Incorrigible Evildoers:
The Story of Devadatta and Prince Ajatashatru

by Ryuei Michael McCormick > Pali Canon > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog


Devadatta’s Ambition


A series of tragic events occurred when the Buddha was 72 years old and in the 37th year of his teaching mission. This was the year when his cousin Devadatta initiated a schism in the ranks of the Sangha, then instigated a palace coup in the city of Rajagriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, and finally made four attempts to assassinate the Buddha. These events were a great test of the Buddha’s wisdom, compassion, patience, equanimity, and ability to skillfully lead the Sangha in the face of external and internal threats to its survival and integrity.


It should be noted that doubts have been cast on the veracity of the legend of Devadatta as told in the canonical literature and commentaries of the various schools of Buddhism. Reginald Ray, basing himself on the work of earlier scholars, sums up the various accounts in his book Buddhist Saints in India: A Study of Buddhist Values & Orientation (see pp. 162-173). According to Reginald Ray, it is possible that Devadatta was no relation nor even a contemporary of the Buddha, but may have been a strict proponent of the life of the forest renunciant who opposed the softer life of monastic Buddhism over a century after the Buddha’s passing. This Devadatta apparently created a Sangha that considered itself a separate and purer stream of Buddhism than the Sangha founded by Shakyamuni Buddha. Devadatta’s rival order still existed in India as late as the seventh century C.E. according to the testimony of the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang (602-664). This would mean that the monks of the mainstream schools of Indian Buddhism such as the Theravada and Sarvastivada might have created the legend of Devadatta in order to vilify the founder of this rival Sangha. From here on, however, I will simply present my synthesis of the traditional accounts. 


Devadatta was a cousin of the Buddha. According to the Pali accounts he was the brother of Yashodhara. Sanksrit legends, however, claim that he was actually Ananda’s older brother and that he grew up in the palace with Siddhartha, the young bodhisattva. These stories portray Devadatta as jealous and cruel. In one story he shoots down a swan that falls to earth near Siddhartha. Siddhartha takes out the arrow and nurses it back to health, but Devadatta insists that the swan belongs to him because he shot it. The two boys then went to the king’s court where the counselors argued over the merits of each case. In the end, a wise man declared that the swan should belong to one who saved its life rather than the one who tried to take it away. In another incident, Devadatta killed a white elephant that was going to be presented to Siddhartha as a gift. He was also said to have competed for Yashodhara’s hand in marriage, but again lost to his cousin Siddhartha. Another legend claims that, after Siddhartha had renounced the home life in order to live as an ascetic, Devadatta tried to seduce Yashodhara, but was rebuffed.


Devadatta joined the Sangha along with Aniruddha, Bhaddiya, Ananda, Bhagu, Kimbila, and their barber Upali back when the Buddha had first returned to Kapilavastu. At that time he had been talked into leaving the home life and becoming a monk because the former king, Bhaddiya, and the other Shakyas wanted to make sure that Devadatta would not become the ruler by default when the other heirs to the throne had become monks. Soon after becoming a monk, Devadatta attained the five types of supernatural powers that can be developed through meditation. These five were: supernatural mastery of the body, the divine ear (clairaudience), mind reading, past life recall, and the divine eye (clairvoyance). For a long time, Devadatta was a respected member of the Sangha. Unfortunately, his jealousy and envy prevented him from attaining any genuine insight or liberation, and his supernatural powers only increased his arrogance.


 At some point, Devadatta used his supernatural powers to gain the patronage of Prince Ajatashatru, the son of King Bimbisara and Queen Vaidehi.


The occasion was this. Once when Devadatta was alone in retreat this thought arose in his mind: “Who is there whose confidence I can win over and thereby acquire much gain, honor and renown?” Then he thought: “There is Prince Ajatashatru. He is young with a glorious future. Suppose I win over his confidence? Much gain, honor, and renown will accrue to me if I do so.”


So, Devadatta packed his bed away, and he took his bowl and outer robe and set out for Rajagriha, where he at length arrived. There he discarded his own form and assumed the form of a youth with a girdle of snakes, and in that guise he appeared on Prince Ajatashatru’s lap. Then Prince Ajatashatru was fearful, anxious, suspicious and worried. Devadatta asked: “Are you afraid of me, prince?”


“Yes, I am afraid. Who are you?”


“I am Devadatta.”


“If you are Devadatta, Lord, then please show yourself in your own form.”


“Devadatta discarded the form of the youth and stood before Prince Ajatashatru, wearing his patched outer cloak, bowl and robes. Then Prince Ajatashatru felt prodigious confidence in Devadatta owing to his supernormal powers. After that he waited on him evening and morning with five hundred carriages and five hundred offerings of milk-rice as a gift of food. Devadatta became overwhelmed with gain, honor, and renown. Ambition obsessed his mind, and the wish arose in him: “I will rule the Sangha of monks.” Simultaneously with the thought his supernormal powers vanished. (Adapted from Life of the Buddha, p. 257)


This part of the story seems to be a dramatization of the reason why Buddhism views supernatural powers with disdain. The Buddha expressed his feelings about the use of supernatural powers in several discourses. Once, a householder named Kevaddha made the following suggestion to the Buddha:


“Lord, this Nalanda is rich, prosperous, populous, and full of people who have faith in the Lord. It would be well if the Lord were to cause some monk to perform superhuman feats and miracles. In this way Nalanda would come to have even more faith in the Lord.”


The Lord replied: “Kevaddha, this is not the way I teach Dharma to the monks, by saying: ‘Go, monks, and perform superhuman feats and miracles for the white-clothed laypeople!” (Adapted, Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 175)


The Buddha points out that even if a monk were to resort to such things, skeptics would not only continue to disbelieve in the monks, but would then accuse them of trickery and fraud. The whole effort could very well backfire. The Buddha said, “And that is why, Kevaddha, seeing the danger of such miracles, I dislike, reject and despise them.” (Ibid, p. 176) He then pointed out that the true miracle is the miracle of instruction that leads to liberation. On another occasion a monk named Sunakkhatta threatened to leave the Sangha because the Buddha had not performed any miracles. The Buddha responded:


“What do you think, Sunnakkhatta? Whether miracles are performed or not – is it the purpose of my teaching Dharma to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering?” “It is, Lord.” “So, Sunakkhatta, whether miracles are performed or not, the purpose of my teaching Dharma is to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering. Then what purpose would the performance of miracles serve? Consider, you foolish man, how far the fault is yours.” (Ibid, p. 372)


Miracles and supernatural powers not only miss the point of Buddha Dharma, but are actually misleading and can even discredit the Buddha Dharma by associating it with the irrational and charlatanism. In the case of Devadatta, his ambition and arrogance only increased though his supernatural powers deserted him. And why did his powers desert him? Buddhism teaches that when one practices meditation and attains the states of concentration known as the dhyanas, one can then go on to develop the four roads to spiritual power: zeal, energy, purity of mind, and investigation. Devadatta, however, became complacent and hungry for worldly power, and this caused him to lose those very qualities that had enabled him to develop the powers that so impressed Prince Ajatashatru in the first place.


Devadatta’s growing ambition did not go unnoticed. “A little bird told me,” is the idiomatic expression used by some people today. In the Buddha’s time, it was often a deva, or heavenly spirit, that would report things to the Buddha or his disciples. In this case, the deva was Kakudha, a former attendant of Maudgalyayana. The spirit informed Maudgalyayana about Devadatta’s ambition to rule the Sangha and the subsequent disappearance of his supernatural powers. Maudgalyayana then told the Buddha. The Buddha then questioned Maudgalyayana as to the reliability of this information. Maugalyayana vouched for Kakudha as a reliable source. The Buddha’s response was that Devadatta would only end up betraying himself. Then, apparently in reference to Devadatta and those monks who looked up to Devadatta as a teacher the Buddha spoke of those teachers who were not pure or otherwise competent in terms of morality, livelihood, the teaching of Dharma, exposition, and the knowledge and vision of emancipation from suffering but who nevertheless pretended to be and whose disciples would cover up for them. Unlike these, the Buddha asserted that he had no need to pretend and that his disciples therefore had no need to cover up any deficiencies on his part. The implication being that such would not be the situation with Devadatta.


Other monks, however, were not as perceptive as Maudgalyayana. Some were very impressed by Devadatta’s success and growing prestige. Others were perhaps jealous or even resentful of him. The Buddha made it clear to them that Devadatta was sowing the seeds of his own destruction, both in a spiritual and even in a worldly sense.


After the Blessed One had stayed at Kosambi as long as he chose, he set out to wander by stages to Rajagriha, where he arrived in due course. He went to live in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel’s Sanctuary. Then a number of monks went to him and told him: “Lord, Prince Ajatashatru goes to wait on Devadatta each morning with five hundred carriages and five hundred offerings of milk-rice as a gift of food.”


“Monks, do not begrudge Devadatta his gain, honor and renown. Just as, if one were to break a gall bladder under a fierce dog’s nose, the dog would get much fiercer, so too, as long as Prince Ajatashatru keeps waiting on Devadatta as he is doing, so long may wholesome states be expected to diminish and not increase in Devadatta. Just as a plantain bears its fruit for its own destruction and its own undoing, so too, Devadatta’s gain, honor and renown have arisen for his self-destruction and his own undoing.” (Adapted from Life of the Buddha, p. 258)


Denunciation of Devadatta


Devadatta basked in the prestige that he had gained through the patronage of Prince Ajatashatru. In time, he came to believe that he would be a worthy successor of Shakyamuni Buddha. On one occasion he boldly offered to lead the Sangha so that the Buddha could retire. This offer was refused in no uncertain terms:


The occasion was this. The Blessed One was seated teaching the Dharma and surrounded by a huge gathering, including the king. Then Devadatta got up from his seat, and arranging his upper robe on one shoulder, he raised his hands palms together towards the Blessed One: “Lord, the Blessed One is now old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life and come to the last stage. Let the Blessed One now rest. Let him dwell in bliss in the present life. Let him hand over the Sangha of monks to me. I will govern the Sangha of monks.”


“Enough, Devadatta. Do not aspire to govern the Sangha of monks.”


A second time Devadatta made the same proposal and received the same answer. When he made the proposal for the third time, the Blessed One said, “I would not hand over the Sangha of monks even to Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. How should I do so to such a wastrel, a clot of spittle, as you?”


