The Buddha and His Disciple

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Ajatasattu and Devadatta

106. Ever since he was young, Devadatta had been jealous of the Buddha, and even though he had become a monk, his jealousy persisted. He resented constantly being in the Buddha’s shadow but he said nothing, hoping that if the Buddha died, or got too old to continue to lead the Sangha, he had a good chance of taking over, being as he was closely related to the Buddha. Devadatta was not without talent, despite his unpleasant nature; he had developed psychic powers, which had of course attracted to him many admirers. Unfortunately, his powers and the attention he received only served to make him more proud and ambitious.

107. At about this time it so happened that Prince Ajatasattu was becoming increasingly impatient to ascend to the throne. His father, King Bimbasara, had ruled for many years and it looked likely that he would continue to rule for many more, which meant that Ajatasattu himself would be old before he himself became king. Devadatta knew of Prince Ajatasattu’s predicament and, seeing that he had something in common with him, decided that they should work together. He used his psychic powers to impress the prince. One day as Ajatasattu sat alone, suddenly a young boy draped in snakes appeared sitting in his lap. Utterly terrified, Ajatasattu pushed the child away and with trembling voice asked: “Who are you?” “I, Prince, am Devadatta.” The prince replied with trembling voice: “If you are really Devadatta, then please assume your true form.” Devadatta complied and stood smiling in front of the astonished prince who said: “I am impressed, reverend sir. Truly you are a monk of high attainment.”

108. From that time, Devadatta had free access to the royal palace and Prince Ajatasattu often waited upon him with lavish food and expensive gifts. Having a powerful ally, Devadatta’s next step was to convince the Buddha to step down in his favour. One day, as the Buddha sat with a large company of monks, Devadatta came forward, bowed and said: “Lord, leading the Sangha at your age must be a great burden. Step down and I will lead the Sangha for you. I will take over this responsibility so that you can live in comfort.” He obviously thought that the other monks, concerned for the Buddha’s welfare would be delighted with this idea and urge the Buddha to retire. But the Buddha was well aware of Devadatta’s intentions and he was not to be influenced by the opinion of the majority. He firmly and harshly turned down the idea. “I would not even hand over the Sangha to Sariputta or Moggallana, let alone to you, you who should be coughed out like spittle.” Devadatta was humiliated by this rebuke and within his heart he vowed revenge.

One day, after Prince Ajatasattu had complained to him about his role as a prince, Devadatta said to him: “In the past, people lived to a great age, now they do not and it is possible that you may die while still a prince. Kill your father and make yourself king. I will kill the Buddha and make myself leader of the Sangha.” At first Ajatasattu was shocked by this suggestion but so strong was his ambition and desire for power that it didn’t take much to get him to see the advantages of this scheme.

109. Soon, Devadatta hatched a plan to kill the Buddha with the help of Ajatasattu. They sent a man to assassinate the Buddha and arranged to have him murdered afterwards so that there would be no witness. However, the man had scruples and was not anxious to make evil kamma for himself by killing such a holy person. When he actually stood in front of the Buddha, he found it impossible to kill him. The man broke down and confessed to the Buddha what he had planned to do. The Buddha forgave him and he asked to become a lay disciple. When Devadatta heard this, he was furious and decided if the Buddha was going to be killed, he would have to do it himself. When the Buddha was at Rajagaha he usually stayed at the Gijjakuta, a small rocky hill a little beyond the east gate of Rajagaha. Devadatta climbed the Gijjakuta, and when he saw the Buddha walking up and down at the foot of the hill, he sent a large rock tumbling down towards him. Just before it reached the Buddha, it hit another rock which diverted it, although a splinter hit the Buddha injuring his foot. Some time later, Devadatta went to the royal stables, where a huge and fierce elephant named Nalagiri was kept. He approached the mahouts and said to them: “I am close to the king. On my word, someone in a low position can be put in a high position and someone in a high position can be put in a low position. I want you to release this elephant into the Buddha’s path when he is walking down the road.” The mahouts readily agreed. The next day, the Buddha and a small group of monks walked through Rajagaha to collect alms. As they turned a corner into a narrow street, they found themselves confronted by an angry elephant. The monks called the Buddha to turn back but he continued to calmly walk on. People looked out of their windows and climbed onto the roofs of the houses to see what would happen. Nalagiri charged down the street. People ran to get out of the way, while others gasped with horror. The Buddha suffused Nalagiri with thoughts of loving kindness (metta) so that he quietened down, allowing the Buddha to approach him and stroke his head. This confrontation caused a sensation in Rajagaha and for weeks people went around the city singing a song about it. One of the verses said:

Some are tamed by goad and whips
But the elephant by the great sage was tamed
By loving kindness, without sword or stick.

