Ja 86 Sīlavīmaṁsanajātaka
The Birth Story about the Enquiry into Virtue (1s)

Alternative Title: Sīlavīmaṁsakajātaka (Cst)

In the present a brahmin seeks to find out if the king favours him for his birth, or for his virtue, so he starts stealing a penny a day from the king. When the king finds out he decides to punish him, until the brahmin explains his actions. The Buddha tells a story of similar happenings in a past life.

The Bodhisatta = the family priest (purohita),
the Buddha’s disciples = the king’s followers (rājaparisā),
Ānanda = king (of Benares) (rājā).

Present Source: Ja 330 Sīlavīmaṁsa,
Quoted at: Ja 86 Sīlavīmaṁsana, Ja 290 Sīlavīmaṁsa,
Past Compare: Ja 86 Sīlavīmaṁsana, Ja 290 Sīlavīmaṁsa, Ja 330 Sīlavīmaṁsa, Ja 362 Sīlavīmaṁsa.

Keywords: Birth, Virtue.

“It seems virtue is excellent.” This story was told by the Teacher while at Jetavana, about a brahmin who put to the test his reputation for virtue. This brahmin, who was maintained by the king of Kosala, had sought the Three Refuges; he kept the Five Precepts, and was versed in the Three Vedas. “This is a virtuous man,” thought the king, and showed him great honour. But that brahmin thought to himself, “The king shows honour to me beyond other brahmins, and has manifested his great regard by making me his spiritual director. But is his favour due to my virtue or only to my birth, lineage, family, country and accomplishments? I must clear this up without delay.”

Accordingly, one day when he was leaving the palace, he took without permission a coin from a treasurer’s counter, and went his way. Such was the treasurer’s veneration for the brahmin that he sat perfectly still and said not a word. Next day the brahmin took two coins; but still the official made no remonstrance. The third day the brahmin took a whole handful of coins. “This is the third day,” cried the treasurer, “that you have robbed his majesty,” and he shouted out three times, “I have caught the thief who robs the treasury.” In rushed a crowd of people from every side, crying, “Ah, you’ve long been posing as a model of virtue.” And dealing him two or three blows, they led him before the king. In great sorrow the king said to him, “What led you, brahmin, to do so wicked a thing?” And he gave orders, saying: “Off with him to punishment.” “I am no thief, sire,” said the brahmin. “Then why did you take money from the treasury?” “Because you showed me such great honour, sire, and because I made up my mind to find out whether that honour was paid to my birth and the like or only to my virtue. That was my motive, and now I know for certain (inasmuch as you order me off to punishment) that it was my virtue and not my birth and other advantages, that won me your majesty’s favour.

Virtue I know to be the chief and supreme good; I know too that to virtue [1.214] {1.370} I can never attain in this life, while I remain a layman, living in the midst of sensual pleasures. Wherefore, this very day I would willingly go to the Teacher at Jetavana and renounce the world for the Saṅgha. Grant me your leave, sire.” The king consenting, the brahmin set out for Jetavana. His friends and relations in a body tried to turn him from his purpose, but, finding their efforts of no avail, left him alone.

He came to the Teacher and asked to be admitted to the Saṅgha. After admission to the lower and higher ordination, he won by application insight and became an Arahat, whereon he drew near to the Teacher, saying: “Sir, my joining the Saṅgha has borne the Supreme Fruit,” thereby signifying that he had became an Arahat.

Hearing of this, the monks, assembling in the Dhamma Hall, spoke with one another of the virtues of the king’s family priest who tested his own reputation for virtue and who, leaving the king, had now risen to be an Arahat. Entering the Hall, the Teacher asked what the monks were discussing, and they told him. “Not without a precedent, monks,” said he, “is the action of this brahmin in putting to the test his reputation for virtue and in working out his safety after renouncing the world. The like was done by the wise and good of bygone days as well.” And so saying, he told this story of the past.

In the past when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was his family priest – a man given to generosity and other good works, whose mind was set on righteousness, always keeping unbroken the Five Precepts. And the king honoured him beyond the other brahmins; and everything came to pass as above.

But, as the Bodhisatta was being brought in bonds before the king, he came where some snake-charmers were exhibiting a snake, which they laid hold of by the tail and the throat, and tied round their necks. Seeing this, the Bodhisatta begged the men to desist, for the snake might bite them and cut their lives short. “Brahmin,” replied the snake-charmers, “this is a virtuous and well-behaved cobra; he’s not wicked like you, who for your wickedness and misconduct are being hauled off in custody.”

Thought the Bodhisatta to himself, “Even cobras, if they do not bite or wound, are called ‘virtuous.’ How much more must this be the case with those who have come to be human beings! Verily it is just this virtue which is the most excellent thing in all the world, nor {1.371} does anything surpass it.” Then he was brought before the king. “What is this, my friends?” said the king. “Here’s a thief who has been robbing your majesty’s treasury.” “Away with him to execution.” “Sire,” said the brahmin, “I am no thief.” “Then how came you to take the money?” Hereon the Bodhisatta made answer precisely as above, ending as follows, “This then is why I have come to the conclusion that it is virtue which is the highest and most excellent thing in all the world. But be that as it may, yet, seeing that the cobra, when it does not bite or wound, must simply be called ‘virtuous’ and nothing more, for this reason too it is [1.215] goodness alone which is the highest and most excellent of all things.” Then in praise of goodness he uttered this verse:

1. Sīlaṁ kireva kalyāṇaṁ, sīlaṁ loke anuttaraṁ,
Passa ghoraviso nāgo, sīlavāti na haññatī ti.

It seems virtue is excellent, virtue is highest in the world, see the fierce poisonous cobra, virtuous, it was not destroyed.

After preaching the truth to the king in this verse, the Bodhisatta, abjuring all sensual desires, and renouncing the world for the ascetic’s life, repaired to the Himālayas, where he attained to the five Super Knowledges and eight Attainments, earning for himself the sure hope of rebirth thereafter in the Brahma Realm.

His lesson ended, the Teacher identified the Jātaka by saying: “My disciples were the king’s following in those days, and I myself the king’s family priest.”