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The Story of the Son of Mahadhana

Neither living the chaste life nor gaining wealth in their youth, they waste away like old herons in a dried-up lake depleted of fish.

Neither living the chaste life nor gaining wealth in their youth, they lie around, misfired from the bow, sighing over old times.

I imagined "gaining wealth in their youth" would mean spiritual wealth, after all a lot of materially rich old people I know do sigh at old age, because material pleasures are often best enjoyed in youth.

Yet, the back story seems to indicate the Buddha did mean material wealth, which is odd. Granted, being rich and old is better than poor and old, still, old age to the unwise is great suffering.

Of course, Buddhism doesn't ab initio criticize wealth, or beauty. They are said to accrue as a result of good deeds, and are desirable as long as they don't interfere in bettering one's virtues and mind.

Still, it's not a perfectly flawless argument to equate pious virtue and shrewdness in wealth. Billionaires could even make a case of being equal to Arhats, more or less, as I currently understand this verse. This is made all the more odd on account of the Buddha's own rejection of wealth and kingdom.

Can someone shed more light? Are there two sets of guidelines that the Buddha advocated? One for those enmeshed in Samsara, and another for those gone forth?

The Story of the Son of Mahadhana

While residing at the Migadaya wood, the Buddha uttered Verses (155) and (156) of this book, with reference to the son of Mahadhana, a rich man from Baranasi.

The son of Mahadhana did not study while he was young; when he came of age he married the daughter of a rich man, who, like him, also had no education. When the parents on both sides died, they inherited eighty crores from each side and so were very rich. But both of them were ignorant and knew only how to spend money and not how to keep it or to make it grow. They just ate and drank and had a good time, squandering their money. When they had spent all, they sold their fields and gardens and finally their house. Thus, they became very poor and helpless; and because they did not know how to earn a living they had to go begging. One day, the Buddha saw the rich man's son leaning against a wall of the monastery, taking the leftovers given him by the samaneras; seeing him, the Buddha smiled.

The Venerable Ananda asked the Buddha why he smiled, and the Buddha replied, "Ananda, look at this son of a very rich man; he had lived a useless life, an aimless life of pleasure. If he had learnt to look after his riches in the first stage of his life he would have been a top-ranking rich man; or if he had become a bhikkhu, he could have been an arahat, and his wife could have been an anagami. If he had learnt to look after his riches in the second stage of his life he would have been a second rank rich man, or if he had become a bhikkhu he could have been an anagami, and his wife could have been a sakadagami. If he had learnt to look after his riches in the third stage of his life he would have been a third rank rich man, or if he had become a bhikkhu he could have been a sakadagami, and his wife could have been a sotapanna. However, because he had done nothing in all the three stages of his life he had lost all his worldly riches, he had also lost all opportunities of attaining any of the Maggas and Phalas."

I'd like to contrast this with another verse from the Dhammapada which is an emphatic put down of worldly gains.

Dhammapada Verse 178 Anathapindikaputtakala Vatthu

Pathabya ekarajjena saggassa gamanena va sabbalokadhipacce na sotapattiphalam varam.

Verse 178: Far better than sovereignty over the earth, or far better than going to the abodes of the devas, or far better than ruling supreme over the entire universe, is (the attainment of) Sotapatti Fruition.

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The PTS dictionary says,

Dhana (nt.) [Ved. dhana; usually taken to dhā (see dadhāti) as "stake, prize at game, booty," cp. pradhāna & Gr. qe/ma; but more likely in orig. meaning "grain, possession of corn, crops etc.," cp. Lith. dūna bread, Sk. dhānā pl. grains & dhañña=dhana -- like, i. e. corn, grain] wealth, usually wealth of money, riches, treasures. 1. Lit. D i.73 (sa˚); M ii.180.; A iii.222; iv.4 sq.; Nd2 135 (+yasa, issariya etc.) Th 2, 464 (+issariya); J i.225 (paṭhavigataŋ karoti: hide in the ground), 262, 289; ii.112; iv.2; Sn 60, 185, 302; Pv ii.610; DhA i.238. Often in combn aḍḍha mahaddhana mahābhoga to indicate immense wealth (see aḍḍha) PvA 3, 214 etc. (see also below ˚dhañña). -- 2. fig. Used in the expression sattavidha -- ariya -- dhana "the 7 fold noble treasure" of the good qualities or virtues, viz. saddhā, cāga etc. (see enumd under cāga) D iii.163, 164, 251; VvA 113; ThA 240.

