Let the Dead Bury their Dead

2:7 (17) The Only Son (Ekaputta Sutta)

Thus has it been made known. At one time the Blessed One was residing near Sāvatthī, at the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. It came to pass that the son of a lay-follower had died. A large troupe of mourners with their clothes and hair still wet from washing, approached the Blessed One and did him homage. During their stay the Blessed One inquired, “Why have you arrived at the middle of the day (an inopportune time) with wet clothes and hair?”

The father of the dead child replied, “Lord, my dear and only beloved son has died. That is the reason we arrived here at this ill-timed hour with wet clothes and hair.”

Upon realizing the significance of this response, the Blessed One uttered the following verse:

Divine beings and men are truly captivated
By what they hold to be dear;
So wearied with grief, they are held bound by the Lord of Death.
But truly those who remain detached from what they hold dear,
Dig-up the root of misery
And are thereby freed from Death’s icy-grip.

Wet clothes and hair: it was customary to perform a ritual bathing and cleansing after funeral services.

Middle of the Day: a most inopportune time to visit the Dharma-Lord and his sangha; the proper hour to make such a call was after the midday meal had concluded.

It strikes me how similar in tone this anecdote is to the passage in scripture (Matt 8:22) wherein Jesus reprimands one of his followers who wanted to return home to bury his father, rather than to continue onwards in the spiritual sojourn. He tells the man, “Let the dead bury their dead.” At first this sounds like a callous statement, but in reality is showing the greater significance of the spiritual over the physical form. Woodward’s translation in our story has, “cast-aside the lovely form.” This is where both stories honor the same principle: Don’t neglect the higher calling of the spiritual over the physical action. Yea, let the spiritually-dead attend to their own affairs. The Buddha insisted, that in order to follow him, one needs to remain detached from all that they once held to be dear and special over that higher spiritual calling of the Noble Ariyan path. To turn away from this admonition one is choosing the path of death (the mad cycle of samsara) over the Unborn. Choosing instead to remain bound to the dominion of Mara, the realm of death.

2.8 (18) Suppavāsā (Suppavāsā Sutta)

Thus has it been made known. At one time the Blessed One was dwelling near Kuṇḍiya, at Kuṇḍadhāna Wood. It came to pass that Suppavāsā, daughter of the Koliyan Rājah, was found enduring a seven-year pregnancy and was at this junction experiencing for seven-days the most difficult labor. Trying to endure the awful agony of her travail she mused to herself, “Rightly self-awakened is the Blessed One, who teaches the Holy Dhamma to avoid such suffering as mine. Highly honored indeed is the Lord’s Sangha, whose members know how to refrain from any actions that would incur such agony as mine. Truly blissful is Nibbāna, wherein such pain as mine is naught.”

Then Suppavāsā said to her spouse, “Seek-out the Dharma-Lord and upon finding him do him homage in my name by bowing in at his feet. Inquire from him how his health fares, his vigorous life in good-stead, and say to him, “Dear reverend sir, my wife has been enduring pregnancy for seven years and has these past seven days been suffering in agony due to her plight. But although she has been experiencing such tortures she continues to revere You, Your Holy Teachings, and the Sangha.”

“Most Excellent,” exclaimed her husband as he went to the Blessed One and paid him homage as well as detailing his wife’s condition.

Thereupon the Blessed One responded, “May Suppavāsā the Koliyan-daughter be well & free from illness. And may she deliver her child free from the ravages of illness.”

Soon afterwards, Suppavāsā the Koliyan-daughter became well from her illness and gave birth to her son trouble-free.

“May it be as you say, O’ Lord,” responded the Koliyan, bowing and paying homage to the Blessed One.

Upon arriving home, there the Koliyan beheld his wife, Suppavāsā and marveled at her recovery and the birth of his son.

“How astonishing is the Blessed One’s healing powers,” sighed the Koliyan. “It has happened according to his will.” And so he became very happy with a joyous spirit.

Then Suppavāsā said to her husband, “It is marvelous indeed how the Blessed One delivered me from my illness and empowered the birth of our healthy child. I know! Let us invite the Dharma-Lord and his Sangha over for a feast of food lasting seven days.”

“Excellent idea,” responded her Koliyan husband who then went to the Blessed-One and his Sangha. “My wife who had been pregnant for seven-long years and seven days requested the honor of your presence, along with your devoted followers over to our home for a celebration feast which is to last seven days.”

