The Buddha Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries
Bhante T. Seelananda, Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, High View, WV, USA
During his life, the Buddha was both praised and blamed by many in the society of India where he lived and taught, mainly because he was not just another religious master. He lived in the 6th century B.C., an era at the end of the upanishadic period, dominated by brahmins who utterly believed that the world and all beings in it were created by Brahma, the creator. Many people were highly motivated to seek out the truth of existence or what is wholesome (kusala). They followed many religious masters and believed what they said. There were many different cults and views (ditthi). According to the discourse of "All Embracing Views" (Brahmajala Sutta) in the Digha Nikāya, there had been 62 different views by the time of the emergence of the teaching of the Buddha. In such a society, the Buddha taught freedom of thought and freedom from all samsāric bonds in order to attain enlightenment. His teachings were both praised and rejected in his day.
Yet regardless of whatever blame or praise comes one’s way, the Buddha taught that we must devote our attention to wholesome activities. That is what we learn from both his teaching and his biography. As the Buddha himself said in the Jewel discourse of the Sutta Nipāta, the superior ones, the noble ones, are unshaken by blame or praise.
“As a post firmly grounded in the earth
Cannot be shaken by the four winds,
So is the superior person, I say,
Who definitely sees the Noble Truths.
In the Sangha is this precious jewel.
By this truth may there be well-being.”
The same thing is said in the Dhammpada:
“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm,
even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.”
Most people of that time, whenever they heard or talked about the Buddha, talked about his nine great qualities. This was the widely held reputation of the Buddha. When he approached a village or city, people started to say: "That Blessed One is accomplished, fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened, blessed." They further said that he declares this world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahma, this generation with its recluses and brahmins, with its princes and its people, which he has himself realized with direct knowledge. He teaches the Dhamma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with the right meaning and phrasing, and he reveals a holy life that is utterly perfect and pure."
So, this was the reputation spread among the ordinary people in the time and that was how they praised the Buddha. And those who blamed or rejected him? Once, addressing a person named Atula, he said, "O Atula! Indeed this is an ancient practice, not one only of today: they blame those who remain silent, they blame those who speak much, and they blame those who speak in moderation. There is none in this world who is not blamed."
Brahmayu, a Brahmin Elite
Brahmāyu was a brahmin who had been honored by the king. According to the Brahmāyu Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, when the Buddha approached Videhans together with five hundred disciples, this brahmin heard of it and wanted to see the Buddha. By this time, the brahmin was in 120th year. He was a master of the Three Vedas with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, and etymology, and the histories. Skilled in philology and grammar, he was fully versed in natural philosophy and in the marks of a Great Man. As he was aged, first he sent a disciple named Uttara to meet the Buddha and collect information regarding the Buddha's reputation. So, Uttara went to meet the Buddha. Elated at having observed that he displayed the 32 characteristics of a Great Man, Uttara followed him for seven months to find any faults of the Buddha. He failed to find any and came back to Brahmāyu and reported that what people said about this teacher was certainly correct.
Thereafter, one day Brahmāyu himself went to meet the Buddha. When he approached the Buddha in the assembly the people made way for him as for one who was well known and famous. Then he said, "Enough sirs, let us each sit down in his own seat. I shall sit here next to the recluse Gotama." So he sat next to the Buddha. It was here the Buddha said: “What must be known, I've directly known; what must be developed, I have developed; what must be abandoned, I have abandoned. Therefore, Brahmin, I am a Buddha.” The Buddha granted him permission to ask any question regarding this world or the next. The Brahmin addressed the Buddha:
“How does one become a brahmin?
And how does one attain to knowledge?
How has one the triple knowledge?
And how is one called a holy scholar?
How does one become an arahant?
And how does one attain completeness?
How is one a silent sage?
And how is one called a Buddha?”
Then the Buddha, in replying, spoke the following stanzas:
“Who knows about his former lives,
Sees heaven and states of deprivation,
And has arrived at birth’s destruction
A sage who knows by direct knowledge,
Who knows his mind is purified,
Entirely freed from every lust,
Who has abandoned birth and death,
Who is complete in the holy life,
Who has transcended everything
One such as this is called a Buddha."
