The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes instructions on begging which is Chapter XLII of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter XLII - Instructions on begging

The monks asked, “Lord, how ought we to conduct the alms-round? Are we to say ‘Give alms’?” The Exalted One replied, “No. You should stand in silence and point to your alms-bowl.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, here in the city of Benares the king’s son had a companion of the same age, named Asthisena, who was the son of the household priest. Asthisena, seeing the danger of sensual pleasures, went forth to embrace the religious life. (419) He observed chastity, lived following the path of the ten moralities and became proficient in the Veda and familiar with all branches of learning relating to the religious life.[1]

Then the king’s son ascended the throne. And he addressed Asthisena, the priest’s son, in a verse:

Wise men, O Asthisena, do not despise a mendicant. O chaste youth, you are dear to me. Ask, O brahman, for whatever you wish.

Then, monks, Asthisena the mendicant replied in a verse:

He who begs becomes disliked; he who gives not becomes disliked. And so I ask not of my lord, lest I incur hatred.[2]

But, monks, the king of Benares replied to Asthisena the mendicant in a verse:

He who is a beggar and begs not when he should, causes another to lose merit, and harms himself.

Then, monks, Asthisena the mendicant replied to the king of Kāśi:

They say that begging leads to weeping; refusal to give likewise causes weeping. And so I beg not of you, my lord, lest I be the cause of weeping.[3]

The wise man asks not; the Āryan deigns not to make his need known.[4] The Āryans stand and show their alms-bowls. Such is the way the Āryans beg.

Then, monks, the king of Kāśi replied to Asthisena the mendicant in a verse:

I offer you, O brahman, a full thousand red cows, together with a bull. (420) For, being an Āryan, how should I not give[5] to an Āryan after listening to the eloquent verses he has recited?

The Exalted One said, “The Wanderer, named Asthisena, the son of the. household priest and friend of the king of Kāśi was not anyone else. For I at that time was the Wanderer Asthisena.”

Here ends the Jātaka of Asthisena.[6]

The Exalted One said:

“Verily the wise man does not ask; the Āryan deigns not to make his need known. The Āryans stand and show their alms-bowls. Such is the way the Āryans beg.”

“It is in this way, monks, that you are to make your alms-round.”

Then the monks asked the Exalted One, “Lord, when we have received alms, are we to say ‘bless you, bless you’?[7] The Exalted One replied, “No, monks, you are not to salute[8] when you have received alms.”

To commit no sin, to achieve virtue, to master[9] one’s heart—this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Then the monks, having stayed in the Deer Park at Ṛṣi-vadana for the rainy season, set out on their tours in various directions. And on seeing empty and desolate the places where the monks had stood, walked, sat and lain down, a deva of the Deer Park felt sad.

He approached the Exalted One and addressed him in a verse[10]:

This place looks sad to me to-day, for I see it empty and deserted of men. (421) Learned men of varied talk were they. Where, O Gotama, are those disciples of thine gone?

The Exalted One replied[11]:

They have gone to Magadha and to Kośala, and some have gone to the land of the Vajjis. The monks live unfettered lives and roam about free as deer.

The Exalted One set out.[12] A boatman saw the Exalted One approaching the banks of the Ganges and brought up his boat.

The Exalted One stepped on board and said to the boatman[13]:

Besprinkle this boat,[14] O monk. Besprinkled with love, it will float more lightly for you.[15] Cut out passion and ill-will. Thus will you go on to nirvana.

Besprinkle this boat, O monk. Besprinkled with pity, it will float more lightly for you. Cut out passion and ill-will. Thus will you go on to nirvana.

Besprinkle this boat, O monk. Besprinkled with sympathetic joy,[16] it will float more lightly for you. Cut out passion and ill-will. Thus will you go on to nirvana.

Besprinkle this boat, O monk. Besprinkled with equanimity,[17] it will float more lightly for you. Cut out passion and ill-will. Thus will you go or to nirvāṇa.

The monk who abides in love and puts his faith in the teaching of the Buddha, will win through to the sphere of calm and blissful release.[18]

The monk who abides in pity and puts his faith in the teaching of the Buddha, will win through to the sphere of calm, which is untrodden by the vulgar herd.

