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On the Buddha Metteyya and human sacrifice on the sacred tree

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#1

DN 26 Cakkavattisīhanāda is a rich sutta with many extraordinary features. But by far the most momentous feature of the text is the introduction of the Buddha Metteyya. While it is, of course, assumed as a basic principle of Buddhology that Buddhas appear from time to time in the past and future, here we have a concrete story, with names and details.

The name Metteyya is usually associated with mettā, and regarded as the Buddha of love. Sweet as this is, it is mistaken. The word metteyya in Pali means ‘maternal piety’, i.e. treating one’s mother with due respect. It is used repeatedly in this sense in the discourse before being mentioned as the name of the Buddha. Filial piety is one of the virtues that enables the flourishing of humanity that culminates with the appearance of the Buddha. More than that: it is part of the very last set of qualities, the culminating virtues that enable the perfect society.

Now, paying due respect to mothers is a beautiful virtue, which is associated purely with kindness and love. And human sacrifice, of course. What? You’ve never died for your mother? What kind of piety is that?

In Thailand, young men will, as a rite of passage, ordain for a short time as a monk. As has been well documented, the ordination ritual mimics in important ways a funeral rite: the one who ordains dies and is reborn in their new life. This is of course a profound part of the spiritual journey. But if you ask temporary monks why they ordain, they’ll usually tell you: to make merit for my mother.

Such are the echoes and vestiges of sacrifice that are preserved in modern customs. I’m from a Christian background, so I’m used to eating the actual flesh of a dead god, nailed to a post, as my central religious ritual.

There’s nothing hugely mysterious about all this. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Mythology and ancient rituals are not about passing an ethical or philosophical judgment about such matters, but about embodying and participating in them. It is about recognizing that birth and death go hand in hand; the the act of giving life is nothing unless life is taken also.

You’re probably thinking, what has this to do with the Buddha Metteyya? Surely it’s a reach to get from a name to human sacrifice. You’re right, it’s probably nothing, I’m sure. Still, it won’t hurt to have a little look, will it?

I won’t go over the whole myth in detail. Most of it is pretty much what you might expect in an idealized depiction of society built according to Buddhist values. But as a student of myth, you get used to poking around in the dark corners, pulling on obscure threads until they unravel. And you get sensitive to the appearance of the irrational, poking up awkwardly in a rational, ethical narrative.

Before Metteyya is mentioned, a king arises, named Saṅkha. As a wheel-turning monarch, his career echoes that of so many others. But there is one passage that is strikingly unusual. The only unique and characteristic feature of this king is that he rebuilds the yūpa of the former king Panāda. Now, in the translations by Rhys Davids and Walshe, yūpa is mistranslated following the commentary as “palace”.

But that is not what it means: it means “sacrificial post”. It was a decorated pillar to which the sacrificial victims were led and tied. I have discussed this in a previous post, and here is an image of a yūpa:

Note the presence of the horse. This is, in fact, a depiction of the Horse Sacrifice, and you will note the image of the Queen on the reverse side, in her role as mother of the realm. During the ritual, she has intercourse—real or simulated—with the dead horse. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that this happens entirely in public, while she is maintaining a ritualized bawdy exchange with the priests of the sacrifice, describing the act in detail.

Okay, so Saṅkha resurrects the sacrificial post of King Panāda. Why he does this is not mentioned. Panāda is mentioned as a king of the past in Thag 2.22, so his post was really old. But what is noteworthy is that it is literally a resurrection of ancient rites of kingship. Even though the horse sacrifice is not mentioned in the sutta, the description of the wheel-turning monarch is clearly modeled after the Brahmanical model of kingship, the highest ritual of which was the horse sacrifice.

I mentioned that the commentary says the yūpa is actually a palace. While this is a mistake—the description in the verses at Thag 2.22 are clearly a sacrificial post—it is an instructive one. One of the key features of myth is that it is told and retold until the tellers no longer understand the meaning. Lacking context, and fearful of the irrational, they invent new backgrounds and events, giving a rationalizing and ethicizing context to a story of much darker and more fetid roots.

Nevertheless, though the exegetes try to present the text as a purely rational one, illustrating a “moral”, they cannot prevent the irrational, which clings to the story, irrupting when least expected.

