Talk presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, February 8, 2015.
The Great Splendour
Digha Nikaya 17
This discourse takes place at Kusinara shortly before the parinivrana, which is perhaps why it follows the MahaparinibbanaSutta that we discussed last week. Kusinara (Kushinagar) is of course where the Buddha passed on. The sutta is an expansion of the conversation referred to between Ananda and the Buddha in which Ananda entreats the Buddha not to allow himself to die “in this miserable little town of wattle and daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond.” To refute Ananda’s typification of the town, the Buddha tells the story of King Mahasudassana, whose name means “Great King of Glory.” This story also occurs in the Jatakas. Under the name of Kusavati, Kusinara was the capital of the king’s realm. The Buddha compares it to a deva city, Alakamanda.
One uposatha (new or full moon) – we don’t know the month – the king is fasting on the roof of his palace when he has what can only be described, in the light of contemporary information, as a close encounter with a UFO: It appears to him as the disk of the sun, thousand-spoked, complete with rim, hub, and all appurtenances. In other words, he experiences a celestial solar wheel similar in appearance to the wheels of the Ezekiel, plunging in and out of the sea. According to the account, the wheel indicates to the king where he should conquer and expand his territory, which he did with great success. The countries that the king invades surrender without resistance, and the king establishes a society based on the principles of dharma. Once the king’s new dharma kingdom is established, the UFO comes to hover over the king’s palace!
In other words, the UFO, the phenomenology of which is clear, is identified with the dharma. It doesn’t matter whether this story be fabricated or not. Perhaps it is prophetic. That is not the point. The point is that at this remote place and period we find exactly the same mythologem that we find repeated throughout human history, in all times and climes, and that is still being propagated today as the story that today we call “the UFO phenomenon.” Other civilizations of course may have seen it differently and given it different names, but the phenomenology is clear by whatever name you choose to refer to it.
The sutta gives the familiar list of five precepts – do not kill, do not steal, do not commit sexual misconduct, do not lie, do not drink strong drink, together with a sixth, “be moderate in eating.” Walshe admits that the meaning is uncertain, but it seems like the householder equivalent of the monastic vow to eat only one meal in the morning.
After establishing his kingdom, the king is presented with a succession of six treasures. These symbolize the characteristics of the ideal monarch:
- The Elephant Treasure (AKA Precious Elephant): mental strength, noble gentleness, and calm majesty. The name of the Precious Elephant is Uposatha, the Indian lunar holiday symbolically associated with soma (amrita).
- The Horse Treasure (AKA Precious Horse): transcendence of worldly existence, Valahaka (“Thunder Cloud”) by name. This horse has the head of a crow!
- The Jewel Treasure (AKA Precious Jewel): omniscience (the jewel is like a crystal ball in which everything is seen, which also appears in the symbology of Dzogchen). The jewel is a beryl, literally “precious blue-green colour of sea water stone,” cut into eight facets. In Sanskrit, it is Vaidurya, “brought from Vidura.” Vidura is a character in the Mahabharata, renowned as a paragon of truth, dutifulness, impartiality, and steadfastness. The Sanskrit name originally referred to lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone.
- The Woman Treasure (AKA Precious Queen): radiating, piercing joy, characterized by a more than human, deva-like beauty.
- The Householder Treasure (AKA Precious Counsellor): the power to provide wealth and also strength of will.
- The Counsellor Treasure (AKA Precious General): the power to overcome enemies.
We have already identified the Precious Wheel with the dharma.
Described in minute detail suggestive of visionary phenomena, these “treasures” are “the Seven Jewels of Royal Power.” They are also found in the mandala offering ritual, in which one offers the entire universe to the Buddhas. Mandala offering is the fourth inner preliminary of ngondro, which purifies attachment (and thus represents the attainment of dispassion). This shows the close tie between Tibetan ritual and the Pali Canon. By analogy, the treasures also represent the qualities of the spiritual practitioner.
The king is also endowed with the Four Accomplishments (iddhi) of personal beauty, longevity, health, and reputation. The king beautified his city with lotus ponds, and built public baths, food banks, plumbing, clothing dispensaries, public transportation, hostels, even places where one could find a wife or obtain money (the very opposite of brothels and banks!). The aristocrats were so satisfied with the king’s rule that they wanted to build him a palace, but Sakka, the ruler of the Gods, stepped in and had his personal architect, Vissakamma, build him a fabulous palace. This was called the Palace of Dharma, which is described with the same attention as the precious treasures. These surreal, highly detailed, symbolic, and aesthetic descriptions suggest the paradises in Pure Land Buddhism or the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism. Walshe suggests that the description influenced the description of Sukhavati, the Western Land of Bliss, in Pure Land Buddhism. These vivid architectonic descriptions also suggest the psycho-ontological allegories of Padmsambhava.
