Translated & Published by the Buddhist Text Translation Society
The crown brought disaster upon Pandu,
and he had difficulty escaping his retribution.
One day, six or seven years after his first meeting with the Venerable Narada on the road to Varanasi, Pandu’s workshop received an unusual order. The king of the neighboring country across the mountains desired a new royal crown. He had heard of the beauty of Pandu’s jewel work. The crown was to be wrought in gold and set about with the costliest gems to be found in all of India. Indian kings had always had a weakness for precious stones, and Pandu had often dreamed of becoming the supplier of jewelry to a royal house. Then he would be assured not simply of prosperity, but of great riches. Now his chance had arrived.
Pandu immediately sent out orders for the finest sapphires, rubies, and diamonds that could be had. He invested the greater part of his wealth in them. He designed and worked the crown himself. Then, gathering together a strong escort of armed men to ensure his safety against robbers in the mountains, he set out for the neighboring kingdom.
All was well until they reached a narrow pass at the mountains’ summit. There, a troop of fiercely yelling brigands descended from the heights. Pandu’s escort was greater in number, but the shying horses and steep sides of the mountain pass hampered the defenders in battle.
In a matter of minutes Pandu’s men were disarmed. Two unshaven and dirty men threw open the door to the jeweler’s carriage, pulled him out, flung him to the ground, and began kicking him and beating him with sticks. Pandu bore the blows, thinking only of the purse that was concealed in his robes, clutching it against his chest. In it lay the crown and a store of other jewels with which he had planned to tempt the king’s daughter and the queen.
The robber chieftain
demanded payment of the debt.
"Stop a moment, my boys!" a voice called out, a voice that Pandu had heard before, though at first he could not recall whose it was. "Stop beating him, I said!"
Pandu opened his eyes. There, standing over him, dressed in rough leather clothing, his long hair bound in a kerchief of red silk, was Mahaduta, the slave he’d had whipped years before. Pandu had heard that the greatest of all robber chieftains in the mountains was a former slave from Kaushambi. But it had never occurred to him that the slave might have been his own.
"See what he’s holding in his right hand," Mahaduta quietly commanded.
One of the men who had been beating him planted his knee on Pandu’s stomach, while the other forced Pandu’s arm away from his chest. The jeweler’s purse was mercilessly pried from his hand.
"I’ll take that," Mahaduta said. "I’ve paid for it already." He took it and put it inside his jacket. "Have I not, master?" he asked Pandu, his voice full of scorn and bitterness.
"Shall we finish him, then?" one of the robbers asked the chieftain.
Mahaduta looked down at Pandu, but instead of anger or fright, which might have enraged him in turn, he saw only sadness and resignation in his victim’s eyes. He had no way of knowing that Pandu was remembering the Venerable Narada’s voice saying, as clearly as if he’d heard it yesterday: "Don’t think that you are free of the debt you owe Mahaduta for having him so cruelly beaten without cause. Don’t think that you are all alone in this world and that what you do has no consequences.... If you can truly understand this in your heart, you will have no more desire to harm other beings, because you will know that they are the same as yourself. You will feel their sufferings as your own."
Pandu sighed. He suddenly realized that he had never really accepted his teacher’s instructions. He had never truly believed that they applied to him as well as to others. If he was to die now, violently and before his time, with no chance to say farewell to his family, it was all his own doing, it was all his own fault.
Not once had he thought about what had happened to his runaway slave Mahaduta. The man’s sufferings in the mountains during the freezing winters, and the desperation and danger of the evil calling that he, Pandu, had pushed Mahaduta into, such considerations had simply never crossed his mind. Now the time of payment had come. He coughed and spoke numbly to Mahaduta, "It’s true. You have paid." Then he looked away from the robber chieftain and waited for the next blow.
To his surprise, Mahaduta told his men: "Let him lie. There is a false bottom in his carriage, underneath the coachman’s seat. Knock it loose and take out the chest of gold pieces that will certainly be there. We’ll divide it equally. This is a great day for all of you."
The men jumped up eagerly. But Mahaduta himself felt little joy at his revenge, though he had spent many a cold morning fervently wishing for it. Now that it had come, he felt heaviness and regret, as if he were hurting a member of his own family. He went among his men, telling them to stop beating Pandu’s escort. "Spoils only," he said.
"No killing." And he distracted them with news of the chest of gold which was, indeed wedged behind the false bottom of the carriage, just where Mahaduta himself had hidden it many times in past years.
The robber chieftain let Pandu and his men go free down the mountain back to Kaushambi. That evening, when his accomplices were counting the gold and rejoicing, he hid the purse in a crevice in his cave. He didn’t take it out or look at it again for a long time.
