T 1670B Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sūtra

Part 1: The Secular Narrative

1.2. Their Previous History

Nāgasena’s Previous Life as an Elephant-king

Not far from the forest, there was a group of elephants that numbered more than five hundred. Among them there was an elephant-king who was wise and good, who was able to judge between good and bad, and whose manners resembled those of men. All the elephants used to surround the king, and among them there were males and females, all large-tusked, medium-tusked, and small-tusked. Whenever the elephant-king was thirsty and wished to go and drink water, all the smaller elephants ran before the king and entered the water to drink. After that, they would play in the water, running about and stirring it up, or by fishing in the water they made it turbid and impure. As a result, the king could not have any pure water to drink. Whenever the king was hungry and wanted to go and eat grass, all the small elephants used to run before him and eat all the beautiful grass before sporting around, running about, jumping, and treading on the grass until the king himself would not have any fresh grass to eat at all.

The elephant-king thereupon thought to himself, “My companions are too numerous and troublesome. I regret that all the elephants and their young ones stir up water before I drink, making it turbid, or eat the grass before me, making it impure by treading on it. I always have to drink impure water and eat trodden grass. What if I were to abandon all the elephants and retire to a quiet place where I can be happy?”

Thereupon the elephant-king abandoned the assembly, went to the mountains, and came upon the Jiaoluo forest. He saw the Buddha there, sitting at the foot of a tree. Greatly rejoicing in his heart, the elephant-king came before the Buddha, bowed, knelt down, worshipped him, and then retired to one side and remained there.

The Buddha then thought to himself, “I have abandoned my companions and have come here in the forest. The elephant-king has also forsaken his retinue and come here to the same place.” Thus, we have come here for exactly the same purpose.”

The Buddha then preached the Dharma for the sake of the elephant-king, and said, “A Buddha is the most honored among men, and the elephant-king is the most honored among the elephants.”

The Buddha said, “My intention is similar to that of yours, the elephant-king; I will be happy being together with the elephant-king in the forest.”

When the elephant-king heard the Dharma, his mind was enlightened and he understood what the Buddha taught. Then he wandered about at the place where the Buddha was. He drew water with his trunk and watered the ground, then he plucked some grass with his trunk and swept the place and he made the ground flat by treading on it. The elephant-king served the Buddha in this way from morning till evening everyday.

The Attendance by the Elephant-king to the Sutra-recitation

Sometime afterwards, the Buddha took the quiet path of nirvana and disappeared. The elephant-king did not know where the Buddha was and therefore he wandered about to look for the Buddha, but without success. Thereupon he wept and cried, and was full of sorrow, unable to enjoy anything; he did not even eat or drink.

At that time there was a Buddhist monastery on a mountain in that country. It was called Jialuohuan, and in it lived five hundred sramanas, who were all arhats. They used to recite sutras throughout the night on the six fast-days each month. The elephant-king was also on the mountain near the monastery. He noticed that there was a recitation of sutras on the six fast-days, and came to the monastery every fast-day in order to hear sutra recitation.

All the sramanas knew that the elephant-king was glad to hear the recitation, and waited each time until he arrived before starting. While hearing the recitation of a sutra he would neither sleep nor lie down, neither move nor sway, the whole night.

Relation Between Nāgasena and Menander in Their Previous Lives

As the elephant-king had often heard the exposition of the sutras and had served the Buddha, when his long life as an elephant-king had come to an end, he was later born as a human. He was born in a Brahmin family and did not hear of the Buddha or of the sutras, nor did he see any sramana.

Thus, he left his family and went into the deep forests of a mountain to learn the path of a brahman. There was another hermit brahman living in the same forest and the two visited each other and made each other’s acquaintance.

One of the two thought to himself, “I am disgusted with the human life, with the district magistrate, with the conditions of sorrow, suffering, old age, sickness and death; after death we are to fall into the hells, or to become a hungry ghost (preta), or an animal, or live a poor and miserable life when born as a human. Therefore I will shave my hair and beard, and become a sramana, wear a kasaya, and seek after the quiet path (nirvana), which is the means of saving the world.”