The king then makes a Dharma Lake to complement the Dharma Palace.
We’ve talked about the Buddha’s political philosophy already, when relevant texts come to the fore, as they seem to do frequently. It’s clear that the Buddha, living in a time of terrible corruption and violence, was seeking not only to instigate a spiritual or a cultural reformation, but a political one as well.
Having established himself in the Palace of Dharma, King Mahasudassana ruminates on the karma that brought him to this place, and he identifies three kinds of karma that are responsible:
- The karma of giving, which returns to him in the form of wealth;
- The karma of self-control, which returns to him in the form of political power;
- The karma of abstinence, which returns to him in the form of great opportunity.
Entering the great gabled chamber, the king declares, “May the thoughts of lust, ill will, and cruelty cease,” rather like a mantra or an affirmation. Sitting down cross-legged on the golden couch, he bans all sense desires and unwholesome thoughts from his mind, and immediately enters the first jhana; he rapidly progresses through the second through fourth jhanas. He then leaves the great gabled chamber, enters the golden gabled chamber, and sits down on the silver couch, where he practises metta meditation, pervading the four quarters with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (called the “four divine abidings”).
There are several things we can take away from this description. First, the significance of the vow (power of truth). Second, the cross-legged posture, the asana of meditation that goes back as far the Indus Valley civilization. Third, the cultivation of dispassion, the key to the realization of jhana. Fourth, that a king or a householder can engage in these practices with success. Fifth, the supporting role of metta meditation.
A notable detail is that the king, having attained the fourth jhana, undertakes the practice of metta and is reborn in the Brahma world. However, the attainment of the fourth jhana is the attainment of an arhant who should be reborn in one of the Five Pure Abodes at least. To me this description is a prefiguring of the path of the bodhisattva, who, having attained the jhanas, chooses to pursue metta rather than nirvana, thus ensuring his rebirth for an indefinite period. Elsewhere the Buddha specifically states that he has never been born in any of the Five Pure Abodes because that would prohibit his being reborn as a human being.
The story of King Mahasudassana takes place when humanity existed in a purer, more devic state, and the longevity of these devas is about 336,000 years, the age of King Mahasudassana when he died. The king remained meditating in the great gabled chamber for 84,000 years until Queen Subdhadda, thinking that she had not seen him for several hundred thousand years [sic], came to the palace with her retinue of women. The king had his golden couch brought outside the great gabled chamber and lay down in the doorway on his right side, mindful and clearly aware, like the Buddha at his parinirvana. As I mentioned in the last talk, this posture is also an asana, a physical posture having spiritual symbolic significance.
The Queen noticed the clarity and brightness of the King’s complexion, and feared he might be dead. The Queen entreats the king to live, reminding him of his worldly possessions and responsibilities, but the king rebuffs her, saying, “All things that are pleasing and attractive are liable to change, to vanish, to become otherwise. … To die filled with longing is painful and blameworthy.” Shortly thereafter the king dies. The sutta points out, rather deliberately that “he felt the sensation of passing away,” and was reborn in the Brahma world.
The Buddha then reveals to Ananda that he, Gotama, was in fact King Mahasudassana in a previous rebirth. “Six times, Ananda, I recall discarding the body in this place, and at the seventh time I discarded it as a wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king who had conquered the four quarters and established a firm rule, and who possessed the seven treasures. But, Ananda, I do not see any place in this world with its devas and maras [demonic beings] and Brahmas, or in this generation with its ascetics and Brahmins, princes and people, where the Tathagata will for an eighth time discard the body.” This passage attests both to the Buddha’ recollection of past lives and to the transcendent nature of a Tathagata, without clarifying the question of his post-mortem status that we have discussed in a previous talk.
1. A significant difference between the conception of the bodhisattva in the Pali Canon compared with the Mahayana tradition is that in the Pali Canon the bodhisattva is represented as a being striving for Buddhahood, which is achieved, albeit after a period of hundreds or thousands of rebirths (the Jatakas include 547 such stories, dating from the 4th century BCE, and are regarded as canonical by some early Buddhist sects), culminating in the attainment of Tathagatahood and the cessation of rebirth, whereas in the Mahayana the bodhisattva vows not to attain Buddhahood till all beings in samsara have attained emancipation (essentially forever). The former is called the king-like bodhisattva, the latter the shepherd-like bodhisattva. A third category is the boatman-like bodhisattva, who vows to attain Buddhahood along with all other sentient beings.
2. Elsewhere human beings are stated to live between 10 and 84,000 years, comparable to the longevity of the devas of the world of the Four Great Kings in the Vibhajyavada tradition.
“A View on Buddhism: General Buddhist Symbols.” http://viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism.html.