7 – AJASTYA THE ASCETIC
As generosity is such a great ornament even to ascetics,
how wonderful it is when displayed by householders!
Once when the Buddha was still a Bodhisattva travelling
through samsara for the good of the world, he was born as the child of an illustrious Brahman family whose purity of conduct was an ornament for the earth. As the full and spotless autumn moon beautifies the heavens, so did the birth of Ajastya enhance the luster of his family. In due time, after he had obtained the sacraments called for by the sacred texts and traditions, and after he had studied the Vedas and their many rituals, fame of his knowledge spread far and -aide.
The offerings he received from charitable lovers of virtue swiftly multiplied into considerable wealth. And, in turn, as an expansive cloud showers the fields, he regaled with treasures his relations and friends, beggars, guests, and teachers-the distressed as well as those worthy of honor. And so the bright glory of his learning, augmented by his generosity, shone forth all the greater, just as the beauty of the moon increases in autumn.
Yet the Great-minded One realized that the state of a householder is a source of sorrow, affording little comfort. A householder must involve himself in countless activities which lead to indiscretions and even greater difficulties. Turmoil surrounds the gaining of a fortune and the necessity of guarding it; struck by suffering’s hundreds of arrows, one slowly becomes careless in spiritual affairs, until tranquility is destroyed.
Having grown weary of all that surrounds a householder’s life, Ajastya knew that renunciation of the world would bring him freedom from such evils, and provide true happiness. The life of denial, so favorable to spiritual needs, was the only proper vehicle for spiritual development and liberation. And so, although wealth had brought him high regard, he cast it away as if it were a straw and gave himself over to the restraint and discipline of the world-renouncing ascetics.
But even after he had left his worldly life, many still sought him out for guidance; both those who had heard of him, as well as those who remembered him from before-all visited him out of respect for his virtues and tranquility. He found this contact with householders distracting and an obstacle to the detachment he desired. So, hoping for solitude, Ajastya moved to the island of Kara in the Southern Ocean.
Ajastya built his hermitage on Kara, an island encircled by white-flecked waves as blue as sapphire. The beaches were covered by the whitest of sands; the island was adorned by trees laden with flowers and fruit, and there was a lake of pure sweet water close to where he lived. In his hermitage he manifested ascetic practices and showed their glory by the emaciation of his body-he was like the crescent moon in the sky, which refines great loveliness to an ever smaller size_ Seeing his tranquility, attested to by his modest actions, even
Pg 55 – the wild beasts and birds of the forest understood that this man, absorbed in his vows and practice, was a Muni. And in their own way they strove to imitate his ways.
While living in this ascetic’s grove, the Great Being continued to honor any guests who chanced to come his way. He would offer them roots and fruits gathered from the forest, fresh water, and words of welcome and blessing; he would then partake only of whatever food was left over, limiting his meals to what would barely sustain his body.
The glory of his great asceticism spread everywhere, reaching even the ears of Shakra, Lord of the Gods, who in his joy upon hearing of such virtue, desired to prove the constancy of the ascetic. To do so he made most of the roots and fruit disappear from that part of the forest. But the Bodhisattva, absorbed as he was in meditation, was insensible to the pangs of hunger; he was accustomed to being content with little, and was indifferent toward his body and his food. He was therefore unconcerned. Boiling a few leaves in water, he satisfied his body’s needs without the slightest discontent. Calm as ever, he proceeded with his simple life. Indeed, those who have few needs find sustenance easy to obtain: Where are grass and leaves and ponds not to be found?
Shakra, Lord of the Gods, was amazed at the Bodhisattva’s behavior, and his regard for him grew even greater, but still he decided on another trial. Like a summer wind Shakra stripped every leaf from every tree, shrub, and bush in that prove. But Ajastya merely picked the freshest of the fallen leaves from the ground, boiled them in water, and lived on the thin soup without a moment’s discomfort. Enjoying the happiness of meditation, he might have been feeding on ambrosia. For truly, modesty in the learned, detachment in
Pg 56 – the wealthy, and contentment in ascetics are the greatest of their treasures.
