With the single exception, perhaps, of The Light of Asia, the popular narratives of the Buddha’s life surround the great story with coloured clouds of phantasy, giving to one of the greatest of men the semblance of the hero of a fairy tale, and sometimes adding qualities of sentimentalism that are wholly out of place in one of the most rigorous thinkers in the history of mankind.

Much has been said, in these studies, regarding the radiant sense of humour which illumines the Buddha’s teaching. It may not be untimely to illustrate another quality of his noble mind and soul: the sternness with which he could rebuke vanity and presumptuous folly. This is one side of the Buddha’s intellect, another side of which comes out clearly in his practical teaching to sincere and faithful disciples, which will also be illustrated.

The Buddha’s readiness to administer stern and well-deserved rebuke is finely and graphically shown in the story of the vain youth Sunakshatra, who had associated with members of the Buddha’s Order, without being in any real sense a disciple, or making any earnest effort to develop the qualities that might in time have made him a disciple. His skilfully drawn portrait suggests certain persons who, in the earlier days, held a similar relation to The Theosophical Society: seekers after wonders and startling doctrines, full of a sense of their own importance, and ever ready to complain that the Movement did not fulfill their high expectations. These petulant critics were in general contemptuous of “mere morality” and discipline, and they often departed from the Movement loudly proclaiming its manifold shortcomings. It is edifying to find exactly the same futile and vexatious characters besetting the work of the Buddha two and a half millenniums ago.

Such a one was the youth Sunakshatra. Once upon a time, we are told, the Master was living among the Mallas, one of the tribes of the Ganges valley, having his temporary home in a Malla village, or small town. As was his wont, the Master rose early in the morning, donning his yellow robe and taking his bowl, with the thought of going through the village to receive food. But he bethought him that it was too early to seek food, and that it would be well to go instead to visit a pilgrim, a wandering devotee of the clan of the Bhargavas, descendants of Bhrigu. The pilgrim had established himself in a pleasant garden, and thither the Master went.

Thereupon the pilgrim of the Bhargava clan spoke thus to the Master: “Greeting to the worthy Master! The worthy Master is welcome! It is long since the worthy Master has had occasion to come hither. Let the worthy Master be seated! Here is a seat made ready.”

The Master sat down on the seat that was made ready. The pilgrim of the Bhargava clan placed for himself another, lower seat, and sat beside him. Seated beside the Master, the pilgrim of the Bhargava clan addressed him thus:

“In days gone by, worthy Sir, in days long past, Sunakshatra, a son of the Lichchhavis, came to where I was, and said this to me: ‘Bhargava, I have given up the Master! I will no longer remain for the Master’s sake!’ Is it so, worthy Sir, as Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, asserted?”

“It is exactly as Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, said. In days gone by, Bhargava, in days long past, Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, came to where I was abiding. Coming to me and saluting me, he sat down by me; seated by me, Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, spoke thus to me: ‘I am giving up the worthy Master! I will no longer remain for the Master’s sake!’

“When Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, said this, Bhargava, I spoke thus: ‘Sunakshatra, have I ever said, “Come, Sunakshatra! Abide with me!”?’

“’No, worthy Sir!’

“’Or hast thou ever said to me: “I shall abide with the worthy Master!”?’

“’No, worthy Sir!’

“’If this be so, vain man, as being what dost thou give me up?’

“’But the worthy Master never performs superhuman works, miracles of magical power!’

“’Did I ever say to thee, Sunakshatra: “Come, Sunakshatra! Abide with me, and I shall perform for thee superhuman works, miracles of magical power!”?’

“’No, worthy Sir!’

“’Didst thou ever say to me: “I shall abide with the worthy Master, if the Master will perform for me superhuman works, miracles of magical power!”?’

“’No, worthy Sir!’

“’If this be so, vain man, as being what dost thou give me up? What thinkest thou, Sunakshatra? Whether superhuman works, miracles of magical power, be performed, or be not performed, does the Law of Righteousness taught by me lead to the destruction of misery for him who fulfills it, and for whose sake it is taught?’

