9 – Vishvantara
If ordinary beings are not capable of even appreciating the Bodhisattva’s actions, how can they follow his example?
Once the Shibis were ruled by a king whose every action was crowned with virtue. Samjaya was his name, a man whose valor, discretion, and modesty kept his passions firmly in check, and led him to become victorious and mighty. Because of his great virtue, Glory, faithful as an honest lover, followed him as fervently as a lion guards its den.
Due to his constant and strict respect for the elders, he had mastered the mysteries of the Vedas and metaphysics, and had become skilled in the administration of justice. His subjects therefore enjoyed the benefits of security and peace, and performed their tasks with the utmost joy and devotion. He honored all who came before him, whether they demonstrated their merit in spiritual practices, science, or the arts. – …
Next to him in rank, though in no way inferior in virtue, was his son and heir apparent, Vishvantara. Though still a youth, he possessed the tranquil mind of an elder; though full of energy, he was naturally disposed to patience; though learned, he was free of conceit; and though mighty and celebrated, he was without a trace of pride. The reputations of all others travelling on the path of virtue paled beside his; he was renowned throughout the three worlds.
Vishvantara could not passively endure the great sorrow and countless sufferings of humanity. Against these foes he waged a mighty battle, shooting innumerable arrows of giving from his mighty bow of compassion. Every day he gave to the mendicants, without question, and without restraint, more than they asked for; and he adorned each gift with the kindest of words.
The prince also strictly observed the holy days. After bathing and donning a garb of white linen, ornamented by tranquility, he would mount his great white elephant, swift and vigorous, its body graced with auspicious marks, its color and size like a peak of the Snow Mountains. On this fabulous beast the prince would visit the alms-halls he had established all over the town, oases for mendicants where they would receive whatever they desired.
For those inclined to giving, riches yield the greatest pleasure when given to the needy. And the enjoyment of such giving cannot be compared to ordinary joy.
Word of such extraordinary charity, proclaimed everywhere by the happy beggars, spread far and wide. Soon a neighboring king heard of the prince’s generosity and conceived a crafty plan to rob the prince of his royal elephant by deceiving him through his passion for almsgiving. To bring this about, the rival king dispatched a group of brahmans to the land of the Shibis.
As Vishvantara was inspecting the alms-halls, his happiness continually increasing the bright beauty of his face, these shrewd brahmans, uttering benedictions with uplifted hands, placed themselves directly in his path. Respectfully, the prince stopped his great elephant and asked them their business: “Tell me what you have come for,” he said, “and it hall be granted.”
“We seek your joy in giving,” said the brahmans, “as well as the qualities of your elephant with its graceful gait. These make us seem like the neediest of beggars. Fill the world with astonishment, Oh prince. Present us with this great beast, as beautiful as a peak of Mount Kailasha, and be joyful!
The Bodhisattva was filled with happiness, for it had been a very long time since he had been asked for so great a gift. Yet he considered: “What use have these brahmans for such an elephant? No doubt it is a trick of some king, whose sorry mind is clouded with greed, jealousy, and hatred.
“Still, he must not be disappointed. In presenting me with this opportunity, without care for his own reputation or the precepts of right action, he is advancing my welfare.” Thereupon the Great Being stepped down from his magnificent elephant and, standing before the brahmans, golden pitcher uplifted, pronounced solemnly: “Pray accept this offering.”
Even though the prince knew full well that the science of politics does not follow the path of right conduct where wealth is concerned, he joyfully gave away his elephant out of devotion to the Dharma. And he watched with delight as the great elephant, adorned with its lovely golden lattice seat massive cloud radiant with the flash of lightning, walked off in the hands of strangers.
The citizens, however, who were politically attuned, hearing of their prince’s gift, were overwhelmed by distress. The eldest of the brahmans, ministers, military men, and towns people descended on the court of King Samjaya. Filled with agitation and resentment, they ignored the restraint due their monarch, and expressed their anger: “How can Your Majesty sit there and do nothing! The fortune of your kingdom is being carried off and your kingdom is being seriously weakened!”
The king, alarmed, asked what they meant, and they replied: “Are you not aware of what your son has done? That splendid beast, whose fragrant face intoxicates the bees and imbues the wind with the sweet perfume that maddens the other proud elephants; that war-elephant, whose brilliant strength subdued your enemies and lulled their pride to sleep; that embodiment of victory was given away by Vishvantara and at this very moment is being led away!