Then Devadatta thought: “Before the public, including the king, the Blessed One has disgraced me with the words ‘clot of spittle’ and praised Shariputra and Maudgalyayana.” He was angry and indignant. He paid homage to the Blessed One and departed, keeping him on his right. Now this was his first grudge against the Blessed One.” (Ibid, p. 258)


This strong condemnation and even insult coming from the Buddha is quite shocking. One can easily understand why Devadatta might bear a grudge after being publicly insulted in front of the Sangha and even King Bimbisara. Even if one takes the position that this incident is a story that arose after the death of the Buddha in order to vilify the schismatic Devadatta and his followers, it still seems to be so far out of character that one wonders how anyone could have attributed such words to the Buddha. And yet, there is a discourse in which the Buddha’s rivals used this and later condemnations of Devadatta against him. Prince Abhaya, another son of King Bimbisara though not an heir, was a follower of Nirgrantha Jnatiputra, the founder of the Jains. According to the Abhayarajakumara Sutta, Nirgrantha Jnatiputra made the following request to Prince Abhaya:


“Come Prince, go to the recluse Gautama and say: ‘Venerable sir, would the Tathagata utter speech that would be unwelcome and disagreeable to others?’ If the recluse Gautama, on being asked thus, answers: ‘The Tathagata, prince, would utter speech that would be unwelcome and disagreeable to others,’ then say to him: ‘Then, venerable sir, what is the difference between you and an ordinary person? For an ordinary person would utter speech that would be unwelcome and disagreeable to others.’ But if the recluse Gautama, on being asked thus, answers: ‘The Tathagata, prince, would not utter speech that would be unwelcome and disagreeable to others,’ then say to him: ‘Then, venerable sir, why have you declared of Devadatta: “Devadatta is destined for the states of deprivation, Devadatta is destined for hell, Devadatta will remain [in hell] for the eon, Devadatta is incorrigible”? Devadatta was angry and dissatisfied with that speech of yours.’ When the recluse Gautama is posed this two-horned question by you, he will not be able either to gulp it down or to throw it up. If an iron spike were stuck in a man’s throat, he would not be able either to gulp it down or to throw it up; so too prince, when the recluse Gautama is posed this two-horned question by you, he will not be able to gulp it down or to throw it up.” (Middle Length Discourses, pp. 498-499)


It is evident that Nirgrantha Jnatiputra is not being portrayed here as a compassionate or even dispassionate observer of events. Nor is his inquiry sincere. In order to attack and belittle the Buddha, he spitefully looked for a weak point to exploit. Again, this is perhaps not an accurate portrayal of the founder of the Jains, but is may be a depiction of the kind of rancorous debates that may have taken place between Buddhists and Jains. In any case, the Buddha easily overcomes both horns of the dilemma and in the course of doing so also provides an explanation for why he spoke so harshly in regard to Devadatta. Prince Abhaya visits the Buddha and asks:


“Venerable sir, would a Tathagata utter such speech as would be unwelcome and disagreeable to others?”


“There is no one-sided answer to that, prince.”


“Then, venerable sir, the Nirgranthas have lost in this.”


“Why do you say this, prince: ‘Then, venerable sir, the Nirgranthas have lost in this’?”


Prince Abhaya then reported to the Blessed One his entire conversation with Nirgrantha Jnatiputra.


Now on that occasion a young tender infant was lying prone on Prince Abhaya’s lap. Then the Blessed One said to Prince Abhaya: “What do you think, prince? If, while you or your nurse were not attending to him, this child were to put a stick or pebble in his mouth, what would you do to him?”


“Venerable sir, I would take it out. If I could not take it out at once, I would take his head in my left hand, and crooking a finger of my right hand, I would take it out even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have compassion for the child.”


“So too, prince, such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, but which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has compassion for beings.” (Ibid, pp. 499-500)


In other words, the Buddha only speaks what is true, correct, and beneficial; and whether or not it is welcome and agreeable or unwelcome and disagreeable he will only speak such things in the right time and place motivated solely by compassion. In the case of Devadatta, he was certain based upon his knowledge of Devadatta’s character and activities and the law of cause and effect that Devadatta was heading for a fall. In some versions or translations of this event, the Buddha actually calls Devadatta a “lick-spittle” with the implication that Devadatta’s reliance on the patronage of Prince Ajatashatru is comparable to licking the spit of others. In other words, his reliance on Prince Ajatashatru seems good, but is actually a degrading dependence that is leading him further and further away from the true good of liberation. Furthermore, he had to make it clear to the Sangha and to King Bimbisara that Devadatta did not have his approval nor was he to be looked upon as qualified to lead the Sangha. In fact, once Devadatta left the assembly the Buddha made a further announcement:


The Blessed One addressed the monk: “Now, monks, let the Sangha carry out an act of pubic denunciation in Rajagriha against Devadatta thus: ‘Formerly Devadatta had one nature; now he has another. Whatever Devadatta may do by body or speech neither the Blessed One nor the Dharma nor the Sangha should be held as having a part in it: only Devadatta himself is to be held responsible for it.’”


Then the Blessed One addressed the venerable Shariputra: “Now Shariputra, you must denounce Devadatta in Rajagriha.”


“Lord, hitherto, I have spoken in Devadatta’s favor thus: ‘The son of Godhi is mighty and powerful.’ How can I denounce him in Rajagriha?”


“Were you not speaking the truth in praising Devadatta thus?”


“Yes, Lord.”


“Then likewise speaking truth you must denounce him in Rajagriha.”


“Even so, Lord,” the venerable Shariputra replied.


When the venerable Shariputra had been formally authorized by the Sangha, he went into Rajagriha accompanied by a number of monks and denounced Devadatta. Then people without faith and confidence, unwise and indiscreet, said: “These monks, sons of the Shakyans, are jealous of Devadatta’s gain, honor and renown.” But the faithful and confident, the wise and discreet, said: “This can be no ordinary matter for the Blessed One to have had Devadatta denounced in Rajagriha.” (Adapted from Life of the Buddha, p. 259)


Later events would prove this further denunciation in Rajagriha to be a wise move. Note that Devadatta was neither banished nor excommunicated, as he had not broken any of the precepts at this point. Nevertheless, the Buddha judged that it should be made clear from then on that Devadatta was acting on his own. In having this done, the Buddha made it clear to all that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha should not be held accountable for anything Devadatta might do. This action was especially painful for Shariputra and perhaps some others who had formerly held Devadatta in esteem and did not want to denounce a fellow monk. It was also personally embarrassing as it made it seem as if those who had formerly praised him were being two-faced, and that perhaps they were themselves motivated by jealousy. Nevertheless, this was an occasion in which the painful truth needed to be stated plainly for the sake of everyone involved. As it turned out, there were those who interpreted the denunciation in a cynical manner, believing that it was a case of internal squabbling and jealousy within the Sangha. On the other hand, there were those who looked into the matter more deeply and realized that the denunciation was not something the Buddha had done lightly.


The Schism of Devadatta


Devadatta had not given up on his ambition to take over the Sangha. Now that he had been insulted and publicly denounced, he schemed to find a way to lure the monks away from the Buddha and create a rival Sangha. He proposed the following plan to his supporters:


“Come, friends, let us create a schism and a breach of concord in the monk Gautama’s Sangha” Kokalika said: “The monk Gautama is mighty and powerful, friend. How can we do that?”


“Come, friends, we can go to the monk Gautama and demand five points of him: ‘Lord, the Blessed One has in many ways commended one of few wishes, who is contented, devoted to effacement, scrupulous and amiable, given to diminution (of attachment), and energetic. Now here are five points that conduce to those states. (1) Lord, it would be good if monks were forest dwellers for life and any who went to live in a village were censured; (2) if they were eaters of begged-for-almsfood for life and any who accepted an invitation were censured; (3) if they were refuse-rag wearers for life and any who wore a robe were censured; (4) if they were tree-root dwellers for life and any who dwelt in buildings were censured; (5) if they were not to eat fish or meat for life and any who did were censured.’ The monk Gautama will never grant them. So we can inform the people about these five points. It will be possible with these five points to create a schism and a breach of concord in the monk Gautama’s Sangha; for people admire self-denial.” (Ibid, p. 265)


This was pure hypocrisy on the part of Devadatta, for he had previously shown no inclination to asceticism but had in fact been living on the lavish offerings of Prince Ajatashatru. Devadatta and his followers would also have themselves invited as a group for meals in the homes of various householders. They would even inform their hosts beforehand of what they would like to eat. Having to host such large and particular groups of monks became quite a hardship for many families and they began to complain. When the Buddha heard about this he set forth the following rule:


“Now, monks, I shall allow monks to eat among families in groups of not more than three. This is for three reasons: for the restraint of wrong-minded persons and for the comfort of reasonable persons, in order that those of evil wishes may not form a faction and cause schism in the Sangha, and out of compassion for families. But eating in groups should be treated according to the procedure already laid down.” (Ibid, p. 265)


These stories show that Devadatta was no sincere ascetic, but he was certainly prepared to use asceticism as a pretext for winning adherents and admirers. So it was that Devadatta and his supporters went to the Buddha and proposed the adoption of his five points. Just as Devadatta had predicted, the Buddha refused.


“Enough, Devadatta. Let him who wishes be a forest dweller; let him who wishes dwell in a village. Let him who wishes be an eater of begged-for-almsfood; let him who wishes accept invitations. Let him who wishes be a refuse-rag wearer; let him who wishes wear a robe given by householders. Living at the root of a tree is allowed by me for eight months of the year, but not during the rains. I have allowed fish and meat that is pure in the three aspects – when it is not seen or heard or suspected to have been killed for one personally.” (Ibid, p. 266)


The Buddha responded here from the perspective of the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-denial. The Buddha did allow for the ascetic practices known as the dhuta. The dhuta were various austerities that some monastics could voluntarily take up for a time or even as a permanent way of life in order to cultivate contentment, modesty, humility, simplicity and other virtues. According to the Path of Purification (Visuddhi Magga) of Buddhaghosa the dhuta that could be taken up are:


1. The practice of only wearing robes made of rags from discarded cloth.

2. The practice of keeping no more than the triple robe: the upper, lower, and outer robes.

3. The practice of eating only food begged for on alms rounds as opposed to accepting invitations to eat at a home.

4. The practice of begging door to door on alms rounds without discriminating between the homes of rich and poor.

5. The practice of eating only once a day.

6. The practice of eating only one bowl of food a day.

7. The practice of refusing any food offered later in the morning.

8. The practice of dwelling only in the forest instead of in the monasteries except during the rainy season.

9. The practice of dwelling only at the foot of a tree except during the rainy season.

10. The practice of dwelling only out in the open except during the rainy season.

11. The practice of dwelling in a charnel ground except during the rainy season.

12. The practice of accepting whatever bed in the monastery is assigned.

13. The practice of sitting instead of lying down when resting.


It can be seen from this list that not all of the dhuta could be followed at once, since some of them necessarily implied or excluded the others. Several of them could not be followed during the rainy season retreat. Some of them were not allowable to the nuns. The important thing to note is that in sub-tropical India, none of these ascetic practices would have been injurious or life threatening. The dhuta were a form of pure and simple living that were in line with the ideal of Indian asceticism but at the same time they followed the Buddha’s Middle Way between the extremes of indulgence and excessive mortification. Those who could follow them were admired, but none of them were mandatory practices nor did the Buddha teach that they were necessary for attaining liberation.


Devadatta was pleased that things were unfolding according to his plan. The impressionable young monks and those lay followers who admired stringent asceticism quickly rallied to his cause.


Devadatta was happy and elated then: “The Blessed One does not grant these five points.” He got up together with his adherents, and after paying homage to the Blessed One, he departed, keeping him to his right.


He went into Rajagriha and proceeded to inform people about the five points thus: “Friends, we have been to the monk Gautama and demanded these five points of him…” and he told them the five points concluding: “The Blessed One does not grant these five points. But we undertake to live by them.”


Then unwise people lacking faith said: “These monks, sons of the Shakyans, are scrupulous in effacement; but the monk Gautama lives in luxury, thinking of luxury.” But the wise and faithful were annoyed, and they murmured and protested: “How can Devadatta aim at creating a schism and a breach of concord in the Sangha?”