“’It is true, worthy Master, that, whether superhuman works, miracles of magical power, be performed, or be not performed, the Law of Righteousness taught by the Master does lead to the destruction of misery for him who fulfills it, and for whose sake it is taught.’

“’If this be so, Sunakshatra, then what is accomplished by these superhuman works, miracles of magical power? Behold, vain man, how great is thy offense!’

“’Yes, but the worthy Master teaches nothing concerning the knowledge of the beginning of the universe!’

“’Did I ever say to thee, Sunakshatra: “Come, Sunakshatra, abide with me, and I shall teach thee concerning the knowledge of the beginning of the universe!”?’

“’No, worthy Sir!’

“’Didst thou ever say to me: “I will abide with the worthy Master, if the worthy Master will teach me concerning the knowledge of the beginning of the universe!”?’

“’No, worthy Sir!’

“’If this be so, vain man, as being what dost thou give me up? What thinkest thou, Sunakshatra? Whether knowledge of the beginning of the universe be taught, or be not taught, does the Law of Righteousness taught by me lead to the destruction of misery for him who fulfills it, and for whose sake it is taught?’

“’It is true, worthy Master, that, whether knowledge of the beginning of the universe be taught, or be not taught, the Law of Righteousness taught by the Master does lead to the destruction of misery for him who fulfills it, and for whose sake it is taught.’

“’If this be so, Sunakshatra, then what is accomplished by teaching concerning the knowledge of the beginning of the universe? Behold, vain man, how great is thy offense!’

“’On many an occasion, Sunakshatra, praise of me was spoken by thee in the town of the Vajjis, the Lichchhavis, saying: “The Master is an Arhat, a supreme Buddha, possessing fully the method of instruction in wisdom, a welcome one, a knower of the worlds, unexcelled, a teacher of Radiant Beings and of mankind, the Master is the Buddha.” Thus, Sunakshatra, on many an occasion was praise of me spoken by thee in the town of the Vajjis!

“’On many an occasion, Sunakshatra, praise of the Law of Righteousness was spoken by thee in the town of the Vajjis, saying: “Well set forth by the Master is the Law of Righteousness, bearing immediate fruit, operating without delay, as who should say, ‘Come and see!’ leading to liberation, to be known by individual experience, full of intelligence.” Thus, Sunakshatra, on many an occasion was praise of the Law of Righteousness spoken by thee in the town of the Vajjis!

“’On many an occasion, Sunakshatra, praise of the Order was spoken by thee in the town of the Vajjis, saying: “Well ordered is the Master’s Order of disciples, uprightly ordered is the Master’s Order of disciples, justly ordered is the Master’s Order of disciples, perfectly ordered is the Master’s Order of disciples, suited to disciples of each class, worthy of sacrifices, worthy of gracious reception, worthy of gifts, worthy of reverent salutation, the unexcelled field of right deeds for mankind.” Thus, Sunakshatra, on many an occasion was praise of the Order spoken by thee in the town of the Vajjis!

“’I announce to thee, Sunakshatra, I make known to thee, Sunakshatra, that there will be those who will say of thee: “Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, had not the valour and endurance to live the pure life of a disciple under the ascetic Gotama; lacking valour and endurance; he has turned his back on the teaching and returned to the baser way.” Thus, Sunakshatra, will they speak of thee!’

“Thus, Bhargava, did I address Sunakshatra, the son of the Lichchhavis, when he deserted this law and discipline, falling away, falling into punishment.”

This vigorous and finely told story depicts with perfect art the character of the youth Sunakshatra, in the beginning eloquently praising the Buddha, the Law of Righteousness and the Order, but really attracted to the Master by the hope of beholding superhuman and magical powers and hearing startling doctrines of the beginning of all things. Seemingly drawn to the Master by desire for wisdom, his real motive was self-seeking, sensationalism, mental curiosity. The seed, fallen on shallow soil, at first sprang up and flourished, but presently withered and died. Lacking the true courage and endurance of the disciple, the willingness to sacrifice self, he became a deserter and incurred the stern censure of the Master.

