32 – Prince of the iron house


Those once struck by the weariness of existence are distracted by nothing on their road to enlightenment not even by the brilliance and lure of royalty.

A one time when our Lord was still a Bodhisattva, he looked upon the world and found it full of the sufferings of disease, old age, and death, of separation from loved ones, of the calamity upon calamity which beset every sentient being. Knowing that beings had no refuge, no guidance, no protection, he was moved by compassion to work for their liberation; he wished to gain the highest happiness even for those unknown to him and averse to his teachings.

At this time, the Bodhisattva was born to a certain royal family distinguished by both modesty and splendor. Their prosperity insured by the affection of their subjects, the family grew wealthy with ease and without oppressing their vassals, who proudly paid them homage. And so their fame and glory spread far and wide. All the citizens shared in both their joy and their grief, so it was no surprise that the child’s birth occasioned a festival for the court and capital.

At the court, gifts were showered upon the brahmans, more than enough to fill their hands and gratify their minds, and all the royal attendants were presented with brilliant garments. Outside the palace, songs, jests, and laughter resounded in the streets and blended with the music of many instruments. The heartfelt joy of the people expressed itself in merriment, dancing, and abandon; they told one another exultantly of the happy news, as though they themselves had received a magnificent gift.

The happiness of the king grew even greater at their delight. The doors of the prisons were opened, and all the prisoners set free. Flags flew from the tops of houses, and the ground was sprinkled with spirits and liquors and covered with precious powders and fragrant flowers. The city looked as beautiful as on a major holiday. From the splendid dwellings of the wealthy came a cascade of gifts: clothes, gold, jewels, and more, as if happiness itself, like the River Ganges, had overflowed into the world.

Now it so happened that every son born to this king had died soon after birth. Attributing these deaths to the action of demons, the king determined to protect this child from the same fate. He ordered a house to be constructed entirely of iron, though ornamented with magnificent jeweled sculpture of gold and silver. Rites for the destruction of demons, as well as rites for protection and auspicious ceremonies to bring about prosperity and purification, were performed in the manner set forth in the sacred texts.

The young prince grew up in this iron house, and owing to the careful watch, as well as to the strength of his nature and his own great store of merit, no demons touched this Great Being. In the course of time, after the sacraments and initiatory rites had been performed, he was instructed by teachers revered for their knowledge of the sacred texts, and renowned for their morality, wisdom, reverence, tranquility, discipline, and virtue. From them he learned the many branches of science.

Each day, as the prince grew to manhood, his modest and pleasing nature inspired the increasing affection of the people. For so it is that the brilliance of the virtuous attracts the peoples’ love as strongly as does their most beloved friend or relative just as the smiling autumn moon in the heavens, showering its beams freely in all directions, wins the love of all.

Thus the Great Being enjoyed the happiness and godly enjoyments due him as the result of his merit. And over time his father, who loved him deeply and held him in the highest esteem, lost his anxiety over his safety.

Now, during one flower festival, the Bodhisattva expressed a desire to see the beautiful and brilliant decorations in the capital. With the permission of the king, the prince mounted the royal chariot, a splendid vehicle embellished by shining ornaments of gold, jewels, and silver, and flying flags and banners of many colors. The horses were well-trained and swift, adorned with golden trappings; the charioteer was distinguished for his skill and purity, his honesty, modesty, and firmness.

Preceded by the sounds of drums and other musical instruments, surrounded by a retinue in brilliant attire, the prince passed through the capital, his eyes eagerly roaming the decorated streets which overflowed with crowds in their lovely festival garments. Everyone was as intent on catching a glimpse of the prince as he was on gazing upon them; all along the way, the people uttered words of praise and respect, bowing their heads, joining their palms, and reciting blessings.

Though contemplation of such a beautiful spectacle would ordinarily have produced great rejoicing within the mind, the prince was so familiar with the suffering of existence that the festival served only to remind him of his former lives.

Overwhelmed with sadness, he lamented: “Alas! How full of emotionality is this world, how dissatisfying its undependable nature. The wonder of this flower festival will soon be over and exist only in the memory. And yet, how heedless of dissolution beings are, rushing after every momentary delight with untroubled minds, though every path they follow ends in death.

