Tuesday March 20, 2007

Under the Bodhi Tree

There is a curious little story from the Ariyapariyesana Sutta that has long appealed to me, a story concerning the ascetic Upaka. Upaka was apparently the first person that the Buddha met after his awakening and, if the commentaries are to be believed (which, I rather suspect, they are not), the only reason that the Buddha walked from the Bodhi Tree to Sarnath, the place of what became his first sermon, and chose not to fly as Buddhas are apparently accustomed to do, was to meet this particular character along the way. Leaving on one side such fanciful stuff about flying, the story in the Pali Canon is a strange and fascinating one. It goes like this (thanks, as ever, to Access to Insight for their translation).

Then, having stayed at Uruvela as long as I liked, I set out to wander by stages to Varanasi. Upaka the Ajivaka saw me on the road between Gaya and the (place of) Awakening, and on seeing me said to me, “Clear, my friend, are your faculties. Pure your complexion, and bright. On whose account have you gone forth? Who is your teacher? In whose Dhamma do you delight?”
When this was said, I replied to Upaka the Ajivaka in verses:
all-knowing am I,
with regard to all things unadhering.
released in the ending of craving:
having fully known on my own,
to whom should I point as my teacher?
I have no teacher,
and one like me can’t be found.
In the world with its devas,
I have no counterpart.
For I am an arahant in the world;
I, the unexcelled teacher.
I, alone, am rightly self-awakened.
Cooled am I,unbound.
To set rolling the wheel of Dhamma
I go to the city of Kasi.
In a world become blind,
I beat the drum of the Deathless.
When this was said, Upaka said, “May it be so, my friend,” and — shaking his head, taking a side-road — he left.

I have been told this story many times in various Buddhist contexts, and on each occasion it has been presented to me that Upaka was clearly a dullard and a fool. Ha! The ignoramus didn’t recognise the Buddha! What kind of a halfwit noggin was he?

But, taking the story as a story and not worrying about matters of historicity, my sympathy lies firmly with Upaka. After all, what would you do? You are wandering down the street and you see somebody who seems to be fairly happy. Radiant, even. And because you are a curious fellow, you ask them why they are looking so perky. In response they let fly the most preposterous, self-inflated speech imaginable. What do you do? Well, you smile, shake your head, and leave by a side-road. I can’t help wondering what on earth our friend Siddhartha was doing, spouting forth this kind of stuff. Upaka, to my mind, in his response to this extravagant self-adulation was remarkably polite and restrained.

So Upaka went his way, and the newly awakened Buddha went his. And at length the Buddha arrived at the deer park near Sarnath where his former five companions were staying. There he took a somewhat modified approach to teaching. This time he did not blast them with great hymns of self-praise. Instead, the texts suggest, the initial process of teaching the dharma that he had discovered was much more painstaking. “I would teach two monks while three went for alms, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round,” the Buddha is quoted as saying. “Then I would teach three monks while two went for alms, and we six lived off what the two brought back from their alms round.” It suggests a quieter, less self-important style of teaching, one rooted in a more genuine conversation, a teaching by dialogue and discussion that took place over days on end during which the six of them, in grappling with this difficult act of communication, developed their own routines and lived together as a community. And, through this approach, little by little his companions began to understand the subtlety of the doctrine that he was putting forward. It was disciple Kondañña who got the point first, and we can perhaps hear relief as well as joy when, in the texts, the Buddha cried out “Kondañña knows! Kondañña knows!”

The orthodox reading of the story of Upaka paints the ascetic as a fool, but there is another way of seeing it. Two things are clear. Firstly, the Buddha’s first attempt at communication is an unmitigated failure. This itself is an astonishing thing to find in the recorded accounts. But what is also interesting is that the Buddha does not try this strategy again. It is only when he meets with some former friends and companions, when he sits down with them, speaks with them, puts on one side all the bluster and patiently finds ways of communicating the subtlety which he has realised, over days and perhaps weeks, that he manages to get the point across at all. And seen in this light, I find this one of the loveliest stories of all in the Pali texts.

# · Craig

Good story. I like to think that Upaka, on hearing the Buddha’s boasts, thought “Oh, another Buddha! One born every minute”. In other words he’s reminding us that Buddhahood, special as it might be, is not the exclusive preserve of Mr. Gautama, but achievable by all. It also reminds us not to invest anything in a person simply because of their accompishments.

# · Sam

“Firstly, the Buddha’s first attempt at communication is an unmitigated failure.”

Whoa! That’s a brave comment to make. I just read the Wikipedia entry for the Pali Canon which says:

“The Canon is traditionally described by the Theravada as the Word of the Buddha (Buddhavacana), though this is obviously not intended in a literal sense, since it includes teachings by disciples.[5]”

So is it not possible that the “Buddha’s” verses are simply intended, in a poetic way, to once again highlight the unique Enlightenment of the Buddha, his all-vanquishing, all-knowingness. It’s just a story intended to make a point.

Enjoying your blogging as always!!

# · Peter Clothier

Very happy to have found your blog! I have only recently switched from one called The Bush Diaires to a new (and better!) one called The Buddha Diaires, but I think we have something of the same approach. I loved this story of Upaka. I plan to check it out with the teacher who regularly visits our sangha, Thanissaro Bikkhu. It would be interesting to find out why he thinks the Buddha made this bloviated first attempt to make his teaching known.

# · Will

Ah, yes, Sam… You are no doubt right that this is a rash claim. And I am sure that most orthodox commentators would disagree with me. The argument is usually that the Buddha, being a Buddha and all, is incapable of miscommunication, or of otherwise screwing up. But I’m not so sure.

On the one hand we can make an a priori assertion about the perfection of the Buddha and read the canon in this light. But this kind of reading is in danger of merely telling us what we already think we know. Or we can say, “Hey, look, here’s a story about some folks who were ambling around ancient India. What seems to be going on?”

Hello, Peter, too. I’d be interested to hear what Thanissaro thinks of this story. And I’ll check out your blog.

All the best,


# · Dharmavidya

There is an additional interesting point: This story was told by the Buddha. What I think this story illustrates is that the Buddha was capable of telling a story against himself. Whatever the later tradition may have made of it in its attempt to adulate him in every way, this seems to me to be an illustration of the fact that the Buddha could look back on his earlier life with a wry grin.

# · Will

Good point, Dharmavidya!
All the best,

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

I also enjoyed this story. On my ordination course we acted out the Ariyapariyesana Sutta as part of our Dharma Day celebrations (with yours truly directing). I recall the part of Upaka being played by Samudraghosa. He portrayed Upaka as an intelligent sceptic rather than a fool.

However I’m not sure that we can be sure that the Buddha told this story. The words are put into the Buddha’s mouth and, so I’m told, he is describing having won his victory in terms used by the Ajivaka sect. I wonder if this story might not have originated as a polemic against the Ajivakas and been misinterpreted by the later redactors of the Canon (it’s been known to happen). Against this we know that the biographical parts of the sutta are less complex and ornate (no wife and kids for a start!), and are therefore likely to be earlier.

I can think of another time when the Buddha gets it wrong in communication which is the Piyajatika Sutta (MN 87). A man who has lost his child, is roaming the street distraught. The Buddha is less than compassionate it seems and just says (paraphrasing): “well that’s what it’s like when you love someone, eventually they break your heart, so what are you complaining about?” The man is totally unmoved by this, and worse he falls in with some gamblers who offer him solace, but not Dharma. Of course the Buddha was right, but the delivery was almost designed to bounce off the suffering man.


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