“Grain, clothes, food, gold ― such are the goods fit to give to brahmans! Parting with our strongest elephant, symbol of great victory, is no act of charity, but an act contrary to reason! The prince could never rule with success, for he is oblivious to the most basic principles of politics. Forbearance is out of the question in this matter. Your Majesty, do something, lest he bring further comfort to your enemies.”
The king loved his son deeply; on hearing such words, he was not kindly disposed toward the speakers. Nevertheless, bowing to expediency, in hopes of appeasing their anger, he told them they were right: “I know that Vishvantara at times indulges in his passion for charity too much, neglecting the rules of government. And it is true that such behavior is not the wisest for those in charge of ruling. But the act is done. He has tossed away his own elephant like so much phlegm, and who can bring it back? In the future you can be sure I shall make clear to him the limit of his almsgiving; may this suffice to cool your anger.”
But the Shibis replied: “No, Your Majesty. That is not enough. He is not the type to be brought to reason by a simple censure.” “Then what else can be done?” asked Samjaya. “It is not that he has sinned, but that his attachment to virtue is perhaps too great. As punishment for his giving away the elephant do you want his imprisonment? Or death? Calm yourselves. From this moment on, I shall prevent Vishvantara from any similar actions.”
Still angry, the Shibis persisted: “No one would seek, Oh King, to ask for your son’s death or imprisonment or flogging. But devoted as he is to spiritual matters, Vishvantara is not fit to bear the burden of royalty; the tenderness of his heart and his deep compassion are not suitable to such an office. Give the throne to a prince who has mastered the art of politics, whose martial prowess is beyond dispute. Your son, whose love for virtue ignores policy, is fit only to dwell in a grove for ascetics.
“When princes commit faults of policy, their subjects feel the pain. We can bear such mistakes, as we have throughout history, but a fault of this kind undermines the very roots of kindly power. Therefore, we are unable to stand by and watch your ruin, and we have resolved: The royal prince must withdraw to Mount Vanka, home of the Siddhas. There, where it will not harm the government, he may practice charity to his heart’s delight.”
So did the people, moved by affection and love for their sovereign, speak in the frankest possible terms. The king, ashamed and downcast, heaved a deep and sorrowful sigh, overcome by the thought of separation from his son. “So be it,” he said. “What you wish shall be done. Yet allow my son at least one day and night with me; tomorrow at daybreak he shall comply with your request.” Finally the Shibis were satisfied.
To his chamberlain the king said: “Go and tell Vishvantara what has come to pass.” And so, his face wet with tears, the minister went directly to the prince and threw himself in despair at the Bodhisattva’s feet. “What is the matter?” asked Vishvantara. “Has anyone taken ill?” The other replied in a voice thick with emotion: “No, the royal family is well.” “What then is the trouble?” asked the prince. In a faltering voice full of tears the chamberlain uttered these words:
“My prince, the Shibis, disregarding the royal will although presented in the gentlest of terms, have angrily ordered you banished from the realm.”
“Why are the Shibis angry?” asked Vishvantara. “What you say is beyond all reason. I have never strayed from the path of discipline, never been careless in my duties. What have I done to make the people so incensed against me?”
The chamberlain replied: “They are offended by the purity of your mind. Your giving away of the foremost of your elephants, Oh noble prince, tried their patience and moved them to overstep the bounds of duty. Though the satisfaction you experienced came from a complete lack of attachment, what moved those mendicants was nothing but desire. Ignoring that, you have provoked the anger of the town. Now you have no choice but to go the way of the ascetic.”
Then to demonstrate his immense patience, as well as his deeply, rooted affection for mendicants, firmly established by his profound compassion, Vishvantara replied: “The shibis are undependable, and they do not understand my nature. It is for the benefit of all sentient beings alone that I support this body; so what need have I for wealth? Since I would honor the request of beggars even with my own limbs, my eyes, my head if need be, why not my wealth? The Shibis, angry at the mendicants, try to restrain me out of fear, thinking I might give up even my body. But their actions only display their foolishness.
