Buddha’s Son

Buddha’s Son
By Pete

Buddha’s son, Rahula, ascended the throne of the small Kingdom of Kapilvastu at his grandfather’s death. After Prince Siddhartha escaped the palace to seek enlightenment at age twenty-nine, King Suddhodana never mentioned his name again. It was customary for a man to wait until his children were grown to leave his home in pursuit of wisdom. That the Prince became a holy beggar without permission, his father
considered— a betrayal. Some said that his mother and grandfather had poisoned Rahula’s heart toward the sage.

Be as it may, the new King resented his father’s fame. He burned with anger just to think that in foreign lands he was known only as Buddha’s son. No one at court was surprised when his first act as king was to dispatch a courier to deliver a summons to his father.

After months of seeking, the courier found Buddha in a neighboring kingdom. The sage surrounded by his disciples was sitting under the shade of a huge tree. Covered with dust and panting with exertion, the courier threw himself on the grass and kissed Buddha’s feet.

“Noble Lord, I bring a message from your son, the King.”

“Welcome, dear sir. Please drink, eat, and rest in our company,” said the sage.

“After he’d eaten a bowl of rice, and drunk some water, the courier handed Buddha his son’s summons. It read:

Venerable Sir,
I, your King, summons you to my presence to rebut charges of abandoning your duties as father, husband, and prince. Do not tarry but come forthwith, lest you be considered a fugitive at large.

Buddha smiled, and returned the message to the courier.

“Tell my son, I cannot comply. Should he want to see me, he may come here and join me in wearing a monk’s robe.”

***

On hearing his father’s reply the King’s face flushed with blood. His eyes fulminated the body of the prostrated courier, as if his father himself had spoken at his feet.

“Get out! Tell my pradhan to report here immediately.”

“When the chief counselor arrived, the King said, “I want my father’s head brought to me. Send some soldiers to kill him.”

“The pradhan face took the cast of a man about to place his bare foot on a cobra’s head.“ My Lord, your father is considered India’s greatest holy man. By killing him you will cover your name with infamy for all generations to come. Besides, his death means nothing to him.If what you want is to punish him for an offense, make him responsible for someone else’s death. He’ll care deeply about that.”

“The King’s body relaxed. He leaned back with a smile. “Kill the courier and send his head to my father.

***

“Buddha’s face turned pale. The sage’s mind was a vast emptiness and on opening the box that the courier handed him, the sight of the desiccated head and its stench filled that emptiness with anguish— the anguish of the former messenger as he was dragged to his death. The Buddha saw the rolled-up note sticking out of the head’s gaping mouth. It read:

Reverent Sir,

You have not only committed the crime of abandoning your family when they needed you most, but you have by your example and words, incited many other young men to do the same. Sir, you must explain your conduct, repent, and seek our pardon in person. If the courier bearing this letter doesn’t bring you, in the flesh, he will be killed and another one will bring you his head with this same request.

Your King,

Rahula

Buddha lifted his eyes from the page and gazed at the young man squatting before him. “Can you read, sir?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Do you know whose head this is?”

“No, sir. I don’t.”

“This is the head of your predecessor. He was killed because I refused the King’s summons. You will be killed too if you return without me. I advise you not to go back to Kapilvastu.”

“ I can’t abandon my family, my Lord.”

“But you‘ll abandon your family anyway because the King will kill you.”

“That is true, but if I don’t return, I‘ll both abandon them and dishonor them by deserting my duty as a soldier of the Shakya nation. I’m not afraid of death.”

The Buddha regarded him with great kindness. “I also cannot desert my teaching. I know my son wants me to spend the rest of my life as a prisoner in the palace I fled. So I can’t go back but maybe you won’t have to die, if I can convince our King to play a game with me. He used to love the game of hide and seek.

***

“The Lord Buddha sent you this gift, Your Majesty.”

Inside the box, where the head had been, Rahula saw a severed index finger packed in salt. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked frowning.

“It’s your father’s finger, Sire. He asked me to cut it off and bring it to you. He also gave me this letter. The courier lifted the letter up from his prone position on the rug. It read:

My King and Beloved Son,

Since you wanted to see my flesh, I send my finger as a token of it. I remember how you loved the game of hide and seek and how you demanded a prize every time you found me. Well, let’s play again. I’ll hide from your emissaries and every time they find me, I’ll send a finger. I won’t make it as easy for you to find me as I did then, but find me you will, and when I run out of fingers, I will send my toes, and when I die I will send you the rest. All I ask in return is that you spare the lives of your brave soldiers.

Your Humble Servant,
Siddhartha Prince of the Shakya nation.

The King crumpled the letter into a ball, and let it fall on the courier’s head. How dare that beggar treat me as a child? He thought. He took the finger from the box and looked at it. It was his father’s finger all right. He recognized the birthmark resembling a new moon below the first knuckle. He squeezed the finger, and rubbed his black beard with his left hand. He closed his black eyes. Anger ebbed from his black heart. A sweet peace filled his mind. The feeling came to him that his father was right, and he should play such a game. He leaned back. He remembered how as a small child he used to fall sleep on his father’s lap holding this very finger in his small hand.

Minutes later, the courier looked up and saw the King soundly sleeping. The courier, not daring to get up and leave, rested his head on the rug and slept too.

And so the hunt began for the largest prey in all the land— the six-tusked elephant, the awakened one known as the Buddha. The King sent out ten of his best hunters of men to track down his father. A year passed with no success and the King offered ten times the weight of Buddha’s finger in gold to anyone who brought a finger to him. Rahula was delighted when a month later, one of the hunters came to him with a finger. The King placed it inside the bejeweled sandal box in which he kept the other one. The first finger had turned a deep blue like the color of Vishnu’s statue. He took it out and held it in his hand and a deep peace flooded his mind. That day, he asked the royal jeweler to mount the finger with the new moon birthmark in a necklace for him.

Next month another hunter, a cousin of the one who brought the second finger, brought him a thumb. From then on, almost every month, one cousing or the other brought a finger to him. The King’s elation at receiving such gifts decreased as he placed the fingers one after another in his box. One day, on extending his hand toward the box proffered by one of the hunters, the King’s hand began to shake, and a black dread filled his heart. When adding another thumb to his collection, Rahula noticed that now he had three thumbs in the box. Instead of bursting with rage, the King began to laugh. His laughter, boomed in the throne hall.

He turned toward the hunter prostrated beside the throne. “Tell me, my good man, is this my father’s thumb that you brought me?”

“No, Sire.”

“Which of those fingers you and your cousin brought me belong to my father?”

“ None, Sire.”

“ So, you have been cheating your King?”

“No, Sire. You told us to bring you Buddha’s finger. Nowadays many a monk claim to be Buddhas. Whenever we met a monk, we asked him, “Are you a Buddha?” Some said they were, so we cut off one of their fingers. We followed your orders.”

“ Ha! You argue law better than my judges. I should cut off both your heads, but I won’t. Go out and tell all monks you find to tell my father that I have forgiven him. To tell him that he can come here and teach me his doctrine, or send his best disciple to me.”

And so it was Rahula, and not Ashoka, who became the first Buddhist king. At least, that’s how this story ends, and whether true or not, that is what came to my mind while meditating on this theme.

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