Oh, Those Unruly Monks! (Part 1)

There are many remarkable stories in the Pali canon. One of my favorites is the Upakkilesa Sutta. “Upakkilesa” translates to “imperfections”.

Yeah, I know. It doesn’t sound like a page-turner. But bear with me.

This discourse has several sections. I won’t go into all of them. If you want to read the full discourse, it is here at http://www.yellowrobe.com/component/content/article/120-majjhima-nikaya/302-upakkilesa-sutta-imperfections.html [MN 128].

This is one of those stories that makes me feel such affection for the Buddhist literature. It is painfully honest. It certainly doesn’t make the Buddha out to be all knowing and all-powerful, and that is one of the things that I like about it. The Buddha was not a god. He was a human being. To be sure, later Buddhist traditions recast him into something more divine, but that was a later development. In the earliest traditions, the Buddha was always understood to be a human being.

The story starts out in a city called “Kosambi”. Kosambi was a prominent city in India at that time. The Buddha is staying there with a large number of monks when a dispute over a violation – or alleged violation – of the monastic code takes place. The dispute escalates to the point where all of the monks have lined up on one side or another, According to the sutta, the Bhikkhus (monks) “had taken to quarrelling and brawling”, and were “deep in disputes, stabbing each other with verbal daggers.”

Ouch. Not exactly the kind of behavior you would expect from Buddhist monks, especially when they were in the presence of the Buddha himself.

One of the monks went to the Buddha and asked him to intervene. What happens next is rather astonishing. He is basically blown off. Three times the Buddha asks them to stop quarrelling, and three times he is told to go away, that the monks will handle things themselves. “We are the ones who will be responsible for this quarrelling, brawling, wrangling, and dispute.” In other words, we’ve got this old man, bugger off.

Really? You said this to the Buddha?

The next day after alms rounds, the Buddha recites this lovely poem:

When many voices shout at once
None considers himself a fool;
Though the Sangha [community] is being split
None thinks himself to be at fault.

They have forgotten thoughtful speech,
They talk obsessed by words alone.
Uncurbed their mouths, they bawl at will;
None knows what leads him so to act.

‘He abused me, he struck me,
He defeated me, he robbed me’―
In those who harbor thoughts like these
Hatred will never be allayed.

For in this world hatred is never
Allayed by further acts of hate.
It is allayed by non-hatred:
That is the fixed and ageless law.

Those others do not recognize
That here we should restrain ourselves.
But those wise ones who realize this
At once end all their enmity.

Breakers of bones and murderers,
Those who steal cattle, horses, wealth,
Those who pillage the entire realm―
When even these can act together
Why can you not do so too?

If one can find a worthy friend,
A virtuous, steadfast companion,
Then overcome all threats of danger
And walk with him content and mindful.

But if one finds no worthy friend,
No virtuous, steadfast companion,
Then as a king leaves his conquered realm,
Walk like a tusker in the woods alone.

Better it is to walk alone,
There is no companionship with fools.
Walk alone and do no evil,
At ease like a tusker [elephant] in the woods.

And with that, he bids them adieu, and he leaves for greener pastures.

This ends the first thing that I take from this story. The Buddha himself was unable to resolve a dispute among his own monks. It isn’t like this is a dispute between kings or a husband and wife or a couple of merchants. These are people who have voluntarily taken up “the holy life” under his direction and teaching. And they won’t listen to him.

I think like most people I sometimes get frustrated with my inability to have a more positive affect on the world. It’s no secret exactly that there is a lot of pain and suffering going on, and most people I know would like to make a difference, and would like the world a better, happier place. I would like to be able to convince people to be more kind, more loving and more compassionate, certainly less angry.

Minus the theism, I think the Buddha would agree with this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

And that is what the Buddha did. He made his effort to solve the dispute, and once it became clear that he could not, without anger or any unnecessary over-reaction, he packed up and left. In Buddhist terms, he was acting with wisdom and equanimity.

Sometimes when I am feeling frustrated at my own attempts to get something done, I have to remind myself of this sutta.

I will talk more about this discourse in my next post. May you all be happy, and free from quarreling monks!

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