“Even if they were to kill or banish me, nothing would stop me from the practice of giving. With this firmly in mind, I will set out for the grove of the ascetics.” Then the Bodhisattva turned to his wife: “You have heard the resolution of the Shibis?” “I have,” Madri replied. “Then put aside, fair-eyed me, all your property, all that you have received from me as well as from your father.” “And what shall I do with it, my lord?” “Give it in charity to those of good conduct, embellishing your gift with respect. Goods deposited in this manner are imperishable, following us even after death. Be a loving daughter to your parents and mine, and a careful mother to our children. Continue to walk the path of right action, alert to any carelessness. But above all, do not mourn my absence.”
In reply, trying not to arouse the displeasure of her husband, Madri suppressed her deep sorrow and said: “It is not right, Your Majesty, for you to go to the forest alone. Where You go, I must go, my lord. With you, even death would be a festival for me; life without you would be impossible to bear. Nor do I fear the forest life. Consider it well: We will be living far away from wicked people, befriended by deer, serenaded by birds. The groves with their carpets of grass, as lovely as floors inlaid with lapis lazuli, will be far more pleasant than our artificial gardens.
“Indeed, my prince, you will never think of lost royalty when beholding our children neatly dressed and crowned with garlands, playing among the trees. Brooks, overhung by bowers, their beauty changing with the seasons, will bring nothing but pleasure. Songs of birds longing for love, dances of peacocks inspired by desire, the sweet buzzing of the honey bees ― all will make a forest concert to delight you.
“Rocks veiled with the silk coverlet of moonlight, stroked by the soft wind imbued with the scent of flowering trees, rivulets flowing over rocks sounding like the sweet clatter of bracelets and rings ― everything in the forest will gladden your heart.”
With these words his wife filled Vishvantara with desire to start his journey. But first he prepared to give away all his wealth to the indigent.
In the king’s palace, news of the banishment had caused great alarm, and the mendicants were almost beside themselves with sorrow and grief. As though intoxicated or mad, they lamented: “Alas! Injustice is awake and Virtue asleep or dead ― Prince Vishvantara has been banished from his kingdom! Earth herself has become unfeeling! They have chopped down her foster, child, that refreshing shade tree, that provider of fine fruit, yet she does nothing. How can she feel no shame?
“They have blocked off our well of sweet water, pure and cool! The guardians of the world are falsely titled, or else they do not exist, their names mere sounds! Who could be so malicious and so opposed to life itself that they would destroy our means of livelihood, we who are harmless, who survive only by begging?” But now Vishvantara appeared before them to give away his wealth.
And so the prince bestowed on the mendicants the contents of his treasury, which was filled to the brim with gold and silver and precious stones of priceless value. Then came stores of goods and grains, crammed to overflowing, slaves both male and female, beasts of burden, carriages, clothes, and more. All of this he distributed according to the merit of the recipients.
Finally, after paying his respects to his grief, stricken parents, he mounted his royal chariot, and with his wife and children took leave of the capital. The streets were as noisy as on holiday, as hundreds of people cried lamentations, following him out of love and affection, shedding tears of sorrow. Only with the greatest difficulty did Vishvantara make the crowd turn back. Totally calm and clear, he took his last view of the outskirts of the city with its charming gardens and groves; then taking the reins, he turned toward the direction of Mount Vanka.
The crowds on the roads thinned out, and soon the chirping of crickets told the prince that the forest was near at hand. Groves of trees began to appear, and herds of antelope could be seen running in the distance. And then, as if by chance, a group of brahmans drew near. Approaching the prince, the mendicants asked the prince for the horses that drew the chariot.
Although he was undertaking a journey of many miles without attendants, although he was burdened with his family, Vishvantara nonetheless rejoiced at this opportunity for giving. Without a care for what would follow, he joyfully gave his four horses to the beggars, and fastening the harness tightly around his waist, he began to pull the chariot himself. But before he could move, four young yakshas in the shape of red deer appeared suddenly out of a thicket, and like well-trained horses took up the burden themselves.
“Behold the extraordinary power of those who live in the blessed groves, home of the ascetics,” said the Bodhisattva. “Their feelings of loving kindness toward guests have even taken root in the beautiful deer!” But Madri, staring at the lovely beasts with joy and surprise, answered: “This is rather a result of your own virtuous accomplishments. Even the great practitioners are not your equal. When the shining reflection of stars in the water is surpassed by the luster of the laughing night lotuses, do you look to the flowers for the cause, or to the beams of the radiant moon?”
