Articles by, about, or with Rafe Martin

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“King Goodness: A Meditation on the Meaning of a Story,” by Rafe Martin

FromThe Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales
Published by Yellow Moon Press


At first glance the Buddhist jataka tale, “King Goodness” seems to be nothing more than a propaganda piece for Buddhist values, specifically for the virtue of non-violence.

Certainly traditional tales world-wide do dramatize values. In them specific causes are shown to lead to complex effects that lead to further causes, etc. But too easily tagged morals can also be the result of what happens when told tales get put into books. They get flattened out, abstracted from their live, oral-performance base and the “moral” takes over from the live experience of hearing and seeing the tale. The story of “King Goodness” has been with us for twenty-five hundred years. I’d like to look at it here, simply as that—a story—and see how it might serve its own meaning in ways that “King Goodness” as philosophy cannot.

To summarize the tale: King Goodness is a good king. He is noble, fair, generous, and virtuous. An vengeful minister asserts that the king’s committment to goodness has left his kingdom weak and helpless; that such committment grows from a fundamental incompetence and naivete. This hypothesis is tested by another king in a series of raids into King Goodness’ realm. The raiders are captured. But when they explain that poverty alone motivated them, King Goodness gives them gifts and releases them. Not one is punished further for the crimes they have committed. Convinced that King Goodness’s kingdom can be easily taken, the enemy king invades. As the army advances, King Goodness exhorts his mighty champions to refrain from violence. The army of the invading king wins easily. King Goodness and his one thousand champions are brought to the graveyard and are buried there, up to their necks, and abandoned to the jackals.

King Goodness remains alert and unfrightened. When the jackal king closes in for the kill he grabs on with his teeth to the jackal’s ruff and lets the terrified beast pull him from his grave. Then he frees his men.

Two goblins are in dispute nearby, each claiming the greater portion of a corpse. Growing aware that a just man is in the graveyard, they go to King Goodness and ask him to divide the corpse for them. After bringing him his bath, clothes, and food from the palace they present him with his sword. He splits the corpse perfectly into identical sections. In gratitude the goblins return King Goodness and his men to the palace.

The false king awakes, sees King Goodness standing be the bedside, and thinks it must be a ghost. In time the whole story of his liberation and return emerges. The false king repents. “Even goblins could recognize your worth,” he admits, “while I, a man, could not. I am ashamed.” He leaves, pledging to use his considerable power to protect King Goodness’ realm. The evil minister is punished.

King Goodness has saved all people—those of his own realm as well as those of the enemy king—from the horrors of war. Joy arises in his heart, a joy greater than that which any victory in battle might bring. Sure, now of the validity of his way, speaking from the ground of his own, hard-won personal experience, he now encourages all the people to persist, as he has done, in the ways of goodness.

Clearly the story, as the synopsis reveals, holds up an ideal, an exemplar of a tradition noted for compassion and non-violence, to follow. But even King Goodness must learn from his own experience in the tale. And in the process of the story’s unfolding we, like King Goodness, also experience the testing of goodness for ourselves and see, in the end, not its ideal as an aesthetic but its functional power. We see that it works, but that the roots of its strength and functioning remain on non-materialist levels. Goodness requires faith. Through the unfolding of the narrative we momentarily gain access to that faith and see, and so, come to trust, that synchronicity can play an uncanny role, not just in story, but in life. The process is experiential, not symbolic or didactic.

To review the story in greater detail: the tale begins with the birth of a royal child who is impossibly, perhaps, monstrously good. To balance the upsurge or excess of goodness an evil—selfishness, callous, greedy, vengeful--minister is introduced. Cast out for his abuses the evil minister seeks revenge and a ruler after his own heart, one interested in the normal perquisites of his role and office—power and possessions; in taking, not giving. Unlike King Goodness, this king’s only compunctions about action are those of efficacy, not morals. If King Goodness is really weak then it is legitimate to use force to take what he does not have the strength to hold. This second king is the king of this world and its time-worn, historic ways. He is the king of—with apologies for the image to our reptile friends, of “normal,” lizard-brained, self-interested functioning.

King Goodness on the other hand embodies our potential for a more selfless life. But can such goodness really exist in this world? Does such goodness have a genuine place? Or is it a naive and childish weakness we must outgrow or hide away to succeed as adults? Which is real? We’ll need to know if we are going to live well even, decently, on this earth.

The story becomes a tool for testing of these two opposing visions, for revealing their interaction and for clarifying not just what is ideal, but what may be possible, even necessary. King Goodness makes a vow to live by principle. “No violence,” he says. And he demonstrates his integrity in his dealings with the raiding parties. He shows true Kingship—that deepest aspect of the psyche which penetrates to the realm of causes and need not respond in irritation to the failures of the world. So he protects even those who bring harm and shows them how to attain a better Path in life. He is, potentially, a great King, one not lost to the demands of ego and role alone but wielding power well. Yet he is incomplete. For all his ideals he remains a danger to his kingdom.

Can his way work? Do such vows empower? Or do they limit and cripple us? Without the willingness to rely at all on physical power he does appear emasculated as a leader. His kingdom is vulnerable and all his warriors, great champions though they are, caught by his command, unable to resist and so are cast into the graveyard. Here is the world’s ordinary view dramatized. Goodness is equated, as the evil minister asserts, with weakness and leads even those who might have had power to failure and destruction. It is the time of night, darkness, and absolute descent. With the graveyard scene, failure gathers to a head and goodness seems to have no possible hope in this world. It is the absolute bottom. King Goodness, the true king, and his men have been buried up to the neck—only their heads—the realm of the thought they’ve lived by—remain. And jackals are approaching—a vivid image for the failure that comes attempting to live idealistically, by vows! Perhaps there’s also the suggestion that living by vows—made just in the head—can bury us.

