Below is an excerpt from the 2018 Khyentse Foundation Prize for Outstanding Translation, Dr. Andy Rotman’s Divine Stories: Divyavadana, Part 2. The text, an important representative of early Indian narrative writing, encourages reflection on a whole range of Buddhist thought, practice, and narrative.
The Story of Dharmaruci
Five Hundred Merchants and a Sea Monster
Thus have I heard. At one time the Blessed One was staying in the city of Śrāvastī at the Jeta Grove in the park of Anāthapiṇḍada (Almsgiver to the Poor).
At that time five hundred merchants gathered up their goods, and after passing through marketplaces, villages, towns, trading centers, and capitals, one after another, arrived at the shore of the great ocean. There they carefully chose an ocean-going ship, but when the merchants saw the great ocean, they were of two minds. They couldn’t bring themselves to go down to the water.
“Friend,” the merchants said to the captain, “proclaim for us the true glory of the great ocean!”
“Listen, honorable men of Jambudvīpa (Black Plum Island)!” the captain proclaimed. “In the great ocean there are treasures such as these—jewels, pearls, beryl, and conch, quartz, coral, silver, and gold, emeralds, sapphires, red pearls, and right-spiraling conch shells. Whoever wants to make himself happy with such treasures, and to delight his mother, father, wife, and children, servants, maids, workers, and laborers, friends, counselors, kinsmen, and relatives, and whoever wants, from time to time, to present to those worthy of offerings—ascetics and brahmans—gifts that guide one upward, bring good fortune, result in pleasure, and lead to heaven in the future, he should set sail in this great ocean to find that wealth.”
Since all beings, without exception, desire wealth and spurn poverty, everyone who heard him decided to set sail in the great ocean. As a result, the ship was overcome by all those people and the heavy load. It began to sink on the spot.
“The ship can’t take it!” the captain said.
“So whom should we tell to disembark?” the merchants asked.
Then those merchants said to the captain, “Proclaim for us the true infamy of the great ocean!”
“Listen, honorable men of Jambudvīpa!” he proclaimed again. “In the great ocean there are also great, great dangers—the danger of sea monsters like the Timi and the Timiṅgila, the danger of waves, the danger of turtles, the danger of going aground, the danger of sinking, the danger of running into reefs, and the danger of hurricanes. Dark-clothed pirates may also come and steal your riches. Whoever is prepared to give up his very life and to give up his mother, father, wife, and children, servants, maids, workers, and laborers, friends, counselors, kinsmen, and relatives, as well as wonderful Jambudvīpa, he should set sail in the great ocean.”
Few men are brave. Many are cowards.
Hearing this, those who had clambered on board expressed their agreement—“So be it, so be it”—and then most of them disembarked from the ship. Only a small number remained. Thereafter the merchants cut one of the ship’s ropes, then a second and a third and so on, until all the ropes were cut. Once the ropes were cut, the great captain launched the ship, and urged on by powerful winds, it sailed off quickly, like a cloud in the sky blown by a cylone. It soon arrived in Ratnadvīpa (Treasure Island).
When they arrived there, the captain said to the merchants, “There are glass jewels just like diamonds here in Ratnadvīpa. You should examine them carefully, one by one, as you collect them. Let’s not have any regrets after you’ve returned to Jam bu dvīpa. And here there are the story of dharmaruci also females called kroñca maidens. If they come across a man, they’ll attack him with stones, and he’ll straightaway meet with his death. There are also intoxicating fruits here. Whoever eats them stays asleep for seven days and nights. And here in Ratnadvīpa, nonhumans don’t put up with men after seven days. They’ll stir up headwinds that will carry off a ship, even if one’s work isn’t finished. If you find any of these fruits, don’t eat them!”
After listening to this, the merchants remained mindful and on their guard. When they arrived at Ratnadvīpa, they diligently looked for treasures, examining one after another, and they filled their ship with these treasures as one would with barley or barleycorn, mung beans or black gram. Once they’d filled the ship, they departed with favorable winds leading them back to Jambudvīpa.
Now in the great ocean, creatures are dispersed across the three water levels. In the first level, creatures have bodies one hundred leagues long, though sometimes their bodies are two or three hundred leagues long. In the second level, they have bodies eight hundred leagues long, though sometimes their bodies are nine, ten, or up to fourteen hundred leagues long. In the third level, they have bodies fifteen hundred leagues long, though sometimes their bodies are sixteen hundred leagues long, or even up to twenty-one hundred leagues long.
And in the great ocean, these species of animals are intent on devouring each other. Those who live in the first level are eaten by those in the second level, and those who live in the second level are eaten by those in the third level. Now it was for this reason that the sea creature Timiṅgila arose from the third water level, brought himself to the uppermost water level, and began to roam about. Then he opened his jaws, and in that moment water from the great ocean was sucked into his mouth with great speed. Pulled by that mass of water, a great variety of sea creatures such as fish, tortoises, vallabhakas, crocodiles, and makara monsters flowed down through his mouth and into his belly. As Timiṅgila was doing this, his head from far away appeared to be separate from the rest of his body, like a mountain touching the sky. And his eyes from far away looked like two suns in the sky.
