Jataka 64

Durājāna Jātaka

Difficult to Understand

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

What I think is the most important lesson in this story gets a little lost in the amount of detail about the wife’s irrational behavior, and that is that when she finds out that the Bodhisatta/Buddha knows how she has been acting, she changes. In the Buddha’s teaching there is the notion of healthy shame. This is not shame that you use to browbeat yourself. It is the kind of shame that encourages you to behave well.

You think you know.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a lay follower. Tradition says that there was a lay follower who lived at Sāvatthi. He was established in the Three Gems and the Five Precepts, a devout lover of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha. But his wife was a sinful and wicked woman. On days when she did something wrong, she was as meek as a slave girl bought for a hundred pieces. On days when she did not do anything wrong, she played the matriarch, passionate and tyrannical. The husband did not understand her. She worried him so much that he did not go to wait on the Buddha.

One day he went to see the Buddha with perfumes and flowers, and he took his seat after due salutation. The Master said to him, “Why is it, lay brother, that you have not come to see the Buddha for seven or eight days?”

“My wife, sir, is like a slave girl bought for a hundred pieces one day, while on another day she is a passionate and tyrannical mistress. I cannot make her out. It is because she has worried me so that I have not been to wait upon the Buddha.”

Now, when he heard these words, the Master said, “Why, lay brother, you have already been told by the wise and good of bygone days that it is hard to understand the nature of the untrained mind.” And he went on to think “but his previous existences have come to be confused in his mind, so that he cannot remember.” And so saying, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was reborn as a teacher of worldwide fame. He had 500 young brahmins studying under him. One of these pupils was from a foreign land. He fell in love with a woman and made her his wife. Though he continued to live in Benares, two or three times he failed to attend to his master. His wife was a sinful and wicked woman who was as meek as a slave on days when she had done something wrong. But on days when she had not done anything wrong, she acted like a matriarch, passionate and tyrannical. Her husband could not understand her at all. He worried about her, and he was harassed by her, and that is why he did not attend to his master. After seven or eight days he renewed his visits. The Bodhisatta asked him why he had not been seen of late.

“Master, my wife is the cause,” he said. And he told the Bodhisatta how she was meek one day like a slave girl and tyrannical the next. He could not make her out at all. And he had been so worried and harassed by her shifting moods that he had stayed away.

“Precisely so, young brahmin,” the Bodhisatta said. “On days when they have done wrong, people with untrained minds humble themselves and become as meek and submissive as a slave. But on days when they have not done anything wrong, then they become stubborn and insubordinate. In this way the untrained worldling is unskillful and unreliable, and their nature is hard to know. No attention should be given to their likes or to their dislikes.” And so saying, the Bodhisatta repeated for the edification of his pupil this stanza:

If you think someone loves you, do not be glad.

If you think someone does not love you, do not grieve.

Unknowable, uncertain as the path of fishes in the water,

The wild mind proves capricious.

Such was the Bodhisatta’s instruction to his pupil, who paid no heed to his wife’s mood changes after that. And she, hearing that her misconduct had come to the ears of the Bodhisatta, stopped her unwholesome behavior from that time forward.

The Now Happy Couple

Figure: The Now Happy Couple

So, too, this lay brother’s wife said to herself, “The Perfect Buddha himself knows, they tell me, of my misconduct,” and from then on she stopped misbehaving.

His lesson ended, the Master preached the Four Noble Truths, at the close of which the lay brother won the Fruit of the First Path. Then the Master showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “This husband and wife were also the husband and wife of those days, and I was the teacher.”