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Buddhaghosa's commentary, the Visuddhimagga or The Path of Purification

Once a very poor woman gave birth to a boy child right there beside the highway.  She had nothing to give him but the impressive name, MahaMarga or "Big Road." A few years later, her lot in life had not improved, in fact she was now in worse circumstances as she already had a toddler to feed and once again she had no shelter when her time came to give birth again.  Another boy was born to her and this one she could only call, "Small Road." 

Many years passed, and when Big Road was old enough, he was accepted into Lord Buddha's holy order of monks.  Not long afterwards Small Road, wanting to follow in his brother's footsteps, also joined the Buddha's order.  But even with his big brother's help, Small Road could not manage to memorize even one short four-line dharma verse. 

As hard as he tried, alone or with his brother's coaching, he could not seem to get it right.  Either he would forget some words, put the lines in the wrong order, or simply  leave things out.  He just could not learn any verses at all, so that finally his brother told him that he would have to face up to the fact:  He was just too stupid to be a monk, and he would have to leave the Order.  

As Small Road was about to leave the premises, Lord Buddha happened to see the young man trudging along, his head hanging down, his eyelashes wet with tears.  He asked him what the matter was, and in between sniffles, Small Road told him what his brother had said. 

Hearing that, Lord Buddha gently told Small Road that there was no need for him to leave.  He explained that not all people have the same abilities.

Then he set him the daily task of sweeping the floors of the monastery. Lord Buddha told him to think, "Out with the dirt" as he swept up and down the walks and halls and courtyards. 

So glad was he to be allowed to stay and be a monk, that  Small Road faithfully did his sweeping practice with great enthusiasm.  It was years before he realized that the work Buddha had assigned him was about more than just keeping the place free of dead leaves, dust and other dirt.  There are stains and defilements that are not physical ones, so with the growing awareness that they also can be removed through the application of cheerful mindfulness, energy and patience, Small Road was able to comprehend the nature of samsara, and to make progress in detaching himself from it.  Finally, he attained the spiritual level of arhat.  

However, no one but Lord Buddha was aware of the transformation within Small Road. To all the rest of the monks, he was just the monastery sweeper -- the lowest of the low.

One day, a wealthy patron invited Lord Buddha and all his monks to a fine midday meal.  As was proper -- as a sign of respect -- no one sat until the Buddha himself had taken his place.  It was also their custom to wait for the Master to take up his bowl, before they began to eat.  But the Lord Buddha made no move, and the monks of course, sat quite still without eating. 

Finally, the patron spoke up and courteously asked the Lord if there anything was the matter.  Lord Buddha replied that it seemed that Small Road was still behind at the monastery, and it would not be right to start before he had arrived.  

Then the host was quick to send a servant to the monastery to see what had happened to Small Road.  However when the man got there, he found the courtyard filled with monks.  So, not knowing which monk to bring back with him, he returned alone, to his master. 

When the patron asked Lord Buddha what to do about that, the Lord turned to the servant and told him to return to the monastery and then just grab the nearest monk by the robe as he walked by. 

The whole company continued to wait patiently while the servant went to do as he was told.  Amazingly, as soon as he touched the upper garment of the monk standing closest to him, all the others immediately just vanished into thin air.  They had merely been emanations of Small Road, the lowly sweeper.  

The servant returned quickly with Small Road, and then he told the assembly of monks what he had experienced.  They were all utterly amazed that the one that they had studiously ignored -- and sometimes even scorned -- had attained such a high level of accomplishment.


There are many aspects of this story from which we can learn. 

There are the two morals:

1.  We should not scorn people of lesser status, and

2. There are many different roads to spiritual accomplishment. 

There are other lessons, too: 

3. We should not be discouraged by thoughts (another's or our own) that there is an insurmountable obstacle or a handicap to our progress -- if only we were smarter, had more discipline, etc.  Start Where You Are.

"... enlightenment is very close to us, it is merely seeing our own mind as it is. The only thing that is lacking is our diligence in practice and cultivating merit." 

~ B. Simon Kagyu Mailing List

4.  What is the cause of the sad life of the mother, is it past karma, unvirtuous actions, bad luck? 

5. There is worthiness in the path sometimes called "Small Road." 

6.  The rank of patron is lesser than that of Buddha, but all at the table wait for the arhat (or arahant, sometimes translated as "saint.")

Impact of Buddhaghosha

The Indian monk -- legend says he was a brahmin -- known as Buddhaghosha  ("Speech of The Awakened One" ie,  Buddha's Own Speech) composed the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) in the early part of the 5th-century CE.  He had gone to Sri Lanka to translate the extensive Sinhalese commentaries on Buddha's teachings that had been preserved there.  His work on the Pali Canon gave new force to the Theravadin Buddhism of India and Sri Lanka. 

The Visuddhimagga is a systematic and encyclopedic explanation of the Tipitaka (Skt: Tripitaka.)  It is a compilation of explanations of doctrine, meditation and other practices which synthesizes the entire Theravadin tradition.  It starts with the foundation which is sila, (shila, virtue) and showing its purpose, its products and benefits, it goes on to explain tranquil meditation, concentration or samadhi, then proceeds to a discussion of vipassana, (vipashyana, insight meditation).  It also includes a  discussion of more advanced techniques and extraordinary abilities and concludes with the advanced stages of realization that lead to nibbana (nirvana.)

A legend relates that Buddhaghosa was inspired by having heard a monk named Revata give explanations of some sutra he had been reading aloud.   Revata seemed inspired by the Master himself, and so Buddhaghosha joined the order, and it was Revata's guidance that sent him on the quest to Shri Lanka (the former Ceylon.)

There at the Monastery in Anuradhapura, the capital, the elders tested him by giving him two Sinhalese-language verses from the Sutras to translate into Pali and to comment upon.  That was the origin of the beginning of the work called Visuddhimagga.  

No sooner had he completed it however, then a group of deities hid the work, and he had to undertake the task again. The deities repeated the trick twice more and each time Buddhaghosa compiled the same perfect and complete commentary. 

When the elders saw these results, for the mysterious deities produced the first two versions for them, one of the elders said, "This must surely be the bodhisattva Metteyya (Skt: Maitreya.)" 
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Theravadin:  "The Way of the Elders" emphasizes, but is not limited to, an approach to Bodhi via perfection of the Individual.   For reasons based on the perfect logic of the Buddha's teachings on Dependent Origination, which itself is rooted in the Four Great (or, Noble) Truths, the practice of virtue is the foundation for Enlightenment.  In that school, monastic orders form the fundamental setting for this type of practice. 

Buddhist practice which focuses on the individual is actually known as Hinayana.   However, through some enduring misunderstanding -- the Sanskrit term "hina-yana" which translates as "narrow way" has acquired the connotation of an inferior or a selfish view.  Therefore it is a term generally avoided where possible, since it could be considered insulting nowadays.   However, within the context of the Buddhism of the Himalayan region (or, Tibetan Buddhism) this Yana --the Narrow or Individual Way -- is considered one of three inseparable aspects of Buddhism, and even the basic one for the other two main ones, which are Mahayana and Vajrayana. 

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