Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland

The Night of the White Lily

Bimbisara, King of Magadha, was one of the earliest converts to the Buddhist Faith, and he continued, to the end of his life, to love and reverence the Buddha. This king had a son who was called Ajatasattu, or the Enemy. Why was it that such a name was given to the King's son? I will tell you how it came about.

North of the Ganges, not far from the present town of Patna, once stood the celebrated city of Vesali. So beautiful was this city, with its fine temples and palaces, its gardens and shady groves, that it seemed an earthly paradise. Its roofs of gold and silver glittered in the sun, and the streets were often gaily decorated to celebrate the many festivals that took place within its walls. Vesali was divided into three separate districts; in the first there were seven thousand houses with golden towers; in the second, fourteen thousand houses with silver towers; and in the third, twenty-one thousand houses with copper towers. In these three districts the upper, middle, and lower classes of the people lived, according to their rank. Vesali was not governed by a king; it was known as a Free City, and, like several of the small Indian states in early times, was a kind of republic, the chief magistrate being elected by the people.

Now there was once a chief magistrate of Vesali who had two daughters. A wise man, who was called in to foretell their future, prophesied that, while the younger one would have a brave and virtuous son, Vassavi, the elder of the two sisters, would give birth to a son who would slay his father and usurp his throne. Vassavi grew up a beautiful maiden, and was as amiable as she was beautiful. Now it happened that Bimbisara, King of Magadha, came to Vesali, and, seeing the lovely Vassavi, he fell in love with her and married her. In due time a son was born to her, and, in remembrance of the prophecy, he was named Ajatasattu, or the Enemy.

As the Prince grew up he showed himself of a wayward and unamiable disposition. He was unwise in his choice of companions, and we have already seen how he fell under the influence of Devadatta. The King was much troubled by his son's intimate friendship for such a wicked man, who was an enemy of the Buddha, but Ajatasattu refused to listen to his father's warnings.

Now Devadatta put sinful thoughts into the mind of the young Prince, who became ambitious to possess his father's kingdom, and on one occasion actually attempted his life. Bimbisara was of a most generous nature, and he not only forgave his son, but made over to him a part of his kingdom, thinking that the Prince's character might improve if he had more responsibility and could take an interest in the welfare of the people. But Ajatasattu plundered and oppressed the people under his rule, so that they complained of his ill-treatment to the King. Bimbisara was greatly grieved at his son's conduct, but thinking that Ajatasattu might do better with a larger domain and more duties to occupy him, he gave up to him the whole of his kingdom, with the exception of the capital, Rajagaha. Ajatasattu, however, was still dissatisfied, and, acting on the advice of Devadatta, demanded that his father should surrender his capital and his treasury. The old King, who was quite broken down with grief, gave up all he had, but at the same time warned his son against the influence of Devadatta, and entreated him to avoid such a bad companion.

Ajatasattu, enraged at his words, had the King seized and cast into prison, and there left to die of starvation. It is sad to think of Bimbisara, who had been a wise ruler and a kind and tender father, thus imprisoned in his own capital. No one was allowed to visit him except the Queen, who for some time came every day with food for her husband. But when this was discovered, Vassavi was forbidden, on pain of death, to carry anything into the prison. She still contrived, however, to bring the King water, which she hid in her hollow ankle rings; she also brought him nourishing powders concealed in her garments, and by these means managed for a time to keep the King alive. After a while these devices were discovered, and the Queen was forbidden to enter the prison any more.

There was a small window in the prison wall looking in the direction of the Vulture's Peak. The Buddha often stayed on this hill with his disciples, and as the King looked through his narrow window he could sometimes see his beloved Teacher. The sight of the Blessed One filled the King with so great a joy that it helped to keep him alive. But the pool prisoner was not allowed even this last consolation, for when Ajatasattu heard of it he had the window walled up.

Now it happened that the young son of Ajatasattu had a painful gathering on his finger, and he came crying to his father, who took him in his arms and kissed him. Queen Vassavi wept at the sight, for she thought of the days when her son had been an innocent child. "Ah, just so did thy father to thee!" she cried. And she told the Prince how his father had once kissed and petted him on a like occasion. Ajatasattu, hearing this, suddenly realized the wickedness of his conduct. In a fit of remorse he sent to the prison to release his father. But it was too late—the King was dead. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy that Vassavi's son would take the kingdom from his father and slay him.

