Jataka 2

Vaṇṇupatha Jātaka

The Sandy Road

as told by Eric Van Horn

originally translated by Robert Chalmers, B.A., of Oriel College, Oxford University

originally edited by Professor Edward Byles Cowell, Cambridge University

This is a story about perseverance, persistence, and determination. The Pāli word is “Adhiṭṭhāna” and in Sanskrit it is “Adhiṣṭhāna.” In the Theravada formulation it is the eighth of the Ten Perfections.

Anyone who has practiced for even a short time can probably relate to the frustration of the poor monk who was unable to make any progress during his retreat. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu once said that when he went back and looked at the talks given by his teacher Ajahn Lee, the majority of them were words of encouragement. Being able to be both patient and relentlessly persistent are instrumental parts of the Buddha’s path.

Untiring, deep they dug.” This discourse was delivered by the Blessed One while he was dwelling at Sāvatthi.

About whom, you ask?

About a monk who gave up persevering.

Tradition says that, while the Buddha was dwelling at Sāvatthi, an heir from a wealthy Sāvatthi family came to Jetavana. When he heard a discourse by the Buddha, he realized that craving leads to suffering, and he was admitted to the Saṇgha as a novice monk. After five years passed in preparing for full ordination, the Buddha gave him a theme for meditation that was appropriate for him. Retiring to a forest, he spent the rainy season there, but for all his striving during the three months, he was unable to make any progress. So he thought, “The Master said there were four types of men, and I must belong to the lowest of all. In this birth, I do not think that there is either path nor fruit for me. What good will it do for me to live in the forest? I will go back to the Master and live my life beholding the glories of the Buddha’s presence and listening to his sweet teachings.” And back he went to Jetavana.

Now his friends and intimates said, “Sir, it was you who obtained a theme of meditation from the Master and departed to live the solitary life of a sage. Yet here you are back again, going about enjoying fellowship. Can it be that you have attained awakening and that you will never know rebirth?”

“Sirs, as I won neither path nor fruit, I felt myself doomed to futility, and so gave up persevering and came back.”

“You have done wrong, sir, in showing weakness when you had devoted yourself to the doctrine of the dauntless Master. Come, let us bring you to the Buddha.” And they took him with them to the Master.

When the Master became aware of their coming, he said, “Monks, you bring this brother against his will. What has he done?”

“Sir, after devoting himself to so absolutely true a doctrine, this brother has given up persevering in the solitary life of a sage and has come back.”

Then the Master said to him, “Is it true, as they say, that you, brother, have given up persevering?”

“It is true, Blessed One.”

“But how is it that after devoting yourself to such a doctrine, that you should not prove to be someone who desires little, who is contented, solitary, and determined, but someone who lacks perseverance? Especially because you were so stout-hearted in the past. Was it not you who single-handedly saved the men and oxen in a caravan of 500 carts in a sandy desert thanks to your perseverance, and that because of that you were cheered? And how is it that, now, you are giving in?” These words sufficed to give heart to that monk.

Hearing this talk, the other monks asked the Blessed One, saying, “Sir, the present weakness of this brother is clear to us. But tell us how this single man was able to get water for the men and oxen in a sandy desert and was cheered. This is known only to you. Please tell us about it.”

“Listen O monks,” said the Blessed One. And, having excited their attention, he made clear the thing that rebirth had concealed from them.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was King in Benares in Kāsi, the Bodhisatta was born into a trader’s family. When he had grown up, he used to travel about trading with 500 carts. On one occasion, he came to a sandy wilderness over 200 miles across. The sand was so fine that when you squeezed it in your hand, it slipped through the fingers of even a tightly closed fist. As soon as the sun came up, it got as hot as a bed of charcoal embers, and nobody could walk upon it. Accordingly, those traveling across it used to take firewood, water, oil, rice, and so forth on their carts, and only traveled by night. At dawn they used to arrange their carts in a circle to form a camp with an awning spread overhead, and after an early meal used to sit in the shade all day long. When the sun went down, they had their evening meal. Only when the ground became cool would they yoke their carts and move forward. Traveling on this desert was like voyaging over the sea. A “desert-pilot,” as he was called, had to convoy them over by knowledge of the stars. And this was the way in which our merchant was now traveling that wilderness.

When he had only some seven more miles before him, he thought to himself, “Tonight will see us out of this sandy wilderness.” So, after they had had their supper, he ordered the wood and water to be thrown away, and yoking his carts, set out on the road. The pilot sat in the front cart on a bench looking up to the stars in the heavens and directing their course. But he was so tired that he fell asleep, and as a result he did not see that the oxen had turned around and were retracing their steps. All night the oxen kept on their way, but at dawn the pilot woke up, and, observing the disposition of the stars overhead, shouted out, “Turn the carts round! Turn the carts round!”

As they turned the carts round and were forming them into line, the day broke. “Why this is where we camped yesterday,” cried the people of the caravan. “All our wood and water are gone, and we are lost.” So they unyoked their carts and made camp and spread the awning overhead. Then each man flung himself down in despair beneath his own cart. The Bodhisatta thought to himself, “If I give in, every single one will perish.” So he walked back and forth while it was still early and cool until he came on a clump of kusa grass. “This grass,” he thought, “can only have grown up here thanks to the presence of water underneath.” So he ordered a shovel to be brought and a hole to be dug at that spot. They dug down very deep until they struck a rock, and everybody lost heart. But the Bodhisatta, feeling sure there must be water under that rock, went down in the hole and stood on the rock. Stooping down, he put his ear on it and listened. Catching the sound of water flowing beneath, he came out and said to a servant boy, “My boy, if you give in, we shall all perish. So take heart and have courage. Go down into the hole with this iron sledge hammer and strike the rock.”

Doing as the Bodhisatta asked, the lad, resolute where all others had lost heart, went down and struck the rock. The rock, which had dammed the stream, split apart and fell in. The water rose up in the hole until it was as high as a palm tree, and everybody drank and bathed. Then they chopped up their spare axles and yokes and other surplus gear, cooked their rice and ate it, and fed their oxen. As soon as the sun set, they hoisted a flag by the side of the well and traveled on to their destination. There they sold their goods for twice and four times their value. They returned to their own home with their profits where they lived out their lives, and in the end passed away to fare thereafter according to their karma. The Bodhisatta, too, after a life spent in charity and other good works, passed away likewise to fare according to his karma.

The Courageous Servant

Figure: The Courageous Servant

When the Supreme Buddha had delivered this discourse, he, the All-Knowing One himself, uttered this stanza:

Untiring, deep they dug that sandy track

Till, in the trodden way, they found water.

So let the sage, strong in perseverance,

Flag not nor tire, until his heart finds peace.

This discourse having ended, he preached the Four Noble Truths, at the close of which the fainthearted brother was established in the highest fruit of all, which is Arahatship.

Having told these two stories, the Master established the connection linking them both together, and identified the birth by saying: “This fainthearted brother of today was in those days the servant boy who persevered and broke the rock and gave water to all the people. The Buddha’s followers were the rest of the people of the caravan, and I myself was their leader.”