The monk who abides in sympathetic joy and puts his faith in the teaching of the Buddha, (422) will win through to the sphere of calm, which is untrodden by the vile man.

The monk who abides in equanimity and puts his faith in the teaching of the Buddha, will win through to the sphere of calm, the immovable sphere of nirvana.

The monk whose delight and joy are in the dharma, who meditates on it and ever bears it in mind, does not fall away from the true dharma.[19]

Glad of heart and happy, surmounting that which is pleasant and what is unpleasant, and hence replete with joy, the monk draws near to nirvana.

Not even by observing good works alone,[20] nor by much learning, nor by attainment of concentration on solitary couch or bed,

Can the monk who is eager for the bliss of renunciation which is not ensued by the vulgar herd, win assurance as long as his āśravas are not extinct.[21]

A man is not a monk just because he begs alms from others. He is no monk as long as he harbours wrong states of mind.[22]

He who, living the brahma-life, regards pleasures of sense as evil, and has become a ladder,[23] he, with his wisdom, is in truth said to be a monk.

When he walks abroad, when he stands, when he sits, when he lies down, when he bends his body and when he straightens it,

He should be restrained as he moves, restrained as he lies down. He should be restrained of purpose as he meditates diligently. (423) He who takes joy in study, is concentrated, and content to be alone—him do they call a monk.

Restraint in eye is good, and good restraint in ear. Restraint in smell is good, and good restraint in tongue. Restrained everywhere, the monk from ill obtains release.[24]

The boatman[25] was led by the Exalted One to the state of mastery.[26] When the Exalted One spoke the words, “Besprinkle the boat,” every mark of the layman, every badge, every emblem and every sign disappeared (from the boatman’s person). He was seen to have the three robes and the sumbhaka[27] bowl, his hair in its natural state, and his deportment established—all just like those of a monk who had been ordained a hundred years. Such was the initiation of the venerable boatman of the Ganges, his ordination and his admission into monkhood.

Then the Exalted One dismissed him. He asked the Exalted One, “Lord, if I am asked by anyone who I am, what am I to say?” The Exalted One replied and said, “Tell him that you are a recluse, a brahman, one who is proficient in knowledge, one who has crossed, one who has reached the farther shore.”

Then Śakra, lord of the devas, by his magic power assumed the guise of a brahman youth, comely and handsome, with glossy, dark braided hair, like a peacock’s neck, and carrying a golden staff and water-pot. He took with him a bowl, robe and earrings, and walked behind the Exalted One. A man asked, “Who is this comely and handsome youth?”

He[28] replied,

I am a follower of that resolute, meditative and peerless Hero, who is Arhan and Sugata in the world.

(424) I am a follower of Gotama who carries his fare[29] across in his boat of dharma, the Buddha who has crossed and reached the shore beyond.

Footnotes and references:




Literally, “lest there be hatred (vidveṣaṇā, Pali viddesanā, Sk. vidveṣaṇa) of me.”


Literally, “a weeping be mine,” me ārodanaṃ bhavet.


Veditum, for vedayitum. So Senart, and as in the repetition on the next page.


Dadyā. In form this may be either 3rd or 1st sg. opt. (BSk.). Perhaps it is better taken here as 1st, rather than with Edgerton (Gram. § 29. 42) as 3rd.


Cf. Fausboll, no 403.


Or, “good luck” svasti.


Ādiśati. See B.H.S.D., where Edgerton compares Hindi ādes, “salutation,” and late Sk. ādeśa with the same meaning, and refers to an article by himself in JAOS. 38.206f.


Paryādāpana. This word is interpreted here as a substantive from the causal of paryādadāti, “to master”. The verse is Dh. 183, where the corresponding Pali word is pariyodapana, “purification,” and the P.E.D. may be correct in saying that the form in our text is a corrupt BSk. form of the Pali. The correct BSk. form, paryavadāpana, is found in Dbh. 3 and Gv. 492 (see B.H.S.D. which does not list the word of our text). It is interesting to note, however, that Burnouf in his note on the Dh. verse (Lotus, p. 527, 8, quoted in Max Müller’s note on p. 51 of his translation of Dh. in S.B.E., vol. X), prefers the form paridamana, “complete subjection”, which in meaning approximates paryādāpana. (Müller himself says that pariyodana is the correct reading). Note also that two MSS. of the Mhvu. actually have paryādamana. There is, therefore, some ground for believing that in its original form this celebrated verse of the Dh. spoke of the mastering and not of the purification of the mind or heart.


