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CHAPTER 2

BACKGROUND TO THE SAAMA~N~NAPHALA SUTTA

Magadha: Buddhism's First Foothold

The kingdom of Magadha was prosperous in the time of the Buddha because it contained three rivers. It was bounded on the east by the River Campa, on the west by the River Sona and on the north by the River Ganges. Its capital city was Raajagaha. The kingdom was endowed with wealthy bankers such as Mendaka, Jotiya, Jatila, Punnaka and Kakavaliya. Magadha was also the home kingdom of knowledgeable scholars such as Moggallaana, Saariputta and Kassapa. In the (five) mountains called the Pa~ncakiri surrounding the capital of Raajagaha, there were caves where it was traditional for hermits and ascetics to take up residence in order to train themselves.

Bimbisaara: A King of Righteousness

The king of Magadha, Bimbisaara was also a man of great talent and sensitivity. He was expert in diplomacy and built up an alliance with the neighbouring kingdom of Kosala by taking the Kosala Devii as his Queen. He also annexed the kingdom of A"ngaa (by killing King Brahmadatta in the times before he learned the teachings of the Buddha — after meeting the Buddha and attaining stream-entry, he subsequently lost interest in power). He also made an alliance to King Pukkusaati of Gaandharaa by corresponding with him on subjects of Dhamma. He was to send Jiivaka to heal King Ca.n.dappajjota of Avanti and he was the one to donate Ve.luvana Monastery for the use of the Buddhist monastic community. Although Bimbisaara was a benefactor for the best part of his life, the bad karma from having slain Brahmadatta of A"ngaa was eventually to catch up with him. Soothsayers predicted that he would be murdered by his own son Ajaatasattu as a result of his waging war in his earlier days. Seeing that Prince Ajaatasattu was indeed growing up into a strong and ambitious youth he tried to instil virtue in his son by taking him to see the Buddha. His efforts, were however to no avail because Ajaatasattu was to kill him in the end.

 

Devadatta: The Jealous One

Ajatasattu's murderous intentions were elicited through his association with the Buddha's jealous cousin Devadatta. Devadatta was a monk, but in spite of his efforts in meditation because his mind was clouded by jealousy, he could attain only the absorptions [jhaana] and could not progress to any higher states. Devadatta conceived a plan whereby he could murder the Buddha and lead the monastic community in his place. He decided to try and win over Ajaatasattu as a fellow conspirator. He used the mental powers attained by his meditation to appear to Ajaatasattu as child to Ajaatasattu and before his very eyes, turned gradually back to his normal appearance. Ajaatasattu was thus beguiled into faith for Devadatta and would do all he said. Devadatta's mental attainments (ability to enter the absorptions in meditation) subsequently disappeared because of all his evil intentions and False View, but Prince Ajatasattu's support for him did not wane. Subsequently, Devadatta interrupted the Buddha in the middle of a sermon to royalty to request the Buddha to retire from his position as leader of the Buddhist monastic community and let him reign in his place. Devadatta said the Buddha was too old to lead the Sa"ngha any more. The Buddha politely turned down Devadatta's offer to take over from him. Not easily dissuaded from his efforts, Devadatta made the same request three times. After the third request, the Buddha explained:

"Devadatta! Even though Saariputta and Moggallaana are very accomplished, I have never considered to let them lead the Sa"ngha in my place — much less would I ever consider to allow you — who are no better than a corpse frittering away the monastic requisites as if they were no more than worthless spittle — to lead the Sa"ngha."

Ajaatasattu commits patricide

Undissuaded from his mission, Devadatta hoped to find an ally in Ajaatasattu. He hoped to undermine the Buddha's power by disposing of King Bimbisaara who was one of his most influential supporters. He visited Ajaatasattu often and persuaded him with arguments such as:

"In the olden days our lifespans were much longer, but nowadays we cannot be sure — who knows if you will live to succede to throne while still in the prime of life…"

Even though the plan to kill his own father was monstrous, because of his trust in Devadatta, he was convinced. Even though Ajaatasattu was convinced to follow through with the patricide, it didn't mean that his mind wasn't full of guilt and hesitation. He had always had great respect for his father. When his plans were overheard by the courtiers, he confessed all of his plans to them. In response to the plans, the courtiers in the palace became divided amongst themselves, subscribing to one of three different types of opinion about what should be done.

 

  • The first group thought Ajaatasattu should be executed along with Devadatta and all of Devadatta's disciples too.
  • The second group thought that monks who had no direct connection with the conspiracy should be spared — only Ajaatasattu and Devadatta should be executed.
  • The third group thought that King Bimbisaara should be informed of the whole conspiracy and any punishments should be up to his discretion.

