8 – The Strength of Love

8 – The Strength of Love

The truly compassionate take no heed of their own pleasure; it is the suffering of others which concerns them.

At a time when the Bodhisattva was established in the practice of compassion, intent on becoming a refuge for all beings, he set his mind on increasing the qualities which benefit the world-giving, self-discipline, devotion, and love for all beings. And so he was born as a king named Maitribala, ‘He Whose Strength is Kindness’.

Maitribala felt the suffering of his subjects as if it were his own, and protected his people skillfully. His sword was a mere ornament, for the other kings respectfully accepted his word as law, a law which was demonstrated in the measures he took to promote his people’s welfare. He ruled with right action; even punishment was but a means to increase benefits for his kingdom. He was like a father to his people, in that he protected them with the Dharma. While his liberality, his tranquility, his honesty and wisdom were all directed toward the welfare of others, he increased his own store of lofty actions, essential for the attainment of enlightenment. – …

Now, one day, five yaksha demons, exiled by their lord, Kubera, invaded the realm of Maitribala. Skilled in the art of sucking the life-force from others, the demons were gleeful at having discovered an idyllic kingdom, so prosperous, so free of any calamity, its people happy, healthy and thriving! They had only one desire: to drain the region of all its vigor.

But try as they might, using all their usual tricks, they were unable to steal the life-force from the people. The power of the king was too strong; his merest intention sufficed to protect his people. Finding that they could not debilitate even a single person living in that kingdom, the powerless yakshas huddled together in consternation.

We are impotent. How can this be? These people possess no high learning, perform no extraordinary ascetic practices, are masters of no deep magic. How can they block our power? We are not worthy of our name!”

So, taking on the shapes of brahmans, they roamed the land. By and by they came to the edge of a forest, where they came upon a cowherd resting in the shade of a leafy tree, sandals on his feet, a garland of flowers in his hair. Alone, his staff and axe on the ground to his right, he was singing and humming as he busied himself with braiding a rope.

The yakshas approached the cowherd and tried to speak. But at first they found it difficult, for they were not used to human speech. Finally, they croaked: “Friend, you there, guarding the cows, are you not afraid to stay in this lonely forest all by yourself?”

The cowherd, looking up, asked: “What should I fear? The yakshas replied: “Have you never heard of the demons and yakshas, cruel by very nature? No one, no matter how blessed with learning, ascetic practice and charms, no matter how brave and fearless and surrounded by loving friends, can escape those grisly ghouls who feed on the flesh and juices of humans. How can you not be afraid, alone here in this remote and fearsome forest?”

The cowherd laughed heartily. “In this country,” he said, we have a good luck charm so strong that not even the Lord of the Gods can overcome it, much less some flesh-eating demons. Because of this, I wander through the wilderness as if it were my home, at night as if by day, alone as if in a crowd ― fearless and secure.”

The yakshas, now very curious, encouraged the cowherd by speaking to him with feigned respect: “Kind sir,” they said, “gentle sir, you must tell us, if you please, what sort of extraordinary charm this is!”

And laughing again, the cowherd replied: “Listen to our charm’s description: a chest as broad as the golden face of Mount Meru; a smiling face as beautiful as a clear autumn moon; arms like golden clubs, long and full; the eyes of a bull and the stride of a bull. This is our king! He is our extraordinary charm.”

Confronted by the resentful and astonished faces before him, he added: “Ah, this is rather a wonder, is it not? Yet how Strange! The power of our king is famous, yet you have not heard of him! Or is it that you have heard but could not believe?

“I suspect that your countrymen are not greatly concerned with the quest for virtue. Or perhaps their store of good fortune has simply run dry, and so they have not heard of our king. In any event, since you have arrived here from such a savage land, some small good fortune must remain to you.”

The yakshas spoke again: “Kind sir,” they said, “gentle sir, please, tell us what it is your king possesses that renders spirits powerless to harm the inhabitants of this realm.”

The cowherd replied: “Listen, Oh brahmans. Our king’s power comes from his exalted mind. His strength rests on the shoulders of his loving kindness, not on his motley-bannered army, which is kept purely for custom. Right action is his code, not the base science of politics. He does not know anger; he never speaks harsh words. And so he protects his land in the proper way, and uses his wealth to honor the virtuous.

