How A Meditator Ascended The Highest Heaven And Fell Into Hell
From the Treatise [On] Perfection [Of] Great Wisdom《大智度论》(Scroll 17, Preface Chapter 1; 卷17: 序品1) written by Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva (龙树菩萨), is this very short, yet important and terrifying cautionary tale, that all should pay attention to…
Udraka [the] ‘immortal’, [having] attained [the] five super[normal powers], every day flew to [the] King’s palace [for] meals within.
[Note 1: Udraka mentioned could be Udraka Rāmaputra (with his name shortened), who lived in a forest near Rājagriha City (王舍诚) in India. (Even if this account is not about the same Udraka, the lessons that follow are still universally valid.) He was the future Śākyamuni Buddha’s (释迦牟尼佛) second meditation teacher, and had seven hundred disciples, all of whom aimed to reach Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception’s Heaven (非想非非想天), mistaking this as the highest spiritual attainment possible. The Buddha-to-be swiftly mastered this meditation, but as it only offered suspension of suffering with no actual ending of suffering, he left to continue seeking the path to Buddhahood.]
[Note 2: Udraka did not really have immeasurable life (i.e. was not a true immortal), although able to cultivate to live relatively longer than the average human in this world, and in his next one life. Those merely cultivating for longer but still limited worldly lives are not considered to be on the true Buddhist path, which leads to liberation from the cycle of birth and death.]
[Note 3: The five supernormal powers (五神通) are the (i) heavenly eye (天眼通), (ii) heavenly ear (天耳通), (iii) knowledge of others’ thoughts (他心通), (iv) knowledge of past lives (宿命通) and (v) divine feet (神足通). It was with the fifth power that he was able to levitate to the palace. As the story highlights this power, it could be due to having it, that he was welcomed by the King at his palace with regular food offerings.]
[Note 4: As he did not have the sixth supernormal power of having (vi) outflows ended (漏尽通), he was yet to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. To have outflows ended is to no longer have the three poisons (三毒) of greed, hatred and delusion (贪嗔痴) ‘flow out’ of oneself, to defile one’s experiences and the world by creating suffering.]
[Once, the] King’s Great Queen, according [with] that kingdom’s law, clutched [his] feet and prostrated [before him. When the] Queen’s hands touched [him, he] immediately lost [his] supernormal [powers]. From [the] King, [he then] sought [a] vehicle. Riding [on a] carriage and exiting, [he] returned [to] his original place.
[Note 5: The custom of touching the feet of those honoured is to express humility and respect, (despite them being the lowest and dirtiest parts of the body). Similarly, placing one’s head at the feet expresses the same, as the head is the highest and cleanest part of the body.]
[Note 6: Probably because he was sensually (or sexually) tempted when touched, the powers from his earlier purer and more concentrated mind were lost. As he could no longer fly home, he had to use a vehicle conventionally. Although it takes a long time to practise deep concentration to give rise to supernormal powers, they can be destroyed in one moment with defilement(s).]
[Note 7: Thus, there should be cultivation of all aspects of the Threefold Learning (三学), with precepts, concentration and wisdom (戒定慧). (Without wisdom, there will still be rebirth. Being without the Buddha’s teachings, he did not know how to cultivate wisdom for liberation.) Mindfulness of Buddha (Āmítuófó) cultivates the Threefold Learning as during sincere mindfulness, all precepts are abided by, concentration increases, and wisdom ‘grows’ by aligning one’s Buddha-nature with the Buddha’s blessings (开智慧).]
Entering [a] forest within, [he] again sought [to attain the] five super[normal powers, with] single-minded focus [and] devotion. When almost attaining [it, there] were birds on [the] trees above vigorously chirping, with [this] scattering his mind. Abandoning [the] trees [and] reaching [a] river’s side [to] seek concentration, [he] again heard sounds of fighting [and] moving [in the] water. This person, seeking meditative [concentration but] not attaining [it], immediately gave rise [to] anger [by thinking], ‘I will completely kill [these] fish [and] birds!’