Brahmāyu then rose from his seat and after arranging his upper robe on one shoulder, he prostrated himself with his head at the Buddha’s feet, and covered them with kisses and caressed them with his hands, saying: “I am the Brahmin Brahmāyu, Master Gotama; I am the brahmin Brahmāyu, Master Gotama.” Those in the assembly wondered and marveled, and they said: “It is wonderful, sirs, it is marvelous, what great power and great might the recluse Gotama has, for the well-known and famous brahmin Brahmāyu to make such a display of humility!”
Then the Blessed One said to the brahmin Brahmāyu: “Enough, brahmin, arise; sit down in your own seat since your mind has confidence in me.” This is how Brahmāyu, the 120-year-old Brahmin, paid homage to the Buddha. It is not because the Buddha was born into the Sākyan clan, but because of his noble virtues and well-developed mentality. He was the finest flower of humanity.
One day, two Brahmin students named Vāsettha and Bhāradvāja were walking and wandering for exercise. A discussion arose between them: “How is one a brahmin?” The brahmin student Bhāradvāja said: “When one is well born on both sides, of pure maternal and paternal descent seven generations back, unassailable and impeccable in respect of birth, then one is a brahmin.” The brahmin student Vāsettha said: “When one is virtuous and fulfils the observances, then one is a brahmin.” But the brahmin student Bhāradvāja could not convince the brahmin student Vāsettha nor could the brahmin student Vāsettha convince the brahmin student Bhāradvāja.
Then Vāsettha addressed Bhāradvāja: “Sir, the recluse Gotama, the son of the Sākyans who went forth from a Sākyan clan, is living at Icchānangala, in the wood near Icchānangala. Now, a good report of Master Gotama has been spread to this effect: ‘That Blessed One is accomplished, fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened, blessed.’ Come, Bhāradvāja, let us go to the recluse Gotama and ask him about this matter. As he answers, so we will remember it." This is how they came to believe, trust and accept the admonitions of the Buddha.
Chief Disciple of a Religious Master
Once, a naked acetic named Digha Tapassi, chief disciple of Nigantha Nāthaputta, went to see the Buddha and had a discussion with him, but he was not satisfied with the answers. He pointed to the significance of punishment (danda) but the Buddha was clear with the significance of actions (kamma). Eventually, Digha Tapassai rose from his seat and went to meet his teacher Nigantha Nāthaputta and related his entire conversation with the Buddha.
When this was said, the famous debater, Upāli, spoke up. He himself was one of the chief disciples of the Nigantha Nāthaputta, master of the Jain tradition. Upāli pledged to go to the Buddha and debate him:
"I shall go and refute the recluse Gotama’s doctrine on the basis of this statement. If the recluse Gotama maintains before me what the venerable Digha Tapassi made him maintain, then just as a strong man might seize a long-haired ram by the hair and drag him to and fro and drag him round about, so in debate I will drag the recluse Gotama to and fro and drag him round about. Just as a strong brewer’s workman might throw a big brewer’s sieve into a deep water tank, and taking it by the corners, might drag it to and fro and drag it round about, so in debate I will drag the recluse Gotama to and fro and drag him round about. Just as a strong brewer’s mixer might take a strainer by the corners and shake it down and shake it up and thump it about, so in debate I will shake the recluse Gotama down and shake him up and thump him about. And just as a sixty-year-old elephant might plunge into a deep pond and enjoy playing the game of hemp-washing, so I shall enjoy playing the game of hemp-washing with the recluse Gotama. Venerable sir, I shall go and refute the recluse Gotama’s doctrine on the basis of this statement.”
Nāthaputta was elated and said, “Go, householder, and refute the recluse Gotama’s doctrine on the basis of this statement. For either I should refute the recluse Gotama’s doctrine or else the Digha Tapassi or you yourself.” However, Digha Tapassi was not happy with this statement of the Teacher and remarked: “Venerable sir, I do not agree that the householder Upali should try to refute the recluse Gotama’s doctrine. For the recluse Gotama is a magician and knows a magic by which he converts disciples of other sectarians.”