As they continued to speak sweet words of affection, another brahman came near and asked the Bodhisattva for his royal chariot. And the prince, as indifferent to his own comfort as he was a loving kinsman to all beggars, fulfilled the brahman’s wish. Joyfully he asked his family to dismount from the chariot, and gladly presented the vehicle straightaway to the brahman. The prince took Galin, the boy, in his arms, and continued on his way, while Madri, also free from distress, carried the girl Krishnagina, and followed by his side.
With gracious hospitality, the trees of the forest stretched out their fruit-filled branches to the Bodhisattva as if he were a welcome guest. Paying homage to the strength of the merit manifesting before them, the trees bowed like obedient disciples as he came into view. And when the Bodhisattva longed for water, lotus ponds appeared, sprinkled with pollen white and reddish brown shaken from flowers by wings of swans. As clouds spread their beautiful canopy and cool, perfumed winds blew softly, his path was shortened by yakshas who could not bear to see his labor or weariness. In this way their journey was transformed into a most leisurely stroll in a pleasure garden.
At last Mount Vanka came into view, and, shown the way by foresters, they climbed to the groves of the ascetics. There they found a lovely spot, encircled by a river of purest blue and blessed by a cooling fragrant breeze and an abundance of smooth-barked trees bedecked with brilliant flowers and luscious fruit. Birds singing lusty songs, many kinds of deer, and troops of strutting peacocks made the spot even lovelier. In the center of the grove was a hut covered with leaves, beautiful to behold and comfortable in every season, built by order of Shakra himself.
In this garden, in the company of his beloved wife, enjoying the sweet prattle of his children, never thinking of the cares of royalty, the Bodhisattva devoted himself wholeheartedly to spiritual practices for fully half a year.
Then, one day, when the princess had gone to seek roots and fruit and the prince had remained at the hermitage watching the children, there appeared before him an old and tired brahman who had been sent by his wife on an urgent errand to acquire servants to do her work. His feet and ankles were stiff with the dust of his journey, his eyes and cheeks were sunken with weariness, and he bore on his shoulder the water-pot of mendicants.
Catching sight of this beggar, the first he had seen in so long a time, the Bodhisattva rejoiced. With sparkling eyes and smiling face, he went to greet the brahman. He welcomed him with kind words and then led the old man to his hermitage, where he treated him with the respect due a pest. The prince then asked the brahman: “What, kind sir, has brought you to this forest?”
The brahman, virtue and shame forgotten in the blind love he held for his wife, impatient to ask and obtain what he had come for, replied: “Where there is bright light and an even road, it is easy to travel. But in this world the darkness of selfishness prevails, so that no others would respond to my request. The fame of your heroic almsgiving has travelled all over the world, and so I have come all this way to beg from you. Give me both your children to be my servants.”
And the Bodhisattva, that Great Being, accustomed to always giving joyously, and never having learned to say no. bravely and without hesitation said that he would give both his dear children to the brahman.
“Bless you!” said the brahman. “We will go now!” But the children, having overheard their father, began to weep in great distress. So strong was the love of the Bodhisattva for his children that he became heartsick with despair. “I have given the children to you ― but their mother is not at home. She went to gather roots and herbs in the forest, and will not return until evening. Let her see them one more time, neatly arrayed as they are now; let her kiss them goodbye. You may rest the night here, and tomorrow you may take them away..
But the brahman replied: “Now things are changing: Women are beautiful, women are persuasive. She will hinder your resolve; I do not wish to stay here any longer.”
“Do not think in that way,” the Bodhisattva replied. “My wife will not obstruct this gift. She shares my practice. Do as you please, great brahman, yet consider this: How can these children be satisfactory servants? They are young and weak and have never done work of that nature.
“But if the king of the Shibis, their grandfather, should discover them in bondage, he would give you as much money as you desired in order to redeem them. If you take the children to his realm, you will win much wealth while walking in the path of virtue.”
“No,” said the brahman, “I have no intention of going near him. Such an offer is sure to anger him: He would be no more worth approaching than a snake. Surely he would have the children torn from me by force, and probably punish me as well. No, I shall take them to my wife. She needs servants to wait on her.”
