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Pali Canon - Alavaga Sutta

by Sangharakshita

Alavaga Sutta Seminar

Held at: Padmaloka, Norfolk in July 1982
Present: Sangharakshita, Sthirananda, Vessantara, Sumana, Kovida, Vajrananda.
Tape 1 side 1. (SNA Cass 1) Transcriber: Subhadra.
S: Page 29.
Vessantara: "Alavaga. Thus have I heard. Once, while the master was dwelling near Alavi in
the haunt of the spirit Alavaga, the spirit approached and said: 'Get out, recluse'
'Very well, sir', the master replied, and went out.
'Get in recluse' said the spirit.
'Very well, sir', said the Master, and went in.
And a second and a third time the spirit spake in like manner. And a second and a third time
the master did as he was bade. And a fourth time, too, the spirit addressed the Master, saying:
'Get out, recluse'
'No sir, I'll not go out for you. do as you will'.
'I'll ask you a question, Recluse, and if you don't reply, I'll addle your wits, split your heart,
and catch you by the feet and throw you the other side of the Ganges'.
Well, sir, I see no one, in the world of devas and maras, or on earth with its recluses,
brahmins, devas and men, who could do any of these things; but ask, sir, as you desire'."
S: This is the introduction, er, according to scholarly research into the structure and the
composition of the Sutta Nipata, which is, of course, a composite work, a sort of anthology,
even though a very early one. The prose introduction and the concluding verses constitute a
framework for the main part of the Sutta which is, of course, you know, the exchange of
questions and replies, and probably the framework, the prose introduction plus these
concluding verses, is a bit later than the verses themselves. It's highly likely that the little
exchange of questions and answers was in circulation first, and it gradually came to be edited
in this particular way, that is to say, having the framework supplied.
Nonetheless, in a way, they do sort of hang together, and the framework is certainly not to be
ignored, so we're going to take the framework, so to speak, quite seriously too, hm? The
principle character, apart from the Buddha himself, is of course Alavaga; the sutta is named
after him. Alavaga is a Yakkha, or in Sanskrit, Yaksha. So what is a Yakkha? Hare translates
as 'spirit', but this doesn't really help very much. Chalmers translates as 'woodland spirit', but
this doesn't help us very much either. So what does one understand by Yakkha or Yaksha?
Has anyone got any sort of idea?
Sthirananda: Demon.
S: It's a sort of demon, but necessarily a bad demon?
Sthirananda: Mischievous.
[2]
S: Mischievous. (pause) Not necessarily even mischievous. Some yakkhas are represented as
quite beneficent. But what seems to be most characteristic of a yakkha is that he is a rather
awe-inspiring character. We can tell this from the iconography; there are yakkha or yaksha
images in existence, statues in existence, from a quite early period in India. I say quite early,
but it's still post-Buddhistic, and yakkhas are usually represented in these images, or statues,
as very well-built, powerful sort of figures, and a certain kind of Buddha image does seem to
have been modelled on these yakkha images or figures; it's a kind of Buddha image that
shows the Buddha as a very well-built, powerful figure. So one could probably best say that a
yakkha is a sort of awe-inspiring, even sublime spirit, inhabiting perhaps forests or waste
places, mountains; not necessarily-mischievous, not necessarily demonic, but quite often so,
huh? One has to be quite careful where yakkhas are concerned. You can't be sure whether
they're beneficent or otherwise. It's also interesting that among the titles of the Buddha,
among the names and terms by which the Buddha is addressed in the Pali canon, is this word
'yakkha'. The Buddha himself is addressed as 'yakkha' in at least one passage that I remember.
It's a verse passage, huh? So this suggests the Buddha as conveying an impression of
something awe-inspiring, something powerful. Something even you have to be a little careful
of, even something terrifying, huh? Something numinous, as if to say that the Buddha is not
to be trifled with, huh? He's not so meek and gentle as people might like to think, huh? The
Buddha is powerful, the Buddha is spiritually powerful, the Buddha is sublime, and so on,
huh? Anyway, that is by the way.
Here we seem to be concerned with a Yakkha who is decidedly of a malevolent turn. By the
way, we do find, in Ancient Indian literature, especially in the 'Mahaband'(?) a number of sort
of exchanges of questions and answers of this type, where a yakkha, or yaksha, puts the
questions, threatening death or some terrible consequences if he doesn't get satisfactory
