A Discourse to Prince Abhaya
Thus have I heard — at one time the Blessed One was staying in the Bamboo Grove at Rājagaha in the squirrel’s feeding ground. Then Prince Abhaya approached the naked ascetic Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta, and having approached him, paid homage, and sat down at one side. As he was sitting there Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta said to Prince Abhaya — “Come, prince, refute the words of the recluse Gotama, thus a good report will spread about you: ‘The words of the recluse Gotama — so powerful and so great — were refuted by Prince Abhaya!’”
“How, venerable sir, will I refute the words of the recluse Gotama — so powerful and so great?”
“Come prince, approach the recluse Gotama and having approached say thus: ‘Would the Tathāgata, venerable sir, speak words that are harsh and displeasing to others?’ If the recluse Gotama, thus asked, answers, ‘The Tathāgata would say words that are harsh and displeasing to others,’ then you should say, ‘Then what is the difference between you, venerable sir, and ordinary people? For ordinary people say words that are harsh and displeasing to others.’
“If the recluse Gotama, thus asked, answers, ‘The Tathāgata would not say words that are harsh and displeasing to others,’ then you should say, ‘Then why, venerable sir, did you say about Devadatta: “Devadatta is destined for the states of loss, Devadatta is destined for hell, Devadatta will remain there for the remainder of the aeon, Devadatta is beyond help?” For Devadatta was angry and displeased at those words of yours.’ When the recluse Gotama is asked this two-pronged question by you, he won’t be able to swallow it or spit it out. Just as if an iron cross (ayosiṅghāṭakaṃ)¹ were stuck in a man’s throat — he would not be able to swallow it or spit it out. In the same way, when the recluse Gotama is asked this two-pronged question by you, he won’t be able to swallow it or spit it out.”
Having replied, “Very well, venerable sir,” Prince Abhaya got up from his seat, paid homage to Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta, and departed keeping his right side towards him. Then he approached the Blessed One, and having approached him, he paid homage to the Blessed One and sat down at one side. As he was sitting there, he looked up at the sun and thought, “Today is not the right time to refute the words of the Blessed One. Tomorrow, in my own home, I will refute the words of the Blessed One.” So he said to the Blessed One, “May the Blessed One, consent to tomorrow’s meal with himself as the fourth.”
The Blessed One consented by remaining silent.
Then Prince Abhaya, understanding the Blessed Ones consent, got up from his seat, paid homage to the Blessed One, and departed, keeping his right side towards him.
Then, after the night had passed, early in the morning the Blessed One dressed in his robes and, carrying his almsbowl and outer robe, went to Prince Abhaya’s home. On arrival, he sat down on a seat made ready. Prince Abhaya, served and satisfied the Blessed One with superior hard and soft foods by his own hands. Then, when the Blessed One had eaten and had removed his hand from his bowl, Prince Abhaya took a lower seat and sat down at one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Venerable sir, would the Tathāgata say words that are harsh and displeasing to others?”
“Prince, there is no one-sided answer to that.”
“Then right here, venerable sir, the Nigaṇṭhā are defeated.”²
“Prince, why do you say, ‘Then right here, venerable sir, the Nigaṇṭhā are defeated’?”
Then Prince Abhaya repeated the entire conversation he had had the day before with Nigaṇṭhā Nāṭaputta.³
Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into his mouth, what would you do?”
“I would take it out, Venerable sir. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding his head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have compassion for the young boy.”
“In the same way, prince:–
“Venerable sir, when wise nobles or priests, householders or recluses, having formulated questions, come to the Tathāgata and question him, does this line of reasoning occur to him beforehand: ‘If those who approach me ask this, when asked, I will answer in this way’ — or does the Tathāgata come up with the answer on the spot?”
“In that case, prince, I will ask you a counter-question. Answer as you see fit. What do you think: are you skilled in the parts of a chariot?”
“Yes, venerable sir, I am skilled in the parts of a chariot.”
“And what do you think: When people come and ask you, ‘What is the name of this part of the chariot?’ does this line of reasoning occur to you beforehand: ‘If those who approach me ask this, when asked, I will answer in this way’ — or do you come up with the answer on the spot?”
“Venerable sir, I am well-known for being skilled in the parts of a chariot. All the parts of a chariot are well-known to me. I come up with the answer on the spot.”
“In the same way, prince, when wise nobles or priests, householders or recluses, having formulated questions, come to the Tathāgata and ask him, the Tathāgata comes up with the answer on the spot. Why is that? Because the elements of Dhamma are thoroughly penetrated by the Tathāgata. From his thorough penetration of the elements of the Dhamma, the Tathāgata comes up with the answer on the spot.”
When this was said, Prince Abhaya said to the Blessed One: “It is wonderful, venerable sir, it is marvellous, venerable sir! It is as if, venerable sir, someone had set upright what had been overturned, revealed what was hidden, pointed out the path to one who was lost, brought a light into the darkness so that those with eyes can see. Thus, venerable sir, the Blessed One has explained the Dhamma in various ways. I go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dhamma, and to the Saṅgha. May the Blessed One regard me as a disciple who has taken refuge from today for as long as I shall live.”
1. An iron cross. The PTS dictionary give the meaning of Siṅghāṭakaṃ as a square where four roads meet. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as “Iron spike.” Whatever it is, it would be something that lodges in the throat and is impossible to swallow or spit out. The example given later for removing something from the mouth of a choking child is apt.
2. The Commentary glosses: Anassuṃ nigaṇṭhāti naṭṭhā nigaṇṭhā = the Nigaṇṭhā have lost, i.e. the two-pronged question has an answer that deserves different replies depending on the context.
3. The text repeats the entire conversation here.
4. Harsh (appiyā), not affectionate. Prior to the occasion that is the basis of the dilemma in this discourse, Devadatta went to the Buddha and suggested that the leadership of the Order should be handed over to him in view of the Buddha’s approaching old age. The Buddha scorned the suggestion, saying, “Not even to Sāriputta or Mahā-Moggallāna would I hand over the Order, how would I then to you, vile one, to be expectorated like spittle?” Devadatta showed great resentment and vowed vengeance. These were very harsh words indeed, after which Devadatta conspired to try to kill the Buddha and urged Ajātasattu to kill his own father, King Bimbisāra. When Devadatta tried to kill the Buddha himself by throwing a boulder down from Vulture’s Peak, which splintered, drawing blood from the Blessed One’s foot, this was the first heinous crime that condemned Devadatta to hell. Later, he caused a schism in the Saṅgha, which is another heinous crime. Killing one’s own mother, one’s own father, an Arahant, spilling the blood of a Tathāgata, and causing a schism in the Saṅgha are all weighty volitional actions (garu kamma), with a definite and irreversible result of rebirth in hell. It is hard to see how these harsh words were beneficial to Devadatta as they did not deter him from further evil acts, and may have been what spurred him to take such drastic actions. However, they were beneficial to many others. After this refusal to hand over the leadership of the Saṅgha to Devadatta, the Buddha had a public declaration made that any actions done by Devadatta thereafter were his own only, and not those of the community. My conclusion: True speech that is harsh, displeasing, and unbeneficial to some, but of benefit to others, is right-speech if spoken without malice.
5. Beneficial (atthasaṃhitaṃ). The Buddha gave advice on attaining worldly benefits such as wealth, health, and long-life; as well as advice on attaining spiritual benefits.