The story draws the portrait of the Buddha with equal clearness. Not often in the Suttas are we given so direct an insight into the mind and heart of the great Master, his thought about the nature and purpose of his teaching, his estimation of displays of magical power and philosophical discussion, before the heart has been made clean. Some Western students, whose minds are coloured by the materialism of their time, nave laid stress on this story as indicating that the Buddha entirely disbelieved in these superhuman powers and magical endowments, which were mere popular superstitions of a credulous age. But this is not so. This very story goes on to relate two incidents, both of them striking and dramatic, and illuminated by a keen sense of humour, which illustrate the Buddha’s spiritual seership and his power to foresee and foretell future events, while the second shows him bringing to confusion a boastful miracle-monger by what would be called “action at a distance.” The Buddha believed in the existence of these powers for the best of all reasons: because he possessed and constantly exercised them; but his aim and purpose was, not to exhibit feats of magic, but to impart wisdom to disciples seeking wisdom, and, so far as might be, to reveal the way of liberation to the whole world.

To teach wisdom to disciples seeking wisdom: this was the principal purpose; and justice has not yet been done to the penetrating power of his teaching, and to the fruit which it bears when put into practice.

The cogency and rigour of the Buddha’s thinking are well illustrated in one of the Suttas, which is devoted to Recollection, as a means toward spiritual enlightenment. When considering this teaching, it is wise to remember that it was delivered to disciples, members of the Order; and to hold in mind what this implies. Before seeking admission to the Order, each one of them had “given up the life of house and family for the homeless life.” They could not hold property; they were pledged to celibacy; they had no separate possessions; they had accepted the obligation of obedience to the Buddha and to those to whose care he entrusted them: they had renounced self and self-seeking in the most practical way possible. What, then, did the Buddha direct them to do?

First, to gain the power of Recollection, to which this Sutta is devoted. We are told that, once upon a time, the Master was abiding among the Kurus, the same tribe whose princes took part in the great war of the Mahabharata. Abiding there, in one of the towns of the Kurus, the Master addressed his disciples, saying:

“There is one way of salvation, disciples, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of grieving and lamentation, for the conquest of misery and dejection, for the increase of wisdom, for the attainment of Nirvana, namely, the establishment of the four kinds of Recollection.

“What are the four? In this world, disciples, a disciple with reference to the body abides considering the body, ardent, fully conscious, recollected, altogether putting aside both covetousness and dejection; with reference to sensations he abides considering sensations, ardent, fully conscious, recollected, altogether putting aside both covetousness and dejection; with reference to imaginings he abides considering imaginings, ardent, fully conscious, recollected, altogether putting aside both covetousness and dejection; with reference to forms of thought he abides considering forms of thought, ardent, fully conscious, recollected, altogether putting aside both covetousness and dejection.

“And how, disciples, does a disciple with reference to the body abide considering the body?

“In this world, disciples, a disciple, dwelling in the forest, or beneath a tree, taking the position of meditation on a seat, holding the body erect, keeps his mind firmly fixed on recollection. Recollected, he draws each breath; recollected, he exhales it. When he draws a long breath, he is conscious that he draws a long breath; when he exhales a long breath, he is conscious that he exhales a long breath. When he draws a short breath, he is conscious that he draws a short breath; when he exhales a short breath, he is conscious that he exhales a short breath. He practices himself to be aware of his whole body as he draws each breath. He practices himself to be aware of his whole body as he exhales each breath. He practices himself to control and tranquillize the energies of the body as he draws each breath. He practices himself to control and tranquillize the energies of the body as he exhales each breath.

