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Jataka Tale - The Story of Suparaga

Friday 12 June 2015, by Buddhachannel Eng.

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"Be you, honorable sea-traders, and you, different Devas, who have your dwelling in the sky, be my witnesses. Since the time in which I first became conscious of my Self, I do not recollect, no matter how much I ponder, having injured in any respect a single living being. By the power of this Act of Truth and by the strength of my store of meritorious actions, may this ship turn safely before reaching the Mare-mouth."

So great was the power of the Great Being’s veracity and the splendor of his merit, that both the current and the wind made an immediate change, pulling the vessel back from the brink of destruction. Filled with the highest admiration and joy, the merchants made reverential bows to Suparaga.

Sea journeys between India and the islands of the Southern Sea were particularly perilous during the era in which Borobudur was constructed. The following Jatakamala tale of the steersman Suparaga concerns a fateful journey to the “Land of Gold” (Suvarnadvipa), the name that greater India formerly used to refer to the island of Sumatra and adjacent portions of the Malay peninsula.

In one of his Bodhisattva existences, the Great Being (Mahapurusa) who would eventually become known as the Buddha was an extremely clever steersman. For this is the invariable nature of the Bodhisattvas. Owing to the innate acuteness of their minds, in whatever branch of science or art that they desire to know, they will inevitably surpass the wisest in the world.

Knowing the course of the celestial luminaries, the High-Minded One was never at a loss with respect to the regions of the sky. He was skilled in making keen observations of the color of the water. He also duly noted signs presented in the form of fishes, birds, and rocks, which told him just when it was proper or improper to undertake a change in course. In addition, he was vigilant, careful, patient and capable of enduring any fatigue brought on by cold, heat, or rain.

Skilled in the art of taking a ship out and bringing her back home again, he exercised the profession of one who conducts merchants by sea to their destination. Even in his old age, the merchants who trafficked with the Land of Gold, longing for a prosperous voyage, requested that Great Being embark with them.

"Old age, having exerted its power over me, has diminished my eyesight," replied Suparaga. As a result of the many toils that I have endured, my attentiveness has grown weak and my bodily strength is almost gone. What kind of assistance do you think to obtain from me?"

"The dust that is hallowed by your lotus-like feet will be auspicious to our ship and procure her a happy course over yonder sea, even if assailed by great danger," replied the merchants.

Out of his compassion for others, the Great Being agreed to board their vessel. His presence on the ship was a cause of rejoicing, for the merchants thought: "Now we are assured of a successful voyage."

And so they set off, and in the course of the voyage reached the Great Ocean, which is haunted by different kinds of fish and resounds with the everlasting murmuring of waves. Then suddenly a violent gale arose. Hissing like serpents, blue-black clouds began to roll overhead. As they rumbled with thunder, they unleashed flaming tongues of lightning. Smitten by showers of rain darts, the ocean rose up as if in a rage, which caused the poor ship to tremble as if in fear.

For several days, the storm continued to drive the ship along with the current. Not seeing land or any other favorable signs, the sailors grew fearful and dejected. The Bodhisattva Suparaga sought to comfort them.

"You must not wonder at the sea tossing about," said Suparaga. Are we not crossing the Great Ocean? There is no reasonable ground for Your Honors to indulge in worry. Why so? It is not by dejection that mischief is warded off; therefore do not remain in low spirits. Have courage to do what needs to be done and you will be able to surmount these obstructions without difficulty. So shake off your gloom and let each be intent on performing his own special duty. The energy of a wise man, when kindled by firmness of mind, is the best hand for grasping success in any matter."

Invigorated by the Great Being’s speech, the merchants went back to work. But when they looked down into the sea, they were surprised to see the figures of what appeared to be men that were clad in silver armor. When they informed Suparaga of what they had seen, the Great Being said:

"These are no men nor demons, but fishes, to be sure. Do not be afraid of them. Still, we are driven far off course. This is the sea called ‘wearing hoof-garlands’ (Khuramalin). Therefore you must try to turn back."

But despite their best efforts, the merchants could not veer the ship’s course due to the on-going fury of the high-running sea as well as the strong wind, which continued to drive the vessel in the same direction. As time went on, the merchants spied another sea, one that seemed to shine with the luster of silver.

"What great sea is this?" asked the merchants.

"Alas! We are penetrating too far" said Suparaga. "This is the sea called ‘wearing garlands of coagulated milk’ (Dadhimalin). It is not wise to go on if it is possible to turn back."

"But it is impossible to reduce the speed of the ship, must less to change her course," replied the merchants. "The current is driving her too swiftly and the wind is blowing the wrong way."

