This story is also told in the Vinaya text. The Saṃyuttanikāya Commentary relates the past life story of the monks who were murdered or committed suicide. At one time in the past five hundred hunters lived in the forest for the whole life making a living by killing deer and birds. After death they were reborn in hell. Due to some other wholesome kamma, they were reborn during the Buddha’s time and went forth as monks. Knowing that their previous evil kamma still had some residue waiting to give its effect during that fortnight, the Buddha gave them the meditation object on repulsiveness to remove attachment to the body, to ensure a fortunate rebirth after their inevitable death by suicide or homicide.¹
He therefore left strict instructions not to be disturbed during that fortnight, knowing that a large number of those monks would die as a result of their previous unwholesome kamma, which had to give its result at that time.
This story is often cited as a dilemma.² “If the Buddha was omniscient why did he teach the meditation on repulsiveness to those monks, because it made them disgusted with their bodies, and they therefore committed suicide?” The answer is, “If he had taught mindfulness of breathing or some other meditation method, those who were not Noble Ones would not have been able to abandon attachment to their bodies at the time of their death, and as a result they may have been reborn as hungry ghosts. Whatever kind of meditation they were given to practise, they were predestined to die during that fortnight due to their past kamma.”
Thus have I heard — On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthi in the great forest at the peaked hall. Then the Blessed One on that occasion taught in various ways on repulsiveness, praising repulsiveness, and praising meditation on repulsiveness.³
Then the Blessed One addressed the monks — “Monks, I will spend the next fortnight in solitude.⁴ No one should approach me, except for the one who brings my almsfood.”
“Very well, venerable sir,” those monks replied to the Blessed One. No one approached him except for the one who brought him his almsfood.
Then those monks, thinking “The Blessed One has taught in various ways on repulsiveness, praising repulsiveness, and praising meditation on repulsiveness,” dwelt devoted to the meditation on repulsiveness in various ways. They became tormented, ashamed, and disgusted with the body so that in one day ten monks sought for an assassin … twenty monks … thirty monks sought for an assassin.
When that fortnight had passed, the Blessed One came out of seclusion and asked the Venerable Ānanda: “Why is the community of monks so depleted?”
“The Blessed One taught the monks in various ways on repulsiveness, praising repulsiveness, and praising meditation on repulsiveness,” the monks dwelt devoted to the meditation on repulsiveness in various ways. They became tormented, ashamed, and disgusted with the body so that in one day ten monks sought for an assassin … twenty monks … thirty monks sought for an assassin. It would be good, venerable sir, if the Blessed One would explain another method whereby the monks would be established in final knowledge.”
“Then, Ānanda, assemble all of the monks dwelling in dependence on Vesāli in the assembly hall.”
“Very well, venerable sir,” the Venerable Ānanda replied to the Blessed One, and he assembled all of the monks dwelling in dependence on Vesāli in the assembly hall. Then he approached the Blessed One, saying: ‘The community of monks is assembled, venerable sir. It is time for the Blessed One to do as he sees fit.”
Then the Blessed One approached the assembly hall and, having approached, sat down on a seat that had been prepared for him. Sitting there, the Blessed One addressed the monks: “Monks, this concentration on mindfulness of the respiration, when developed (bhāvito) and made much of (bahulīkato), is peaceful (santo) and excellent (paṇīto), a pure (asecanako) and blissful (sukho) abiding (vihāro) that instantly dispels evil unwholesome states that have arisen.”
“It is like, monks, during the last month of the hot season an out of season shower instantly removes any dust (rajo) or humidity (jallaṃ) from the air. Similarly, monks, this concentration on mindfulness of the respiration, when developed and made much of, is peaceful and excellent, a pure and blissful abiding that instantly dispels evil unwholesome states that have arisen. How, monks, is concentration on mindfulness of the respiration developed and made much of as peaceful and excellent, a pure and blissful abiding that instantly dispels evil unwholesome states that have arisen?
“Here, monks, a monk, having gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty place, having sat down cross-legged, keeping his body erect, establishes mindfulness in front of his face. Mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out … ‘Contemplating relinquishment I will breathe in,’ he trains himself, ‘Contemplating relinquishment I will breathe out,’ he trains himself.⁵ Thus, monks, he develops concentration on mindfulness of the respiration, developing it and making much of it, dwelling peacefully, and instantly dispelling evil unwholesome states that have arisen.”
1. Bhikkhu Bodhi in his footnotes to this discourse finds it hard to reconcile a volitional action like suicide with the result of a kamma that is predetermined. In general, the law of kamma is not a doctrine of predestination. However, there are cases where the kamma inevitably has to bear fruit. A bullet or even a missile can be deflected, but a meteor cannot. The murder of Mahāmoggallāna is a well-known example. In a previous life he murdered his blind parents by beating them to death, pretending that they had been waylaid by robbers. As a result of that heavy evil kamma he was reborn in hell after his death. During the Buddha’s life time, some residue of that evil kamma remained, so in his final existence he was beaten to death by robbers. In spite of being an Arahant endowed with psychic powers, he could not escape, and even the Buddha was unable to prevent his murder. Suicide is a volitional action, not a resultant. However, urging others to commit suicide is a serious evil kamma that could have the result that one has to endure the same fate oneself. Those who do commit suicide feel that they have no other choice. Some encounter a rescuer who prevents them from taking that fatal last step, but some do not. The difference lies in the momentum and potency of the volition that led to the (inevitable) result.
2. In his footnotes to this discourse, Bhikkhu Bodhi says that this dilemma is included in the Milindapañha. So far, I have been unable to find it there, but it is exactly the kind of dilemma one would expect to find there. There is also the dilemma that the Buddha asked Ānanda why the community of monks was so depleted although he already knew the reason. This was just the Buddha’s way of bringing up the subject.
3. Contemplation of the thirty-two parts of the body: head hair (kesa), body hair (loma), finger-nails (nakha), teeth (danta), skin (taco), flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys; heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs; large intestine, small intestine, stomach, faeces, [brain]; bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat; tears, grease, saliva, snot, synovial fluid, and urine. The Buddha may also have taught the cemetery contemplations.
4. The monks assemble every fortnight for the Uposatha ceremony.