Remembering Devadatta

Richard P. Hayes
June 1996

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
Carl G. Jung

Buddhists have traditionally done an exercise known as recollecting the Buddha (buddhanusati), which consists in reflecting on all the positive qualities of the Awakened One. Such an exercise is undoubtedly valuable in helping a Buddhist practitioner recall what he aspires to become. What such an exercise does not do, however, is to help the practitioner recall what he actually is and is arguably destined to remain for a very long time, namely, a being with negative traits that work daily to undermine his efforts to achieve spiritual transformation. The price of neglecting this bundle of counterproductive tendencies, which Jung poetically called The Shadow, has become evident in Western Buddhist circles in the form of prominent teachers whose spiritual ambitions, often well-intended, end up subverting the very Dharma that the teachers strive to transmit. The result is that Dharma practitioners often end up being hopelessly confused about which of their teacher's actions are reflections of transcendental insight, and which are reflections of worldly drives that have been masked by an apparently spiritual persona.

Although there is no sure-fire antidote to being misled by deliberate sham or insidious self-deception, one exercise that might help a practitioner be alert to the dangerous undercurrents that operate in the mentalities of all unenlightened sentient beings (and perhaps even in those deemed enlightened) is recollecting not only the luciferous, heroic archetypes provided in Buddhist literature, but also the shadowy, villainous archetypes.

Surely one of the most intriguing villains in the early canonical literature is Devadatta, the Buddha's cousin. It was he who became convinced that the Buddha had grown lax in his old age and had let discipline become less rigorous than necessary. Devadatta can be seen as an arch-conservative who harked back to the good old days, when monks lived under trees rather than in huts, wore robes made of shrouds taken from corpses rather than of cloth provided by pious householders, and strictly followed the severe restrictions on when and where alms could be sought. So convinced was Devadatta that the Buddha's latter day laxity was spoiling monks that he reportedly tried to engineer the Buddha's death! Failing in his assassination attempts, Devadatta still managed to create a schism within the community, resulting in half the monks leaving the Buddha and following his renegade cousin.

What is interesting about the depiction of Devadatta is that he is portrayed not so much as a villain driven by a lust for personal power, but rather as a sincere, albeit misguided, seeker of excellence and a champion of the severe discipline he felt was needed to achieve that excellence. His principal failure lay in his naive conviction that what had benefited him would also necessarily benefit everyone else and was even indispensable to the spiritual life. Who among us is not prone to occasionally making just such a mistake? Rather than concentrating only on the Buddha as a figure of light, one might do well to reflect on one's own Devadatta-nature, bringing it into the light of consciousness rather than driving it into the shadows where it can pounce on us unawares.

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