A Lesson From a Snake (The Value of Goodness)
Once upon a time, King Brahmadatta of Benares had a very valuable adviser priest. He came from a rich noble family. He was intelligent and full of knowledge. He was generous with his wealth and knowledge, holding nothing back. People thought of him as a kind and good person.
By practicing the Five Training Steps, he trained his mind to avoid the five unwholesome actions. He discovered that giving up each unwholesome action made him better off in its own way:
• destroying life, since you have to kill part of yourself in order to kill someone else;
• taking what is not given, since this makes the owner angry at you;
• doing wrong in sexual ways, since this leads to the pain of jealousy and envy;
• speaking falsely, since you can’t be true to yourself and false to another at the same time;
• losing your mind from alcohol, since then you might hurt yourself by doing the other four.
Seeing how he lived, King Brahmadatta thought, ‘This is truly a good man.”
The priest was curious to learn more about the value of goodness. He thought, “The king honors and respects me more than his other priests. But I wonder what it is about me that he really respects most. Is it my nationality, my noble birth or family wealth? Is it my great learning and vast knowledge? Or is it because of my goodness? I must find the answer to this.”
Therefore, he decided to perform an experiment in order to answer his question. He would pretend to be a thief!
On the next day, when he was leaving the palace, he went by the royal coin maker. He was stamping out coins from gold. The good priest, not intending to keep it, took a coin and continued walking out of the palace. Because the money maker admired the famous priest highly, he remained sitting and said nothing.
On the following day the make-believe thief took two gold coins. Again the royal coin maker did not protest.
Finally, on the third day, the king’s favorite priest grabbed a whole handful of gold coins. This time the money maker didn’t care about the priest’s position or reputation. He cried out, “This is the third time you have robbed his majesty the king.” Holding onto him, he shouted, “I’ve caught the thief who robs the king! I’ve caught the thief who robs the king! I’ve caught the thief who robs the king!”
Suddenly a crowd of people came running in, yelling, “Aha! You pretended to be better than us! An example of goodness!” They slapped him, tied his hands behind his back, and hauled him off to the king.
But on their way, they happened to go by some snake charmers. They were entertaining some bystanders from the king’s court with a poisonous cobra. They held him by the tail and neck, and coiled him around their necks to show how brave they were.
The tied up prisoner said to them, “Please be careful! Don’t grab that cobra by the tail. Don’t grab him by his neck. And don’t coil that poisonous snake around your own necks. He may bite you and bring your lives to a sudden end!”
The snake charmers said, “You ignorant priest, you don’t understand about this cobra. He is well-mannered and very good indeed. He is not bad like you! You are a thief who has stolen from the king. Because of your wickedness and criminal behavior, you are being carried off with your hands tied behind your back. But there’s no need to tie up a snake who is good!”
The priest thought, “Even a poisonous cobra, who doesn’t bite or harm anyone, is given the name ‘good’. In truth, goodness is the quality people admire most in the world!”
When they arrived at the throne room, the king asked, ‘What is this, my children?” They replied, ‘This is the thief who stole from your royal treasury.” The king said. “Then punish him according to the law.”
The adviser priest said, ‘My lord king, I am no thief!” ‘Then why did you take gold coins from the palace?” asked the king.
The priest explained, “I have done this only as an experiment, to test why it is you honor and respect me more than others. Is it because of my family background and wealth, or my great knowledge? Because of those things, I was able to get away with taking one or two gold coins. Or do you respect my goodness most of all? It is clear that by grabbing a handful of coins I no longer had the name ‘good’. This alone turned respect into disgrace!
“Even a poisonous cobra, who doesn’t harm anyone, is called `good’. There is no need for any other title!”
To emphasize the lesson he had learned, the wise priest recited:
“High birth and wealth and even knowledge vast, I find, Are less admired than goodness is, by humankind.”
The king pardoned his most valuable adviser priest.
He asked to be allowed to leave the king’s service in the ordinary world and become a forest monk. After refusing several times. the king eventually gave his permission.
The priest went to the Himalayas and meditated peacefully. When he died he was reborn in a heaven world.