Coinciding with this invitation, there happened to be certain lay-follower who had also invited the Blessed-One and his devoted Sangha over for a meal the next day. That lay-follower also happened to be the supporter of the venerable Mahāmoggallāna. So the Blessed One spoke to Mahāmoggallāna and asked him to go to the lay-follower and explain to him the prior-situation of Suppavāsā and how, out of sheer gratitude, invited him and the sangha over to her home where they would be feasting for seven days. He spoke of allowing her to do so, and afterwards they would honor the lay-follower’s invitation.

Mahāmoggallāna did what the Lord had requested and spoke to the lay-follower regarding Suppavāsā’s situation and invitation. The lay-follower responded, “I will do as you ask venerable Mahāmoggallāna, provided that you grant me three requests: that you will be my surety for wealth, long life, and faith.”

Pondering his request, Mahāmoggallāna replied, “For two of them, my good sir, I will be your guarantor: your wealth & life. But only you can be the guarantor of your faith.” “Well then,” replied the lay-follower, “for those two things of wealth and long life I then will consent to your wish: then let Suppavāsā serve her seven meals; afterward, I will provide mine.”

Then the Venerable Mahámoggallána, having obtained the consent of that lay follower, approached the Lord and said: “That lay follower of mine has consented, O’ Lord.  Suppavásá the Koliyan daughter is welcome to give her seven meals. He will give his afterwards.”

So for seven days Suppavásá the Koliyan-daughter by her own hand served & gratified the community of monks, with the Buddha at its head; they dined exquisitely on whole foods, both soft and hard, for seven days. When they had their fill, she asked her son to show reverence to the Blessed One and the community of monks. Then Ven. Sāriputta said to the child, “Are you well-enough, child; have you had enough food to eat; do you still have any lingering pain?”

“How, Venerable Sāriputta,” inquired the child, “How can I feel well and eat hardily enough? I have just spent seven-years in a belly full of blood!”

Glowing with joy, Suppavásá the Koliyan daughter thought, “Just look how my son is conversing with the General of the Dhamma,” beaming with joy.

Then the Blessed One, observing how Suppavásá was rapturous and happy, said to her, “Would you like very much, Suppavásá, to have another child such as this?”

“Blessed One,” she began, “I would be honored to have seven other such sons.” Then, upon realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One uttered the following verse:

Discomfort in the semblance of desire,
The unlovable sharing the face of love,
Pain disguised as bliss,
Overwhelm those who are heedless

Kuṇḍadhāna: (C. Juntubohan; J. Kuntohakan; K. Kundobarhan 君 屠 鉢 漢). In Sanskrit and Pāli, name of an ARHAT who is listed as one of the four great ŚRĀVAKAs (C. sida shengwen). According to Pāli sources, the Buddha declared him to be foremost among monks in receiving food-tickets (salākā; S. śalākā), small slips of wood used to determine which monks would receive meals from the laity, a distinction he was given because he was always the first of the Buddha’s disciples to receive food-tickets when he accompanied the Buddha on invitations.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 34583-34589). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Suppavāsā: is most famous as the mother of the arhat SĪVALI. She was pregnant with him for seven years and for seven days she was suffering through protracted labor. Believing that she would not survive the ordeal, she sent a gift to the buddha through her husband so that she could earn merit before her death. The buddha received the gift and she immediately gave birth to her son. Sīvali was compelled to stay in her womb for so long in retribution for having once laid siege to the city of Vārāṇasī for seven days while he was a prince in a previous existence. Suppavāsā had been his mother in that life as well.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 65875-65880). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

This narrative explains the metaphor enduring a pregnancy for seven years. Masefield details how in the Jātaka commentary of a shared-narrative,

“It is said that is was due to the trickling-down of that kamma appropriated by laying siege to the city for seven days that [the son] first resided in that pot of blood for seven years and then entered for seven days upon that condition of a foetus awry…

Suppavāsā, too, became one with foetus awry for seven days after sustaining that foetus in her womb for seven years, on account of the fact she had ordered  her son to take the city by besieging it. [Thus it was mother and son] who came to experience dukkha of such a kind in conformity with their own kamma. (Masefield, The Udana Commentary by Dhammapala, Vol 1, pgs 293-294)