[Note 8: (Greed for supernormal powers in the first place for flaunting and such is spiritually distracting and dangerous.) Although the forest and its waterside were sought one after another for secluded meditation, the singing and splashing encountered created disturbing distractions. Thus extremely and doubly frustrated, he gave rose to one yet very vicious thought, with the desire to kill all the sentient beings involved. This evil thought will ‘haunt’ him many kalpas later.]
This person long after, [with] contemplation attained concentration, [and was] born [in] Not Having Perception [And] Not Without Perception’s Place. When his lifespan [there] ended, [he had a] lower birth [to] become [a] flying raccoon, [who] killed many fishes [and] birds, creating immeasurable transgressions, [and] falling [into the] three evil paths. [This] is as [when] within meditative concentration, [with his] attached mind [as the] cause [and] condition.
[Note 9: What attained was the most subtle but still worldly concentration, that led to rebirth in the highest formless heaven, in which there is only little functioning of perception for eighty-four thousand great kalpas. Long as this might be, it is pointless and a waste of time as after exiting this concentration, (which cannot last forever due to having limited skills and latent karmic tendencies), there can only be fall into a lower path.
Buddhist practice is against abiding in this concentration (or heaven), at most using the concentration state as a stepping stone, to transcend it for Nirodha Samāpatti (灭尽定), which is the concentration of cessation (of perception and feelings), equated to self-liberation. This method for self-liberation with Self-power (自力) only is difficult, without Amitābha Buddha’s (Āmítuófó: 阿弥陀佛) Other-power (他力) to reach his Pure Land (净土) for self-liberation and (eventual) liberation of others, which makes these easy.]
[Note 10: As his strongest previous thought before rebirth in the heaven was the wish to kill the birds and fishes, even if it arose just once, it naturally resurfaced once he exited the concentration (and heaven). Once a karmic seed is sown, when conditions are available, even after a long time, it can still ripen quickly.
Automatically fulfilling the desire without deliberate thinking by going with the flow, he karmically took on the most appropriate form accordingly, becoming a carnivorous animal capable of killing both birds and fishes. (Ironically, with such a long time gap apart, the animals ‘vengefully’ killed are surely not the ones who ‘angered’ him long ago.)
As the law of karma can operate this way swiftly, we must be very careful with what we habitually and even occasionally wish for. Even an occasional thought might become the last thought before rebirth. Already reborn as an animal, with new evil karma created by much killing, he further fell to become lesser animal(s) (畜生), hungry ghost(s) (饿鬼) and hell-being(s) (地狱众生). This is how one can reach the highest heaven, and still fall all the way into hell later.]
[Note 11: This case study shows how frightening even one evil thought can be, even if it does not lead to an evil rebirth in the next life directly. If the above tragedy can occur to a ‘great’ meditator, with the same principles, all the more might the similar occur to us.
Thus is it wise to practise much sincere mindfulness of Buddha in everyday life and when dying. With thorough permeation of the Buddha’s name throughout life, both habitually and occasionally, our last default last thought will be the Buddha, thus connecting to him, to be received and guided to reach his Pure Land.
If we do not have mindfulness of the Buddha as our last thought, we will only be mindful of thoughts based on the three poisons, thus remaining trapped in rebirth. (Having much hatred is the most destructive for oneself and others, as exemplified. Thus is support-chanting [助念] as important as keeping disturbances that might spur attachment and aversion away.) Noteworthy is that Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva also aspired to reach Āmítuófó’s Pure Land for perfection of great (compassion and) wisdom.]
Namo Amituofo : Translation and notes by Shen Shi’an
Selections From Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s Aspiration Verses
Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva And Amitābha Buddha’s Connection
Is Seeking Birth In Pure Land Cowardly?
Why A Monk Shattered His One Precious Bowl