So Ajatasattu was crowned king of Magadha, and lived in great splendour in his palace at Rajagaha. Although he had been seized with remorse for his conduct toward his father, he still kept up his friendship for Devadatta, and often listened to his advice. The disloyal monk frequently plotted against the Buddha, and when the latter came to Rajagaha, Devadatta made several attempts on his life. There was a man from southern India who was skilled in mechanical arts, and Devadatta directed him to make a kind of catapult from which great rocks could be hurled. This machine was set up above Gotama's dwelling, and some men were hired to work it, and promised great rewards if they should succeed in stoning the Buddha to death. So they lay in wait, watching their opportunity. But when it came to the point these hired murderers refused to act. Overcome by remorse they went to the Buddha, and, kneeling before him, confessed their evil intentions. Before long they were converted.

When Devadatta discovered what had happened, he determined to do the deed himself, and he hurled a large rock, which struck the Buddha on the foot, inflicting a dangerous wound. The disciples, dismayed at seeing their Master wounded, and fearing he might bleed to death, ran to fetch Jivaka, the physician, who was a half-brother of King Ajatasattu. Jivaka dressed the Buddha's foot with a very rare ointment made of sandal wood, but it was a long time before he succeeded in healing the wound.



Devadatta, still determined to carry out his wicked purpose, now devised a new plot to bring about Gotama's death. In the King's stables was a very savage elephant; so many people had been attacked and injured by the ferocious beast that at last a petition was sent to the King to beg that a warning bell might be rung whenever the elephant was going to be led out into the streets. This was agreed to, and when the people heard the bell they ran for refuge to the nearest shelter. One day Devadatta, knowing that the Buddha had been invited to the house of a merchant in Rajagaha, went to the elephant-keeper, and promised him a necklace worth a hundred thousand pieces of money if he would let the elephant loose when the Buddha was near. Devadatta, pretending that he had the King's authority for this wicked plot, persuaded the elephant-keeper to carry out his scheme. The Buddha, though he had been warned of his danger, went fearlessly into the city, and was walking up the street, accompanied by many of his disciples, when the warning bell was rung and the elephant let loose. He charged in head long fury at the crowd of people, and all the disciples fled, terrified, except Ananda, who remained close to his Master. But Gotama spoke soothing words to the savage beast, who stood still at the sound of his voice, and, becoming completely tamed, followed the Buddha like a dog to the house where he was going. We hear of other instances in which the goodness and holiness of the Buddha gave him power to subdue even the wild beasts. The taming of the elephant is the scene of several carvings on the old Indian monuments.

Not long after these events many of the disloyal monks who had followed Devadatta, repented, and, confessing their sin, returned to the Buddha, who received them back into the Order without a word of reproach. Perhaps King Ajatasattu was beginning to distrust his friend Devadatta, for we hear of his paying a visit to the Buddha, who was staying in a mango grove belonging to Jivaka the physician.

It was the night of the October full moon—the sacred Night of the White Water-lily. The moon had risen full as the sun, and swam in the heavens like a ball of liquid fire, and the earth, filled with brightness, seemed as though strewn with jewels of Paradise. Ajatasattu, moved by the beauty of that October night, went out with all his ministers and stood on the terrace of the palace, in the radiance of the moon. "How beautiful is this night!" exclaimed the King, "how lovely and how peaceful is this moonlight night! In what way can we celebrate it?" "Sire," said one, "you have all that heart can wish, let us deck the city with flowers, and make a festival, and let your Majesty be glad and rejoice." Another suggested a raid on one of the neighbouring tribes, that the night might be celebrated by a victory. And some of the other ministers proposed paying a visit to one or other of the holy men who happened to be staying near. But the King remained silent. Then he turned to Jivaka the physician. "You have said nothing, Jivaka," he said. "Sire," replied Jivaka, "the Buddha is staying in my mango grove, he is above all men in goodness and wisdom, a teacher and guide to mankind. Let your Majesty go to see him, and it may be that he will bring peace to your heart."

