The glittering ensemble of Lord Buddha’s noble disciples including the Eighty Great Ones were personages virtually all of whom displayed on outstanding individual characteristic of their own, rendering the entire Order a veritable spectrum of unparalleled iridescence. They left behind a legacy of sheer moral inspiration for all humankind to extol till wisdom persists on earth.
One among them, though not in the cluster of the resplendent Eighty was Arahant Chakkhupala known as Palitha or Mahapala in lay life who adorns the first page of that revered handbook of every Buddhist the Dhammapada, ‘Treasury of Truth’. Ironically the celebrated monk’s life-story was chosen by the Blessed One to illumine the basic tenet of the world that mind is the forerunner of all deeds evil.
As a wealthy layman of Savatthi he once accompanied the townsfolk to pay a visit to Jetawanaramaya. Of all the crowd that was present, the Blessed One perceived the imminent blossoming of Mahapala’s accumulated merit and delivered the unfailing preachment embodying the sequential path of charity, rectitude, ascension to the heavens, discernment of base desires and their superficiality ending with the incomparable bliss of renunciation that drives beings to embrace the unique state of homelessness.
Palitha thought to himself ‘Those who leave this world are never accompanied by their possessions, their dear and loved ones, least of all their own selves pampered an entire lifetime. What purpose is there for me in this lay life, I shall enter the order today’. At close of the sermon as was known to Buddha alone, he rushed upto Him to plead ordination. As was the practice, the Blessed One advised him to gain a relative’s approval for the purpose, which he did from his younger brother beside the latter’s desperate pleas and protests. Having received ordination and higher ordination he spent five years under the guidance of his senior. Being of fairly advanced age now, short of time to engage in the study of the great philosophy, he selected the alternative course and reverentially requested the Blessed One for a meditation topic, which was obliged by Him with a course of instructions leading upto Arahanthood.
Along with a group of sixty like-minded monks, he embarked on a long journey in search of a suitable location to spend the three month rainy season. 120 yojuns (720 miles) away, the inhabitants of a village much impressed by the tranquil bearing of the alms-begging bhikkhus insisted on providing them with dwelling places. They accepted the kind offer thinking to themselves ‘these devoted clans have indeed come forward to assist us escape from the endless samsaric journey’.
Having settled down, Bhikkhu Mahapala questioned others how many meditation positions they intend to avail of in the coming three months. When they said all four, the Bhikkhu exhorted, “Is that good enough? Should we haste not? Have we not come here having received instructions from a living Buddha? Buddhas are not made happy by trickery but by good thoughts alone. Friends, to one who tarries the four dreaded worlds are like his residence”.
Questioned by others, he stated he would never lie down, never straighten his back for the entire three months, an indication of the limits of endurance he is prepared for. With avowed determination he set down to his meditative practice without a moment’s break. At the end of the first month he was afflicted with a terrible eye disease. Tears flowed as from a punctured pail . The village physician gave an eye lotion which the Bhikkhu applied while seated. When questioned by the physician during a subsequent alms-round he replied the pain still persists. Being a potent medicine, puzzled, he asked whether it was applied lying down. There was no reply. When persistent questioning fell on deaf ears he decided to take a look at his dwelling place, where he saw a place to sit, a path for walking meditation, but no bed to sleep on.
The physician pleaded that this be not done, that monkhood could be effected only in good health. The Bhikkhu promised he would do the needful after ‘discussion’, sent the physician away, entered the kuti and engaged in a most penetrating, spellbinding self-analysis to be found anywhere in the written language.
“How, Palitha? Do you entertain the expectations of your eyes or the Buddha Sasana. Tell, Palitha, numberless were the times you were born without eyes in this samsara with no beginning or end. Palitha, tens and thousands were the Buddhas that endowed mankind and passed away while you kept pacing the earth, none of whom you benefitted from. Palitha, let your eyes perish, you ought to spend these three months in meditation without a moment’s rest”. How did this personal enquiry conducted in seclusion come to light? One is never alone in the world. The Maha Arahants with supernormal capabilities read others’ thoughts, hear others’ words and do see their movements both past and present. Atthakatha records certain forest dwelling devas (wana devata) too possess such powers.
The Bhikkhu now with aggravated disease was accosted again by the physician who came to the conclusion he was beyond correction and help, and said to him “Venerable Sir, please tell no one that I treated you, neither will I “ The noble Bhikkhu entered his kuti again to pronounce a final decree on himself.
“Palitha, you have now been abandoned by your physician, condemned to death. Would you delay further?” With those profound words he re-commenced his meditation with unadulterated fervour. Just past midnight the obliteration of all defilement and total eclipse of his sight occurred together, in unison. The original rendition is a masterpiece. He became a Shushka Vidarshaka Arahant sans any of the super-normal powers. Why? He had no aspirations to any of them.
