The True Value of Beauty

O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,

By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!

The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem

For that sweet odour which doth in it live.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 54

In this poem, Shakespeare was arguing his belief that there is a strong link between truth and beauty. This may not be the most famous sonnet he ever wrote, but it’s one of the best poetic meditations on the meaning of beauty.

Prince Nanda, also known as Sundarananda (handsome Nanda), was the younger half-brother of the Buddha. It was seven years after his Enlightenment that the Buddha, at the request of his father who missed him, returned to his home city. On the third day of his return, after his meal, the Buddha silently handed his bowl to Nanda. After that he stood and left. Thinking that the Buddha would take his bowl back, Nanda followed him until he reached the Park where the Buddha was staying.

When they arrived at the Park, the Buddha asked Nanda if he might become a monk. Although Nanda had just wedded the beautiful Janapada Kalyani, that same day Nanda took ordination and joined the community of Monks.

However, Nanda enjoyed no spiritual happiness. His thoughts were constantly directed towards his beautiful wife and his heart pined for her. Learning of this, the Buddha took Nanda on a journey to Tavatimsa Heaven. On the way Nanda saw a she-monkey that had lost her ears, nose and tail in a fire, clinging to a charred stump as if she couldn’t bear to let go no matter how ugly it was.

When they reached the heaven abode, Nanda saw beautiful celestial nymphs. They have long ago obtained their enlightenments and were blanketed by the glow of their happiness and compassion. The Buddha asked Nanda, “Which do you consider more beautiful? Those nymphs or Janapada Kalyani?” Nanda replied, “Venerable Sir, Janapada Kalyani looks like the scalded she-monkey, compared to those nymphs.” The Buddha then said, “Nanda, can you now see that what you thought to be exceedingly beautiful now pales in comparison to greater beauty?”

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.

Kahlil Gibran

You might wonder what then happened to Nanda’s beautiful wife. Some time after her husband left to become a monk, the princess Janapada Kalyani, also known as Rupananda, pondered, “My elder brother who could have become a Universal Monarch has renounced the world to become a bhikkhu. Rahula, the son of my elder brother, and my own husband Prince Nanda have also become bhikkhus. My mother Gotami has also become a bhikkhuni, and I am all alone here!”

So she went to the monastery and became a bhikkhuni herself. But there was a problem, she had become a bhikkhuni not out of faith but only in imitation of others and because she felt lonely. It soon became obvious that Nanda was not fully focused on her life as a nun. Nanda’s thoughts were mainly directed centred on her own beauty and her popularity with the people.

She had heard from others that the Buddha often taught about impermanence and earthly dissatisfactions. So she thought that, if he should see her, he would talk deprecatingly about her good looks. Therefore,  with this thinking, she kept away from the Buddha. But other bhikkhunis coming back from the monastery kept talking in praise of the Buddha. So one day, Rupananda decided to accompany other bhikkhunis to the monastery.

The Buddha saw her and reflected, “A thorn can only be taken out with a thorn; Rupananda being very attached to her body and being very proud of her beauty.” The  Buddha called her explicitly, and when she presented herself in an ashamed and anxious demeanour, he appealed to all of her positive qualities to make her feel a bit more joyful and calmer to receive his teaching. Since Nanda was so preoccupied with her physical beauty, he caused an image of a very beautiful lady to be seated near him, fanning him. This young girl was visible only to Rupananda and the Buddha. When Rupananda saw the girl, she liked her very much but she realized that compared to that girl, she herself was like an ugly old crow compared to a beautiful white swan.

Then, she looked again and was surprised to find that the girl had grown older. Again and again, she looked at the figure beside the Buddha and every time she noticed that the girl had grown older and older. Thus, the girl turned into a grown-up lady, then into a middle-aged lady, an old lady, a decrepit and a very old lady successively. Rupananda came to realize that there was a continuous process of change and decay in the body. With the coming of this realization, her attachment to the body diminished. Finally, the figure near the Buddha died – her body became  bloated, pus and maggots came out of every openings on her body until crows and vultures tried to snatch her.

