feeding place. And at that time the venerable Godhika was living at the Black Rock on the hillside of Isigili. 
     Then, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. But then venerable Godhika fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A second time, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. But a second time venerable Godhika fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A third time, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. And still a third time venerable Godhika fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A fourth time venerable Godhika…attained to temporary liberation of mind…and fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A fifth time venerable Godhika…attained to temporary liberation of mind…and fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A sixth time venerable Godhika…attained to temporary liberation of mind…and fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A seventh time, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. 
     Then this occurred to the venerable Godhika: "For the sixth time I have fallen away from temporary liberation of mind. Why don't I just take the knife to myself [that is, why doesn't he just cut his own throat before losing it a seventh time]."
     Then Māra the Evil One, having known by his own mind the thought in the mind of venerable Godhika, approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One he addressed him in verses:

          "Great hero, great in understanding, 
          Blazing with power and glory,
          Gone beyond all enmity and fear, 
          Endowed with vision, I worship at your feet.

          Your disciple, great hero, 
          O overcomer of death, is planning 
          And intending on death;
          Prevent him, O bearer of radiant brilliance!

          How indeed, Blessed One, can your disciple
          ---One who delights in your wise instruction,
          One in training who has not fulfilled his intention---
          Take his own life, you who are listened to by the people!"

     By that time venerable Godhika had already taken the knife. Then the Blessed One, realizing "This is Māra the Evil One," addressed Māra the Evil One with a verse:

          "Thus indeed do wise men act;
          They do not yearn for life.
          Having pulled out craving with its root,
          Godhika is completely blown out."

     Then the Blessed One called on the monks, "Come on, monks, let's go to the Black Rock on the hillside of Isigili, where the gentleman Godhika has taken a knife to himself." 
     "As you say, venerable sir," the monks replied to the Blessed One.
     Then the Blessed One along with many monks went to the Black Rock on the hillside of Isigili. From a distance the Blessed One saw venerable Godhika lying on a bed with his body rolled over to one side. Then at that time a cloudiness, a darkness, was moving in the eastern direction, moving in the western direction, moving in the northern direction, moving in the southern direction, moving upwards, moving downwards, moving in every direction between.
     Then the Blessed One called to the monks, "Monks, do you see that cloudiness, that darkness, that moves in the eastern direction, then moves in the western direction, then moves in the northern direction, then moves in the southern direction, then moves upwards, then moves downwards, then moves in every direction between?" 
     "As you say, venerable sir."
     "That indeed, monks, is Māra the Evil One searching for the consciousness of the gentleman Godhika, thinking, 'Where is the consciousness of the gentleman Godhika established?' But with his consciousness unestablished, monks, the gentleman Godhika has completely blown out." 
     Then Māra the Evil One, having taken up a lute of yellow marmelos wood, approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One he addressed him with a verse: 

          "Above, below, and across,
          In all the directions and everywhere between,
          I search but do not find
          Where that Godhika has gone."

          [The Buddha:]
          "This wise man endowed with wisdom,
          A contemplative always delighting in contemplation,
          Applying himself day and night,
          Devoid of desire for life,

          Having defeated the army of Death,
          Not returning to another existence,
          Having pulled out craving with its root
          Godhika is completely blown out."

                                 *   *   *

          In his sorrow and affliction
          The lute dropped from under his arm,
          And that unhappy spirit [Māra]
          Disappeared right then and there.

     Well, of course this is a strange story; it even has a visitation from the Buddhist devil in it. Some of it may be made more clear with some commentary provided by me.
     Isigili Hill is nowadays, I think, called Sona Hill, not far from Rajgir in the Indian state of Bihar. Rajgir (Rājagaha) during the Buddha's time was capital of the kingdom of Magadha. Isigili Hill is considered to be sacred by Buddhists as well as Jains, as the Buddha and Mahāvīra, reputed founder of Jainism, both spent time there. Isigili means something like "Sage Swallower" because it has caves that have served for millennia as the abodes of spiritual renunciants. According to Buddhist tradition many paccekabuddhas (enlightened beings living solitary lives at times when Dhamma is unestablished in the world) had formerly lived on the hillside and in the caves. One other claim to fame for Isigili is that it is the reputed site of the murder of Mahā Moggallāna, one of the Buddha's two chief disciples. According to tradition, even though he was a fully enlightened being who was foremost among the Buddha's disciples for his psychic powers, he was literally beaten to a pulp by a group of enemies of Buddhism; when his assailants were finished not a single one of Moggallāna's bones remained unbroken. But that's another story.

