What Are Those Monks Doing?

I’d like to share something with you that’s puzzled me for some time. I first came across this illustration a few years ago. It’s in the Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.8555. Click on the image or the number to see the whole thing, then come back here if you have any ideas.

What do you see? My first impression was that this looks like a stoning, with three monks throwing rocks at the fourth, prostrate monk. Are we looking at a punishment? I’m not sure the Vinaya sanctions this kind of thing. And it does look like the fourth monk has removed his shoes and is performing prostrations on a mat. While the other monks are throwing stones at him. Really? Why?

*  *  *

It was only recently, when I looked at the back of the manuscript, that I started to think I might have solved this puzzle. There’s a single line of Chinese writing, saying “Lotus Sutra, seventh fascicle”. Now, this could be nothing to do with the picture. I’m all too familiar with scrolls that have been reused for notes, writing exercises and, of course, idle doodles. But this picture is more than a doodle. Surely it means something.

Well, have a look at this verse from Chapter 10 of the sutra:

If when a person expounds this sutra
there is someone who speaks ill and reviles him
or attacks him with swords and staves, tiles and stones,
he should think of the Buddha and for that reason be patient.

Could that be the scene depicted here? I thought so, but then came across an even better bit of text in Chapter 20, which is a story about a bodhisattva called Never Disparaging:

This monk did not devote his time to reading or reciting the scriptures, but simply went about bowing to people. And if he happened to see any of the four kinds of believers far off in the distance, he would purposely go to where they were, bow to them and speak words of praise, saying, “I would never dare disparage you, because you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!”

Proving that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, there were some who were offended by this behaviour:

Among the four kinds of believers there were those who gave way to anger, their minds lacking in purity, and they spoke ill of him and cursed him, saying, “This ignorant monk – where does he come from, presuming to declare that he does not disparage us and bestowing on us a prediction that we will attain Buddhahood? We have no use for such vain and irresponsible predictions!”

The four kinds of believer, by the way, are monks, nuns, lay men and women. The story seems to be aimed against those Buddhists who didn’t hold with the Lotus Sutra’s doctrine that everyone will attain Buddhahood eventually.

Many years passed in this way, during which this monk was constantly subjected to curses and abuse. He did not give way to anger, however, but each time spoke the same words, ‘You are certain to attain Buddhahood.’ When he spoke in this manner, some among the group would take sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him. But even as he ran away and took up his stance at a distance, he continued to call out in a loud voice, “I would never dare disparage you, for you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!” And because he always spoke these words, the overbearing arrogant monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen gave him the name Never Disparaging.

So, the key phrase there is, “some among the group would take sticks of wood or tiles and stones and beat and pelt him.” Though in the end the bodhisattva runs away and continues not disparaging his tormentors from a safe distance, note that he begins by bowing to them. So here we have all the elements of our illustration. And I think, perhaps, the puzzle is solved.

*  *  *

Of course the tormentors in our picture are not monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, but just monks. But I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker. What’s interesting is the clothing of the monks. I assume this reflects the context in which the picture was made, that is, Dunhuang in the 9th or 10th centuries (I suspect). From which it appears that the monks at Dunhuang wore robes similar to those that Tibetan monks wear nowadays.

*  *  *

Incidentally, those nasty people who threw the stones, tiles and the like got their comeuppance. They had to spend an awfully long time in the deepest hell. The Buddha, who is the narrator of course, tells us this, and he also reveals that the bodhisattva Never Disparaging was the Buddha himself in a former life. And those nasty people? Well, even hell doesn’t go on forever, and at the end of the chapter the Buddha reveals that they are here now, among his audience. Anyhow, I think the story of Never Disparaging complements nicely this season’s messages of goodwill, tolerance and the like. Best wishes to all for Christmas and New Year. You are certain to attain Buddhahood!

*  *  *


The translations here are from Burton Watson, The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). I haven’t delved into the complexities of the text itself, and the sharp-eyed will notice that I didn’t address the question of whether either Chapter 10 or 20 falls within the seventh fascicle (juan qi) of the Sutra. Of course, to do this we must look at the different canonical versions of the sutra (Burton Watson’s translation is based on the most popular one, attributed to Kumarajiva), and then the several versions in Dunhuang that are not clearly related to the canonical versions. And that’s assuming that we are only looking at Chinese versions. All I have been able to ascertain at this point is that the Tibetan version the story of Never Disparaging appears in Chapter 19, falls under fascicle 11 (bam po bcu gcig pa) in the Peking Kanjur version. Any further thoughts are most welcome.

8 thoughts on “What Are Those Monks Doing?

  1. Being a simple beginner on this path, I’d like to ask you about this tale. Who is saying that all will attain Buddahood?

    And is that kinda like a blasphemy?

    Or, can it be a way of relating to all, that is, for me to feel humble and to “bow” to all other sentient beings because of the . . . I don’t know, “knowledge” that all have the budding Buddha within?

    Just a thought from

    michael j

    Conshohocken, PA USA

  2. I think I understand that in the very act of blogging things became much clearer to you (and then to us) than they were to begin with. Does blogging have some magic to bring answers to things that trouble or puzzle us? How did that work? I’d like to try some of it.

  3. Dear Michael J,

    I think the main point here is the “single vehicle” or ekayāna movement which is expressed in some Mahāyāna sūtras, including this one. That is, whatever Buddhist path you happen to be following, you will reach the same result in the end — Buddhahood. The converse idea, that the paths of the śrāvakas and prateyakabuddhas (followers of the the “Hinayāna) will only attain a lower result, also existed. I guess that the stone-throwers in this story held this latter view.


  4. Dear Dan,

    Don’t you think a lot of academic writing comes out of being puzzled to begin with? Then when we’ve come to some kind of conclusion, the puzzlement is reframed or entirely edited out of the picture. So is it just that puzzlement is more apparent in a blog? Or is it more about style – a tendency specific to blogs to put things in the form of questions rather than assertions?


  5. Dear S.,

    I think you’ve just answered the question I was wondering about… With a question. Of course, with a question! Happy New Year for you and for the whole wide world! Here’s hoping everything looks clearer to us, and twenty ten won’t turn out to be just a prescription from the optometrist. The future is full of uncontrolled variables, which under some circumstances would be taken as reason enough for hope, don’t you think? Will you allow me to express even more hope? OK. Here’s hoping more Tibetanists will join the community of bloggers and take things up a notch! What’s your New Year’s resolution?


  6. Re “What are those monks doing?”… Did it occur to you that they were playing a game?

    In Khyentse Norbu’s movie The Cup, in the scene where they are waiting outside the abbot’s room for an answer, the two young monks do something similar.

    I had vague memories of hearing about a Tibetan game where you throw a rock and try to dislodge the other person’s rock.

    And a PS regarding Michael J’s question about blasphemy: the Bodhisattva vow of Mahayana Buddhism is to stay in samsara until everybody achieves Buddhahood, maybe like a fireman making sure that everyone gets out of the burning building. Because we’re “all in the same boat,” to mix metaphors.

  7. A game – intriguing! No, I hadn’t considered it. Along with your reference to The Cup, there’s an article on stone-throwing games in Tibet here:


    Also, Dan wrote about Tibetan games a while ago, here:


    He quotes Desideri from the early 18th century, who mentions a Tibetan stone-throwing game “like quoits”. I wonder if he has any references that go back earlier than this…

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