Perhaps the best-known story in all of Thai Buddhism tells of the arhat monk Phra Malai, who one day encountered a poor grass cutter who presented him with eight lotuses, asking that the merit from his gift result in his never being reborn as a poor man again. In order to fulfil his request, Phra Malai took the eight lotuses and, using his supernormal powers, flew to the Heaven of the Thirty-Three atop Mount Meru. When Prince Siddhartha had gone forth from the world, he had cut off his topknot with his sword and thrown it into the air, saying that if he was to achieve his goal, the hair would not descend back to earth. The topknot was caught by Indra, the king of the gods, who enshrined it in a stupa in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, providing an object of worship, and thus merit making, for the gods, who otherwise would fall into a lower realm upon their death in heaven. Phra Malai offered the lotuses to the stupa. The grass cutter who offered the eight lotuses eventually died and was reborn as a god in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three; a lotus bloomed under his feet with every step he took.
While at the stupa, Phra Malai saw a deity approach with one hundred divine attendants. He was told that the deity had been reborn as a god as a result of feeding a starving crow. More gods arrived, one after another, each with a larger retinue than the last, and in each case Phra Malai was told of the act of charity that resulted in their divine station. A deity with twenty thousand attendants had given food to a monk. A deity with forty thousand attendants had given robes, food, shelter and medicine to the sangha. A deity with eighty thousand attendants was a poor man who had caused his master to notice a monk on his almsround. Eventually, Maitreya, the coming Buddha, descended from the Joyous Pure Land to the Heaven of the Thirty- Three, where he also worshipped the stupa. Maitreya asked Phra Malai how the people of Jambudvtpa made merit, and Phra Malai described their various practices, saying that the people of the world did so in order that they might be disciples of Maitreya when he became the next Buddha. Maitreya explained that those who wished to do so should listen, in the course of a day and a night, to the story of the bodhisattva Vessantara, who gave away everything. They should also bring gifts, each numbering one thousand, to the temple where the story is recited.
According to Buddhist cosmology, the conditions in a given world- system depend in part on the presence of a buddha within it. Human society is said to decline gradually after the passing of one buddha and then gradually improve as the advent of the next buddha approaches. Thus, Maitreya describes how the conditions in this world would continue to deteriorate after the passing of Sakyamuni, and then improve before he appeared as the next buddha. Maitreya returned to his heaven, and Phra Malai returned to the world, where he reported Maitreya’s teaching. The following passage is a portion of that report.
Here, Maitreya describes to Phra Malai the utopian conditions that will be manifest in the human realm just before his advent as the next buddha.
The following passage is a translation of an excerpt from a text known in Thai as Phra Malai Klon Suat (PMKS), the *Chanted Version of Phra Malai’. This text is one of many *tellings’ of the story that exist in various Thai dialects and was probably written in the early nineteenth century in what is now central Thailand. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the text was frequently copied on to accordion-folded paper manuscripts in the Khmer script and illustrated with miniature paintings depicting scenes from the story. This version is one of the most colloquial of the many renditions of the story; written entirely in poetry in the original, its tone is conversational and familiar, its images down-to-earth.
‘At that time the people of Chomphudvipa [the human realm] will all live in happiness, comfort, abundance, prosperity and wealth. The surface of the earth will be as smooth as a drumhead, and will be covered with soft grass – four finger-joints in length, glossy, green and fine. Water will flow, filling up ponds, right up to the edge, right up to the brim. It will be this way all the time, not empty and not overflowing, but just enough so that a crow could drink just by lowering its head. It will always be full and so clear and pure that fish will be visible. Maitreya, the pure-hearted lord, the future buddha, will come down to become enlightened as the next great teacher to help those on the earth and those in hell. All people will be able to listen to the dhamma that the Lord will preach to them, and they will reach the edge of the city, enabling them to escape from samsara.’
Then Phra Maitreya recounted this teaching to Phra Malai, ‘When spring arrives, it will rain for five days at a time, five days straight. Then when summer comes along it will rain for fifteen days constantly. When winter comes along, it will rain for fifteen days and fifteen more days. It will rain from dusk until midnight, and when more than half the night is over, it will be bright and clear. It will continue like this without changing. When this becomes the norm, Phra Maitreya will go to spread the dhamma and teach. Those who wish to meet him should listen to the dhamma, practise morality and meditate; then they’ll meet the Omniscient One.
‘When the branches of trees are filled with flowers that bloom during every season, beautiful and luxuriant throughout every season, and each branch is bent low with clusters of fruit of many varieties, delicious in taste, just as sweet as can be, then everyone’s face will radiate happiness. Phra Malai, that’s when I will go to help those on earth to enter nibbana. Those who wish to have the advantage of living then, who wish to see the face of Phra Sri Ariya [Maitreya] should practise morality and generosity and meditate every day.
When the people of Chomphu will be concerned even about those far away, and when they will love each other as if they were one family – like brothers and sisters; when they live close together, as close as bamboo trees in a grove, when their houses are so close together that a chicken could fly from one to the other, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, lord arahant, to help living beings get to heaven, and have them reach nibbana.
