04 June 2012

The Buddha’s advice to the Grhapathi Upali

About twenty years ago, a 53 year old man, a Buddhist, was having a conversation with an American of the United States, a young man of 24, who was to marry the former’s daughter.  The young man, a student of Buddhism, was expressing a wish to become a Buddhist, presumably in the ‘religious’ sense, for ‘being a Buddhist’ is not a simple exercise in statement or ritual, for example baptism.  The following conversation took place then.
‘And what has been your faith?’

‘Catholic officially as in my parents are of that religion, but I am not the church-going type except on Christmas Eve.’

‘Have you studied Catholicism?’
‘Not really.’

‘I suggest that you go back to that faith, study it fully, and then figure out your relationship with Buddhist philosophy.’

This morning, on Sinha FM, delivering a Poson sermon, a bikkhu referred to a conversation that took place more than 25 centuries ago and one enshrined in the sutras.  It was about a patron of the Jains, a rich householder by the name of Upali.  Upali wanted to debate the Buddha on the concept of Karma and communicated this need to the latter, who responded by saying that debate was not important for he had nothing to prove but if discussion was useful for the world, he would welcome it. 

The Grhapathi Upali conceded, after listening to the Buddha, that the Buddha’s explication was correct.  He furthermore stated that he has embraced the Noble Triple Gem, the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.   

The Buddha then said, ‘You are a well-known and influential person.  Such persons should weigh carefully their decisions since they may have widespread repercussions.  So think about this once more.’

Upali was further impressed and reaffirmed the first statement: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga.
The Buddha then said, ‘I recommend one thing.  Your house and largesse has been like a beautiful and enormous pond to the Nigantas (Jains), an open space for them to partake of your generosity.  Whatever changes in your belief system, let they not result in a change in the order of things as they are, as far as the Nigantas are concerned.’

Impressed even more, the Grhapathi Upali reiterated, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Today is Poson, the historic day that Arhat Mahinda brought theBuddha Vacana or the word of the Buddha to this island.  It was not conversion by edict or threat, but a result of intellectual engagement.  It was not forced by the King, Devanampiyatissa, on the people.  Most importantly, throughout the centuries that followed, and unlike in most places where certain faiths held sway (with the patronage of those in power) in this land those who professed different belief systems were for the most part suffered in silence and in many cases even supported in the matter of setting up places of worship. 

These included those who swore by religious endogamy and worse, destroyed Buddhist places of worship and attempted by all means available to thrust their faith down the throats of non-believers, superciliously referred to as ‘heathens’, sometimes in order ‘to save’, but mostly in order to secure political control.  Faith in other belief systems was not a disqualification for Royal patronage and if non-Buddhist faiths have freedom in this country today of a kind that is not accorded to non-dominant faiths in other countries, the Buddhist tenets of co-existence and most importantly the deference to wisdom (Ehi Passiko: Come, explore!) and the predication of emancipation on self, rather than faith-embrace or rule-following, appears to have been a key factor.  And let us not forget, that this very element has not only been taken for granted but abused by non-Buddhists with a fundamentalist bent. 

The engagement by the prthagjana or the flawed, incomplete and unenlightened, individual can and sometimes is irrational and un-Buddhistic and is certainly detrimental to peace, harmony and co-existence among communities.  For this reason alone, on this Poson Poya Day, it would be useful to return to the doctrine and find answer to question, for Buddhism is both doctrine and practice, and moreover eminently amenable to embrace by people of other faiths for more fruitful personal and communal engagement, without compromising the fundamental tenets of their faith. 

Yesterday, June 3, 2012, was the 112th birth anniversary of Fr. Mercelline Jayakody, much loved by people of other faiths.   He once said ‘My faith if Christian, my culture Buddhist’.  Wisdom and compassion marked Fr. Marcelline’s life.  Once, when some Christians had visited him in order to obtain his blessings and support for a movement to build a ‘Catholic Literature’ in Sri Lanka, the good father had turned them away, pointing out that it took almost two thousand years for there to evolve a ‘Buddhist Literature’ in this country and that a few centuries of Catholicism is hardly a matter for celebration. He advised them to return a thousand years later, in jest of course.  They had fumed.  Fr. Marcelline had smiled. 
The significance of this Poya then is not just the Mahindagamanaya, but the culture it helped flower and the kinds of political engagement it helped develop, especially when it came to the inevitable interaction between different communities, ethnic, religious and other.  It helped lay the foundation for people to live and let live, to accept and respect difference, and most of all to privilege reason over emotion and compassion over hatred. 

That was what Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budunwahanse, the Enlightened One, expressed in the exchange with the Grhapathi Upali twenty five centuries ago and that was what a 53 year old man probably referenced in a conversation with his son-in-law to be, twenty years ago.

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukitatta:  May All Beings be Happy!

[Also published in 'Editor's Blog', The Nation, www.nation.lk




Antique Buddhas said...

I really didn't know Ven. Upali, one of the ten foremost Buddhist disciples was a jain.
But he was great monks and was able to become arahant even in that age of his.

Peter Vredeveld said...

Upali was actually jain since he was the part of the oldest cultures of the india, and Jainism was one of them