Monks heard them disapproving. Those monks who had few wants disapproved likewise, and they told the Blessed One. He asked Devadatta: “Devadatta, is it true, as it seems, that you are aiming at creating a schism and a breach of concord in the Sangha?”


“It is true, Lord.”


“Enough Devadatta. Do not try to create a schism and a breach of concord in the Sangha. He who breaks the Sangha’s concord reaps misery lasting the rest of the age; he ripens out in hell for the rest of the age. But he who reunites the Sangha already split reaps the highest reward of merit and enjoys heaven for the rest of the age. Enough, Devadatta, do not try to create a schism in the Sangha: a schism in the Sangha is a grave thing.” (Ibid, pp. 266-267)


In this case, the creation of a schism was not a matter of an honest disagreement over precepts or even doctrine. In fact, in this case, it was not even a matter of two factions with different ideas about how best to follow the Buddha’s practice and teaching. Rather, Devadatta was actively trying to turn people away from the Buddha’s teaching and practice on the grounds that his own teaching and practice were superior.  It was this type of schism, founded on presumption and hypocrisy, the Buddha was warning Devadatta against. The Buddha even declared that such an act would bring about a hellish state of existence, whereas healing such a schism could bring about a heavenly state of existence. Nothing, however, could dissuade Devadatta and he carried through on his plan and persuaded 500 monks to join him in establishing a rival Sangha under his direction at Mount Gayashirsha.


Devadatta had now passed a karmic point of no return by initiating a schism, one of the five grave offences. The five grave offenses consist of killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, causing the Buddha to bleed, and causing a schism in the Sangha. According to Buddhism, anyone who commits one of the five grave offenses will be immediately reborn in the Avichi Hell (the Hell of Incessant Suffering) after death without any chance of reprieve. These crimes are not just acts of violence, but a rejection of the very basis of morality and liberation from suffering. Those who would commit such grave offences were considered to be one of the icchantika, people of incorrigible disbelief who are wholly unrestrained and given over to the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. In some Mahayana teachings, this was considered to be a class of beings who were incapable of attaining enlightenment, perhaps even altogether devoid of buddha-nature.


Reconciliation of the Schismatic Monks


The 500 monks who had left for Mount Gayashirsha to join Devadatta were all recently ordained. They had not yet had a chance to fully hear and reflect on the Buddha’s actual teachings for themselves so they took Devadatta’s derivative and self-serving teachings as the genuine article. They apparently were also lacking in discernment and self-confidence, qualities that would have enabled them to question what they were being told and to seek out alternative points of view in order to have a sold basis for comparison. The Buddha and his disciples were aware of this and out of compassion decided to do what they could to enable Devadatta’s followers to make a more informed choice.


Shariputra and Maudgalyayana went to the Blessed One. They told him: “Lord, Devadatta has created a schism in the Sangha and has set out for Gayashirsha with five hundred monks.”


“Do you not both feel pity for those new monks, Shariputra? Go, before they come to ruin.”


“Even so, Lord,” they replied. And they left for Gayashirsha. After they had gone, a monk stood not far from the Blessed One, weeping. The Blessed One asked him: “Why are you weeping, monk?”


“Lord, when the Blessed One’s chief disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, have gone to Devadatta, they will go over to his teaching too.”


“It is impossible, monk, it cannot happen, that Shariputra and Maudgalyayana should go over to Devadatta’s teaching. On the contrary, they will convert the monks who have gone over.”


Devadatta was sitting teaching the Dharma surrounded by a large assembly. He saw the venerable Shariputra and the venerable Maugalyayana coming in the distance. He told the monk: “See, monks, the Dharma is well proclaimed by me. Even the monk Gautama’s chief disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, come to me and come over to my teaching.”


When this was said, Kokalika warned Devadatta: “Friend Devadatta, do not trust them. They are in the grip of evil wishes.”


“Enough, friend; they are welcome since they have come over to my teaching.” (Ibid, p. 268)


The Buddha’s way of handling the schism is very instructive. He did not mount a public campaign against Devadatta or his followers or label them as evil or condemned to hell (though admittedly he did warn Devadatta of this before the schism took place), he did not appeal to King Bimbisara to have them forcefully suppressed, he did not request that the laity refuse alms to them, he did not send his followers over to harangue or physically harass Devadatta or his followers, he did not resort to any kind of physical or psychological violence or coercion the way many religious leaders even today feel justified in doing to those who disagree with them. Instead, he simply sent his two best teachers over to the rival group to dialogue with them in a friendly manner about the teachings. Furthermore, the Buddha was confident that those who had a thorough knowledge and personal realization of Buddha Dharma were immune to the wiles of Devadatta and people like him. There was no need to fear for them or to protect them from confusion or bad influences. Instead, the Buddha was confident in his disciples, confident that they were themselves good teachers who could have a good influence on others simply by being themselves and presenting the Dharma in a straightforward, calm, and confident manner.


Devadatta and Kokalika, on the other hand, demonstrate the qualities of arrogance on the one hand and a defensive paranoia on the other. Neither of them is concerned with the Dharma itself. Devadatta is convinced that he has won over even the Buddha’s chief disciples. He does not even question them as to their reason for coming but triumphantly assumes that they have come to support him. Kokalika is a little wiser, but he assumes that Shariputra and Maugalyayana have come to undermine their movement for the sake of sectarian rivalry. He cannot imagine that their real motivation is to share the Buddha Dharma with those who have not yet heard it clearly, and then to allow those who hear it to make up their own minds. Devadatta and Kokalika were not concerned with teaching the genuine Dharma so much as they were concerned with building up their own movement and jealously guarding their own following. Their concern was primarily with what will serve or threaten their own personal following. Their personal ambition blinded them to the true purpose of the Sangha. The Sangha was not intended to be a personality cult centered on the Buddha. The Sangha was meant to facilitate the sharing of the Dharma, so that each member could realize it for him or herself with the support and encouragement of their fellow practitioners.


Devadatta then offered the venerable Shariputra one half of his seat: “Come, friend Shariputra, sit here.” 


“Enough, friend,” the venerable Shariputra replied, and taking a seat, he sat down at one side. The venerable Maudgalyayana did likewise. Now when Devadatta had instructed, urged, roused and encouraged the monks with talk on the Dharma for much of the night, he said to the venerable Shariputra: “Friend Shariputra, the Sangha of monks is still free from fatigue and drowsiness. Perhaps a talk on the Dharma may occur to you. My back is paining me, so I will rest it.”


“Even so, friend,” the venerable Shariputra replied. Then Devadatta laid out his cloak of patches folded in four, and he lay down on his right side in the lion’s sleeping pose, one foot overlapping the other. But he was tired, and he dropped off to sleep for a while, forgetful and not fully aware. (Ibid, pp. 268-269)


By asking Shariputra to teach while he himself took a rest, Devadatta was imitating the Buddha who had done the same in his later years. Unlike the Buddha, Devadatta falls asleep “forgetful and not fully aware” whereas when the Buddha takes the lion’s sleeping pose it is said that he rested “mindful and fully aware.” This is Devadatta’s undoing. While he sleeps, Shariputra takes the opportunity to teach the Dharma as he has learned it from the Buddha.


Then the venerable Shariputra advised and admonished the monks with talk on the Dharma using the marvel of reading minds, and the venerable Maudgalyayana advised and admonished them with talk on the Dharma using the marvel of supernormal power, till the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dharma arose in them: All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.


Thereupon the venerable Shariputra addressed the monks: “Monks, we are going back to the Blessed One. Whoever upholds the Blessed One’s Dharma let him come with us.” And so the venerable Shariputra and the venerable Maudgalyayana took the five hundred monks with them back to the Bamboo Grove. (Ibid, p. 269)


Unlike Devadatta, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana fully understood the Dharma and attained personal realization and liberation. Based on their personal experience they were able to convey that realization to the monks so that they were able to get a real sense of it as well. If one does not care to take literally the references to “mind reading” and “supernormal powers,” it might be imagined that Shariputra had an intuitive sense of the feelings, thoughts, and aspirations of the monks, while Maudgalyayana was able to appeal to their hearts and imaginations through appropriate metaphors and similes. 


In having a “vision of the Dharma” the monks who heard the teaching of Shariputra and Maudgalyayana became stream-enterers. They were now truly on the path of the Dharma. There is no indication that the Dharma talk that Shariputra and Maudgalyayana gave had anything to do with which Sangha to be part of. They simply taught the Dharma to those willing to hear it, even those in a rival camp.  Afterwards, they simply informed the monks that they were returning to the Buddha’s Sangha and any who wished could join them. They did not argue, cajole, threaten, or harangue them. In the end, all five hundred returned with them because those five hundred were given the chance to judge for themselves which teaching and practice was genuine. As for Devadatta, his reaction to this turn of events was as follows:


Kokalika roused Devadatta: “Friend Devadatta, get up! The monks have been led away by Shariputra and Maudgalyayana! Did I not tell you not to trust them because they have evil wishes and are in the grip of evil wishes?” And then and there hot blood gushed from Devadatta’s mouth. (Ibid, p. 269)


Shariputra and Maudgalyayana reported back to the Buddha to discuss the situation with him. Shariputra suggested that the monks be re-ordained, but the Buddha told him that is unnecessary, the monks only needed to confess to a serious transgression. He then took the opportunity to illustrate in what ways Devadatta was bringing about his own downfall by trying to imitate the Buddha when he was not qualified to do so.


Then the Blessed One addressed the monks: “Once, monks, there were some elephants living near a big pond in a forest. They would go into the pond and pull up lotus stalks with their trunks; and when they had washed them quite clean, the would chew them up and swallow them free from mud. That was good for both their looks and their health, and they incurred no death or deadly suffering because of that. But some young calves, uninstructed by those elephants, went into the pond and pulled up lotus stalks with their trunks; but instead of washing them quite clean, they chewed them up and swallowed them along with mud. That was not good for either their looks or their health, and they incurred death and deadly suffering because of that. So too, monks, Devadatta will die miserably through imitating me.”


“Through aping me he will die wretchedly

Just like the calf that eats the mud as well

When copying the tusker eating lotus,

Watchful in the river, shaking off soil.

(Ibid, pp. 269-270)


The Buddha then instructed them regarding eight qualities that a monastic needs in order to be entrusted with the kind of teaching mission that the Buddha had entrusted Shariputra and Maudgalyayana with.


“Monks, a monk is fit to go on a mission when he has eight qualities. What are the eight? Here a monk is one who listens, who gets others to listen, who learns, who remembers, who recognizes, who gets others to recognize, who is skilled in the consistent and the inconsistent, and who does not make trouble. A monk is fit to go on a mission when he has these eight qualities. Now Shariputra has these eight qualities; consequently he is fit to go on a mission.”


He does not falter when he comes

Before a high assembly;

He does not lose his thread of speech,

Or cover up his message.

Unhesitatingly, he speaks out;

No questioning can ruffle him –

A monk such as this is fit

To go upon a mission.

(Ibid, p. 270)


By contrast, the Buddha speaks of first eight and then three evil things that had overcome Devadatta and warns the monks to overcome such things within themselves:


“Monks, Devadatta is overcome and his mind is obsessed by eight evil things, for which he will inevitably go to the states of privation, to hell, for the duration of the age. What are the eight? They are gain, lack of gain, fame, lack of fame, honor, lack of honor, evil wishes, and evil friends. Devadatta will go to the states of privation, to hell, for the duration of the age because he is overcome and his mind is obsessed by these eight things.