“Just as, disciples, a skilled turner, or turner’s assistant, when he makes a long turn of the lathe, is conscious that he makes a long turn of the lathe, or when he makes a short turn of the lathe, is conscious that he makes a short turn of the lathe, in just the same way, disciples, a disciple is conscious when he draws a long or short breath, when he exhales a long or short breath. He practices himself to be aware of his whole body, to control and tranquillize the energies of the body, as he draws each breath.

“Thus he abides considering the body, whether with reference to his own body, or with reference to the bodies of others, or with reference to both. He is regardful of the character of beginning in the body, or of the character of passing away, or of both. Realizing that such is the body, his recollection is established in the measure of this knowledge, in the measure of this detailed recollection. In this way, disciples, a disciple with reference to the body abides considering the body.

“Again, disciples, a disciple, while he is walking, is conscious that he is walking; while standing, he is conscious that he is standing; while seated, he is conscious that he is seated; while lying down, he is conscious that he is lying down; in whatever way his body is disposed, he is conscious that it is so disposed. And he abides unswayed by outer things, nor covets anything in the world.

“Again, disciples, a disciple, when advancing or withdrawing, is fully conscious of it. In looking toward, or away from, anything, he is fully conscious of it. In bending or extending his arm, he is fully conscious of it. In eating, in drinking, in chewing, in tasting, he is fully conscious of it. In walking, in standing, in sitting, in sleeping, in waking, in speaking, in keeping silent, he is fully conscious of it.”

So far, so good. The disciple must be thoroughly awake, aware, alert, at all points, in every moment. He must be positive, ardent, intent, never dreamy, drifting, comatose. With regard to what is said of breathing, it may be worth noting that, while even breathing does in fact tranquillize the bodily energies and emotions, this is not the point in the present case. It is a question, not of any kind of ‘Yoga-breathing,’ but of alertness, awareness, watchfulness. At any moment the disciple must know exactly what his body is doing, and in what way.

But this is only the beginning, a means to an end. That end is complete conquest of the body and the energies and desires of the body. To gain this end, the Teacher takes a somewhat rigorous course. He impresses on his disciples, and teaches them to impress on their own minds, not only the need for unbroken recollection regarding the body, but the still greater need to realize the transitory, unenduring nature of the body; nay, more, to dwell on what Saint Paul calls the corruption of the body. This may seem to us too rigorous; but we should consider the extent to which the worship of the body and its appetites is carried in our day and generation; the enormous amount of energy that is expended on pampering the body and ministering to its desires and to the vanities which spring from these desires. The Buddha is convinced that, until this flood of bodily desires and imaginings is stemmed, there is no possibility of rising to the higher states of consciousness above bodily and animal consciousness, with their highly coloured psychical reflections and reverberations. Therefore he goes to the heart of the matter as vigorously and incisively as does Saint Paul. The teaching continues:

“And further, disciples, a disciple considers this body, upward from the sole of the foot, downward from the crown of the head, enclosed within its covering of skin, realizing that this body is made up of hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinew, bone, marrow, kidneys, heart, membranes, spleen, lungs, intestines and other organs, filled with substances subject to decomposition. It is just as though there were a bag filled with various kinds of grain, namely, upland rice, lowland rice, kidney beans, broad beans, oil seeds, husked rice, and a keen eyed man were to pour forth and examine the contents, recognizing the upland rice, the lowland rice, the kidney beans, the broad beans, the oil seeds and the husked rice; so the disciple realizes the contents of the body, from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head, enclosed within its covering of skin, filled with all manner of impurities. So the disciple attains full realization regarding the body, whether it be his own body or the body of another. He recognizes in the body the character of beginning and the character of passing away. Realizing that such is the body, his recollection is established in the measure of this knowledge, in the measure of this detailed recollection. In this way, disciples, a disciple with reference to the body abides considering the body.

