This excerpt from “The Great Story,” or Mahavastu—the Buddhist text that appeared about three hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha is part of a cohesive cosmogony that provides an account of the origins of precepts and their necessity. The story, told by Shakyamuni Buddha to his monks, describes the human compulsions toward greed, anger, and ignorance, the need for precepts to inhibit these tendencies, and the responsibility incumbent on a community—or state or nation—to elect a wise and noble leader. Theft, as described in the story, evolves from the idea of property, which is itself a consequence of a worldview grounded in duality. But this passage also suggests that while precepts can provide valuable and necessary resistance, they cannot in themselves return us to the “self-luminous state of joy,” described here as our primordial condition. So while the election of a just ruler ends the chapter, it’s not the end of the path of liberation. Reprinted from J. J. Jones’ 1949 translation with permission from the Pali Text Society.


Monks, there comes a time, there comes an occasion, when this universe after a long stretch of time begins to dissolve…. There comes a time, monks, there comes an occasion, when this universe, after a long stretch of time, begins to re-evolve once more, and while it is re-evolving certain beings, in order to achieve the extinction of existence and karma… are born in this world. These beings are self-luminous, move through space, are made of mind, feed on joy, abide in a state of bliss, and go wherever they wish. That, monks, is the appropriate condition of these beings who are self-luminous, move through space, are made of mind, feed on joy, abide in a state of bliss, and go wherever they wish. The moon and sun were not yet known in the world. Hence the forms of the stars were not known, nor the paths of the constellations, nor day and night, nor months and fortnights, nor seasons and years. That, monks, is the appropriate condition of those beings who are self-luminous, move through space, are made of mind, feed on joy, abide in a state of bliss, and go wherever they wish.

Then this great earth came into being like a lake of water, goodly in color and taste. It was sweet even as the pure honey of the bee. In appearance it was like an expanse of milk or butter.

Then, monks, some being who was wanton and of greedy disposition tasted this essence of earth with his finger. It pleased him by its color, smell, and taste. Now other beings … began to follow his example, and they too tasted this essence of earth with their fingers….

On another occasion, monks, that being ate a whole mouthful of this essence of earth as ordinary food. Now, monks, from the time that these beings began to eat whole mouthfuls of this essence of earth as food, their bodies became heavy, rough, and hard, and they lost the qualities of being seIf-luminous, of moving through space, of being made of mind, of feeding on joy, of being in a state of bliss and of

 Buddha with his hands in the vitarka (discussion) mudra, from Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (George Braziller). (c) 1990 The Trustees of the British Museum.
Buddha with his hands in the vitarka (discussion) mudra, from Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (George Braziller). (c) 1990 The Trustees of the British Museum.

going wherever they wished. When these qualities disappeared, the moon and sun became known, and consequently the forms of the stars, the paths of the constellations, night and day, months and fortnights, and the seasons and years.

These beings, monks, lived on a very long time feeding on this essence of earth, it being the source of their appearance, nourishment, and sustenance. Those who took much of it for food became ugly; those who ate little became comely. And those who were comely scoffed at the ugly, saying, “We are comely; they are ugly.” But while they thus lived on, proud of their beauty, vain and conceited, this essence of earth vanished.

Then there appeared on the surface of the earth an excrescence, like honey in appearance. This was goodly of color and smell, and it was sweet like the pure honey of the bee.

And, monks, when the essence of the earth had vanished those beings exclaimed, “Ah! What flavor it had! Ah! What flavor it had!” Thus does that ancient primeval expression become current once more, although men do not understand the significance of it.

And so, monks, those beings lived a very long time feeding on this excrescence on the surface of the earth…. While they thus lived on proud of their beauty, vain and conceited, the excrescence on the surface of the earth vanished, and in its place a creeping-plant appeared, like the bamboo in appearance. It was goodly of color, smell, and taste. It was as sweet as the pure honey of the bee.

When [it] had disappeared those beings groaned, “Alas! Oh! Alas! Oh!” Just as now, when men are afflicted by any calamity, they groan, “Alas! Oh! Alas! Oh!” In this way does that ancient primeval expression become current once more, although men do not understand the significance of it….

Now, monks, when the excrescence on the surface of the earth had disappeared, those beings went on living for a very long time on the creeping-plant, which became the source of their appearance, nourishment, and sustenance. Those who ate much of it became ugly; those who ate little, comely. And those who were comely scoffed at those who were ugly, saying, “We are comely, they are ugly.” While they thus became proud of their beauty, vain and conceited, the creeping-plant vanished.