But King Goodness if naive until now, does not remain so. He is not above tricking the jackal king and of skillfully using the jackal’s own power to get free.

And there, at the darkest moment, at the bottom of the pit of the grave of the story, with toothy old death creeping near lies a hidden Path, a secret way. A key to the liberation of the kingdom appears. It is a ritualistic, ceremonial memory buried in many narratives—to live, one must die. One must enter the grave of all one’s wonderful plans, ideas, stratagems. With this, like, Dante, who at the very bottom of the Inferno discovers that all has been simply upside down, buried in the graveyard King Goodness begins to ascend. It is a simple turn. He uses the jackal king’s own power to get pulled free.

There is a Zen verse about feeling one’s way in darkness along a wall. There is a wisdom in “blindness,” in having no plan or scheme or overarching system in being nakedly exposed to the intimate presence of each unique moment. Here is a bump in the plaster, here a shred of chipped paint, here a ridgeline where the plasterer’s arm wearied and the ripple in the wall remains to tell the tale. Each detail now comes fresh to us and new and we must feel each one out, distinct, unsequenced, intimately absorbed in its uniqueness. Without sight we have no overview. But such blindness may be true seeing. No principles hide the Real in a fog of mental abstraction. Joshu (Chou-chou), the great T’ang era Zen Master, renowned through the centuries for his most profound wisdom was once asked “Where is your mind focused.” He answered, “Where there is no design.”

King Goodness descends in this manner—he has no plan, only the determination to live by his vows. And in this he finds his release entering--as do the heroes and heroines of folklore worldwide--a universe in which things happen in shape, in connection, in story. He has entered a deep, synchronous place where, dead to the world, imposing nothing on what is, he lets go and all begins to work with him. It is the entrance into the supernatural.

The goblin, as it turns out, need a just and righteous man even as King Goodness needs magic to restore him to the palace. Without the goblins he has only his one thousand mighty champions and the necessity of war—a just and rightous war it is true, but violent and bloody war, nonetheless—to restore the throne. The only way seemingly open to him to set things right would be through the very violence he had originally sought to avoid. Without the corpse-eaters he would have to recant his non-violence or flee, abandoning his kingdom once and for all to the possessive claims of the more worldly-wise king.

King Goodness meets the goblins graciously and, surprisingly, they come before him with respect. Instinctively these creatures of darkness (the story actually treats them quite kindly; they seem no more evil than the bacteria which bring rot and decay, recycling dead stuff into humus and new life), begin working for him, providing him, out of gratitude, with all he needs to regain his throne. Even in this realm of bones, blood, and potential horror, he averts violence and brings peace. The goblins are grateful. Trust has been restored between them. Like squabbling siblings they simply wanted things to be fair.

The corpse and goblins appear at the moment King Goodness and his men free themselves. “Buried” in this is some sense, I think—we can at least play with this—that the goblins are devouring the corpse of King Goodness’ old life, of his last illusions and attachments which this descent, in a kind of abbreviated story shorthand, signals us he has “died” to, been purged of. He has climbed up out of the grave, broken free of the hold of the earthly plane, left his illusions—including the inability, perhaps, to see how goodness is itself action—behind. At that moment, when the descent is completed, the goblins appear dragging a corpse ready to be devoured and recycled. The descent is done.

There are ancient graveyard rites in India and Tibet in which spiritual apsirants imaginatively offer the coprse of their own wrong views, of their merely earthly life, of their material flesh, blood, and bones to the night-walkers, the blood drinkers, the ever-hungry devouring ones—to all, in fact, ghostly, suffering, hungry, incomplete beings. An ancient rite of compassion here turns in toward the narrative’s need.

In the end the tale is the story of the initiation of the king. The false king who rules by physical might discovers the power of true Kingship conceived on spiritual ground—and bows in humility to the greater presence. The world is restored, the true king’s power tested and confirmed. The world is restored, too, to harmony; the lesser power which had sought to usurp control, in the end must revolve rightly, that is, naturally, around the greater.

But King Goodness grows, too, and, if he was naive to start, by the end, is so no longer. He has learned to use his wits and to make use of circumstance. And we--like the usurping king--have learned that vows have power, that faith may itself be insight into the way things happen. There has been a ritual descent into death and the graveyard and darkness. We meet the blood-drinkers who dwell there—and we meet, too, those who, while seeming human, have lost their human vision and hearts. The goodness of the king (we should call itmore truly, “Goodness,” for it is not “goodness” as opposed to “badness,” as opposed to anything )—has not guaranteed him an easy Path. He does however find, along with hardships, unexpected connection, confirmation, and joy. The story dramatizes and so, for the imagination, makes once again Real, an ancient Way or Path.

“King Goodness” is not simply a tale with a moral. The nonviolent moral is not the full meaning of the story. The meaning lies in our experience of the story as it comes alive, forming its complex images within us. Traditional stories help us regain this territory. They are the encodings of wisdom.

Woven within and through the incidents and details of the twenty-five hundred year old Buddhist jataka tale, “King Goodness,” then, is a more complete, story making “King Goodness” more than the ancient advertisement for non-violence it might at first seem to be.

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