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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 3

Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 3

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Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels.
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The story

In this case the first section, the story from the present, is quite long, and consists in large part of a eulogy of the Buddha himself, the character in the present who has become fully awakened, is able to teach and inspire others and who has spent countless lifetimes in preparation for the job of disseminating a teaching that will enable others to free themselves. In this regard it is clearly intended as an opening to the tales as a whole. It is, as one could argue is the frame story, in many ways an elaboration of a device found throughout the Pāli canon, whereby a homage is paid to the Buddha at the beginning of the text. We do not know at what stage it became routine as an introduction but the short preliminary, Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā sambuddhassa, “Homage to the exalted one, the enlightened one, the fully awakened Buddha”, prefaces all the collections in the Pāli Text Society: it precedes both the frame story and the first Jātaka itself. It is the usual way of beginning any auspicious undertaking in a Buddhist country: I once heard it chanted on a coach in Sri Lanka as the village set off on a pilgrimage. Considering the aspects of the Buddha in all his different characteristics is also one of the meditation practices of the Pāli canon. A single meditation subject, Buddhānussati, it often accompanies two other meditations, the recollection of the dhamma, the teaching, and the saṅgha, the assembly of monks, nuns and those who have followed the teaching in the past: the three are called the Triple Gem. These samatha, or calming, practices are particularly recommended for the laity in the canon for arousing cheerfulness and happiness in daily life and are constantly taught as ways of keeping the mind awake and in good spirits during the day.[11] In this preliminary tale we are presented with the Buddha as the teacher, and five hundred disciples of other teachers, who are friends of the treasurer Anāthapiˆ∂ika. These are proponents of views that are famous within the canon for their opinionatedness: they hold beliefs that our fates are fixed and predestined, for instance, or that there are no good or bad consequences to our actions.[12] Converted once by the Buddha, these five hundred followers have relapsed and the story describes the Buddha’s response to this before they join him again: he tells them that they have given themselves up into a wilderness of views and opinions, and that they have sought refuge where there is none.  By recollecting the qualities of the Triple Gem, they will attain complete freedom. This preliminary story arouses consideration of the figure of the glorious appearance and inspiring teaching of the Buddha, the hero whose contemplation would arouse great confidence in his followers. It also, as was pointed out to me by a research student here in Oxford, makes an unusual claim for meditations which are always felt to be helpful, but not generally regarded as salvific.[13]  It stresses that recollection of the qualities of the Triple Gem are the only true refuge, and that they lead to enlightenment. The text is emphasising,  right at the beginning, a series of popular meditation practices which are particularly aimed at laymen, and which seem here to be accorded unlimited potential. This perhaps does not mean they are the only practices one should do: there are many other meditations advised in the canon. In a Buddhist context it is a striking claim, though, and one which distinguishes the first part of the first story on its own: I do not think it is made elsewhere amongst the tales. The Buddha then asks the treasurer to listen, explaining that he has spent countless lifetimes cultivating the perfections so that he can help other beings. In order to illustrate his points about the followers, the Buddha compares the situation now to a series of events in the past, which he proceeds to relate in a formula we again do not find elsewhere in the tales: “as if breaking open the birthplace of the snow and releasing the full moon, he made clear what the gap between this and the previous life had kept hidden”.  

This section of the narrative has been indisputably Buddhist.  The extended description of the teacher, the references to the recollection of the Triple Gem and the formula with which the story from the past is introduced all point to a preliminary story carefully designed to awaken faith in the figure of the Buddha, his teaching and his followers.  The first story set in the past, like many of the collection, is more of a folk tale, describing a journey. The bodhisatta, a caravan leader who trades with five hundred carts, going from east to west and west back to east, loads up all his carts with merchandise and prepares to cross a wilderness. Another foolish trader does exactly the same thing and intends to set off at the same time. The bodhisatta, seeing the danger in having too many waggons on the road at the same time, all using wood, grass and water, offers the other the choice of going first or second. The other, greedily perceiving an advantage in beating the bodhisatta to market, opts for going first. The bodhisatta however sees some advantages in going second; wells are dug, there will be a fresh, new growth of herbs and prices will already be fixed.  The foolish merchant sets off on the desert wilderness well prepared, with sixty jars of water. On the way however he meets a yakkha, or demon, who decides to play a trick on them. He conjures up a magic carriage drawn by white bulls and surrounds himself with a retinue of more demons with bows and arrows, with clothes and hair all dripping wet, lotuses in their hair, chewing luscious lotus stalks themselves. Persuading the caravan trader that there is water where there is a dark streak ahead – presumably a mirage – the yakkha successfully enjoins him to empty out all his water so that he can make faster progress. When they come to pitch tent, exhausted, thirsty and dried out, the demon eats them all. The same trick is tried on the bodhisatta, who is not so gullible. He dissuades his followers from doing what the demon asks by asking questions to which they find the answers themselves: why are there no rain clouds, no sound of thunder and no evidence of the winds that accompany rain? Realising himself that he is dealing with demons – whose red eyes and the fact they cast no shadow always betray their true identity to the observant – he persuades his followers to see for themselves the defects in the arguments, not to throw away their water, and to keep vigilant at night. Because of this they all cross the wilderness safely, add the goods of the dead merchants to their own, and make a very tidy profit when they reach the city.  The story, which is entitled “A True Story”, or  “a Story about Truth” elaborates this idea of truth in a single verse, commenting on the wisdom of following what is true rather than clever falsity. The final, connecting statement is made by the Buddha, in which he says that Devadatta, his rival over many lifetimes, was the foolish merchant; his followers those that accompanied him. The Buddha and his followers were the wise ones.

 [11] See for instance A V 332-4.

[12] For six ascetics see Sāmaññaphala sutta, D I 52-9.


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