Allegedly the place on Isigili Hill
where Mahā Moggallāna was murdered

     Godhika's "temporary liberation of mind" (sāmayikacetovimutti) means essentially jhāna, an advanced contemplative state in which the thinking process has stopped, and the mind becomes clear and still. It is only a temporary liberation because it depends on delusion being stopped through the temporary stillness of mind; permanent liberation of mind occurs when one is completely detached from samsaric delusion even when one is thinking and moving around. This is a radically more subtle state than clarity relying upon simplicity and stillness.
     According to the commentarial tradition, Godhika kept falling away from jhāna because of bad health; although it may be that he was simply high-strung, and his meditative attainments were consequently unstable. I think there are plenty of meditators like that, especially Western ones.
     He decided to commit suicide before losing his clarity a seventh time because, again according to the medieval commentary, he reasoned that if he died with jhāna he would be guaranteed at least of rebirth in a Brahma Realm, a very exalted heaven. On the other hand, since he wasn't technically a saint yet, if he died without jhāna there would be no guarantee at all, and he could be reborn even in a lower realm. He decided to play it safe. 
     He probably cut his throat with the razor for shaving his head, one of the traditional eight requisites which any Theravada monk should own (i.e. three robes, a belt, a bowl, a razor, a needle, and a water strainer). The commentary states that he twisted his body in death because he wanted to assume the "lion's position," that is, lying on his right side with one foot atop the other, as this is considered the proper position for a sleeping monk. (Some of you may have noticed that statues of the Buddha in the "parinirvana mudra," or the position representing his death and final Nirvana, almost always have him lying in this position.) However, my guess is that he wanted to hold his bleeding throat over the side of the bed so as not to ruin it. It probably wasn't his bed, but one owned by the Sangha.
     Māra the Evil One---the Buddhist devil---rushed to the Buddha and spoke very respectfully to him because he was worried that Godhika might actually become enlightened if he died in his state, considering how resolute and unafraid of death he was. He knew he could't talk Godhika out of suicide, but that the Buddha could, theoretically. But of course it didn't work. The only way to escape the Buddhist devil is to become enlightened, as he holds the entire phenomenal universe, including the highest heaven realms, in the palm of his hand. In fact Māra himself, unlike Lucifer who reportedly lives chained up in the lowest pit of Hell, lives on a magnificent estate in the highest heaven in the so-called Sensual World. (Those of us who do not believe in devils may accept this part of the discourse as a metaphor.)
     The Buddha and the monks went to Isigili to dispose of Godhika's body, probably by cremating it. There apparently was no great stigma associated with suicide in ancient India, unlike in the modern West. Nowadays taking one's own life is considered a terrible thing, and in America it is even against the law to attempt it. Those who do attempt it are not only criminals but are likely to be committed to a mental hospital. But even in the West long ago, before Christianity became the predominant tradition and while death was still considered to be a normal part of a violent world, suicide was considered to be socially acceptable and "politically correct." To give just a few famous examples, Demosthenes and Hannibal poisoned themselves; Cato the Younger, when he learned that Caesar's army had defeated the Republican legions, "opened his veins" and bled to death; Cleopatra had herself bitten by a snake; and her lover Mark Antony adopted the most honorable way for a Roman soldier to kill himself---he fell on his own sword.

