Extract 3 - Dhamma-Asoka’s Younger Brother

For an explanation of words in Pali - the language of the time of the Buddha - please see the Pali Glossary.

The emperor Dhamma-Asoka received the Buddha’s Teachings, and because he was given these instructions and respected and followed them, he could spread them throughout the whole Indian subcontinent.[i] He made sure that the Buddha’s religion was foremost, incomparable. His younger brother, the crown prince, however, lived as he pleased. One day, being bored and discontented, he went to the forest for a walk and observed how the deer played and enjoyed themselves in a carefree mood. As he watched them, the following thought arose in him, “These deer enjoy life, happily eating just grass and leaves from the trees, but my brother the emperor donates only the best, most refined food to the monks. The seats he offers them are also the best and the highest. These monks, to whom he gives all these excellent things, whom he venerates and gives the best living quarters to, must also play and enjoy them­selves exceedingly well if even the deer, who eat only grass and leaves, have such a good time.”

When he went back to the royal palace, he approached the emperor and related his thoughts to him. The emperor thought, “Well, there is no point in explaining this matter to him as he won’t understand any­way. Let’s wait for a while. Slowly, slowly, I will make him under­stand.” And the emperor remained silent.

Later on, a matter came up with regard to the crown prince which the emperor didn’t like at all. He pretended to be angry and had his younger brother called. “You are my younger brother, and as my brother, you will now enjoy the splendour and happiness of an emperor for seven days. When the seven days are up, I shall have you killed.” And he issued the appropriate orders. Then he handed his royal power over to the crown prince and repeated that he was going to be on the throne for just seven days and would be killed after that. So the prince was to die in seven days’ time.

After this royal order was issued, the crown prince was terribly afraid. He was so afraid he wasn’t able to swallow his food. He wasn’t able to sleep because he constantly trembled with terror. He kept thinking, “I’ll die in seven days.”

When the seven days were over, Asoka had his brother called again, and when he saw him, he exclaimed, “Good gracious, you have become thin and haggard and your veins are standing out!” And that was what had happened.

Now the emperor said to his brother, “You are not the same as before. You used to have a handsome appearance. You were strong and good looking. What happened to you now that you have been living in the luxury of an emperor?”

“I was terrified, lord,” the prince replied.

“How can this be?” Dhamma-Asoka asked. “You have all the luxuries of the life of an emperor, you should have enjoyed yourself beyond measure, no? What happened?”

“Sire,” the prince said, “I wasn’t able to enjoy myself at all. Every night I lay awake without being able to sleep for one moment. And what frightened me? I kept thinking that I would have to die without fail when the seven days were up.”

So he couldn’t enjoy himself. He couldn’t even sleep because of the fear of death. His terror was so intense he was unable to enjoy his good fortune in having all the luxuries life can offer. He had only the best of everything. He had the royal insignia and the royal palace, but his fear prevented him from enjoying any of it.

Emperor Asoka said, “Well, little brother, were you as afraid as all that, even though you didn’t have to die until seven days were up?”

“That is so, your majesty,” the crown prince replied. “I am terrified.”

“Well,” Asoka said, “you had all the luxuries of an emperor to enjoy, and yet you did nothing but fear your death which was seven days away. The venerable monks live with the knowledge that this mind and body arise and disappear, die and are reborn, billions of times in the wink of an eye. Having understood this, they live in constant dread of these (i.e., mind and matter, nāma and rūpa). So, did you have to fear your death so much since it was seven days away? The vener­able monks who are my masters live as I have just explained. In one instant, as quick as a bolt of lightening striking, mind and matter break up and arise again. There is nothing else for them. Since they have experienced this and have seen this for themselves, they are continu­ously wary of mind and matter.”

Now the crown prince understood that the monks could not derive happiness from anything material.

“You were to die after only seven days,” the emperor told his young brother, “but my noble teachers go from death to death — they die every moment, not after seven days like you.” It was only then that the crown prince understood and respect for the monks arose in him.