“Monks, it is good to constantly overcome each and all of these eight things as they arise. And with what benefit in view does a monk do so? While taints and fever of defilement might arise in him who did not constantly overcome each and all of these things as they arise, there are no taints and fever of defilement in him who constantly overcomes each and all of these things as they arise. Therefore, monks, train yourselves thus: ‘We shall constantly overcome each and all of these things as they arise.’


“Devadatta is overcome and his mind is obsessed by three evil things, for which he will inevitably go to the states of privation, to hell, for the duration of the age. What are the three? They are evil wishes, evil friends, and stopping halfway with the attainment of the mere earthly distinction of supernormal powers.” (Ibid, pp. 270-271)



Palace Coup


After the failure of his attempt to create a schism, Devadatta turned to Prince Ajatashatru in order to further his schemes:


Then Devadatta went to Prince Ajatashatru and said to him: “Formerly men were long-lived, now they are short-lived. Maybe you will die while still only a prince, so why do you not kill your father and become king? And I shall kill the Blessed One and become the Buddha.” (Ibid, p. 259)


In the account given in the Pali Canon, Prince Ajatashatru needs no more prompting than this. Other accounts portray the prince as, at first, horrified by the suggestion:


The prince replied, “The debt of gratitude that I owe to my father and mother is greater than the moon and the sun. I shall never be able to repay their long years of rearing me to adulthood. Why then do you provoke me to commit such a treacherous deed?” Devadatta, however, skillfully wove his words and seduced the prince’s mind; and in the end Ajatashatru agreed to do Devadatta’s bidding. (Buddha-Dharma, p. 550)


According to one account, Devadatta pointed to a broken finger that Prince Ajatashatru had since infancy and told the following story:


A long time ago, King Bimbisara was anxious to have an heir. Having heard from a soothsayer that a certain hermit living in the mountains would be reborn as his son three years later, the king immediately sent him a messenger asking him to terminate his own life, but the hermit refused to do so. The angry king ordered the messenger to kill him if he still refused to commit suicide. The hermit thus died determined to take revenge.


Soon Queen Vaidehi became pregnant. The king rejoiced, but was horrified to hear from the soothsayer that she would bear a boy who would do harm to the king. So he told the queen to give birth to the baby on the roof of the tower and let it drop to the ground. She did as told, but the baby miraculously survived with only damage to his little finger. (Three Pure Land Sutras, p. 7)


According to another account, Devadatta explained the true meaning of the name “Ajatashatru,” which is usually taken to mean “One Whose Has No Born Enemy” or could be taken to mean “Unborn Enemy.”


The manner of Ajatashatru’s birth was this. When King Bimbisara was already past his middle years, his consort Vaidehi found herself with child. She was addicted with a strange malady that made her thirst for blood from the king’s shoulders, though she did not act on her desire at first. But each day she became increasingly emaciated. The king asked her why this was occurring, and upon learning the cause he squeezed blood from his shoulder and had her drink it. A seer prophesied, “The child that is born will regard his father the king as his enemy.” Because of this dark prophecy, she attempted to abort the fetus a number of times. But the king succeeded in restraining her, and finally she gave birth to a son. Because the sage predicted that even before the child’s birth that the child would become his father’s enemy, he was named Ajatashatru, which meant Unborn Enemy. Devadatta recounted this in detail and succeeded in leading Ajatashatru astray. (Buddha-Dharma, pp. 550-551)


These fantastic stories aside, it is more likely that the actual reason Prince Ajatashatru agreed to depose King Bimbisara was because he wished to further his own ambition to make Magadha the greatest of the Indian republics by conquering his neighbors, but his father was content to maintain the fragile peace that existed at that time. Among the rival princes in the royal families of the Indian republics filial piety was not nearly as important as gaining the throne and furthering one’s political ambitions. In any case, Ajatashatru decided to act on Devadatta’s promptings and attempt to kill his father and take the throne:


Prince Ajatashatru thought: “The Lord Devadatta is mighty and powerful; he should know.” He fastened a dagger on his thigh, and then in broad day, fearful, anxious, suspicious and worried, he tried to slip into the inner palace. The king’s officers at the entry to the inner palace saw him as he did so, and they arrested him. On searching him, they found the dagger fastened to his thigh. They asked him: “What is it you want to do, prince?”


“I want to kill my father.”


“Who prompted you to do this?”


“The Lord Devadatta.”


Some officers were of the opinion that the prince should be killed and Devadatta and all of the monks, too. Others were of the opinion that the monks should not be killed since they had done no wrong, but that the prince and Devadatta should be killed. Still others were of the opinion that neither the prince nor Devadatta nor the monks should be killed, but that the king should be informed and his orders carried out.


Then the officers brought Prince Ajatashatru before Seniya Bimbisara, King of Magadha, and they told him what had happened.


“What was the officers’ opinion?”


They told him.


“What have the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha to do with it? Has not Devadatta been denounced in Rajagriha by the Blessed One?”


Then he stopped the pay of those officers whose opinion had been that Prince Ajatashatru and Devadatta and the monks should be killed. And he degraded those officers whose opinion had been that the monks, having done no wrong, should not be killed, but that the prince and Devadatta should be killed. And he promoted those officers whose opinion had been that neither the prince nor Devadatta nor the monks should be killed, but that the king should be informed and his orders carried out. Then King Bimbisara asked: “Why do you want to kill me, prince?”


“I want the kingdom, sire.”


“If you want the kingdom, prince, the kingdom is yours.”


He therewith handed the kingdom over to him. (Life of the Buddha, pp. 259-260)


This accounting of events seems highly unlikely. The prince’s unforced and straightforward admission of his intent to assassinate his own father to seize the kingdom seems odd, and King Bimbisara’s final decision to just turn over the kingdom to his murderous son seems even more unbelievable. The one thing that doesn’t seem strange is that it would be pointed out that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha were clear of any involvement in Devadatta’s actions because of his prior public denunciation by the Sangha in Rajagriha. In any case, King Bimbisara was not allowed to retire in peace. Soon after his abdication, Ajatashatru, now king, must have feared that Bimbisara might try to call upon his supporters to regain the throne. Perhaps prompted once again by Devadatta he imprisoned Bimbisara and ordered that he be denied food. Queen Vaidehi, however, found a way to keep him alive, and according to the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life the Buddha’s disciples were also able to visit him.


The king’s consort, Vaidehi bathed and purified her body. She mixed honey with the flour of roasted barley and smeared it on her body. When she entered the room in which the great king had been imprisoned, she noticed that his face was haggard and his flesh had wasted away. He had become emaciated in a most pitiful way. His consort shed tears and said, “Truly, as expounded by the World Honored One, prosperity is an ephemeral thing; the fruits of our evil deed assault us now.” The great king said, “I have been denied food, and the long starvation is excruciatingly painful, as if several hundred insects were churning away in my stomach. Most of my blood and flesh have wasted away, and I am about to die.” The king nearly lost his consciousness and he sobbed. When his consort offered him the mixture of honey and flour of roasted barley that she had smeared on hr body, the king devoured it.


After he finished, with tears in his eyes, he turned toward the place where the Buddha dwelt and prostrating himself said, “As the World-Honored One has proclaimed, the glories of this world are ephemeral and are difficult to preserve; they are like dreams and phantoms.” He then turned toward his consort and said, “When I sat on the throne, the country was vast, clothing and food were plentiful, and there was not one thing that was lacking. Now confined in this jail, I am about to die of starvation. My son has been misled by an evil teacher and he turns his back on the teaching of the World-Honored One. I do not fear death; I only regret not being able to receive the Buddha’s teaching and not being able to discuss the path with such disciples as Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Maha-Kashyapa and others. Truly, as the World-Honored One teaches, the love of human beings is as flighty as a flock of birds that nest overnight on treetops and then go their separate ways to receive their karmically fixed fortune or misfortune.


“The honored Maudgalyayana has destroyed the defilements of the mind and attained supernatural powers, and yet he was struck once by a brahmin who had grown envious of him. It is all the more fitting, then, that I, with my mind filled with defilements, should suffer such grief as this. Misfortune chases after people as closely as a shadow hunting for its body, or like an echo answering its voice. It is hard to meet the Buddha, and it is hard to hear his teaching. Again, it is hard to spread compassion and to govern sentient beings according to the teaching. I shall now end my life and travel to some faraway place. Among those who believe in the teaching of the World-Honored One, there are none who fail to serve it. You, too, my consort, must with reverence guard the teaching; you, too, must put up a barricade against the misfortunes that are sure to come.” The consort listened to the king’s exhortation and burst into tears.


The king put his palms together and reverentially turned toward Vulture Peak and bowed to the Buddha. He then said, “Honored Maudgalyayana, my good friend, with compassion please show me the way that must be taken by a layman.”


Then Maudgalyayana sped towards the king like a falcon on the wing, and every day he expounded the path of the layman. Moreover, the World-Honored One dispatched Purna and had him expound the Dharma for the king’s sake. In this way, the king, for a period of twenty-one days, at the mixture of roasted barley flour and honey and was able to hear the Dharma. His countenance, therefore, was serene and his complexion was flushed with joy. (Buddha-Dharma, pp. 551-552)


Devadatta’s First Attempt to Kill the Buddha


Now that his patron Ajatashatru was king, Devadatta approached him to begin the second part of their plan, the assassination of the Buddha so that Devadatta could become the new leader of the Sangha. Once he had been allotted a group of soldiers, Devadatta appointed one of them to go to where the Buddha was staying and kill him. Devadatta, however, was not about to take any chances that anyone would trace back this plot to him, so he set two men on the path the first man would be returning on to kill him. Then he set four men to kill the other two, and then eight men to kill those four, and finally sixteen men to kill the eight. He saw these people as nothing more than tools to be discarded once their mission was accomplished. As the saying goes, “dead men tell no tales.” Devadatta, however, had not taken into account the power of the Buddha’s dignity and compassion.


Then the one man took his sword and shield and fixed his bow and quiver, and he went to where the Blessed One was. But as he drew near, he grew frightened, till he stood still, his body quite rigid. The Blessed One saw him thus and said to him: “Come friend, do not be afraid.” Then that man laid aside his sword and shield and put down his bow and quiver. He went up to the Blessed One and prostrated himself at his feet, saying: “Lord, I have transgressed, I have done wrong like a fool confused and blundering, since I came here with evil intent, with intent to do murder. Lord, may the Blessed One forgive my transgression as such for restraint in the future.”