Marcus Antonius, or rather Richard Burton

     But Christianity has long considered suicide to be a sin, the rejection of a divine gift from God; and not so long ago suicides were not even allowed to be buried in consecrated churchyards. Sometimes they would even be buried with a wooden stake through their chest to prevent them from becoming vampires or zombies. Dante gave them a special place in his Inferno, where they assume the form of thorny trees with blood for sap, and are denied even the ability to resume their original form on Judgement Day. This condemnation by Christianity, combined with the modern materialistic notion that death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, causes suicide to be viewed with severe disapproval in the West.
     Sometimes suicide is looked upon not only with disapproval but with resentment. It is often called "the coward's way out"---which is ironic considering that the suicide has willingly brought upon himself that which the disapproving one fears more than all else. It is a similar kind of resentment that I have noticed a few times directed toward monks: in both cases, suicides and monks, the very thing that the other most valued was renounced and thrust away with both hands. Their own life, or their lifestyle, was in a sense spat upon. Or so they seemed to view it.
     But even though Buddhism does not necessarily condemn the act of killing oneself, it is still the killing of a living being---oneself---and rarely solves the problem it attempts to solve. From the Buddhist point of view, unless the suicide becomes enlightened as Godhika did, he or she will simply be born again, and with essentially the same issues to contend with. We cannot really run from our problems because we take them with us when we run; we are the ones who generated them in the first place through our own karma, and we take our karma wherever we go, even into death. So it's best to face our issues and make peace with them as best we can; otherwise we will continue to be oppressed by them. Elsewhere in the texts the Buddha says that one shouldn't commit suicide unless one's business is done. (Which, however, was not the case with Godhika, as he didn't finish his business until after his neck was already carved.)
     Also, when a person commits suicide, especially in a modern world that is not so stoic about death, he or she is usually in a state of utter despair, or some equally negative mental state; and it is considered very important to die with as conscious and expanded a mental state as possible, as that last thought in life largely determines one's momentum into the next stage, or whether there will even be a next stage. It has been wisely observed that death is the most important part of life, and that life is a decades-long preparation for it. 
     After Godhika's death Māra searched for his consciousness but failed to find it, because Godhika's consciousness had become "unestablished" (appatiṭṭhitena viññāena). I consider this to be interesting, and possibly very important philosophically. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi in the editorial notes to his translation of the Sayutta Nikāya assures the reader that, according to the commentary, Māra was searching for where Godhika had been reborn (reincarnated), and that "When the monk is said to attain final Nibbāna with consciousness unestablished, this should not be understood to mean that after death consciousness survives in an 'unestablished' condition…for enough texts make it plain that with the passing away of the arahant consciousness too ceases and no longer exists…." Yet there are very old texts which also may support the idea of consciousness surviving the death of an enlightened being. The most famous is probably the controversial verses found in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, which begin "Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around" (viññāa anidassana, ananta sabbatopabha) which evidently is describing Nirvana. Instead of the consciousness of an enlightened being simply vanishing from existence, it may be more like an individual raindrop falling into and merging with the sea.
     But it all depends on how one looks at it. How does one describe what no longer has boundaries? One can say that it no longer exists, as has become the orthodox approach in Theravada; or one can say that it has become unmanifest and infinite. They are both equally valid (or equally invalid) ways of describing what is now Completely Off the Scale.
     This may be why again and again the Buddha absolutely refused to answer whether or not an enlightened being exists after death. Ultimately, one cannot really say whether or not he or she exists even before death. The duality of existence/nonexistence doesn't really apply. 
    Last and probably least, the marmelos wood of which Māra's lute was constructed comes from the marmelos tree, also called the bael tree or bilva tree (Pali beluva), which grows throughout the drier areas of South Asia. In India it is sacred to Shiva, and it bears a kind of fruit that does not taste very good unless it is candied---thus, marmalade. 
Appendix: The Verses of the Godhika Sutta Translated into Actual Poetry

     The following are the same verses translated above, except in real metre. They were written by Henry Clarke Warren almost a century ago in his pioneering book Buddhism in Translation:

          "Thou Hero Great, profoundly wise,
          Whose magic power full brightly shines,
          Who hast o'ercome all sin and fear,
          Thy feet I worship, Seeing One.

          "Thy follower, O thou Hero Great,
          Although o'er death victorious,
          Doth long for death, and plotteth it;
          Dissuade him, O thou Radiant One.

          "Pray, shall thy follower, Blessed One,
          Whose keen delight is in thy law
          With goal unreached, not perfect trained,
          So soon expire, O Chief of Men?"

          "Thus, verily, the valiant act,
          Nor think to hanker after life!
          Lo! Godhika uproots desire,
          And, dying, has Nirvana gained."

          "Always in meditation found
          That brave, strong man his best delight;
          Each day and night he practised it,
          And recked not, cared not, for his life.

          "Thus vanquished he Namuci's host;
          No more to rebirth he returns.
          Lo! Godhika uproots desire,
          And, dying, has Nirvana gained."

          The Demon sorely mortified,
          Down from his side let fall the lute;
          And in a sore, dejected mood,
          He straightway disappeared from sight.

(Māra's final verse to the Buddha, asking the whereabouts of Godhika's consciousness, was rendered by Warren in prose.)



  1. Interesting. I never found the translation of this Sutta rendered so precise, or I just could not make sense of it at that time, however it was rendered and explained by commentary and interpreted by others.
    Your explanations seem to clear some things up for me.
    Reaching Nibbana: serious business that.
    May the force be with you!

  2. Glad you dipped yourself into the vinnanam anidassanam debate. To me, it seems clear that to say that the consciousness is 'unestablished' rather than 'extinguished' is to admit a continuance of some sort, however undefinable.

    Your commentary is good, I hope you continue to do more.