Now the Bodhisattva’s astonishing constancy prompted Shakra, almost as if he were angry, to go one step further. Assuming the shape of a hungry and thirsty brahman. Shakra appeared before Ajastya at the time deemed most propitious for guests, the time when prayers and offerings are made just before the main meal. The Bodhisattva, his face the picture of happiness, joyously went to greet his guest. Speaking kind words of welcome, he invited him to partake of a meal. With gentle words soothing to both mind and sense, Ajastya offered his guest all the boiled leaves he had gone to so much trouble to procure; he himself was satisfied to feast on joy alone. Then, leaving his guest, he retired to his modest meditation hut, and passed the day and night in an ecstasy of joy.
In the same manner, Shakra reappeared at the same time the next day, and the next, and the next, and the next. And each day Ajastya received his guest with still more joy; no suffering, not even peril to life, can compel the virtuous to renounce their love of giving, which is fostered by the practice of deep compassion.
Shakra, overcome with astonishment, knew that by such constant ascetic practice the Bodhisattva could easily gain possession of Shakra’s own brilliant god-realm: All he need do was ask. Anxious and fearful, Shakra cast aside his mask of humanity and assumed the wonderful beauty of his celestial shape. Appearing before the Great Being, he questioned him:
“What do you hope to gain by giving up your beloved
family, your household and possessions, all that brought you
Pg 57 – such great happiness? No trifling motive could make a wise man give up his happiness and wealth and afflict his family with grief by leaving them for a life of toilsome asceticism. Please, if you will, satisfy my curiosity and reveal the qualities to which you are so intently dedicated.”
The Bodhisattva replied: “Listen, sir, to what I strive for. Repeated births lead to repeated sorrow, as do those fearful plagues of old age and illness; the inevitability of death is a meat disturbance to the mind. I am living like this so that I might become a refuge for all sentient beings!”
Shakra, Lord of the Gods, realizing that his celestial abode was safe from the Bodhisattva’s intent, was much relieved. “Well said!” he exclaimed, pleased by the Bodhisattva’s well-expressed statement of purpose. “Ascetic, for this fine pronouncement I grant you whatever you wish. Ask what you will.”
The Bodhisattva, not wishing for anything connected with the pleasures of existence (indeed, finding painful the very act of asking, for he was truly contented), replied to Shakra: -If you wish to grant me what will truly please me, grant me this: May that fire of discontent which burns in the hearts of people the world over-even after they have won spouse, children, power, and riches beyond their wildest dreamsmav that inexhaustible and all-consuming fire never enter my heart!”
The total contentment implied by this wish delighted Shakra. Praising the Bodhisattva, he urged him to make a second wish. Ajastya, in order to demonstrate how difficult it to be rid entirely of the fettering passions, preached the Teaching once more under the guise of a request:
Pg 58 – “Your qualities are truly great, 0 Master of the gods, if you can grant me this great gift: May hatred, which is like a conquering enemy army, destroying wealth, position, and reputation, always remain far distant from me!”
On hearing this reply, Shakra was even more delighted. “Justly does Fame, like a faithful lover, attend those who have renounced the world. For this wish so aptly phrased, please accept another gift from me.”
And so the Bodhisattva, under the guise of accepting the bequest, because of his aversion to the fettering passions and the company of those afflicted by emotionality, asked: “May I never hear a fool, see a fool, speak to a fool, or endure the annoyance and pain of being in the company of a fool! For this I ask.”
“What is this?” cried Shakra. “Anyone in distress is surely deserving of help from the virtuous. And ignorance is at the root of all suffering. How is it that you, the most compassionate of ascetics, could dislike the sight of a fool, one who is most in need of compassion?”
