An intellectual discourse that led to a new social foundation | Daily News

An intellectual discourse that led to a new social foundation

Of many Suttas diversely found in the Buddhist text, Arahat Mahinda chose Chulla Haththi Padopama Sutta as the first discourse seed to feed Buddhist philosophy into King Devanampiyatissa. We need to investigate the grounds that prevailed upon to encourage the Arahat monk to prioritise the particular discourse followed by four other works.

During his short stay in the island, Arahat Mahinda made use of five works of Tripitaka: Chulla Haththi Padopama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya I, 3. 7 Cala Hatthi Padopama Sutta, 27), Peta Vatthu and Vimana Vatthu, two books of Khuddaka Nikaya (short volume) on celestial and ghostly mansions, Devaduta Sutta (on Heavenly Messengers - Majjhima Nikâya III 3. 10. Devadatasutta, 130) and Balapandita Sutta (on Wise and Fool - Majjhima Nikaya III, 3. 9. Balapaooitasuta, 129). The whole of King Devanampiyatissa’s royal family is said to have become Buddhists following the delivery of these sermons.

One key reason for the unyielding establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is Arahat Mahinda’s intelligent choice of works from the Pali Canon. His mission in visiting Sri Lanka was more than just converting another royal lineage into Buddhism. This fact is clearly corroborated, as the Arahat monk did not get into the conversion business right away; his first exercise was probing into the intellectual capacity of the chief of state with the history’s first recorded famous Intelligence Quotient on trees and relatives.

In this backdrop, it is interesting to study Chulla Haththi Padopama Sutta, a minor discourse on the simile of elephant footprints. Haththi, Pada and Opama stand for elephant, foot and simile respectively in Pali.

The source is based on a conversation between two Brahmins (non-Buddhists): Pilotika and Janussoni. Pilotika, though not a perfect Buddhist convert, describes his satisfying opinions about the Buddhist philosophy and its followers to Janussoni, making the latter interested in a follow-up. An inquiring Janussoni raises the issue of the Buddha’s claim to be an Enlightened Being. Simply put, the learned Brahmin questions the Buddha’s accomplishment of wisdom. It is to this that Pilotika brings out the elephant-simile.

“Suppose an elephant hunter enters a forest and sees an elephant footprint large in length and breadth. He would conclude that there will be a big elephant. Similarly, I saw Buddha’s four footprints and I concluded he is right when he says he is self-awakened, and his teaching is well-done, and his followers practise the teaching properly.”

The Buddha’s footprints, Pilotika goes on to observe, encourage the non-Buddhist scholars to a line of questions armed with rebuttals for obvious answers. Pilotika joyously explains how he sees the same scholars becoming the Buddha’s disciples. Pilotika’s argument is that he has the capacity to measure the Buddha’s accomplishment of wisdom by seeing his disciples.

Janussoni was, apparently, satisfied by Pilotika’s explanations, yet it reflects the modern-day misunderstanding of Buddhism. Buddhism is generally understood as the fact that the true Buddhist stays away from basic sins such as slaughter, stealth, non-celibacy, false speech and alcohol consumption. The core of the philosophy, however, is far deeper. Arahat Mahinda’s choice shows the clear difference he wanted to point out between a normal saint and a Buddhist saint. However, the best way to see the Truth is going from darkness into light.

Janussoni saw the light when he heard the Buddha’s expanded version of the elephant footprint simile. According to the Buddha, just because the footprint was large in length and breadth, it does not help to work out the real owner as the big elephant. There can be dwarf female elephants with feet large in length and breadth. Likewise, there can be other non-Buddhist saints who stay away from the sins; a long list of sins is brought out in the Sutta. A big elephant could be worked out only by seeing it. And the real Buddhist saint is understood, or the real accomplishment of wisdom is understood, by the realisation and the practice of Four Noble Truths, the original teaching in Buddhism.

It is impossible to understand the Sutta’s core meaning at once. However, if the Sutta is studied carefully, it helps us develop the ideal that the modern-day concept of comparing Buddhism with other religions is not theoretically acceptable.

Every religion has its unique features, and so has Buddhism: Four Noble Truths. The real elephant is worked out by actually seeing them, and the Buddha’s accomplishment of wisdom or the real Buddhist philosophy is observed only through realisation and the practice of the Four Noble Truths.

Although the message seems simple and clear, it is hard to impart it to a normal human being. It is this background that led Arahat Mahinda to inquire about the intellectual capacity of King Devanampiyatissa to grasp the deep mode of communication.

Many scholars, especially Westerners, entertain (or used to, rather) the theory that Buddhism encourages only saintly living. Arahat Mahinda proves it not so with his subsequent sermons of Peta Vatthu, Vimana Vatthu, Devaduta Sutta and Balapandita Sutta, which mostly discuss the way a Buddhist should behave in the lay life.

For instance, Peta Vatthu speaks about the fate the evil-doers have to face and Vimana Vatthu focuses on what awaits good-doers. Devaduta Sutta talks of five Heavenly Messengers we see in our life, but we tend to neglect unknowingly. The five Heavenly Messengers are:

1. A toddler standing and lying with difficulty.

2. An old woman or man decayed and bent like the framework of a roof.

3. A sick woman or man, immersed in their own urine and excreta, raised by others and conducted by others.

4. An offender taken hold by the king and given various kinds of torture caned and whipped.

5. A dead woman or man after one day, two days or three days, bloated and turned blue.

These five beings are considered heavenly messengers since they remind that these states are right behind you and we should be engaged in good deeds abhorring evil deeds.

Balapandita Sutta teaches how human beings suffer through their follies, thus encouraging good deeds.

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