OVERCOMING WEAKNESS & DISCOVERING NO BIRTH: The Story of Parsva

The Dharma can radically change your life. We are not just made of flesh and blood and the bones of our life are not just the ones made of calcium. Sometimes something else gets into us and the sick get up and dance. Listening to scriptures recited in the morning air, one can be touched by eternity.

Parsva (Japanese: Barishiba) came from central India. Before he was born his father had a portentous dream of a white elephant with a radiant pearl on its back from which shone four light beams. Later it was thought that these four beams represented the four assemblies of Buddhists to whom Parsva would later minister - ordained and lay, men and women.

His mother was old when he was born. His birth was difficult. He was a sickly child, but of a serious turn of mind. When he was young, a sooth-sayer made a prediction that he would become a saint.

Everyone said that
Parsva was too weak

When the sage Buddhamitra was travelling in central India the father met him and, impressed by his teaching and remembering the prediction by the sooth-sayer, agreed to let his son, Parsva, be ordained as a monk. Everyone said that Parsva was too weak to manage being a monk. To be a monk one had to learn a lot of scriptures and do dedicated meditation and Parva, they said, would be incapable of either.

Comments of this kind, however, made Parsva more determined. Soon he was studying all day and meditating all night. It is said that he did not sleep for three years. He served his teacher with extreme devotion. Parsva is held up as a prime example of determination in practice, but this determination did not just come from will power. Parsva felt the presence of Shakyamuni Buddha close at hand. He felt as if the Buddha’s very bones entered into him and given him strength. One day he heard Buddhamitra reciting sutras and explaining the meaning of no-birth. Parsva was enlightened.

Entering the teaching of no-birth one comes face to face with the Buddha’s of all times and directions. One’s purpose transcends circumstance. One no longer minds where one goes or arrives. One is always arriving and departing and worlds appear and disappear, but one is not flustered because one belongs to That which surpasses birth and death. Again, as the Unborn has no favourites, one who knows it lives a life of complete responsibility. Master Keizan says: Everyone is a vessel of the Truth; every day is a good day; every place is a sutra.

Once Master Parsva was travelling when some youngsters came up and asked if they could help him by carrying his books. He gave them the books and they ran off with them, making fun of him. An observer noticed that Master Parsva was not in the least disturbed by this bad behaviour and realised that the master must be something special and came to study with him. Through incidents like this the reputation of Master Parsva grew and grew.

At that time there was a King, Kanishka, who was Buddhist. He was from Sri Lanka but also ruled much of India. He convened a Great Council in Kashmir and put Masters Parsva and Buddhamitra in charge. This is sometimes called the Third and sometimes the Fourth Great Council.

The task of the council was to produce an authorised version of the Buddhist scriptures. Theravadins and Mahayanists have different versions of the story and of which scriptures are the real ones. However, it seems that the Council recognised 18 different schools of Buddhism as all being legitimate and true successors to the teachings of Shakyamuni.

Parsva, himself, followed the Sarvastivadin approach to the Dharma. The Sarvastivada school, which no longer exists, can be regarded as intermediate between Mahayana and Sthaviravada. Sarvastivadins took refuge in the Dharmakaya, recognised the bodhisattva and arhant paths and believed that women had as much possibility of becoming Buddhas as men. The term sarva-asti-vadin, literally all-existence-school, implies "the school that asserts that the Dharma is ever-existing in the past, present and future". 

Thus we see the transformation of Parsva from a weak child to a great spiritual leader. The main features of this story are firstly his devotion to his teacher. Secondly, his great determination to study and practise based on both challenge and inspiration. Thirdly, his arrival at the no-birth state of deep equanimity. Finally, his even-handedness in dealing alike with hooligans, kings and competing sects.

Both Punyayashas and Ashvaghosa benefitted from encounters with Parsva and his legacy comes down to us through many lineages. The ordinary person wants to know what his reward will be before doing good or what the penalty will be before avoiding harm, but when one relies on the Unborn, one needs nothing more. He does not have to know where he is going: wherever he is, it is the same light.

Parsva, who was born a weakling, discovered no-birth and lived to be eighty years old and the spirit of his deeds is still with us.


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