Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fairy and Monk: The Thief of Scent (sutra)

Andrew Olendzki, Ven. Thanissaro, Gandhatthena Sutta (SN 9.14) edited by Wisdom Quarterly

Thus have I heard. On one occasion a certain Buddhist monk was dwelling among the Kosalans in a forest thicket. At that time, after his meal on returning from alms gathering, he went to a lotus pond and [absentmindedly] sniffed a fragrant red lotus.
Then the deva (woodland fairy) inhabiting the forest thicket, feeling sympathy for the monk, desiring his benefit, desiring to bring him to his senses, approached him, and addressed him in verse:
[Deva:] You sniff this water-born flower which has not been given to you. This, dear sir, is a factor of stealing. You are a thief of a scent.
[Monk:] I do not take, do not damage. I sniff the lotus from a distance. So why do you call me a 'thief of a scent'? One who digs up the stalks or damages flowers, one of such ruthless behavior, why not say it of him? 
[Deva:] A person ruthless and grasping, smeared like a diaper, to him I have nothing to say. It is you to whom I would speak. To a person unblemished, constantly searching for purity, even a hair-tip's worth of evil seems as large as a cloud.

[Monk:] Yes, yakkha, you understand me and you show me sympathy. Yakkha, warn me again whenever again you see something like this. 

[Deva:] I neither depend on you for my living nor am I your hireling. You, monk, you yourself should know how to go to the good destination.

The monk, chastened by the deva, came to his senses.

Stealing Scent
ALTERNATE TRANSLATION: Andrew Olendzki (SN 9.14), Gandhatthena Sutta
[Deva:] This lotus blossom you sniff,
Though it's not been offered to you,
Is thus something that's been stolen.
You, sir, are a stealer of scents!

[Ascetic:] But I take not nor break;
I sniff the flower from afar.
So really what reason have you
To call me a 'stealer of scents'?
One who uproots them by the stalk
And consumes the pale lotuses,
The one engaged in such cruel work,
Why not say that of him? 
Classic fairy (L. R. Falero, 1888)
[Deva:] A person ruthless and cruel,
Defiled like a worker's garment,
To that person my words would mean nothing.
But it's fitting I speak to you
For an unblemished person, who's
Always pursuing purity,
Even a hair-tip of evil
Seems to such a one as large as a cloud. 
[Ascetic:] Truly, O nature spirit, you know me
And show concern for my welfare.
Do please, O spirit, speak again
Whenever you see such a thing.

[Deva:] I do not live to serve you
Nor will I do your work for you.
You should know for yourself, O monk,
How to go along the good path.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: This lively exchange between a forest-dwelling wandering ascetic and a benevolent woodland spirit is filled with poetic movement and gives us a glimpse of the care with which some people practiced toward enlightenment in the time of the Buddha. Since the working definition of "stealing" was "taking what has not been given," the deva is correct -- in the very strictest sense. Notice how the Buddhist monk reacts at first -- defensive, denying that he is doing anything wrong. Then he tries to deflect blame, shifting it to others who do even worse. After recognizing a veiled compliment, he finally realizes that the deva is trying to help him, at which point he encourages further help. But the deva has been put off and ends the exchange abruptly, revealing an intriguing and capricious character [characteristic of fairies in legends from around the world] who is willing to help but only on its own terms. This is a role often played by woodland spirits and other minor fairies in the Pali texts.

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