Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

What the Buddha Would Not Do, According to the Bahitika-Sutta and Its Madhyama-Agama Parallel

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

What the Buddha Would Not Do, According to the Bahitika-Sutta and Its Madhyama-Agama Parallel

Article excerpt


The Bahitika-sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya presents an inquiry into the ethical conduct of the Buddha. Based on a translation of the Madhyama-agama parallel to the Bahitika-sutta, this inquiry will be examined, taking into account differences found between the Chinese and Pali versions.


The present paper comes as the second in a series of altogether three articles dedicated to a study of early Buddhist ethics, based on comparing versions of the same discourse transmitted by different Buddhist schools. The first article in this trilogy, published last year in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, examines the ten courses of action (kammapatha). These ten courses of action set out the basics of early Buddhist ethical conduct by contrasting wholesome to unwholesome forms of activity undertaken by body, speech and mind.

The Bahitika-sutta and its Madhyama-agama parallel take up the closely related theme of defining wholesome ethical conduct and its unwholesome counterpart. The two discourses explore this theme in relation to the Buddha, delineating what type of action the Buddha would undertake and what he would not do.

The final article in this trilogy will examine mental purity as the source of ethical conduct, an examination based on the description of the six-fold purity of an arahant given in the Chabbisodhana-sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya and its Madhyama-agama parallel.

In the thought world of early Buddhism, the Buddha embodies the ideal of ethical perfection. A living example for his early disciples and an inspiring memory for later generations, the Buddha's conduct exemplified and still exemplifies the ethical standards aspired to and emulated by his disciples.

The Bahitika-sutta takes up this theme in a rather direct manner, as its main topic is to scrutinize if the Buddha was indeed an embodiment of ethical perfection. According to the information provided in the Pali commentary, the Bahitika-sutta takes its occasion from an inquiry by King Pasenadi into rather serious allegations against the Buddha's ethical purity, allegations related to an incident that involved the female wanderer Sundari. (1)

A discourse in the Udana treats this incident in detail, reporting that in order to discredit the Buddha other wanderers had asked the female wanderer Sundari to frequently visit Jeta's Grove. When her visits had become public knowledge, these wanderers killed Sundari and buried her in Jeta's Grove. Once her body was discovered, the wanderers went around town accusing the Buddhist monks of having taken their pleasure with Sundari and then killed her. (2) People believed this defaming report and started to revile the monks. The Buddha thereon instructed the monks to react to such abuse with a verse on the evil destiny of those who make false allegations or deny a misdeed they have done. This served its purpose and convinced people of the innocence of the Buddhist monks.

An account of the same incident in the commentary to the Dhammapada differs in so far as here the attempt at defamation is more directly aimed at the Buddha. (3) According to the Dhammapada commentary, on coming from Jeta's Grove Sundari had told people that she had spent the night with the Buddha. Thus the rumor spread by the wanderers was that the Buddha's disciples murdered her in order to cover up the Buddha's misconduct. This account fits the Bahitika-sutta better, as its inquiry is concerned with the moral integrity of the Buddha himself. (4)

Whether the defamation was directed against the Buddha or against his monk disciples, the Sundari incident appears to have been famous among generations of Buddhists and the Chinese pilgrim Fa-xian ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), who traveled to India in the early fifth century, even refers to the place where she had been buried. (5)

The Bahitika-sutta's examination of the moral integrity of the Buddha has a parallel in the Madhyama-agama, translated into Chinese by Gautama Sanghadeva toward the end of the fourth century. …

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