One of the things that always delights me about studying ancient Indian narrative is the way in which it so often resonates with contemporary concerns. The Avadānaśataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist compendium of tales that I have been working on in recent years, is a particular favourite in this regard. I have written before about the Buddha’s teachings on the merits of housework in this text, and love the gardening imagery that often features. Last week I found myself chuckling at story number 4.
The tale concerns a merchant who just can’t seem to make any money. After several failed voyages, he decides to try an ingenious solution: he promises to offer half of the wealth of his next trip to the Buddha. It works! But when he gets home from his voyage with all his immense riches, he is overwhelmed with greed, and regrets his previous promise.
It is what he does next that made me laugh, in our age of tax avoidance and dodgy dealing:
He sells the immense stock of valuable goods that he has brought home to his wife for two small coins. Then he uses these coins to buy incense, which he then offers to the Buddha.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. The Buddha’s power leads to a miraculous display, which humbles the merchant and prompts him to make a proper offering, and even an aspiration to achieve future buddhahood himself. His sneaky tactics can’t outwit the all-knowing Buddha. If only HMRC had such power.