 

The third group was in the majority and King Bimbisaara was informed of the whole affair. When King Bimbisaara heard the news, instead of being angry, gave up the throne to Ajaatasattu immediately and wholeheartedly. At the same time he ordered the courtiers in the first group to be dismissed, the courtiers of the second group to be demoted and the courtiers of the third group to be promoted and given a special pension! The king's punishment and rewards for the courtiers created disharmony in the palace. From that day on, although Ajaatasattu was anointed King of Magadha, he was still suspicious of his father. Devadatta fanned the flames of suspicion saying that for as long as Bimbisaara was still alive, Ajaatasattu would not be safe — the courtiers in the palace still had their old allegiances. Accordingly, Ajaatasattu decided to put an end to the matter by putting his father to death by torture in the most cruel way possible. Bimbisaara was imprisoned by his son in a prison cell — and there he was left to starve. As if that wasn't enough, his prison cell was constantly filled with smoke by Ajaatasattu. However, because Bimbisaara had already attained the level of stream-entry in his meditation, he was able to survive the smoke and starvation inflicted on him, by walking meditation keeping his mind full of the bliss of his meditation. Hearing that Bimbisaara was not yet dead, Ajaatasattu had his barber slice the soles of Bimbisaara's feet with a razor and had salted ghee rubbed into the wounds. The soles of Bimbisaara's feet were then roasted with red-hot embers in an attempt to stop Bimbisaara from his walking meditation. Eventually Bimbisaara died from the extreme suffering inflicted upon him. (Some wonder what such highly attained and righteous king should have done to die in such a violent way — but in a previous lifetime he had refused to remove his shoes before entering a pagoda and had soiled both the pagoda and mats laid for the congregation to hear a Dhamma sermon with the dirt on his shoes). This bad karma combined with the murderous karma he had accrued for himself earlier in life when he fought on the battlefield against neighbouring kingdoms.)

On the very day Bimbisaara passed away, a first son was born to Ajaatasattu. Experiencing for the first time the love of a father for his son, Ajaatasattu realized with remorse the error of his ways in imprisoning his father — but his intention to release his father came too late and Ajaatasattu learned of his father's death with grief and guilt. Bimbisaara's queen, the Kosala Devii, was so filled with grief by the news of Bimbisaara's death that she could not bear to set eyes on Ajaatasattu ever again. She returned to Savatthii, the capital of Kosala and was to die there of grief. The queen's death earned Ajaatasattu yet more enemies in Kosala and King Pasendi marched against Magadha, capturing back the town of Kaasi as a punishment. King Candapajjota of Avanti also mustered troops in preparation to march against Magadha on hearing news of Ajatasattu's ingratitude. From the time of Bimbisaara's death, Ajatasattu's mind was so filled with remorse and unrest that even though he was to go to bed at night, he could no longer get a wink of sleep — all he could do was to lie awake at night thinking about his sorrows.

Ajaatasattu wondered about the point of being a monk.

Reflecting on the reason for all his new-found troubles, Ajaatasattu realized that they had come from one single cause — the advice of Devadatta. King Ajaatasattu wondered what possible reason could be behind a monk, who should be an exemplar of virtue and morality and who furthermore was a cousin of the Buddha himself, wanting to persuade someone to commit patricide? Serious doubt arose in Ajatasattu's mind of the virtue of being a monk at all — if this was way monks in general conducted themselves. He wondered if his whole kingdom was full of other "monks" creating exactly the same harm as Devadatta had done to him. Ajaatasattu was seriously perplexed by such a prospect. Even though he knew that in any spiritual community, there must be extremes of both good and bad members — how could an outsider recognize whether a monk could be trusted or not? Not only would there be many varieties of monks — the disciplined and the undisciplined — but the differences did not stop there — there were a wide variety of spiritual traditions in India to choose from too — and each had their own definitions of what represented a good monk. The question of the definition of a 'true monk' so perplexed Ajaatasattu that he took every opportunity to seek an answer to his question — partly to satisfy his own curiosity and partly to protect his citizens from being cajoled by shameless monks into actions of karma so heavy as patricide. In Buddhism there are five actions of karma as heavy as that of patricide. This category of karma is called the heaviest karma [anantariyakamma]:

1. killing one's own mother [maatughaata] 2. killing one's own father [pitughaata] 3. killing an arahant [arahantaghaata] 4. harming a Buddha to the degree that the Buddha is bruised [lohituppaada]. An example of such karma was caused by Devadatta himself who tried to kill the Buddha by dislodging a boulder onto him from high up in the Gijjhakuta mountain. The murder attempt caused a stone splinter to bruise the Buddha's foot (this being the maximum harm someone can inflict on a Buddha). 5. creating a schism in the monastic community [sa"nghabheda]. Inciting conflict in the monastic community or leading the monastic community divisively to the point that two parts of the monastic community can no longer share in monastic rites [sa"nghakamma] such as revision of the patimokkha every fifteen days or the ceremony of "inviting criticism" [pavaara.naa]. An example of such karma was caused by Devadatta out of spite after being defeated in his attempt to have the Buddha adopt five new 'holier-than-thou' rules by the monastic community. Even though the Buddha refused to adopt the rules, Devadatta persuaded many of his fellows to divide themselves from the rest of the monastic community by adopting the "Five Rules" and to go for revision of the monastic discipline [paa.timokkha] separately at Gayaasiisa.

After making the rounds of six major teachers in vain, trying to find a comprehensible answer to his dilemma, King Ajaatasattu was to receive a clear answer from the Lord Buddha and from that time onwards was to adopt the Triple Gem as his refuge. This is the background to the Saama~n~naphala Sutta.

 

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