“And further, disciples, a disciple considers this body however it may be placed, however it may be disposed, as consisting of the elements, namely, that the body consists of the element of earth, the element of water, the element of heat, the element of air. It is just as though a skilled butcher, or butcher’s assistant, having slaughtered a cow, setting up his stall at a place where four roads meet, divides the body into pieces; so the disciple recognizes that his body consists of the elements, namely, the element of earth, the element of water, the element of heat, the element of air. Realizing that such is the body, his recollection is established in the measure of this knowledge, in the measure of this detailed recollection. In this way, disciples, a disciple with reference to the body abides considering the body.”

It may well be thought that this is a somewhat repulsive comparison. It is so, without doubt, and it is so because the purpose of the Teacher is to arouse and establish a feeling of revulsion, to counteract the mood of infatuation, of slavish pampering, which is so nearly universal. This idolatrous service of the body, “whether it be one’s own body or the body of another,” can only be killed by strong revulsion. This definite purpose, to arouse a mood of strong revulsion, is made clear by the passages which follow, and which are rather grimly called the “nine charnel grounds,” places where corpses were thrown, to disintegrate and decay. Of these, only one need be translated:

“And further, disciples, it is as though a disciple were to see a body cast away on a charnel ground, being eaten by crows, or being eaten by buzzards, or being eaten by vultures, or being eaten by dogs, or being eaten by jackals, or being eaten by vermin of various kinds, and, considering his own body, should realize that such is the body, with such a destiny, which it cannot escape.”

But, besides this mood of revulsion, which the Teacher considers it necessary to arouse and sustain, there is another side of the problem. When the tyranny of the body has been overthrown, the time comes to recognize it as a useful, nay, an indispensable servant. And the Buddha has laid down detailed directions for his disciples, concerning the right care for the body. He is entirely opposed to the extremes of self-torture to which many of the ascetics of his day went, often with motives of vanity. He is equally opposed to the neglect of bodily cleanliness and order, of which these same ascetics were often guilty. There are complete directions for regular washing of the body, with hot and cold water, for the proper clothing of the body, and the way in which the garments of the disciple should be worn, including the yellow, or saffron-coloured robe, which was the uniform of his Order; and equally detailed directions regarding the proper posture of the body, in standing, walking, sitting, resting. In all things, at each moment, there must be complete recollection and awareness. And no least detail of good manners or courtesy is overlooked. Here, as in all things, the Buddha follows the golden mean.

But the Teacher indicated four fields of recollection, namely, with reference to the body, with reference to sensations, with reference to imaginings, and with reference to forms of thought. We come now to the three remaining to be considered.

“And how, disciples, does a disciple with reference to sensations abide considering sensations?

“In this world, disciples, a disciple experiencing a pleasant sensation, is conscious that he is experiencing a pleasant sensation; when he experiences a painful sensation, he is conscious that he is experiencing a painful sensation; when he is experiencing a sensation which is neither painful nor pleasant, he is conscious that he is experiencing a sensation neither painful nor pleasant; when he is experiencing a pleasant sensation involving the flesh, he is conscious that he is experiencing a pleasant sensation involving the flesh; when he is experiencing a pleasant sensation not involving the flesh, he is conscious that he is experiencing a pleasant sensation not involving the flesh; when he is experiencing a painful sensation involving the flesh, he is conscious that he is experiencing a painful sensation involving the flesh; when he is experiencing a painful sensation not involving the flesh, he is conscious that he is experiencing a painful sensation not involving the flesh; when he is experiencing a sensation neither painful nor pleasant involving the flesh, he is conscious that he is experiencing a sensation neither painful nor pleasant involving the flesh; when he is experiencing a sensation neither painful nor pleasant not involving the flesh, he is conscious that he is experiencing a sensation neither painful nor pleasant not involving the flesh.

“Thus he abides considering sensations, whether they be his own sensations or the sensations of another. He is aware of the beginnings of sensations. He is aware of the passing of sensations. Thus he recognizes the nature of sensations, and his recollection with reference to sensations is established in the measure of his knowledge, in the measure of his complete recollection. Thus he abides unswayed, coveting nothing in the world. Thus, disciples, does a disciple with reference to sensations abide considering sensations.

