20 -The Treasurer
Assumed to possess a virtue they lack, the virtuous are spurred on to attain it. Considering this, all should strive for virtue.
Once the Bodhisattva lived as a king’s treasurer, renowned for his learning, his nobility, and his modest behavior. He had both lofty aspirations and a fine intellect, and a love for honesty in business as well as for the study of the many branches of science. These virtues gave his speech an eloquence for which he had become well-known. His compassion overflowed; through gifts of charity, he dispersed his wealth in all directions ― it was no wonder he was considered the jewel of householders. The many virtues which ornamented his nature, a love of spiritual things and the like, caused the people to revere him above all others.
One day, when the Great Being had gone to the king’s palace on business, his mother-in-law appeared at his door to visit her daughter. After the usual welcome and inquiries about each other’s health, the mother, being alone with her daughter, plied her with questions: “And your husband, my dear?” she asked. “Does he love you? Does his work rob you of his time? Does he show you the proper attention? I do hope he never does anything to cause you grief?” The daughter answered bashfully, in a soft voice and with downcast eyes. “Virtuous conduct such as his,” she murmured, “would be hard to find in the greatest mendicant who has renounced the world.”
The mother’s hearing and understanding were impaired by age, so she did not quite catch all her daughter’s words, spoken as they were in such a quiet tone. Hearing only: “mendicant who has renounced the world,” she concluded that her son-in-law had in fact become one. Overcome by shock and grief, she burst into tears, wailing: “What kind of virtuous behavior is that? To heartlessly abandon his affectionate family? Is it virtuous conduct to throw off one’s home? What interest could he possibly have in renunciation? How could someone so young and handsome, so vigorous and healthy, a great favorite with the king, feel drawn to the forest life?
“How could he do such a thing? No one from our side of the family has done him wrong. Now, long before old age, before sickness has seized him, he suddenly takes it into his head to leave the enjoyments of his home! His wisdom and sense of responsibility have always been his ornaments ― he has always shown great compassion for others. How could he be so thoughtless and unkind to his family?
“He has always showed respect to the shramanas and brahmans and been generous to his friends, to his king, and to all the poor. So what does he seek in the forest that he cannot obtain in the world? He is endowed with wealth, purity, and morality, he is a friend of the Dharma, he lives according to the teachings. He has no bad habits to give up; he has great faith and belief in the Dharma, and his views never run counter to the Law. Alas! By loving the law too well, he violates its very spirit! How can he leave those who love him without the slightest hesitation; how can he abandon his chaste and devoted wife, the companion of his religious duties? What success can he hope to achieve on a path begun with such heartbreak?”
The Bodhisattva’s childish wife, hearing her mother’s piteous and sincere lament for a son-in-law who had renounced the world, grew alarmed. Shaken by this sudden assault of sorrow and grief, she totally forgot the origin of their conversation and thought: “My husband has forsaken the world, and my mother, on hearing the sad news, has come to comfort me.” With this fixed in her mind, she too began to cry and moan, reaching such a feverish pitch that with a loud sigh, she swooned dead away.
On hearing the disturbance, the other residents of the household, both family and attendants, burst into lamentations of their own. In quick succession, neighbors, friends, and other kin, clients and holy ones ― in short, most of the town gathered around the house, all concerned for their friend the treasurer. As he had always shared in their fortune both good and ill, the people, having learned such behavior from him, now came to show like sympathy.
Returning from the palace, the Bodhisattva, upon approaching his dwelling, heard the sounds of distress echoing from his house and saw the multitudes assembled there. Curious, he ordered his attendant to go on ahead and find out what had occurred. The servant returned shortly to tell him: “There is a rumor, I don’t know from where, that Your Honor has given up your fine home to become a mendicant. News of this has caused everyone to gather here out of affection and concern.”
The Great Being felt something like shame, his naturally pure heart alarmed by what seemed almost a reproof. “Oh”, he thought. “How they honor me, to think me worthy of such a life! If after being held in such high regard, I continued to cling to the home life, I would not be considered even a man. The people would look upon me as someone addicted to vice. a despiser of virtues, and I would lose any esteem they now have for me. Life would become unbearable.
“Therefore, in return for this honor bestowed upon me. I shall honor them by realizing their mistaken thought. I shall at once leave my home and all its potential for engendering the fettering passions, and devote myself to the forest groves.”
Having made this decision, the Great Being immediately turned back to the palace and asked to see the king once more. After being admitted, and performing the usual salutations, he said to the king: “I wish to renounce the world. Your Majesty, and I beg you to grant me your permission.”
Hearing this, the king was troubled. With deep affection he said: “Surely you must know that we hold you in deeper regard than any friend or kinsman! We would spare neither wealth, policy, nor power to relieve you from any grief.
“Is it money you need? Take it. Is it some grievance that is causing you to suffer? Let me amend it. Or is it for some other reason you desire to withdraw to the forest, abandoning your relatives and friends, who humbly entreat you not to leave them?”
