Absolving guilt and cleansing one’s sins have remained the most compelling notions of man from the day he was able to distinguish right from wrong. There is nothing more comforting to the undeveloped psyche than to be able to lay absolute faith in one’s chosen formula of redemption with the singular hope of escaping punishment and finding salvation.
Varied therefore, were techniques adopted by him to achieve that end, the most primitive being worship of mountains and trees. Thereafter, prayer and supplication to a higher invisible being in combination with varying degrees of penance became common. Seeking redemption from evildoing solely through self-mortification and infliction of unimaginably harsh punishment on oneself were equally widespread. These phenomena are existent in all their diversity today as they were then and will be so as long as man lives.
“A vast majority of beings merely run along the shore, a handful crosses the stream.”
In the era of Gautama Buddha, there lived a slave maid named Punna who left an indelible mark in the firmament of the noble dispensation through her beauteous reformation from a commonplace entity to an outstanding Sottapanna disciple of the Blessed One, renowned for her penetrating mind and sharp wit. She was a faithful minion in the household of millionaire Anathapindika of Savatthi, chief benefactor of Buddha. Two brief but memorable episodes in her life made a permanent niche in the most colourful saga in the history of mankind, first of which is carried in the mesmerizing “Psalms of the Sisters”
Consequent to her attaining full enlightenment she commences her narrative proper from the hazy past of Vipassi Buddha epoch, as contained in Attakatha.
I was a priestess then, thoroughly versed in Tripitaka, erudite and scholarly.So was I in subsequent dispensations of Buddhas, Sikhi, Vessabhu, Kakusanda, Konagamana and Kassapa. However, I could not destroy the cankers that bound me to the world since I did not eliminate the pride of my own erudition. Hence in this final birth too, I was conceived in the womb of a slave woman under Anathapindika the nobleman.In the freezing cold of a wintry morning, I went to the stream to fetch some water.
Soththiya, the brahmin master of Rig Veda with shivering body and chattering teeth was immersed in it. Brahmin, I get in the water in fear of my master’s reprimands. In fear of whom do you suffer this agony. You ask me Punnika, knowing well what I do. An old man or toddler commits sins. All their sins are cleansed with this water. By which ignorant one to which ignorant one was it said that water is the cure for wrongs done.
All toads, turtles, crocodiles and other water-based creatures reach the heavens. Killers of sheep, swine, fish and bovine, robbers and executioners are all redeemed by immersing in water. If rivers rid men of their sins, aren’t their good deeds too rid in the same way. Do rivers then become carriers of sins displaced from those who carried them before. Submerging in water in fear of another does not serve the purpose. Brahmin, let not the frigid water ravage your skin.
Sister, you saved me from a watery ordeal, I offer this robe to you. I do not wish it, may it be yours. If you fear sorrow, shun evil deeds done in the open or in secrecy. There is no escape by flying away from a foul deed. If you fear and dislike sorrow, seek shelter under Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and observe sila. It will hold you in good stead.
Meritorious One, I will do as you said. Inspired by the Sotapanna attainer’s exhilarating words the brahmin entered the Order and brought life’s long journey to the sublime end.
The second of the episodes is equally fascinating. At end of the rainy season the Blessed One decided to leave Jetawanaramaya on His mission of disseminating Dhamma among the masses. Just the two chief disciples were to stay behind. Anatapindika, Buddha’s disciple of boundless munificence was distraught; a day wouldn’t pass without his seeing the Great Being, without benefiting from a word of advice from him, without offering alms to a thousand bhikkhus. He wouldn’t ask a single question from his Mentor lest he wearies Him by it. On this occasion, plead as he did, Buddha wouldn’t change His mind. Observing the melancholy of her master, Punna offered to persuade the Blessed One from embarking on the proposed journey and Anathapindika offered to release her from bondage if she succeeded. Ecstatic about the prospect of priceless freedom, she made a beeline for Jetawanaramaya where Buddha had just stepped out on his itinerary.
“Lord, may you please not proceed. How are you to benefit by my not proceeding. Lord, you are aware of my slavery. There is nothing that I can do, other then go for refuge to observe the five precepts. Very well, Punna, very well.” The final words of Punna’s immortal utterance to Soththiya the brahmin is a rendition of the immanent truth of the world in its pristine elegance. Buddhism is furthest from a doomsday religion. Hope springs eternally in the human heart, as has been famously said. Nowhere has this tenet been better expounded in civilized history than in wondrous Sankhadhama Sutta where Buddha questions Asibandhakaputta Gamani the headman how Nigantha Nathaputta teaches Dhamma to his disciples. Gamani replies that his fundamental teaching is, if one destroys life or takes what is not given or engages in sexual misconduct or speaks falsehood, he is bound for a state of woe, bound for hell,since one’s rebirth occurs in the manner in which he usually dwells. The Blessed One points out, in that case none at all is bound for a state of woe, bound for hell, since in comparison the time he dwells committing the aforesaid misdeeds by day or by night is far less than the time he dwells not committing them.
The Blessed One explains further that certain teachers profess the theory that one who commits above said sins are certainly bound for a state of misery, bound for help. The disciple then ponders, I have destroyed life, I have taken what was not given…….., therefore I am destined for a life of misery, a life in hell, and he holds fast to that view. The Blessed One stated that if the disciple does not abandon and relinquish that view, according to his deserts he will be born in hell for certain, as if carried and dropped there.
A Thathagatha then arises in the world, perfectly enlightened and accomplished in knowledge and conduct, teacher of devas and humans, a knower of the worlds. He criticizes and censures in many ways all the aforesaid foul deeds. The disciple reposes absolute confidence in Thathagatha and wisely reflects thus “The Blessed One criticizes and censures those foul deeds in many ways. I have committed such misdeeds. If I have committed such misdeeds to some extent it certainly is not good, not acceptable. Not that I have not done such misdeeds even though I am disturbed by them. Having wisely reflected thus, he abandons destroying life, not taking what is not given,…. .He abstains in the future from destroying life, not taking what is not given …….. Thus are those misdeeds transcended, extinguished.
The noble disciple thus devoid of covetousness and harmful thought, unconfused, with clear comprehension, ever mindful, dwells pervading the four directions, above, below, across and everywhere to all as to himself, with a mind imbued with loving kindness, with compassion, with altruistic joy and equanimity,vast, exalted, limitless, without hostility, without ill will. As a powerful conch blower easily signals the four directions, so too, Gamani, when the mind is liberated and equanimity achieved and fortified, whatever residue kamma that was there before does not remain, persist. (kamavacarakamma cannot transcend a rupavacarakamma).
When this was said by Buddha, Asibandhakaputta Gamani exclaimed “Magnificent, Venerable Sir, magnificent, from today may the Blessed One consider me as a lay follower who has taken refuge for life.”
A hindered mind later liberated, lights up the world like the full moon escaped from a dark cloud, declared the dreaded killer turned celebrated saint Angulimala, recounting his chequered life story, crowing testimony to Sankhadhama Sutta of the incomparable Master of the Universe.