El·e·na [el-uh-nuh, uh-ley-nuh; It. e-le-nah] /ˈɛlənə, əˈleɪnə; It. ɛˈlɛnɑ/ –noun a female given name, form of Helen // A proud student of His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche // Personal assistant with a BSc (Hons) Psych from Uni of Warwick // These are snapshots of my life, in words and pictures

Devadatta and how NOT to end up in Avici

June 11, 2013 0

Rinpoche had us writers watch this video today of Professor Donald S Lopez narrating the story of Devadatta. Whilst the Professor’s narration was very clear, I have to say that it was our discussion afterwards that really changed my perspective about Devadatta.

Lesson #1: don’t be surprised when people are never happy with how well you have done. If they can be better, they will try. So just relax and be yourself, because eventually they will tire out.

Devadatta’s life was essentially a competition against his cousin Siddhartha, who was an Indian prince born in modern day Nepal and who was destined to become Buddha Shakyamuni. Throughout his life, Devadatta competed against his cousin to be the best archer, the strongest weightlifter, the best equestrian, the most successful ladies’ man…but with Siddhartha being who he was, he won all of these competitions effortlessly (much to Devadatta’s annoyance, I’m sure!).

Why did Devadatta ask that of the Buddha? Did he ask out of genuine concern for Buddha’s old age? Or was he really so arrogant to think he was capable of leading Buddha’s flock? Did he ask because he wanted a few years of leadership to show Buddha he was the better leader?

Whatever Devadatta’s motivation was, we know it can’t have been good because it eventually landed him in Avici, the Hell of Uninterrupted Pain. So that’s another lesson right there: Motivation Matters.

Fire and brimstone: not a Christian monopoly

Fire and brimstone: not a Christian monopoly

Lesson #2: stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result.

I thought it was incredible (yet not unbelievable) how decades of practice had clearly resulted in nothing but an inflated ego for Devadatta. It was clear that Devadatta had been in Dharma all along but Dharma wasn’t in him. So although he had the great merit to sit at Shakyamuni’s feet – much more merit than we ever had! – he squandered the opportunity.

He squandered the opportunity in much the same way as many of us now do with Rinpoche who teaches us kindly, consistently and continuously. But how many of us really internalise the teachings, remember them, practise them, then teach them to others? How are we different now we’re in the Dharma, compared to the times before we met the Dharma?

So don’t be surprised when senior students behave contrary to their label, because time does not equal attainments – you can be in Dharma for decades, but without practice there will not be any transformation. And don’t be surprised when you’re still unhappy and suffering in 20 years’ time…what are you doing differently now to stop that from happening then?

Lesson #3: don’t be so arrogant. You are your own miniature Devadatta. Really.

As Buddhists, we often look at Devadatta’s story in horror and wonder how people could be so callous and cruel as to want to harm the Buddha. Uh oh, ego alert! Because as Buddhists, are we so different to Devadatta when we neglect our teachers’ instructions, ignore our lamas’ advice and, through our actions, render our spiritual practices irrelevant and ineffective?

After the months and years our teachers have spent on us, what have they received in return? Our mind transformation? Or our repeated rejections of their kindness? All those slaps to the face, they get tiring, y’know, in the nirmanakaya form.

Lesson #4: sometimes you won’t recognise kindness until centuries later. So thank your teacher anyway.

I wonder if Devadatta was in fact an emanation of Shakyamuni all along, because surely Buddha with his clairvoyance would have seen the effects of his rejecting Devadatta’s wish to lead the sangha.

Why did Buddha reject him so openly? Why did Buddha reject him using such harsh words? Was the Buddha *gasp* being mean on purpose?

No, on the contrary. How kind of Buddha to reject him so openly, thereby setting Devadatta off on his rampage. If Buddha hadn’t done that, caused the rampage and shown all the sangha who Devadatta really is, perhaps after Shakyamuni’s parinirvana, Devadatta would’ve taken over the monastic community and destroyed the Dharma for everyone. And that karma – the karma of denying countless sentient beings the precious Buddhadharma – would have been far worse for Devadatta.

By rejecting him and triggering Devadatta’s apparently latent murderous tendencies, Shakyamuni in fact limited the negative repercussions of Devadatta’s actions to only Devadatta against the Buddha himself.

Lesson #5: don’t slap someone then say sorry. And then do it again and expect them to forgive you. It just makes you an (insert an insult).

Devadatta attempted to kill Buddha four times (some say five). The first time, Devadatta sent 16 archers to Shakyamuni who converted all of them. The second time, Devadatta sent a giant boulder crashing down towards Shakyamuni, but two rocky outcrops miraculously sprung up to shield him.

The third time, Devadatta sent the fierce elephant Nalagiri / Dhanapala rampaging towards Buddha, who subdued him and calmed him down. Note that Nalagiri was also drunk on toddy so it just goes to show, aggression and drinking go hand in hand.

Alcohol makes for an unhappy elephant

Alcohol makes for an unhappy elephant

The fourth attempt was not so much an assassination attempt, than an attempt to chip away at Buddha’s popularity. Devadatta, in trying to draw the sangha away and turn them against Buddha, set up five precepts which he said all ascetics should follow:

  1. that monks should dwell all their lives in the forest,
  2. that they should accept no invitations to meals, but live entirely on alms obtained by begging,
  3. that they should wear only robes made of discarded rags and accept no robes from the laity,
  4. that they should dwell at the foot of a tree and not under a roof,
  5. that they should abstain completely from fish and flesh.

Except for the fifth rule, Buddha wasn’t having any of it. And neither were his monks, the majority of whom stuck to their teacher (more on this later).

Now for those who love an alternative ending, there is a supposed fifth time, when Devadatta realised that he was nearing his own end. He set off to to see Buddha for the last time. At this point, some say Devadatta was truly contrite and regretful of his actions. Others say that Devadatta would not give up, and smeared poison under his fingernails in a final assassination attempt.

Whichever version you choose, the conclusion remains them same – on his way to see Buddha (whether it was to repent for his previous attempts, or to make a final fifth attempt), Devadatta sat by a stream to rest. As he rested, the earth opened up and swallowed him whole, feet first. When the earth reached his jaw and he was about to disappear, Devadatta cried out for forgiveness and sincerely regretted.

But you know what they say, too little, too late. Karma doesn’t forget and it was straight down to Avici for Devadatta (do not pass Go, do not collect $200, etc.).

Lesson #6: birds of a feather, flock together. Not for lack of originality, but why hang out with a crowd of people who don’t think the same way as you?

Back to Devadatta’s five not-so brilliant rules, which no one except Devadatta liked. I found it interesting that Devadatta tried to draw disciples away from the Buddha, because it mirrors what many Dharma centres and teachers go through, year in and year out.

There will always be people who quit and leave, for whatever their delusionally-valid reasons may be. But look at the people who are gone and ask yourself, what did they do with their lives after they left? Did they become such a roaring success that to not associate with them is your loss? If they couldn’t handle the training in Dharma (where people are outwardly brash but ultimately kind), can they handle the world outside (where people are outwardly and inwardly unkind)?

So don’t expect me to go near those people who have left, not because I’ll be influenced. Don’t expect me to go near them because ingratitude gets on my nerves and I have very very little patience for hypocrisy, disloyalty and any other kind of funny business. In fact, up until six months ago, my raison d’être was to show those people just how wrong they were about us (I know, where’s my compassion and forgiveness?).

Ingratitude. It’s a passion-killer.

So there you go. The six lessons I learned from that video about Devadatta. I’ll probably think of a few more lessons after I publish this (isn’t that always how it works?) but those will be for another post.

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