The sixty mundane Bhikkhus wept inconsolably, took turns in alms-begging on his behalf. Following a course of meditative instructions imparted by him, all sixty bhikkhus attained Maha Archantship possessed of all supra-mundane powers just before the end of the vas period.
When the monks expressed the desire to pay homage to the Blessed One at Jetawanaramaya Bhikkhu Chakkupala declined the offer since he would be a hindrance to them but requested that Buddha and the Eighty Great Ones be worshiped in his name. Reluctantly they left without him and did as instructed and also informed the Bhikkhu’s brother at Savatthi who wept inconsolably on hearing the news. He dispatched his nephew ordained for the purpose on the monks’ advice, to bring back the Bhikkhu to Savatthi where he constructed a kuti for him.
At the end of the long journey the novice monk reached the Bhikkhu. As instructed by the Bhikkhu he took one end of the walking stick and started leading him through a path that lay across a back wood. Some way along the route the samanera was mesmerized by the singing voice of a woman gathering firewood in the jungle, and was overpowered by a ruinous, burning sense desires. Blinded to reason and judgment, he kept his end of the walking stick on the ground to take leave of himself saying he has some work to do. Atthakatha quotes the Buddha here, “The world knows no sound as a woman’s voice that can completely conquer the body and plunder the mind of a man”. Gasping, as of a deranged mind the woman stood transfixed at the sight of this wondrous man. The Bhikkhu came to the inevitable conclusion the samanera had fallen prey to the ways of flesh, shattering the supremely sanctified primary vinaya rule of priesthood. The samanera took some time to return.”Sir, let’s proceed now” said he. “Samanera, did you commit sacrilege?” He fell silent.”There is no holding of the walking stick by the like of you again, ever. Devastated, he pleaded he was ordained not through conviction but necessity, that he is in essence a layman.
“You sinner, one who commits sins whether lay or clergy is the same. I may fall dead here, but there is no question of my going with you again”. Unable to bear the brunt of the words, he crept into the jungle clasping his head in both hands.
A calamity of such magnitude that befalls a being such as Bhikkhu Chakkhupala never escapes the divine notice of Sakka the king of gods of Thavathimsa. He instantly descended upon the forest and made a sound with his feet. “Who is it” said the Bhikkhu Venerable Sir, I am a user of this jungle path, I am on my way to Savatthi. “Good man, then may you proceed.” “In which direction is Venerable Sir proceeding?” “I too am going in that direction”. “Then Sir, both may go together.” “I am weak, you’d be delayed in my company.” “Venerable Sir, I am in no particular hurry. I will be the beneficiary of one of the ten great meritorious deeds (dasa punya kriya) by assisting a bhikkhu like you”. The Bhikkhu thought this must be a kind man and asked him to take hold of the stick.
Commanding his stupendous supernormal powers the king of gods constricted the earth to reach the destination in the evening when melodious music could be heard emanating from several places “What is the music that we hear? “ asked the Bhikkhu “Reverand Sir, we have reached Savatthi”. “Good man, this journey took a much longer time before, but not so today”. “Venerable Sir, we took a short route today which I knew of”. The noble Bhikkhu thought this cannot be a man, but a god. Sakka left him in the building built for him by his brother, assumed the form of a friend of the brother to tell him that he saw the Bhikkhu in the kuti and disappeared. The brother who hurried there wept again on seeing him.
The morning after heavy rain on a particular day, Bhikkhu Chakkhupala engaging in his favourite walk meditation trampled many insects that had risen from the earth. The monks who saw the dead creatures complained to the Blessed One who asked them whether they saw the Bhikkhu kill them. When they replied in the negative, Buddha remarked in inimitable turn of phrase, Bhikkhu Chakkhupala didn’t see it either. “Monks, an Arahant is devoid of volition to harm another being. “Venerable Sir, why did he become blind when he had all the merit to attain Nibbana?” The Blessed One explained in detail his past kamma where as a physician in the long past he contrived to blind a patient for dishouring her part of the agreement after being completely cured. The stunning simile he evoked on that occasion remains a household word with every Buddhist to-date.
“Thoughts are preceded by mind, have mind as their chief, are born of the mind. If with impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him as does the wheel the hoof of the ox that draws the cart”. Dhammapada the inexhaustible reservoir of sublime grandeur follows up the Bhikkhu Chakkhupala legend with an equally fascinating narrative on the innocent youth Mattakundali where the Great Sage immortalizes the mellifluous truth that happiness pursues one who speaks and acts with a pure mind as his shadow that never leaves.