The Historic Conversation of the Buddha and Prince Abhaya

In my last blog (on the historic conversation of Rāma and Jābāli), I examined an example of a dialogue between a king and a sage that was drawn from Brahminical tradition. I will look now at a Buddhist text.

The fifty eighth discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya, the ‘middle-length discourses of the Buddha’, provides us with an excellent – pithy – example of a dialogue featuring a king: the Abhayarājakumāra Sutta is named for prince Abhaya (lit. ‘prince Fearless’), who is one of its central protagonists. The action begins with a nefarious plot by a Jain mendicant, one Nātaputta. He suggests to king Abhaya that he ask a difficult question of the Buddha in order to humiliate him. The question hinges on the idea that the Buddha cannot speak disagreeable words and yet he delivered to Devadatta – his schismatic cousin – a prediction of a birth in a hell, which according to our Jain sage, could hardly have been agreeable to the latter. Nātaputta’s idea is that, if the Buddha says yes he can say things that are disagreeable, then he is not an enlightened being and, if he cannot, then there is the fact of Devadatta’s chagrin.  Nātaputta gleefully goes on to suggest the following:

Imaṃ kho te rājakumāra samaṇo Gotamo ubhatokoṭikaṃ pañhaṃ puṭṭho samāno n’eva sakkhīti uggilituṃ n’eva sakkhīti ogilituṃ.

Prince,  on being presented with this two-pronged question (ubhato-koṭika pañham), Gotama will neither be able to vomit it up, nor swallow it down!

Nātaputta adds, somewhat viscerally, that this question will, in this way, be ‘like an iron spike (ayo-sanghāṭaka) in his throat’. Prince Abhaya agrees to the request of the Jain sage. He invites the Buddha to lunch in order to surprise him with his knotty question. He then says to the Buddha:

Bhāseyya nu kho bhante Tathāgato tam vācaṃ yā sā vācā paresaṃ appiyā amanāpā ti.

Now, revered sir, could a Tathāgata utter a speech disliked by others, [which was] diasgreeable to them?

The initial response of the Buddha is as brief as it is brilliant:

Na kho ‘ttha rājakumāra ekaṃsenāti

Prince, surely this is one sided (ekaṃsena)?

Abhaya appreciates the subtlety of this response and states that the Jains have lost the debate already. Why is the Buddha’s answer so subtle? Firstly, it shows that the Buddha knew already of the trap that had been set for him, which is a sign of his enlightened status. There is however a doctrinal in-reference in this response as well: the Jains, from an early period were famous for their philosophical scepticism; building on the epistemology of another prominent anti-Vedic sect, the Ājivakas, they developed the idea of anekāntavāda, which means ‘more than one point of view’. This doctrine holds that, for the unenlightened, the truth of a given proposition cannot be finally known (in more formal – scholastic – explanations of the term, such as one finds in the Tattvārthasūtra, which is a philosophical synthesis, in Sanskrit, of Jain doctrine that dates to the beginning of the Common Era, it comes to refer to seven ways in which a proposition may be true or false, or neither, or both of these things). By setting such a trap for him, the Buddha is thus suggesting that Nātaputta has acted in bad faith in relation to his own epistemology and, by not knowing this, has demonstrated his lack of enlightenment (and the limits of his own tradition’s philosophical standpoint). The Buddha goes on to explain that, just as you would take a foreign object out of a child’s mouth (and – rather handily – there happens to be a baby sitting on prince Abhaya’s knee at just this moment in our tale), the Buddha – from compassion derived from superior knowledge – acts at the right time to help others. This is again, a rather well-formulated response; Nātaputta’s gleeful description of questions, and indeed, iron spikes, that are impossible to either vomit up, or swallow down (a recurrent phrase in this sutta), are here projected into a paediatric context. This allows the Buddha to reposition himself: he is not the ‘chokee’ (as Nātaputta would have liked him to be), nor the ‘choker’ (as Nātaputta himself attempted to be, at least by proxy), he is the one who acts to remove the obstacle that causes choking in the first place; he is the paediatrician, if you will (you – as readers – might groan, but medical metaphors are by no means alien to Buddhist rhetoric). This draws a sharp, albeit implicit, moral contrast between the sophistry of Nātaputta and the compassion of the Buddha.