After crossing that Ocean of Milk, the merchants spotted yet another sea that had rolling waves that were tinged with the splendor of flame-licked gold. Filled with amazement, they asked Suparaga its name. "The celebrated name of this sea is ‘wearing fire-garlands’ (Agnimalin)," answered Suparaga. "And it would be very prudent if we were to turn back right now."

As the ship hurtled onward, the color of the sea changed once again. Now it was the color of kusa grass, with waters that were illuminated with the luster of topaz and sapphire gems. "This is the sea named Kusamalin," said Suparaga. "Like an elephant not heeding the goad, it will drag us forcibly along unless we make an effort to turn back. Surely it is not advisable to go further."

But however bravely the merchants exerted themselves, they were unable to turn the ship around. And so the vessel sailed onward into yet another sea, which glimmered with the light of emeralds and beryls. "You have gone too far," said Suparaga. "This is the sea called ‘wearing reed garlands’ (Nalamalin). This is well nigh the end of the world. It will be hard to return from here."

When the merchants heard that answer, their minds were drained of energy and their limbs were rendered powerless. Sitting down in dull sadness, they did nothing but sigh. Then just as the setting sun was poised to enter the ocean, a tremendous noise pierced both their ears and the hearts as if a myriad bamboo groves were cracking amidst a blazing fire. Upon hearing that sound, the trembling merchants jumped from their seats and spied an immense mass of water that cascaded downward as if over a precipice.

"The entire mass of ocean water seems to fall down into an abyss," shouted the merchants. "What sea is this, Suparaga, and what should we do now?"

"Alas! Alas!" cried the Great Being. "We have come to that dreadful place from which no one returns. This mouth-like entrance to the realm of Death is the Mare-mouth where the submarine fire resides."

Upon hearing the news, the poor merchants gave up all hope of life. Some wept aloud while others were struck dumb by fear and anxiety. Those who could still speak cried out to Suparaga for help.

"Practiced in the virtue of compassion for others, you are in the habit of relieving from fear those who are in distress. Now is the time for employing that great power of yours to rescue the distressed and the helpless that have taken refuge in you."

Out of compassion, the Great Being spoke these comforting words:

"It just occurred to me that there is one expedient that can be used even now to rescue us. But you must show courage for a moment."

When the merchants heard that there was still hope, their courage was revived. Upon fixing their whole attention upon the Great Being, they waited in silence.

Upon throwing his upper-garment on one shoulder and bending his right knee onto the ship’s deck, the Bodhisattva put his whole heart into the act of venerating the Tathagatas.

"Be you, honorable sea-traders, and you, different Devas, who have your dwelling in the sky, be my witnesses," spoke Suparaga. "Since the time in which I first became conscious of my Self, I do not recollect, no matter how much I ponder, having injured in any respect a single living being. By the power of this Act of Truth and by the strength of my store of meritorious actions, may this ship turn safely before reaching the Mare-mouth."

So great was the power of the Great Being’s veracity and the splendor of his merit, that both the current and the wind made an immediate change, pulling the vessel back from the brink of destruction. Filled with the highest admiration and joy, the merchants made reverential bows to Suparaga.

The Great Being instructed them to be calm and to hoist the sails quickly. The lovely outspread wings of her white sails caused the ship to fly over the surface of the sea like a flamingo in a pure and cloudless sky. Soon the ship was filled with the merry sounds of laughter.

No more adorned by the dimming glow of the twilight, the ornaments of the constellations began to make their appearance in the firmament. Only a faint remnant of light remained to separate the twilight from the commencement of the Night’s rule.

"Well, traders, while crossing the Nalamalin sea and the others, you must draw up sand and stones from the bottom of the seas and charge your ship with as much as she can contain," advised Suparaga. "This will keep the ship’s sides firm if she is assailed by a violent storm. Besides, that sand and gravel is reputed to be auspicious, so this activity will doubtless result in your profit and gain."

So the merchants drew up from the sea what they thought to be mere sand and stones but which were, in fact, beryls and other jewels. Loaded down with this burden, the ship reached the port of Bharukakkha in a single night’s course.

At daybreak the gleeful merchants discovered that their ship was filled with treasures: silver, gold, sapphires, beryls. At the same time, they discovered that the ship had already arrived back in their own home country. Exulting with joy they praised their savior.

In this manner even speaking the truth on the ground of righteousness is sufficient to dispel calamity. What can be said more to assert the good results of observing the Dharma?

Adapted from the 19th century translation by J. S Speyer




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