19 – The Lotus Roots

Chapter 19 – The Lotus Roots

One who has learned to appreciate the happiness of detachment will turn away from worldly pleasures, avoiding them as if they were bringing him disgrace or harm.

Once the Bodhisattva was born to an illustrious family of Brahmans renowned for their virtues and freedom from vice. He had six younger brothers whose bearing and traits were similar to his own, and a sister, all of whom imitated him in every way, out of affection and esteem.

Having studied the sacred Vedas and mastered the sciences of medicine, martial arts, music, and craftsmanship, he was highly regarded by all the people. He was a devoted son to his parents, respecting them as if they were gods; to his brothers he was like a spiritual teacher or a father, instructing them in all the sciences. He was skilled in worldly affairs and distinguished by his impeccable discipline and way of life. When, in the course of time, his parents died, the loss deeply moved him. After the funeral ceremonies, and after some days spent in mourning, he assembled his brothers and spoke to them: “Although we wish to remain together forever, death is sure to separate us from those we love. This is the way of the world, and it is a source of deep grief and pain. And so I wish to renounce the householder’s life, so that death will not seize me while I am still attached to a worldly life. I intend to walk homeless on the road to Enlightenment.

“Having so decided, I wish to give you some parting advice: Our family has a good deal of wealth earned in an honest fashion; with it you can easily sustain yourselves. Dwell here as householders then, in a right and proper manner. Love and respect each other; take care to follow the moral precepts, and maintain the practice of virtue. Study the sacred texts and always be prepared to meet the wishes of your friends, your guests, and your kin. In short, apply yourselves to the Dharma. Always act in a disciplined manner and in harmony with one another; delight in study and in giving alms. Let restraint ornament your lives as house-holders. Your good reputations will increase, along with your virtues and wealth, bringing you happiness in this life and in your future lives as well.”

But this talk of the householder’s life and of separation greatly distressed his brothers. Overcome with grief, their faces wet with tears, they bowed respectfully and said: “Our father’s death is still fresh in our minds. Pray do not inflict a new grief upon us. The misery of our parents’ death is still with us; your decision is like salt rubbed into an open wound.

“If you are truly convinced that attachment to the house-holder’s life is unwise, and the forest life is the only path to true happiness, why do you wish to depart alone, leaving us here without our protector?

“The life you choose will be ours as well. We, too, will renounce the world.”

The Bodhisattva replied: “Those unaccustomed to detachment cannot but follow blindly after worldly desires; they see no difference between giving up the world and jumping off a cliff. Knowing this, I restrained myself from urging you to follow. But if it would truly please you, well then, let us leave home together!”

So all seven brothers, together with their sister, gave up their wealthy estate and enjoyments. Taking leave of weeping friends and relatives, they became homeless ascetics. And with them into the forest there went, out of affection, one of their friends and two of their servants, one male and one female.

They discovered a large lake in the forest, its water purest blue. By day the lake was alight with beauty: Masses of open lotus blossoms floated in the sparkling water and swarms of bees hummed above the waves. By night the kumuda flowers opened their blossoms.

There on the shore they built huts out of palm fronds at some distance from each other ― each hut solitary and hidden in the shadows of the trees. And there they lived, devoted to their vows and practices, their minds focused on meditation.

Every fifth day, they would go to the Bodhisattva, all together, to hear a discourse on the path to tranquility and the subduing of the mind. Often the Bodhisattva would speak of the benefits of meditation and the destructive effect of desire, or explain the satisfaction resulting from detachment, warning against hypocrisy, idle talk, laziness, and the like. In this way he made a profound impression on his listeners.

Now their maid servant, full of respect and affection, continued to attend on them even in the forest. Every day she would pull edible lotus roots from the lake and divide them up equally on large lotus leaves. When the food had been properly prepared and placed on a clean place by the shore of the lake, she would knock two pieces of wood together to announce the meal, after which she would quietly withdraw.

The holy ones, after performing the usual prayers and libations, would walk to the lakeside one by one according to their age. Each in turn would take his share of the roots and then return to his hut, there to enjoy the meal. The rest of the day they spent in meditation. By this practice they avoided seeing each other at any time except when listening to the sermons.