The other brahman also thought to himself, “I wish to be a sovereign, possessed with might and power, and let all the people under heaven follow me and obey my commands and instructions.”

The Births of Nāgasena and Menander According to Their Vows in Previous Lives

Some time after they both made these vows, they died and were reborn in the world as men. The one who wished to become a sovereign in his former life was born as a crown-prince to a king in a land bordering a sea. His parents named him “Menander.”

The other, who wished to pursue the quiet path of nirvana in order to save the world, was born in Sindhu (the ancient name for India), in the district of Kashmir. His parents named him “Tuolie.” He was born wearing a kasaya, in consequence of the vow he made in his former life. In his household, there was an elephant-king born on the same day as him. [Since elephants were called naga in Sindhu], the parents also named their son “Nāgasena.”

Nāgasena’s Admission into the Sangha

Nāgasena grew up and reached fourteen or fifteen years of age. He had a maternal uncle named Rohana who was a sramana and possessed exceptional abilities that were unequalled anywhere. He had the ability of seeing distant things and hearing distant sounds, and also knew from where he came. From birth, Rohana could fly, he could go out from where there is no slit and enter where there is no gap and could become whatever he liked freely without any difficulty. Rohana also knew the mind or the thought of devas in the heavens and that of men on earth, including beings which could fly and which could walk.

Nāgasena came to his uncle on his own and told him, “Uncle, it is my intention to follow the Buddha’s Path and I wish to shave my hair and beard, don the kasaya robe and become a sramana. I want to become your disciple. Uncle, would you accept me as a sramana?”

Rohana knew Nāgasena’s good deeds in his previous life and his wisdom, and hence took pity on him and admitted him as a sramanera. Nāgasena, at the beginning, was a novice sramanera who observed the ten precepts, recited the sutras daily, and who also learned about and meditated on the Dharma. As a result, he attained the four dhyanas and therefore he was able to grasp the essence of the doctrines. The only thing he lacked was the high ordination he had yet to obtain.

Now at that time, there was a Buddhist monastery called Hechan on a mountain in the country, and in this monastery dwelled five hundred sramanas who all had attained arhathood. Among them, the leading arhat was called Assagutta and knew about things both in heaven and on earth, as well as the past, present and future.

Nāgasena was twenty years of age at the time, and in order to get the higher ordination to becoming a sramana, he went to Hechan monastery where Assagutta lived. Incidentally, it happened to be the full moon day, and all five hundred arhats were sitting in the hall to recite the great sramana precept sutra (pratimoksa). All great sramanas entered into the hall, and Nāgasena was also among them.

When all the sramanas had sat down (in the hall), Assagutta surveyed the whole assembly and noticed that all sramanas in the hall were arhats except Nāgasena.

Thereupon Assagutta gave a discourse on the Sutra of Parables and said, “Just like people judging rice, it is considered to be bad rice even if there is one grain of black rice among the white ones. Now, all of us are white and pure, only Nāgasena is black and has not attained arhathood yet.”

On hearing these words of Assagutta, Nāgasena was greatly worried, got up and bowed down towards the five hundred sramanas, and then went out. He thought to himself, “It is not appropriate for me to sit among them, I have not crossed over (the stream of samsara), but all others have crossed over. It is like the jackal among the lions. So am I now. From now on, I will not sit among them unless I have attained the Path (of arhathood).”

Knowing the thoughts of Nāgasena, Assagutta called him to come forward and touched his head with his hand saying, “Don’t worry, before long you will attain arhathood.” So Assagutta asked Nāgasena to stay.

His Attainment of Stream-entry

Again Nāgasena had another teacher named Kavigupta whose age was over eighty.

There was an upasaka in the county who was wise and good and who used to give alms to Kavigupta and his disciples daily. One day, Nāgasena, taking the bowl, went to collect the alms, but his teacher asked him to fill his mouth with water, then to go to take the alms from the upasaka’s house. The upasaka saw the young Nāgasena who was handsome and whose behavior was far above the common people. He had heard of his reputation and knew that he was of sharp intelligence and had a distinct ambition as well as the ability of expounding the Dharma. The upasaka upon seeing Nāgasena coming into his house, got up and bowed down with crossed hands, saying, “I have been offering alms to the sramanas for a long time, and they usually come and preach me the Dharma. Today I beg you, Venerable Nāgasena, please expound the Dharma to me and dispel my doubts.”