“Surely, friend, you have transgressed, you have done wrong like a fool confused and blundering, since you came here with evil intent, with intent to do murder. But since you see your transgression as such and so act in accordance with the Dharma, we forgive it; for it is growth in the Noble One’s Discipline when a man sees a transgression as such and so acts in accordance with the Dharma and enters upon restraint for the future.” (Life of the Buddha, pp. 260-261)


In this instance, the unnamed assassin was overcome by the great spiritual dignity of his mark, and could not go through with Devadatta’s instruction. In being invited to approach the Buddha he made a confession, which the Buddha accepted. Here the Buddha affirmed that, as we might say, “confession is good for the soul.” Specifically, the Buddha affirmed that to recognize when one is in error and to rectify that error and resolve to act differently in the future is to be in accord with the Dharma. Even those who have not formally taken any of the precepts can do this, it is a universal human act to be able to recognize one’s faults and change one’s ways. Beyond simply forgiving him and sending him on his way, the Buddha then took the opportunity to teach the Dharma, using the same “progressive instruction” that he had begun using in the early years of his ministry with householders who were hearing the Dharma for the first time:


Then the Blessed One gave the man progressive instruction, that is to say, talk on giving, on virtue, on the heavens; he explained the dangers, the vanity and the defilement in sensual pleasures and the blessings in renunciation. When he saw that his mind was ready, receptive, free from hindrance, eager and trustful, he expounded to him the teaching peculiar to the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Just as a clean cloth with all marks removed would take the dye evenly, eventually the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dharma arose in him: All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation. Then he saw and reached and found and penetrated the Dharma; he left uncertainty behind him, his doubts vanished, he gained perfect confidence and became independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation.


He said, “Magnificent, Lord, magnificent, Lord! The Dharma has been made clear in many ways by the Blessed One, as though he were righting the overthrown, revealing the hidden, showing the way to one who is lost, holding up a lamp in the dark for those with eyes to see visible forms. I go to the Blessed One for refuge and to the Dharma and to the Sangha of monks. Beginning from today, Lord, let the Blessed One receive me as his follower who has gone to him for refuge as long as breath lasts.”


The Blessed One told him: “Friend do not go back by that path; go by this path.” And he dismissed him by the other path. (Compiled and adapted from Life of the Buddha, p. 49 and p. 261)


The Buddha’s patience and magnanimity was such that he not only forgave his would-be killer but also taught him the Dharma as though he had actually sought the Buddha out for that purpose. The Buddha taught him the basis of sound spiritual health in terms of generosity, virtue, and aspiration for a heavenly way of life that could lead to a heavenly rebirth. He then taught him the value of being detached and to cut off longing for the impermanent things of this world. The teaching culminated in the teaching of the four noble truths whereupon the would-be assassin became established in the state of stream-enterer, thereby escaping the lower paths of rebirth in the hells, or as a hungry ghost or animal. The Buddha then literally sends him down a different path, thereby saving the man’s life from those who were lying in wait to kill the killer.


After awhile, the ambushers began to wonder when their victim would be coming along. Curious, they went up the path until they also encountered the Buddha. They had not themselves been told to harm the Buddha and so they paid homage and sat down. They also received the Buddha’s instruction, and as the man before them, became stream-enterers, took refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and were finally sent on their way down a different path. The same thing happened to the other groups that Devadatta had set up along the path.


In the traditional story, the now converted assassin reports back to Devadatta and tells him that he could not go through with killing the Buddha, as he is too mighty and powerful.


Devadatta’s Second Attempt to Kill the Buddha


After the failure of his assassins, Devadatta resolved to kill the Buddha himself. The following story recounts his attempt to do so.


At that time the Blessed One was walking up and down in the shade of Vulture Peak. Then Devadatta climbed Vulture Peak, and he hurled down a huge stone, thinking: “I shall take the monk Gautama’s life with this.”


Two spurs of the rock came together and caught the stone: but a splinter from it drew the blood on the Blessed One’s foot. Then he looked up and said to Devadatta: “Misguided man, you have made much demerit; for with evil intent, with intent to do murder, you have drawn the blood of a Perfect One.”


Then the Blessed One addressed the monks thus: “Monks, this is the first deed with immediate effect on rebirth that Devadatta has stored up, in that with evil intent to do murder, he has drawn the blood of a Perfect One.” (Ibid, pp. 261-262)


By injuring the Buddha, Devadatta had committed another one of the five grave offences, further confirming his status as an icchantika. The injury was no mere cut. It was severe enough that it left the Buddha bedridden for a time. On that occasion, Mara, the devil king of the sixth heaven, took the opportunity to visit the Buddha once again:


Now at that time, when the Blessed One’s foot had been hurt by the splinter, he suffered severe bodily feelings that were painful, sharp, racking, harsh, disagreeable and unpleasant. Mindful and fully aware, he bore them without vexation, and spreading out his cloak of patches folded in four, he lay down on his right side in the lion’s sleeping pose with one foot overlapping the other, mindful and fully aware.


Then Mare the Evil One came to him and addressed him in stanzas:


“What, are you stupefied, that you lie down?

Or else entranced by some poetic flight?

Are there not many aims you still must serve?

Why do you dream away intent on sleep

Alone in your secluded dwelling?”


“I am not stupefied that I lie down,

Nor yet entranced by some poetic flight.

My aim is reached, and sorrow left behind.

I sleep out of compassion for all beings

Alone in my secluded dwelling place.”


Then Mara understood: “The Blessed One knows me, the Sublime One knows me.” Sad and disappointed, he vanished at once. (Ibid, p. 262)


This story contains several important points. One is that the Buddha was free of sorrow and suffering, but still had to endure physical pain and infirmity. Old age, sickness, injury, and eventually death were not circumvented or avoided, but because they were now viewed in the light of the Buddha’s awakening they no longer had any power over him. The Buddha was still subject to painful circumstances, including the betrayal of his cousin Devadatta who was repeatedly attempting to kill him; but he no longer suffered because of this. This is a lesson for those who mistakenly believe that attaining enlightenment will save them from painful circumstances. Enlightenment is not leading a life without pain, but rather a life where the emotional reaction of suffering has been transcended and painful situations can be faced with equanimity, mindfulness and even compassion, as the Buddha did.


Another point is that even though the Buddha had transcended suffering and self-concern, he still took care of himself. Mara, here, is the personification of the Buddha’s doubts, or perhaps of our own doubts. Why should the Buddha need time to rest, as though he were a mere human being?  Was the Buddha just sleeping, daydreaming, and whiling away the time while bedridden? The Buddha’s response to Mara repudiates this, insisting that he is motivated, as ever, by compassion and not laziness or self-concern. Mara, most likely, was hoping that the Buddha would feel guilty for staying in bed (so to speak) and would overexert himself so that he would not heal, and so pass away that much more quickly. The Buddha no longer needed to strive to overcome suffering, and he was no longer afraid of death. For the sake of those who relied on his teachings he did need to take care of his health. So once again, the Buddha was able to see through Mara’s attempts to mislead him.


Devadatta’s Third Attempt to Kill the Buddha


That Devadatta had tried to kill the Buddha was now common knowledge among the Sangha. Understandably they were quite upset, and had the Buddha under constant guard. They were also performing paritta, which are protective recitations. In the Pali Canon, several short discourses have been designated as paritta because it is believed that their recitation will bring about blessings and ward off misfortune, particularly the ill-will of others. One of the most well known of the paritta is the Metta Sutta, the Discourse on Loving-Kindness, which expresses the cultivation of loving-kindness for all beings. In the Metta Sutta the Buddha taught the kind of attitudes and actions that exemplify one who is filled with loving-kindness. The Buddha taught his followers “ be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech. Humble and not conceited, contented and easily satisfied. Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways. Peaceful and calm, wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature.” Further on the Buddha provided a series of wishes that one should make for the sake of all sentient beings starting with, “In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease,” and later on, “Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another. Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world: Spreading upward to the skies, and downward to the depths; outward and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.” (Translation by Sharon Salzburg) Because the Buddha regarded all beings he met with loving-kindness, he inspired those who came into his presence to also radiate such feelings for all beings. Such was the power of the Buddha’s loving-kindness, that all but the icchantika would be unable to sustain their murderous ill-will in the Buddha’s presence. Even killers like Angulimala or the assassins sent by Devadatta to kill the Buddha experienced a tremendous change of heart in the Buddha’s presence and ended up becoming his disciples. For this reason the Buddha was confident that he would not be murdered and counseled the monks so that they would not worry.


The monks heard: “It seems that Devadatta has tried to murder the Blessed One.” They walked up and down and round and round the Blessed One’s dwelling. They made a loud noise, a great clamor, performing recitations for the guarding, safeguarding and protection of the Blessed One. When he heard this, he asked the venerable Ananda: “Ananda, what is this loud noise, this great clamor, this sound of recitation?”


“Lord, the monks have heard that Devadatta has tried to murder the Blessed One,” and he told what they were doing.


“Then, Ananda, tell those monks in my name: ‘The Master call the venerable ones.’


“Even so, Lord,” the venerable Ananda replied. And he went to the monks and told them: “The Master calls the venerable one.”


“Even so,” they replied. And they went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One said to them: “It is impossible, monks, it cannot happen, that anyone can take a Prefect One’s life by violence. When Perfect Ones attain final nirvana, it is not through violence on the part of another. Go to your dwellings, monks; Perfect Ones need no protecting.” (Adapted from Life of the Buddha, pp. 262-263)


In the meantime, Devadatta was preparing one more attempt to kill the Buddha. Presumably this occurred when the Buddha was well enough to walk again on the morning alms rounds.


At that time there was a savage elephant at Rajagriha called Nalagiri, a man-killer. Devadatta went into Rajagriha to the elephant stables. He said to the mahouts: “We are known to the king and influential. We can get those in low places promoted, and we can get food and wages increased. So when the monk Gautama comes down this road, let the elephant Nalagiri loose into the road.” “Even so, Lord,” they replied.


Then when it was morning, the Blessed One dressed, and taking his bowl and outer robe, he went into Rajagriha for alms with a number of monks. Then the Blessed One entered that road. The mahouts saw him, and they turned the elephant loose into the road. The elephant saw the Blessed One coming in the distance. When he saw him, he raised his trunk, and with his ears and tail erect, he charged towards the Blessed One.


The monks saw him coming in the distance. They said: “Lord, the savage elephant Nalagiri, the man-killer, is loose in the road. Lord, let the Blessed One turn back; Lord, let the Sublime One turn back.”


“Come, monks, do not be afraid. It is impossible, it cannot happen, that anyone can take a Perfect One’s life by violence. When Perfect Ones attain final nirvana, it is not through violence on the part of another.”


A second and third time the monks said the same thing and received the same answer.


Now at that time people in the palaces and houses and huts were waiting in suspense. Those of them without faith or confidence, the unwise and indiscreet, said: “The Great Man who is so handsome will get hurt by the elephant.” And the faithful and confident, the wise and discreet, said: “Soon tusker will be contending with tusker.” (Ibid, pp. 263-264)


I can only note that Nalagiri must either have been moving in slow motion, or else the road he was charging down was extremely long for all of this conversation between the Buddha and the monks to have occurred, and for all the people in town to have time to speculate on what would happen when Nalagiri reached the Buddha. Of course, there is more than a little dramatic license at work in this telling of the story, assuming that it was based on a literal event in the first place.


Then the Blessed One encompassed the elephant Nalagiri with thoughts of loving-kindness. The elephant lowered his trunk and he went up to the Blessed One and stood before him. The Blessed One stroked the elephant’s forehead with his right hand and addressed him with these stanzas:


O elephant, do not attack a tusker,

For it is hurtful to attack a tusker;

There is no happy destiny beyond

For one who kills a tusker.

Have done with vanity and recklessness;

The reckless have no happy destiny.

So do you act in suchwise that you go

To a happy destination.


