The manner in which the Buddhist scriptures came into being has set its mark on them in two ways. First, since those scriptures with which we have been engaged were sermons or addresses delivered often to general audiences of villagers, they have a popular interest; many of them, besides being good doctrine, are good stories. Second, as they were not written down at the time, as were, for example, the Bhagavad Gita, or the many treatises attributed to the great Shankara Acharya, it was expedient to give them a form which would lend itself to easy recollection, and this was attained by the repetition of passages, so that the discourses are exceedingly easy to remember.

The firm tradition among the Buddhists, a tradition which we are fully justified in accepting, is that this process of handing on the discourses orally was continued until after the death of the Buddha; that a Great Council was held at Rajagriha, capital city of Magadha, in the year 543 B.C., immediately after the death of the Buddha, and that at this Council the disciples recorded what they remembered of their Master’s discourses, the noble Ananda, who had been attached to the Buddha as spiritual aide-de-camp, contributing many vivid details of the time, place and persons concerned with each of the addresses. Besides the rich material incorporated in the sermons themselves, there was also a great body of tradition, recording further incidents, discourses and teachings, as, for example, the mass of material which forms the Commentaries on the Dhammapada, the “Sentences of the Law of Righteousness”, which had been reduced to writing not later than the year 307 B.C., and which were carried in that year to Ceylon by the great missionary Mahendra. After he had taught the doctrine of the Buddha to the Sinhalese who were emigrants from Magadha on the Ganges, and who spoke a dialect very like that in which the Buddha delivered his teachings, Mahendra translated the Commentaries into this popular dialect, from which the modern Sinhalese is derived. This version was re-translated, some eight centuries later, into the older language of Magadha by the great Buddhist teacher and scholar Buddhaghosha, whose name means “the voice of the Buddha”. The name Pali, “series”, which was at first applied to the series of Buddhist scriptures, was in time transferred to the dialect of Magadha which the Buddha had spoken, and which, as the vehicle of his recorded discourses, became the sacred language of Buddhism studied today in Ceylon, Siam and Burma, but not in Magadha, which is today a part of the province of Bihar. This name, it may be noted, is identical with Vihara, a Buddhist monastery, and the district was so called because Buddhist Viharas were so numerous there in ancient days. While the alphabets of Ceylon, Burma and Siam, though differing slightly among themselves, are all derived from the same source as the alphabet in which Sanskrit and Hindi are written, these Buddhist alphabets have at first sight a very different appearance. This apparent difference has a very simple cause. The material used for writing is generally the same, namely, strips of the leaf of the palmyra palm. The writing was done in Northern India and the Ganges valley, as it is done in the village schools today, with a reed cut to a point. Its Hindi name is kalam, identical with the Greek kalamos, which means both “reed” and “pen”, and the Latin calamus, so that lapsus calami means literally “a slip of the reed”. With the reed is used ink made of soot or lamp-black, the original Indian ink. And, as the tip of the kalam is comparatively soft, it does not tear the fibre of the palm leaf strip. As a result, it is possible to draw horizontal or vertical lines without tearing the material, so that Sanskrit and Hindi have a square look. The Southern Indian languages, as also Sinhalese, are generally written with a steel stylus, so that care must be taken not to tear the fibre. As a result, the letters of these scripts tend to run into curves; they are rounded rather than square, though the characteristic parts of the letters are much the same as in Hindi.

Incidentally, in view of the fact that palm leaves and reeds, with a simple ink made of soot, are, as they have been for ages, the ordinary materials used for writing in India, the suggestion of Professor T. W. Rhys Davids that, in the time of the Buddha, “the lack of writing materials made lengthy books impossible,” sounds somewhat absurd. The great American Orientalist, W. D. Whitney, writes more wisely when, discussing the transmission of the Veda, he says:

“While oral tradition continued to be the exoteric practice, writing might still be resorted to esoterically; collections might be made and arranged, treatises composed, texts compared and studied, by the initiated, while the results were communicated to the schools by oral teaching, and memorized by the neophytes.”