110. Meanwhile, one evening, Ajatasattu strapped a dagger to his thigh and full of fear, tried to enter the king’s bed chamber. But the guards challenged him and the plot failed. King Bimbasara came to hear of his son’s attempts to kill him and deeply saddened, he decided to step down in his favour. Although no longer king, Bimbasara still supported the Buddha, which worried Devadatta. So he egged on Ajatasattu to kill his father. “For as long as your father is alive, you are still in danger. You are like a man who puts a new skin on a drum with a rat in it.” Bimbasara was imprisoned and deprived of food. Queen Kosaladevi, who was the only person allowed to visit the prisoner, smuggled food in, concealed in her clothes. When this was discovered, she was searched each time she came. So then she rubbed catumadhura, a nutritious cream, on her body and the old man would lick it off, which kept Bimbasara alive. When, after two weeks, he was still not dead, King Ajatasattu sent men into the prison cell to kill him. So ended the life of a just and popular king who was also one of the Buddha’s most enthusiastic supporters.

111. After several attempts to kill the Buddha had failed, Devadatta decided that if he could not lead the Sangha, he would at least try to lead some monks.

The Buddha strived to transform the society in which he lived, questioning, and where necessary, even criticising many of the assumptions his contemporaries lived by. One thing he had little time for was the extreme and ostentatious austerities that many ascetics practised. Because he refused to indulge in any of these practices, his opponents often accused him of being lax and of loving luxury. Even some Buddhist monks believed that the Sangha was losing its original austere character and that Buddhist monks should live as other ascetics lived. Devadatta took advantage of this dissatisfaction and started demanding stricter rules, a demand that won the support of some monks. Eventually, he and his followers went to the Buddha and demanded that he make five practices obligatory for all monks: that monks should only live in the forest, that they only eat food that they had begged for, that they only wear robes made out of rags, that they should not live in monasteries and that they should be vegetarian. The Buddha refused, because he knew that outward practices like these did not necessarily bring about a change in the heart. He also understood that such practices would cut the monks off from the lay community and that if this happened the Dharma would remain the domain of a small exclusive group only. However, he also recognised that some monks were more comfortable with an austere lifestyle, so although he refused to make these practices compulsory, he said that individual monks could practise them if they wished.

112. While the Buddha was prepared to be flexible, Devadatta was not. He declared that he and his followers were going to set up a separate Sangha. The five hundred monks he led left Rajagaha for Gaya, where King Ajatasattu built them a monastery on Gavasisa, a rocky hill just south of the town. It was the greatest crisis in the Buddha’s life; the Sangha was split, accusations of lax discipline were being made and the lay people did not know which group to support. However, throughout the crisis, the Buddha remained calm and made no public condemnations of Devadatta. But something had to be done, so eventually the Buddha sent Sariputta and Moggallana to Gaya to try to win back the wayward monks. When Devadatta saw them coming he was exultant, thinking that they too had abandoned the Buddha. When they arrived he enthusiastically welcomed them and asked them to sit with him. They politely declined but sat down near him. Devadatta then gave a long talk, no doubt defending his stand on asceticism and criticising the Buddha, and then asked Sariputta and Moggallana to give a talk while he retired to sleep. After he had gone, Sariputta and Moggallana both gave calm and well-reasoned talks, explaining that no ascetic practices or, for that matter, any outward rites or acts in themselves could change the heart. They also appealed for loyalty to their compassionate teacher, the Buddha, and for unity and harmony in the Sangha. Their long-standing authority in the Sangha, their obvious freedom from rancour and the reasonableness of their point of view gradually convinced the five hundred monks.[ N1]

113. When Sariputta and Moggallana had finished, they said: “That is all we have to say. We will now return to Rajagaha.” As they got up and left almost all the five hundred monks got up and followed them. When Devadatta awoke in the morning, he found he only had a few followers left. It is said that he was so angry that blood came out from his mouth. Alone and disgraced, in the following years Devadatta continued to complain about and criticise the Buddha to anyone who would listen. Some people did, but most ignored him or treated him with contempt. Towards the end of his life he began to regret his past actions and decided to apologise to the Buddha. But before the two men could meet again, Devadatta died. It is interesting to note that when Fa Hien, the Chinese pilgrim, was in India in the 5th century CE, there were still small groups who looked to Devadatta rather than the Buddha as their founder.