Nāgasena, thereupon, thought to himself, “My teacher instructed me not to preach by filling my mouth with water. Now, if I spit out the water to preach, it would be against my teacher’s instructions. What should I do?”

Then Nāgasena thought again, “The upasaka is of intelligence and noble aspiration. If I preach the Dharma to him, he might enter the Path. Thereupon, Nāgasena spat out the water, sat down and gave a talk on the Dharma:

“If a person takes delights in giving and doing good deeds and also observes moral precepts, he will live happily now and will be reborn in the heavens after death. He will be a person of wisdom, intelligence and wealth, and he will be reborn in the human world on descending from heaven. And thereafter, he will not be reborn in hell, in the kingdom of hungry ghosts or in the animal kingdom. But if a person does not observe the dharma and precepts, he would suffer now in this world and in the next life, and will fall into the three evil realms without any opportunity of getting out.”

Nāgasena knew that having heard the Dharma, the upasaka was delighted in the heart. Therefore he again preached the profound teaching (of the Buddha):

“Nothing in the world is permanent (anicca), and all will pass away. Therefore, there is suffering (dukkha) when everything passes away or comes to an end. The physical bodies of people are the same. People in the world agree and say that ‘My body will pass away, but my Self (pudgala) is going to (remain or continue).’ Therefore they could not attain freedom, the liberated Path of nirvana. This nirvana is the ultimate happiness without birth, old age, sickness, death, sorrow, grief, and all evils and sufferings are eliminated.” After Nāgasena had preached the Dharma, the upasaka attained the first stage of the Path which is called the srotapanna, and Nāgasena himself too, had attained the Path of srotapanna. The upasaka was overjoyed and served Nāgasena with excellent and delicious food. Nāgasena then told the upasaka that the teacher’s bowl should be filled with food first. After Nāgasena had his meal and washed his mouth and hands, he took his teacher’s bowl and returned to the monastery.

His teacher saw the delicious food and said, “Today you have brought good food, you have violated the agreement of our people, and therefore you should be expelled (from the sangha).” Nāgasena was not happy and greatly worried about it. The teacher told Nāgasena to meet all the bhiksus of the temple in the assembly. After all bhiksus had assembled, his teacher said, “Nāgasena has violated our agreement, we should expel him and ask him not to stay among us.”

Assagutta gave a discourse on the Sutra of Parables and said, “It is like a person who has shot two targets with one arrow. Such a person should not be expelled. Nāgasena has preached (the Dharma) and as a result, he has attained the Path (of srotapanna) and the upasaka has also attained the Path (of srotapanna). Therefore such a person should not be expelled.”

Then Nāgasena’s teacher, Kavigupta said, “Even if Nāgasena has shot a hundred targets with one arrow, he has still violated our agreement, we should not allow him to stay in the sangha. If all others cannot attain the Path like Nāgasena, then there is no future. If Nāgasena is not expelled, we cannot stop others who would imitate him in the future.” The monks in the assembly were silent and Nāgasena was expelled according to his teacher’s instruction. Then Nāgasena prostrated before his teacher’s feet and worshipped him, then paid respect to the bhiksu sangha.

His Attainment of Arhathood

After paying his respects, Nāgasena departed and went into a mountain. He sat down at the foot of a tree and exerted himself by meditating on the Path day and night diligently without slacking. Soon he attained the Path of arhathood. Thereafter, he could fly, gained clairaudience and clairvoyance, and also could read the thoughts of others and knew his own former lives.

After Nāgasena had attained arhathood, he returned to Hechan monastery and came before the sangha confessing his offence, and asked for rehabilitation. The bhiksu sangha in the monastery accepted his request. Then Nāgasena paid his respects and departed.

