The Tale of the Dhak Tree

Another story for liberal religious kids, which I found as I was cleaning up my files.

One day, four of Buddha’s followers came up to him and asked how they might learn to meditate and rise above earthly things. Buddha explained to the four bhikkus how they might do so, and each of the four went off to learn a different kind of meditation. The first bhikku learned the Six Spheres of Touch. The second bhikku learned the Five Elements of Being. The third bhikku learned the Four Principal Elements. The fourth bhikku learned the Eighteen Constituents of Being. And each one of these four bhikkus learned how to meditate so well that they each achieved Enlightenment and became a holy person.

Now one day all four of these bhikkus came back to tell the Buddha what they had done, and each of them claimed that their way was the best form of mediation. At last one of them said, “Buddha, each of us has achieved Enlightenment, but we each used a different type of meditation. How could this be?”

The Buddha said, “It is like the four brothers who saw the dhak tree,” and he told them this story:

***

Once upon a time Bramadatta, the King of Benares, had four sons.

One day, the four sons sent for a charioteer and said to him, “We want to see a dhak tree [butea frondosa]. Show us one!”

“Very well, I will,” the charioteer replied. “Let me begin by showing the eldest son.”

The charioteer took the eldest to the forest in the chariot. It was springtime, and eldest son saw the dhak tree at the time when the buds had not yet begun to swell, and the tree looked dead.

But the charioteer told them he could not return right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the second son to see the dhak tree, but now it was entirely covered with reddish-orange flowers.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the third son to see the dhak tree, but now the flowers were gone and the tree was covered with leaves.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. The fourth son waited and waited until at last he could wait no more. The charioteer brought him to see the dhak tree when it was covered with long brown seed-pods.

When at last all the brothers had seen the dhak tree, they sat down together, and someone asked, “So what is the dhak tree like?”

The first brother answered, “It is like a bunch of dead twigs!”

And the second brother said, “No, it is reddish-orange like a big piece of meat!”

And the third brother said, “No, it has leaves like a banyan tree!”

And the fourth brother said, “No, it looks just like the acacia tree with its long seed pods!”

None of them liked the answers the other gave. So they ran to find their father.

“Father,” they asked, “tell us, what is the dhak tree like?”

“You have all seen the tree,” the king said. “You tell me what it’s like.”

And the four brothers gave the king four different answers.

“You have all seen the tree,” said the king. “But when the charioteer showed you the tree, you didn’t ask him what the tree looked like at other times of the year. This is where your mistake lies.”

And the king recited a poem:

Each one of you has gone to view the tree,
And yet you are in great perplexity.
But you forgot to ask the charioteer
What forms the dhak tree takes throughout the year.

***

Buddha then spoke to the four bhikkus. “These four brothers did not ask themselves what the tree looked like in different times of the year, and so they fell into doubt. So the four of you have fallen into doubt about what is true and right.” Then the Buddha gave another stanza for the king’s poem:

If you know truth, but with deficiency,
You’ll be unsure, like those four and their tree.

Source: Adapted from the Kimsukopama-Jataka, in The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895), book 2, no. 248.

The story of Kisa Gotami, and women in early Buddhism

Generations of Unitarian Universalist children have learned the story of Kisa Gotami since it was first included in Sophia Fahs’s classic Sunday school text, From Long Ago and Many Lands. That book was published in 1948, and I included the story in an updated version of From Long Ago that we still use in Sunday school today.

But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this story for its depiction of the state and status of women. Kisa Gotami’s story shows that the Buddha accepted that women were able to follow his path to liberation. At the end of the story, the Buddha ordained Kisa Gotami as a nun, and she “quickly attained arhantship,” and Buddha praised her accomplishments. (1)

But this does not mean that Buddha and the early Buddhists considered women to be the equals of men. Early Buddhism was part of a patriarchal society. Buddha did acknolwedge that women were able to follow the path to liberation (as Kisa Gotami does), but early Buddhist women also were required “to submit to the standards of male control.” (2)

And early Buddhist writings tend promote the following negative stereotypes of women:
“1. A woman is stupid; a beautiful woman has no brains.
2. A girl should be a devoted daughter, and agree to the arrangements made for her by her parents and inlaws.
3. A woman in only concerned with her body, her clothes, and her jewelry.
4. A woman is sensual and seductive, and should therefore be under male control.
5. Children and relatives are a central concern in a woman’s life. Female reproduction i painful and having children binds womend to the world of matter.
6. Women who are old are ugly and useless. A woman’s body is an example of impernance and decay.” (3)

The story of Kisa Gotami plays into these stereotypes, as does the poem attributed to her that is found in the Therigatha, a collection of early Buddhist poems supposedly written by women. Kisa Gotami’s poem in the Therigatha includes the following:

“Being a woman is suffering,
that has been shown by the Buddha,
the tamer of those to be tamed.