“And yet, although he is endowed with all these wonderful qualities, he is not tainted by pride or by the hope of reward for the protection he affords his people. He is blessed with many more such qualities; and so no calamity can touch the citizens of this land.

“But how little you can learn from me! If you wish to know more about the virtues of our excellent king, you had best enter the capital. There you will see the people in their everyday lives: You will see how firm is their morality and sense of duty, how merry, how thriving they are; how abundant their food, how constant their welfare, how splendid their dress, yet how modestly worn. And you will see how kind they are to worthy strangers who come to them as guests. They are enraptured by the virtues of their king, whose praises they never cease to proclaim with devotion, as if chanting the most auspicious charms and blessings.

“Once you see all this, you will understand how to measure the virtues of our king. And when you, too, begin to feel reverence for his qualities, no doubt you will soon thereafter witness them, for you yourselves will seek him out.”

The cowherd smiled warmly, but his affectionate eulogy did not soften the hearts of his listeners. For praise of what they hate, as does truth itself, inflames the minds of fools. The yakshas grew angrier than ever at this king for obstructing their power, and leaving the cowherd, they hatched a diabolical plan.

Considering the king’s love of charity, and wishing above all to do him harm, they managed to approach the king while he was holding an audience. Still in disguise, they asked him for some food.

The king quickly and joyfully ordered his cooks and servants to prepare his guests an elaborate meal. But when it was served, a feast fit for the royal table, the yakshas spurned it. as tigers would scorn green grass. “We do not feed on such dishes,” they said. “Well, what sort of food would please you then, that we may prepare it for you?” asked the king.

The yakshas replied: “Raw human flesh, freshly cut, and human blood still warm, such is the food and drink of yakshas, Oh lotus-eyed monarch, you so strict in keeping promises.” And as they spoke, they threw off their human guise and showed their true nature: their disfigured features, ferocious mouths with pointed gnashing teeth, fierce red eyes, flaming and squinting, flat ugly noses wide and grotesque, hair and beard the color of flames, complexions dark and ominous as rainclouds.

Looking at them, the king knew at once that they were demons, not men. Now he understood why they did not want his food and drink. And moved by his pure heart, he felt only compassion and pity for them. As he gazed at them, he pondered:

“The merciful could never obtain such food and drink, and if they tried, what untold grief that attempt would cause!

The cruel in heart might or might not be more successful; if not, their efforts would not matter, but if they were to succeed, what benefit could come from the slaughtering of their own kind day after day?

“Indeed, such is the life of these yakshas, their hearts are wicked and pitiless. Every moment they do nothing but destroy their own happiness. When will their sufferings ever end? I must help them, but how is it possible for me to find such food? Not for a single moment could I injure another or destroy even one life.

“Yet I cannot remember a single time when I have disappointed a supplicant; no one who has ever come before me has ever left bereft, like a lotus withered by the winter wind.

“The flesh of animals who have died a natural death is cold and bloodless; it would not do. But how could I rob the flesh from any living being? On the other hand, how can I turn them away, dashing their hopes and causing them even more misery?

“But why consider a second longer? It is clear what I must do. From my own body I will give them blood, from my own body chunks of flesh, solid and fat. They are hungry, and they have come to me for food; I cannot seek the flesh from another. Their eyes are hollow, their faces pale, sick with the misery of their fruitless search. Therefore, it is time to act. What other use can this body be forever prone to sickness like a festering ulcer, an eternal abode of pain? I will put that suffering to good use I will perform a special action to bring joy.”

With this resolution, the eyes and face of the Great Being began to glow with gladness. Bathed in splendor, he pointed to his body as he spoke to the yakshas:

“Feast on this flesh, this blood. I bear this body solely for the benefit of all beings. To entertain guests with it in this fashion would be good fortune for me and of great consequence for all the world.”

The yakshas, though witness to the king’s determination, could not believe it, so incredible did it seem to them. So they at once said: “After a mendicant reveals his need, it is the giver alone who must act.”

With great happiness, the king called for the physicians to open his veins. But the royal ministers, terribly upset and agitated by the king’s determination to give his own flesh and blood, pleaded repeatedly with the king out of the strength of their love: “Pray, Your Majesty, do not let your love of charity lead you to disregard the consequences of your actions! Consider the harmful results for your devoted subjects, you cannot but know the nature of demons. You have always toiled for the benefit of your kingdom; you have always been unattached to your own pleasure. Do not give your flesh ― it is not right!