Such extraordinary moral practice, such a refined way of behaving and living, and such love of detachment, brought them great renown.

When Shakra, Lord of the Gods, heard of this holy family he went to their dwelling place for the express purpose of testing them. Seeing their disposition to meditation, their freedom from bad habits or cravings, and their remarkable calm, his high opinion of them increased, making him all the more intent on testing them. For so it is that those who are free from desire, those who dwell in the depth of the forest intent solely on calmness of mind, always cause reverence to arise in the hearts of the virtuous.

Invisible, Shakra watched while the serving girl gathered the lotus roots, which were white as the tusks of a young elephant. She then washed them and divided them equally onto emerald-green lotus leaves, decorating each leaf with flower petals and pollen. He watched as she announced the meal to the holy ascetics by knocking together pieces of wood. and watched as she withdrew. At that very moment, Shakra caused the first share to vanish from the lotus leaf. For when trouble arises and satisfaction disappears, the constancy of the virtuous is best measured.

When the Bodhisattva saw that the roots were missing from his leaf, their decoration of petals and pollen disturbed, he thought: “Someone has taken my share of food!” But feeling neither anger nor agitation, he returned to his hut as usual and began to meditate. He felt no need to inform the others of the matter, not wishing to distress them. And they, of course, believing that he had eaten his share, took their portions as usual and ate them alone in their huts, after which they returned to their meditations.

In the same manner Shakra concealed the Bodhisattva’s portion on the second day, the third, the fourth, and the fifth. But the effect was always the same; the Great Being remained calm and completely untroubled. Indeed, to the virtuous, it is agitation of mind and not extinction of life that is the true death. Therefore, the virtuous remain forever undisturbed, even when in mortal danger.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, the ascetics went as usual to the hut of the Bodhisattva to hear his teaching. But on seeing him, they were astonished: His body was so lean, his cheeks so hollow, his eyes so sunken. The splendor of his face had faded, and his voice had lost its strength. Still, no matter how emaciated, he was as lovely as the crescent moon ― for his virtues, wisdom, constancy, and tranquility had not diminished.

After paying the Bodhisattva the usual homage, the family then asked him anxiously about the cause of his condition, and the Bodhisattva told them of the missing food. Unable to imagine any of them capable of such a deed, and quite alarmed at their brother’s suffering, the ascetics spoke their sorrow, their eyes fixed on the ground in distress. But since Shakra’s power had inhibited the very workings of their minds, they were unable to guess at the cause of the strange disappearances.

Then one brother, next eldest after the Bodhisattva, revealed both his alarm and his innocence by this extraordinary protestation: “May whoever took your lotus roots, Oh Brahman, win a house displaying signs of wealth and a wife who suits his heart’s desire. And may he have many children and grandchildren!”

Said the second brother: “May whoever took your lotus roots, Oh foremost Brahman, be marked with a strong attachment to worldly pleasures. May he wear wreaths and garlands and fine perfumes, exquisite garments and jewelry: may he always be embraced by his affectionate children!”

Said the third brother: “May whoever took your lotus roots become a wealthy householder with a large family. May he delight in the home life without a thought for the time when he must pass from the world!”

Said the fourth brother: “May the greedy person who took your lotus roots rule over the entire earth, and be worshipped by princes humble as slaves who bow their trembling heads to him!”

Said the fifth: “May whoever took your lotus roots become a high priest in the court of a king! May he possess knowledge of powerful incantations, and be treated with the utmost distinction!”

Said the sixth: “May the person who was more eager to possess your lotus roots than your qualities become a famous teacher well-versed in the Vedas, enjoying the worship of many followers who view him as a great ascetic!”

Said the friend: “May the person who could not subdue his craving for your lotus roots be given a fine village by the king, a village filled with prosperous folk who have large stores of corn, wood, and water ― and may he die without ever subduing his desires!”

Said the manservant: “May the one who destroyed his own interest for the sake of those lotus roots become the head of a village. May he have numerous friends, and be entertained by many women dancing and singing, and may he never be harmed by the king!”

Said the sister: “May whoever took your lotus roots become a woman of exceptional beauty, with figure and form unmatched in the world; may a king take her for his wife, and place her at the head of his harem of one thousand!”