This memorizing, as we have seen, is consciously made easier in the case of the Buddhist discourses, by constant repetition, while the popular appeal of the teaching is secured by introducing a good story. In the discourse with which we are at present concerned, the story element is provided by Ajatashatru, King of the land of Magadha, whose visit to the Buddha on an earlier occasion has been already recorded. It may be remembered that Ajatashatru, whose title recalls a Vedic king, many millenniums earlier, gave the Buddha a vivacious account of other teachers whose doctrines he had studied, that the teaching of Buddha appealed to him as being altogether superior, that he offered himself as a disciple of the Buddha and became, in fact, a lay disciple. The Buddha expressed his admiration for the young king, and said that he might have attained to a high degree of spiritual achievement, if he had not sinned by putting his own father to death. That is only one of several incidents recounted in the Buddhist scriptures, which show Ajatashatru as fiery, warlike and despotic in temper. This side of his character, and at the same time his great reverence for the Buddha, is made the starting point of our discourse.

Once upon a time, we are told, the Master was living at Rajagriha, the capital city of Magadha, on the mountain known as Vulture Peak. At that time the King of Magadha, Ajatashatru, son of the princess of Videha, had determined to attack the community of the Vajjians, against whom his anger had been aroused, so that he said: “What though the Vajjians be possessed of great power and might, I will uproot the Vajjians, I will utterly destroy the Vajjians, I will bring utter ruin upon the Vajjians!”

So much for the violent spirit of King Ajatashatru. Now for his deep reverence for the Buddha, and his willingness to profit by the Buddha’s limitless wisdom and insight. Having thus declared his hatred of the Vajjians, Ajatashatru, King of Magadha, thus addressed his Brahman Chief Minister, whose name in the dialect of Magadha was Vassakara, that is, Rain-maker:

“Go thither, Brahman, where the Buddha is in residence, and having gone thither, on my behalf bow down at the feet of the Buddha, and wish him health and well-being, bodily vigour and ease. Then say to him, ‘Sir, the King of Magadha, Ajatashatru, son of the princess of Videha, is determined to attack the Vajjians, to uproot the Vajjians, utterly to destroy the Vajjians, to bring utter ruin upon the Vajjians.’ When you have said this, pay close attention to whatever the Master says, and bring word of it to me, for a Tathagata, one who has come as his predecessors came, cannot possibly speak anything but the truth!”

“So be it, Sire!” said Vassakara the Brahman, the Chief Minister of Magadha, obedient to King Ajatashatru; and causing carriages to be made ready, he entered one of the carriages and set forth from the city of Rajagriha toward the mountain Vulture Peak. So far as the way was passable for carriages, he proceeded in his carriage; then descending from his carriage, he went forward on foot to the place where the Master had his abode. Approaching the Master, he profferred to him the greetings of courtesy and friendship, and, having courteously greeted him, he seated himself at one side. And when he had seated himself at one side, the Brahman Vassakara, Magadha’s Chief Minister, thus addressed the Master:

“Sir Gotama, Ajatashatru of Magadha, son of the Videha princess, is determined to attack the Vajjians, to uproot the Vajjians, utterly to destroy the Vajjians, to bring utter ruin upon the Vajjians!”

At that time it happened that the noble Ananda was standing behind the Master, fanning the Master with a palm-leaf fan. The Master thus addressed the noble Ananda:

“Have you happened to hear, Ananda, whether the Vajjians meet together frequently in concord and harmony?”

“I have heard, Sire, that the Vajjians meet together frequently in concord and harmony!”

“So long, Ananda, as the Vajjians continue to meet together frequently in concord and harmony, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline. Have you happened to hear, Ananda, whether the Vajjians meet together in full accord, rise up together in full accord, and carry out their work in full accord?”

