11 – Shakra
Neither adversity nor the majesty of sovereign power will diminish the compassion of the noble minded toward sentient beings.
For countless lifetimes, the Bodhisattva performed virtuous actions, thoroughly actualizing the meaning of giving, self-discipline, responsibility, and compassion. When his every action was directed toward the benefit of others, then, it is said, he became Shakra, Lord of the Gods.
During the time the Bodhisattva held this high rank, he displayed greater majesty than had any of his predecessors, just as moonlight is reflected more brilliantly from a newly painted palace. Such was his mighty state, such was his brilliance that the asuras were willing to expose themselves to the tusks of his world, conquering elephants in order to challenge his position. But though he readily enjoyed the happiness and glory at his command, the bliss that was his due did not swell his heart with pride. Ruling heaven and earth in the proper manner, he acquired a glory that pervaded the entire universe. – …
Now the asuras could not bear the growing fame and glory of Shakra, and in their envy, prepared to wage war against him. Gathering an enormous army mounted on elephants and horses, driving chariots and on foot, they marched to the encounter, with a noise as awful as the roaring of a stormy ocean. The glittering blaze of the army brandishing their innumerable weapons was a sight too terrible to look upon.
Shakra, though he upheld the precepts of virtue, felt inclined to descend to the frenzy of fighting. The arrogance of his enemies, the threat to his men whose peaceful enjoyments had been interrupted, respect for his royal tradition, and political wisdom all decided him on battle.
A thousand splendid horses were harnessed to his golden chariot, its sharp weapons flaming in the sun, its jeweled surface reflecting the weapons flashing on either side. High above the chariot flew a brilliant banner, sparkling with jewels and emblazoned with the figure of a noble being. Then, amidst the vast host of his army mounted on elephants, on horses, and on foot, the Great Being stepped into his jeweled chariot, and standing upon a pure white carpet, led his forces to the ocean shore, there to encounter the great enemy force.
A tremendous battle erupted, in which the weapons of the mighty sliced through both the shields and the determination of the timid. Furious cries rang out above the tumult of the struggle: “Stay!” “Now!” “Not that way!” “Hold! “Look out!” “You will never escape!” “Strike!” “You are a dead man!” And the shouting merged with the clashing of arms and the clamor of drums, until the sky itself shook almost to bursting, while the battle raged like hell itself.
Maddened by the smell of flowing blood, elephants on both sides rushed furiously at each other, like mountains uprooted by apocalyptic winds. Chariots swept across the field like ominous rainclouds, their banners flashing like lightning their wheels rattling like rapid claps of thunder.
Sharp arrows flew among the armies of both the gods and asuras, shattering the royal umbrellas and standards, bows and spears, the shields and armor, and splitting open the heads of many men. Finally, overwhelmed by the fiery- weapons of the forces of darkness, the frightened army of Shakra fled before the asuras.
Only Shakra, Lord of the Gods, remained on the field to the path of the enemy with his chariot. Matali, Shakra’s charioteer, seeing the flight of the army of the gods and the exultant advance of the asuras who marched unrestrained amidst the tumult of tremendous war cries and victory shouts, thought it time for retreat and turned the chariot around. But as they drove upward through the sky, Shakra noticed that they were about to crush some eagle nests resting on a tree directly in line with their chariot pole.
As soon as he saw this, he was seized with compassion and said to Matali: “You must drive the chariot so that the pole does not disturb the nest. We must not harm those unfledged birds.” Matali answered: “But sire, the asuras will overtake us.” “Never mind,” said Shakra. “Make sure those eagle nests are saved.” “O Lotus-eyed One,” responded Matali, “only turning the chariot around can save those birds, and a host ,of enemies follows at our heels, they who have long awaited this chance to defeat us.”
But Shakra, Lord of the Gods, moved by the utmost compassion, demonstrated the extraordinary goodness of his heart and the firmness of his intention. “It is no matter,” he said. “Turn around. Better to die under the clubs of the asuras than to live dishonored by the murder of tiny terror-stricken creatures. Turn the chariot.”
When Matali turned the chariot drawn by a thousand horses, the asuras, who had witnessed Shakra’s heroism in battle, fell into confusion and fear. As they saw the chariot turn toward them, their ranks gave way like dark rain clouds dispelled by the wind. So it is sometimes that in the midst of defeat, a single man turning his face to the enemy can subdue the victor’s pride by his unexpected heroism.
At the sight of the hostile army’s broken ranks, the hosts of gods returned to battle; the asuras, fleeing in terror, thought no more of rallying and resistance. The gods, their joy mingled with shame, paid homage to their lord, whose face shone radiant with the brilliance and beauty of victory. Then quietly Shakra returned from the battlefield to his city and his joyful sons.
Thus the saying goes: “A low-minded man will commit wicked actions because of lack of compassion. An average man will act with mercy in moments of distress. But the virtuous, even when their lives are in danger, can no more transgress the proper line of conduct than the ocean its boundaries.” Mindful that it does the wise no good to offend any sentient beings, much less to sin against them, the virtuous are forever intent on practicing compassion toward all. In truth, the Dharma ever watches over those who follow the laws of virtuous action.
This story is also appropriate when describing the qualities of the Tathagata and when explaining how to listen to the Teachings.