Said the maidservant: “May the one who set her heart on gaining those lotus roots rather than on gaining the Dharma take great delight in eating sweetmeats alone and in the dark. May she disregard all virtuous things, and rejoice whenever she is presented with a dainty dish!”

Now three creatures of the forest had also come near to hear the sermon: a yaksha, an elephant, and a monkey. Overhearing the conversation, they were overcome with dismay and confusion. So the yaksha avowed his innocence with this solemn protestation:

“May whoever failed you for the sake of those lotus roots be in charge of a great monastery. May he be responsible for all the repairs for the town of Kakangala, and be obliged to construct one window each day!”

Said the elephant: “Most excellent Muni, may the one who took your lotus roots be dragged out of this lovely forest into the company of men. May he be fettered with six hundred solid chains, and suffer degrading pain from the goad of his driver.”

Said the monkey: “May whoever was moved by greed to take your lotus roots wear a garland of cheap flowers and a tight tin collar around his neck! May he be beaten with a stick and forced to dance in front of a serpent! May he spend his days in the houses of men!”

Then, with persuasive and kind words, the Bodhisattva showed the depth of his dispassionate nature: “May the one who falsely said: ‘They have disappeared’, though he had them, win every pleasure of the world he has ever longed for, and die a householder. And may the same fate befall any who suspect another of such an action!”

Such extraordinary protestations, demonstrating their abhorrence of all worldly pleasures, greatly astonished Shakra. Lord of the Gods. Taking on his own brilliant shape, he approached the ascetics and said, as if with resentment:

“You ought not to speak in such a manner. Everyone in the world longs for happiness, some striving for it so intensely that they never sleep; for the sake of happiness people will undertake all manner of penance and toil. Yet you slander these enjoyments, calling them ‘worldly pleasures’! How can you make such a judgment?”

The Bodhisattva replied: “Sensual enjoyments bring with them endless suffering, sir. Listen now, and I will tell you precisely why the Munis shun desire. People will undergo captivity and death, grief, fatigue, danger, and innumerable calamities, just to gain their desires. In order to gain what they desire, kings will eagerly oppress virtue, and fall into hell upon hell after death.

“When friendships are suddenly broken; when wrong roads and unclean paths are travelled for the sake of expediency; when good reputations are lost and suffering arises is it not always the result of desires?

“Worldly pleasures tend to destroy everyone, the highest, the middling, and the lowest, both in this world and the next. Therefore, Oh Lord Shakra, in order to benefit themselves, the rishis keep their distance from desires as if from angry serpents.”

Pleased with the words of the ascetics, Shakra responded: “Well said!” and thereupon he confessed that he himself had committed the thefts. “High virtue can be tested only by trial; therefore, I hid the lotus roots. How fortunate the world is that such glory is proven by action! Here, take these lotus roots from me as proof of your constant and holy behavior.”

With these words he handed the Bodhisattva the lotus roots. But the Great Being, with true dignity free from pride, scolded Shakra for his unbecoming and audacious behavior:

“We are no kin to you, nor are we your friends. We are neither actors nor buffoons. What then is your reason for coming here, Oh Lord of Gods, to play with rishis in this fashion?”

Swiftly Shakra shook off his divine appearance, his brilliant earrings, his diadem and his lightning bolts. Bowing with much respect, he spoke these words to the Bodhisattva:

“Oh Great Being, you who are free from all selfishness, please forgive my thoughtless actions as would a father or a teacher. It is not unusual for those whose eyes of wisdom are closed to offend against others, even their equals. Please pardon my offense, and pray do not close your heart to me.”

Having thus appeased the Bodhisattva, Shakra vanished on the spot.

From this story one can see how those who have learned to appreciate the happiness of solitude are adverse to worldly pleasures: They will turn from them as one turns from a disgrace or harm.

This Jataka was explained by the Bhagavat: “I was the eldest brother of that time. Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Kashyapa, Purna, Aniruddha, and Ananda were the other brothers. Utpalavarna was the sister, and Kubgottara was the maid servant. Kitra the householder was the male servant, Satagiri the yaksha, Pariliya the elephant, Madhudatar the monkey, Kalodayin the Shakra of that time. Bear this Jataka well in mind.”