The elephant Nalagiri took the dust of the Blessed One’s feet with his trunk and sprinkled it on his head, after which he retreated backwards for as long as the Blessed One was in sight. Then he went to the elephant stables and stood in his own place. It was thus that he was tamed. Now at that time people sang this stanza:


Some tame by means of sticks,

And some with goads and whips;

But here a Sage has tamed a tusker,

Using neither stick nor weapon.

(Ibid, p. 264)


Whether something like this actually happened or not, the whole incident seems to be a way of dramatizing the Buddha’s confidence and the power of his loving-kindness to tame even a murderously enraged animal. Assuming for a moment that this incident actually occurred, why didn’t the Buddha simply step out of the way? I don’t think it was simply a matter of self-confidence or wanting to perform a miracle. Nalagiri was not just a danger to the Buddha, but to all of the people of Rajagriha. He had to be tamed before someone was hurt or killed, and the Buddha knew that in that moment he was the only one who could do it. Furthermore, if he did not tame Nalagiri, undoubtedly the soldiers from the palace would have been sent out to kill the animal. So the Buddha was also saving Nalagiri’s life as well. In this, one can contrast the hatred and cruelty of Devadatta, who did not care who else got hurt as long as he succeeded in his ambitions, with the Buddha, whose compassion encompassed all the people of Rajagriha and even the killer-elephant.   


As for Devadatta, he had gone too far, and now all the people of Rajagriha knew what he was up to. Even King Ajatashatru knew that it was time to distance himself from the Buddha’s murderously ambitious cousin. Devadatta was cut-off. No longer could Devadatta rely on the king’s patronage, and no longer would he wield any influence in the palace. If Devadatta had not already left the Sangha to form a schismatic group he would undoubtedly have been expelled for his multiple attempts to murder of the Buddha.


People were annoyed, they murmured and protested: “This wretch Devadatta is actually wicked enough to try to kill the monk Gautama who is so mighty and powerful!” And Devadatta’s gain and honor shrank away while the Blessed One’s gain and honor grew greater. (Ibid, p. 264)


Queen Vaidehi Aspires to the Pure Land


While Devadatta was pursuing his wicked schemes, King Bimbisara languished in prison, secretly fed by Queen Vaidehi. Eventually, the usurper Ajatashatru caught on to what was happening. The following account of what happened is taken from the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life:


Ajatashatru asked the sentries guarding the gates, “Is my father the king still alive?” They said, “The king’s consort smears honey mixed with roasted barley flour on her body. She then fills her jeweled crown with juices and offers it to the king. The Buddha’s disciples such as Maudgalyayana and Purna and others come swooping down from the sky to expound the Dharma for the sake of the king. We have not been able to prevent this.”


Ajatashatru heard this account and was angry. He said, “Even though she is my mother, if she consorts with those who violate the laws of the country, she must also be considered an enemy of the state. Moreover, how dare these evil monks with their magical powers keep this evil king alive!” The he drew his sword and attempted to kill Vaidehi the consort of the king. At that moment the minister Chandraprabha together with the physician Jivaka bowed down to the king and said, “From the Vedas we learn that since the creation of heaven and earth, there have been eighteen thousand evil kings who slew their fathers in order to usurp the throne. But there is none so vicious that he slew his own mother. If you commit this foul deed you will bring disgrace upon the kshatriya caste. We cannot bear such a deed, for anyone who performs such an act is an outcaste. We cannot stay here any longer.” The two men, with their hands on the hilts of their swords, spoke these words as they slowly inched their way backwards. Ajatashatru was stunned and terrified; he said to Jivaka, “Are you not going to help me?” Jivaka said, “Do not kill your mother.” The king repented his erroneous ways and sought their help; he threw away his sword and ordered his palace officials to confine his mother to the private palace. (Buddha-Dharma, pp. 552-553)


Fortunately for Ajatashatru, the minister Chandraprabha and the physician Jiavaka had the integrity and courage to oppose him in his impulsive desire to kill Vaidehi. They could not stop him from imprisoning her and resuming the starvation of Bimbisara, but they at least stopped him from committing a crime so heinous that it would have dishonored the warrior caste and perhaps lead to more unrest and chaos within the kingdom. Their principled opposition displayed a loyalty far deeper than mere acquiescence. 


The Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life goes on to tell how Queen Vaidehi in desperation called out to the Buddha who was staying on Vulture Peak in the hopes of receiving miraculous visits from his disciples, just as Maudgalyayana and Purna had visited Bimbisara over the previous three weeks. In response to her plea, the Buddha himself appeared accompanied by Ananda and Maudgalyana and a heavenly entourage. Vaidehi then expressed her doubts and despair to the Buddha.


The king’s consort, of her own accord, tore away her necklace and threw herself onto the great earth. Bursting into tears, she said to the World Honored One, “World Honored One, what evil deeds did I commit that I must bear the fruit of giving birth to such an evil child as this, and by what conditions did the World Honored One become a relative of Devadatta? World Honored One, for my sake, please show me the path that is free of sorrow; I have grown weary of this wretched, evil world. This world is an assembly of unhappy beings such as hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals. From now on, I do not wish to hear unhappy voices nor see unhappy beings. I now face the World Honored One and prostrate myself on the great earth. I beg for your pity as I drown in tears of contrition. I beg of you, World Honored One who dwell amidst the world’s light, please let me gaze upon a pure land.” (Ibid, p. 553)


Vaidehi’s distress is representative of all those who have suffered tragedy and injustice. Her anguish is especially acute because it was her own son who has betrayed her. She also wonders why it was the Buddha’s own cousin who had betrayed him and instigated these tragic events. What did any of them do, in either their present or past lives, to deserve such suffering? Is there a better world where such things do not happen?


The Buddha did not answer Vaidehi’s questions regarding Ajatashatru or Devadatta in the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life. Perhaps this is because they were taken to be rhetorical questions, an expression of Vaidehi’s suffering and confusion. They are interesting questions however, questions that are addressed in other sutras. Earlier, the story was told in which Bimbisara had a hermit killed, in order to hasten that hermit’s birth as his son Ajatashatru. Bimbisara later grew afraid of the baby and had him dropped from a tower, but Ajatashatru survived. Another account told of how Vaidehi had tried to abort him. It would seem that Ajatashatru’s parents were not so loving and innocent; Ajatashatru had grown up under a cloud of suspicion and even hostility from the moment he was born, or even before. As for Devadatta, his lifelong jealousy towards the Buddha has already been recounted. Even a Buddha cannot please everyone, or force people to react in a positive rather than a negative way. In our pain, we sometime forget the ways in which we might have caused suffering to others through our actions and attitudes. We also forget that we cannot control others. Even our good causes cannot override the free will of other people, and it is possible that other people may show ingratitude or even repay our kindness with cruelty. This does not mean that we should not do our best to make good causes or do our best for others, but it does mean that one of the good causes we might need to make is to cultivate patience and understanding when faced with the consequences of our own mistakes or with the ingratitude or even injurious actions of others, trusting that in the long run balance and harmony will be restored as the law of cause and effect unfolds.


The Buddha does, however, respond to the request to see a better world. He grants to Vaidehi a vision of pure lands throughout the ten directions. These pure lands are essentially heavenly realms where all who are reborn in them can learn and practice the Dharma under the guidance of their presiding buddhas in conditions that are perfectly conducive to attaining enlightenment. Vaidehi then announces that she aspires to be reborn in Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitayus Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Life (aka Amitabha aka Infinite Light).


At that time, the Word Honored One smiled, and a light of five different hues shot forth; that light shone on the head of King Bimbisara. Although the king was imprisoned, his mind’s eye saw the World Honored One at a distance, and nothing blocked his view. He reverently bowed; the bonds of delusion of themselves came loose, and the king attained enlightenment.


The World Honored One said to Vaidehi, the king’s consort, “Are you not aware that Amitayus Buddha does not dwell far from this place? You ought to think upon Amitayus Buddha’s land of Sukhavati, which was created by virtuous deeds. If you wish to be born in this country, you must perform the three kinds of virtuous deeds. First, you must dutifully attend your parents, serve your teacher faithfully, and be compassionate and refrain from committing the ten grave offences of murder, theft, sexual misconduct, false speech, slander, harsh speech, frivolous talk, covetousness, ill-will, and false views. Second, you must take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha, observe all the precepts, and uphold your dignity. Third, you must aspire to seek enlightenment, profoundly believe in the principle of cause and effect, read the sutras, and expound their teachings to others. Vaidehi, these three are the virtuous deeds that lead to birth in the Pure Land. The buddhas of the past, present, and future all attained enlightenment on account of these three deeds that functioned as the true cause of their attainment.” (Ibid, pp. 553-554)


The Buddha then teaches a total of 16 subjects for contemplation in order to be reborn in Sukhavati, the Land of Bliss. The first 13 deal with various aspects of Sukhavati and of Amitayus Buddha and his attendants Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva (aka Kuan Yin aka Regarder of the Cries of the World) and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. The last 3 deal with contemplations involving those of high, middle or low spiritual capacity and their response to the saving power of Amitayus Buddha. The power of simply hearing and saying the name of Amitayus Buddha is especially stressed towards the end of this sutra for the sake of those who are unable to contemplate the Buddha, do good, or even refrain from evil. There are many different ways of understanding this sutra, but one interpretation of it could be that to envision Sukhavati, and Amitayus Buddha, and his bodhisattva attendants is to uplift one’s mind and heart and to transcend one’s preoccupation with whatever suffering one is in or whatever evil states of being one is caught up in. This breaks the cycle of negativity and allows the light of truth and compassion to come into one’s life and transform it. It is a skillful method whereby those in deep suffering who have despaired of life or of this world can envision a better world and the qualities of the buddhas and the bodhisattvas. They thereby open their eyes to the buddha qualities within their own life and in doing so realize the true nature of this world and the beings in it. The Pure Land teaching and method, can be understood to be about a literal rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitayus Buddha through accepting the salvific power of that buddha, but in essence it’s aim is to bring about the inner revolution of enlightenment in this very life that will unfold without cease into the future. 


When the World Honored One had finished expounding this, the consort Vaidehi and a host of ladies-in-waiting all saw the world of Sukhavati, Amitayus Buddha, and his two attendant bodhisattvas. Their minds overflowed with joy; great enlightenment unfolded spontaneously; and they were able to see the world as it was. The World Honored One then predicted the day on which they would attain enlightenment.


The World Honored One said, “If a person hears the name of Amitayus Buddha, evils that lead to endless transmigration are destroyed. Should they contemplate his name, all the more so will this be true. Truly, those who contemplate the Buddha are lotuses among evil people. The two bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta become their friends; they never deviate from the path, and in the end they will be born in Sukhavati.” He then said to Ananda, “Uphold these words. To uphold these words means to uphold the name of Amitayus Buddha.”


After expounding the Dharma, the World Honored One returned to the Vulture Peak; Ananda, for the sake of sentient beings, traveled everywhere expounding this teaching. Because of his efforts, those who heard this teaching placed their trust in the Dharma and rejoiced. (Ibid, p. 558)



The Death of King Bimbisara


Through the Buddha’s teaching, Bimbisara and Vaidehi were able to transcend their present suffering and were assured of final liberation from the rounds of birth and death. Ajatashatru, however, was still dominated by paranoia, hatred, and cruelty and was as determined as ever to make his father suffer and die.


