Jataka 86

Sīlavimaṃsana Jātaka

The Test of Virtue

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

The importance of virtue in the Buddha’s teaching cannot be overstated. In the poetic “Ākankheyya Sutta: If a Bhikkhu Should Wish” [MN 6], the Buddha outlines all of the attainments in the Noble Eightfold Path, saying that for each one of them “If a monk should wish” to attain them, “let him fulfill the Precepts.” This is – yet again – why it is so inexplicable that some “Buddhist” teachers commit acts of impropriety, most notable sexually abusing their female students.

Nothing can compare.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a brahmin who tested his reputation for virtue. This brother, who was supported by the King of Kosala, had taken refuge in the Three Jewels. He kept the Five Precepts and was well-versed in the Three Vedas. “This is a good man,” the King thought, and he showed him great honor.

But that brother thought to himself, “The King honors me above other brahmins, and he has shown great regard by making me his spiritual director. But is his favor due to my virtue or only to my birth, lineage, family, country, and accomplishments? I must test this without delay.”

Accordingly, one day when he was leaving the palace, he took a coin from a treasurer’s desk and then left. Such was the treasurer’s respect for the brahmin that he sat perfectly still and did not say a word. On the next day the brahmin took two coins, but still the official did not say anything. On the third day the brahmin took a whole handful of coins. “This is the third day,” the treasurer cried, “that you have robbed his Majesty,” and he shouted out three times, “I have caught the thief who robs the treasury.”

A crowd of people rushed in from every side, crying, “Ah, you’ve long been pretending to be a model of virtue!” And striking him two or three times, they led him before the King. In great sorrow the King said to him, “What led you, brahmin, to do, such a wicked thing?” And he ordered that the brahmin be taken away for punishment.

“I am no thief, sire,” said the brahmin.

“Then why did you take money from the treasury?”

“Because you showed me such great honor, sire, and because I wanted to find out whether that honor was due to my birth, status, and family, or solely because of my virtue. That was my motive, and now I know for certain, since you have ordered me off to punishment, that it was my virtue and not my birth and other advantages that won me your majesty’s favor. I know virtue to be the chief and supreme good. I know, too, that I can never attain the virtue in this life to which I aspire while I remain a layman, living in the midst of seductive pleasures. Therefore, this very day I will go to the Master at Jetavana and renounce the world for the Saṇgha. Grant me your leave, sire.”

The King consented and the brahmin set out for Jetavana.

His friends and relations tried as a group to change his mind. But their efforts were of no avail, and he left.

He went to the Master and asked to be admitted to the Saṇgha. After admission to the lower and higher orders, he attained liberating insight and became an Arahat. Having achieved his goal, he went to the Master, saying, “Sir, my joining the Saṇgha has borne the Supreme Fruit,” signifying that he had won Arahatship. Hearing this, the monks assembled in the Dharma Hall. They spoke with one another about the virtues of the King’s chaplain who tested his own reputation for virtue and who, leaving the King, had now risen to be an Arahat. Entering the Dharma Hall, the Master asked what the monks were discussing, and they told him. He said, “It is not without precedent, monks, for this brahmin to test his reputation for virtue and to renounce the world. The same thing was done by the wise and good of bygone days as well.” And so saying, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was his chaplain. He was a man given to charity and other good works. His mind was set on righteousness, always keeping the Five Precepts. And the King honored him above the other brahmins, and everything came to pass as above.

But, as the Bodhisatta was being brought in bonds before the King, he came to a place where some snake charmers were displaying a snake, which they held by the tail and the throat and had it tied around their necks. Seeing this, the Bodhisatta begged the men to stop for the snake might bite them and cut their lives short. “Brahmin,” replied the snake charmers, “this is a good and well-behaved cobra. He’s not wicked like you, who because of your wickedness and misconduct are being hauled off in custody.”

The Bodhisatta thought to himself, “Even cobras, if they do not bite or wound, are called ‘good.’ How much more must this be the case with those who are human beings! Truly, it is virtue that is the most excellent thing in all the world, nothing can surpass it.”

Figure: The Good Cobra

Figure: The Good Cobra

Then he was brought before the King. “What is this, my friends?" asked the King.

“Here’s a thief who has been robbing your majesty’s treasury.”

“Away with him to execution.”

“Sire,” the brahmin said, “I am no thief.”

“Then why did you take the money?”

The Bodhisatta answered just as above, ending by saying, “This is why I have concluded that it is virtue that is the highest and most excellent thing in all the world. But be that as it may, seeing that the cobra, when it does not bite or wound, must simply be called ‘good’ and nothing more. For this reason, too, it is virtue alone that is the highest and most excellent of all things.”

Then in praise of virtue he uttered this stanza:

Nothing can compare with virtue.

All the world cannot show its equal.

If men know the cobra is ‘good,’

They are saved from death.

After preaching the Dharma to the King in this stanza, the Bodhisatta, abandoning all lust and renouncing the world for the hermit’s life, set off for the Himalayas. There he attained the Five Knowledges (presumably the “five trainee’s powers”, i.e., the power of faith, the power of moral shame, the power of moral dread, the power of energy, and the power of wisdom) and the Eight Attainments (jhānas), earning for himself the sure hope of rebirth in the Brahma Realm.

His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying, “My disciples were the King’s followers in those days, and I was the King’s chaplain.”