“From their merriment one would think they had nothing to fear, yet three enemies of unconquerable strength ― disease, old age, and death ― stand always near. And there is no escape from the dreadful world hereafter. What reason, therefore, can the intelligent find to be merry?

“Clouds let loose their torrents of rain with the uproar of an angry sea. Yet, being composite, such clouds soon disappear, along with their golden garlands of flashing lightning.

“Rivers powerful enough to sweep away trees and outrun their own banks, in time ebb away to a trickle, as though wasted by sorrow.

“Violent winds blow down mountain peaks, disperse masses of clouds, and stir up the waves; yet in the end, they too die out.

“The blazing fire that destroys the grasses of the beautiful forest eventually abates and disappears. As time moves on, great groves and forests come and go.

“What union does not end in separation? What youth does not grow frail and old? Inconstancy rules all worldly things, and the mirth of the multitude is truly thoughtless.”

By such reasoning the Great Being turned his attention away from the gay spectacle before him. No longer was he enthralled by the groups of people thronging the capital. And in this frame of mind he realized that he had already arrived back at the palace.

His feelings intensified. In his certainty that there was no refuge other than virtue, he made up his mind to embrace a life of good conduct, free from sensual pleasure. As soon as he had determined this, he went before the king his father, and, with joined palms, asked permission to set out for the forest of ascetics.

“By taking a vow of renunciation I hope to bring about my own benefit. Your approval will guide me; you could bestow on me no greater aid.”

But because of the king’s great love for his son, he was struck to the heart upon hearing this request, and trembled like an elephant wounded by a poison arrow, like a deep sea buffeted by the wind. Unwilling to part with his beloved son, he embraced the prince, and said in a voice choked with tears: “My son, why have you decided to leave us so suddenly? Who has caused such displeasure in you that it arouses this desire to leave? Whose family will have to weep tears of sorrow at having caused such misery?

“Or could it be that you have seen or heard of something improper that I have done? Tell me what it is that I may stop it forthwith, for I myself can see nothing of the kind.”

The Bodhisattva replied: “Who could possibly inflict such grief upon me? And what wrong could there possibly be in you who show such love?”

“But why then do you want to leave us?” cried the king. And the Great Being answered: “Because of the imminence of death. Do but think, Your Majesty: From the very night we find ourselves in the womb, we move relentlessly toward the Lord of Death, marching without interruption day after day. No matter how skilled we are in the management of our affairs, no matter how strong, not one of us can escape. Old age and death infest every atom of the world. For this reason I wish to go to the forest, to lead a spiritual life.

“Proud princes can vanquish whole armies of foot soldiers, horsemen, chariots, and elephants all in finest battle array. But no prince can defeat that enemy we call Death, though he enters battle alone. And so I take refuge in virtue.

“Guarded by their horses, their elephants, their foot soldiers and chariots, princes can escape from any foe ― but every prince since Manu, together with every single soldier of every single army, has succumbed helplessly to the enemy we call Death.

“Furious elephants with pestle ― like tusks can crush the gates of fortresses, trample people under foot, destroy chariots and even other elephants. Yet their tusks, so victorious against town walls, cannot repel Death when it chooses to attack them.

“Skilled archers can pierce their enemies with arrows, no matter how well-protected their enemies may be by strong and well-wrought armor, no matter how distant and sheltered they may be. But no archer can hit that ancient enemy we call Death.

“Lions can destroy even the luster of elephants, plunging their sharp cutting claws through those majestic heads. The lion’s roar pierces the ears and frightens the hearts of every adversary. But when the lion encounters the Lord of Death, his pride and strength are broken, and he, too, succumbs to death’s sleep.

“Kings naturally punish those who act against them according to the measure of the guilt displayed. But if that enemy is Death, they do not think of enforcing their laws, though Death’s harm may be great. Kings can conquer their long-standing foes through treaty and conciliation, but Death is strengthened by the duration of its hatred. Death is not one to be subdued by craft.

