When the Buddha Sneezed…

When monks or lay-people came to the Buddha with a dispute over the behaviour of the monks and nuns, the Buddha would quietly listen and decide if there was any merit in the complaint. If there was, the Buddha would then act as a ‘judge’ and make a decision about what should be the ‘correct’ course of action for all Buddhist monks and nuns who find themselves in a similar situation. Once a ‘rule’ was formulated and agreed in this manner, an explanatory story was affixed to each ruling which conveys a situation in the past where such a clarification of opinion or behaviour was required. For Theravada monks (Bhikkhus) there are 227 basic rules, whilst for Theravada nuns (Bhikkhunis) there are 311 basic rules. Within Chinese Buddhism, for instance, monks and nuns also take and uphold the numerous Bodhisattva Vows. A lay-Buddhist has to follow at least 5 of these vows, or perhaps 8 or 10 – but a lay-person can follow the Vinaya and Bodhisattva Vows to the best of their ability, if they so wish to try. When in Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s, I met homeless and wondering ascetics in the jungles who sat at the foot of trees and wore rags. These men and women did not wash or cut their hair, ate very little and certainly were not ‘ordained’. Although technically ‘lay-people’, they had left home and were generally considered very holy and were greatly respected – even by many ordained Buddhist monastics. I was told that these people were not ‘normal’ and possessed extraordinary and pure ‘karma’. They did not speak and seldom acknowledged their surroundings in the normal sense.  Many passed away sat upright in meditation and nobody would realise for quite some time. When I was there, a wild elephant came to one such ascetic and ‘bowed’ on its front-knees before moving off. The ascetic had died whilst sat in meditation… 

One day, whilst the Buddha was explaining the Dhamma, he ‘sneezed’. This was met by a collective shout of ‘Jivatu bhante bhagava, Jivatu sugato” (Live thou Lord, Live thou Sugato)!  This happening (and response) interrupted the teaching. The Buddha explained that such a ‘blessing’ was pointless, based on superstition, illogical and of no spiritual profit. Sneezing did not necessarily mean a person was dying, and the response of wishing a long-life possessed no karmic power whatsoever as there was no connecting ‘cause and effect’. Furthermore, as a Buddhist monastic had ‘given up the world’, and had ‘left home’, such a response was not fitting for an ordained Bhikkhu (or Bhikkhuni) who was engaged in the practice of non-attachment to life. However, the Buddha clarified, a Bhikkhu (or Bhikkhuni) could say a simple ‘long life!’ (Jiva!) to a lay-person after a sneeze, but not make the response to elaborate. This Vinaya Rule highlights the perceived difference between an ordain Buddhist monk (or nun) who has renounced life for complete enlightenment, and the average lay-person who spends most of their time attempting to live a morally’ good’ existence, and generating positive karma. (See: Cullavagga, v, 33,3). 

Reference: 

Sukumar Dutt: Early Buddhist Monachism, Asia, (1960), Page 27 

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