The verses of King Panāda occur not just in the Theragāthā, but also in the Jātakas, at Ja 264, where again the English mistranslates yūpa as “palace”. But the rabbit hole goes deeper, for that Jātaka mostly tells of events in the Buddha’s day, referring the reader to Ja 489 Suruci for the story of the past. That is quite a long story, so I won’t detail it here. But it is a fertility myth about a queen who cannot give birth. Eventually she conceives with divine intervention; her son is literally the son of God. This is the boy who will grow up to become King Panāda.

The problem with Panāda is that he is no fun. The great ceremony for his consecration goes on for so long, the people complain. But it cannot finish until the prince smiles. The King and Queen pull out all the stops, employing all manner of entertainers to make him smile, all to no avail. The whole passage is extraordinary, but I will just mention one detail here. Here is the passage, lightly modified from the old translation.

Then came two senior jugglers, Bhandu-kanna and Pandu-kanna, and say they, “We will make the prince laugh.” Bhandu-kanna made a great mango tree, which he called Unparalleled, grow before the palace door: then he threw up a ball of rope, and made it catch on a branch of the tree, and then up he climbed into the Mango Tree. Now the mango tree Unparalleled they say is [the Divine King] Vessavana’s mango . And the slaves of Vessavana grabbed him and chopped him limb from limb, and threw down the bits. The other jugglers joined the pieces together, and poured water upon them. The man donned upper and under garments of flowers, and rose up and began dancing again. Even the sight of this did not make the prince laugh.

I don’t know if seeing a man dismembered before your eyes would make you laugh, but hey, maybe they had a different sense of humor back then. The crucial role of humor here is fascinating. It represents, once more, the irrational, the surrender to lower impulses. When, later on, the prince finally is amused, he manages only a slight smile, while everyone else, bereft of mindfulness, is literally rolling around the floor in hysterics.

But here we have all the elements, barely disguised, of the classical Frazerian tree-sacrifice cycle. The tree is explicitly divine. The mango is a classic Indian symbol of fertility, and is associated elsewhere in the Jatakas with the same mythic cycle. The fool is the figure of the irrational, the reduced and comic victim of the sacrifice. He is a watered-down substitute for the king or the god who is the true victim of the sacrifice. But the sacrifice is not carried through, as he is resurrected after his death on the tree; thus the myth is already at several levels of remove from its grisly origins.

King Vessavana is a yakkha, that is, a native deity worshiped in ancient India. You know who else is a yakkha? Panāda. He’s mentioned in DN 20 and DN 32. Not much detail is given, but in both cases he is loosely associated with Vessavaṇa. In any case, from a mythic perspective Panāda the mythic king and Panāda the deity are the same entity. In the old days, or in some places not so old, kings and gods were pretty much the same thing. In all probability, there was an ancient cult of human sacrifice for this deity, who may or may not have originated as a historical king, and what we have here are a few broken relics, sticking jaggedly out of the ground like fossils in the desert.

Thus the ascension ritual of King Panāda relies on the ancient method of ensuring power via human sacrifice. The mango tree is just a symbolic variant of the sacrificial post; or rather, the post, as an artificial construct, is a substitute for the older use of a tree on which to hang or tie the human or animal victim.

This is the post that is resurrected by King Saṅkha. After completing this, he gives it away, goes forth under Metteyya Buddha and becomes awakened.

And that, my friends, is why mythology is so incredibly cool.


#2

just kidding!


#3

Once again, a very cool essay by which to start my day. One of the many reasons I love Sutta Central; I get to see through doors of mythology, history, language, and Dhamma that otherwise would not be open to me. I’m a rank amateur in these subjects, but it’s very cool stuff.

I read DN26, and it seems to me a teaching of life, ethics, deviation from ethics, descent into depravity, death, and rebirth. The theme of practice of the Path, renunciation and going forth, is central to the story, as well.

As has been well documented, the ordination ritual mimics in important ways a funeral rite: the one who ordains dies and is reborn in their new life.

Consistent with the theme of public sacrifice or punishment for crimes in the kingdom, the yūpa as public post for execution enters the story:

So he bade his men saying: Now, look ye! bind this man’s arms behind him with a strong rope and a tight knot, shave his head bald, lead him around with a harsh sounding drum, from road to road, from crossways to crossways, take him out by the southern gate, and to the south of the town, put a final stop to this, inflict on him the uttermost penalty, cut off his head.