‘Those who wish to meet and show reverence to Phra Sri Ariya should become wandering ascetics, meditating on the three characteristics [of impermanence, suffering and non-self] and practise mindfulness. When everyone enjoys immense comfort and eats delicious food with sweet honey, and dances like celestial beings, playing joyfully every day, adorned in gorgeous jewellery; playing lutes, oboes, conch trumpets, gongs and drums, making music together all night; having fun, sleeping comfortably, living in complete joy; not quarrelling or harming one another, that’s when I will go. Phra Malai, have no doubt, I will help those people who are determined to pass beyond suffering to enter nibbana. Those who wish to meet and pay respect to Phra Sri Ariya should hasten to practise generosity and mindfulness.
‘When women and men won’t have to struggle to make their fortune; when, like the celestials in heaven, they’ll have no pain; when the quality of rice and water and clothing is like that of the celestials in heaven, and there are vast amounts of jewels and rings, bracelets and necklaces, O virtuous elder, don’t be impatient, that’s when I will go to help all living beings, all women and men. I’ll preach to them, radiating the sweet words of my teachings. At that time many people will lose interest in the material world and enter nibbana.
‘When women and men are bedecked in necklaces, bandoliers and jewelled headpieces – beautiful and variegated, in multiple layers, made of pure gold, shining and magnificent; with crowns and gold ornaments adorning their bodies like those of the celestials – that’s when I’ll go, Phra Malai. Don’t worry, I’ll go down to earth to help living beings enter nibbana.
‘Those who earnestly wish to meet Sri Ariya should not kill nuns, beat teachers, virtuous people, or religious teachers. They shouldn’t commit any misdeeds, or become angry and punish anyone harshly. They shouldn’t be angry, and they should share their wealth. At that time, I will go, Phra Malai, lord arahant, at that time, I’ll enable living beings to reach the first stage towards enlightenment. At that time I’ll tell them how to leave the world and pass beyond animosity, enabling them to enter nibbana. Whoever wishes to see Phra Sri Ariya should practise mindfulness of breathing, meditation and mental development. Have them repeat “impermanence, suffering, non-self” while meditating; then they’ll meet Phra Sri Ariya.
‘When the people of this world are no longer violent, when they no longer torment one another or wage war against each other, when they love each other as family, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, have no doubt, to help people and celestials enter nibbana. Whoever wishes to see Phra Sri Ariya should resolve to make merit immediately. When all people, women and men, lead moral lives, not envying each other; when all living beings, no matter how small – even gnats and lice – are not tormented, are not swatted or slapped; when friendship and good will radiate to all living beings without ceasing, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, O excellent one, taking the dhamma to teach all living beings to pass beyond suffering. I will enable them to become stream-enterers, on the path of once returning, and have them become arahants, entering nibbana.
‘Whoever wishes to have the advantage of seeing the face of Phra Sri Ariya should strive not to be lazy, but to be diligent in listening to the dhamma regularly, preparing rice for the monks without remiss, and giving alms, keeping the precepts and meditating regularly; then they will meet Phra Sri Ariya.
‘When husbands and wives live together as a couple for a long time, throughout the cycles of suffering, loving each other, sharing the same room, having affection for one another; with a hundred days without conflict, together through thick and thin, sharing their meals, happy and joyful, that’s when I’ll go, Phra Malai, don’t worry. I will preach to help all beings enter the city [of nibbana].
‘Whoever wishes to see me when I am an excellent revered one [i.e., a buddha], should change their behaviour, and yield to the wishes of others, and enter the sangha or become a nun, paying respect to the Buddha every evening and morning, with reverence, bowing down, chanting and radiating loving kindness, compassion and equanimity. Have them meditate on suffering, impermanence and non-self until they encounter the religion of Ariya, lord of the three worlds.
‘When women and men won’t have to toil in the fields to make a living by farming; when their needs will be met through wishing trees; when no one will have to struggle and worry to support themselves as merchants, and everyone will be content and have what they want from wishing trees, that’s when I will go down to the region of the earth. Don’t be impatient, when the time has come, I will go to help all living beings and make them comfortable and happy. I’ll rescue them and take them to the shores of nibbana.
‘Those who wish to follow the Omniscient One should become ordained and wander as ascetics. They should become detached from the five aggregates [skandhas] each day without ceasing until they meet the sage Phra Maitreya, the highest lord. They should practise generosity, observe the precepts, give their personal possessions to the poor and extend the benevolent effects of these teachings. They should practise patience, not getting angry, not being cruel, not being envious of others, controlling their sexual desires, letting go of their hatred, not being contentious, not being sullen. That’s when I will go, Phra Malai, to announce at once that I will take living beings miraculously up to the city of nibbana. That’s when I’ll help living beings escape from samsara; that’s when I’ll give the elixir of the dhamma to help all living beings.
‘Those who wish to be in the presence of Lord Maitreya, the one who spreads kindness, have all of them, women and men, make merit; have them listen to the dhamma without interruption, without being lax, without being absent-minded so that they will arrive at the path, reach the rewards of the abode of Phra Sri Ariya.
