Saturday, November 14, 2009

Failing a test or provoking failure: Which is worse?

It’s a lovely Saturday morning and I’m feeling very relaxed, in part knowing that I have completed my personal challenge of blogging every day about a chapter in the Dhammapada. As I finished with that yesterday, I’m feeling like I can take it easy, maybe enjoy the day, go for a hike, and perhaps later catch up with my Frank Zappa blog, which I’ve been neglecting due to the Dhammapada blog posts.

So as I’m enjoying my morning coffee, I read the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw (MN 21, note this link is to only an except of this sutta, not the entire sutta, but it is the excerpt I’m concerned with), I’m getting what the Buddha is teaching here, particularly the similes being used to describe how to control one’s anger. But then I read the example about this woman Lady Vedehika who had a well-known reputation of being calm and gentle. Lady Vedehika also had a slave girl named Kali who is aware of this reputation, so she gets this big idea of “why don’t I test her?” Kali wants to know if Lady Vedehika is truly without anger, or whether Vedehika has anger that just hasn’t been provoked. And that’s what Kali does: she deliberately sets out to provoke anger out of Lady Vedehika and she is so successful that Vedehika goes into a rage and clobbers the slave girl on the head with a rolling pin. So what does that little bitch Kali do? She runs out and tells people that Lady Vedehika’s reputation of being calm and gentle is false, because look here! Our calm and gentle lady clobbered me on the head just because I didn’t get my lazy ass out of bed early enough like I normally do!

Of course, because of this, Lady Vedehika’s reputation gets trashed, all because of that conniving bitch slave girl Kali. And this is used as a lesson to show monks how important it is to abandon anger and not reacted with hatred toward those who might provoke it.

OK, I get that. It is a noble state of affairs to strive for, to develop the calm and serenity so that I completely abandon anger and not react to provocation with anger. But what’s this deal with Kali? In fact, the summary of this sutta provided by Access to Insight describes the story as being about “a wise slave who deliberately tests her mistress's patience.” Wise slave? To me Kali is a conniving little bitch! She deliberately went out of her way to engage in behavior she knew would likely provoke a response, just to satisfy her curiosity as to whether it was really true Lady Vedehika was calm and gentle, or just a bitch waiting to be provoked.

What’s worse here? Lady Vedehika failing a test of her anger? Or Kali deliberately setting out to provoke such a failure?

I could see a couple monks getting together to deliberately test the patience of another monk, because if the tested monk fails, he has the Sangha to help him overcome his hindrance and eventually abandon the unskillful quality. That would have been a much better simile, I think, to present such an example. But that’s not the case in the simile used by the Buddha. In some ways, this sutta is like a Buddhist version of the Book of Job.

It is as if I had a boyfriend, and together as a couple, we enjoyed a reputation of being trusting and loving. And that I also enjoyed a reputation of being trusting and loving because I showed no feelings of being threatened by how my boyfriend hangs out with other friends occasionally, other men who I do not associate with. I exhibit no jealousy because I have no reason to believe that my boyfriend would sleep with any of his friends, despite how good looking they might be. And my boyfriend becomes aware of the reputation of how trusting and loving I am by hearing others comment on it. Maybe they even say to him how lucky he is to have found a partner like me.

But rather than being content with the knowledge, “my boyfriend Richard is such a kind and trusting partner, so trusting he does not worry about me when I go out with other friends. He does not need to worry because I do not, in fact, sleep with any of my other friends. And people tell me how lucky I am because they have jealous boyfriends. What if I test Richard to see if he really is trusting and loving, or if he also can become jealous if he discovers that I flirt shamelessly with other men, and then have a sexual encounter with another man?”

Well gosh, how do you think I’m going to react? I’m not the bloody Buddha. I’m not even a flipping monk. I’m just a guy here, trying to do the best I can, and if you go out and deliberately behave like that, I am going to be mad as hell and I’ll kick your sorry ass out.

Funny, just thinking about this fictitious scenario really has me riled! I guess I should follow the Buddha’s guidance and abandon these unwholesome thoughts and focus on something positive. Like it’s a really freaking beautiful day out, perfect for a hike in the woods!


  1. May I respectfully suggest that we go to the source and read the originals? In this particular case it is really unfortunate because you have come so close on your own.

    Take a look at:

    or listen to an audio exposition at:

  2. I see your point. At least that is one way to look at it and rather humorous. :)

    My first impression with this story is that the slave girl is showing how appearances can be deceiving. And using a queen, a woman, as the subject for experiment was most interesting to me because in my experience, women can be the most expert at deception, appearing all innocent and mild on the outside. In this way, they are also expert at manipulation.

    So the action of the slave girl may cause the townspeople and the reader to learn not be taken by appearance only because a truly self-satisfied person of gentle spirit would not have gotten offended if they instead had been the subject of Kali's test. I think that was her original intent, to find out if the queen's demeanor was truly of peace because if it was, Kali would have had someone truly outstanding to take lessons from.

    Of course, this is just one more way to look at it. There could be others, such as how suddenly a reputation can be spoiled...

    Thank you for taking the trouble to write about it. I just discovered this story today and did a web search for reading various posts about it here and there.