When Words Bring Unexpected Fruits

The Blessed One was once living at Vesālī. While there, he instructed the bhikkhus on contemplating loathsomeness of the body. He commended contemplation of loathsomeness and the maintenance of it in being. After instructing the bhikkhus in this way, the Blessed One went on a half-month retreat and was not to be disturbed by anyone except those bringing his alms food.

While the Buddha was on retreat, the bhikkhus contemplated as they had been instructed. They dwelt devoted in pursuit of maintaining in being that contemplation of loathsomeness of the body. They became disgusted and ashamed of the body. They sought the knife to take their life as a result of this disgust and shame. As many as ten, twenty, or thirty bhikkhus used the knife in one day.

Coming out of retreat, the Buddha asked Ānanda, “Why has the Sangha of bhikkhus become so thinned out?” Ānanda told the Buddha what had happened and asked him, “Lord, let the Blessed One announce another way for this Sangha of bhikkhus to find establishment in final knowledge.”

After the Sangha of bhikkhus had been assembled, the Buddha addressed them as follows:

Bhikkhus, when this mindfulness of breathing is maintained in being and developed, it offers peace and a superior goal, it is unadulterated (by loathsomeness) and a pleasant abiding, and it causes evil unwholesome mental objects to vanish at once as soon as they arise, just as when dirt and dust are blown about in the last month of the hot season, a great shower out of season makes them vanish at once as soon as they arise.

There is much to learn about our practice and about our interpretation of the Buddha (and Buddhism) in this story of the unexpected and harmful fruits.  When the Buddha addresses the Sangha again, he extols the benefits of mindfulness of the breath.  This must have been sorely needed among the Sangha at the time, after so many bhikkhus used the knife in the wake of the previous teaching.  It is significant that the Buddha did not admonish them for their actions or act in any way out of pride or self-defense. Instead, he gave them a practice that would bring comfort and relief of suffering in light of the tragic events.

The metaphor of the out of season storm for the practice of mindfulness of the breath is also important for our understanding of what mindfulness practice is.  Like an out of season storm causing dust and dirt to vanish, mindfulness of breathing is something we take up and practice, something that can be seen as going against the stream. And when it is taken up it can bring about and help to maintain in being (with right effort) wholesome states of mind. Perhaps by simply clearing out the unwholesome states, we see our original pleasant abiding more clearly!

But, what strikes me most about this passage is that it was left in the Pāli Canon to begin with! Perhaps there is an embellishment in how many bhikkhus took their life, but I can only imagine that this story is somewhat rooted in historical fact. And it does not reflect well on the Buddha that his teaching led to so many deaths in one instance. Despite this, the Pāli Canon includes not only this incident, but others that do not reflect well on the Buddha and his skillful and, sometimes, not-so skillful teachings.

How do you react to such stories about the Buddha?  How does it affect your interpretation of the Buddha as a fully enlightened being?  And what are the implications for us and our practice today?

After a conversation with a friend about this passage, this story has come to highlight for me, in quite a dramatic way, the trial-and-error nature of our practice. It takes effort and skill to practice the triple teachings of morality, meditation, and wisdom, and it takes skillful teachers to guide us along the path. We will all make mistakes in our practice. With compassion and skill, we can continue on the path with those mistakes as our guides!

But also important is to develop a good “shit detector” to protect ourselves and those around us. Spiritual teachings, even those from the Buddha’s mouth, can go horribly awry. And it doesn’t have to be to the extremes evidenced in the story above. My own example: becoming over eager with various meditation postures that were taught well but became a source of grasping for myself. In the end, I aggravated an already hurt knee. My inability to listen to myself and to what was happening with my body left me with knee surgery and a long healing process.

It has become clear to me over the years that there are many dangers (mental and physical) in taking up any spiritual path, including the path of awakening, and there are many who would abuse those who seek spirituality. A good “shit detector” can help us feel deeply in our bodies when a teacher and teaching resonates in a wholesome way!

Thank you for reading With(out) Bounds! May we remember those bhikkhus who gave their lives and honor their sacrifice by skillfully taking up our practice and our teachers with compassionate and open eyes!

(Note: this story about the Buddha and the bhikkhus and the quote above can be found in Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, pages 168 – 169. There is a recent conversation on Tricycle’s website about the nature of mindfulness and how it is different from pure awareness: click here to see it.)

One thought on “When Words Bring Unexpected Fruits”

  1. Wow, this is a really striking story – and a great comment on it.

    I’m astonished to learn that Buddha would give a teaching that produced such horrific results. From the story, the monks followed his guidelines (and then went beyond them).

    It makes me wonder about the wisdom of teachers and the nature of their attainment – questions I’ve had for some time.

    As you say, we would be well-served to develop a sensitive shit detector!

    Thanks for this!

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