“Then, as you will,” said the Bodhisattva. And, after gently instructing the little ones on how to act as servants, he took the brahman’s water-pot and tipped it over the brahman’s outstretched hands, thus ratifying the gift. Water poured from the pot as tears fell from his eyes, eyes now the color of dark red lotus petals.
Overcome by the success of his greed, and charged with excitement, the brahman mumbled a short phrase of benediction. Then, with a harsh command, he ordered the children to go before him. But unable to bear the grief of separation, the weeping children embraced their father’s feet, crying: “Please do not give us away while Mother is gone! Do not let us go until we can say goodbye!”
The brahman thought: “Once the mother returns, all is lost: if I do not leave this instant, in fact, the father’s love will cause him to repent.” And so with a vine he tied the children’s hands as if they were a bundle of lotuses, and began to drag the children away with him, threatening them all the while. Krishnagina, the girl, never having experienced a moment’s distress, cried out to her father: “This cruel man is hurting me, father! He is no brahman! Brahmans are virtuous people. He is an ogre in disguise! Once he gets us away, he will eat us! Why are you letting this ogre take us away, father?”
And Galin the boy cried: “The beatings of this brahman are not nearly so bad as never seeing my mother again. My heart is broken. When she comes back to find us gone, the hermitage empty, she will weep and weep, like the raindrop bird whose babies were killed. She has gone to the forest to pick fruit and gather roots. When she returns to the empty hut, what will she do?
“Here, Father, take our toy horses, elephants, and chariots. Give half to mother, to comfort her. Tell her goodbye for us and don’t let her cry, for it will be hard for us, father, to ever see you and our mother again.
“Come Krishna, let us go. Father wishes us to be this brahman’s servants and has given us away. What does it matter even if we die?”
Then they were gone. The Bodhisattva, though his mind was shaken by these heart-rending cries, had not moved from where he was seated. He told himself over and over again that it was not right to regret having given, but his heart burned with grief, and his mind grew troubled and numb as if clouded with poison. But soon the gentle fanning of the cool wind helped him recover his senses. Seeing the hermitage empty and silent, he said to himself in a voice choked with tears:
“How did he avoid piercing my very heart when taking my heart from me? That foul shameless brahman! How can they make such a journey, barefoot and tender? They are too young to bear such hardship. How can they be servants of that man? Who will comfort them when they are tired and weary? Who is there to help them when they feel hungry and thirsty? If this sorrow strikes even me, steadfast and firm what will they feel, brought up in ease?
“Alas! This separation from my children burns my mind like the hungriest fire! But who, following the path of virtue, could repent a gift once given?”
During this time, Madri had been disturbed by ill omens. Disquieted by her intuition, she had been attempting to return as quickly as possible with her fruits and roots to the hermitage. But her path was blocked by ferocious animals, and she was forced to take a long and circuitous route.
When her children failed to greet her at the usual place, when she failed to see them where they were accustomed to play, her uneasiness increased. Fearing the worst, anxious and distressed, she searched everywhere, calling out their names, but there was no reply. Full of grief, she cried:
“A hermitage resounding with the shouts of my children seemed to me a busy village; now when I do not see them it seems to me a frightening wilderness. Perhaps they have fallen asleep, tired from too much playing? Or maybe they are lost somewhere in the thicket? But perhaps in childishness they grew annoyed that I was so long in coming and are only hiding?
“Yet why are the birds no longer singing? Have they been witness to some awful mischief? Or could my young ones have fallen into that rapid stream, and been carried away by the dashing current?
“May my suspicions prove groundless! May the prince and children both be safe and well! May these feelings of foreboding find fulfillment on my own body! But why then is my heart heavy with sadness at the mere thought of my children? Why is my heart wrapped in this shroud of sorrow, like a stone about to sink? Why are my limbs so weak? My eyes grow dim, why does this very grove seem to spin about?”
Reaching the grounds of the hermitage, she put down her baskets of fruit and approached Vishvantara. Performing the usual salutation, she asked for the children. But the Bodhisattva knowing well the strength of a mother’s love was powerless to answer. Indeed, one who is kind finds it supremely difficult to bring suffering to another who is hoping against hope to receive pleasant news.
Then Madri thought: “His misery and silence can only mean one thing: Something terrible has happened to the children.” In a daze she stood completely still and once more let her eyes search the hermitage; then in a voice broken with tears, she said: “I do not see my children. And you say nothing. Alas! Your silence speaks some great evil.”