“You are acting with ignorance, Your Majesty. You know well these demons exult in anything that will disturb or distress your people. Their very nature demands that they injure others. Until now your strength has protected us, and they have had no power; unable to work their woe in any other fashion, they have thought up this scheme to cause us great calamity.

“Even the gods are happy with the offerings you are accustomed to giving, food excellent and pure, carefully prepared. Why should not demons too be satisfied with such offerings! We cannot fathom your thoughts! And so our attachment to duty forbids us our usual obedience.

“Can it be called right action to throw your whole land into chaos for the sake of these five? And why do you make us feel so unloved? How else could it be that our flesh, our blood has gone unnoticed? Why should you even think of offering your body when ours are whole and at your command?”

The king replied: “I have received a clear request. How could I say: ‘I will not give it’? How could I speak falsely and say: ‘I do not have it to give’? Am I not your guide in matters of right action? Well, then, if I myself should walk the wrong path, what would happen to my subjects? What example could they follow?

“Indeed, it is with my subjects in mind that I will cause the essence of my body to be drawn out. If I were fainthearted, bound by self-love, what strength would I have to promote my peoples’ welfare?

“As for your loving suggestion that you give your own flesh, I do not mean to stop you from showing your love, nor do I wish to let a thicket of suspicion close it off. It is wonderful to give to friends, particularly if their wealth should be diminished through misfortune. But it is not fitting for the poor to aid the rich.

“My limbs are strong, solid, and full of flesh. I have sustained them solely for the benefit of supplicants. Moreover, if I cannot bear the suffering of a stranger, how could I bear your suffering?

“It is I whom they ask, not you. And I will give my flesh. Therefore, though your love for me has given you the courage to try to stop me, do not oppose my actions any longer. Look well at what you do, for you do not know the proper way to deal with mendicants!

“How would you consider one who, from selfish motivation, restrained another from an act of giving? Would you consider such a person pious or impious? Is there any doubt? Look more closely at the situation, and your thoughts will follow the right path as befits those who work in my service. Approval would be now more fitting than your anxious looks. Why? Because beggars craving money or goods can be met with every day, but mendicants like these cannot be encountered even by pleading with the gods.

“Furthermore, considering the frailty of a human body, and how much misery it is sure to cause, how could one hesitate at the appearance of such uncommon supplicants? Miserable self-love plunges us into deepest darkness. No, my lords, do not restrain me.”

And having so persuaded his council, he sent for the physicians to open five veins. The king then spoke to the yakshas: “By accepting this offering of my body, you are acting as friends of the Dharma. You will give me the greatest pleasure accepting this gift.”

The yakshas let the king’s blood flow into the hollow of their hands, and began to drink the dark red liquid, fragrant as sandalwood. And as they drank, the monarch shone with the splendor of gold, like Mount Meru encircled with heavy rain clouds glowing at twilight.

Because of the king’s great joy, because of his forbearance and physical strength, his body did not weaken; nor did his mind grow faint, though the flow of blood did not lessen. Finally, when the yakshas had quenched their intense thirst, they told the king that they had had enough. And the king rejoiced that his body, source of misery, had finally found a proper use as a means to honor mendicants.

His face glowing with happiness, the king then raised his sword: It was a sharp sword, with a shining blade the color of a blue lotus, its hilt gleaming with lustrous jewels. Firmly the king cut pieces of flesh from his body and gave them to the yakshas.

Each time he cut his flesh, his joy was so intense there was no room for pain or sorrow. The pain, which pushed forward at each stroke of the sharp sword, was driven far back again by joy, and was therefore slow to penetrate his mind ― as if it were tired from being compelled to and fro. So intense was this joy the king felt at his action that it touched and softened even the cruel hearts of the demons.

Thus those who, out of compassion and out of love for the Dharma, give up their bodies for the sake of others, regenerate hearts burned black by fires of hatred, transmuting them into the gold of tenderness and faith. Seeing the monarch as calm as ever, oblivious to the pain of his sword, his countenance a picture of unshaken serenity, the yakshas were overwhelmed with admiration and astonishment.

“What a wonder! What a miracle!” they cried. “Can it be true, or is it mere illusion?” The wrath they had nurtured so carefully was gone, and they began to praise and bow low to the Great Being. “No more, Your Majesty!” they cried.