answers. So this sort of type of literature seems to have been known around the time of the
Buddha, or shortly afterwards, so it could be that when the compilers of the Sutta Nipata
came across this ballad, this exchange, they thought this would fit quite nicely into that sort of
framework with which the Indian public was familiar, i.e. the exchanges between a ferocious
yakkha and somebody who answers his questions, do you see what I mean?
Anyway, be that as it may, the exchange does tell us something about the Buddha, and of
course it may actually have happened exactly as related or recorded here, we don't know.
Anyway, 'Thus have I heard': Ananda is speaking. 'Once while the Master was dwelling near
Alavi, in the haunt or abode of the spirit, the yakkha Alavaga, the spirit approached and said:
'Get out, Recluse;'. 'Very well, sir', the Master replied, and he went out. 'Get in, recluse!' said
the spirit. 'Very well sir' said the Master, and went in.' By the way, the translation, Hare's
translation, is very sort of pseudo-biblical, and it doesn't always quite reproduce the Pali. For
instance, he translates 'Very well, sir', well, what is that in Pali? It's 'sadhu abuso'(?) 'Sadhu'
means 'very good', as when we shout 'sadhu' three times, huh, it's the same word: 'very good,
all right, that's fine'. 'Aduso'(?) doesn't exactly mean 'sir', it means 'friend', so it's much more
like, 'all right, friend', do you see what I mean, huh? 'And a second and a third time the spirit
spake in like manner': here's this pseudo-biblical language, [3] 'Spake in like manner'; in Pali
it's quite straightforward and colloquial, hum? 'And a second and a third time the Master did
as he was bade. And a fourth time, too, the
spirit addressed the Master, saying, 'Get out, recluse!' 'No sir I'll not get out for you, do as you
will' So what does one learn about the Buddha from this little exchange?
Sumana: He's quite obliging, up to a point.
S: He's quite obliging, up to a point, huh? So, is there any sort of general message that could
be extracted from this? I mean, what does the Buddha not do?
Sumana: Well, he doesn't react, yes.
S: He doesn't react. He goes along with the yakkha, huh?, he's obliging, he does as the yakkha
asks him, but as you said, only up to a point. So what do we sort of gather from that, what sort
of general principle?
Sthirananda: He's prepared to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
S: Probably in the Buddha's mind there was no doubt, you could say he knew exactly what the
yakkha was up to, hum? It means there's no harm in going along with people, but up to a
point. If you've gone along with them, that puts you in a stronger position. You don't have to
react, you don't have to assert yourself or your point of view straight away. You're sort of
gathering your forces, as it were. You're just biding your time; in the meantime, you just go
along with the other people, you just go along with the world, you don't start disagreeing
straight off. You just listen, you may nod, you may say, yes, all right, I agree with you, huh?
But having done that for a little while, then you start introducing your point of view, your
own attitude quite firmly, huh?, and quite definitely. But you don't so to speak weigh in all at
once, this is probably a useful strategy in dealing with people, in dealing with worldly affairs.
Vessantara: But there can be difficulties with it, can't there? Sometimes somebody puts across
their point of view to you and you say 'yes'; not 'yes, I agree with you', but 'yes, I understand
what you've said and I'm taking it in'. Then, when at a certain point you do start to disagree,
they are taken aback, because they took your 'yes', which was just an acknowledgement, as a
'yes' of agreement, and then you have more of a difficulty.
S: But you've listened to them, so it's their turn to listen to you.
Vessantara: It reminds me a bit of your interpretation of the Tantric precepts, about not
interfering with people's energies: the Buddha sort of lets people act as they want, until there's
a definite point where he has to interfere; he allows them the sort of freedom...
S: For them to take a stand, huh? Well, anyway, the Buddha does take a stand. 'The fourth
time, too, the spirit addressed the Master, saying, 'Get out, recluse'" This word 'recluse' is [4]
'samana', the Buddha was known to the public as a samana, that is to say, a religious person
but not following the orthodox Brahminical tradition, hum? So then the Buddha says 'No sir,
I'll not go out for you, do as you will'. And then Alavaga says, 'I'll ask you a question, recluse.
If you don't reply, I'll addle your wits, split your heart and catch you by the feet and throw you
the ...

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