“I have heard, Sire, that the Vajjians meet together in full accord, rise up together in full accord, and carry out their work in full accord!”

“So long, Ananda, as the Vajjians continue to meet together in full accord, rise up together in full accord, and carry out their work in full accord, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline. Have you happened to hear, Ananda, whether the Vajjians refrain from making laws that have not hitherto been made, and at the same time refrain from breaking the laws that have been made, acting in accordance with the ancient Vajjian laws of righteousness?”

“I have heard, Sire, ‘that the Vajjians refrain from making laws that have not hitherto been made, and at the same time refrain from breaking the laws that have been made, acting in accordance with the ancient Vajjian laws of righteousness!”

“So long, Ananda, as the Vajjians refrain from making laws that have not hitherto been made, and at the same time refrain from breaking the laws that have been made, acting in accordance with the ancient Vajjian laws of righteousness, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline. Have you happened to hear, Ananda, whether the Vajjians, regarding such revered ancients as may be among the Vajjians, confer benefits upon them, greatly esteem them, showing them honour and respect, and give due weight to their wise judgments?”

“I have heard, Sire, that the Vajjians, regarding such revered ancients as may be among the Vajjians, confer benefits upon them, greatly esteem them, showing them honour and respect, and give due weight to their wise judgments!”

“So long, Ananda, as the Vajjians, regarding such revered ancients as may be among them, confer benefits upon them, greatly esteem them, showing them honour and respect, and give due weight to their wise judgments, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline. Have you happened to hear, Ananda, whether among the Vajjians there is forcible abduction of the women and girls of their families?”

“I have heard, Sire, that there is no forcible abduction of the women and girls among the Vajjians!”

“So long, Ananda, as there is no forcible abduction of the women and girls among the Vajjians, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline. Have you happened to hear, Ananda, regarding the shrines that are among the Vajjians, whether within their abodes or without, whether the Vajjians confer offerings upon them, greatly esteem them, showing them honour and respect, not stinting the offerings and service which have been offered and rendered from of old?”

“I have heard, Sire, regarding the shrines that are among the Vajjians, whether within their abodes or without, that the Vajjians confer offerings upon them, greatly esteem them, showing them honour and respect, not stinting the offerings and service which have been offered and rendered from of old!”

“So long, Ananda, as, regarding the shrines that are among the Vajjians, whether within their abodes or without, the Vajjians confer offerings upon them, greatly esteem them, showing them honour and respect, not stinting the offerings and service which have been offered and rendered from of old, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline. Have you happened to hear, Ananda, whether among the Arhats of the Vajjians the law of righteousness is kept, concerning things enjoined or forbidden, whether Arhats from other regions come to their realm, while those Arhats who have thus come, dwell serenely in their realm?”

“I have heard, Sire, that among the Arhats of the Vajjians the law of righteousness is kept, concerning things enjoined or forbidden, that Arhats from other regions come to their realm, while those Arhats who have thus come, dwell serenely in their realm!”

“So long, Ananda, as among the Arhats of the Vajjians the law of righteousness is kept, concerning things enjoined or forbidden, so long as Arhats from other regions come to their realm, while those Arhats who have thus come, dwell serenely in their realm, so long, Ananda, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline.”

And so the Master addressed Vassakara the Brahman, the Chief Minister of Magadha:

“Once upon a time, Brahman, I was at the city of Vesali, at the Sarandada temple, and there I taught these seven salutary rules of righteousness to the Vajjians; and so long, Brahman, as these seven salutary rules of righteousness shall stand among the Vajjians, so long as the Vajjians shall continue in these seven salutary rules of righteousness, so long, Brahman, may the increase of the Vajjians be looked for, and not their decline.”

When the Master had thus spoken, the Brahman Vassakara, the Chief Minister of Magadha, said this:

“By keeping even a single one of these salutary rules of righteousness, Sir Gotama, the increase of the Vajjians might be looked for, and not their decline; much more when they keep all seven righteous rules. Therefore it is certain, Sir Gotama, that the Vajjians cannot be overcome in war by Ajatashatru, king of Magadha, except through diplomacy or by fomenting discord among them. So now, Sir Gotama, we must be going, for we have many things which must be done!”

