18 -The Wealthy Prince
The life of a householder is beset with concerns that are in conflict with spiritual pursuits; those searching for the Truth gladly spurn such a life.
Once the Bodhisattva was born into a family of great wealth, renowned for its virtue and good conduct, and highly esteemed by the people. Like a refreshing well to those who led good lives, this family shared their store of treasures and grain with a and Brahmans, and opened their home to friends and kin. The poor and the needy were sustained by their gifts, while artisans received their patronage and protection. Even the king was pleased to secure their favor and hospitality.
As the Bodhisattva grew older, his scholarly interests led him to study all branches of the usual worldly sciences, as well as the more esoteric arts. His scholastic accomplishments, his physical beauty, and the worldly knowledge he displayed without infringing on the precepts of the Dharma won the hearts of his fellow citizens, who thought of him as kinsman. For not family ties alone, but the virtues or vices which bring esteem or scorn, are what make others friends or strangers.
Now it came about that the Great Being began to think only of the path of renunciation. Experience of the householder’s life ― with its painful struggle for gain ― had shown him how inconsistent such a life was with spiritual practice. On the other hand, he understood well the happiness to be found in the groves of the ascetics. So gradually his mind grew detached from the pleasures of his home.
Upon the death of his father and mother, and while he was still in mourning, he left his splendid home and estate. Bestowing all he owned on friends and kin, on the poor, and on shramanas and brahmans, he left the city. He travelled through village and town, through kingdoms and capitals of kingdoms, until finally he settled in a wooded plateau near a small town. There he soon gained renown for his tranquility, the quality of his contemplation, and his superior conduct.
His clear demeanor, a result of years of meditation practice, was natural and sincere. His language, though demonstrating his wisdom, was full of modesty, a delight to both mind and ear. Uninterested in any gain, he discoursed in a learned yet very gentle manner with his audience, skillfully tracing the boundary between what was to be accepted and what was to be rejected according to the Dharma.
In short, his behavior exemplified what is expected from the virtuous and homeless ascetic. And when people became aware that he had renounced high rank, they honored him all the more. Indeed, virtues invariably seem more appealing when found in persons of high birth, just as moonbeams grow lovelier when shining on a beautiful object.
After a time, a friend of his late father heard of his new dwelling place and came to visit, drawn by esteem for his virtue. After expressing the usual friendly concern for his health, the visitor told the ascetic of his love for his father, and there naturally ensued a long conversation, during which the friend said with much affection:
“Isn’t it possible that Your Reverence acted too impulsively in renouncing the world at such an early age, ignoring both the needs of your family and the importance of continuing your line? What do you hope to gain here in the forest? You can lead a virtuous life in your home just as easily as in the wilderness.
“Why do you take on this difficult life, striving to incarnate Poverty itself? Here you must live off the alms of strangers who think of you as nothing but a beggar. Covered with rags, stripped of friends and relations, you hide here in the middle of the woods: Even your enemies’ eyes would fill with tears to see you in this state.
“Return to your home; you do not need this misery. There you will be able to fulfill both spiritual and familial duties; there you can produce a fine son. After all, if the poor can find the comfort of a castle in their meager huts, how much more comfort can be found in a wealthy residence, resplendent with luxuries!”
But the Bodhisattva’s mind had been purified by the sweet and comforting ambrosia of detachment. In his heart he knew too well the difference between the life of a house-holder and the life of an ascetic. And the encouragement to enjoy worldly pleasures only made him uneasy, as talk of a lavish meal affects those who are satiated.
“What you have just said was spoken out of sincere affection, and therefore does not truly distress me,” he replied. “Nevertheless, I beg you not to use the word ‘comfort’ when speaking of one who lives in the world. The householder’s state is like a prison, and whether one be rich or poor, such a life is full of pain. You see, the rich struggle to guard their wealth, and the poor struggle to gain it. No comfort exists for either rich or poor; only ill ensues!
“It is true that a householder can observe the precepts, but a task more difficult is hard to conceive. The householder’s life is bound by concerns far removed from the Dharma, concerns which call for a great deal of attention. Consider this. How can the householder refrain from lying, from injuring others, from putting pressure on others? The house-holder is attached to happiness, and cannot but strive to secure it. Yet if you devote yourself to the Dharma, you must break away from the householder’s concerns. So if you are attached to the home life, how can you achieve the Dharma?
“The way of the Dharma has the taste of tranquility; the way of the householder tastes of busyness and distraction. The householder’s life is in opposition to the Dharma ― so who among those who truly care for themselves would stay in such a life? The householder is easily tempted to neglect the Dharma ― he seeks pleasure by all possible means and soon feels no restraint. Loss of reputation, remorse, and misfortune are sure to follow. Surely the wise are right to avoid a state which seeks pleasure to the detriment of the Dharma. Moreover, I do not see how a householder’s life brings joy, for the suffering caused by earning and guarding wealth never ends.
“The householder is always in danger of being killed or kidnapped or being subjected to other such terrors. Even a king is no more satisfied by his riches than the ocean is filled by the rains. How can there be happiness in a state where one continually longs for sense objects rather than for self-perfection? One could sooner soothe a wound by rubbing it with salt.
“Material prosperity makes the householder arrogant; noble birth makes him proud; strength makes him insolent. His anger is aroused by the smallest grief, his adversity brings deepest dejection. So when is there time for tranquility?
“Therefore, sir, do not speak against my determination. The house is home to much misery. Haunted by the serpents of arrogance, pride, and infatuation, it destroys the possibility of happy tranquility. Who would choose to stay in a place so full of disturbances? In the forest, however, home of those who are content, the mind is calm and detached. Happiness such as this cannot be found even in Shakra’s heaven.
“Though covered with rags and dependent on strangers, I delight to be here. How could I wish for happiness which is tainted by wrongdoing? It is like food tainted by poison. Here I have gained profound insight into the very heart of being.”
Such persuasive words did not fail to impress his father’s friend. Showing respect for the Great Being, he humbly offered him what he could.
From this story one can see how those who truly wish to benefit themselves abandon the state of a householder, for they understand that such a state is in conflict with both the Dharma and tranquility. This account is also relevant when discussing the virtue of detachment to show how those who have once tasted the joy of detachment do not revert to worldly pleasures.
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