sunset

Jataka 162

Santhava Jātaka

Ritual

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


In the Buddha’s teachings, one of the hindrances to awakening is attachment to rites and rituals. This had particular significance in India – then as now – because in the Brahmin and Hindu religions, it is the proper performance of rituals that leads to a good rebirth and eventually to awakening. But this is true in most religions, including Buddhism.

The positive part of this story emphasizes the value of good friendship. This is also a common theme in the Buddha’s teaching. It is a condition for stream-entry. In the Buddha’s teaching, a good friend is ideally an arahant, but it could be anyone who encourages us along the path. Conversely, bad friends are those who encourage us in the three poisons: craving and sense desire, all the forms of aversion like fear, hatred, anger, and anxiety, and the third poison delusion. In Buddhism, curiously, the latter includes both atheists and theists. And in the end the Buddha says that if we cannot find good friendship, we are better off going off on our own.


Nothing is worse.” The Master told this story while he was at Jetavana. It is about feeding the sacred fire. The circumstances are the same as those of the Naṅguṭṭha Birth (Jātaka 144). The monks, on seeing those who kept up this fire, said to the Blessed One, “Sir, here are topknot ascetics practicing all sorts of false asceticism. What’s the benefit in that?”

“There is no benefit in it,” the Master said. “It has happened in the past that even wise men have imagined that there is some benefit in feeding the sacred fire. But after doing this for a long time, they found out that there is no benefit to it. Then they put the fire out, beat it down, beat it down with sticks, and never gave it so much as a look afterwards.” Then he told them a story.


Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was the King of Benares, the Bodhisatta was born into a brahmin family. When he was about sixteen years old, his father and mother took his birth-fire (a ritual fire which – as it sounds – is lit at the birth of a child) and said to him, “Son, will you take your birth-fire into the woods and worship the fire there, or will you learn the Three Vedas, settle down as a married man, and live in the world?” (He is asking whether the son wants to be a holy man or live a conventional, worldly life).

He replied, “There will be no worldly life for me. I will worship my fire in the woodland and go on the way to heaven.”

So taking his birth-fire, he said good-bye to his parents, and entered the forest. There he lived in a hut made of branches and leaves and worshipped to the fire.

One day he was invited to some place where he received a present of rice and ghee. “I will offer this rice to the Great Brahma,” he thought. So he took the rice home and stocked the sacred fire. Then he said, “With this rice I feed the sacred flame,” and he threw the rice into the fire.

The rice had barely touched the flames then – because the rice was full of fat from the ghee - then a fierce flame leapt up which set his hermitage on fire. The brahmin ran away in terror and sat down when he got far away. “There should be no dealings with the useless,” he said. “This fire has burned the hut that I built with so much effort!” And he repeated the first stanza:

“Nothing is worse than bad company.

I fed my fire with plentiful rice and ghee.

And lo! the hut that gave me such effort

To build, my fire has burned for me."

“I've done with you now, false friend!” he added. He poured water on the fire, beat it out with sticks, and then went off to the mountains. There he came upon a black deer licking the faces of a lion, a tiger, and a leopard. This made him think that there was nothing better than good friends; and he repeated the second stanza:

“Nothing is better than good company.

Kind offices of friendship here I see.

Behold the lion, tiger, and the pard -

The black deer licks the faces of all three.”

(A “pard” is a leopard.)

Good Company

Figure: Good Company

With these reflections the Bodhisatta plunged into the depths of the mountains. There he embraced the true religious life, cultivating the Five Faculties (1) faith/confidence, 2) energy, 3) mindfulness, 4) concentration/samadhi and 5) wisdom/insight) and the Attainments (jhānas), until at his life’s end he was reborn in Brahma’s heaven.


After delivering this discourse, the Master identified the birth: “In those days I was the recluse of the story.”