“Do whatever thou judgest to be timely, Brahman!”

And so the Brahman Vassakara, Chief Minister of Magadha, well pleased and approving what the Master had said, arose from his seat and departed.

There is a highly coloured and enthusiastic account of the visit which the Buddha spoke of, to the city of Vesali, in the Dhammapada Commentary already referred to. We are told that the town was magnificent and wealthy, that it was ruled by seven thousand, seven hundred and seven princes, the same Vajjians whom King Ajatashatru had it in his heart to attack and subdue; that these princes, who took turns in exercising supreme power, had each his palace and his park. The city was close to the bank of the Ganges, and the Buddha made his approach by boat, along the great river, attended by five hundred disciples and splendidly received by the princes and peoples of Vesali.

The sevenfold precepts which he framed for the Vajjians are of great interest and value. We remember that, before reaching supreme enlightenment, Siddhartha had been a prince, the heir apparent of a kingdom. In these precepts we have the rules of government which he might have followed, had he become a temporal ruler. But there is a still deeper interest. Underlying each of these rules of policy there is a spiritual principle, a principle of conservation, valid for such a movement as that in which we ourselves are taking part. Each one of the rules may well be considered in this light, with the question, to what degree we are adhering to the spiritual principle involved.

Some such reflection concerning the spiritual application of the rules he had just formulated, seems to have come into the Buddha’s mind, for the story continues:

And so the Master, not long after the Brahman Vassakara, the Chief Minister of Magadha, had departed, thus addressed the noble Ananda:

“Go thou, Ananda, and as many disciples as are in residence in Rajagriha, do thou assemble them in the hall of services!”

“So be it, Sire!” the noble Ananda replied, obedient to the word of the Master, and as many disciples as were in residence in Rajagriha, all these he assembled in the hall of services; then, coming to the place where the Master was, and making salutation to the Master, he stood on one side and spoke thus to the Master:

“Sire, the Order of disciples is assembled. Let the Master now carry out his purpose!”

And so the Master arose from his seat and, going to the hall of services, seated himself on the seat which was prepared for him, and, having seated himself, the Master thus addressed the disciples:

“I shall teach you seven salutary rules of righteousness, disciples; heed them well and inscribe them on your hearts as I speak them!”

“So be it, Sire!” the disciples responded to the Master. The Master spoke thus:

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall meet together frequently, holding frequent meetings, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall meet in harmony, shall rise up together in harmony, and in harmony shall carry out the works of the Order, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples refrain from making laws that have not hitherto been made, and at the same time refrain from breaking the laws that have been made, and shall remain steadfast in the performance of the precepts of the teaching which have been laid down, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples confer honour upon the seniors who have served long, the fathers of the Order, the leaders of the Order, greatly esteeming them, showing them honour and respect, and giving due weight to their wise judgments, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not come under the sway of the desire of sensation, which arises within them, and which leads to the bondage of rebirth, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall prefer their quiet dwellings in the forest, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples, each one of them, shall practise recollection so that qualified co-disciples may come to join them, and that co-disciples may dwell among them in quietude and well-being, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as these seven salutary rules of righteousness remain among the disciples, so long as the disciples stand firm in these seven salutary rules of righteousness, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“Yet other seven salutary rules of righteousness, disciples, I declare to you; heed them well and inscribe them on your hearts as I speak them!”