“And how, disciples, does a disciple with reference to imagination abide considering imagination?

“In this world, disciples, whenever he has a passionate imagination, he is conscious that it is a passionate imagination; whenever he has a dispassionate imagination, he is conscious that it is a dispassionate imagination; whenever he has an imagination coloured by offense, he is conscious that he has an imagination coloured by offense; whenever he has an imagination free from offense, he is conscious that he has an imagination free from offense; whenever he has an imagination coloured by delusion, he is conscious that he has an imagination coloured by delusion; whenever he has an imagination free from delusion, he is conscious that he has an imagination free from delusion; whenever he has an intent imagination, he is conscious that he has an intent imagination; whenever he has a distraught imagination, he is conscious that he has a distraught imagination; whenever he has an exalted imagination, he is conscious that he has an exalted imagination; whenever he has an unexalted imagination, he is conscious that he has an unexalted imagination; whenever he has a low imagination, he is conscious that he has a low imagination; whenever he has a high imagination, he is conscious that he has a high imagination; whenever he has a concentrated imagination, he is conscious that he has a concentrated imagination; whenever he has an unconcentrated imagination, he is conscious that he has an unconcentrated imagination; whenever he has a liberated imagination, he is conscious that he has a liberated imagination; whenever he has an unliberated imagination, he is conscious that he has an unliberated imagination. Thus he considers the imagination, whether in himself or in another. He is aware of the beginnings of imagination, and of the passing of imagination, and, realizing that such is imagination, his recollection with regard to imagination is established in the measure of his knowledge, in the measure of his complete recollection. Thus he abides unswayed, coveting nothing in the world. Thus, disciples, does a disciple with reference to imagination abide considering imagination.

“And how, disciples, does a disciple with reference to forms of thought abide considering forms of thought?

“In this world, disciples, with reference to the forms of thought a disciple abides considering the forms of thought in the five obscurities.

“And how, disciples, does a disciple with reference to the forms of though abide with reference to the forms of thought in the five obscurities?

“In this world, disciples, a disciple having within himself a sensual form of thought, is conscious of having within him a sensual form of thought; or not having within him a sensual form of thought, he is conscious of not having within him a sensual form of thought; and he is also conscious of how the uprising of a sensual thought not yet arisen comes about, and how the rejection of a sensual thought which has arisen is accomplished, and how in the future the uprising of a sensual thought which has been rejected may come about.

“Or having within him an envious form of thought, he is conscious of having within him an envious form of thought; or not having within him an envious form of thought, he is conscious of not having within him an envious form of thought; and he is also conscious of how the uprising of an envious thought not yet arisen comes about, and how the rejection of an envious thought which has arisen is accomplished, and how in the future the uprising of an envious thought which has been rejected may come about.

“So also with regard to thoughts of sloth and torpor; with regard to thoughts of vanity and vacillation; with regard to thoughts of doubt. The disciple is conscious of having, or not having, within him these forms of thought; of their uprising, their rejection, and the danger of their return, even when they have been rejected.”

The Teacher goes on to consider further fundamental classes of thought and consciousness, but their analysis must be deferred for another occasion. We have reached the mid point of the discourse, the turning point, from which the teaching gradually ascends to the more spiritual states of consciousness. There is no sharp break, but rather an ordered and necessary transition. Beginning with recollection, alert awareness of the body and simple bodily acts like breathing, the disciple has learned to be conscious of what his body is doing at each moment, and in what way each act is being done. We gradually pass upward to awareness of sensations, to awareness of imaginings, to awareness of thoughts. But a spiritual element has already made its entrance, or, to speak more truly, has been present implicitly from the beginning. When a disciple is aware that he is harbouring an imagination coloured by delusion, he has already gone far toward overcoming that delusion, to receiving and assimilating the spiritual light which that delusion would have shut out. So with each step. If recollection regarding each detail be faithfully practised, spiritual unfolding inevitably follows. The steps of that unfolding remain to be considered.