In its place there appeared rice which was without powder or husk, being just fragrant grain. If it was cropped at evening, by the morning it had sprouted, ripened and fully grown, without any signs of its having been cut. If it was cropped in the morning, by the evening it had sprouted, ripened and fully grown, without any signs of its having been cut.

Now, monks, at the disappearance of the creeping-plant, those beings groaned, “Alas! Oh! Alas! Oh!” Even as men now do when they are afflicted by any calamity. In this way does an ancient primeval expression become current once more, although men do not understand the significance of it.

Then, monks, after the disappearance of the creeping-plant, those beings lived on a very long time feeding on the rice which was without powder or husk, but was just fragrant grain. And from [that] time… the distinguishing characteristics of female and male appeared among them. They looked on one another with inordinate passion in their hearts … [and] they became inflamed with passion for one another. Becoming inflamed with passion they violated one another.

And, monks, those who witnessed them violating one another, threw sticks at them, and clods of earth and mud. For, my friends, wrong and sin appear in the world when one being violates another…. In this way does an ancient primeval custom become current once more, although men do not understand the significance of it. Then, indeed, this was considered immoral, irreligious, and irregular, but now it is considered moral, religious, and regular.

This excerpt from “The Great Story,” or Mahavastu—the Buddhist text that appeared about three hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha is part of a cohesive cosmogony that provides an account of the origins of precepts and their necessity. The story, told by Shakyamuni Buddha to his monks, describes the human compulsions toward greed, anger, and ignorance, the need for precepts to inhibit these tendencies, and the responsibility incumbent on a community—or state or nation—to elect a wise and noble leader. Theft, as described in the story, evolves from the idea of property, which is itself a consequence of a worldview grounded in duality. But this passage also suggests that while precepts can provide valuable and necessary resistance, they cannot in themselves return us to the “self-luminous state of joy,” described here as our primordial condition. So while the election of a just ruler ends the chapter, it’s not the end of the path of liberation. Reprinted from J. J. Jones’ 1949 translation with permission from the Pali Text Society.


Now, monks, those beings, because of their immorality, got into trouble, and they were shunned by their fellows. So they left their homes for one day, for two days, for three, four, or five, for a fortnight, or for a month, in order to conceal their immorality, and during this time had their housework done by others.

Then, monks, this thought occurred to some being who had gone to gather rice, “Why should I tire myself, as I have hitherto been doing, by gathering rice at evening for supper, and again in the morning for breakfast? What if I were to gather once daily enough rice for both the evening and morning meals?” Then some other being said to him, “Come, good being, let us go and gather rice.” When this had been said, that other being replied, “You go, good being. As for me, I have fetched at one and the same time enough rice for both evening and morning.”

Then, monks, it occurred to that other being also, “This is surely a splendid practice. What if I in my turn were to gather at one and the same time enough rice for two or three days?”

Then yet another being said to him, “Come good being let us go and gather rice.” When this had been said, that being replied, “Do you go, good being, for I have gathered at one time enough rice for two or three days.”

Then, monks, it occured to that being also, “Surely, this is a splendid practice. What if I in my turn were to gather at one time enough rice for four or five days at one time?” And he went and gathered enough rice for four or five days at one time.

From the time, monks, that these beings began to live by hoarding the rice that was without powder or husk, but was just fragrant grain, powder and husk began to appear on it. And when it was cropped at evening it did not sprout, ripen and fully grow by morning, while the signs of its having been cut were clearly seen.

Then, monks, those beings hurriedly gathered together and took counsel. “Friends,” said they, “in the past we were self-luminous, moved through space, were made of mind, fed on joy, lived in bliss, and went wherever we wished. And while we were thus self-luminous, moved through space, were made of mind, fed on joy, lived in bliss, and went wherever we wished, the moon and sun were not known in the world, nor the forms of the stars, nor the paths of the constellations, nor day and night, months and fortnights, nor seasons and years.

“Then this great earth appeared, like a lake of water… it was like an expanse of butter or milk, and had a goodly color, smell, and taste. It was as sweet as the pure honey of the bee. But, friends, some being who was wanton and of greedy disposition tasted this essence of earth with his finger, and it delighted him with its color, smell, and taste. Then that being on another occasion ate a whole mouthful of this essence of earth as ordinary food. And we, seeing him, followed his example and ate whole mouthfuls of this essence of earth as ordinary food.

“Now, friends, from [this] time … our bodies acquired weight, roughness, and hardness, while the attributes we had before of being self-luminous, of moving through space, of being made of mind, of feeding on joy, of living in a state of bliss, and of going wherever we wished, were lost. And with the loss of these attributes, moon and sun became known in the world, and the forms of the stars, the paths of the constellations, days and nights, months and fortnights, and seasons and years.