His Preaching Activities

Nāgasena went on a preaching tour from village to village, from town to town exhorting people to perform meritorious deeds. Among them some people received the five precepts, some attained the stage of srotapanna, some attained the stage of sakrdagamin, some attained the stage of anagamin and some became monks and attained arhathood. The four heavenly kings of the first heaven, Sakra of the second Tusita heaven and Brahman of the seventh heaven all came before Nāgasena and paid him respects with their hands touching his feet, then sat down beside him. Nāgasena preached the Dharma to them all. So Nāgasena’s name became well known in the four heavens. Wherever Nāgasena went, deities, human beings, spirits, serpents, etc., welcomed him. They were happy to see him and also obtained merits.

King Menander’s Learning

Nāgasena then came to the country of Sagala in Sindhu, and stayed in Sankheyya monastery.

There, Nāgasena met an acquaintance from his former life called Menander, who was a prince in a country near the sea.

Ever since he was a child, Menander delighted in reading sutras and learning the heretical teachings. Therefore he knew all the heretical teachings. He liked to discuss them with heretical teachers and no one could beat him in argument. When the father of Menander died of a natural death, Menander was crowned king.

Menander asked his ministers: “Are there any religious men who are able to hold discussions with me on religious matters in the country?”

The ministers replied, “Yes, there is a person who has learned the doctrines of the Buddha. People called him a sramana. This person is wise and erudite and he would be able to discuss religious doctrines with the king.”

Description of Sagala

In the north of Yonaka country, there was a kingdom called Sagala, a citadel of ancient kings. The country enjoyed peace within its border sand in relation with its neighbors and its people were good and honest.

The city was surrounded on all four sides by roads. The gates of the citadel were adorned with sculptures and engravings.

The ladies in the palace each had a special apartment. The streets and markets were aligned in rows. Roads and thoroughfares were large, with shops on both sides. The place was prosperous and crowded with elephants, horses, chariots, infantry, gentlemen, ladies, wealthy people, brahmans, religious people, workers, teachers, and ordinary people. People in all the smaller kingdoms were all wise and noble.

People were dressed in dazzling colors. The women and girls wore white clothes and they adorned themselves with jewels. The land was high, dry and rich in precious stones. Traders from all four directions came to trade and paid in gold coins, the five kinds of crops were plentiful and even the modest families had savings. Stalls near the markets were selling pastries and food to satisfy the hungry and grape juice and various sorts of wine quenched all kinds of thirst. All were enjoying happiness beyond description. The king of this country was called Menander who ruled the country in accordance with righteousness (Dharma). King Menander was learned and wise and knew the teachings of all religions in the world. Therefore he was capable of discussing puzzling questions concerning the past, future and present. He was an expert in administrative works and arts of warfare. As far as strategies were concerned, he had mastered them all.

Discussion Between Ayupala and King Menander

At that time, the king was playing games outside the capital, and his fourfold army was camped outside. The king was proud and thought to himself, “I am the king and know the heretical doctrines of ninety-six varieties, whomsoever asks whatsoever questions, I could guess the meaning of the words scarcely uttered.”

The king said to his minister beside him, “The day is yet young, it would be no use getting back so early. Is there any learned religious teacher or sramana, who would be able to discuss doctrines with me?”

The ministers named Devamantiya and Mankura, who were beside the king, said, “There is a sramana called Ayupala with profound learning in the doctrines, he would be able to discuss religious doctrines with Your Excellence.” So the king asked the ministers Devamantiya and Mankura to invite him. Devamantiya and Mankura went to invite the monk and said to him, “The king wishes to meet you.”

Ayupala said, “Very good, if the king wants to meet me, he should come himself. I will not go.”

Devamantiya and Mankura went back and told the king what happened. The king, attended by the five hundred cavalrymen, mounted his royal chariot and proceeded to the monastery where Ayupala lived. He exchanged greetings and compliments of friendship and courtesy with Ayupala, and took his seat. The five hundred cavalrymen also took their seats.

The king asked Ayupala, “For what purpose, Ayupala, have you renounced the world, after abandoning your wife and children, shaving your hair and beard, donning the kasaya robe and becoming a sramana? What kind of path are you seeking?”