Paying off his karmic debt peacefully,
he attained genuine happiness.
After the robbery, Pandu was no longer a rich man. He had lost much of his capital, and without capital a jeweler can do little. But he blamed no one for his losses but himself. "In my younger years I was very hardon people," he told his family. "What has happened to me now is simply the payment for my harshness and arrogance." Repenting and cultivating according to the Buddha’s teachings now came very naturally to him, and he took to reciting the Buddha’s name whenever his mind was not occupied with conversation or business.
Gradually he realized that, deep down in his heart, he was happier now than he had been when he was rich. His only regret was that he was no longer able to make so many offerings to the monastery, to support the Dharma, or to help the poor of the town─something he had never thought to do much before.
The robbers rebelled and beat
the chieftain to the point of dying.
Again, several years passed by. Then one day Panthaka, abbot of the monastery at Kaushambi, was set upon by Mahaduta’s robber band while walking alone on a pilgrimage across the mountains. Panthaka carried no money, and so Mahaduta beat him briefly and let him go. Panthaka went no further that day.
The next morning, before he had walked far, he heard the sounds of men fighting just off the road. One man was roaring in pain. Panthaka hurried to the scene, hoping to dissuade the robbers from beating yet another traveler. But instead of an innocent traveler, it was Mahaduta himself who was being attacked. He stood in the midst of a dozen of his own men like a lion cornered by hounds. His great stick hit several of the other robbers, but at last he himself fell. He was beaten with his own stick until he lay as if dead.
Panthaka stayed hidden till the robbers left. Then he found that Mahaduta had little life left. Panthaka walked down to the stream that ran among the rocks nearby. He filled his bowl with fresh water and brought it to the dying man.
Mahaduta drank a little and slowly opened his eyes. He groaned and cried out, "Where are those rotten thieves that I have led to victory time after time? They’d have been hanged long ago if it weren’t for me!"
The Dharma Master came to the rescue and advised the chieftain to repent of his offenses.
"Calm down." Panthaka said. "Don’t think of your comrades, or of the evil road you have taken together. Think of your own fate and drink this water, and let me dress your wounds. Perhaps your life can still be saved."
For the first time Mahaduta looked closely at Panthaka. "You are the monk to whom I gave a beating only yesterday! And now you have come to save my life. You shame me." He drank some more water and looked around him. "And the others have run off, the ungrateful hounds! I was the one who taught them to fight, and now they have turned on me."
"You taught them to fight," Panthaka said, "and they have repaid you by fighting. If you had taught them kindness, they would have repaid you with kindness. You have reaped the harvest that you planted yourself."
"What you say is true. I’ve often been afraid they would turn on me─ah! ah!" He groaned as Panthaka tried to lift him by the shoulder.
"I don’t think you can save my life. But tell me, if you can, how I can be saved from the pains of the hells, which I know I deserve as payment for my evil life. Lately I have felt that my death cannot be far off, and the dread of what will come after has weighed like a heavy stone on my chest, so that sometimes I’ve hardly been able to breathe."
"Sincerely repent of your offenses and reform," Panthaka said. "Root out the greed and hatred from your heart, and fill it instead with thoughts of kindness for all beings."
"Alas, I know nothing of kindness," Mahaduta said. "My life has been a story of much evil and no good. I will go to the hells and never escape along the noble Path that you have walked, Dharma Master!"
A thought of selfishness
broke the spider’s thread.
"Don’t despair," Panthaka answered, "and don’t underestimate the power of repentance and reform. It is said:
A single heartfelt thought of repentance
can wipe away ten thousand eons’ worth of evil.
"For example, do you know of the great robber Kandata, who died unrepentant and fell into the Unintermittent Hells? After he had been suffering there for several eons, Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in the world and accomplished enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree.
"The rays of light that shone forth from between his brows at that moment penetrated all the way to the hells and inspired the beings there with new life and hope. Looking up, Kandata saw the Buddha seated in meditation beneath the Bodhi tree, and he cried out, ’Save me, save me, World Honored One! I am suffering here for the evils I have done, and I cannot get out! Help me walk the Path you have walked, World Honored One!’
"The Buddha looked down and saw Kandata. ’I will guide you in your escape,’ he said to the robber, ’but it must be with the help of your own good karma. What good did you do, Kandata, when you were in the world of men?’
"Kandata remained silent, for he had been a cruel man. But the World Honored One, with his Buddha Eye, contemplated Kandata’s past. He saw that once when Kandata was walking along a forest path, he had stepped aside to avoid crushing a spider beneath his feet, thinking: ’The spider hasn’t hurt anyone. Why should I step on him?’
