MAHĀ SĪLAVA JĀTAKA (NO.51)
SURRENDERING OF “SELF”, PERSEVERANCE CONQUERING “OTHERS”
While residing in Jetavana Monastery, the Buddha told this story to a monk who had given up all effort.
Once upon a time, the future Buddha was the king of Benares, known as King Goodness the Great. He was named so as he was determined to do good all the time, even when the results might not benefit him. For example, he spent most of the royal treasury on the building and running of six houses of charity. In these places, food and aid were given freely to all the poor and needy who came along, even to unknown travellers.
Soon, King Goodness the Great became famous for his patience, loving-kindness and compassion. It was well known that he loved all beings just like a father loves his young children. King Goodness also observed certain fasting days and practised the five precepts and because of this, his gentle kindness became more and more pure.
Wishing to harm no one, King Goodness the Great refused to even imprison or injure wrongdoers. Knowing this, one of his high-ranking ministers tried to take advantage of this. He devised a scheme to cheat some of the women in the royal harem.
Soon everybody got wind of this and it was reported to the king. The king sent for the bad minister and said, “I have investigated and found that you have committed a criminal act. Word of it has spread and you have dishonoured yourself here in Benares. It would be better for you to go and live somewhere else. You may take all your wealth and your family. Go wherever you like and live happily there. Learn from this lesson.”
The minister took his family and all his belongings and moved to the city of Kosala. Since he was a very clever man, he worked his way up and became a minister of the king there. Soon he became the most trusted adviser to the King of Kosala. “The city of Benares is like a beehive where the bees do not sting! The ruling king is very feeble and weak. With only a very small army you can easily conquer the city and make it yours,” he said to the king one day.
The king doubted this, so he decided to check if this was true. So he sent some robbers to raid a remote village at the border of Benares. The villagers caught the looters and took them to King Goodness the Great. “Why do you steal and take what is not yours?” asked King Goodness. The robbers answered, “Your Highness, we are poor people. There is no way we can survive without money. As your kingdom has plenty of workers, there is no work for us to do. So we had to steal in order to survive.” Hearing this, the king gave gifts of money to them, advised them to change their ways and set them free.
When the King of Kosala was informed of this, he sent another gang of bandits to the streets of Benares. They too plundered the shops and even killed some people. When they were captured and brought to King Goodness, he treated them just as he had treated the first group of robbers.
Hearing this, the King of Kosala immediately sent his troops and elephants marching towards Benares. In those days, the King of Benares had a mighty army. It was said that they were capable of conquering the whole of India.
The mighty soldiers reported to King Goodness about the small invading army from Kosala. They asked for permission to attack and kill all of them. However, King Goodness the Great would not send them into battle. He said, “My children, do not fight just so that I may remain as the king. If we destroy the lives of others, we also destroy our own peace of mind. Why should we kill others? Let them have the kingdom if they want it so badly. I do not wish to fight.”
Meanwhile, the King of Kosala sent him a warning, telling him to give up his kingdom or fight. King Goodness the Great sent this reply back: “I do not want you to fight with me, and you do not want me to fight with you. If you want the country, you can have it. Why should we kill people just to decide who is to be king? What does it matter, even the name of the country itself?” Hearing this, the ministers came forward and pleaded, “Our lord, let us go out with our mighty army. We will beat them with our weapons and capture all of them. We are much stronger than them. We would not have to kill any of them. And besides, if we surrender the city, the enemy army would surely kill all of us!” But King Goodness would not be moved. He refused to cause harm to anyone. He replied, “Even if you do not wish to kill, by fighting many will be injured. By accident some may die. No one knows in the future whether our attackers will kill us or not. But we do know whether our present actions are right or wrong. Therefore, I will not harm, or cause others to harm any living being!” Then King Goodness ordered the city gates to be opened for the invaders.