The sorrow piercing her heart completely overpowered her, and like a vine violently severed, she suddenly collapsed. The Bodhisattva, preventing her from falling to the ground, carried her in his arms to a grass couch where, sprinkled with cold water, she soon recovered her senses.
“I did not say anything, my Madri,” he said, “for how can one expect firmness from a mind weak with love? A brahman suffering from old age and poverty came to me, and I gave him both our children. Be content and do not mourn.
“Look at me, Madri. Do not look for the children. Do not cry. Do not strike my heart again, for it is already pierced by the arrow of sorrow. When asked for my life, would I be able to withhold it? Think of this, my love, and rejoice at the gift I have made.”
Hearing that her children were still alive, her suspicion of their death removed, Madri soon recovered from her fright. She was wiping away her tears in hopes of strengthening her husband’s resolve when, looking up, she beheld a sight that filled her with amazement:
“Oh wonderful! Oh strange! The gods have been swept away by admiration for your heart, which is forever untouched by selfish feelings. Listen to the drums of the gods, echoing in all directions with a hymn the heavens have composed to celebrate your glory!
“The earth shakes, trembling in exultation; the mountains heave with joy! Golden flowers, like lightning, are falling from heaven and illuminating the sky!
“Let us then put aside this grief and sadness. What you have done in charity should only brighten your mind. Become once more the well of benefit to all creatures, a giver as before.”
Now the surface of the earth being shaken, Sumeru, the brilliant jewel-covered Lord of Mountains, began to tremble, so that even Shakra, Lord of the Gods, became curious and asked the cause of such disturbance. The Guardians of the World, eyes wide with amazement, told him the story of Vishvantara. And Shakra, moved by joy and surprise, went to visit the prince the very next day, after first taking on the appearance of a brahman.
As was his custom, the Bodhisattva showed the brahman :he hospitality due a guest, and then asked what had brought him to the hermitage. “Give me your wife,” said Shakra. ‘The virtuous never stop giving until the oceans run dry. For this reason I ask you for that woman there, who has the features of a goddess. Give her to me.”
And still the Bodhisattva maintained his firmness of mind by promising his wife to the brahman. Taking Madri’s hand with his left hand, holding the water pot with the right, he poured water on the hand of the brahman, and so poured the fire of grief on the heart of the demon Mara who rules the realm of desire.
No anger rose in Madri’s breast, nor did she weep, knowing her husband’s nature. But her eyes remained fixed on him as she stood as rigid as a statue, stupefied by this fresh burden of suffering.
Beholding this scene, Shakra, Lord of the Gods, was touched by the most profound admiration, and he cried out: “Oh, the wide distance that separates the virtuous from the wicked! Could anyone without the purest of hearts even begin to believe this extraordinary sacrifice? To cherish a loving wife and children, yet to give them up to the vow of detachment, is it possible to even conceive of such nobleness?
“Once your glory is spread throughout the world by the tales of those devoted to your virtues, the brilliant reputations of others will pale beside yours, as even the brightest stars disappear in the splendor of sunlight. Your superhuman qualities are resoundingly applauded by all of the yakshas, the nagas, and the gods, including even Shakra himself:” Shakra then assumed his own brilliant shape, and revealed himself to the Bodhisattva.
“I now return to you Madri, your wife. Where else should moonlight stay but with the moon? And do not grieve for the separation from your son and daughter, or for the loss of your kingdom. Before long your father will arrive, accompanied by both children, and reestablish you in the highest rank, thus providing his kingdom with its finest protector. Then Shakra vanished on the spot.
And the old brahman, bowing to Shakra’s power, at once led the Bodhisattva’s children to the land of the Shibis. When the people and their king heard of the extraordinary compassion of their absent prince, their hearts were softened with tenderness. Redeeming the children from the hands of the brahman, they went on a pilgrimage to Vishvantara, and, after obtaining his pardon, led him back to his home to sit in glorious splendor on his royal throne.
From this story one can see the marvelous behavior of a Bodhisattva. It is clear that the distinguished beings who strive for that state must not be despised or hindered. This story may also be applied when discussing how to listen to the Teachings with attention and when praising the qualities of the Tathagata.