The theme of punishment for bad acts, and Vedic sacrifice ( The Vedic yūpa, when cut, becomes the first victim of the animal sacrifice, and then becomes an instrument of death for other victims.), might be related, or perhaps unrelated. In either case, before the reappearance of ethics, and that of Metteyya , the kingdom has lost the Wheel, life in the kingdom degrades into immorality and poverty, and before the period of rebirth, there is this sense of sacrifice or punitive death.

This is the post that is resurrected by King Saṅkha. After completing this, he gives it away, goes forth under Metteyya Buddha and becomes awakened.

In a sense, Saṅkha resurrected a commitment to ethics in the kingdom by rebuilding the sacrifical post. Out of this act, goodness and ethics is restored and he goes off to become awakened.

Cool, for sure.


#4

Fascinating!

The excerpt describing the show displayed by the two jugglers trying to make the Prince laugh, is almost exactly the same account as what is known as the “East Indian Rope Trick” from the history of magic/illusion/mass-hypnosis.

the rope seems to rise high into the sky, disappearing from view. The boy climbs the rope and is lost to view. The magician calls to the boy, and feigns anger upon receiving no response. The magician arms himself with a knife or sword, climbs the rope, and vanishes as well. An argument is heard, and then human limbs fall, presumably cut from the assistant’s body by the magician. When all the parts of the body, including the torso, land on the ground, the magician climbs down the rope. He collects the limbs and puts them in a basket or covers them with a cape or blanket. The boy reappears, uninjured.


#5

Fascinating essay!

It is interesting to think of the Buddha’s career in a metaphorical sense, for example Prince Siddhartha, you could say, died symbolically, perhaps on the banks of the Neranjana, when he took a knife to his princely turbaned hair. His horse dies of a broken heart on the same banks. However he seems to use the term Bodhisatva on himself while still in his palace but after he decided to venture out and seek enlightenment. So maybe he died not on the way, but as part of a ‘human’ sacrifice. In symbolic preparation for the ultimate detachment of Nibbana.

In a different kind of sacrifice the past Buddha ‘sacrifices’ in the hundreds but the future Buddha is said to sacrifice in the thousands!

Darkness of the subconscious can be tapped by a few, especially by good story tellers. However real psychopaths have no awareness of what is going on in their subconsciousness - they just do it. The more detailed the story the less likely the author will do anything of the sort in real life, IMO. It has makings of a horror story and something frightening with some gory details ‘spice’ the story up.

Having said that the Buddha would have known he was decimating his clan. Indirectly, true, but not unknowingly. A difficult decision for a Buddha but he seeks what’s best for each person, not in terms of worldly success but a spiritual one -if the two were to clash, that is. He must have been aware that others would have seen him only in terms of the negativity he brought to the material success of the Sakya clan. That perspective would be a common and understandable one. Now how many more similar situations the so called ‘Buddha of metta’ will give rise to it is difficult to say but it is likely to be widespread. Many will however truly benefit. Mother will 'sacrifice ’ for her son. Son will sacrifice himself for her. Cannibalism. Familiar love. Love turns into food sometimes and vice versa. One mother dreams that a white elephant enters her womb. Metteyya Buddha is foretold to become a fully enlightened in his palace as the myths go. Maybe he has to look after an aging mother…or a M-I-L or two. Interestingly lay Buddhists outnumber monks nowadays. If societal circumstances are similar when he arises it makes sense he arises in a lay environment with full awareness of its challenges.

As for his name Karaniyamatta sutta became the Metta sutta. In the former word ‘atta’ means that which is ‘meaningful’. However it later becomes transformed into ‘metta’, with good reason. Metteyya could be just his name (a pronoun), without any particular meaning. It could mean metta or (m)atta. I prefer the latter. We could give meaning to it, depending on what it means to us personally, without locking it down.

The Buddha gives away, as much dhamma as we can possibly consume (of him).

With metta


#6

Interesting, where is this from?


#7

It’s a famous legendary magic trick. Penn and Teller did a documentary looking for how it might have been performed in the 90s and figured it was probably just a legend. But it’s the exact same narrative as in the scripture you presented.


