The Buddha was remarkable in mind and body. He was said to be endowed physically, for example, with the thirty-two major marks and eighty secondary marks of a superman, and his voice had sixty-four kinds of euphony. Such qualities of the Buddha were the direct result of his practice of virtue in former lives, and stories were told about what the Buddha had done in the past that caused him to possess a particular remarkable quality in the present. These stories illustrated both the great virtue of the Buddha and the workings of the law of karma. The story here explains why, when the community of monks suffered from a bout of gastric distress, the Buddha remained well.
The Buddha tells the story of King Padmaka, a virtuous monarch who cares benevolently for his subjects. When an epidemic strikes, he uses all of his resources to procure medicine, but to no avail; he is told that his people can be cured only by eating the flesh of a rare fish. The king concludes that he can provide no further benefit to his subjects in his present form and commits suicide, vowing to be reborn as this rare fish. His wish is granted, and he allows himself to be captured and eaten by his people, explaining to them that he is in fact King Padmaka, come back in the form of a fish to save them.
The king’s sacrifice is a famous example of the virtue of giving, specifically giving the gift of the body (see the next two chapters). In a sense, the king sacrifices his body twice for the sake of his people: first by committing suicide and then by allowing his new ichthyoid flesh to be consumed. The fish is a bodhisattva and is freeing others from disease with the gift of his flesh so that he might free them from the disease of samsara with the gift of the dharma when he achieves buddhahood in the distant future.
This story is classed as an avadana, perhaps best translated as *legend’. The term is used for an early genre of Buddhist stories in which a situation in the present is explained by recounting events from the past. In an avadara, the protagonist may or may not be the Buddha in a former life (in this story he is); thus the genre of the avadana and the genre of the jataka intersect. These legends often begin with someone asking the Buddha why something is the way it is. The Buddha will then, using his prodigious memory of the past, tell a story of a former life in which something occurred whose effects are evident in the present. He will often conclude his account by identifying the characters in the story with members of his audience.
The story below occurs in one of the earliest and most famous avadana collections, the AvadanaSataka (One Hundred Legends,), a Sanskrit work of the Sarvastivadin school, dating from around 100 ce In this collection, ghosts explain the sinful deeds they did in the past that resulted in their sad fate, gods tell of the good deeds that caused them to be reborn in heaven. Monks and nuns who have achieved nirvana explain what they did in past lives that led them to enlightenment. And the Buddha explains what acts he performed that led to his present state.
The Blessed Buddha was respected, venerated, esteemed and adored by kings, ministers, wealthy people, citizens, merchants, traders, devas, nagas, yaksas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras and mahoragas. Thus honoured by all such beings, the Blessed Buddha – well-known, of great merit, rich in the personal belongings of a monk [robe, alms-bowl, furnishings and medicine] – was dwelling in Sravasti with an assembly of disciples, at Prince Jeta’s grove, in Anathapindada’s garden.
At the time of the autumn season, the monks were stricken by illness. They were yellow and pale, their bodies emaciated and their limbs weak. But the Blessed One was free from disease, free from illness, healthy and strong. Seeing this, the monks addressed the Blessed One:
‘Look, Venerable One, these monks are stricken by an autumnal illness. They are yellow and pale, their bodies emaciated and their limbs weak. But the Blessed One is free from disease, free from illness, strong and healthy by nature, endowed with a stomach whose digestion is regular.’
The Blessed One said: ‘Formerly, monks, in other births, the Tathagata alone performed certain acts. These acts have accumulated, their necessary requirements have been met, their conditions have ripened, they rush towards one like a rapid flow, their consequences are inevitable. I am the one who performed and accumulated these acts – who else would experience their fruits? The acts that a person performs and accumulates, monks, do not bear fruit outside of that person – not in the earth, not in the water, not in fire and not in the air. Rather, the acts that a person performs, whether pure or impure, bear fruit in the body and mind that he receives.’
Deeds do not perish, even after hundreds of aeons. When completeness is achieved and the time has arrived, they inevitably bear fruit for embodied beings.
And with that, he launched into a story of the past.
Formerly, monks, long ago, in the city of Varanasi, a king named Padmaka ruled over his kingdom. It was prosperous, flourishing and safe; abundant in food and well-populated; tranquil and free of quarrels, fights, riots, or tumults; free of thievery and disease; rich in rice, sugar cane, cows and buffalo; self-contained and free of enemies; ruled over like an only son.