The merchants reflected on this from far away, and as they reflected on the form of the great churning ocean, they began to think, “Friends, what is this? The rising of two suns?” As they were occupied with such thoughts, their ship began to be swept toward Timiṅgila’s mouth. Watching their ship being swept away and reflecting on the two suns that had arisen, they were panicked. “Friends,” they said to each other, “have you heard it said that seven suns will rise up at the destruction of an age? Well, now it seems that they have arisen.”
Then the captain spoke to the men, engaged as they were in such thoughts: “Friends, you have heard of the sea monster Timitimiṅgila. Well, this is the danger of Timitimiṅgila. Friends, look at that! What appears like a mountain rising from the water is his head. And look! Those dark ruby-red streaks are his lips. And see there! That dazzling white strip is a row of his teeth. And look at those two things that appear like suns from far away! Those are the pupils of his eyes.”
Again the captain addressed the merchants. “Listen, my friends! There is no way now that we can save ourselves, no way to be free from this danger. Death stands before us all. So what should you do now? Each of you should pray to the god in whom you have faith. Perhaps by these prayers some deity will free us from this great danger. There is no other means of survival.”
Those merchants, afraid as they were of dying, began praying to gods such as Śiva, Varuṇa, Kubera, the great Indra, and Upendra to save their lives. Despite their prayers, nothing happened to save them from the mortal danger they faced. Just as before, their ship was being pulled by the current and carried off toward the mouth of the Timiṅgila monster.
There was, however, a lay disciple of the Buddha on board. He said, “Friends, there is no escape for us from this mortal danger. Every single one of us will die. Still, let all of us raise our voices together and say, ‘Praise to the Buddha!’ If we have to face death, let us die with our the story of dharmaruci awareness focused on the Buddha. This way there will be a good fate for us after death.”
Then every single one of the merchants, with their hands respectfully folded, raised their voices together and said, “Praise to the Buddha!”
Now the Blessed One, who was staying in the Jeta Grove, heard those words with his divine hearing, which is faultless and super human. And upon hearing them, the Blessed One exercised his power so that the Timiṅgila monster could hear that outcry. When Timiṅgila heard that cry “Praise to the Buddha!” an unease arose in his mind, and he became worried: “Oh no! A buddha has arisen in the world. It wouldn’t be right for me to eat any food after hearing an invocation of the Lord Buddha’s name.” Then he began to think, “If I close my mouth suddenly, this ship will be driven back by the swell and destroyed. Many people will lose their lives. I should close my mouth gently and ever so slowly.” Then the Timiṅgila monster closed his mouth gently and ever so slowly.
Freed from the jaws of that great monster, the merchants’ ship found a favorable wind and soon arrived at shore. When the merchants came to shore, they loaded their goods on carts, camels, bulls, donkeys, and so on, and after passing through marketplaces, villages, towns, and trading centers, one after another, they arrived in Śrāvastī. Once there, they reflected, “It’s only proper that if a ship successfully completes its voyage because of the power of someone’s name, all its treasures should go to him. We really should give these treasures to the Lord Buddha.”
Then they collected those treasures and went before the Blessed One. Having each, in turn, placed their heads in veneration at the Blessed One’s feet, they said to him: “Blessed One, we set sail on the ocean in a ship, and then when our ship was being carried off by the Timiṅgila monster and the end of our lives was before us, we spoke the name of the Blessed One, concentrating our awareness on him, and were thus freed from the jaws of that great monster. Now that we have successfully completed our voyage, Blessed One, we have come here, safe and sound. It’s only proper that if people successfully complete a voyage on a ship because of the power of someone’s name, the treasures of that ship should go to him. By speaking the name of the Blessed One, we escaped from that mortal danger. Therefore the Blessed One should take these treasures of ours.”
The Blessed One said, “I have obtained the treasures of the [five] spiritual faculties, their corresponding powers, and the [seven] factors of awakening. What can ordinary gems do for the Tathāgata beyond this? My sons, if you want to go forth as monks in my order, come with me.”
The merchants reflected, “Whatever life we have is completely due to the power of the Lord Buddha. Let us abandon these treasures and go forth as monks under the Blessed One.”
Then they distributed their treasures, according to custom, to their mothers, fathers, wives, and children, servants, maids, and workers, friends, counselors, kinsmen, and relatives, and went forth as monks. After going forth as monks, they strived, struggled, and strained until they directly experienced arhatship.
Excerpt courtesy of Wisdom Publications and Dr. Andy Rotman. Divine Stories: Divyavadana, Part 2, translated from Sanskrit by Andy Rotman, Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017. Photos by Sarah Anne Wilkinson.