“Friends, we lived on for a very long time feeding on that essence of earth… but when wrong and sinful states came to be known among … us, then this essence of earth disappeared. And in its place there appeared an excrescence on the surface of the earth, like honey in appearance and of goodly color and smell. It was as sweet as the pure honey of the bee.

“For a very long time, friends, we lived on that excrescence … but when wrong and sinful states came to be known among men, then the excrescence on the earth disappeared. And in its place there appeared a creeping-plant….

“And for a very long time, friends, we lived on that creeping-plant… but when wrong and sinful states came to be known among… us, then did this creeping-plant disappear. In its place rice appeared, which was without powder or husk, being just fragrant grain….

“For a very long time, friends, we lived on this rice…. But when wrong and sinful states came to be known among men, powder and husk began to envelop the rice. And when cropped at evening it did not sprout, ripen, and fully grow by the morning, while the signs of its having been cut were clearly seen.

“What if we were now to divide the rice fields and set boundaries to them? Let us allot this field to you, and this to ourselves.”

And so, monks, they set boundaries to the rice fields, saying, “This field is yours, this is ours.”

Then, monks, this thought occurred to some being who had gone to gather rice: “What will become of me? How shall I get a living, if my plot of rice fails? What if now I were to steal and take another’s?” And so, monks, while he was watching over his own plot of rice, he stole and took another’s.

This excerpt from “The Great Story,” or Mahavastu—the Buddhist text that appeared about three hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha is part of a cohesive cosmogony that provides an account of the origins of precepts and their necessity. The story, told by Shakyamuni Buddha to his monks, describes the human compulsions toward greed, anger, and ignorance, the need for precepts to inhibit these tendencies, and the responsibility incumbent on a community—or state or nation—to elect a wise and noble leader. Theft, as described in the story, evolves from the idea of property, which is itself a consequence of a worldview grounded in duality. But this passage also suggests that while precepts can provide valuable and necessary resistance, they cannot in themselves return us to the “self-luminous state of joy,” described here as our primordial condition. So while the election of a just ruler ends the chapter, it’s not the end of the path of liberation. Reprinted from J. J. Jones’ 1949 translation with permission from the Pali Text Society.


Another being saw him steal and take another’s rice, and when he had seen him, he went to him and said, “Indeed, good being, you have stolen and taken another’s rice.” And he replied, “Yes, good being, but it will not happen again.”

But, monks, the thought occurred to him a second time, when he had gone to gather rice: “What will become of me? How shall I get a living, if my plot of rice fails? What if I were now to steal and take another’s?” And a second time did that being … steal and take another’s rice.

That other being saw him thus a second time steal and take another’s rice, and when he had seen him, he went to him and said, “Good being, it is the second time that you have stolen and taken another’s rice.” And a second time, monks, did he reply, “Yes, but it will not happen again.”

But a third time, monks, did the thought occur to that being when he had gone to gather rice: “What will become of me? How shall I get a living if my plot of rice fails? What if now I were to steal and take another’s rice?” And so a third time did that being … steal and take another’s rice.

The other being saw him thus a third time steal and take another’s rice, and when he had seen him he went to him and beat him with a stick, saying, “Good being, this is the third time you have stolen and taken another’s rice.” Then, monks, he stretched out his arms, wailed, and cried, “Sir, wrong and injustice have made their appearance in the world, now that violence is known.” But, monks, the other being, throwing his stick on the ground, stretched out his arms, wailed, and cried out, “Sir, it is when theft and falsehood make their appearance in the world that wrong and injustice are known.”

And so, monks, the three wrong and sinful states of theft, falsehood, and violence made their first appearance in the world.

Then, monks, those beings hurriedly gathered together and took counsel. “Friends,” said they, “what if we were to select him who is most kindhearted among us, and most authoritative, to reprove whoever among us deserves reproof, and to approve whoever deserves approval? And we will assign to him a portion of the rice in the fields of each of us.”

And so, monks, those beings selected him who was the most kindhearted and authoritative among them, and said to him, “Let your majesty reprove whosoever among us deserves reproof, and approve whosoever deserves approval. We elect you to sovereignty over us all, and we give you a sixth part of the rice in the fields of each of us.”

So originated the idea that Maha-Sammata means “elected by the great body of the people.” So originated the idea that rajan means he who is worthy of the rice portions from the rice fields. So originated the idea that an anointed [noble] means he who is a perfect guardian and protector. So originated the idea that he who achieves security for his country is as a parent to towns and provinces. That is how a king can say, “I am king, an anointed [noble], and one who has achieved security for my people.”

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