Ayupala replied to the king, “We study the Buddha’s teaching and practice righteousness so we obtain happiness in this life as well as in the next life. Thus, we have shaved our hair and beard and become sramanas by donning the kasaya robes.”

“Is there any layman,” the king asked Ayupala, “who has wife and children and lives in accordance with righteousness, who could obtain happiness now here and hereafter?”

“Yes, any layman who has a wife and children and lives in accordance with righteousness, could also obtain happiness now here and hereafter.”

Then the king said, “If a layman who has a wife and children and lives in accordance with righteousness can also obtain happiness now here and hereafter, then what is the use of renouncing the world, Ayupala, having to abandon your wife and children, shave your hair and beard to become a sramana by donning the kasaya robe?”

Ayupala was silent and had not a word to say in reply to the king. Some ministers said, “This sramana is of great learning and wisdom, it is because of lack of time that he could not make rejoinder.” Therefore the king’s men raised their hands and cried, “The king is the winner, the king is the winner.”

Ayupala admitted defeat by remaining silent. The king looked around to the upasakas and saw that there was no expression of shame on the faces of the upasakas. It occurred to the king himself, “These upasakas have no expression of shame on their faces. Is there another learned sramana who would be able to discuss the doctrine with me?”

So the king asked Devamantiya, “Is there any sramana who would be able to discuss the doctrine and the Path with me?”

Nāgasena’s Learning in the Dharma

At that time, Nāgasena was the teacher of a group of sramanas, and always travelled together with them and preached to them at their request. Nāgasena knew the essence and difficulties of the sutras and was clever in explaining the twelve divisions of the scripture. He was an expert in resolving the difficulties (in the scriptures) by making out chapters and sentences and knew the Path to nirvana. No one could refute what he said and no one excelled him. He could expel all doubts and enlighten the speculators. His wisdom was like that of an ocean, and he could defeat the heretics of ninety-six varieties; he was well respected by the fourfold disciples (monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen) of the Buddha; a place of refuge and object of respect for wise men. Nāgasena often preached the doctrines and instructed people.

Menander’s Invitation to Nāgasena

Nāgasena came to the country of Sagala with a great company of disciples who were also learned and wise. Nāgasena was like a fierce lion (among his followers). Devamantiya told the king, “There is an extraordinary sramana, named Nāgasena, who has a profound wisdom and knows the essence of all the sutras, and is also able to remove all doubts, nothing is not known to him. He will be able to discuss the doctrine with the king.”

The king said to Devamantiya, “Examine whether he could discuss the doctrine with me?”

“Yes, of course, he could discuss the doctrine with the king” said Devamantiya, “He could even discuss the Dharma with the great Brahman of the seventh heaven, how much more than with a king of human beings.”

He sent Devamantiya to invite Nāgasena.

Devamantiya went to where Nāgasena dwelled and said, “The king, His Majesty, wants to meet you.”

Nāgasena accepted the invitation, and accompanied by his disciples, went to the palace of the king.

Though the king had never seen Nāgasena, yet when Nāgasena came on foot with the other sramanas, his manner was quite different from the others, and the king knew he was Nāgasena. The king said to himself, “I have seen so many people in the past, and I have been to assemblies of high ranking people many times, and I had never felt fear. Today I see Nāgasena, (and I feel fear). Nāgasena will certainly defeat me, because I am not as great as Nāgasena, my mind is filled with trepidation and perplexity and I feel uneasy.”

Then Devamantiya told the king, “Nāgasena has already arrived. Now he is waiting outside.”

The king asked Devamantiya which one was Nāgasena. Devamantiya pointed out Nāgasena to the king. The king greatly rejoiced saying, “It is exactly as I thought, that person is Nāgasena.”

The king saw Nāgasena wearing a robe, on foot, but with an extraordinary manner. Nāgasena came forward and exchanged greetings and complements of friendship. The king was delighted and sat down opposite Nāgasena.

Nāgasena told the king, “The Buddha’s doctrine proclaims: ‘Peace and security are the highest benefit, contentment is the highest wealth, faith is the highest blessing and nirvana is the highest happiness.’”