The King of Kosala entered the city of Benares easily. He surrounded the royal palace and captured King Goodness the Great and all his ministers. They were taken to the cemetery outside the city and buried up to their necks, standing straight up, with only their heads above the ground. But even while the dirt was being trampled down around his neck, the Great King Goodness remained serene. So great were the discipline and obedience of the ministers to King Goodness that none spoke a word against anyone. But the King of Kosala had no mercy. “Let the jackals do as they please come nightfall!” he barked.
As the sky turned dark, a large band of jackals wandered into the cemetery. They could smell a feast of human flesh waiting for them. Seeing the approaching jackals, King Goodness and his ministers shouted all at the same time to scare the jackals away. This happened thrice before the clever jackals realised that these men were doomed and placed there for them to feast upon.
No longer afraid, they ignored the shouts and approached boldly. The jackal king walked right up to the face of King Goodness. The king offered his throat to the beast but before it could bite into him, the good King grabbed hold of the jackal’s chin with his teeth. Though the jackal king was not harmed in any way, it howled in fear as King Goodness’s bite had gripped its neck so tightly. This frightened the other jackals and they all ran away. Meanwhile, the jackal king thrashed back and forth, trying madly to free itself from the mighty jaws of the human king.
In the process, it loosened the dirt packed around the king’s neck and shoulders. King Goodness was able to wiggle himself free from the loosened earth and pull himself up from the hole on the ground when he released the screaming jackal. Then, he freed all his frightened ministers.
At that time, it happened that there was a corpse nearby which was lying on the border of the territories claimed by two rival demons. They were arguing over the division of the body. Suddenly, one demon said to the other, “Why are we quarrelling instead of enjoying the corpse? Right over there is King Goodness the Great who is famous for being a righteous man. He will divide the dead body for us in a fair manner.”
They dragged the body to the king and asked him to divide it between them fairly. “My dear friends, I would be glad to divide this for you. But I am really filthy now and in need of a bath. I must clean myself first,” he said. So the two demons used their magic powers to bring scented water, perfume, clothing, ornaments and flowers from the king’s own palace in Benares. He bathed, perfumed himself, dressed, and put on the ornaments and flower garlands.
When he was satisfied, King Goodness asked the demons to bring him the Benares’ Sword of State that was kept underneath the pillow of the King of Kosala, who was sleeping in the palace in Benares. Straightaway, the sword appeared, by magic, in front of King Goodness.
The king used the sword to cut the corpse into two equal halves, right down the spine. He washed the Sword of the State and strapped it to his side. The hungry demons happily gobbled up the fairly divided corpse. “Now that our bellies are full, is there anything else we can do to please you?” they asked King Goodness gratefully. He replied, “Use your magic and set me in my own bedroom in the palace next to the King of Kosala. In addition, put all my ministers back in their homes.” Without a word, the demons did exactly as the king had asked.
The King of Kosala was fast asleep in his royal chamber when King Goodness gently touched his belly with the sword of the state. The king awoke in great fright, and was shocked to see King Goodness leaning over him with a sword in hand in the dim lamplight. He had to rub his eyes to make sure he was not having a nightmare! Then he asked the great king, “How did you manage to get in here despite the heavy security? You were buried up to your neck in the cemetery. How is it that you are now spotlessly clean, sweet-smelling, dressed in your own royal robes, and decorated with fine jewellery and the loveliest flowers?”
King Goodness told him the story of his escape from the band of jackals, and gave an account about the two demons and how they gratefully helped him with their magic powers. On hearing the stories, the King of Kosala bowed his head down in shame and cried, “Oh great king, even the ferocious demons recognised your supreme goodness. But I, lucky enough to be born as an intelligent and civilised human being, have failed to see how wonderful your pure goodness is. I promise I would never plot against you again, my lord. You who have attained such perfect harmlessness. And I promise to serve you forever as the truest of friends.”
The next day, the King of Kosala gathered all his soldiers in the palace courtyard. There he publicly praised the King of Benares and asked for his forgiveness. He returned King Goodness his kingdom and promised that he would always protect the good king. Then he punished his adviser, the dishonourable minister, and returned to Kosala with all his troops and elephants.