In summary it means something like "treasure": whether that's money or good qualities or virtues.

Some comments:

  • It can't mean (wouldn't make sense meaning) literally only 'money' because it says, " If he had learnt to look after his riches in the first stage of his life..., if he had become a bhikkhu, he could have been an arahat" because though bhikkhus "accumulate virtue" they don't "look after money".
  • An origin story of the Buddha was that someone (I have forgotten who) prophesied that he would become a world-ruler or a spiritual emancipator (and his father wanted the former which is why he tried to keep him isolated in his palace, unaware of the wide world and of its spiritual needs).
  • According to what I've read e.g. (The Buddha's Teachings on Prosperity) Buddha doesn't condemn riches for the layperson. Although they're not ultimately or permanently satisfying (which is a reason why he suggests 'renunciation' instead, for monks), but riches are useful and there's some advice in the canon about how a lay person should fulfill their role within society.
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    I wonder if these stories or characters aren't apocryphal - the rich man is named Mahadhana. Translated - Maha is great or grand, and dhana is wealth. Unless it was a self assumed title, it'd be very odd to run into a rich man who was named "great rich man". This isn't the first instance I've noticed this form of addressing in the Dhp. either.
    – Buddho
    Sep 16 '15 at 9:12
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    Yes, or if you were fabulously rich perhaps you might choose "Mahadhana" as your son's name, who knows. Or maybe it was a nick-name (a use-name) like Gautama or Mahatma.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 16 '15 at 9:18
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    Gauthama wasn't a nickname, it was his family name. In fact all Buddhas in history are known from their family names.
    – dmsp
    Sep 16 '15 at 13:13
  • @dmsp I thought that "Shakyamuni" was his "family name" i.e. the name of his clan. Anyway, apparently (according to Wikipedia anyway) "Gotama" is a name with a meaning: "a person who dispels darkness by his brilliance, such as using the light of their knowledge to dispel the gloom of ignorance".
    – ChrisW
    Sep 16 '15 at 13:18
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    According to Jains, Gotama is Buddha's mom's (and step-mom's) family name which he adopted as a nickname in her memory. Apparently his father's family name was Shakya. "Muni" is a suffix-epithet for "wise" or "sage".
    – Andrei Volkov
    Sep 16 '15 at 22:33
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My take on this is as follows.

According to Dhp 75 (quoted below), the highest path is pursuing the holy life as a monk, and achieving progress on the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the best.

  1. One is the quest for worldly gain, and quite another is the path to Nibbana. Clearly understanding this, let not the monk, the disciple of the Buddha, be carried away by worldly acclaim, but develop detachment instead.

The second best is living the life of the lay Dhamma or faith follower and accumulating wealth, as stated in Sigalovada Sutta, Dighajanu Sutta, Adiya Sutta, Anana Sutta and so on. The lay follower must at least observe the five precepts and Right Livelihood (according to Vanijja Sutta). Please see this answer for sutta quotes and explanation.

There's a difference between the noble path followed by monks and the non-noble path followed by lay followers. Please see this answer for sutta quotes and explanation.

The worst is the case of Dhp 155-156 (quoted below), which is a person who in his youth, pursues excellence in neither the holy life nor the worldly life. He has wasted his time.

  1. Those who in youth have not led the holy life, or have failed to acquire wealth, languish like old cranes in the pond without fish.

  2. Those who in youth have not lead the holy life, or have failed to acquire wealth, lie sighing over the past, like worn out arrows (shot from) a bow.

This means that the word "wealth" in Dhp 155-156 of the Jaravagga indeed refers to material wealth, as per translations.

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  • the word in Dhp 75 is "lābha". Feb 3 at 7:14
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The Pali word in the Dhammapada 155-156 is dhana.

Suttas about material wealth (at least the following DN 31; MN 135; AN 3.19; AN 4.62; SN 37.30; SN 42.15; etc) appear to use the word "bhoga".

Other suttas (SN 1.73) use the word vitta.

Suttas about spiritual wealth (at least the following AN 5.47; AN 7.1; AN 7.5; Dhp 26; etc) use the word dhana.

To definitively answer this question, a thorough examination, similar to the above, is probably required.

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