Having seen all these, Rupananda pondered, “This young girl has grown old and decrepit and died in this very place under my own eyes. In the same way, my body will also grow old and wear out; it will be subject to disease and I will also die.” Thus, Rupananda gained a deeper understanding of the nature of her beauty.  Then the Buddha spoke to her:

This body is built with bones which are covered with flesh and blood; within this dwell decay and death, pride and detraction

Dhammapada Verse 150
Janapadakalyani Rupanandatheri Vatthu

Later, when he saw her again, the Buddha recognised Rupananda as being the foremost amongst bhikkunis. Rupananda had spent time meditating on the impermanence of her body and soon found her inner peace.

The Dhammapada is a Buddhist text that is believed to record the actual words of the Buddha who lived between 563 and 483 BCE. His words were passed along orally until they were written down in about the first century BCE. 

Achieving Simple Happiness

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Happy Thought’, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

Once upon a time, there was a rich man. As he became older, this rich man realized that the suffering of old age was about the same for rich and poor – in other words, in the end his money didn’t mean as much as he thought. So he gave up his wealth and class position, and he went into the forest to study under an old master and live as a poor monk. He practiced meditation and developed his mind. He freed himself from unwholesome thoughts and, slowly but surely, he became contented and happy.

At that time, most monks usually looked pretty serious. But there was one monk who, even though he was quite dignified, always wore at least a little smile – this monk was the person who used to be rich man. No matter what happened, he never lost this glimmer of inner happiness. And on happy occasions, he had the broadest smile, and the loudest, warmest laughter of all. Sometimes others would ask him why he was so happy all the time. He usually laughed and said, “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me! And if you think I lied to you, then it would be a disrespect to my master.” His master, the chief monk, was so impressed by him that he made the happy monk his assistant.

Much later, after the rainy season, the chief monk and his many followers went to the city. The king permitted them to live in his royal garden for the springtime. This king was a good man, who took his responsibilities as ruler seriously. He tried to protect the people from danger, and to increase their prosperity and welfare. But, of course that doesn’t mean that he had no troubles in his life. He always had to worry about neighbouring kings, some of whom were unfriendly and threatening. He often had to make peace between his own ministers because they wouldn’t stop bickering among themselves, not to mention his personal life – Sometimes his wives fought for his attention, and for the advancement of their sons. Occasionally, a dissatisfied subject even threatened the life of the king himself! And, of course, he had to worry constantly about the finances of the kingdom. In fact, he had so much to worry about that he never had time to be happy.

“The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large” — Confucius (500 BC)

As summer approached, the king learned that the monks were preparing to return to the forest. As the monks were living in his garden for a season, the king had gotten to know them quite well and he was very impressed with the peacefulness and welfare of the old leader. So the king went to him and said, “Your reverence, you are now very old and weak. What good does it do to go back to the forest? You can send your followers back while you remain here.”

The chief monk then called his number one assistant, the happy monk, to him and said, “You are now to be the leader of the other monks, while you all live in the forest. As I am too old and weak, I will remain here as offered by the king.” So his many followers returned to the forest and the old one remained.

The happy monk continued practicing meditation in the forest. He gained so much wisdom and peace that he became even happier than before. After a while, he missed his master and wanted to share his happiness with him. So he returned to the city for a visit.

When he arrived, he sat on a rug at the feet of the old monk. They didn’t speak very much, but every so often the number one assistant would say, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”

Then the king came to visit. He paid his respects to the chief monk. However, the one from the forest just kept saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!” He did not even stop to greet the king and show proper respect. This disturbed the king and he thought, “With all my worries, as busy as I am looking after the kingdom, I take time out for a visit and this monk does not respect me enough to even recognize me. How insulting!” He said to the senior of the two monks, “Venerable sir, this monk must be stupid from overeating. That must be why he is so full of happiness. Does he lie around here so lazy all the time?”