Mahāmoggallāna: (P. Mahāmoggallāna; T. Mo’u ’gal gyi bu chen po; C. Mohemujianlian/ Mulian; J. Makamokkenren/ Mokuren; K. Mahamokkŏllyŏn/ Mongnyŏn 摩 訶 目 犍 連/ 目 連). An eminent ARHAT and one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha, often depicted together with his friend ŚĀRIPUTRA flanking the Buddha. Mahāmaudgalyāyana was considered supreme among the Buddha’s disciples in supranormal powers (ṚDDHI). According to Pāli accounts, where he is called Moggallāna, Mahāmaudgalyāyana was chief in mastery of supranormal powers. He could create doppelgängers of himself and transform himself into any shape he desired. He could perform intercelestial travel as easily as a person bends his arm, and the tradition is replete with the tales of his travels, such as flying to the Himālayas to find a medicinal plant to cure the ailing Śāriputra. Mahāmaudgalyāyana said of himself that he could crush Mount SUMERU like a bean and roll up the world like a mat and twirl it like a potter’s wheel.

A group of naked JAINA ascetics resented the fact that the people of the kingdom of MAGADHA had shifted their allegiance and patronage from them to the Buddha and his followers, and they blamed Mahāmaudgalyāyana, who had reported that, during his celestial and infernal travels, he had observed deceased followers of the Buddha in the heavens and the followers of other teachers in the hells. They hired a group of bandits to assassinate the monk. When he discerned that they were approaching, the eighty-four-year-old monk made his body very tiny and escaped through the keyhole. He eluded them in different ways for six days, hoping to spare them from committing a deed of immediate retribution (ĀNANTARYAKARMAN) by killing an arhat. On the seventh day, Mahāmaudgalyāyana temporarily lost his supranormal powers, the residual karmic effect of having beaten his blind parents to death in a distant previous lifetime, a crime for which he had previously been reborn in hell. The bandits ultimately beat him mercilessly, until his bones had been smashed to the size of grains of rice. Left for dead, Mahāmaudgalyāyana regained his powers and soared into the air and into the presence of the Buddha, where he paid his final respects and passed into NIRVĀṆA at the Buddha’s feet.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 37811-37819). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Being such an eminent Arhat, it leads me to wonder that the lay-follower in the narrative was someone of equal billing: someone renowned in the community since Mahāmoggallāna had to ask for his approval in order to change the preassigned dinner date.

For me, the most striking feature of this anecdote was the young son’s [just fresh out of the womb) response to the elder Sāriputta, “Seriously? I just spent seven-years in a stinky belly of blood!” From Ireland: He was to become the Elder Sìvalì. His ability to hold a conversation as a new-born baby was only one of a number of remarkable qualities he had.

Sīvalī’s good luck at receiving gifts was the result of generosity shown by him in previous lifetimes to previous buddhas and the resolution he made during the time of Padmottara (P. Padumuttara) Buddha to one day be preeminent in this regard. The Buddha took Sīvalī with him on his journey to visit Khadiravaniya Revata because he knew provisions were scarce along the way. When Sīvalī and five hundred others journeyed to the desolate Himālaya mountains, the gods provided him and his companions with everything they needed. In Burma, Sīvalī is believed never to have passed into PARINIRVĀṆA, but to still remain in the world today; he is worshipped for good fortune and is depicted as a standing monk, holding a fan and an alms bowl.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 62504-62510). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The number seven: once again this mystical number appears numerous times in this account: the seven long years of the pregnancy and the seven-long days of labor-pains; the seven-day food festival; the desire for seven-other such sons. Also, our later description of “having once laid siege to the city of Vārāṇasī for seven days” as the origin of the kammic-retribution. I also came across this for further edification:

Seven – satta: This is the primary number of magic, especially life and death magic. It relates to two cosmic phenomena: the lunar cycles (and hence menstrual cycles); and the number of visible planets (5 = sun and moon). In both of these there is a sense of a cycle and a return, but also a death and rebirth. The moon dies each month, the sun each night; women’s fertility governs life and death; the wandering planets are an erratic curiosity compared with the static nobility of the stars. 7 is found all through myth and ritual, there being too many examples to even begin to cite them. But the general idea, as in the 7 days of Genesis, is ‘the entire cycle of birth and death’. 7 appears in this sense repeatedly in the Buddha’s mythology: taking [the ascent of] 7 steps after his birth, Maya’s death 7 seven days, and so on. It carries on into folk Buddhist belief, where the soul crosses over after 7 (or 49) days. Some cases are not so clear: the 7 lives of the stream enterer is presented as literal, but it carries similar connotations of crossing over the cycle of birth and death.


This entry was posted in The Udāna and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter Captcha Here : *

Reload Image