Life of the Buddha

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(Part Two) 16. An Attempt to Discredit the Buddha

In the twentieth year of the Buddha’s ministry, two important events took place. The first of these was the conversion of the bandit Angulimala. The second happened at Savatthi, where some jealous ascetics tried to discredit the Buddha. This is the story of the second event.

The Buddha and his disciples were famous and respected religious teachers at Savatthi. Large numbers of people from the area came regularly to listen to their sermons and to offer them alms.

However, not all the people of Savatthi were followers of the Buddha. There were many ascetics in the area who believed that their teachings were superior. These other leaders were very jealous when they saw more and more people going to the Buddha and his disciples to offer alms and gifts of robes and medicine. Soon, overcome by jealousy, they decided to do something about it.

In Savatthi there was a female wandering ascetic by the name of Sundari. She was young in age and bad in character. The ascetics planned to attack the character and reputation of the Buddha and the monks through this female ascetic.

“Sister, you must try to help us do something about the Buddha,” they told her. “He is attracting supporters away from us.”

“What can I do for you?” Sundari asked.

“You can help us by visiting the Jeta’s Grove regularly to find out as much as you can about the Buddha. Find us a way we may try to win the people back to support us.”

Sundari visited the Jeta’s Grove regularly to spy on the Buddha. She did not know the real purpose — an evil one — of the ascetics in asking her to go there. After a time, the ascetics became sure that many people had seen Sundari going regularly to the Jeta’s Grove. They killed her and buried her in a nearby ditch. They then went to King Pasenadi of Kosala and reported that Sundari was missing and was last seen with the Buddha.

“Where do you suspect she is?” asked the king.

“She may still be in the Jeta’s Grove, Great King,” they replied. “We are worried because she has never been known to remain very long after the Buddha has finished giving his sermon.”

The king said, “Then you must go immediately to search for her there.”

The ascetics pretended to search for Sundari in the Jeta’s Grove. After searching for some time, they went to the spot where they had buried her and dug up her body. Placing the corpse on a stretcher, they carried it back to Savatthi. All the way they shouted angrily at the top of their voices, “See Lords, see the work of these monks who call themselves holy people. They are shameless and wicked liars. See what they have done. They have committed sexual misconduct with poor Sundari and then they have killed her to hide their crimes.”

The Buddha’s disciples became frightened by these accusations and did not know what to do, but the Buddha calmly told them to control their fears. There was nothing to be frightened about, since they were innocent of the crime.

The Buddha advised them, “The people will accuse you and scold you, but you will do nothing except to recite these words: ‘Those who lie and those who deny what they have done are equal in their evil deeds and both suffer.’ Then be patient. The people will see how calm you are and will grow tired of scolding you. Within seven days, the shouting and accusations will subside.”

The disciples heeded the Buddha’s advice and people soon began to ask each other why the Buddha and his disciples were so calm. Then they remembered that the Buddha and his disciples were virtuous and that they had never been known to commit any evil crime. “Someone else must have murdered poor Sundari!” they cried. “It’s impossible that such compassionate religious teachers could have done it.” In the end, the shouting stopped and the Buddha used this incident to give some advice to his disciples on how to endure abuse with patience: “When harsh words are spoken to a bhikkhu, let him endure with an unruffled mind.”

After some time, the king discovered that the very ascetics who had warned of the evil deeds had committed the crime. When they were brought before the king, they confessed their crimes in public and were punished accordingly. After the incident the Buddha and his disciples became more honoured and respected in Savatthi.