The head monk replied, “Oh king, have patience and I will tell you the source of his happiness. Not many know it but this happy monk was once a king, just as rich and mighty as you. Then he was ordained a monk and gave up his kingly life. Now he thinks his old happiness was nothing compared to his present joy. He used to be surrounded by armed men who guarded and protected him. Now, sitting alone in the forest with nothing to fear, he has no need for armed guards. He has given up the burden of worrying about wealth that has to be protected. Instead, free of the worry of wealth and the fear of power, his wisdom protects himself and others. He advances in meditation to such inner peace, that he cannot keep from saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”

Hearing the story of the happy monk made the king feel at peace. He stayed for a while and received advice from both of them. Then he honoured them, and returned to the palace. Later the happy monk, who once had been a king, paid his respects to his master and returned to the lovely forest. The old chief monk lived out the remainder of his life in the king’s garden, lending him peace and advice, until his peaceful death.

Pangur Bán

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

English translation by W. H Auden (1907 – 1973)

This is an Old Irish poem written by a monk in the ninth century – about his cat. I would really like to show you this because it’s such a gloriously happy poem about the life of the old monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.

 “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less” — Socrates (450 BC).

The Happy Monk is one of the many stories in the Jataka Tales. The Jataka are a voluminous body of literature concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha  in both human and animal form. The tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD.

Driving Away Your Anger with Kindness


“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, …”

Homer, The Iliad, Book 1 (800 BCE)

One of the very first word in the history of Western literature is “anger”. That is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed sometime in the eighth century BC, it starts with a call to the Muse to help tell the story of the “anger” of Achilles — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers.

The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had had run off with a Trojan prince. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him.

No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. By setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. Dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric even today. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of  so-called “enemy country” do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do. In short, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “human like us.” Therefore, the idea behind this is that when we feel angry with anyone, we should try to find out some good in them, either in their way of thinking, speaking or acting. If we find some redeeming quality in them, we should ponder its value and ignore their bad qualities as natural weaknesses that are to be found in everyone. Whilst we think thus, our mind will soften and we may even feel kindly towards that person. If we develop this way of thinking we will be able to curb or eliminate our anger towards them.

Another way to reflect on anger is given to us by this ancient Buddhist story from the Samyutta-Nikâya:

Once there lived a demon who fed on the anger of others. As his feeding ground was the human world, there was no lack of food for him. So the anger-eating demon found it quite easy to provoke a family quarrel, or national and racial hatred, or even to stir up wars. And whenever he succeeded in causing a war, he could properly gorge himself without further effort; because once a war starts, hate multiplies by its own momentum and affects even the normally kind-hearted people. So the demon’s food supply became so rich that he sometimes had to restrain himself from over-eating, being content with nibbling just a small piece of resentment found close-by.

But as it often happens with successful people, he became rather overbearing and one day when he was feeling bored he thought: “Shouldn’t I try it with the gods?” Then he chose the Heaven of the Thirty-three Deities, ruled by Sakka, Lord of Gods. He knew that, although these gods were far above petty and selfish quarrels (they are gods after all), only a few of them had entirely eliminated the fetters of ill-will and aversion. So he transferred himself to that heavenly realm and was lucky enough to come at a time when Sakka the Divine King was absent. There was none in the large audience hall and without much ado the demon seated himself on Sakka’s empty throne, waiting quietly.

Soon some of the gods came to the hall and first they could hardly believe their own divine eyes when they saw that ugly demon sitting on the throne. Having recovered from their shock, they started to shout and lament: “Oh you ugly demon, how can you dare to sit on the throne of our Lord? What utter cheekiness! What a crime! you should be thrown headlong into the hell and straight into a boiling cauldron! You should be quartered alive! Begone! Begone!”

