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

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.