Jataka 5

Taṇḍulanāli Jātaka

The Measure of Rice

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

I think this story may have been assembled long after the Buddha died. One reason that I think this is because in the story there is someone who is assigned to give rice to the monks. During the Buddha’s time, this most probably would not have happened. The monks and nuns went on alms rounds unless it was the rainy season. This story feels like later Buddhism when it was more institutionalized. It also does not seem correct to me that elder monks would get a higher quality of rice than younger monks. During the Buddha's time alms food was usually gathered individually but then assembled and distributed evenly to the entire Saṇgha.

In addition, this story does not feel in the line of the Buddha’s teaching and his character. The Buddha and the monks treats Udāyi quite harshly. Of course, the Buddha could be quite severe with his monks if they misbehaved. He was especially hard on monks who espoused wrong views. However, he hardly ever was harsh on anyone in other contexts. But read it for yourself and see what you think.

Do you ask how much a measure of rice is worth?” This was told by the Master, while he was at Jetavana, about the Elder Udāyi, called the Dullard.

At that time the reverend Dabba, the Mallian, was the steward in charge of gathering and distributing provisions for the monastery. When Dabba allotted the portions for rice in the early morning, sometimes it was choice rice and sometimes it was an inferior quality. On these days the Elder Udāyi ended up getting the inferior rice. When that happened, Udāyi would make a fuss in the distribution room by demanding, “Is Dabba the only one who can give out rice? Can’t we do that as well?”

One day when he was making a fuss, they handed him the rice basket and said, “Here! you give the rice out yourself today!” After that, it was Udāyi who gave out the rice to the monks.

But Udāyi could not tell the best from the inferior rice, and he did not know which monks were entitled to the best rice and which to the inferior. So too, when he was making out the roster (the list of most senior to most junior monks), he had no idea who were the most senior monks. Consequently, when the monks took up their places, he made a mark on the ground or on the wall to show that senior monks stood here and junior monks there. Next day there were fewer monks of one grade and more of another in the distribution room. Where there were fewer, the mark was in the wrong place. Likewise, when there were more, it was also in the wrong place. But Udāyi, quite ignorant of the differences, gave out the portions according to his old marks.

So the monks said to him, “Friend Udāyi, the mark is in the wrong place. The best rice is for those who are senior, and the inferior quality for those who are junior.” But he said back to them, “If this mark is where it is, what are you standing here for? Why should I believe you? I trust my mark.”

Then the novices threw him out of the distribution room, crying, “Friend Udāyi the Dullard, when you give out the portions, the monks do not get their proper shares. You are not fit to give them out. Get out of here.” And a great uproar arose in the room.

Hearing the noise, the Master asked the Elder Ānanda, “Ānanda, what is the noise all about?”

Ānanda explained what had happened to the Buddha. “Ānanda,” he said, “This is not the only time that Udāyi has robbed others of their profit because of his stupidity. He did just the same thing in bygone times too.”

Ānanda asked the Blessed One for an explanation, and the Blessed One made clear what had been concealed by rebirth.

Once upon a time Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares in Kāsi. In those days our Bodhisatta was his appraiser. He used to determine the value of horses, elephants, jewels, gold, and so on, and he used to pay the owners of the goods a fair price that he fixed.

But the King was greedy and he thought, “This appraiser with his style of valuing will soon exhaust all the riches in my house. I must get another appraiser.” So he opened his window and looked out into his courtyard. There he saw a stupid, greedy ass of a man who he thought would be a good candidate for the post. So the King sent for the man and asked him whether he could do the work. “Oh yes,” said the man. And so, to safeguard the royal treasure, this stupid fellow was appointed appraiser.

After this the fool, in appraising elephants and horses and the like, used to assign a price dictated by his whim, neglecting their true worth. But, because he was the appraiser, the price was what he said and could not be challenged.

At that time a horse-dealer with 500 horses arrived from the north country. The King sent for his new appraiser and told him to assign a value to the horses. The price he set on the 500 horses was just one measure of rice. He ordered this to be paid to the dealer and directed the horses to be led off to the stable. The horse-dealer then went to see the old appraiser. He told him what had happened and asked if there was anything that he could do to get a fair price. “Give him a bribe,” said the ex-appraiser, “and say this to him: ‘Now that you have determined that our horses are worth just a single measure of rice, we are curious to know the precise value of a measure of rice. Could you tell us its value in the presence of the King?’ If he says that he can, then take him before the King, and I will be there, too.”

Following the Bodhisatta’s advice, the horse-dealer bribed the man and put the question to him. The appraiser, having expressed his ability to value a measure of rice, was promptly taken to the palace. The Bodhisatta and many other ministers went as well. With appropriate respect the horse-dealer said to the King, “Sire, I do not dispute that the value of 500 horses is a single measure of rice, but I would like to ask your majesty to ask your appraiser what is the value of that measure of rice.”

Ignorant of what had happened, the King said to the fellow, “Appraiser, what are 500 horses worth?”

“A measure of rice, sire,” he replied.

“Very good, my friend. If 500 horses then are worth one measure of rice, what is that measure of rice worth?”

“It is worth all Benares and its suburbs,” was the fool’s reply.

Thus we learn that, having first valued the horses at a measure of rice to please the King, he was bribed by the horse-dealer to estimate that measure of rice at the worth of all Benares and its suburbs. Yet the fool priced all this vast city and its suburbs at a single measure of rice!

The ministers clapped their hands and laughed uproariously. “We used to think,” they said scornfully, “that the earth and the realm were priceless. But now we learn that the kingdom of Benares together with the King is only worth a single measure of rice! How talented the appraiser is! How has he kept his post so long? But truly the appraiser suits our King admirably.”

The Terrible Appraiser!

Figure: A Really Terrible Appraiser!

Then the Bodhisatta repeated this stanza:

Do you ask how much a measure of rice is worth?

Why, all Benares, both within and out.

Yet, strange to tell, five hundred horses too

Are worth precisely this same measure of rice!

Thus put to shame, the King sent the fool packing, and gave the Bodhisatta the office again. And when his life closed, the Bodhisatta passed away to fare according to his karma.

His lesson ended and the two stories told, the Master made the connection linking both together, and identified the birth by saying in conclusion, “Udāyi the Dullard was the stupid rustic appraiser of those days, and I myself the wise appraiser.”