Ever since his consort was imprisoned, King Bimbisara was denied all food. Peering through his window, he gazed upon the verdant green Vulture Peak; this provided some consolation for his mind. However, when Ajatashatru heard of this, he blocked up the window and slashed the soles of the king’s feet, so that the king could not stand. Around that time, Ajatashatru’s child Udaya was suffering from a boil on the tip of his finger. Therefore, Ajatashatru, while hugging his child to his bosom, sucked away the pus. Vaidehi, the king’s consort, who was sitting nearby, observed this and said, “King, when you were small, you suffered from an identical boil. Your father, the great king, just as you did, sucked away its pus.” When Ajatashatru heard this, his anger toward his father the king suddenly changed into thoughts of love. He said to his ministers, “If there is someone who will report that my father the king is alive, I shall grant him half of this country.” People rushed to where his father the king was being held. But the king, hearing the clamorous footsteps, became terrified and thought, “They are going to inflict severe punishments on me.” In agony, he collapsed onto the bed and breathed his last.


Blinded by worldly pleasures, Ajatashatru, who thus caused the death of his innocent father the king, was now best with contrition. His body suffered from high temperature; his whole body was covered with boils. The boils oozed pus and were so foul smelling that it was hard to come near him. He pondered, “Now, in this world, I receive something like the fruits of hell. Before long, I shall receive the fruits of the actual hell.” His mother Vaidehi was struck with grief and smeared various medicines on his body, but the boils would not heal. King Ajatashatru said to his mother, “These boils grow out of the mind and not from the body. They cannot be healed by human power.” (Ibid, p. 560)


The death of King Bimbisara is said to have occurred in the 38th year of the Buddha’s teaching mission. According to the Pali account, Vaidehi died of grief shortly thereafter. This led to a dispute between King Ajatashatru and his uncle, King Prasenajit of Koshala, the brother of Vaidehi. In the 39th year of the Buddha’s teaching mission King Prasenajit led his Koshalan troops to reclaim a village that had been given to Magadha as part of Vaidehi’s dowry when she married King Bimbisara. King Prasenajit declared that Bimbisara’s parricidal son had no right to it. King Ajatashatru led his own Magadhan troops to take back the village and to further his own imperialistic ambitions. The following discourse recounts what happened as well as the Buddha’s comments:


Thus I heard. The Blessed One was living at Shravasti. Now at that time Ajatashatru Vaidehiputra, King of Magadha, mustered a four-constituent army with elephants, cavalry, charioteers and infantry, and he marched into the Kashi country against Prasenajit, King of Koshala. King Prasenajit heard about it, and himself mustered a four-constituent army, he advanced into the Kashi country to engage King Ajatashatru in battle. The two kings fought. In that war King Ajatashatru beat King Prasenajit, who retreated to his own royal capital, Shravasti. Monks gathering alms in Shravasti heard about this, and they went and told the Blessed One. He said:


“Monks, Ajatashatru Vaidehiputra, King of Magadha, has bad friends, bad allies, bad intimates; Prasenajit, King of Koshala, has good friends, good allies, good intimates. But King Prasenajit will pass this night in suffering as one who is beaten.”


Conquest begets enemies;

One vanquished has a bed of pain,

A man of peace can lie in quiet –

No conquest or defeat for him.


Later the two kings fought as before. But in that battle King Prasenajit captured King Ajatashatru alive. Then it occurred to King Prasenajit: “Though this Ajatashatru Vaidehiputra, King of Magadha, has injured me who did him no injury, still he is my nephew. Why should I not confiscate all his elephants, his horses, his chariots and his infantry, and let him go alive?” Monks gathering alms in Shravasti heard about this, and they went and told the Blessed One. Knowing the meaning of this, the Blessed One then uttered this exclamation:


A man may plunder as he will.

When others plunder in return,

He, plundered, plunders them again.

The fool believes he is in luck

As long as evil does not ripen;

But when it does, the fool fares ill.


The slayer gets himself a slayer,

The victor finds himself a conqueror,

The abuser gets himself abused,

The persecutor persecuted;

The wheel of deeds turns round again

And makes the plundered plunderers.

(Adapted from Life of the Buddha, pp. 271-272)


After suffering defeat and then a merciful reprieve from his uncle, King Ajatashatru returned home and turned to philosophy for a time. His guilt over the murder of his father and the accompanying illness had not gone away. He also dreaded the consequences of his deeds if they should come to fruition in a future life. In order to ease his mind he visited the six unorthodox (from a Vedic point of view) teachers who all rejected the authority of the Vedas, the divinely revealed scriptures of the brahmins. These six included: Purana Kashyapa, who denied that moral causes will have an effect in a future life; Maskarin Goshali, who taught that everything is predestined and that liberation is a simple matter of just letting events unfold like letting a string unwind; Samjayin Vairatiputra the skeptic, who took an agnostic position on all matters; Ajita Keshakambala the materialist, who denied rebirth altogether; Kakuda Katyayana the pluralist, who taught that both the physical and spiritual elements that make up life disperse at death with no continuity; and Nigrantha Jnatiputra, the founder of Jainism, who taught that our actions bind us to suffering regardless of our intentions and that only complete inaction can lead to liberation. Four of them denied the law of cause and effect in terms of the consequences of moral and immoral actions. Samjayin Vairatiputra denied that there could be any certainty about such things. Nigrantha Jnatiputra held a very rigid view of cause and effect that demanded an ascetic life of inactivity. King Ajatashatru did not find any of these teachings satisfactory. His sickness remained, as did his guilt and dread of the future.


King Ajatashatru Sees the Buddha


Eventually, the physician Jivaka was able to persuade King Ajatashatru to visit the Buddha. According to the account in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra:


At that time, there was a great physician named Jivaka. This man also visited the king’s sickbed and said, “Great king, are you able to sleep soundly?” The king said, “Jivaka, I have been suffering from a grave illness. I inflicted vicious and grievous injury on my father the king, who followed the true Dharma. The grave illness that resulted from that act cannot be healed, no matter how great the physician, the incantation, or the care. The reason is that the former king ruled the country well, in accordance with the Dharma. Although he was not guilty of any offense, I inflicted on him vicious and grievous injury. It was as if I had pulled a fish out of the water and thrown it onto land. I once heard from a sage that those whose three actions of body, mouth, and mind are not pure will without fail plunge into hell. I am an example of that; how can I sleep in peace? There are no physicians who, expounding the medicine of the Dharma, can heal me of this illness and its suffering.”


Jivaka said in response to this, “Now, now. Although you have committed offences, now you are experiencing profound remorse and contrition. Great king, the Buddha always teaches that there are two minds that save one. The first is the mind that strives not to commit offences. The second is the mind that strives not to cause others to commit offences. Or, the first is the mind that looks within and repents, and the second is the mind that is contrite toward others. Or, the first is to feel remorse before other people, and the second is to feel remorse before the gods. These are the meanings of contrition. He who lacks this mind of contrition is not a human being but rather an animal. Because we possess this mind of contrition, the mind that venerates parents and teachers also comes into being, and harmony between brothers and sisters is established. I am truly joyful that you have experienced this contrition. Great king, you just said that there is no physician who is able to heal you of your grave illness; that is exactly so. However, great king, please consider this well. The great Arhat, the World Honored One, is the person most worthy of the world’s veneration. He possesses a diamond-like wisdom that destroys all obstructions with ease; he destroys all offences. The Buddha, the World Honored One, will heal you of your grave illness.” (Buddha-Dharma, pp. 564-565)


The same sutra states that Bimbisara even spoke from the heavens at this point so that he could advise his son to forget the false teachings of the six unorthodox teachers and to hurry and see the Buddha. The Buddha, through his supernatural powers, observes all of this and tells his disciples that it is for Ajatashatru’s sake that he remains in the world, because Ajatashatru represents all the ignorant and defiled beings that have not yet been able to perceive their buddha-nature. The Buddha then enters the Moon Loving Meditation and emits a pure and soothing light that reaches Ajatashatru and cures him of the boils. King Ajatashatru is amazed by this and asks Jivaka why the Buddha did this. Jivaka explains that the Buddha loves all people as though they were his own children, but is especially concerned for those who have committed grave offences and who do not follow the path to enlightenment. Now that King Ajatashatru’s bodily sickness has been healed, the Buddha will wish to see him personally in order to cure his mental distress. Still observing, the Buddha explains to his disciples that the most important factor that will lead people to enlightenment is a good friend, such as Jivaka is to King Ajatashatru.


None of this appears in an earlier version of the first meeting of King Ajatashatru and the Buddha told in The Fruits of the Homeless Life Discourse (Samannaphala Sutta). That discourse does not mention any illness, though it does mention that while observing the full moon one night King Ajatashatru made the following pronouncement: “Delightful, friends, is this moonlight night! Auspicious is this moonlight night! Can we not today visit some ascetic or brahmin, to visit whom would bring peace to our heart?” (Long Discourses, p. 91) His ministers suggest that they visit one or the other of the six unorthodox teachers but King Ajatashatru was not interested in seeing any of them. At that point Jivaka suggests a visit to the Buddha. King Ajatashatru was agreeable to this and so Jivaka took him to the in the Mango Grove Monastery that Jivaka had earlier donated to the Sangha. When they arrived the Buddha and his disciples were sitting silently in meditation. At first, King Ajatashatru even feared that he was being led into a trap.


On the night of the full moon, several hundred elephant carriages with torches at their heads quietly made their way toward the forest. When at last they entered the forest, King Ajatashatru was suddenly beset with fear; trembling, he said to Jivaka, “Jivaka, you are not planning to betray and hand me over to the enemy are you? What an eerie silence! They say there are over one thousand disciples, and yet not one sneeze or cough can be heard. I cannot help but think that there is some kind of plot afoot.” Jivaka said, “Great king, advance without fear. There is a light burning in that forest retreat. The World Honored One resides there.”


The king was bolstered by Jivaka’s words, and lowering himself from the elephant he went into the forest. Approaching the World Honored One, he bowed and begged to be taught by the Buddha. (Buddha-Dharma, p. 567)


In the discourse that follows, King Ajatashatru tells the Buddha about the teachings of the six unorthodox teachers and then asks the Buddha what is to be gained from leaving home to follow the Buddha’s teaching. In the end, King Ajatashatru is impressed by the Buddha’s moral vision and his explanation of the way to achieve liberation from birth and death. He takes refuge in the Three Treasures, repents of the murder of his father, and then goes his way. But in this version of their meeting the Buddha’s prognosis is not so positive.


At this King Ajatashatru exclaimed: “Excellent, Lord, excellent! It is as if someone were to set up what had been knocked down, or to point out the way to one who had got lost, or to bring an oil-lamp into a dark place, so that those with eyes could see what was there. Just so the Blessed Lord has expounded the Dharma in various ways. And I, Lord, go for refuge to the Blessed Lord, to the Dharma, and to the Sangha. May the Blessed Lord accept me from this day forth as a lay-follower as long as life shall last! Transgression overcame me, Lord, foolish, erring and wicked as I was, in that I for the sake of the throne deprived my father, that good man and just king, of his life. May the Blessed Lord accept my confession of my evil deed that I may restrain myself in future.”


