The Wisdom in Sutra Stories

National Headquarters  |  December 27, 2019
Photo by Peter Lin

The discourses of Shakyamuni Buddha – given starting from the time he attained enlightenment until his death – were initially passed down orally by his closest disciples and monastic followers. They were later recorded in manuscripts written in Pali and then in Sanskrit, both liturgical languages native to ancient India. As Buddhism spread, these texts were translated into Chinese and Tibetan, and eventually other languages as well.  

This canonical literature is referred to by the Sanskrit term sūtra (Pali: sutta), which can be translated as “discourse” yet also encompasses “string” or “thread” in its meaning. Buddhist sutras typically begin with the phrase “Thus I have heard” as they are generally considered to be buddhavacana, meaning “word of the Buddha” (Sanskrit; Pali), and  many are in the form of stories, within which core principles, rules, or aphorisms are woven in and “strung” together.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen often utilizes sutras in her teachings, so as to highlight specific points or principles. When referring to the following sutra story, Master Cheng Yen begins by pinpointing the importance of cultivating and exercising compassion when on the Bodhisattva Path:

In walking the Bodhisattva Path, we are to help all living beings. To do that, we must have compassion, which is to emulate the Buddha’s heart. If we want to nurture our heart to be like the Buddha’s, we must always harbor good thoughts. By taking care of our heart, we’ll always harbor good thoughts and prevent the five spiritual toxins of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt from poisoning our heart. Therefore, taking good care of our heart is an essential element of walking the Bodhisattva Path. There is a sutra story that illustrates this …

As Master Cheng Yen presents the story, we can discover that it also contains other core Buddhist principles, such as the law of karma and rebirth, effect of karmic affinities, and necessity to act with kindness towards all living beings:

Once, the Buddha was out to spread his teachings accompanied by two of his disciples, Ananda and Mahakasyapa. It was almost noon and, seeing a tree, the Buddha said to his disciples, “Let’s rest under this tree for a while. It’s almost midday. I believe we’re all getting hungry and feeling quite thirsty as well.” 

The Buddha noticed a melon garden not far away. He told Ananda to ask for a melon so they could have something to eat and quench their thirst. Ananda headed for the melon garden immediately. There was a woman who was watching over the melon garden. When she saw Ananda coming, her facial expression started to change. Even before Ananda spoke, she glared at him angrily. 

Despite this, Ananda still approached her; with closed palms, he sincerely began to request, “The Buddha is sitting under that tree and he is thirsty. Could I ask …” Before Ananda could finish speaking, the woman lashed out at him. “Get out of my garden! I don’t want to see your face!” Seeing that she wasn’t willing to give and insisted on him leaving, Ananda had no choice but to comply. He returned to the Buddha and told him what had happened. 

The Buddha then smilingly told Mahakasyapa, “Mahakasyapa, why don’t you go?”  Mahakasyapa was hesitant. “Ananda is young, pleasant looking, and well-liked by many.” He thought to himself, “If Ananda’s request was rejected, and that woman even chased him away, how could an old man like me get a melon? But, since the Buddha asked me, there must be a reason for it.” He thought about all this as he walked towards the melon garden. 

At the melon garden, the woman noticed Mahakasyapa coming near, and she walked up to meet him. Standing in front of the melon garden, she greeted him courteously with closed palms and said, “Venerable, what can I do for you?”  Mahakasyapa replied, “I wonder if you could give me a melon, for the Buddha is hungry and thirsty.” 

The woman was very happy and picked a huge melon for Mahakasyapa. She offered the melon with both of her hands and respectfully thanked him. Mahakasyapa was also grateful. He thanked her and left. On his way back to the Buddha, Mahakasyapa felt very puzzled, “Why was that woman so happy when she saw me? She even gave me a large and beautiful melon.”

When he returned to the Buddha, he asked, “Buddha, why did that lady give the melon to me but not to Ananda? There must be a karmic cause behind this.” The Buddha then began telling a story. Eons ago, there were two monks walking on the side of the road. The younger monk, who was walking ahead, smelled a foul odor. He looked around and saw a dead cat. It had already started to decompose under the hot sun. The monk covered his nose with his hand while muttering, “That dead cat really stinks” as he passed. 

Walking behind him, the other monk also saw the dead cat, and smelled the foul odor, but felt bad for the cat. So, he performed the three refuges ceremony for the cat and said, “Now that you have left the animal realm, return to this world as a human and be a good person.” Then, he buried the cat. The Buddha paused and asked, “Ananda, do you know who the monk walking ahead was?” 

Feeling ashamed, Ananda lowered his head and answered, “Yes, it was me.” The Buddha then looked at Mahakasyapa and said, “You are the kindhearted monk who buried the cat, which was reborn as the woman at the melon garden. You even performed the Three Refuges ceremony for it and gave it a blessing to be reborn into the human realm. That’s why when she saw you, she was filled with joy and offered you a melon.” 

From the story, we see that in one of his past lives, Ananda didn’t take good care of his heart, so a thought of aversion rose in him. Mahakasyapa, on the other hand, had compassion, so he blessed and buried the cat. When we take good care of our heart, whatever situation we encounter, we will always act with kindness and help others. This is the spirit of walking the Bodhisattva Path.

The sections in italics consist of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team with the help of Tzu Chi volunteers, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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