The Buddha preaches the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha
Magha Puja is the day when Buddhists commemorate the occasion when 1250 enlightened monks spontaneously met to hear the Buddha’s sermon known as the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha. For those of us not familiar with this text, here’s a translation of it:
“Patient endurance is the foremost austerity.
Nirvana is foremost: that’s what the Buddha’s say.
He is no monk who injures another;
Nor is he a contemplative who mistreats another.
The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what’s skillful,
The cleansing of one’s own mind:
This is the Buddhas’ teaching.
Not disparaging, not injuring,
Restraint in line with the monastic code,
Moderation in food, dwelling in seclusion,
Commitment to the heightened mind:
This is the Buddhas’ teaching.”
Considering the fact that the Buddha surely gave these teachings to reflect on, rather than turn into an institutionalized recitation in an elaborate ceremony, let’s examine it a little, seeing what it can teach us. And, although it’s clear from the gatha that it’s primary audience are monks, it’s essential meanings can be easily extended to all Buddhists, ordained or not. (If you feel you have reflections to share on the gatha, they are most welcome; please do so by leaving a comment at the bottom of this article.)
The statement “Patient endurance is the foremost austerity” is a well known utterance of the Buddha’s in Thailand, and the late great meditation master Ajahn Chah put much emphasis on it, as often recalled by his most senior western disciple Ajahn Sumedho. The original Pali word for “patient endurance’ is khanti, and it is one of the 10 perfections promoted by the Buddha as being highly virtuous and conducive to realizing enlightenment. It not only denotes patience, but also forgiveness and forbearance.
Why are patience and forgiveness valued so highly in the Buddha’s teachings? Well, as to patience, it is clearly an advantage to have such a quality in a close-knit community such as the Buddhist monastic one. No Buddhist wants to see monks or nuns lose patience with each other and argue or even fight. Inwardly, patience is also a valuable attribute for the meditator to possess, for the fruits of meditation are not always that immediate, and it may take years for its benefits to emerge. Getting impatient is a common obstacle confronted by beginner meditators – and those of us that have been doing it for years, too!
Forgiveness is an important quality to possess for the same two reasons given above: in a monastic community having members who are forgiving of each other’s foibles will allow the community to run much more smoothly. And, not getting angry with one’s self when meditation doesn’t seem to be ‘working’ is a powerful tool in being able to sustain one’s practice and cultivate wisdom that otherwise would have remained hidden. On a personal note, after marrying, my wife and I went to the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon Rathchathani and asked the then abbot Ajahn Jayasaro for some marital advice. He paused for a second or two while I suddenly thought what a silly question to ask a monk, and then he gave us a short exhortation on patience. Afterwards, we thought what sound advice it was, and here we are ten years later still happily married.
The following words on nirvana are no surprise coming from the Buddha, and as it is an ongoing subject for reflection here on ‘Buddha Space,’ it will be glossed over for now. The next lines are a subject not often commented on in these pages, however, so let’s take a few moments to consider them. “He is no monk who injures another” is a clear reminder that monks (and nuns) should cultivate harmlessness (ahimsa) towards all beings, as in the spirit of the Metta Sutta, when the Buddhist wishes that ‘all beings may be happy.’
The Buddha also stated that “Nor is he a contemplative who mistreats another.” Inflicting injury is usually associated with doing physical harm, and this obviously against the monastic code, but to mistreat another is a much broader term and can include verbal insults or rudeness. The nuances of language can often disguise such behaviour, but it can be detected in monastics as well as fellow meditators relatively often. People are people, of course, and in the case of the laity at least, we can recognize that to err is human, and a degree of forgiveness is required. Even with inexperienced monks and nuns this approach holds water, but if we encounter long term meditating renunciates that are rude or unforgiving with others, alarm bells and not meditation bells should start ringing!
The next verse is one of the most famous in Buddhism, and is often found near the header of Buddhist websites (i.e. the excellent ‘Access to Insight’). It is a succinct summing up of the Buddhist teachings and has inspired many in their efforts to walk the eightfold path. “The non-doing of any evil,” covers those deeds that the Buddha advised us to restrain from, such as killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, lying, and consuming intoxicants (the five precepts). It also includes such topics as the five trades to be avoided: do not trade in weapons, poisons, meat, living beings, or intoxicants.
The next line, “The performance of what’s skilful” makes reference to doing what’s good towards our families, teachers, neighbours, etc., as well as taking care of the monastic community. It also covers living our lives in ways that help in developing heedfulness, kindness, compassion, and, of course, patience, amongst other positive qualities. “The cleansing of one’s own mind” means mindfulness and meditation techniques, used to cultivate mind states that pave the way for enlightenment.
Further advice from the Buddha in the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha consists of “Not disparaging” and “not injuring” others: sound guidance for all of us, for certain. This is basically a repetition of the instructions in the first verse, which acts to reinforce their importance; monks, nuns, and laypeople should not indulge in such behaviour if we wish to be part of a harmonious community, let alone awaken to enlightenment. This is echoed in the next line which promotes “Restraint in line with the monastic code,” or for those of us not in robes, the code of conduct for the laity, touched upon above in the references to the five precepts and five trades to be avoided.
“Moderation in food, dwelling in seclusion ” and “ Commitment to the heightened mind” continue the wise advice from the Buddha to us all. It’s not just healthy to not overindulge in food and drink, it’s also good for our spiritual development, promoting self-control and strong determination. Dwelling in seclusion helps our meditation practice, of course, and whilst monasteries can be perfect environments for this purpose, if we live in relatively quiet areas and organize our home life appropriately, secluded moments for meditative development can be created.
Finally, it’s worth reflecting on the line that ends both verse two and three: “This is the Buddhas’ teaching.” The apostrophe is not in the wrong place here, for as any grammarian will tell you, if the apostrophe appears after the s in relation to the word Buddhas, it means that it is referring to more than one enlightened being. This reflects the original Pali of the text, and is no mistake. The Buddha often taught that he was not the first (nor the last) Buddha, and that all Buddhas teach the same Doctrine & Discipline (Dhamma ca Vinaya). Therefore, when it is written that what appears in the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha is the teaching of the Buddhas’, it indicates that it is not the product of a single (albeit enlightened) mind, but is a collection of eternal truths that were as valid in the distant past as they are today, and will continue to be as valid in the millennia to come.