Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old
[The Value of Goodness]
The Buddha told this story while living in Jetavana
monastery with regard to an honored Brahmin adviser of the
king of Kosala who put to the test his reputation for goodness
in order to determine what it was that the king admired in
him. On determining that it was his goodness that the king
honored, he decided to go to the Buddha in Jetavanārāma and
to enter the monkhood. By application, he gained spiritual
insight and became free of defilement, becoming an Arahant
One evening, the monks assembled in the preaching
hall were talking about this. When the Buddha entered and
asked them what they were talking about before he came
there, he said, “Oh monks, the actions of this Brahmin in
putting to the test his reputation for goodness, and afterward
renouncing the world and working out his salvation, was
done as well by the wise in the past.” And saying this, the
Buddha told this story of the past:
Once upon a time, King Brahmadatta of Benares had a
very valuable adviser priest. He came from a rich noble
family. He was intelligent and full of knowledge. He was
generous with his wealth and knowledge, holding nothing
back. People thought of him as a kind and good person.
By practicing the Five Training Steps [pañca-sīla-s, the
first five sikkhā-pada-s], he trained his mind to avoid the five
unwholesome actions [akusala-kamma-s]. He discovered that
giving up each unwholesome action made him better off in
its own way:
– destroying life, since you have to kill part of
yourself in order to kill someone else;
– taking what is not given, since this makes the
owner angry at you;
– doing wrong in sexual ways, since this leads to the
pain of jealousy and envy;
– speaking falsely, since you can’t be true to
yourself and false to another at the same time;
– losing your mind from alcohol, since then you
might hurt yourself by doing the other four.
Seeing how he lived, King Brahmadatta thought, “This
is truly a good man.”
The priest was curious to learn more about the value of
goodness. He thought, “The king honors and respects me
more than his other priests. But I wonder what it is about me
that he really respects most. Is it my nationality, my noble
birth or family wealth? Is it my great learning and vast
knowledge? Or is it because of my goodness? I must find the
answer to this.”
Therefore, he decided to perform an experiment in
order to answer his question. He would pretend to be a thief!
On the next day, when he was leaving the palace, he
went by the royal coin maker. He was stamping out coins
from gold. The good priest, not intending to keep it, took a
coin and continued walking out of the palace. Because the
money maker admired the famous priest highly, he remained
sitting and said nothing.
On the following day the make-believe thief took two
gold coins. Again the royal coin maker did not protest.
Finally, on the third day, the king’s favorite priest
grabbed a whole handful of gold coins. This time the money
maker didn’t care about the priest’s position or reputation. He
cried out, “This is the third time you have robbed his majesty
the king.” Holding onto him, he shouted, “I’ve caught the
thief who robs the king! I’ve caught the thief who robs the
king! I’ve caught the thief who robs the king!”
Suddenly a crowd of people came running in, yelling,
“Aha! You pretended to be better than us! An example of
goodness!” They slapped him, tied his hands behind his back,
and hauled him off to the king.
But on their way, they happened to go by some snake
charmers. They were entertaining some bystanders from the
king’s court with a poisonous cobra. They held him by the
tail and neck, and coiled him around their necks to show how
brave they were.
The tied up prisoner said to them, “Please be careful!
Don’t grab that cobra by the tail. Don’t grab him by his neck.
And don’t coil that poisonous snake around your own necks.
He may bite you and bring your lives to a sudden end!”
The snake charmers said, “You ignorant priest, you
don’t understand about this cobra. He is well mannered and
very good indeed. He is not bad like you! You are a thief
who has stolen from the king. Because of your wickedness
and criminal behavior, you are being carried off with your
hands tied behind your back. But there’s no need to tie up a
snake who is good!”
The priest thought, “Even a poisonous cobra, who
doesn’t bite or harm anyone, is given the name ‘good’ [su-
sīla]. In truth, goodness is the quality people admire most in
When they arrived at the throne room, the king asked,
“What is this, my children?” They replied, “This is the thief
who stole from your royal treasury.” The king said, “Then
punish him according to the law.”
The adviser priest said, “My lord king, I am no thief!”
“Then why did you take gold coins from the palace?” asked
The priest explained, “I have done this only as an
experiment, to test why it is you honor and respect me more
than others. Is it because of my family background and
wealth, or my great knowledge? Because of those things, I
was able to get away with taking one or two gold coins. Or
do you respect my goodness most of all? It is clear that by
grabbing a handful of coins I no longer had the name ‘good’.
This alone turned respect into disgrace!
“Even a poisonous cobra, who doesn’t harm anyone, is
called ‘good’. There is no need for any other title!”
To emphasize the lesson he had learned, the wise priest
“High birth and wealth and even knowledge vast, I find,
Are less admired than goodness is, by humankind.”
The king pardoned his most valuable adviser priest. He
asked to be allowed to leave the king’s service in the ordinary
world and become a forest monk. After refusing several
times, the king eventually gave his permission.
The priest went to the Himalayas and meditated
peacefully. When he died he was reborn in a heaven world.
The Buddha said:
“My disciples today were the king’s followers in those
days. And I, myself, who have today become the Buddha
was the adviser priest.”
The moral: “People prize goodness most of all.”
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