"Having seen that, the Buddha sent a spider to spin a thread of gossamer down to the Unintermittent Hells.
"’Take hold of my thread,’ the spider said, ’and climb up!’
"Kandata eagerly grabbed the gossamer and started to pull himself up.
"The gossamer held fast. He climbed quickly, higher and higher. Suddenly he noticed that the spider’s thread was trembling, as if under a new weight.
"Kandata glanced down. He saw that other hell-beings had grasped hold of the thread and were climbing up after him. The string stretched out, but did not break.
"More and more hell-beings were taking hold of the wispy thread. Kandata no longer looked up at the Buddha; instead, he fearfully watched the hell-beings following him below.
"He stopped climbing. ’How can the gossamer carry everyone?’ he thought .’This string is mine!’ he shouted downwards. ’Let go, all of you! Let go! It’s mine!’
"Immediately the thread broke. Kandata and all the others fell back into the hells.
After repenting sincerely,
Mahaduta died in peace.
"Kandata’s repentance wasn’t true," Panthaka said to Mahaduta. "He did not reform. The spider’s gossamer would have held, for even one generous thought has the strength to be a lifeline that saves thousands. But Kandata destroyed the gossamer. He still held onto the illusion of self, and his evil habits were too strong. He was not willing to help anyone else. Even the World Honored One couldn’t save him."
"Let me think and find that thread of gossamer!" cried Mahaduta. "If there is some good I can do, I won’t try to keep it to myself."
The two men were silent for a while. Panthaka washed Mahaduta’s wounds. The robber chieftain breathed more peacefully. Finally he said, "There is one ’good’ thing that I did once, if you can call stopping from doing more evil good."
"You can," said Panthaka.
"Yes, and one good thing I still can do. Would you, by any chance, know Pandu, the rich jeweler from Kaushambi?"
"I am from Kaushambi, and I know him well," Panthaka said, "though he’s no longer rich."
"Isn’t he? I’m sorry to hear that. Strange, you’d think I’d be glad, for he was the one who taught me to be high-handed with people and to oppress them. When I was a young slave, he sent me to learn fighting skills from a wrestler, so that I could be his bodyguard. Whenever I bullied people, he rewarded me. His heart was as hard as flint. He had me whipped once. It was then that I ran away to the mountains. But people have told me that he has changed, and that he is known far and wide for his kindness and benevolence! Such a thing is hard to conceive of. Is it true, Dharma Master?"
"It’s true," Panthaka said. "The power of sincere repentance is indeed inconceivable. Every time I see it, it amazes me anew."
"I plotted many times how I would have my revenge on that man," Mahaduta continued. "I intended to torture him, just as he had me tortured. And he did fall into my hands at last. But when I saw his face as he lay there on the road, clutching his jewels to his chest, resigned to his death, I couldn’t do it, Dharma Master. I felt as if I would be torturing my own brother."
"All men are brothers," Panthaka said. "Every man has been your father in some life past, and every woman your mother. And with this man you have affinities that are especially strong, both for good and for evil."
Mahaduta nodded. "It must be so. I took his jewels and his gold that day, but I let him and all his bodyguards go. His gold I gave to my men, so they wouldn’t mind my calling off the violence. But his jewels I have with me still, hidden in a crevice in my cave. For some reason I couldn’t part with them. It wasn’t only that a crown like that would be hard to dispose of. I also felt that I had to save them for something. I didn’t know for what. Now I’m glad I did."
Mahaduta paused a moment, then turned to Panthaka. "Do this for me, Dharma Master. My cave is behind a tall cedar by the stream a half-mile above us. You can see the broad top of the cedar from the road. Pandu’s crown and his jewels are in the vertical crevice just to the left of the entrance. You must reach straight in, then up to the right. Can you remember that?"
"Don’t go there yourself. Tell Pandu to come with thirty armed men. My men are fewer now, and without me they will lose heart. Pandu will overcome them easily. Tell Pandu I’m sorry. I wish him to have his wealth again. I wish all men wealth and happiness, all the wealth and happiness that I have taken from them. If I live, or in my next life, I vow to be like you, Venerable Dharma Master, and be a helper of men caught in the web of sorrow they have created by their own foolish deeds."
Exhausted, Mahaduta fell back. He now felt no pain from his wounds, but his life was ebbing away. Suddenly a joyous smile swept into his face. He raised his hand, pointing upward. "See! The Buddha is there on his couch, about to enter Nirvana. His disciples, the great Arhats, are standing around him. See! He is smiling at me!" Mahaduta’s face was bright with happiness.
"What a wonderful blessing to us that he came into the world!"
