Part 15 The Death of Suddhodana

The Master remained in Shravasti for some time; then he left, to return to Rajagriha where King Bimbisara awaited him. He had stopped to rest in a village that was about halfway, when he saw seven men approaching. He recognized them. Six were relatives, and they were among the wealthiest and most powerful of the Sakyas. Their names were Anuruddha, Bhadrika, Bhrigu, Kimbala, Devadatta and Ananda. The seventh was a barber named Upali.

Anuruddha, one day had said to himself that it was a disgrace that none of the Sakyas had seen fit to follow the Buddha. He decided to set a good example, and as there was no reason for hiding his intention, he mentioned it first to Bhadrika, who was his best friend. Bhadrika approved of his decision, and after giving it some thought, resolved to do likewise. These two then won over Ananda, Bhrigu, Kimbala and Devadatta, by convincing them that there was no higher calling than that of a monk. The six princes then set out to join the Buddha.They had hardly left Kapilavastu when Ananda, glancing at Bhadrika, exclaimed:

“How now, Bhadrika! You would lead a life of holiness, and you keep all your jewels?” Bhadrika blushed; but then he saw that Ananda was also wearing his jewelry, and he laughingly replied: “Look at yourself, Ananda.” It was now Ananda’s turn to blush. Whereupon they all looked at one another, and they found they were still wearing their jewels. It made them feel ashamed; they lowered their eyes, and were walking along the road in silence when they met the barber Upali. “Barber,” said Ananda, “take my jewels; I give them to you.” “And take mine,” said Bhadrika.

The others also handed their jewels to Upali. He was at a loss for an answer. Why should these princes, who had never seen him before, give him such presents? Should he accept them? Should he refuse? Anuruddha understood the barber’s hesitation. He said to him: “Do not be afraid to accept these jewels. We are on our way to join the great hermit who was born to the Sakyas, we are on our way to join Siddhartha, who has become the Buddha. He will instruct us in the knowledge, and we shall submit to his rule.” “Princes,” asked the barber, “are you going to become monks?” “Yes,” they answered.

He then took the jewels and started for the city. But, suddenly, he thought, “I am acting like a fool. Who will ever believe that princes thrust these riches upon me? I shall be taken for a thief, or perhaps for an assassin. The least that can happen to me is that I shall incur the deep displeasure of the Sakyas. I shall not keep the jewels.” He hung them on a tree that stood beside the road. And he thought, “Those princes are setting a noble example. They had the courage to leave their palaces; do I, who am nothing, lack the courage to leave my shop? No. I shall follow them. I, too, shall see the Buddha, and may he receive me into the community!”

He followed the princes at a distance. He was shy about joining them. Bhadrika happened to turn around. He saw Upali; he called him. “Barber, why did you throw away our jewels?” he asked. “I, too, want to become a monk,” replied the barber. “Then walk with us,” said Bhadrika. But Upali still hung back. Anuruddha said to him: “Walk beside us, barber. Monks make no distinctions, except for age and for virtue. When we stand before the Buddha, you must even be the first to address him, and the first to ask him to receive you into the community. For by yielding to you, the princes will show that they have put aside their Sakya pride.”

Near the city of Vaisali, there was an immense wood that had been presented to the Master, and there he was living when the news came to him that his father, King Suddhodana, had fallen sick. The king was an old man; the illness was serious; it was feared that he was dying. The Master decided to visit him, and came to Kapilavastu. The king lay mournfully on his couch. He was gasping for breath. Death was very near. Yet he smiled when he saw his son. And the Master spoke these words: “Long is the road you have travelled, O king, and always did you strive to do good. You knew nothing of evil desires; your heart was innocent of hatred, and anger never blinded your mind. Your mind is pure, O king, and your death as calm as the close of a lovely day.” “Blessed One,” said the king, “I understand now the inconstancy of the worlds. I am free of all desire; I am free of the chains of life.”

Suddhodana continued: “And you, Mahaprajapati, you who were my pious consort, you whom I see in tears, calm your grief. My death is a happy death. Think of the glory of this child you brought up; gaze at him in all his splendor, and rejoice.” He died. The sun was setting. The Master said: “Behold my father’s body. He is no longer what he was. No one has ever conquered death. He who is born must die. Show your zeal for good works; walk in the path that leads to wisdom. Make a lamp of wisdom, and darkness will vanish of its own accord. Do not follow evil laws; do not plant poisonous roots; do not add to the evil in the world. Like the charioteer who, having left the highroad for a rough path, weeps at the sight of a broken axle, even so does the fool, who has strayed from the law, weep when he falls into the jaws of death. The wise man is the torch that gives light to the ignorant; he guides mankind, for he has eyes, and the others are sightless.”

The body was carried to a great funeral pile. The Master set fire to it, and while his father’s body was being consumed by the flames, while the people of Kapilavastu wept and lamented, he repeated these sacred truths: “Suffering is birth, suffering is old age, suffering is sickness, suffering is death. O thirst to be led from birth to birth! Thirst for power, thirst for pleasure, thirst for being, thirsts that are the source of all suffering! O evil thirsts, the saint knows you not, the saint who extinguishes his desires, the saint who knows the noble eight-fold path.”

Notes

Upali: One of the most eminent of the Buddha’s immediate disciples. He belonged to a barber’s family in Kapilavastu and entered the service of the Sakyan princes. When Anuruddha and his cousins sought ordination from the Buddha, Upali accompanied them. They gave him all their valuable ornaments, but, on further consideration, he refused to accept them and wished to become a monk with them. The reason given for his refusal is that he knew the Sakyans were hot-headed, and feared that the kinsmen of the princes might suspect him of having murdered the young men for the sake of their belongings. At the request of the Sakyan youths, the Buddha ordained Upali before them all, so that their pride might be humbled. The Buddha himself taught Upali the whole of the Vinaya Pitaka. In the assembly of the Sangha, the Buddha declared him to be the most proficient of those who were learned in the Vinaya.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a picture ‘Suddhodana and His Court’, taken from the Encyclopedie Larousse Illustree (1898).

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