The Great Being answered his king with love and humility: “Who could undergo harm when under your protection? Who could weep for want of wealth? I go to the forest not out of sorrow, but for another reason altogether.
“Your Majesty, there is a rumor that I have taken the vows of a religious mendicant ― in fact, a crowd is, this minute, mourning outside my house, wailing in sorrow. And now, being judged a person capable of such a life, I must pursue it. For this reason I wish to live alone in the forest.”
The king replied: “Please do not leave on this account. Rumor is the result of unrestrained imagination; once set loose, it runs wild, free and unchecked. Your worth does not depend on public opinion ― virtue is neither won nor lost by idle gossip. They who take such gossip to heart are foolish; and more foolish still are they who act upon it.”
The Bodhisattva replied: “Pray do not speak so, Your Majesty. A reputation must be lived up to. Consider: A reputation for holiness, no matter how obtained, is nothing to hide behind; in fact, those endowed with any real virtue must assume all its burdens. Then, if one’s actions are seen to support that reputation, one’s high repute increases all the more. But ignoring such an opportunity renders a man as dry as the driest well. If he does not act according to his reputation, the current of preconceptions will destroy his good renown. Therefore, I plan to renounce both family and property, they are the source of strife and trouble, to be avoided like the black hooded snakes when their heads are raised to strike. It does not become Your Majesty to oppose my decision.
“And please do not try to supply me with funds. I know you are accustomed to demonstrating your gratitude to loyal servants, yet what use would wealth be to a homeless mendicant, free of both passions and worldly goods?”
So speaking, the Great Being persuaded the king to give his consent, and set out immediately for the forest. But on the way he was met by his friends, relatives, and associates, who, shedding tears and embracing his feet, tried to dissuade him from leaving.
Some tried to block his way, hands respectfully folded; others with gentle force tried to turn him back toward home, embracing him and speaking sweet words. Some in their misguided affection were attempting to intimidate him, using various threats and words of blame; others spoke to him of his friends and family, trying to kindle some feelings of compassion. Some bombarded him with logical arguments based on the sacred texts, attempting to prove that the state of the householder is the holiest one. And others urged him to ‘tie up loose ends first’, not to go ‘just yet’ to the forest so dark, so dangerous, so unknown. Yet still others wondered out loud whether there was really anything very important to be found in the forest; and others expressed their doubts as to the truth of accumulating merit and the reward of a future life.
Looking on his weeping friends who were attempting ― by any means at all ― to turn him from his renunciation and a life in the forest, he thought: “It is the duty of friends to help one to live in the manner of the holy ones. A friend must point out the way, no matter how harsh it may seem. And so the joys of a forest life are usually extolled. But my friends fear the forest life as if it were some hideous evil; is this the way to act? It is appropriate to weep for the dead, for the near dead, for those fallen from virtue ― but I only wish to live in the forest! Why all these tears? Why weep for one alive and well?
“If they grieve at our separation, why don’t they join me? If they prefer their homes over me, then why weep so wildly? If attachment to family prevents them from becoming ascetics, why didn’t they use these arguments when as soldiers they marched to battle?
“I have experienced the solidarity of their friendship in adversity, and I see their friendship embodied even now in their tears. Yet I do not see them follow me to the forest as they followed me to battle. Instead, they try to hinder my departure, their eyes full of tears, their heads bowed in reverence as if to a guru. If they truly loved me, they would follow me in the path of renunciation ― rather than posturing like actors. Anyone in distress, no matter how wicked, can find two or three friends to weep with him. But for the virtuous setting out for the forest, it is hard to find one single comrade.
“Behold the friends who once stood fearlessly by my side in battle against the charge of maddened elephants; even they do not follow me into the forest. Am I, are they, the same as before? I cannot recall ever having done them wrong. Perhaps they are concerned for what they think to be my happiness. Or is it my lack of virtue that hinders them from joining me? For hearts won by virtue cannot be deterred.
“But why am I indulging in these idle thoughts? They are as blind to the evils inherent in home life as to the virtues of the forest groves. The eye of wisdom is shut to them. Incapable of giving up their worldly pleasures, the very cause of suffering, they reject both me and the forest that would free them. How foolish is such infatuation! With the power I will gain in the forest of the ascetics I will crush the very passions that keep my friends and all others from tranquility.”
And thus having made up his mind, he gently and kindly put aside the entreaties of his friends. Making plain his firm resolution, he set out for the forest.
From this story one can see how an unfounded opinion that they possess some virtuous quality acts upon the virtuous like a spur. One can see how important it is to strive for virtue. This account is also suitable for explaining how a pious man ― esteemed for his virtues as a monk or as a lay devotee ― must strive to be in fact adorned with the virtues fit for that state. Further, this story may be used to show how difficult it is to find companions for a religious life.