Perhaps it was the beauty of that moonlit night that softened the heart of the King and inclined him toward the Buddha, for he said: "Go, Jivaka, bid them get ready the elephants, and we will visit the Blessed One." Then the great state elephant, a mighty tusker, adorned with trappings covered with gold and precious stones, was brought before the palace. Attendants carrying blazing torches surrounded the King, and in front of him rode the five hundred ladies of the court, each mounted on an elephant. In the silver radiance of that Eastern night the royal procession set forth and came to the mango grove of Jivaka the physician. No sound was heard from the great company of disciples who were with the Buddha, and for a moment Ajatasattu feared that he had been led into an ambush. Full of anxiety he turned to Jivaka. "You are not deceiving me," he asked, "and betraying me to my enemies? How is it that from so great an assembly there is no noise, not even the sound of a cough or a sneeze?" "Have no fear, O King," Jivaka replied, "I am not deceiving you; see, the lamp is burning in the great hall." Then the King alighted from his elephant and entered the monastery on foot; seeing a great multitude of people, he could not, at first, distinguish the Buddha, and asked Jivaka to point him out. "The Blessed One, O King, is leaning against the middle pillar, with his face toward the East—sitting among his disciples as in the middle of a calm and placid lake." And indeed the King must have felt the spell of that quiet scene, for he exclaimed: "Would that my son might enjoy such peace as now breathes over this assembly!"

Then Ajatasattu bowed himself reverently before the Buddha, and begged permission to question him on various matters about which his mind was in doubt. "Ask, O King, any questions you like," said the Blessed One.

"There are," proceeded the King, "many professions which men follow, such as those of elephant-tamers, horsemen, archers, swordsmen, chariot-drivers, weavers, cooks, washer-men, basket-makers, barbers, clerks, and many others. The men following all these professions have their reward, for they make a living and are able to enjoy comfort and support their parents and children. Now is there, in this world, any reward for the man who becomes a monk—who renounces home and kindred, wealth, and all the comforts and pleasures of life?" The King said that he had put the same question to several Brahmins and Hindu philosophers, but none of them had been able to give him a satisfactory answer.

"I will ask you a question," said the Buddha. "Suppose that one of your servants should renounce the world, shave his hair and beard, put on the yellow robes, and live in solitude, content with the bare necessaries of life—how would you treat that man? would you force him to return to his duties?"

"Nay," answered the King, "we should treat him with reverence, rise from our seat in his presence and bid him be seated, prepare him a dwelling-place, provide him with food, robes, and medicines, and all that he might require."

"Then," said the Buddha, "have you not shown that there is, in this world, a reward for him who leads the higher life?" The King agreed. "This is but the first reward," the Buddha explained, and he went on to show that there are other and higher rewards for him who casts off the burden of earthly passions and earthly ties. Free as the air is his life who has ceased to care for wealth and all those things over which men worry and fret themselves. Unburdened by possessions, like a bird on the wing he can go whithersoever it pleases him, wanting nothing but just sufficient food to support life, and clothing to cover him His resting-place is in some quiet spot—a breezy hill-side, a shady grove, or mountain glen. Thus the monk learns contentment. Having trained himself in virtue, he lives at peace with all men, full of kindness and compassion toward every living creature. Like a king who has overcome all his enemies, has he subdued his passions, banishing worry and fretfulness, hatred, ill-nature and indolence. With a mind intent on the things which alone are worth possessing, he becomes serene and calm. And happiness arising within him fills his whole being, as the springs of the earth may fill a deep pool with clear cool water, though no stream flows into it, and no rains fall."

Thus did the Buddha convince King Ajatasattu that there is a reward, even in this world, for him who renounces all to lead the higher life. The King's heart was touched as he pondered over the Buddha's words. "Excellently has the Blessed One spoken!" he exclaimed, "as a man who brings a lamp into the darkness that the things which are hidden may become visible; even so hast thou shown me the Truth, O Blessed One! Hence forth will I put my trust in the Buddha, the Doctrine, and the Brotherhood. I have fallen into sin, O my Lord, for I sinned grievously in putting to death my father, that good and just man. May the Blessed One accept my confession!"

"Truly you have sinned, O King," replied the Buddha, "but, because you have recognized your sin, and acknowledged it, we accept your confession. For he who rightly sees and confesses his sin will in time learn self-control."

The night was far advanced and the moon sinking toward the horizon when the King took his leave and departed. When he was gone the Buddha spoke to the disciples. The King, he told them, had been deeply moved, and if he had not borne a heavy sin on his conscience would have been converted. But the eye of the soul when blinded by sin is unable to behold the Truth.