“Stop harming yourself! The wonder of the actions by which you have brought joy to other mendicants has satisfied us as well.” With much agitation, bowing their heads with reverence, they pleaded with the king to stop. And when he did, they looked up with faces wet with tears of contrition.

“Rightly do people everywhere devoutly proclaim your glory, even Shri would abandon the lotus pond for your presence! If heaven, protected by Shakra himself, does not feel jealous of this earth guarded by your heroism, then heaven is truly deceived.

“What more can we say? Humanity is fortunate indeed to be under your protection! We are utterly distressed at having caused you such suffering. But despite our wickedness, it is certain that by depending on you, we can gain our salvation!

“In that hope, we wish to know: What have you been striving for that you act without regard for your own happiness? By means of ascetic practices do you hope to gain dominion over the entire world? The wealth of Kubera? The rank of Indra? Whatever it may be, it cannot be far from your reach. If we may be allowed to hear, please tell us.”

The king replied: “Hear, then, why I exert myself. High rank is impermanent; it takes great effort to obtain and is easily lost. It yields no satisfaction, so how could it give serenity of mind? For this reason I do not wish the brilliance of a heavenly lord’s throne, much less that of an earthly king. Nor would my heart be content to end only my own suffering, my sole concern is for those helpless creatures undergoing unbearable suffering. For them I will attain all knowingness by means of my merit. And in vanquishing my enemies, the evil passions, I will save all these beings from the Ocean of Existence, that rough sea with its billows of old age, sickness, and death.”

The very hairs on the bodies of the yakshas bristled with the joy of faith, and they bowed before the king. “Only a being as determined as you are, could perform such an extraordinary action. Whatever you intend will certainly not take long to achieve. And as surely as all your efforts are for the benefit of all beings, pray do not forget us at the time of your liberation! Forgive what we have done. We did not understand even our own self-interest. We beg you now to guide us with some precepts we may follow. We will obey as surely as any of your officials.”

The king, knowing that the hearts of the yakshas had opened, calmly said: “Do not worry. You have not harmed me; you have helped me. Indeed, since the path of right action is difficult, how could I forget my companions on that road when once I obtain enlightenment? My first teaching of liberation will be given to you; to you I will offer that ambrosia.

“And now, if you truly wish to please me, from this moment on do not harm others. Furthermore, do not ever covet their goods or their wives; speak no lies and drink no intoxicating liquors.”

The yakshas promised to follow these injunctions, and after paying proper homage to the king, they disappeared.

Now at the very instant that the Great Being had determined to give his own flesh and blood to the yakshas, the earth had trembled in many places, and Mount Meru, the Golden Mountain, had begun to shake. And as the mountain trembled, drums began to sound. The trees cast off their flowers, and the wind blew them up into the sky where they took on forms, here a flight of birds, there a banner, there a well-arranged garland, and in these shapes, they descended to the ground, all around the king.

And as if to prevent the monarch from his action, the great Ocean had rolled and swelled its waves, like an ally rallying his helpful army, but to no avail.

The Lord of the Gods, disturbed by the agitation of the earth and ocean, saw the cause by signs. Filled with apprehension at the harm being done to the king, he quickly arrived at the royal palace, where he found everyone troubled with fear and sorrow except the king, whose countenance was calm and clear, although his body was in a miserable condition.

Moved by gladness and joy, Shakra approached the king and eulogized him with his lovely voice: “What an extraordinary treasure are your virtues ― how dedicated is your heart to helping others! Earth has indeed obtained a protector!”

Having praised the king in this way, Shakra, Lord of the Gods, applied herbs from both heaven and earth to heal the king’s wounds. The pain ceased, the king’s body was restored to wholeness, and the monarch was as before. Respectfully, the king paid homage to Shakra, who then returned to his heavenly home.

From this story one can see how the compassionate do not attend to their own happiness, and suffer only by the sufferings of others; who, then, ought not to set aside the attachment to anything so mean as wealth? This story should be told when inspiring the charitable, and also when explaining the virtues of compassion and the glory of the Tathagata. This story also shows why the Dharma should be listened to carefully.

“This account also explains the words said by the Buddha: “O monks, these five have done much, indeed.” For the first five disciples of the Buddha were the five yakshas of this story. The Bhagavat imparted to them the first of the ambrosia of the Dharma just as he had promised.