Monday Morning Blues; precept #2.1 – Stealin’, Stealin’/Gandhatthena Sutta: Stealing the Scent

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Memphis Jug Band – Stealin’, Stealin’

Taking that which is not given

2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

It seems pretty obvious, don’t steal, to the point where I couldn’t think about much to add to it, but the last bit of wording is in such a way that it can point to a more subtle depth than I’m clever enough to perceive in most moments.

This morning, I came across the Gandhatthena Sutta: Stealing the Scent, a beautiful exchange between a monk and a nature spirit on the subtle ways we may take what is not given. there is also an excellent commentary by the translator. Personally, I’d like to believe that the flower offers its scent to us, but I recognize that the desire of taking is what’s at the muddied root of this lotus.

Gandhatthena Sutta: Stealing the Scent

I have heard that on one occasion a certain monk was dwelling among the Kosalans in a forest thicket. Now at that time, after his meal, returning from his almsround, he went down to a lotus pond and sniffed a red lotus.

Then the devata inhabiting the forest thicket, feeling sympathy for the monk, desiring his benefit, desiring to bring him to his senses, approached him and addressed him with this verse:

 A Devata:

This lotus blossom which you sniff,
Though it’s not been offered to you,
Is thus something that’s been stolen.
You, sir, are a stealer of scents!

 

Bhikkhu:

But I don’t take, nor do I break;
I sniff the lotus from afar.
So really what reason have you
To call me a stealer of scents?
He who uproots them by the stalk,
And consumes the pale lotuses;
The one engaged in such cruel work,
Why do you not say this of him?

 

Devata:

A person who’s ruthless and cruel,
Defiled like a workman’s garment,
To him my words would mean nothing.
But it’s fitting I speak to you.
For an unblemished person, who’s
Always pursuing purity,
Even a hair-tip of evil
Seems to him as large as a cloud.

 

Bhikkhu:

Truly, O yakkha, you know me,
And have concern for my welfare.
Do please, O yakkha, speak again,
Whenever you see such a thing.

 

Devata:

I don’t live to serve upon you;
Nor will I do your work for you.
You should know for yourself, O monk,
How to go along the good path.

Translator’s note: This lively exchange between a forest-dwelling monk and a benevolent deity is filled with poetic movement and gives us a glimpse of the care with which some people practiced in the time of the Buddha. Since the working definition of stealing was “taking what has not been given,” the Devata is correct — in a very strict sense. Notice that the monk at first reacts defensively, denying that he is doing anything wrong, and then tries to shift the blame to others who do even worse. After recognizing a veiled compliment, he finally realizes that the Devata is trying to help him, at which point he encourages further help. The Devata ends the exchange sharply, revealing an intriguing and capricious character who is willing to help, but only on his own terms. This is a role often played by nature spirits and other minor deities in the Pali texts.

4 responses »

  1. I think the “misdeed” here was that there was probably a thought like “I’ve experienced this”, “I have this feeling”, and it was that “I have” thought that made it an offense. Because that thought is dualisitic and based in a deep ignorance.
    (And without this dualistic “Me”, you wouldn’t try to take what belonged to others anyway.)

    • hmm, “I’ve experienced this”, “I have this feeling”, “I have”

      My entire life is a disaster!!! haha!

      Thanks, though, that’s an interesting thought.

  2. Wow. Thank you for this. What an amazing sutta.
    Yes, I think the devata is absolutely right (taking the scent without it being offered, denying it to those – such as bees and the like – that truly need it) – but what a rigourous aproach! Still, yes, “Even a hair-tip of evil
    Seems to him as large as a cloud.”
    This series of blog posts is a real inspiration. Thank you Joseph.

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