“Sharing a husband with another wife is suffering for some,
while for others, having a baby just once is more than enough suffering.

“Some women cut their throats,
others take poison,
some die in pregnancy,
and then both mother and child experience miseries.” (4)

This poem stereotypes women by saying that the suffering a woman feels is due to her reproductive biology and her social status — whereas, for example, her suffering is not due to her intellect. So we can admire the Buddha for going beyond some of the stereotypes about women that held sway in his time and in his land, when he acknowledged that women could follow his path of liberation. Yet we must also recognize that early Buddhism was run by men, and that the early buddhists (including the Buddha himself) were not able to let go of their negative stereotypes of women.

So I think I’m going to have to rewrite that lesson plan on Kisa Gotami to include some more pointed feminist critique of the story….

Notes:

(1) Rita M. Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1993), p. 53.

(2) Ria Kloppenberg, “Female Stereotypes in Early Buddhism: The Women of the Therigatha,” in Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions, ed. Ria Kloppenberg and Wouter J. Hanegraff, (Leiden, Netherlands, and New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), pp. 152.

(3) Kloppenberg, pp. 153-154.

(4) Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, trans. Charles Hallisey (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 111 ff.

King Usinara and the Huge Hound

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this is a Jataka tale, shortened and altered to make it suitable for middle elementary children. Sophia Fahs included her version of this story in the classic curriculum From Long Ago and Many Lands. Fahs heavily altered the story, however. More about that in the notes at the end of the story. Now, here’s the story:

One day, the followers of Buddha were sitting in the Hall of Truth talking with one another.

“Isn’t it amazing,” one of them said, “that the Buddha gave up a beautiful home, and now lives only for the good of the world?”

“Yes,” said another, “isn’t it amazing that he has attained supreme wisdom, yet rather than making himself rich, he goes about teaching goodness?”

Buddha came into the Hall and heard them talking. “Yes, it is true,” said the Buddha. “Even in my previous lives, even then when I had not attained supreme wisdom, I still always tried to live for the good of the world. Let me tell you the story of one of my previous lives.”

And this is the story the Buddha told:

 

Once upon a time, there reigned a king named Usinara. In the land of this king, the people had given up doing good, given up all religion, and instead they followed the paths of evil-doing. Sakka, the ruler of all the gods, looked upon this, and saw that people were suffering because they did evil.

“What shall I do, now?” he said to himself. “Ah, I have it! I will scare and terrify humankind. And when I see they are terrified, I will comfort them, I will tell them the universal Law of life, I will restore the religion which has decayed!” Continue reading “King Usinara and the Huge Hound”

Summer Sunday school: Blob Tag and Jataka tales

From my teaching diary; as usual, children’s names are fictitious.

We’ve been getting 8 to 12 children in grades K-6 in our summer Sunday school class — a nice group size that allows children of different ages to get to know each other. Such a small group size makes it easy to change your plans at the last minute, too. At 9:25, five minutes before heading in to the worship service, Edie, my co-teacher, and I revised our plan. We were supposed to take a walk to the nearby city park, but neither one of us felt like dealing with the hassle of getting permission slips signed.

“Let’s stay here,” said Edie. “We can play giant Jenga.” Last winter, the middle school group had made a game based on Jenga (a trademarked game invented by Leslie Scott), using two-by-fours for the blocks. The middle school kids had played this game on the patio during social hour, and the younger kids were fascinated by it.

“Do you want a story?” I said. I had just gotten an old story book, More Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbit (1923), and there was one story I wanted to tell to children. Continue reading “Summer Sunday school: Blob Tag and Jataka tales”

Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.