But while the gods were growing more and more angry, the demon was quite pleased because from moment to moment he grew in size, in strength and in power. The anger he absorbed into his system started to ooze from his body as a very smelly red-glowing mist. This evil aura kept the gods at a distance and their radiance was dimmed.

Suddenly a bright glow appeared at the other end of the hall and it grew into a dazzling light from which Sakka emerged, the King of Gods. But he was unshaken by what he saw. The smoke-screen created by the gods’ anger parted when he slowly and politely approached the usurper of his throne. “Welcome, friend! Please remain seated. I can take another chair. May I offer you the drink of hospitality? Our Amrita is not bad this year. Or do you prefer a stronger brew, the vedic Soma?”

While Sakka spoke these friendly words, the demon rapidly shrank to a diminutive size and finally disappeared, trailing behind a whiff of smoke which likewise soon dissolved.

The Tipitaka is a massive collection of texts that were first compiled by the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE. It was divided into 5 volumes (nikayas). The Samyutta Nikaya (“Connected Discourses” or “Kindred Sayings”) is the third of the five volumes.

Death, Impermanence and Knowing that You are not Alone

Though one should live a hundred years
not seeing the Deathless State,
yet better is life for a single day
seeing Deathlessness.

Dhammapada, Verse 114 – Kisagotami Vatthu

Long time ago, there was a lady. She had had a happy life. She grew up as daughter of a rich man and eventually married to a rich young man. She lived happily with her husband and bore him a son.

Then the other side of life caught up with her.  Her only son died. He was only a toddler. The lady was overcome with grief.  Carrying the little dead body of her son, she went everywhere, asking everyone she met for medicine that would restore her son to life. Of course, no one could help her and people began to think that the poor woman had gone mad. But one wise man thought that he should be of some help to her. So, he said to her, “The Buddha is the person you should approach, he has the medicine you want; go to him.” Thus, she went to the Buddha, told him her story and asked him to give her the medicine that would restore her dead son to life. The Buddha listened compassionately to her story. He then said to her, “lady, go and ask for five mustard seed from a house which has never experienced death.”

Feeling hope for the first time, still carrying her dead child,  she went from house to house, asking if perhaps the house is free from death and they could spare five mustard seeds for her. Although everyone was willing to help her and readily provided her with five mustard seeds from their house, she could not find a single family that has not experienced death.

Then, as she went from house to house with her dead son refusing to give up her quest, she started to realise that hers was not the only family that had faced death. As she continued her search, she felt the grip of pain in her heart and her attachment to her son’s body loosened.

At last, she was ready to let go. She understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once she accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She left her son’s body in the jungle and returned to the Buddha to pay her respect. She reported that she could find no house where death had not occurred. Then the Buddha said, “death comes to all beings; before their desires are satiated death takes them away.” On hearing this, she fully realised the impermanence of life.

Later, she became a bhikkhuni. One day, early in the morning, she put on her robes and, taking her bowl & outer robe, went into the city for alms. When she returned from her alms round she went to the Grove of the Blind and sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s meditation.

Then Mara the Evil One, a demon, wanting to arouse fear and terror in Kisagotami to ruin her concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

          Why,

with your sons killed,

do you sit all alone,

          your face in tears?

          All alone,

immersed in the midst of the forest,

          are you looking

          for a man?

Kindly, she replied to him in verses:

I’ve gotten past

          the killing of sons,

have made that the end

to [my search for] men.

I don’t grieve,

I don’t weep —

          and I’m not afraid of you,

          my friend.

It’s everywhere destroyed — delight.

The mass of darkness is shattered.

Having defeated the army of death,

                    free

          of fermentations

                    I dwell.

Sad and dejected, Mara the Evil One vanished, and she was free to continue her quest for enlightenment.

The Therigatha (or “Verses of the Elder Nuns”) in the Pali Canon recounts a version of the story. The Therigatha is  a collection of short poems of early women who were elder nuns. The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE.