Nothing is dearer to a living being than his or her own life, as wise Queen Mallika confessed, much to King Kosala’s disappointment. Love of life, with the exception of an Arahant in whom the notion is non-existent, does not extinguish with one’s death. Hence the endless process of recurring existence.
As Ven. Rerukane Chandawimala Mahanayake Thera notes in his masterly rendition on intricacies of insight meditation, this primordial love of life in man called ‘sakkaya ditthi’ requires that he continue to remain a distinct individual in the world, whereas in reality he is a mere collection of the four mental factors and the four great elements (maha bhootha), the quintessence of existence. Comprehensive realization of this salient truth is termed ‘ditthi visuddhi’. A gross manifestation of the notion of ‘self’ is when one feels that remaining a mere individual is monotonous and humdrum. Rising above others, they demand to be heard, sung of in praises and held in adulation. Primus inter pares, the primitive instinct at play. At the other end of the spectrum are the sublime heroes of seclusion, embarking on a path or having reached its end, withdrawn, reserved and shunning publicity. A few such characters who adorn the scriptures will be a subject of discussion here.
A group of elderly bhikkhus was once dwelling in the Mango Forest in Majjimasanda during the time of the Blessed One when the erudite Gokula householder, Citta invited them to his residence for a meal. He personally served them with milk rice cooked in ghee. When the monks began leaving after the meal, he followed closely behind, having instructed the inmates to clear the remaining food. In the sweltering heat outside, they felt they were almost withering. The Mahaka Thera, the youngest among the gathering of bhikkhus, opined that it would be nice if a cold wind blew, some clouds hovered overhead and a few drops of rain came down. The venerable elders agreed.
Mahaka Thera then performed a spiritual wonder where a cold wind blew, clouds drifted above and drops of rain came down. It occurred to the householder that such were the miraculous powers of the young Bhikkhu Mahaka.
On arrival at the hermitage, the several monks went to their respective dwellings and Mahaka Thera to his. Citta the householder, followed Mahaka Thera, worshipped him and said “Venerable Sir, may the noble Mahaka Thera be kind enough to show me a superhuman feat of miraculous power.” The monk replied, “then householder, spread your shoulder cloth on the verandah and scatter some grass on it.” The householder did as was told. Thereupon, the bhikkhu entered his dwelling, closed the door and sent flames through the keyhole and the space between the door and frame that turned the grass to ash but left the shawl intact. Having shaken out the shawl, Citta stood to a side, terrified. Mahaka Thera emerged from the room and said “Is this enough, householder?” “Venerable Mahaka, it is enough, it is adequate. Much was done. May noble Mahaka Thera delight in the magnificent Mango Grove and continue to live here. I will not fail in providing Ven Mahaka Thera with robes, alms food, lodgings and medicines.” “That is kind of you, householder” the noble Thera said. He set his room in order and left Majjimasanda, taking with him his bowl and robes, never to return again.
The case of Haththaka Alawaka is equally sensational, in different mode and tenor. In his young days, he was saved from an unimaginably horrific death through the intervention of the Buddha.
Many years on, when the Blessed One was residing at the Aggalawa shrine at Alaunuwara, he had occasion to address the bhikkhus, “Monks, bear in mind that young Haththaka Alawaka possesses seven amazing, astounding qualities. He is endowed with faith, he is virtuous and is possessed of a sense of moral shame. He has a sense of moral fear. He is learned, generous and he is wise. You have to remember that Haththaka Alawaka is one with these seven qualities.”
The following morning, one of the monks approached Haththaka Alawaka and repeated exactly what the Buddha had said of him.
Said Haththaka Alawaka, “Venerable Sir, was there a white-clad layman present when the Blessed One said it?”
“No friend, there was no white clad layman present when the Blessed One said it”
“Venerable Sir, it is good there was no layman present there”
When the monk narrated the conversation he had with young Haththaka Alawaka, the Blessed One pronounced “Bhikkhu, sadhu sadhu, that clansman of minimal desires wishes not even his wholesome qualities become public knowledge. Therefore bhikkuhs, bear in mind that he possesses an eighth amazing, astounding quality, that of fewness of desires.”
Fewness of desires and wants termed ‘Appiccatha’ is a sine qua non for progress on the path, as enumerated in the marvellous teaching. A foremost figure in the assembly of the Buddha’s noble disciples renowned for extreme frugality and incredulously solitary lifestyle was Maha Arahant Manthanipuththa Punna, peerless in the wondrous art of proclaiming to the world the “dasakatha”, the ten exemplary qualities of detachment, morality, energy, isolation and contentment, among others.
Each Arahant in the immaculate Bhikkhu Order was a remarkably exceptional personage. Majjantika was the Maha Arahant assigned to officiate at the offering ceremony of a stupa to Sangha by Emperor Asoka. People gathered asked the noble Bhikkhu to move away, seeing the coarse, worthless robe he had worn for such a solemn occasion. ‘Who else other that an Arahant like me should assist the Emperor in an event as this’ he thought, and disappeared into the earth to reappear near the stupa to perform his function.
Again, Bhikkhu Sosanika Maha Kumara lived in the cemetery for sixty years engaged in the most harsh, spine-chilling form of meditation known to man without anyone coming to know of it. The particular ascetic practice is awe-inspiring, he said later. Vissuddhi Magga discloses, at a point of time, certain meditators feel as though the corpse actually keeps walking behind them- the moment of reckoning for the recluse, for there is no cadaver that ever rose from the grave.
Sakethatissa Thera was averse to his erudition and declined to preach or to answer questions put to him by monks on the pretext that he was hard pressed for time. The monks sallied him whether he had arrived at death’s door. He left his accusers, came to Kihiriwela Ocean Shrine, where on the day ending the rainy retreat (Vas) he delivered a sermon that lit up the entire state. These noble bhikkhus did proud the great religion whose cornerstones are simplicity, honesty and humility.
Diametrically opposed to the ethos above, is the taint of ‘Mahecctha’, wanting to display one’s knowledge and being limitless in one’s wants and requirements. The inferno, the ocean and the mahecca individual are not appeased even with many possessions, states the commentary.
‘Athriccatha’ is defined as discontentment with one’s own gain and the desire to acquire equal gains as of another. ‘Papiccatha’ signifies display of qualities which one does not possess and accepting more offerings than the actual requirement.
Finally, in an era where mankind is in relentless pursuit of insatiable fame, power and material acquisition, the five great bhikkhus and the lone layman named above, cast an ethereal spell on the whole of humanity which wittingly or unwittingly is drawn towards a fantasy world that has miserably failed in its promise of Utopia.