“When serpents strike man in anger, the poison of their pointed fangs burns like the most terrible blazing fire. But against Death no serpent’s sting will be sufficient.

“Doctors can allay the snake’s poison by mantra or medicine, but Death’s poison is too quick ― no charm or medicine has the power to counteract it.

“A Garuda strikes fear into whole schools of playing fish when it shakes the seas by the furious flapping of its wings; with outstretched claws it seizes its prey. Yet not even this extravagant attack can thwart Death.

“Tigers in the forest can easily overtake the frightened deer and crush them as if in jest, drinking the blood spilled by their lighting-fast claws. But they are not so bold when Death appears. Or a deer may escape the tiger’s jaws by less than a hair ― but who, having reached the mouth of Death, with its huge fangs of disease, old age, and grief, can ever make good his escape?

“Deformed and ferocious demons can sap their victim’s vital strength, and with one bold stroke drain off all life. Yet when their time has come to wage war with Death, they too will lose the battle.

“Masters of magic arts can subdue demons with powers developed from austerities, with spells and herbs; but against the demon Death they have no remedy. Those skilled in illusion can perplex the eyes of great assemblies; yet Death is more powerful still ― and cannot be tricked by even the cleverest magician.

“All who have checked the virulence of poison with powerful austerities, all the excellent physicians whose cures have halted the diseases of men, even Dhanvantari and such as he ― each and every one has disappeared. Therefore I am bent on practicing virtue in the forest.

“The Vidyadharas with their powerful spells and magic can make themselves visible or invisible at will, fly through the air, and descend to the earth. Yet they too lose their might when confronted by Death.

“The gods drive back the asuras, and in turn are themselves driven back. Yet both armies combined are nothing in the face of Death.

“Understanding the ferocity of Death, our greatest enemy, I no longer find pleasure in my life at home. I am not leaving from anger, nor do I love you any less, but I have resolved to make a life of virtue in the forest.”

The king replied: “What do you hope to find in the forest, the danger of death being so undeniable? Why take the vows of a holy life? Shall not Death find you even there? Do not the rishis who keep their vows in the forest also die? The life you wish to lead can be practiced anywhere. Why must you leave your home and go to the forest?”

The Bodhisattva replied: “I do not doubt Death comes to those in the forest as it does to those who live at home; to the virtuous as well as to the vicious. Yet the virtuous have no reason for remorse, and virtue, to be sure, is easiest obtained in the forest. Do but consider, Your Majesty:

“The home is a den of infatuation, sensual love, and hatred, of jealousy and everything contrary to virtue. It is an abode of carelessness. What opportunity is there to apply oneself to virtue when a householder is distracted by so many petty concerns? The toil of earning and guarding property disturbs a mind already troubled by untold numbers of arising or approaching calamities. When then is there time for tranquility?

“In the forest, however, having abandoned that host of toilsome endeavors, free from the care of worldly goods, one maybe at ease and strive for tranquility with a clear mind. In time, happiness, virtue, and glory will naturally appear.

“Neither wealth nor power guard us, but virtue alone. It is virtue that brings happiness, not the possession of a large estate. To the virtuous, death can bring only gladness, for there is no fear of what will follow. The characteristics of good and evil are clearly distinguished by their results: in the one case happiness, in the other misery.”

In this manner the Great Being persuaded his father to grant him permission to leave home. Renouncing his royal bliss as if it were nothing but a straw, he took up residence in the grove of the ascetics. There, he acquired immeasurable levels of meditation and used them for the benefit of all sentient beings. Afterwards he rose to the realm of Brahma.

From this story one can see how even the glory of royalty will not draw one from the path of goodness once one’s mind is seized by the weariness of existence. Thus considering, one should become familiar with this weariness.

This story is also to be told when indicating the right way to perceive death, and when praising the virtues attendant on the consciousness of mortality. It is also useful when explaining the value of ever-present awareness of death, and when teaching impermanence. Also one can use this teaching when indicating that we should not be attached to anything in the world, as nothing which has form is reliable. And also with this conclusion: that in the world we are helpless and friendless. Also this maybe propounded: “It is easy to obtain righteousness in the forest, but not as a householder.”