The power of truth and nonviolence

A good bit of the story of Aṅgulimāla is told in the pāli canon in the Aṅgulimāla Sutta (MN 86). A small part of this sutta, a single verse, is often chanted as a protection.  The Elder Ahiṃsaka (Aṅgulimāla) is something like a patron saint of childbirth.  His story of becoming a bloodthirsty killer and then redeeming himself by becoming a monk and living the holy life is a rich starting point for various explorations – on causes and conditions, the ripening of karma even on one who has attained nibbāna, how one can be set on a destructive path by one’s own teacher, how excellence can engender jealousy, how one can be blinded by fervor of belief or a slavish sense of duty to carry out the most heinous of crimes and turn on even the ones who have been the most loving figures in one’s life, restorative/transformative justice, the power of love/courage and wisdom to subdue what even the most powerful weapons cannot.

In this post, however, I wish to focus narrowly on the immediate context of the paritta. One day, on alms round, the reformed and gentle monk Ahiṃsaka, whose name translates literally to “the non-violent one”, came across a woman undergoing the pain of a breech birth (feet-first birth) and as he was moved by her suffering, the thought arose in him – ‘How afflicted are living beings! How afflicted are living beings!’*

After discussion, the Buddha asked him to go and tell the woman –

Ever since I was born in the noble birth, sister, I don’t recall having intentionally taken the life of a living creature. By this truth, may both you and your baby be safe.

The story goes on to say that the woman and her baby came out of the childbirth safe and well and the birth became easeful.

I write this post to highlight two things about this very short verse.

  • The enormous task of not killing any living creature. One who is really serious about the first precept will find how hard the task actually is. If one expands the meaning of avoiding intentional killing as avoiding activities where one might end up killing a living being (cleaning, walking without being too careful not to crush creatures which could easily have been seen, drowning creatures as collateral damage),  it is a mighty hard task.   This is significantly harder in a rural/wild setting. Not having cruel intentions is not enough.  It requires care and consideration and a lot of continuous mindfulness to keep just this precept that many of us assume is something that we obviously don’t violate. And to not have ever done that is quite an achievement – one that the Buddha considered quite powerful.
  • The respect for the miraculous power of truth in the mythology/allusions of the time/place. There are several stories in various Indian traditions of a truthful statement having actual force to cause an effect in the physical world. In this case, a safe childbirth.  In other instances, people being unaffected by fire because of the truth of some fact or the other.  Not that society at any time or place was/is entirely truthful in practice, I am referring to the power attributed to the ideal in the common reference system of the teacher and the taught. 

Notes:

  1. Apart from being recited to pregnant women, this paritta (chant of protection) is also recited as a matter of routine on Fridays in many countries.
  2. Some chants frame the paritta itself with a description of the protective power of this paritta in this way – even the water used to wash the seat of one who has chanted this paritta can ward off all danger/trouble!
  3. The line here (kilissanti vata bho sattā) would be literally ‘How defiled are living beings!’ and in this context of physical childbirth, perhaps better translated as ‘How tormented are living beings!’, I have chosen ‘afflicted’ as an attempt to bring together these two meanings.
  4. The sentence spoken to the woman concludes with the words “May your fetus be safe” (rather than baby), but I have chosen the word baby here as it accords with our normal way of speaking about something like this.

The image below is of the scene of Ven. Ahiṃsaka making his assertion of non-killing at the site of the childbirth by the great Burmese artist U Ba Kyi. In this conception, the monk makes the statement seated on a platform outside the home of the pregnant woman with the childbirth happening behind the screen. This and the painting at the top of this post of the Buddha’s first encounter with Angulimāla by the same artist are illustrations from The Illustrated History of Buddhism by Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa of Myanmar.

Sources:

  1. Sutta Central for the text: https://suttacentral.net/mn86/pli/ms
  2. “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html 
  3. A translation of MN 86 by Venerable Sujato https://suttacentral.net/mn86/en/sujato 

What to be thankful for

Those who have explored it, know the power of the practice of gratitude. But different people find they are thankful for quite different things. In other words, when we count our blessings, it really is a skill to know what your blessings are. It turns out that this very question was put to the Buddha. And he, a master of lists, lists 38 of them. This is the topic of the sutta from the Pāli canon that I wanted to share today – the Mangala Sutta. It appears twice in the canon (The Sutta Nipāta and the Khuddakapāṭha). This site offers translations by 4 authors, but my favorite are the ones by Ven. Ṭhanissaro and Ven. Nārada. Ajahn Geoff (Ven. Ṭhanissaro) has chosen to call it “highest protection”. Others have called it the highest blessing. In any case, every time I read it, I realize how many things are going right for me. It’s hard not to read it and feel wealthy as many of us check off at least a few of these supreme blessings.

I share the sutta below mixing the two translations and perhaps adding a third perspective (my own) a bit. I mean no disrespect to either of these great scholars – I have nothing but the highest regard for them. It is just that for some phrases, I liked one better and for some others, I like the other translation.

I have heard that at one time the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then a certain devatā, in the far extreme of the night, her extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta’s Grove, approached the Blessed One. On approaching, having bowed down to the Blessed One, she stood to one side. As she stood to one side, she addressed him with a verse. Many devas and human beings have pondered the blessings, desiring well-being. Tell, then, the highest blessings.

The Buddha replied:

“Not to associate with the foolish, but to associate with the wise; and to honor those who are worthy of honor — this is the greatest blessing.

To reside in a suitable locality, to have done meritorious actions in the past and to set oneself in the right course — this is the greatest blessing.

To have much learning, to be skilled at one’s work, well-trained in discipline, and well-spoken  — this is the greatest blessing.

To support mother and father, to cherish wife and children, and to be engaged in conflict-free work (occupation) — this is the greatest blessing.

To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one’s relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing.

To avoid evil and abstain from it, to refrain from intoxicants, and to be steadfast in virtue — this is the greatest blessing.

To be respectful, humble, contented and grateful; and hearing the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

To be patient and compliant when corrected, the seeing of monks[1] and discussion of the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

Self-restraint, a holy and chaste life, the seeing of the Noble Truths and the realisation of Nibbāna — this is the greatest blessing.

A mind unruffled when touched by worldly circumstances, freed from sorrow, cleansed of defilements, liberated from fear  — this is the greatest blessing.

By acting in this way, they are everywhere unvanquished, and everywhere they go in safety: Theirs, the highest blessings”

Notes:

  1. The Pali words here are samaṇānañca dassanam:
    1. samaṇa literally means one who exerts himself/herself in spiritual pursuit – a seeker. However, the word has been used to mean a specific type of seeker – a certain category of renunciates that includes Buddhist and Jain monks and distinct from another category of seeker – brāhmaṇa.
    2. Seeing is indeed the literal translation of dassanam. One can take it to mean meeting/associating with monks, but this particular verse has for centuries captured the imagination of the devout – that the mere sight of monks is a fortunate occurrence, on many occasions having inspired people to take their first step on the path. I have left it as the literal ‘seeing’ to honor the interpretation of those who have gone before us.
  2. The maṅgala sutta is among the traditional verses of protection (paritta) chanted by people in some countries – usually on Sundays. It is worth reflecting on why reading this sutta is a protection of oneself.
  3. The image above is of a different scene from the canon, but it has some elements in common with the story above – the Buddha meditating in the woods, a luminous being approaching him with a request…

Sources

1. “The Khuddakapatha” (Khp 1-9), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/khp/khp.1-9.than.html 

2. “Mangala Sutta: Blessings” (Khp 5), translated from the Pali by Narada Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/khp/khp.5.nara.html .