A parable of practical advice for responding to attack

Leigh Wells
Leigh Wells


IN THE SAKKA CHAPTER of the Samyutta Nikaya (11.4), the Buddha teaches, as he often did, by means of a parable, and this one remains as relevant today as it was in ancient India. The story addresses the issue of what a strong person is to do if insulted, attacked, or otherwise provoked by someone weaker. It could, however, just as easily pertain to how a mighty nation might respond to the provocations of a smaller nation or the threats of a criminal.

The Buddha tells of a great battle set in mythological time between the gods and the demons. In the end, the demons were defeated and their leader, Vepacitti, was bound by his four limbs and neck and brought before Sakka, lord of the gods. There, we are told, Vepacitti “abused and reviled [Sakka] with rude, harsh words.” (The commentary elaborates upon these insults, and this makes for some very entertaining reading.) Yet Sakka remained calm, regarding his prisoner with mindful compassion. Sakka’s charioteer Matali was puzzled by this response, and a poetic debate ensued. Let’s listen in:

Matali: Could it be you’re afraid, Sakka, Or weak, that you forebear like this, Though hearing such insulting words From the mouth of Vepacitti?

Sakka: I am neither afraid nor weak, Yet I forebear Vepacitti. How is it one who knows, like me, Would get provoked by such a fool?

Matali: More angry will a fool become If no one puts a stop to him. So let the wise restrain the fool By the use of a mighty stick.

Sakka: This is the only thing, I deem, That will put a stop to the fool: Knowing well the other’s anger, One is mindful and remains calm.

Matali: This very forbearance of yours, Sakka, I see as a mistake. For when a fool reckons like this: “From fear of me he does forebear,” The dolt will come on stronger still—Like a bull the more that one flees.

Sakka: Let him think whatever he wants: “From fear of me he does forebear.” Among ideals and highest goods None better than patience is found.

At issue in this discussion are two opposing models of human nature, as well as two correspondingly different strategies for responding to attack. Matali’s approach relies upon the exercise of power to restrain and punish. To act otherwise can only be an indication of fear or weakness. If an adversary senses a hint of either, the argument goes, it will only make him bolder and more aggressive.

Sakka takes a broader view, one grounded in wisdom, patience, and calm. In his first verse he points out that his forbearance is an expression of his understanding. Knowing how the causes of anger and hatred are rooted in toxic underlying dispositions, and knowing the unwholesome effects these have on mental states when unleashed, he is able to see clearly both the sources of Vepacitti’s anger and the harm that comes with venting it. Would one who understands these things allow himself to be diminished by being pulled off center and goaded into a comparable expression of anger? The wise bull does not chase after waving red cloaks.

Freedom means being able to choose how we respond to things. When wisdom is not well developed, it can be easily obscured by the provocations of others. In such cases we may as well be animals or robots. If there is no space between an insulting stimulus and its immediate conditioned response—anger—then we are in fact under the control of others. Mindfulness opens up such a space, and when wisdom is there to fill it one is capable of responding with forbearance. It’s not that anger is repressed; anger never arises in the first place.

In his second verse, Sakka makes the further point that absorbing someone’s anger without pushing back on it will eventually exhaust the anger. We all know from personal experience how the fire of anger can be fueled as it is hurled back and forth between people, growing in intensity and in its potential for doing harm. This will happen when there is a strong attachment to the sense of self, when there is someone who is insulted and feels wounded, orsomeone who launches their own attack in response. Once again, Sakka points out the importance of “knowing” the anger of the other rather than discounting or ignoring it. But this knowing needs to be accompanied by mindfulness (sati) and calm (upasama) if it is to siphon off and dissipate the anger. If there is no one to accept the anger that is offered, as in the person who truly shares the nonself insights of the Buddha, it will find no place to land and will gain no footing.

The final verse has Sakka reiterating the importance of patience (khanti), and the value of adhering to what one knows to be beneficial. According to Buddhist teaching, each of us constructs a virtual world of local phenomenal experience, moment to moment, as the mind and the body process sense data. The quality of intention manifesting in this field of experience is a matter of great importance, for it shapes who we are and who we become. From this perspective the views and opinions of Vepacitti are of no consequence to Sakka, whose well-being—that is, his higher good—is better served by maintaining the wholesome influence of patience during all the moments Vepacitti might be hurling abuse at him.

Such inspiring behavior is also rooted in compassion. As the final verses of this exchange attest, calm in the face of anger is motivated as much by concern for the other person as for oneself. Since anger is harmful, helping others let go of their anger by not responding in kind contributes to their healing. What would it take for us, individually or collectively, to exemplify the wisdom of forbearance? As Sakka explains:

It is indeed a fault for one
Who returns anger for anger.
Not giving anger for anger,
One wins a double victory.

He behaves for the good of both:
Himself and the other person.
Knowing well the other’s anger,
He is mindful and remains calm.

In this way he is healing both:
Himself and the other person.
The people who think “He’s a fool,”
Just don’t understand the dhamma.