Monday, December 20, 2010

The Buddha and his Brother in Space

Bhikkhuni Sudinna (Precious Tales) and Dharmachari Seven for Wisdom Quarterly
Greco-Buddhist bas relief of Nanda leaving his bride-to-be and the throne to become a monastic and follow the Buddha (British Museum).

A Trip to Paradise, like a Dicken's Carol*
Nanda, the Buddha's brother [both sons of King Suddhodana by separate mothers, who were sisters**], was overjoyed. He was to be crowned king of Kapilavatthu the next day. Moroever, he was getting married to his childhood love, Janapada Kalyani [the undisputed "beauty of the land"]. He was to move into a new palace.

All three events were to take place the following morning. He found himself daydreaming. Just then the Buddha and many monastics, who had finished their midday meal (dana) at the palace of King Suddhodana, rose up to go back to the temple.

Nanda as a groom and heir of the kingdom had much work to do. But just as he got up to pay his respects, the Buddha handed him his bowl. Nanda felt very proud and honored to carry the Buddha's bowl thinking he would walk him to the door.

The Buddha reached the stairs. And Nanda expected him to take back his bowl. But he didn't. So he walked respectfully and quietly behind him, and the other monks followed. The Buddha came to the bottom of the stairs. Nanda thought, now, certainly the Buddha will take the bowl. But he didn't. They continued through the courtyard toward the outer gate. And still Nanda followed silently, his head bowed.

Seeing Nanda among the Buddha's retinue, Janapada Kalyani came out onto the balcony. She was a glistening beauty, her wet hair loose and falling past her shoulders. She was still holding a comb as she noticed Nanda carrying the Buddha's bowl. She called out, "Dear Nanda, return to me quickly."

Nanda became uneasy and troubled, but he could not bring himself to say anything about it to the Buddha. He followed until they reached the monastery. Just as he was ready to set the bowl down and race back to Kalyani, the Buddha turned and saw him standing there with the bowl in his hands, so he gently asked: "Nanda, would you like to be ordained as a monk?"

Although Kalyani's words were still ringing in his ears, he could not bring himself to refuse Buddha's kind offer. He found himself answering, "Yes, venerable sir."

Nanda's hair was shaved. In place of his royal clothing, he was given ascetic robes. Yet within, the longing for gorgeous Kalyani and the pleasures and royal comforts he was about to inherit pricked him. Although he tried to behave like a monastic, he failed. He could neither meditate nor concentrate on learning the Dharma.

So he determined, "I'll leave this monastic life and return to the palace!" When the other monks heard this, they reported it to the Buddha.

The Buddha called for him and asked, "Nanda, is it true that you want to disrobe?" Nanda answered, "Yes, venerable sir." "Why?" the Buddha asked.

"Venerable sir," Nanda explained, "I accepted these robes because you asked me. Out of respect for you, I could not refuse them. But Janapada Kalyani's beautiful figure as she came out onto the balcony combing her wet hair and her inviting words, 'Dear Nanda, return to me quickly' are things I cannot get out of my mind. So I am returning to her and the palace to become ruler of the land."

Then out of great compassion the Buddha asked, "Nanda, do you think that Janapada Kalyani is beautiful?" Nanda immediately replied, "Yes, venerable sir! I have been in love with her all my life."

"Then you may be interested in seeing this," the Buddha said as he invited Nanda on a journey into space.

Nanda held the Buddha's robe, and by use of supernormal powers, immediately traveled over the Earth on the way to a deva world named Tavatimsa. Along the way, they passed a burned field where a lonesome female monkey with a burned nose, ears, and tail was sitting on a charred tree stump.

When they appeared in the Tavatimsa spaceport, Sakka, the chief commander there, was seated in a great command station. Impossibly beautiful maidens (heavenly "nymphs," devis, apsaras, gandharvis) were busily preparing and polishing a glimmering white "mansion" (platform or spacecraft).

In all his life Nanda had never seen or even imagined such beauty. He stood beside himself staring. But he managed to ask the maidens the name of the owner of the platform they were preparing. "Nanda," they answered.

"But Nanda lives on Earth," Nanda replied in astonishment. "Yes," the maidens smiled, "but after that he'll come here."

