Tearing Up the Planks: The Tragedy of Ajatasattu (2)

“I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe)

Is it possible, venerable sir, to point out any fruit of recluseship that is visible here and now? Ajatasattu’s question can be paraphrased: How is the life of a homeless mendicant good for anyone? The phrase visible here and now suggests that he is not interested in present mortification that leads to a better afterlife, whether in heaven or in a subsequent lifetime; nor is he interested in purgatorial affliction that results eventually in final liberation from suffering. He is not a mystic, and does not believe in a theology of postponed promise. After all, he takes pride in being a strong man of action who accomplishes his aims with  efficient vigor, and who already holds kingdoms in the palm of his hand; he has no need to hope for future goods. His focus is thus entirely on present effects that are evident to the senses. Perceiving this, the Buddha avoids philosophical discussion of the nature of the self or of causation, and concentrates instead on laying out a clear path of practice that can make sense to the king as a better, happier state than the one he enjoys now.
The exposition involves a standard detailed itemization of the the elements of moral discipline, the practices of mindfulness and contentment, the cultivation of higher contemplative states and various forms of wisdom. The same description occurs verbatim in other Suttas, usually in response to a questioner who is asking about the bhikkhu’s path; it functions as a memorizable “map” of Buddhist practice, by which we can see where we are and where we need to go, but which also gives reassurances that at any place on the map there are specific tasks and attainments. Other Suttas go into these specific tasks in more detail, but for a practitioner the map is useful as a guide to the whole.

At each stage the Buddha is careful to express what it feels like to accomplish a step on the path. For example,

“Great king, the bhikkhu who is thus possessed of moral discipline sees no danger anywhere in regard to his restraint by moral discipline. Just as a head-anointed noble warrior who has defeated his enemies sees no danger anywhere from his enemies, so the bhikkhu who is thus possessed of moral discipline sees no danger anywhere in regard to his restraint by moral discipline. Endowed with this noble aggregate of moral discipline, he experiences within himself a blameless happiness.”

The bhikkhu is confident of having nothing to fear, either from others or from himself: Endowed with this noble restraint of the sense faculties, he experiences within himself an unblemished happiness. A happiness that is both blameless and unblemished is already far beyond the king’s present state of sensual enjoyment, which is shaken and undermined by guilt and anxiety. Nonetheless, the Buddha begins with a portrait of mastery over one’s own heart and mind because he knows that the king can imagine this and be moved by it. The point is that what the bhikkhu experiences is happiness, not some subtle spiritual state.

The Buddha goes on to say that the bhikkhu is content. This word, to modern people who live for stimulation and excitement, seems to be a fairly mild adjective connoting a mild, bovine quietude; but in fact what is meant by contentment in ancient texts is the powerful self-sufficiency of a truly independent spirit, who craves nothing more than what he already has.

“And how, great king, is the bhikkhu content? Herein, great king, a bhikkhu is content with robes to protect his body and almsfood to sustain his belly; wherever he goes he sets out taking only (his requisites) along with him. Just as a bird, wherever it goes, flies with its wings as its only burden, in the same way a bhikkhu is content with robes to protect his body and almsfood to sustain his belly; wherever he goes he sets out taking only (his requisites) along with him. In this way, great king, the bhikkhu is content.”

The bhikkhu who has achieved this is free to work without distraction on uprooting all the hindrances to his progress — desires, ill-will and hatred, sloth and torpor, worry, and doubt. When these have been conquered, the bhikkhu will feel the joy of freedom:

“Again, great king, suppose a man were locked up in a prison. After some time he would be released from prison, safe and secure, with no loss of his possessions. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.”

“When he sees that these five hindrances have been abandoned within himself, gladness arises. When he is gladdened, rapture arises. When his mind is filled with rapture, his body becomes tranquil; tranquil in body, he experiences happiness; being happy, his mind becomes concentrated.”

The Buddha emphasizes body: these emotions are felt intensely with one’s whole being, and are not just attenuated spiritual pleasures. He speaks as one who himself has experienced all of this. The various terms for happy feelings — gladness, joy, rapture, tranquility, happiness — are crude attempts to translate words that in Pali denote exact emotional differentiations. Perhaps in English there are far fewer discriminations between forms and stages of happiness.

After working on his character, the bhikkhu is now more receptive to the joys of higher spiritual states (jhanas), for each one of which the Buddha gives a beautiful image. For example:

“Great king, suppose a skilled bath attendant or his apprentice were to pour soap-powder into a metal basin, sprinkle it with water, and knead it into a ball, so that the ball of soap-powder be pervaded by moisture, encompassed by moisture, suffused with moisture inside and out, yet would not trickle. In the same way, great king, the bhikkhu drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion, so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this rapture and happiness.”

