“Got merit?”

To open this blog, here’s my version of a little Buddhist story from one of the recommended books, What the Buddha Never Taught, by Tim Ward. Let me begin it like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale….

Once upon a time, at the edge of the Capitol, lived a poor peasant couple. All day long they worked their tiny piece of land, just managing to raise enough food to survive through the years. But after a time the wife became pregnant, and although she worked as long as she could, eventually she became large and was not able to contribute to the family income. Finally, she spoke to her husband, “If I don’t get rich food soon, our baby will surely die. We are both starving to death. But I have been thinking about this, and I have a plan. Shave your hair, and dye one of our bed sheets. Wrap yourself in it and go stand near the palace gate. You are skinny enough to be taken for a monk, so perhaps someone will come out and give you some food.” Her husband was horrified, and at first resisted. “If I am caught, both of us will surely be executed!” But his wife said, with tears in her eyes, “We are starving! I only ask…if you won’t do this for me, please do it for the sake of our unborn child.”

So, with many misgivings, the husband agreed to the plan, and the next morning, in his monk’s disguise, with their cooking pot slung over his shoulder, he trudged over to the palace and stood near the gate. As luck would have it, in an upstairs room, the king’s two servants had just laid out a sumptuous breakfast feast for him, but before he began to eat he happened to glance out the window and see a figure at the gates wearing the yellow robe. With excitement he thought “That may be an arahant by my gate and here is an opportunity for me to gain great merit!” So he told his servants “Gather up all this food and take it out to that monk before he goes away! Quick! Quick!” The two men did as he instructed, and piled the false monk’s bowl high to overflowing with all kinds of goodies: vegetables, fish, rice, meats, fruits, sweets and nuts, bowing deeply and respectfully as he went on his way.

But when they returned to their master, the servants found the king frowning, and in thought. “It seems to me” he said, “That there was something not quite right about that monk’s appearance. Perhaps, in fact, he was just a peasant trying to beg some free food. He hasn’t gone far, so I want you two to follow him and see where he goes.”

The servants set out, keeping their distance, and sure enough, the impostor soon arrived at the door of a miserable hovel on a poor piece of farm land. When the servants peeped in the window they saw the man at the table sharing the food with his pregnant wife. On their way back, the first man said “We must tell the king of this situation! He was right to be suspicious!” “No,” said the second “Because if we do, this poor couple will be executed.” “But if we lie about this and are found out,” said the first, “The king will have the couple’s heads anyway and we two will be beaten within an inch of our lives!” “Look,” said the first,” We have time to get our story straight so no one will ever find out the truth.” So the servants returned to the king.

The king was eager to find out what his men had discovered. “We were greatly amazed, sire!” the first man said. “We followed that monk to the edge of the forest and he simply disappeared into thin air!” The second man nodded. “Yes! We’ve never seen anything so remarkable!” The king slapped his hands together joyfully. “You realize what this means? I’ve not just given alms to a monk, but to a great saint with supernatural powers! Truly today I have obtained even greater merit than I imagined at first!”

Now, that is the end of the story, and the question is, what merit did the king obtain, if any? The story came to the author of the book and then to me from a Theravadin monk in Bangladesh, and in their tradition, people give alms “to the Robe, not to the Man.” That is, merit resulting in a better rebirth is obtained by supporting monks, not peasants. Everyone from the peasant– poor as he is–and a wealthy king, can improve their prospects by generosity to monks. What do you think? Did the king obtain merit for donating to a great saint, or virtually nothing for giving unbeknownst to a peasant family? How about the second servant, the compassionate one who wanted to save the peasants’ lives?

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