But Upāli did go to the Buddha, debated him and eventually became a disciple of him. When his former master Nigantha Nāthaputta came to know this he went to see Upāli and asked whose pupil was he? Upāli instantaneously composed ten verses with 100 words of praise to the Buddha and declared that he was a pupil of the Buddha.
A Teacher and a Pupil
On one occasion, the Buddha was traveling along the highway between Rājagaha and Nālandā together with a great company of about 500 monks. At the same time, a wanderer named Suppiya was also traveling the highway together with his pupil, a youth named Brahmadatta. Along the way, Suppiya disparaged the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. But his pupil spoke in praise of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Thus these two, teacher and pupil, followed closely behind the Buddha and the company of monks making assertions in direct contradiction to each other.
Then, the Buddha in the company of his monks entered the royal rest house in the Ambalatthika garden in order to pass the night. Suppiya and Brahmadatta also entered the rest house to spend the night. There, too, Suppiya spoke in disparaging fashion of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, while his pupil Brahmadatta spoke in praise of them. Thus these two, teacher and pupil, dwelt together making assertions in direct contradiction to each other. That is how some teachers criticized the Buddha while their own pupils appreciated the Buddha, his Dhamma and the Sangha.
Ambattha, Disciple of Pokkarasāti
According to the Ambattha Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, there was a Brahmin named Pokkarasāti who had a property abounding in living beings, rich in grasslands, woodlands, waterways and grain. It was a royal endowment, a sacred grant given to him by King Pasenadi of Kosala. One day, he heard the spreading reputation of the Buddha. By that time the Buddha was living in the dense jungle of Icchānangala. Now, Pokkarasāti wanted to check out this teacher. So he sent his disciple Ambattha to meet him and observe if he bore the 32 characteristics and inform Pokkarasāti whether this fellow was the Buddha or not.
Ambattha went to see the Buddha but did not take a seat. He walked back and forth while the Buddha was sitting and uttering some words of politeness. Seeing that he was reluctant to be seated, the Buddha said, "Well, now, Ambattha, would you behave like this if you were talking to venerable and learned Brahmins, teachers of teachers, as you do with me walking and standing as I am sitting, and uttering in this manner?" Then Ambattha said: "No, Reverend Gotama. A brahmin should walk with a walking brahmin, stand with a standing brahmin, sit with a sitting brahmin, and lie down with a brahmin who is lying down. But as for those shaven little ascetics, menials, black scorings from brahma's foot - with them it is fitting to speak just as I do with the Reverend Gotama."
This is how he disrespected the Buddha, thinking that the Buddha was not a holy person to be respected. When this was said, the Buddha revealed to him how his descendants, brahmins, came to exist as brahmins. Finally, the Buddha explained extensively the nature of brahmins and the Sākyans and also how one becomes a monk and gradually practices and eventually becomes an arahant in the dispensation of the Buddha. Thus, having listened to the Buddha and with the understanding of the nature of the Buddha, seeing that he was a real Buddha with all the 32 characteristics, he reported back to his teacher Pokkarasāti. Later on, Pokkarasāti himself went to meet the Buddha and said, "Reverend Gotama, Ambattha is a young fool. May the Reverend Gotama pardon him." The Buddha said, "Brahmin, may Ambattha be happy." Here, we see the Buddha's compassion even in the face of those who initially did not respect him.
The Two Brahmins, Canki and Sonadanda
How the two brahmins named Canki and Sonadanda came to understand the Buddha is quite similar. These accounts are in two different discourses from the Digha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya. According to their stories, while they were on the balcony of their own palace they viewed villagers heading towards the dwelling place of the Buddha. They both wanted to know where the people were heading? So, they sent a minister who came to understand that they were heading to see the Buddha, who had a unique reputation. Thereafter, they also decided to see the Buddha.
But at this time there were about five hundred brahmins from another city in town for some business or other. They went to meet Canki and Sonadanda and sought to prevent them from going to see the Buddha. They said, "Sir, do not visit the ascetic Gotama, it is not fitting that you should do so! If the Reverends Canki and Sonadanda go to visit the ascetic Gotama, their reputation will decrease and that of the ascetic Gotama will increase. This being so, it is not right that you should visit the ascetic Gotama, but rather the ascetic Gotama should visit them."