This episode, with more or less similar verses, is found at S. 1.199.


In S. the question is put to and answered by another deva.


This episode, so abruptly introduced, looks like a commentarial invention to serve as introduction to the following verses, which are greatly enlarged versions of Dh. 368 and 369.


But in the following verses, as in Dh., he is addressed as monk.


I.e., your self.


Literally, “it will be light for you,” te laghu bheṣyati. The Pali version of this verse (Dh. 369) reads siñca bhikkhu imaṃ nāvaṃ sittā te lahuṃ essati, “Bale out this boat, monk; baled out/It will lightly go along for you” (Mrs. Rhys Davids, Minor Anthologies I, p. 121), or as Max Müller (S.B.E. X, p. 87) renders it, “O Bhikshu, empty this boat I If emptied, it will go quickly”. But it may be doubted whether “bale” or “empty” is the right rendering of siñcati, although at the only other place where the expression nāvaṃ siñcati occurs, namely Sn. 771, both Fausboll (l.c.) and Hare (l.c.) translate it by “to bale”. But siñcati means “to pour out,” “to sprinkle liquid on to something,” and if it here really means “to bale”, nāvam siñcati is a pregnant expression equivalent to “pour the water out of the boat.” In the Mhvu., at least, siñcati is often used to denote the “sprinkling” of a road or floor preparatory to sweeping or scouring. See e.g. vol. I, p. 231 (text), siktaṃ saṃmṛṣṭam (of a roadway). Anyhow, the Mhvu. version will hardly admit of the figure of “baling out” a boat, for the verse continues maitrāye siktā te laghu bheṣyati. That is to say, the Mhvu. seems to change the metaphor from that of “baling out,” if, that is, such is the meaning of the Pali, into that of cleaning or “sprinkling” it, first with love, and then in the succeeding verses, for which there are no parallels in Dh., with the other three of the brahmavihārā. (See p. 423, n. 2.).


Mudutā. See vol. I, p. 303, n. 4. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) however, maintains that the meaning is “joy” (i.e. he regards it as derived from mud, not from mṛdu.) according to the “unanimous tradition, both of Pali comms. and of northern texts and transl.” But see Senart’s note, 1.629, and P.E.D.


The four qualities named here, maitrā, karuṇā, mudutā, and upekṣā constitute the four brahmavihārā or sublime states of heart or mind. Cf. vol. 1, p. 186 (text), and see references in P.E.D. and B.H.S.D.


Cf. Dh. 368.


Cf. Dh. 364; It. 82; Thag. 1.1032; Sn. 327.




Cf. Dh. 271-2.


Viṣamāṃ dharmān.


Niḥśreṇībhūta. The metaphor is based on the idea of crossing, here by means of a “ladder”, from the world of sense to the world beyond the senses. The monk, that is, who, as he is said to have done in the first part of the verse, has renounced the pleasures of sense, has thereby made for himself a “ladder” to cross to the beyond, or, in modern parlance, to ascend from earth to heaven. The symbolism is even carried further, and he is said to have actually “become a ladder”. Miss I. B. Horner, in a communication, points out that this is in accord with traditional Indian symbolism, and she appositely quotes RV. X. 61. 16, apaś ca vipras tarati svasetuḥ, “the sage crosses the water, himself the bridge.” The analogy is complete if we regard a ladder as an upright bridge.


This is copied from Mrs. Rhys Davids’ version of the corresponding verses at Dh. 360-1, which, however, contains one more line than our text. See Minor Anthologies I, p. 119.


Text has so, “he”, only.


Sc. of the powers of an āryśrāvaka.


See p. 67, n. 3.


I.e., Śakra, who seems to be impersonating the boatman, but the reason for the impersonation is not clear. Possibly we have here only a fragment of an episode in which Śakra played a prominent part, along with the boatman.


Literally, “him who is being carried,” vuhyamāna, pr. pt. pass, of vahati.

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