‘When crows and other birds will live alongside cats and mice without bothering one another; when the mongoose and the cobra won’t grapple with each other; when snakes and frogs won’t fight, but will love each other as close friends, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, O glorious one, and help living beings pass beyond this world to a higher world. I will lead all weary beings into the excellent city of nibbana and pass beyond the suffering of this world.
‘Whoever wishes to follow, Phra Malai, O bright shining one, should hasten to build kutis [meditation huts], stupas, buddha images and viharas [monasteries]. Have them recite and write the dhamma, plant bodhi trees, make offerings; build pavilions, bridges, lavatories and dhamma halls.
‘When lions, tigers, deer and bears won’t hate each other; when snakes and frogs won’t fight each other, won’t try to eat one another; when forest ghosts and demons – living beings of all kinds – won’t bother each other, or harm each other, or torment each other continuously, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, great thera [elder], to help living beings throughout the three worlds to enter nibbana. Those who wish to meet Sri Ariya, should quickly make all the components of merit without lacking.
‘When all people no longer inflict punishment, no longer cause misfortune, no longer torment one another, no longer imprison others and impose fines on them, no longer deceive others and take their belongings, no longer abuse their authority and oppress others, no longer cause destruction and trouble, no longer cheat others through inaccurate measurements and cause them to become impoverished, that’s when, revered teacher, I will go down to help living beings everywhere in the three worlds, beings of every kind, to enter nibbana. People and celestials will move along from samsara and will be born in a state of happiness beyond the recurrence of death.
‘Those who wish to become ascetics with Maitreya, the supreme lord, shouldn’t cheat others out of their belongings, and then they’ll meet Phra Sri Ariya. They should have compassion for poor people, and not force them to disperse or annihilate them; then they’ll meet Phra Sri Ariya because of the results spread by their good feelings.
‘When men are satisfied with doing good deeds and are content with one wife, and women take delight in loving only one man as their husband and lord – one husband, one wife; one husband for each, one wife for each; when men won’t go around with other women, and those women certainly won’t commit adultery; they will love each other every night, only one husband and one wife – that’s when I, Phra Maitreya, will go down at once to be the only excellent lord named Sri Ariya. I will lead living beings to enter nibbana and have them live in happiness, passing beyond a life of wandering.
‘Those who wish to pay reverence to Phra Sri Ariya, the excellent one, should follow the teachings that I’ve just given: one husband, one wife; one husband for each wife, one wife for each husband; then they’ll meet the powerful lord and pass beyond suffering.
‘When a grain of rice breaks into a thousand sprouts, each of which yields a thousand shoots; each grain of rice yields two thousand two hundred and seventy-two wagonloads plus sixteen… and eight cups; and when those plants grow up by themselves without sowing, and they ripen and become unhusked rice, pure and natural, that’s when, Phra Malai, I will go quickly to be born to help all living beings in the three worlds to flourish. When everyone is at ease and comfortable, not seizing each other’s cities or paddy fields, not seizing elephants or horses of any colour; not seizing gardens or paddy fields, not attacking or stealing, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, lord arahant, to help living beings of all kinds who are good-hearted to enter nibbana. Those who wish to see me should not threaten or speak with hostility; then they’ll meet Phra Sri Ariya as the result of their kind-heartedness.
‘When brutal people no longer punch and beat others; when they won’t steal silver or gold, when they won’t plunder or destroy the belongings of others, when they won’t seize fields or money, when they won’t drive people out, forcefully taking away husbands or wives; when they won’t commit atrocities against others, causing poverty and disruption, that’s when I will go to help the people to reach the path and the result, which is the nectar of nibbana. I will help living beings pass beyond suffering and enable them to live happily and content for a long time in morality. Whoever wishes to meet me, to experience the supreme lord, should not create confusion, should not attack others, destroying their belongings.
‘When the surface of the earth is as flat as if it had been levelled, as flat as the surface of a drum; when there are no thorns falling in heaps; when wealth and riches come falling down and are never depleted; when friends and neighbours will live together and never disagree; when there is no danger and no one knows fear; when the whole world is pure, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, bearer of good fortune, to help living beings all over the world to be peaceful and tranquil on the path of fruition. Those who wish to be leaders should be favourably disposed towards the teachings; they should be joyful, pleasant in their speech and respectful in their behaviour, then they will meet the great teacher Maitreya, the supreme lord.
‘When people everywhere are no longer tormented by parasites, by leprosy, ringworm or abscesses; when their eyes see clearly and their ears hear clearly; when people are no longer afflicted by conditions such as stammering or being mute, mentally ill, hunchbacked, crippled, paralysed or depressed, that’s when I will go, Phra Malai, O venerable monk, to help all living beings reach the way of the arahant. Whoever wishes to become an ascetic with Maitreya, lord of the dhamma, should not cause any harm if they intend to meet Phra Sri Ariya.’
Translated by Bonnie Brereton from a modern printed cardboard facsimile, Phra Malai (Bangkok: Akson Charuenthat, 1961), pp. 228-57.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.
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