What pride should we have,
when we might be humbled
by great suffering at any time,
when our negative karma ripens?
Among Sakyamuni Buddha’s great Arhat disciples, Maudgalyayana (Moggallana; 目犍连) is considered the one foremost in supernormal powers, them second only to the Buddha, as naturally developed in his deep meditation. To name a few, his abilities included mind-reading, flight, teleportation to other realms of existence and manifestation into myriad forms – all expressed only for greater ease of reaching out to more beings for guiding them towards enlightenment. Despite his many fantastic and inspiring adventures, his manner of demise might come somewhat as a shock to many, for he was brutally stoned by bandits hired by some Jains, who wronged him to have caused their loss of public support. (Ironically, it is a major Jain precept to be non-violent, which is why they did not want blood directly on their hands.) Dwelling alone in a forest hut with knowledge that his remaining days were few, and feeling that the body was becoming a burden, he did not wish to use his powers to sustain it much longer. However, when he saw the bandits nearing, he rendered himself invisible. This was not out of fear of death but out of compassion to prevent them from creating the grave misgiving of killing an Arhat. Returning for six consecutive days, the bandits could not find him. But on the seventh, his powers suddenly vanished, leading to his eventual murder. Before his actual passing, he was able to regain consciousness and travel to the Buddha to pay his last respects, where he took his last breath.
When asked why Maudgalyayana could not protect himself, and why a great Arhat experienced such a death, the Buddha explained that he had created the karma to be killed in a past life – when he murdered his parents, also very grave misgivings, from the consequences of which he could not escape from (even when mitigated to some extent), which he graciously accepted. This was why his powers were naturally karmically ‘suspended’ despite already being an Arhat ‘with’ them. Way back, he was an only but dutiful son who cared for his parents. When they became old and blind, his work increased and they urged him to seek a wife for help. However, his wife soon became hostile to his parents, even maligning them for faults they did not have. Spurred by her, he decided to lie that their relatives elsewhere wished to meet them. Ferrying them off in a carriage into the middle of a forest, he stepped off to walk beside the carriage, claiming that he had to look out for ‘robbers’ – before mimicking ‘their threats’ to attack. Yelling at him to fend for himself as they were already old and blind, his parents begged the ‘robbers’ to leave him alone. While they were crying out, they were clubbed to death before being abandoned. As a turn of events in the life he met the Buddha, as recorded in the Ullambana Sutra, Maudgalyayana became renowned for his great filial kindness to his deceased mother with his efforts to practise the Dharma to rescue her from intense suffering as a hungry ghost.
This brief account of Maudgalyayana’s story teaches us many important lessons. The power of even great psychic abilities cannot overcome the power of heavy negative karma, which even the enlightened cannot escape from. This ought to remind us to uphold morality strictly, by observing the precepts well to avoid evil, and to do good – so as to mimimise the creation of negative karma, while maximising the creation of positive karma – lest both our worldly and spiritual lives get endangered. It might seem somewhat a ‘consolation’ that even a great Arhat could have misfortune due to negative karma’s ripening, as this means we should not expect our spiritual journey to be smooth-sailing. The less consoling part, however, is that if even an Arhat might have ‘terrible’ remnant karma, should we not expect more, as we are merely ordinary beings with perhaps worse negative karma? Technically, Arhats are already free from the rounds of life and death – even before the demise of their physical forms. As such, they do not suffer mentally, even if there is physical pain. (Incidentally, as Buddhas have much greater merits than Arhats, they can never be killed!) So long as we are far from enlightenment, we are liable to be cyclically good and evil, leading to the complex alternating of karmic blessings and misfortunes we create for ourselves. If so, we need to fortify our resolution to be better persons more diligently – all the way… till we perfect our morality as faultless Buddhas!
Being occasionally good
is never good enough.
Being always good
is surely pure enough.