Thereupon, those brahmins pointed out 10 reasons why Canki should not go to meet the Buddha and why it was more proper for the Buddha to come and meet Canki. However, Canki was not ready to accept their points. He responded with 20 points as to why he should go. (According to the Sonadanda Sutta of the Digha Nikāya, when the 500 brahmins pointed out ten causes why Sonadanda should not go to the Buddha, Sonadanda pointed out 30 causes to show that it was more appropriate to him to go and meet the Buddha). As these points are interesting in understanding how people came to respect the Buddha in different ways, let us consider them in more depth from the Canki Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. Canki said:
“Now, sirs, hear from me why it is proper for me to go to see Master Gotama, and why it is not proper for Master Gotama to come to see me. Sirs, the recluse Gotama is well born on both sides, of pure maternal and paternal descent seven generations back, unassailable and impeccable in respect of birth. Since this is so, sirs, it is not proper for Master Gotama to come to see me; rather, it is proper for me to go to see Master Gotama.
“Sirs, the recluse Gotama went forth, abandoning much gold and bullion stored away in vaults and in lofts. Sirs, the recluse Gotama went forth from the home life into homelessness while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life. Sirs, the recluse Gotama shaved off his hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness though his mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces.
“Sirs, the recluse Gotama is handsome, comely, and graceful, possessing supreme beauty of complexion, with sublime beauty and sublime presence, remarkable to behold. Sirs, the recluse Gotama is virtuous, with noble virtue, with wholesome virtue, possessing wholesome virtue. Sirs, the recluse Gotama is a good speaker with a good delivery; he speaks words that are courteous, distinct, flawless, and communicate the meaning. Sirs, the recluse Gotama is a teacher of the teachers of many. Sirs, the recluse Gotama is free from sensual lust and without personal vanity. Sirs, the recluse Gotama holds the doctrine of the moral efficacy of action, the doctrine of the moral efficacy of deeds; he does not seek any harm for the line of brahmins. Sirs, the recluse Gotama went forth from an aristocratic family, from one of the original noble families. Sirs, the recluse Gotama went forth from a rich family, from a family of great wealth and great possessions.
“Sirs, people come from remote kingdoms and remote districts to question the recluse Gotama. Sirs, many thousands of deities have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama. Sirs, a good report of the recluse Gotama has been spread to this effect: ‘That Blessed One is accomplished, fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened, blessed.’ Sirs, the recluse Gotama possesses the thirty-two marks of a Great Man.
“Sirs, King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha and his wife and children have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama. Sirs, King Pasenadi of Kosala and his wife and children have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama. Sirs, the brahmin Pokkharasāti and his wife and children have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama. Sirs, the recluse Gotama has arrived at Opasāda and is living at Opasāda in the Gods’ Grove, the Sāla-tree Grove to the north of Opasāda.
“Now, any recluses or brahmins that come to our town are our guests, and guests should be honored, respected, revered, and venerated by us. Since the recluse Gotama has arrived at Opasāda, he is our guest, and as our guest should be honored, respected, revered, and venerated by us. Since this is so, sirs, it is not proper for Master Gotama to come to see me; rather, it is proper for me to go to see Master Gotama.
“Sirs, this much is the praise of Master Gotama that I have learned, but the praise of Master Gotama is not limited to that, for the praise of Master Gotama is immeasurable. Since Master Gotama possesses each one of these factors, it is not proper for him to come to see me; rather, it is proper for me to go to see Master Gotama. Therefore, sirs, let all of us go to see the recluse Gotama.”
Dandapāni, the Stubborn Sākyan
One day, a stubborn sākyan named Dandapāni came to the Buddha and asked him what does he teach? Then the Buddha said, “Friend, I assert and proclaim in such a way that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world - with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmas, in this generation with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and its people; in such a way that perceptions no more underlie that brahmin who abides detached from sensual pleasures, without perplexity, shorn of worry, free from craving for any kind of being.”
When this was said, Danapāni shook his head, wagged his tongue, and raised his eyebrows until his forehead was puckered in three lines. Then, he departed, leaning on his stick. This is how some arrogant or stubborn persons even from his same clan treated the Buddha. But the Buddha was undaunted, like the earth, like someone firm as a high pillar and as pure as a deep pool free from mud.