"Did you hear that?" Nanda asked the Buddha. "They say it's for me."

Out of great compassion, the Buddha asked: "Nanda, do think these maidens are beautiful?"

Nanda immediately replied, "Yes, venerable sir! I have been in love with them from the moment I saw them."

"What about Janapada Kalyani?" the Buddha asked.

"Sir," Nanda explained, "Janapada Kalyani can't compare to these beauties. She does not possess a fraction of the beauty they do. Why, compared to these maidens, Janapada Kalyani seems to me like that burned out monkey."

"Well," the Buddha replied, "if you wish to return to this world and have these maidens, I can tell you how to inherit them."

"How," Nanda exclaimed, "how?" "It is by the results of karma in practicing the Dharma and meditating." Nanda was ready to return to Earth and begin meditating and striving in earnest. He agreed to the bargain.

He took hold of the Buddha's robe, and they descended past the burned out field and into the bowels of the Earth. They came upon two subterranean monsters who were preparing to boil oil in a large cauldron over an open fire. Terrified, Nanda asked, "Friends, what are you doing?"

"What's it to you?" one snapped. The other answered, "If you must know, this is for Nanda!" Nanda trembled as he said, "But Nanda lives on Earth, and afterward he is to be reborn in the celestial port of Tavatimsa."

"Yes, but after that," they laughed, "he'll be coming here for all he's done as king, and we'll be waiting for him."

"Is there any way he can avoid it?" Nanda asked. "What's it to you?" they snapped.

"What is this place?" Nanda asked the Buddha. "Did you hear what they said?" The Buddha gently replied, "Come, Nanda."

As soon as they got back to the monastery, Nanda applied himself with great diligence, meditating and learning the Dharma. His fellow monks immediately noticed the change. They asked him what had happened. He began to tell them of his unearthly vision in space and the maidens he was promised he could win.

The monks soon began teasing him saying, "Nanda is bought with the promise of nymphs! Nanda is bought with a the promise of nymphs!" Nanda had no time to pay attention; he continued to assiduously meditate, wakeful and conscientious, now no longer oppressed by rapacious thoughts of Janapada Kalyani and rulership.

But after a time, the ridicule got to him. He eventually saw his motive for meditating as base. And renouncing desire, he attained arhatship and the bliss of nirvana, immediately releasing the Buddha from any promise of celestial bliss.

Nanda, having made quick progress and in no long time reaching full enlightenment freed of all mental defilements, was abashed that the rumors continued. From time to time the monks would come by and ask, "Nanda, do you want to go back to Janapada Kalyani, or do you prefer your beautiful nymphs instead?" He surprised them one day when he answered, "I'm no longer interested in any maiden earthly or celestial."

But seeing him continue to meditate day after day, the monks did not understand. They reported the matter to the Buddha, who called for Nanda:

"Nanda, the monks say you were bought with the promise of nymphs." Nanda was abashed to be asked about that motive. He stated that he was no longer interested in any such thing, implying his attainment of liberation.

The Buddha said, "Even before you said so, Nanda, it was clear. You have won freedom from all thoughts of lust, greed, and craving. You are now a noble member of the Sangha. The monks were embarrassed and astonished. They were filled with regret that they had not practiced, but instead occupied their time teasing Nanda about the fault they perceived in him, while ignoring their own faults.

Eventually, even Janapada Kalyani joined the Order of Nuns (Bhikkuni Sangha) and became one of the arahants (saints).

*A_Christmas_Carol with visions of past, present, and future: the past on Earth, the present in Tavatimsa, and a future in the Apaya worlds.
**The Buddha's mother, Maha Maya, passed away seven days after his birth. He was adopted and raised by King Suddhodana's other wife, Maha Maya's sister, Maha Pajapati Gotami. Pajapati Gotami went on to become ordained as the first Buddhist nun in history. King Suddhodana gained enlightenment. Meanwhile, Maha Maya had been reborn in a world in space called Tavatimsa, where the Buddha visited to teach the Abhidharma ("Higher Teaching) to her and others there. If people were generally aware of these facts, it would prevent criticism that the Buddha selfishly abandoned his family to pursue spirituality.

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