#8

I think I probably encountered it when I went through a phase where I read everything I could on hypnosis; maybe from an Ormund McGill book? …Western stage magicians had a tendency to play up the “mysticism of the orient”.


#9

The Wikipedia article on this is great.

I love this quote:

The journalist James Saxon Childers in 1932, reported that he visited India with a desire to see the trick but noted that “the first conjuror I asked about the rope trick smiled at me, the second laughed, and the third swore that the trick could not be done, had never been done, and that only the amazing credulity of the Occident nurtures the rumor.”

Here’s an engraving from a supposed demonstration of the trick in China:

It seems very likely that the origins of the trick lay in a gradual misremembering of the myth told here. Given that, even in the ancient tale in the Jatakas, the mango tree is a divine one—originally meaning that it was part of a sacred grove—it would follow the normal evolution of myth if the divine elements were to disappear: in this case, quite literally. The tree vanishes from the story as god has vanished from the earth. What’s left is a game, a trick, an illusion. I talked about this process at some length in White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes: I wish I had known of this example then!

For some more examples of how the joker figure emerges as a scapegoat, a substitute for ritual regicide:

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Golden_Bough/Human_Scapegoats_in_Classical_Antiquity


#10

If you have time, could you elaborate on this for me as well as other readers here, Bhante? Although the information about the connection to human sacrifice is very interesting, this is what struck me as the most interesting, for the simple reason that it seems that metteyya is near-universally rendered incorrectly/slightly-less-correctly-than-ideal in almost all Buddhist materials if this is the case, which is fair enough.

If possible, could you elaborate on how this etymology is established, and, if you know, how the false or “folkish” etymologies linking metteyya/maitreya with the roots maitrī & mitra comes to be?


#11

Well, I don’t know enough about the history of the word to be able to trace the changes, but just to make a few points.

First up, it is extremely common in the Indian exegetical tradition to use “puns” as ways of playing with the meanings of words. This arises from the oral tradition, where a teacher is explaining and elaborating a given text. Such puns are found very frequently in the commentaries, and in fact, there is often no real distinction between a pun and an etymology. Given that the word metteyya looks like mettā, that’s quite enough to suggest various plays on words, and as time goes on, of course, these get taken as serious, literal doctrines.

Second, note that metteyya is used as a proper name elsewhere in the canon, at Snp 4.7. As noted in the recent post on adjectives, in Pali it is extremely common to blur the line between epithet and proper name. So this could be simply a nice name, as we might call someone “Hope”. Or it could be a quasi-nickname, arisen for someone who shows a touching love for their mother.

Third, an obvious reason for the pun is that metteyya looks more like mettā than it does like mātā, mother. But this is misleading. To understand the derivation we must begin with petteyya, with which metteyya is always used (except when as a proper noun). Petteyya means “paternal piety”. It is comparable to the Sanskrit pitrya, where the form is more clear.

In Pali, it is constructed by adding the patronymic secondary suffix -eyya. It is common in Pali that when such suffixes are added the initial vowel is lengthened, here, from i to e. (This seems odd, but we do similar things in English; compare “child” with “children”, for example, although there the vowel is shortened.) The doubling of the t is again quite a common phenomenon in Pali, an echo of the ancestral r which is still evident in the Sanskrit.

In the form for “maternal”, again this is more clear in the Sanskrit form mātṛka. The Pali manuscripts in fact vary in spelling between the expected matteyya and metteyya. The latter is a non-standard form, where the initial vowel has been influenced by petteyya. While this is not standard, it is not an uncommon feature of languages; there are many similar examples in English.

So while the form doesn’t immediately appear to resemble mātā, in fact the derivation is quite straightforward. And certainly its use together with petteyya confirms the meaning.

Now, to be sure, in principle metteyya can also be derived from mettā. It would be via the addition of the secondary possessive suffix -eyya, with the sense “one possessing love”. And no doubt this is how it was understood as a personal name.

The problem is there is no independent support for this sense, whereas the sense “maternal piety” is quite common and well-established. And the context in the Cakkavattisīhanada, where the introduction to Metteyya places maternal piety in such a prominent role, confirms that this is the sense here.

One of my little principles in translating Pali is the Occam’s razor of translation: “thou shalt not multiply meanings unnecessarily.” Unless a convincing example is adduced from non-Pali texts, I regard this as a settled meaning.