Seated majestically on his golden throne, with its legs like those of a gazelle and shaded from the sun by a large pure white royal umbrella, King Goodness the Great taught his loyal subjects this:
“People of Benares, morality and virtue begin with giving up
the five unwholesome actions once and for all.
The noblest qualities a human being can have,
whether he is a ruler or a subject,
are loving-kindness and compassion.
One cannot harm another,
no matter what the reason or the cost is.
And despite the danger, one must persevere until the greatness of the good heart wins in the end.”
At the end of the discourse, the monk who had given up all effort, attained Arahanthood.
In this Jātaka tale, the future Buddha showed that a Mahapurisa practises the Four Brahma Vihāra of Metta (Loving-friendliness), Karunā (Compassion), Muditā (Altruistic Joy) and Upekkhā (Equanimity) as a consequential conditionality in confronting unpleasant experiences and difficult challenges.
For example, King Goodness had displayed Metta and Karunā to the treacherous minister and the robbers sent by King Kosala by not executing or imprisoning them as conditionally, it was the most appropriate course of action to align them towards enlightenment and not just for the sake of practising a virtue, without wisdom and discernment.
Muditā was also portrayed by King Goodness when he handed over his kingdom to King Kosala without any resentment and anger with the understanding that conditionally, if he retaliated, there would be great bloodshed on both sides. He exhibited great Upekkhā in facing the predatory jackals with non-conclusive conclusion and acted accordingly to bite the neck of the jackal king when the opportunity arose in order to free himself from the earth.
Dhammapada verse 276, ‘You yourselves must strive; the Tathāgatas (Buddhas) only can show the way’ is often misunderstood as striving to attain Nibbāna as the goal of life and Pāli Buddhism is about self-reliance to reach Nibbāna. On the contrary, self-reliance is neither the key nor the method of learning of a Mahapurisa to attain Nibbāna. This method of learning is much more profound. Nibbāna is every aspect of experiences as reality itself is the nearest to Enlightenment.
Instead of executing the treacherous Minister to nip the problem in the bud, King Goodness chose conditionally to let the story play itself out and acted accordingly because all those experiences were the nuances of Dependent Origination, inseparable from the reality of life which is closest to the truth of Nibbāna.
The traitorous minister portrays to us that the most difficult obstacle to overcome is the person closest to us. If his selfish desire is denied, it will backfire with an attempt to destroy us. If the king had submitted to the minister’s selfish desire instead, it would have caused mass destruction. This obstacle is the mirror reflection of one’s most subtle self which has to be contemplatively meditated on and this is often mistaken as being indifferent or as an inaction.
In Mahā Sīlava Jātaka, as a generous king who
had banished a traitorous minister,
the future Buddha conditionally avoided bloodshed in war
by giving away his kingdom.
With perseverance interplaying
with the knowledge of conditionality,
he regained his kingdom and saved his ministers
from being killed by the enemies.
This is to convey the truth that
it is not easy to recognise the most subtle ‘I’.
It is like our very own eyelashes, totally unseen by our own eyes,
yet it is so functional
and important to our primal well being
and is such a necessary protection to our seeing eyes.
The traitorous minister, who had been by the side
of the future Buddha, from the very beginning,
so close to him
and had supported him to build his kingdom,
represents the most subtle ‘I’.
This subtle ‘I’ that has helped us tremendously in our life,
like the traitorous minister,
is ultimately the most difficult for us to deal with.
Although it is easier to avoid facing the subtle “I”
by killing the traitorous minister,
it is immensely crucial to wait and draw out the subtle “I”
and to let this most complicated conditionality unfold itself
in order to finally witness the unconditioned Nibbāna.
Listening to the efforts of the future Buddha,
in contemplative meditation on the traitorous minister
which represents our eyelashes, the most subtle “I”,
the backsliding monk who had given up all sense of pride,
 The abstaining from the five types of unwholesome actions. These are: destroying life, taking what is not given, doing wrong in sexual ways, speaking falsely and losing one’s mind from alcohol.