The Buddha completes his rhetorical hat trick by turning to a much-loved metaphor in early Indian philosophical discourse: that of the chariot. In both Brahminical and Buddhist sources, this metaphor is deployed as a means of discussing the senses, cognitive faculties and the reality, or lack thereof, of  the Self – or Ātman – as a transmigrating essence (the metaphor is found – to name only a few examples – in the Katha Upaniṣad – 1.3.3-4; the Saṃyutta Nikāya – 1.134-55; and the Milinda Pañha – 2.1.72 ff. It is a metaphor that is used in Classical and Patristic sources as well, as, for example, in Plato’s Pheadrus and Jerome’s Commentary on Ezekiel). However, in the Abhayarājakumāra Sutta, rather than the constitution of the self, the metaphor is used to discuss knowledge of reality more broadly: in response to a question from prince Abhaya, as to how much the Buddha prepares his answers in advance, the Buddha contends that he understands reality as fully as Abhaya – as a good warrior prince – understands the workings of a chariot. He concludes:

Sā hi rājakumāra Tathāgatassa dhammadhātu suppaṭividdhā yassā dhammadhātuyā suppaṭividdhattā ṭhānaso v’ etaṃ Tathāgataṃ paṭibhātīti.

Prince, because the Tathāgata understands the basis of reality (dhammadhātu) and on the basis of sound reasoning has full comprehension (suppaṭividdhattā) of it, [the answer] occurs (paṭibhāti) to the Tathāgata.

There might be another sly poke at the Jains here; for the Jains enlightenment entails full omniscience, which adds up to a complete and simultaneous knowledge of being in its entirety (described most fully in the fifth aṅga of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon, the Bhagavati Sūtra). For the Buddhists, abhiññā, or ‘special knowledge’, is more limited and focuses on facilitating the path to enlightenment (though it still includes the capacity to read minds and know one’s own former births and those of others, amongst other things; a rich description of these powers is given in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, the ‘Longer Discourses of the Buddha’). Here, however, by means of comparing his knowledge of reality to that of a trained warrior’s knowledge of a chariot, the Buddha seems to intimate something somewhat closer to the Jain ideal (notwithstanding the ink that might be spilled over the precise meaning of the word dhammadhātu here and the substantial differences between Buddhist and Jain ontology).  He, at the very least, implicitly suggests that his knowledge of reality is as highly developed as it is possible for it to be – this is, indeed, the suggestion of the Sutta as a whole, of course. At the close of the Sutta, Prince Abhaya decides not just to become a lay follower of the Buddha, but to be ordained as a monk.

It seems, then, that in this Buddhist example of a dialogue between a prince and a sage, we find certain similarities to the example I took up in my last blog, which was drawn from the Rāmāyaṇa: there is certainly – once again – a context of inter-religious rivalry, even if there is no direct statement of Jain doctrine (only the plotting of a Jain sage); there is also a heroic dimension to the response of the Buddha (as there was to that of Rāma and Vasiṣṭha contra Jābāli). I mean by this that the audience is not in any doubt as to the likely outcome of the debate as it unfolds (i.e. we know who the ‘hero’ is). Another way of capturing the distinction might be to view dialogues as either ‘closed’ or ‘open’ (with ‘open’ referring to those materials that seem to be willing to debate the veracity or worth of a rival views – though I am well aware that  – even in quite somber philosophical sources – the deck is often stacked against the intellectual opponent!).  The two dialogues are therefore propaganda; they are a form of communication that is designed to influence the attitudes of their audience. There are also some important contrasts in the two examples: Rāma is not persuaded by Jābāli, while Abhaya is persuaded by the Buddha (so persuaded indeed that he seeks ordination and not simply affiliation as a lay person). However, although these are different outcomes, the centre of gravity in the two stories is – I would argue – the same: in both cases the narrative is set up to occasion a series of clear statements about preferred religious ideology and also about the authority of the teaching: Rāma offers a clear statement as to what constitutes the ‘right thing to do’ in this life and a clear rejection of Jābāli’s views. This is followed by Vasiṣṭha offering an eon-spanning vision of the descent of gods and kings, which culminates in the person of Rāma. The teaching is thus anchored in the status of the teacher, who, in this case, is Rāma (ably assisted by the Brahmin sage, Vasiṣṭha, in a wonderful demonstration of Brahmin-king reciprocity, which itself communicates something very clear about the preferred organisation of social and religious elites in our text). In our Buddhist example, the Buddha is presented as being more circumspect; he foils the plans of the Jain sage Naṭaputta, and offers a teaching as to ‘right thing to do’ (i.e. teach out of a compassion rooted in the superior understanding of the nature of things occasioned by enlightenment). He then uses the metaphor of the chariot to assert the extent of his knowledge of the nature of reality (which is not the same sort of claim as we find in the Rāmāyaṇa, but it is still an appeal to a rather special form of authority). The heroic dimensions of the two texts – and their different, but equally prominent, appeals to authority, lead me to think of them as intended for an audience already predisposed to the ideologies and practices presented in them. That is to say, they strike me as inward rather than outward looking. However, given how little we know of the likely audiences of these texts, this is only a tentative conclusion.

So, even at this early stage, some clear dichotomies and key words are emerging for my analyses: inward vs. outward looking; ‘heroic’ or ‘closed’ vs. ‘realistic’ or ‘open’; propaganda; and persuasion. I will turn, in my next blog, to an example drawn from Jain literature.

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