12 – The Brahman

12 – The Brahman

What is it that keeps the virtuous on the path of good conduct? Their sense of shame and decency.

Once the Bodhisattva took birth as the son of illustrious brahmans, well-respected for their ancestry and their conduct, a family which upheld traditional customs, self-discipline, and practice. He received the usual sacraments and purification rites in due course, and at the proper age was gent to live with a teacher distinguished for his learning, his birth, and his exemplary conduct.

The boy’s quick grasp of what he was taught, his sense of responsibility (for which his family was noted), his good manners, and his tranquil demeanor ― all rare ornaments in a youth ― led his teacher to look upon him with particular love and pleasure. Indeed, if the magic of virtue can charm even those burning with the fires of hatred, how much more will it erect those who are good-hearted? – …The boy’s teacher, to test the morals of his disciples, would often complain of his own sufferings and poverty. During periods of rest from sacred study, he would moan:

To one who lacks a family’s aid, there is no joy, not even on the holidays! Begging for alms leaves me weak. Poverty is a frightful state, and hopelessness its fruit. To be poor is to be disregarded, born to toil! Poverty is a powerless condition, devoid of joy, incessantly afflicting.”

Like prize horses pricked by spurs, his disciples were so moved by their teacher’s words that they did their utmost to beg ever more and better food for him. But he only discouraged them, saying: “Good sirs, do not go to so much trouble. Food scraped together by daily begging can never diminish the distress of poverty. If my hardship is such a burden to, you, put your energy into increasing your wealth! That is the proper thing to do. Why do I say this?

“As hunger is dispelled by food, and thirst by water, illness is cured by medicine and the proper incantations, so the pain of poverty is dispatched by wealth. To dispel poverty, one should seek wealth by any means.”

The pupils replied: “But what can we do? We are powerless. If wealth, like food, could be obtained by begging, we would never allow you to suffer this poverty. But well you know that brahmans can gain wealth only by receiving gifts, and the people in these parts are far from charitable. Hence, we are powerless and full of grief.”

Replied their teacher: “Look in the books of the Law. There are other ways for brahmans to earn wealth! Unfortunately, I am not fit to practice them because I am old and weak.”

“But we are young and strong!” they exclaimed. “So if you think we are capable of practicing these precepts, please tell us what they are. Then we can return the kindness of your teachings!”

“No!” said their teacher. “These ways of obtaining wealth are too difficult for young minds lacking strong resolve. But … well … since your Honors urge me so … I shall divulge one such way.

“In the Teachings, it is said that in times of distress theft is a means of livelihood approved for brahmans. And what greater distress in this world than poverty? So what prevents us from enjoying the wealth of others? Indeed, all worldly goods belong to brahmans.

“Now, although you could doubtlessly seize such wealth openly, you must mind your reputations and not take anything in quite such a way. Use your skill unseen, in lonely places and lonely times.”

Such language tore the bridle off the disciples, who at once approved that bad advice as if it were good. They were all more than eager to do as their teacher suggested. All, that is, except the Bodhisattva, whose innate goodness would not allow him to accept his teacher’s advice, though it had been accepted as a duty by the other students.

Ashamed, with eyes downcast, the Bodhisattva sighed deeply and remained silent. The teacher, whose regard for the virtues of that youth was very high, noted that the Bodhisattva neither approved nor spoke out against his proposal. And so he thought to himself: “Why is he resisting? Does he lack courage? Is it that he does not care for me, or is it that he understands the Dharma and knows thievery for what it is ― a wicked action?”

In hopes of discovering the nature of the boy’s mind, the teacher questioned the Bodhisattva: “Oh Great Brahman! All these twice-born men, unable to bear my misfortune, are willing to follow the way of heroes, energetic and bold. In you I see nothing but laziness and sloth. You are clearly not affected by my distress. Is not my suffering evident? Have I not spoken of it openly? Still you sit there. How can you not be touched by my distress?”

Alarmed, the Bodhisattva respectfully bowed to his teacher and replied: “Pray, do not think that of me! Neither lack of affection nor a hard heart causes me to keep silent; nor am I unmoved by your sufferings. But the actions you suggest cannot be practiced. And why not? It is impossible to commit a wicked action without being seen.

“For the evil-doer there is no such thing as a lonely place: Nowhere can anyone be truly alone. Are not the divine eyes of invisible beings, are not the purified Munis always watching our actions? Not seeing them, the foolish commit wicked actions, thinking themselves alone. But thinking does not make it so.

“Furthermore, wherever there is no one else, is such a place empty of myself? And I am a witness far more reliable than any other. Someone else may not see me, being occupied with other business, but when I commit a wrong act, eagerly surrendering to my own desire, do I not know with total clarity exactly what it is I do? It is for this reason that I do not join the others.”

Seeing that his teacher was satisfied with his answer, the Bodhisattva continued: “Nor can I persuade myself that you would deceive us in this way, simply for the sake of wealth. Who, knowing the difference between virtue and vice could ever be seduced by wealth to murder virtue?

“It is better to wear rags and take up the begging bowl ― even in the midst of one’s enemy’s opulence ― than to shamelessly turn against the Teachings, even to become the master of gods.”

At these words, the teacher rose from his seat, overjoyed and full of admiration. Embracing his pupil, he said: “Very good, well said, Oh Noble Brahman! Such words are truly becoming to one with such a keen intellect adorned with tranquility. Fools may astray from the path of duty, tempted by almost anything. But the virtuous can never be misled, even when they are in the greatest distress. Ascetic practice, learning, and wisdom are wealth enough for them.

“As the moon in autumn crowns the firmament, so are you the ornament of your family. Your conduct shows that you have understood the meaning of the sacred texts, and my labor is blessed with the riches of success.”

From this story we can see how Great Beings, following their conscience, do not transgress the boundaries of good behavior. For this reason, the noble-minded are always endowed with the power of shame and of decency. The noble Shravakas, well-protected by the moat of their conscience, avoid what is not virtuous and foster what is wholesome. This story is also referred to in texts praising decorum and self-respect.