“So be it, Sire!” the disciples responded to the Master. The Master spoke thus:

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not make themselves a pleasure garden of rites and ceremonies, so long as they shall not delight in rites and ceremonies, so long as they shall not be absorbed in rites and ceremonies, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not make themselves a pleasure garden of talk, so long as they shall not delight in talk, so long as they shall not be absorbed in talk, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not make themselves a pleasure garden of dreaming, so long as they shall not delight in dreaming, so long as they shall not be absorbed in dreaming, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not make themselves a pleasure garden of society, so long as they shall not delight in society, so long as they shall not be absorbed in society, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not harbour sinful desires, so long as they shall not come under the sway of sinful desires, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall abstain from evil friendships, evil companionships, evil associations, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall not seek success in this lower world as their goal, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as these seven salutary rules of righteousness remain among the disciples, so long as the disciples stand firm in these seven salutary rules of righteousness, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“Yet other seven salutary rules of righteousness, disciples, I declare to you; heed them well and inscribe them on your hearts as I speak them!”

“So be it, Sire!” the disciples responded to the Master. The Master spoke thus:

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall be full of faith, so long as they shall be full of humility, so long as they shall shrink from evil-doing, so long as they shall follow after wisdom, so long as they shall be valorous in effort, so long as they shall be instant in recollection, so long as they shall possess discrimination, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as these seven salutary rules of righteousness remain among the disciples, so long as the disciples stand firm in these seven salutary rules of righteousness, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“Yet other seven salutary rules of righteousness, disciples, I declare to you; heed them well and inscribe them on your hearts as I speak them!”

“’So be it, Sire!” the disciples responded to the Master. The Master spoke thus:

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall diligently practise the seven members of wisdom, namely, recollection, careful search into the law of righteousness, valour of heart, joy, serenity, contemplation and detachment, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as these seven salutary rules of righteousness remain among the disciples, so long as the disciples stand firm in these seven salutary rules of righteousness, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“Yet other seven salutary rules of righteousness, disciples, I declare to you; heed them well and inscribe them on your hearts as I speak them!”

“So be it, Sire!” the disciples responded to the Master. The Master spoke thus:

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall cultivate discernment of the impermanency of worldly things, shall cultivate discernment of the unreality of the separate self, shall cultivate discernment of the impurity of lust, shall cultivate discernment of the evil fruit of sin, shall cultivate discernment of the abandorment of sorrow, shall cultivate discernment of revulsion from desire, shall cultivate discernment of the cessation of desire, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as these seven salutary rules of righteousness remain among the disciples, so long as the disciples stand firm in these seven salutary rules of righteousness, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“Six salutary rules of righteousness, disciples, I declare to you; heed them well and inscribe them on your hearts as I speak them!”

“So be it, Sire!” the disciples responded to the Master. The Master spoke thus:

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall establish and preserve among co-disciples brotherly love in bodily acts, brotherly love in acts of speech, brotherly love in acts of mind, both openly and secretly, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples, concerning whatever good things they may receive, righteously gained, in the case of such things received, even if it be only a bowl of food, shall divide them without partiality, considering them as joint possessions of the co-disciples, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall keep the precepts unbroken, inviolate, undistorted, unspotted, the precepts which make for liberation, which are revered by the wise, uncoloured by desire, conducive to contemplation, accepted by all, guarding them among the co-disciples both openly and secretly, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as the disciples shall preserve the noble teaching which leads to salvation, to the complete destruction of sorrow for him who lives obedient to it, so long as this teaching shall be accepted by all the co-disciples both openly and secretly, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.

“So long, disciples, as these six salutary rules of righteousness remain among the disciples, so long as the disciples stand firm in these six salutary rules of righteousness, so long may the increase of the disciples be looked for, and not their decline.”

There, verily, the Master, dwelling at Rajagriha, on the mountain called Vulture Peak, addressed to his disciples this teaching abounding in righteousness, saying: “This is right conduct, this is contemplation, this is wisdom; contemplation enriched by right conduct bears much fruit and many blessings; wisdom enriched by contemplation bears much fruit and many blessings; the heart which is enriched by wisdom is altogether set free from the poisons, to wit, the poison of lust, the poison of the desire of life, the poison of false beliefs; the poison of unwisdom.”