“Great king, suppose in a lotus pond there were blue, white, or red lotuses that have been born in the water, grow in the water, and never rise up above the water, but flourish immersed in the water. From their tips to their roots they would be drenched, steeped, saturated, and suffused with cool water, so that there would be no part of those lotuses not suffused with cool water. In the same way, great king, the bhikkhu drenches, steeps, saturates and suffuses his body with the happiness free from rapture, so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this happiness. This too, great king, is a visible fruit of recluseship more excellent and sublime than the previous ones.”

Again, the Buddha emphasizes the body. His path is not one that despises or mortifies the body for the sake of “higher” attainments; indeed, everything we do on this path we do in and with our bodies, and any transformation we experience will also suffuse our bodies. The king has asked for a picture of benefits visible here and now, and the Buddha is assuring him that these benefits are felt powerfully and immediately in every cell and along every vein, like electricity.

The description of the bhikkhu’s life culminates in an image of contemplative lucidity. After years of practice, we are able to see ourselves, to look into our lives as we would look into pristine waters:

“Great king, suppose in a mountain glen there were a lake with clear water, limpid and unsullied. A man with keen sight, standing on the bank, would see oyster-shells, sand and pebbles, and shoals of fish moving about and keeping still. He would think to himself: ‘This is a lake with clear water, limpid and unsullied, and there within it are oyster-shells, sand and pebbles, and shoals of fish moving about and keeping still.’

“In the same way, great king, when his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright …. the bhikkhu directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the destruction of the cankers. He understands as it really is: ‘This is suffering’ … He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is nothing further beyond this.’ This too, great king, is a visible fruit of recluseship more excellent and sublime than the previous ones. And, great king, there is no other fruit of recluseship higher or more sublime than this one.”

This is life, this is suffering, this is what it is to be done with it all. It is the perspective at the end of medieval epic poems — Boccaccio’s Teseida, Chaucer’s Troilus and Knight’s Tale — when the risen spirit of the dead warrior looks down from the heaens, sees the earth as a winnowing floor, and laughs in his freedom. But how much of this can Ajatasattu possibly understand — he who now is so sunken in inner turmoil that an assembly of silent monks can fill him with terror? To this king who has rejected shortcuts and easy absolutions from other gurus, the Buddha has painted an attractive and convincing path of hard work, with feasible progressions: there is a hope of peace. Ajatasattu is moved to an exclamation of appreciation and asks to be accepted as a lay-student of the Buddha, as others have done in numerous Suttas — but immediately after this, he makes an extraordinary confession:

“Venerable sir, a transgression overcame me. I was so foolish, so deluded, so unskilful that for the sake of rulership I took the life of my own father, a righteous man and a righteous king. Let the Exalted One acknowledge my transgression as a transgression for the sake of my restraint in the future.”

Why does he suddenly come out with this now? Everyone in his court must already suspect that something like this happened, and know from personal experience that Ajatasattu is capable of a crime of this magnitude, but until the deed rises out of the purblind murk of rumor and finds expression in words, neither the king nor his people can have any closure with the past and no truth on which to build any future thought or action. He needs to come clear. The Buddha’s sketch of the path, as it reaches its climactic description of pellucid awareness of one’s own life and its true nature, appears to have brought Ajatasattu to a moment in which he is able to perceive himself without obscuration — and then the truth is free to bubble up. It could be that in his previous visits to the other gurus he was looking for someone worthy of hearing the truth, because he already knew that clear utterance would be the beginning of his own freedom; but I think it more probable that his confession is a spontaneous, unpremeditated upsurge of the truth, catalyzed by an encounter with a sage who will not blow him off or lie to him.

“Indeed, great king, a transgression overcame you. You were so foolish, so deluded, so unskilful that for the sake of rulership you took the life of your father, a righteous man and a righteous king. But since you have seen your transgression as a transgression and make amends for it according to the Dhamma, we acknowledge it. For, great king, this is growth in the discipline of the Noble One: that a person sees his transgression as a transgression, makes amends for it according to the Dhamma, and achieves restraint in the future.”

The Buddha’s response is sincere, matter of fact, and realistic: the confession is a start, but it has to be backed up with “making amends” and future restraint. It is not in any sense a resolution to anything, since the consequences of past actions — both external and internal — will continue to reverberate, and there is no supernatural power that can annul the causal chains: we live with our actions, and only when we own them is there any hope of working them out. Ajatasattu is obviously an intelligent man with a streak of noble impulse, but his soul is so perturbed by regrets and fears from all his acts of blood that it is hard to imagine that his one glimpse of the light will not quickly be swallowed up again in the vast morass of his inner turmoil and political preoccupations, to exist for him only as a revered memory. His restlessness is so deep and inveterate that he cannot abide in his new state for more than five minutes:

When this was said, King Ajātasattu said to the Exalted One: “Now, venerable sir, we must go. We have many tasks and duties.”
   “Do whatever seems fit, great king.”  
   Then King Ajātasattu rejoiced in the word of the Exalted One and thanked him for it. Rising from his seat, he paid homage to the Exalted One, circumambulated him, and departed.