"Yes, it was a blessing," Panthaka said. "He appeared in the world out of compassion for living beings, in order to instruct us in the one great matter: the problem of birth and death. He taught us to awaken to the suffering of this world, and he taught us that selfish desire is the source of our suffering. He taught us how to end our suffering by following him on the Proper Path. He taught us morality, concentration, and wisdom to put our greed, anger, and delusion to rest. He himself, through lifetimes of cultivation and renunciation, put to rest all his own desires, and with kindness, compassion, joy, and giving he came to give us himself as an example. If all men and women could take refuge in him, this world would no longer be the poor and dangerous place that it is now."
Mahaduta nodded. He drank in the Bhikshu’s words like a thirsty man who is given cool water. He tried to speak, but could not continue. Understanding his request, Panthaka spoke the Three Refuges for him, so that he became a disciple of the Triple Jewel. Panthaka then repeated for him the Four Great Vows of the Bodhisattva:
Living beings are boundless; I vow to save them.
Afflictions are endless; I vow to cut them off.
Dharma-doors are countless; I vow to study them.
The Buddhas’ Way is unsurpassed; I vow to achieve it.
He also repeated three times the repentance verse of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva:
Of all evil I have done in the past,
Caused by beginningless
greed, hatred, and stupidity
And produced by body, mouth, and mind
I now repent and reform.
And this verse:
Offenses arise from the mind;
repentance is done by the mind.
When the mind is extinguished,
offenses are forgotten.
Offenses extinguished and the mind forgotten─
That is called true repentance and reform.
As Panthaka was reciting it, Mahaduta breathed his last. He died with a smile on his face.
With true repentance, the robber crossed
others over even after his death.
Panthaka postponed his pilgrimage and returned to Kaushambi. He went immediately to Pandu’s house to tell him of what had happened. Gathering an escort of armed men, Pandu returned to the mountains. Mahaduta’s men had already fled. Pandu’s purse was hidden exactly where Mahaduta had said it would be, and the crown was within it, unharmed.
Panthaka came with them, and when the body of Mahaduta had been burned and the ashes collected in urns, Panthaka led the assembled company in the recitation of Sutras and mantras. He spoke briefly of the power of karma and of the even greater power of repentance and reform. He also quoted this verse:
No one can save us but ourselves.
Our strength is greater than that derived from others.
We ourselves must walk the road to
With the Buddha as our Great Teacher and Guide
"Our Elder Master Narada," Panthaka continued, "has always stressed that we alone are responsible for our own actions, and that we are responsible for what happens to us as a result of our actions. No god or any other being rewards or punishes us. We reward ourselves; we punish ourselves. Everything arises from the mind, and so the world is exactly how we create it. This man Mahaduta, whom we have buried today, led an evil life, guided by evil thoughts, and knew nothing but unhappiness. Yet at the end he changed. His repentance and vows of reform moved the Buddha himself to appear to him and give him his blessing. His life ended with a deed of forgiveness, and he died as a happy man. We can all learn from his example, for none of us is blameless. We are all connected by the web of karma we have created, and we are all capable of the liberation that true repentance brings."
Panthaka had the following summary of the robber chieftain’s life and conversion inscribed on Mahaduta’s headstone:
Here lies Mahaduta, highwayman.
He lived in anger; anger felled him.
At last repenting, he returned his spoils,
Promising to walk the Proper Path.
The Buddha smiled and certified his change.
Maha Prajna Paramita!
The headstone beside the mountain pass became known as the Repentant Robber’s Tomb, and in later years a shrine was built beside it. There travelers and pilgrims bowed to the Buddha and prayed for a peaceful journey and the conversion of evil men.
Kindness and generosity assure a happy future.
Pandu now became wealthy again, wealthier than he had ever been. Now, however, he was more interested in giving money away then in making it, and he gave over the operation of his business to his sons. He did his best to teach them that prosperity brought about by hard dealings will not last, and that by being generous and kind they would assure themselves of a happy future.
His end came peacefully in old age. When he realized that his death was near, he called his sons, daughters, and grandchildren to his bedside and told them: "My dear children, if in the future something should go wrong in your lives, don’t blame others, even if they seem to be the cause of your unhappiness. Look within yourself. See where you have been proud, selfish, greedy, or unkind. Change that fault in yourself, for this is something that is always within your power. If change seems beyond you, seek help from your teacher, and pray to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for aid. Once you have changed your faults, good fortune and happiness will return to you naturally. When they have returned, do not hoard them, but share them with others. Then they will never be exhausted. Remember me by this verse, which the Venerable Narada taught me when I first knew him:
He who hurts others hurts himself.
He who helps others helps himself even more.
To find the pure Way, the Path of Light,
Let go of the falsehood that you have a self.