Now, this king was faithful and good. He had a virtuous disposition and worked for the welfare of himself and others. He was compassionate and magnanimous, loved virtue and was affectionate towards living beings. He was a giver of everything, a renouncer of everything, one who gave without attachment and engaged in great generosity.
Now, at that time in Vārāṇasī, because of a disturbance in the weather or the elements, an epidemic arose and most of the people in Varanasi became ill. Seeing them, the king gave rise to compassion. ‘I must attend to them medically and save their lives,’ he thought.
So the king gathered together all of the doctors residing within his territories; observed the cause, basis and effects of the people’s illness; and himself began to assemble all kinds of medicines and care for the sick. But although the people were treated for a long time and furnished with doctors, medicines, herbs and attendants, they failed to be cured.
So the king summoned all of the doctors again and respectfully asked them: ‘Why am I having such a hard time curing these people?’
The doctors, having considered his question and come to one opinion, told him both the good news and the bad news. ‘Lord,’ they said, ‘we believe the illness is a result of a disturbance in the weather or in the elements. However, Lord, there is one cure – the type of fish called a Rohita. If you can catch it, they can be cured.’
So the king began the search for the Rohita fish. But even though many of the king’s men searched for it, the king was soon informed that the fish could not be caught.
Later on, when the king went out for an excursion, the sick assembled together and said to the king: ‘Save us from this disease, Great King! Give us life!’ Hearing their suffering voices and their miserable, sad and depressed words, the king’s heart trembled out of compassion and his face was tearful and gloomy.
He thought to himself: ‘Of what use to me is a life such as this? Of what use to me are kingship, sovereignty and supremacy? For I am unable to comfort others who are afflicted by suffering!’
Having reflected thus, the king made a great gift of all his wealth and established his eldest son in the kingship, sovereignty and supremacy. He begged for the pardon of his relatives, citizens and ministers, and consoled those who were miserable. He undertook a vow consisting of eight parts. Then he ascended to the roof of his palace, threw down incense, flowers, perfumes, garlands and unguents and, facing towards the east, began to take a vow:
‘Seeing beings who have fallen into great misfortune and are tormented by disease, I will sacrifice my own cherished life. By these true words of truth, may I appear as a great Rohita fish in this sandy river!’
Having spoken thus, he threw himself from the roof of the palace. As soon as he fell, he died and reappeared as a great Rohita fish in the sandy river. And the gods let loose a cry throughout the whole country:
‘This great Rohita fish has appeared like ambrosia in the sandy river for beings long tormented by great illness!’
As soon as they heard this, a great crowd of people carrying baskets and gripping weapons in their hands came out, and, with various types of sharp weapons, they began to cut up the flesh of the fish while he was still alive. But even as his body was being carved up, the bodhisattva suffused those beings with love, and with his face flowing with tears, thought to himself:
‘My capture is a wonderful thing, since by means of my flesh and blood, these beings will be put at ease.’
Thus, in this way, he satiated those beings with his own flesh and blood for twelve years, and he never turned his mind away from unsurpassed perfect awakening.
When he had fully cured the people’s illness, the Rohita fish said these words:
‘Listen, you beings! I am King Padmaka! I have acquired this type of body for your sake through the sacrifice of my own life. Let your minds be appeased in my presence. When I have awakened to unsurpassed perfect awakening, I will liberate you from the supreme illness of samsdra and establish you in the supreme end of nirvana?
Upon hearing this, the crowd of people felt serene, and the king, ministers and citizens – honouring him with flowers, incense, garlands and unguents – undertook a vow:
‘O you who accomplish extremely difficult deeds, when you have awakened to unsurpassed perfect awakening, may we be your disciples!’
The Blessed One concluded: ‘What do you think, monks? He who was, at that time, in that epoch, the king named Padmaka – 1 am he. It is because I made such sacrifices that I experienced perpetual well-being in samsara, and even now – having awoken to unsurpassed, perfect awakening – am endowed with a stomach whose digestion is regular, by means of which everything I eat, drink, chew and enjoy is digested with perfect ease, and I am free of disease and have left illness behind.
‘Therefore, monks, this is the lesson to be learned: You must show compassion for all beings. This, monks, is the lesson to be learned.’
Thus spoke the Blessed One. And the monks, delighted in mind, rejoiced at what the Blessed One had said.
Translated by Reiko Ohnuma from Padmakavadana, Avadanasataka 31, in J. S. Speyer (ed.), AvadanaSataka: A Century of Edifying Tales Belonging to the Hinayana, 2 vols., Bibliotheca Buddhica III (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992; reprint of original edition, 1902-1909), vol. 1, pp. 168-72.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.
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