“Indeed, Sire, transgression overcame you when you deprived your father, that good man and just king, of his life. But since you have acknowledged that transgression and confessed it as is right, we will accept it. For he who acknowledges his transgression as such and confesses it for betterment in future, will grow in the noble discipline.”


At this, King Ajatashatru said, “Lord, permit me to part now. I am busy and have much to do.” “Do now, Your Majesty, as you think fit.”


Then King Ajatashatru, rejoicing and delighting at these words, rose from his seat, saluted the Lord, and departed with his right side towards him.


As soon as the King had gone, the Lord said: “The King is done for, his fate is sealed monks! But if the King had not deprived his father, that good man and just king, of his life, then as he sat here the pure and spotless Dharma-eye would have arisen in him.” (Long Discourses, pp. 108-109)


What the Buddha meant by this is that if King Ajatashatru had not committed the grave offence of killing his father, then he would have deeply understood the Dharma and become a stream-enterer. But since he had committed such an offence, he was doomed to fall into the Avichi Hell. However, he did affirm that acknowledging his transgression and repenting of it would be to his benefit in the future. So from the Buddhist perspective, once the detrimental karma that would lead to rebirth in the Avichi Hell had been exhausted, then other more wholesome karma of would have a chance to ripen.


The Mahayana Mahanirvana Sutra is more positive. In it’s version, the Buddha’s assessment of the power of repentance is much more optimistic. In addition, King Ajatashatru not only repents but also arouses bodhicitta, the aspiration for enlightenment so that he may help other beings be rid of defilement.


The World Honored One bestowed a diversity of teachings on Ajatashatru. He said, “Great king, for those with a mind of contrition, offences are no longer offences. Those without a mind of contrition will be chastised forever by their offences. You are a man of contrition; your offences will be purified; there is no need to be afraid.”


Having received this teaching, Ajatashatru said to the World Honored One, “As I survey the world, I observe that from the seed of the toxic tree called the castor oil tree, a castor oil tree grows. I have yet to see a sandalwood tree grow from the seed of a castor oil tree. However, now for the first time, I have witnessed a sandalwood tree grow from the fruit of a castor oil tree. I am talking about myself. The sandalwood tree refers to the rootless faith that has sprouted forth in my mind. So far I have yet to serve the Buddha with reverence or seek refuge in the Dharma or the Sangha. Nevertheless, faith has suddenly sprouted in me; therefore I call this faith rootless faith. World Honored One, if I had been unable to meet the Buddha, I should have fallen into hell for an infinite number of kalpas and addicted with endless suffering. Now I bow to the Buddha; with all of the merits that I can accumulate, my fervent wish for the future is to destroy other people’s defilement.”


The World Honored One said, “Very good, very good, great king! I have foreseen that you will destroy people’s defilements with your merits, expunging the defilements in their minds.” Ajatashatru said, “World Honored One, if I am able to destroy people’s evil intentions, even though I should experience enormous suffering for an infinite number of kalpas in the Avichi hell, I shall not think of this as suffering.


Hearing these words of Ajatashatru, a large number of Magadhans spontaneously aroused the aspiration for enlightenment. Because of this, Ajatashatru was able to mitigate his grave offences. (Buddha-Dharma, pp. 567-568)


The Mahayana Mahanirvana Sutra account is full of fantastic elements, supernatural events, and teachings that developed long after the Buddha’s passing. It uses the original story from The Fruits of the Homeless Life Discourse to dramatize several important themes of Mahayana teaching and practice, namely the Buddha’s compassion for those who have created their own suffering and are lost and confused, the importance of a good friend, the importance of recognizing and repenting of one’s misdeeds, the way in which spiritual practice and the concern and care of others can alleviate mental and physical illness, the universality of buddha-nature, and most importantly the transformation of an icchantika into a bodhisattva.


Devadatta’s End


Devadatta had just lost his royal patron for good. He, of course, had not repented in the slightest but was in fact still scheming and plotting to restore his former fortunes.


Ajatashatru then said to the ministers, “From this day forward, I seek my refuge in the World Honored One and his disciples. From now on, we must invite the World Honored One and his disciples to my palace, but we must not allow Devadatta and his cohorts to enter the palace.


Unaware of this, one day Devadatta arrived at the palace gates. The sentries who guarded the gates repeated what the king had said and blocked Devadatta’s path. Seething inside with anger, he stood outside the gate. Just then the nun Utpalavarna, who had finished her round of begging, came walking out of the gate. When he spied the nun, instantaneously he exploded with anger. “What hatred do you harbor toward me that prompts you to bar me from passing through the gate?” Using abusive language, he clenched his fist and struck the nun’s head. The nun endured the pain and told him that this was unreasonable, but in the end Devadatta broke her head. The nun endured the pain and returned to her nunnery. She said to the nuns who were horror-struck and grieving, “Sisters, one’s life span cannot be calculated; all things are impermanent. A quiescent place free of defilement is nirvana. All of you, exert yourselves with diligence and cultivate the virtuous path.” After speaking these words, she entered nirvana. (Ibid, pp. 568-569)


The nun Utpalavarna, was in fact an arhat, someone who had attained liberation in their lifetime. By killing her, Devadatta had committed yet another of the five grave offences, for a total of three. There was no evil that he was not capable of, and he still hoped to kill the Buddha.


Finally Devadatta smeared poison onto the nails of his ten fingers and plotted to draw near the World Honored One, who was staying at the Jeta Grove Monastery. The disciples spied Devadatta’s figure, and because they were concerned about the safety of the World Honored One, they felt great fear. However, the World Honored One said, “There is no need to be afraid. Today, Devadatta will not be able to see me.” Meanwhile, Devadatta approached the monastery and went to the shore of the lake where disciples washed their feet. There for some time he rested under the shade of a tree. Repeating what he had said before, the World Honored One pacified his fearful disciples. At this moment, the great earth on which Devadatta stood of itself sank down and burst into flames. It soon buried his knees, then it reached up to his navel and finally his shoulders. Burned by the fire, Devadatta repented his grave offences and sank down. Two gold levers squeezed Devadatta from the front and back, pulled him downward into the great earth, which was consumed in flames, and dragged him down into the Avichi Hell. (Ibid, p. 569)


That was the end of Devadatta according to the Ekottaragama Sutra. The Pali commentaries simply say that he was ill for nine months and that when it was apparent that he was going to die he asked to be taken on a litter to see the Buddha in order to repent, but that before this could be done he was swallowed up by the earth and fell into hell as in the above version. The Pali commentaries further state that in the far future Devadatta would be released from the Avichi Hell and attain liberation as the private-buddha named Atthissara. After such a tale of incorrigible evil, it is remarkable that even the more conservative Theravadin tradition insists that the chief villain of the story will eventually expiate his evil karma and attain enlightenment.


The Lotus Sutra is even more hopeful than any of the previous works. The Lotus Sutra opens with the Buddha giving a discourse on Vulture Peak outside of Rajagriha. It would seem to be set in a period after all of the above events, because Devadatta is not present but King Ajatashatru is in the assembly. Many of the Buddha’s monastic disciples receive predictions of buddhahood either by name or as part of a group in the first nine chapters of the Lotus Sutra. In chapter ten, all who are present have their buddhahood predicted providing that they rejoice upon hearing the sutra. Presumably this would extend to King Ajatashatru as well.


Thereupon the World Honored One said to Medicine King Bodhisattva in the presence of the eighty thousand great men:


“Medicine King! Do you see the innumerable gods, dragon-kings, yakshas, ghandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, mahoragas, men, and nonhuman beings, and [the four kinds of devotees:] monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, and those who are seeking to become voice-hears or private-buddhas or the enlightenment of the buddha in this great multitude? If in my presence any of them rejoices, even on a moment’s thought, at hearing even a verse or phrase of the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra, I will assure him of his future buddhahood, saying to him, ‘You will be able to attain perfect and complete enlightenment.’” (Lotus Sutra, p. 171)


In chapter twelve the Buddha reveals something even more startling. He explains that in a past life, he was a king who had renounced his throne in order to attain enlightenment while Devadatta was a seer who taught him and introduced him to the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha goes so far as to attribute his attainment of buddhahood to Devdatta’s past teaching. Furthermore, in the future, Devadatta will himself attain buddhahood.


The Buddha said to the monks:


“The king at that time was a previous life of myself. The seer at that time was a previous life of Devadatta. Devadatta was my teacher. He caused me to complete the six perfections. He caused me to have loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. He caused me to have the thirty-two major marks and the eighty minor marks [of the Buddha]. He caused me to have my body purely gilt. He caused me to have the ten powers and the four kinds of fearlessness. He caused me to know the four ways to attract others. He caused me to have the eighteen properties and supernatural powers [of the Buddha]. He caused me to have the power of giving discourses. I attained perfect enlightenment and now save all living beings because Devadatta was my teacher.”


He said to the four kinds of devotees:


“Devadatta will become a Buddha after innumerable kalpas. He will be called Heavenly-King, the Tathagata, the Deserver of Offerings, the Perfectly Enlightened One, the Man of Wisdom and Practice, the Well-Gone, the Knower of the World, the Unsurpassed Man, the Controller of Men, the Teacher of Gods and Men, the Buddha, the World Honored One.” (Ibid, p. 197)


In the Lotus Sutra, the tale of Ajatashatru and Devadatta comes to a triumphant conclusion. There is no denying that they performed heinous acts, and they do in fact have to suffer for them. In the end, however, Buddhism sees even the icchantika or incorrigible evildoer as redeemable, even if not necessarily within this lifetime. The view taught in the Lotus Sutra is that not only are they redeemable, they are in fact future buddhas, who have yet to bring out their true qualities.



Buddhaghosa, Bhadantacariya. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.


Horner, I.B., trans. The Book of the Discipline Volumes 1-6. Oxford: Pali Text Society: 1993.


Inagaki, Hisao. The Three Pure Land Sutras. Kyoto: Nagata Bunshodo, 1995.


Lotus Sutra. Murano, Senchu trans. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Shimbun Co. Ltd., 1991.


Nanamoli, Bhikkhu. The Life of the Buddha. Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Editions: 1992.


Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publication, 1995.


Narada, Mahathera. The Buddha and His Teachings (Second Revised and Enlarged Edition). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988.


Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research Editorial Staff. Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment (Revised Second Edition). Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.


Ray, Reginald A. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values & Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Schumann, H.W. The Historical Buddha: The Times, Life and Teachings of the Founder of Buddhism. New York: Arkana, 1989.


Thomas, Edward J. The Life of Buddha: As Legend and History. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.


Walshe, Maurice trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.



Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick, 2006. > Historical Buddha > Next Page > Questions?


Home | Buddhas | Discuss | Gohonzon | Gosho | Honmon_Butsuryu | Independent | Inmates | Kempon | Kishimojin | Lotus_Sutra | Nichiren | Nipponzan | NShoshu | NichirenShu | Pilgrimage | RisshoKoseiKai | Reiyukai | Ryuei & Dharmajim | SGI | Shichimen | Stupas | Sutra_Library | Tales | Tendai | Theravada | Women | Zen | Misc. | What'sNew? | Tibetan | Site Map is hosted by Nichiren's Coffeehouse for the Rev. Ryuei. is home to,,,, and more!

Site content labeled with Internet Content Rating Association