The Bodhisattva answered: “Because, friend, there is no help for a fool. Consider: If a fool could be helped, would I withhold anything that would benefit him? But a fool gains nothing whatsoever from my help. Burning with the fire of conceit, thinking himself wise, practicing wrong conduct as if it were right, he urges his neighbors to do the same Unaccustomed to upright conduct and lacking in moral training, he becomes angry even when admonished for his own benefit, and is provoked by whoever wishes him well. Does there exist anyone in the world who can be of help t such a fool? For this reason, 0 most excellent of gods, I wish I did not ever even have to look at a fool! Because there is no help for a fool, he is a most unfit object for my efforts.”
Pg 59 – Shakra praised the ascetic again, saying: “The priceless jewels of your words cannot be suitably rewarded. But please accept another boon as if it were a handful of flowers, an offering of respect.”
The Bodhisattva replied in words meant to demonstrate :he happiness which comes from virtue: “May I obtain good Judgment, hear only the wise, and dwell only with the stead-fast. O Shakra, may I spend my days happily conversing with the judicious! May you grant me this wish!”
“You seem to be quite a partisan for the wise!” commented Shakra. “Tell me, what have they done for you? Why do you show such desire for even the sight of the wise?”
The Bodhisattva, in order to show Shakra the qualities of the virtuous, replied: “Listen, friend, to my reasons for de-siring the sight of the wise. The wise walk in the path of virtue, and inspire others to join them. Words said for their good, even if harsh, never arouse their impatience, for they are adorned with the self-discipline of honesty and integrity. One can benefit such people. For this reason I admit a bias toward those with wisdom.”
“Well put!” said Shakra. “Surely by now you have obtained everything you could ask for, wholly contented as you already are. Yet please accept one more gift, if only to gratify me. A favor offered from reverence, from abundance of power, and with the hope of bringing benefit becomes a source of great pain if not accepted.”
Observing Shakra’s deep desire to help and wishing to please and benefit him, and wishing also to show him the benefits of giving, the Bodhisattva answered: “Your food always free from corruption and decay, your mind made
Pg 60 – lovely by the practice of charity, and your followers adorned with the purity of their conduct-may you grant me these!”
“You are a jewel-mine of wisdom,” said Shakra. “Not only shall everything you wish be granted, but because your answers have been so beautifully spoken, I shall grant you one more request.”
“If you will be so kind as to grant me the highest favor, 0 most excellent of the gods,” the Bodhisattva replied, “grant me this, O conqueror of Asuras: Visit me no more in your blazing splendor!”
Highly astonished, and somewhat offended, Shakra replied: “Do not say such things, dear sir. By every manner of ritual, every kind of prayer and vow, sacrifice and penance, people all over the world seek the sight of me. Yet you do not desire it! For what reason? I came only to grant your every wish!”
“Do not scold me, Master of Gods,” said Ajastya. “I wish only to please you. Neither for lack of courtesy do I ask, nor for lack of honor or reverence toward Your Majesty. But your superhuman shape blazes with extraordinary brilliance even while shining gently, and I fear contemplating such a marvel might cause a lapse in adherence to spiritual duties.”
Then Shakra bowed to the Bodhisattva, circumambulated him from left to right, and disappeared on the spot. And at daybreak Ajastya was feasted with divine food and drink brought to him by Shakra, who invited hundreds of Pratyekabuddhas and thousands of devaputras as well.
All this was seen by the Bodhisattva. Bountiful offering were made, and the Muni obtained a joy most sublime. He continued to delight in a life suitable for ascetics and abided in meditation and utmost tranquility.
Pg 61 – From this story one can see how the heroic practice of giving is an ornament even in ascetics, and is also greatly needed in householders. It also shows why men should adorn themselves with heroic and steadfast giving. This account may be told when blaming covetousness, hatred, infatuation, and foolishness; when preaching on the virtue of the spiritual friend, or on contentment. This story is likewise appropriate when speaking of the magnanimity of the Tathagata, and of the wonderful discourses given by the Bhagavat in his previous existences-if he was, even then, an inexhaustible jewel mine of excellent sayings, what can be said of the Buddha after having attained perfection?