The Pali Discourses of the Buddha are, in general, strikingly barren of literary beauty and poetic subtlety. The language tends to be plodding, methodical, dry, uniform, and repetitive — as if the writers of this vast body of work had deliberately vowed to reject all possibility of verbal pleasure and seduction, presenting the student instead with something that often feels like a relentless instruction manual. The foundational books of other traditions abound with passages of poetic richness: for example, the Upanishads, the Bible, Confucius and Mencius, and the Daoists. Charismatic teachers owe much of their attraction and influence to a gift for memorable expression; it is unlikely that the Buddha would have attracted such a large and devoted following if his characteristic manner of speaking were as stern, abstract, and desiccated as it is portrayed in the Pali Canon. The writers of the Suttas ruthlessly defoliated the words of the Buddha of all grace and charm, and created a sort of anti-literature that has a strange power to delight and shock even through its austere avoidance of stylistic beautification and emotional appeals. As with the 17th century Haiku writings, the Buddha’s discourses are beautiful because they strenuously shun the beautiful — just as deserts are beautiful because they are deserts. Among the Suttas, however, there are two remarkable literary masterpieces: “Fruits of the Homeless Life,” which is almost a Greek tragedy; and “On Ratthapala,” which is almost a dark comedy of manners. In this essay and the next I’ll be discussing “On Ratthapala.”
The Sutta falls into two halves, of which the first gives the rich dramatic context to the second, where ostensibly the main teaching occurs. I’ll begin with the “teaching” half and then swing back to the narration of the first half to see how it both enlivens and deepens the insights of the second.
The young disciple Ratthapala went to King Koravya’s Migācīra garden and sat down at the root of a tree for the day’s abiding. This could mean that he intends to meditate, or that he is planning to spend the rest of the day there without anything in particular to do, since such an advanced practitioner is in no need to distraction or busy-work. When news gets out that he is there, the king of the land puts an immediate stop to his afternoon’s entertainments and decides to visit the holy man. He takes his entire court with him — like a wealthy CEO of a great company flying to a spiritual retreat in his private jet and bringing with him all the accessories of status and luxury. Ratthapala at once sees that the visit is a demonstration of power, and gently puts the king in his place:
King Koravya had a number of state carriages prepared, and mounting one of them, accompanied by the other carriages, he drove out from Thullakoṭṭhita with the full pomp of royalty to see the venerable Raṭṭhapāla. He drove thus as far as the road was passable for carriages, and then he dismounted from his carriage and went forward on foot with a following of the most eminent officials to where the venerable Raṭṭhapāla was. He exchanged greetings with the venerable Raṭṭhapāla, and when this courteous and amiable talk was finished, he stood at one side and said:
“Here is an elephant rug. Let Master Raṭṭhapāla be seated on it.”
“There is no need, great king. Sit down. I am sitting on my own mat.”
As anyone who has had dealings with strong-willed successful people will instantly recognize , the king’s offer of a luxury rug is not in fact a courtesy, but an imposition masquerading as a courtesy — an attempt to start the discussion on his own terms and to have Ratthapala demonstrate to everyone present who the master is here. Ratthapala quietly refuses the offer, orders the king to sit, and suggests that he needs nothing that the king can offer. It turns out that the king does not have a question concerning his own plight, but has come to marvel at the oddity of a healthy young nobleman becoming a mendicant:
““Master Raṭṭhapāla, there are four kinds of loss. Because they have undergone these four kinds of loss, some people here shave off their hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and go forth from the home life into homelessness. What are the four? They are loss through ageing, loss through sickness, loss of wealth, and loss of relatives…What has he known or seen or heard that he has gone forth from the home life into homelessness?”
In a society where it is customary only for those who are close to the end of their lives to renounce everything and take to wandering, this is a reasonable question. Why else would a sane person to choose to be homeless? It is a natural choice in the face of losing everything that is dear to one — the ability to live and function for oneself and others, health, financial means, and close relationships, including friends. When these are all gone, then it makes sense to cast oneself out onto the mercy of the world; but when strength, health, wealth, and love are all still available, it makes no sense at all.