So, we find many instances from the early discourses in which some of the contemporaries of the Buddha treated him as an unparalleled Master while others ill-treated him.
As is clear from the discourses, most people of the day who listened to the Buddha expressed their gladness as follows after hearing him teaching: “Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent, Master Gotama! Master Gotama has made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as though he were turning upright what had been over thrown, revealing what was hidden, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the dark for those with eyesight to see forms. I go to Master Gotama for refuge and to the Dhamma and to the Sangha of bhikkhus. From today let Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge for life.”
On the other hand, there were those who disdained him and his teachings. We may recall how the brahmin Aggika Bhāradvāja reprimanded the Buddha, saying: "Stay there, you shaveling, stay there you wretched monk, stay there you outcast." And how Alawaka, a devil-like person, said," I will ask you a question, recluse. If you can't answer me, I will possess your mind or rip open your heart or, grabbing you by the feet, hurl you across the Ganges. "
Yet so many who came to the Buddha with an open heart and encountered him became a disciple or ardent follower. That was the wonderful and marvelous nature of the Buddha. This is why in the Cula Hatthipadopama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya the Brahmin Jānussoni says:
“Sir, I have seen here certain learned nobles who were clever, knowledgeable about the doctrines of others, as sharp as hair-splitting marksmen; they wander about, as it were, demolishing the views of others with their sharp wits. When they hear: ‘The recluse Gotama will visit such and such a village or town,’ they formulate a question thus: ‘We will go to the recluse Gotama and ask him this question. If he is asked like this, he will answer like this, and so we will refute his doctrine in this way; and if he is asked like that, he will answer like that, and so we will refute his doctrine in that way.’ They then go to the recluse Gotama, and the recluse Gotama instructs, urges, rouses, and gladdens them with a talk on the Dhamma. After they have been instructed, urged, roused, and gladdened by the recluse Gotama with a talk on the Dhamma, they do not so much as ask him the question, so how should they refute his doctrine? In actual fact, they become his disciples. When I saw this first footprint of the recluse Gotama, I came to the conclusion: ‘The Blessed One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed by the Blessed One, the Sangha is practicing the good way.’
“Again, I have seen certain learned brahmins … learned householders … learned recluses … In actual fact, they ask the recluse Gotama to allow them to go forth from the home life into homelessness, and he gives them the going forth. Not long after they have gone forth, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent, and resolute, by realizing for themselves with direct knowledge they here and now enter upon and abide in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. They say thus: ‘We were very nearly lost, we very nearly perished, for formerly we claimed that we were recluses though we were not really recluses; we claimed that we were brahmins, though we were not really brahmins; we claimed that we were arahants, though we were not really arahants. But now we are recluses, now we are brahmins, now we are arahants.’
“When I saw these four footprints of the recluse Gotama, I came to the conclusion: ‘The Blessed One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed by the Blessed One, the Sangha is practicing the good way."
Sutta Nipata, Chapter II. Sutta No. 1. Group of Discourses. K.R. Norman, PTS. 1995.
Dhammapada, Verse No. 81. Translated by Venerable Sri Acharya Buddharakkhita, Buddha Vacana Trust, Maha Bodhi Society, Bangalore, India.1986.
Canki Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No. 95. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Dhammapada, Verse No. 227.
Brahmayu Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. Sutta No. 91. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Vasettha Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. Sutta No. 98. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Upali Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. Sutta No. 56.Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Ambattaha Sutta, Digha Nikaya. Sutta No.3. Translation by Maurice Walshe. Wisdom Publications. 1995.
Canki Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. Sutta No. 95. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Madhupindika Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. Sutta No. 19. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Aggivaccagotta Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No. 72. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
Sutta Nipata, Chapter I, Sutta No. 7. Group of Discourses. K.R. Norman, PTS. 1995.
Samyutta Nikaya, Chapter 10, Sutta No. 12. Connected Discourses. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. 2000.
Cula Hattipadopama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. Sutta No. 27. Translated by Bhikkhu Nayamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications. Third Edition. 2005.
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