Or to paraphrase with modern language: “That was great. Sorry, got to go.” While it is true that kings have many heavy duties and urgent tasks, this statement comes too quickly after the confession and sounds like a desire for escape. Moral and spiritual responsibility can be intensely intimidating, and the life of political bustling and jostling will always give welcome refuge and distraction from uncomfortable thoughts. The Buddha’s terse response places responsibility firmly in the king’s hands: no one but Ajatasattu himself can decide what he will do next.

Readers of the Suttas see Ajatasattu again at the end of the Buddha’s life hatching plans to invade his neighbors, and even though he expresses reverence towards the Buddha it seems that he never again goes to the Buddha or any of his disciples for instruction. Has he given up hope for himself, being able to recognize the greater path but despairing of his ability to walk it? We, and the writers of the discourses, know that he was murdered by his own son, whose peace of mind he cared so much about — perhaps because he feared the patricide that he himself was model for. He knew that in murdering his own father he had crossed over into a hungry realm in which no natural moral inhibition was respected. Moreover, being king and therefore open to the suspicions of everyone, he had dragged his entire kingdom over that invisible line, and now no one was safe and nothing sacred. Ajatasattu’s patricide is symbolic of the primal crime in which the political realm is severed from natural morality. Once we find ourselves caught in that cycle — not as victims, but as blind actors — it is very difficult to escape, and the cycle will bite us in the face or in the back. Even if we are lucky enough to get away with our deeds on practical terms, in our hearts we will feel agitations of remorse and anxiety; the cycle gnaws at our innards and eats our sleep.

The Buddha, with clarity and pity, perceives that Ajatasattu cannot attain the peace he seeks:

Soon after King Ajātasattu had left, the Exalted One addressed the bhikkhus: “This king, bhikkhus, has ruined himself; he has injured himself. Bhikkhus, if this king had not taken the life of his father, a righteous man and a righteous king, then in this very seat there would have arisen in him the dust-free, stainless eye of Dhamma.”

Or in Maurice Walshe’s translation: “The king is done for, his fate is sealed…”  There is no way for someone who has murdered his father for the throne to live a peaceful, happy human life; the deed itself expresses the character of a person who has already wandered beyond the pale. Even if that person were capable of seeing the trouble he is in as well as a path out of it, the past would hold him with an iron grip and dig iron nails into his heart. According to an old Vietnamese proverb, you may have succeeded in reaching the bottom of the mountain safely, but the rocks you dislodged will continue to hit you in the back for a while. The danger stops only when all the rocks you have loosened find a resting place.

If there is an afterlife or several afterlives to continue working off crimes and paying off moral debts, there will be hope for Ajatasattu, and the Buddha’s final evaluation implies not in this life but a subsequent one. But if there is no afterlife, then Ajatasattu’s plight is tragic: he is stuck in a cycle that he can recognize as horrible, and he can see an alternative to the horror — but he is unable to get unstuck and will die stuck. Thus in midlife he has given birth in himself to a yearning he will never fulfill. Against this we might argue that he always has a choice, and can choose to leave the cycle now and start making amends; he just doesn’t want to, because on a deeper level he loves his vomit and will always crawl back to it. This kind of choice is only theoretical — like a drug addict’s theoretical ability to quit. The addiction itself is constituted, among other things, of a multitude of choices, and one new choice will not counteract the accumulated force of thousands. Read in this way, the discourse might still have some positive lessons: there is a path, it is good and beautiful, we can recognize it as such even from the midst of our mires, and if we understand the suffering of Ajatasattu we will have a better chance of not becoming him. The poetic effect of this discourse is more complex, because Ajatasattu’s conversation with the Buddha is in fact a conversation between two sides of our own soul, one lost and one saved. It is both terrible and sublime that the lost soul is still capable of joy and homage when, in its perdition, it meets its saved twin.


2 thoughts on “Tearing Up the Planks: The Tragedy of Ajatasattu (2)

  1. Krishnan,
    I like the final conclusion, which clarified an issue not directly raised in the dialectical discussion preceding it – the immutable law of karma within the world and realm of samsara.

    • It’s an interesting dialogue for that reason. Karma can be felt as the underlying concern from the beginning, and the gurus he visits pick up on that at once — like seeing a pressure cooker with valve screwed on tight. Nowadays in India there is a too reafy expectation thay a guru can “take” one’s karma and so hasten liberation, but no ancient text contains that possibility. It must be a Christian influence.

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