Among the ethical precepts of his “Eightfold Path” was “Right Action,” which included avoiding all killing.
A legend is told of two kingdoms on the brink of battle. Each claimed the right to irrigate lands from a river flowing between.
The Buddha asked the two kings,
- “What is the water worth?”
- “Very little,” was the reply.
- “And what is a life worth?”
- “It is priceless.”
- “Then why would you trade something priceless for something of little worth?”
According to tradition, the following tale was told by the Buddha himself to monks whose quarrel had reached the point of violence.
Once long ago, there arose a quarrel between two kings.
One king was the great Brahmadatta. His kingdom was large and rich, and his troops were many. The other king was Dighiti. His kingdom was small and poor, and his troops were few.
Brahmadatta told his generals, “We will march against Dighiti and conquer his kingdom. He will not be able to resist me.”
When Dighiti heard of the army’s advance, he told Deva, his queen, “Nothing we do can prevent Brahmadatta from seizing our country. For the sake of our people, it is best to avoid a battle. Let us flee from the kingdom tonight.”
Deva asked, “Where can we go?”
“We will go to Brahmadatta’s own capital city, Benares. It is large enough to hide in, and he will never search for us there.”
So they took their young son, Dighavu, and fled by night to Benares. There they lodged in a poor quarter of the city. King Dighiti disguised himself as a wandering holy man and each day begged enough coins and food for them all.
Time passed and the prince grew toward manhood. Then King Dighiti told his wife, “Truly is it said, we may forgive those who hurt us, but we never forgive those we hurt. If Brahmadatta finds us here, he will surely kill us all. It is best to send our son from the city.”
The queen said, “Let him go to my parents in the west. There he can learn the arts and sciences proper to his estate.” So they sent the prince away.
Now, it happened that the barber from the court of King Dighiti was at this time at work in the court of Brahmadatta. One day, the barber caught sight of Dighiti in the marketplace, begging in the guise of a holy man. Hoping for reward, he secretly followed Dighiti to his home, then reported to Brahmadatta.
Brahmadatta sent his men to arrest the family. Dighiti and Deva were brought before him.
“Where is your son?” demanded Brahmadatta.
“Beyond your reach,” replied Dighiti.
Brahmadatta turned to one of his generals. “Tie them up and cart them around the city for all to see and scorn. Then take them out the south gate and execute them by the sword. Allow no one to perform the funeral rites. Their bodies shall be prey to birds and beasts.”
Now, on that very day, Prince Dighavu had come back to Benares to visit his parents. As he passed through the marketplace, he saw soldiers on horse and on foot, and among them a cart, and tied up in the cart, his mother and his father. And he was powerless to help them.
King Dighiti saw the prince as well. Wishing to advise his son, yet mindful not to give him away, Dighiti called out as if to no one. And these were his words:
- Be not shortsighted.
- Be not long-sighted.
- Not by violence is violence ended.
- Violence is ended by non-violence.
As darkness fell, King Dighiti and Queen Deva were taken outside the city walls and executed by the sword. Their bodies were left on the ground, with a dozen soldiers standing guard.
Within the city, Prince Dighavu told himself, “First I will perform the funeral rites for my parents. Then I will find a way to avenge them.”
He bought strong wine in the marketplace and brought it to the guards. They took it gladly, and soon lay drunk and asleep.
Dighavu piled up wood, placed his parents’ bodies on top, then lit the funeral pyre. He pressed his palms together and walked three times around the flames.
At that moment, at the royal palace, Brahmadatta was strolling upon his roof terrace, puzzling over the words of King Dighiti that had been reported to him. Gazing far south, over the city wall, he spied the fire and the figure circling it.
“It must be Prince Dighavu,” he told himself. And a cold fear gripped his heart.
The prince, his duty complete, slipped quickly into the forest. For days he stayed there, hiding from Brahmadatta’s men while grieving for his parents.
At last, the danger and the tears had passed, and Dighavu entered the city once more. At the royal elephant stables, he took work as an apprentice.
And so it was one morning that Dighavu rose early, sat before the stables, and sang to greet the dawn. His voice drifted to the palace and to the balcony of King Brahmadatta, who had also risen early, wakened by a fearful dream.
“How lovely,” said the king. “I have need of such music to ease my mind.”
He sent for the singer, and Dighavu was brought before him.
“Sing for me,” said Brahmadatta, not knowing who the young man was.
Dighavu sang, and the king’s heart was gladdened. Then Brahmadatta told him, “Stay with me.”
And Dighavu answered, “As you wish, my lord.”
So Dighavu became the king’s attendant. And since the young man’s conduct was agreeable and his words pleasing, the king grew ever more fond of him, bestowing on him more and more responsibility and trust.
Then came a day when Brahmadatta desired to go hunting. And he told Dighavu, “Today you will drive my chariot.”
And Dighavu replied, “It is an honor, my lord.”
So Dighavu that day drove the chariot of the king. But as the hunters pursued their quarry, Dighavu cleverly took a path that led away. He brought the king far from the sight and hearing of the others.
At last Brahmadatta said, “I wish to stop and rest.”
Dighavu dismounted and sat cross-legged on the ground. And he told the king, “Come rest yourself, my lord.”
So the king laid his head in the cradle of Dighavu’s legs, and slept.
Dighavu gripped his sword and drew it slowly from its sheath. He pointed the blade at the throat of Brahmadatta. And then there came to him the words of his father.
- Be not shortsighted.
- Be not longsighted.
- Not by violence is violence ended.
- Violence is ended by nonviolence.
The sword of Dighavu trembled. He drew it slowly away and replaced it in its sheath.
Brahmadatta breathed heavily and opened wide his eyes and sat up in alarm.
“What is wrong, my lord?” asked Dighavu.
“It is a dream that often plagues me,” said the king. “I see Dighavu, the son of my enemies, coming at me with his sword to avenge his parents.”
Then Dighavu clutched the king’s hair, dragged his head back down, and drew his sword. “I am Dighavu, son of your enemies, and here am I to avenge my parents!”
“Have mercy, dear Dighavu! Grant me my life!”
“How can I grant your life?” replied Dighavu. “Truly is it said, we may forgive those who hurt us, but we never forgive those we hurt. You have killed my mother and my father, and would surely kill me too. So the life to be granted is mine!”
“Then grant me my life,” said Brahmadatta, “and I will grant you yours!”
So Dighavu released the king and put away his sword. And the two rose and clasped their hands and swore never again to seek the other’s harm.
Then Brahmadatta said, “I have often pondered your father’s final words. Tell me, Dighavu, what did he mean when he told you, ‘Be not shortsighted.’?”
“My father meant, ‘Do not be quick to spurn a gift of friendship.’”
“And what did he mean when he told you, ‘Be not longsighted.’?”
“My father meant, ‘Do not allow your hate to last too long.’”
“And what did he mean when he told you, ‘Not by violence is violence ended. Violence is ended by nonviolence.’?”
“My father meant this: You, my lord, have killed my parents and stolen their kingdom. If I were to kill you in revenge, your allies would kill me, and then my allies would kill them, and so on, with no end to violence. But now instead, you have granted my life and I have granted yours. So violence is at an end.”
Then the king marveled at the wisdom of Dighavu, who understood in full what his father said in brief.
Indeed, so great was Brahmadatta’s admiration and his gratitude, he soon restored to Dighavu the kingdom of his father. And as long as both kings lived, all quarrels between them were resolved in friendship and good will.