Ratthapala’s answer is simple and profound, the essence of what he has learned from the Buddha:
“Great king, there are four summaries of the Dhamma that have been taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened. Knowing and seeing and hearing them, I went forth from the home life into homelessness. What are the four?
(1) “‘Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away’: this is the first summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened. Knowing and seeing and hearing this, I went forth from the home life into homelessness.
(2) “‘Life in any world has no shelter and no protector’: this is the second summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees…
(3) “‘Life in any world has nothing of its own; one has to leave all and pass on’: this is the third summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees…
(4) “‘Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving’: this is the fourth summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees…”
It is important both to know and to see — that is, to experience for ourselves. When he explains these teachings in detail, Ratthapala will bring them down to earth by drawing the king’s attention to his own life. For example, with the first teaching, after the king has described the almost superhuman physical prowess of his youth —
“What do you think, great king? Are you now as strong in thighs and arms, as sturdy and as capable in battle?”
“No, Master Raṭṭhapāla. Now I am old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life, come to the last stage; my years have turned eighty. Sometimes I mean to put my foot here and I put my foot somewhere else.”
This is a simple but resonant image for all the effects of ageing, not least the perplexing disconnections between desires, thoughts, the body’s abilities, and physical location: Sometimes I mean to put my foot here and I put my foot somewhere else. When the king realizes the potent relevance to himself of this first teaching, he becomes enthusiastic about the accurate conciseness of the Buddha’s words, which seemed so abstract and general at first:
“It is wonderful, Master Raṭṭhapāla, it is marvellous how well that has been expressed by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened: ‘Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away.’ It is indeed so!”
At eighty, he can feel that the teaching is speaking directly to him. Nonetheless, for a king, how could the second teaching be true?
“Master Raṭṭhapāla, there exist in this court elephant troops and cavalry and chariot troops and infantry, which will serve to subdue any threats to us. Now Master Raṭṭhapāla said: ‘Life in any world has no shelter and no protector.’ How should the meaning of that statement be understood?”
We can substitute his terms with the terms that express our own accumulated securities: the mortgage and health insurance, the systems of defence and laws that guarantee our peace, the retirement plans and extra savings…The teacher then unobtrusively shifts the terms of the question away from material protections and towards a different kind of vulnerability:
“What do you think, great king? Do you have any chronic ailment?”
“I have a chronic wind ailment, Master Raṭṭhapāla. Sometimes my friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives, stand around me, thinking: ‘Now King Koravya is about to die, now King Koravya is about to die!’”
“What do you think, great king? Can you command your friends and companions, your kinsmen and relatives: ‘Come, my good friends and companions, my kinsmen and relatives. All of you present share this painful feeling so that I may feel less pain’? Or do you have to feel that pain yourself alone?”
“I cannot command my friends and companions, my kinsmen and relatives thus, Master Raṭṭhapāla. I have to feel that pain alone.”
At this point in the dialogue Ratthapala forces the king to confront the disagreeable but fundamental fact of our solitude: no one can fully understand what it is like to be us, no one can really feel our joys and sorrows with us, no one can participate in our experience and by so doing dilute our pain. What we suffer, we suffer alone — and no other person, not even in a small way, can live our lives for us. In our day to day social interactions it is easy to distract ourselves with the sweet balm of company, but in life’s profound crises we always know that we are alone — not physically, not socially, but alone in our experiencing. Other religions answer the aloneness with God, as in prayers or in Psalms, but in the world of the Buddha there is no transcendent solution to solitude. This may be one of the toughest sticking-points in the Buddha’s vision of life; most of us yearn so intensely for companionship, either of friends or of lovers or of a divine being, that a philosophical starting-point of utter aloneness seems impossibly bleak and repellent. How could our yearning for companionship be nothing more than craving after an illusion? It takes an unusually strong spirit to be able to swallow this and continue the work, or a spirit that sees with absolute clarity that the alternatives lead nowhere.
After reminding the king of ageing and solitude, Ratthapala then ties both threads together into an account of ineluctable dispossession, in which everything we have is left behind as we find ourselves impelled onwards in the rushing river made up of the antecedents and consequences of actions.
“What do you think, great king? You now enjoy yourself provided and endowed with the five cords of sensual pleasure, but will you be able to have it of the life to come: ‘Let me likewise enjoy myself provided and endowed with these same five cords of sensual pleasure’? Or will others take over this property, while you will have to pass on according to your actions?”
“I cannot have it thus of the life to come, Master Raṭṭhapāla. On the contrary, others will take over this property while I shall have to pass on according to my actions.”
On a physical level, this seems obvious: when we die, we have to say goodbye to everything and everyone, and nothing that we held to be “ours” can come with us. But this “everything” includes the contents of our consciousness, our perceptions, and our feelings; even these are not things that we can “possess” and take with us. Indeed, even the sense of “us” does not persist down this raging river.
What is left to us then but this present moment? Can we not be satisfied with what we have in the Now? Ratthapala engages this with a simple practical question, which the king to his credit answers honestly:
“Now Master Raṭṭhapāla said: ‘Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving.’ How should the meaning of that statement be understood?”
“What do you think, great king? Do you reign over the rich Kuru country?”
“Yes, Master Raṭṭhapāla, I do.”
“What do you think, great king? Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man came to you from the east and said: ‘Please know, great king, that I have come from the east, and there I saw a large country, powerful and rich, very populous and crowded with people. There are plenty of elephant troops there, plenty of cavalry, chariot troops and infantry; there is plenty of ivory there, and plenty of gold coins and bullion both unworked and worked, and plenty of women for wives. With your present forces you can conquer it. Conquer it then, great king.’ What would you do?”
“We would conquer it and reign over it, Master Raṭṭhapāla.”
The exchange is repeated verbatim with regard to the other three directions: even the king of the Kurus, who has everything we can imagine having and more, is not satisfied with his magnificent lot — and he admits it.
“Great king, it was on account of this that the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened, said: ‘Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving’; and when I knew and saw and heard this, I went forth from the home life into homelessness.”
Reading this, it is tempting for an ordinary person to wonder if only power-hungry egomaniacs are susceptible to this state of constant insatiability, but Ratthapala wants us to look into our own hearts and see for ourselves. For instance, I enjoy the variety of food I eat and have no shortage both of nutrition and of taste — but I am nonetheless always interested in new recipes and fascinated by new foods. I have hundreds of books at home and on my e-reader, and of those there may be a hundred I haven’t yet read staring me in the face every day — yet if I were to browse the shelves of a bookshop or scroll through the bargains on Amazon, I will almost certainly be adding at least one more book to my collection. The insatiability extends to far more than physical possessions, and a few minutes of self-examination will show that with our thoughts and experiences, our hobbies and employments, our friendships and romantic involvements, it is very hard to accept that we have enough. I know the dictionary definition of enough, but it is evident that I haven’t understood the meaning of the word. We each seem to have a hole in our heart that nothing is big enough to fill. To many religions, such a thought would be a tragic heresy — how could it be true that we have a yearning that cannot be satisfied? Or is this yearning infinite, such that it can be satisfied only by an infinite being? The infinite being therefore has to exist, otherwise we are doomed to ceaseless agitation and despair. However, Ratthapala spurns this consolation; he has recognized and accepted the truth of insatiable craving as a basic condition of life, just as ageing, flux, and solitude are. “Yearning for the infinite” is only a pretty euphemism for the suffering that comes from craving, and, seeing clearly that life is an agitation that cannot be stilled, he will have none of it.
King Koravya is obviously impressed by the young man’s austere strength of mind and mastery of desire; a powerful king can respect such nobluty of aspiration and unbending resolve. Ratthapala, on the other hand, does not present the king with difficult teachings about the nature of the soul and dependent origination, but instead gives him four handles that he can easily grasp — and that open doors to some very deep insights if the king should choose to contemplate them further. Ratthapala’s claim is not that these insights are the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, but that they are summaries, sketches, that need to be fleshed out and filled in by reflection on our own experience. They encapsulate our condition, and if we understand this condition we will find ourselves no longer able to stomach the normal run of things and unwilling to continue slowly drowning in the sea of dissatisfaction. Ratthapala seems to have understood all of this the first time he heard the Buddha, as a mere boy. What kind of person is this, who can hear so deeply the first time?
To answer this we have to turn to the first half of the sutta, which describes in bleak comic detail Ratthapala’s great battle against temptation.