Thus I have heard: at one time the Lord was staying at Rajagrha, and the great wheel-turning righteous emperor of the law, Ilamkili, who had all thirty-two special marks of a Great Man and was a great Dharmic king wielding the seven treasures and whose greatness and gracious acts established the security of his realm and extended his kingdom to where the horizon met the land and caused the rain to fall for the prosperity of everyone, came to see the Blessed One with a troubled spirit.
The great wheel-turning righteous monarch, followed by his 1,000 sons and attendants, approached the Blessed One with an immense plate of food offerings; containing both hard and soft choices from the finest food he could find. After circling the Blessed One three times with his right side facing the Lord, the great wheel-turning righteous monarch sat down.
“Lord Buddha,” Ilamkili said, “I have a troubled spirit. I have studied your teachings, and the Dharma, and the four Aryan truths, and the law of Karma. I have studied them to try and attain enlightenment. I was born with the thirty-two special marks on my body, and I have known since I was released from the womb I would either become a fully enlightened Buddha or a great wheel-turning emperor. I now rule an empire that stretches to where the horizon meets the land, and my greatness and gracious acts cause the rain to fall for the prosperity of everyone. And now I wonder; and I ask you Blessed One, there are questions I have that I cannot answer, and I hope you can.”
The Blessed One, who had attained spiritual perfection, he who was mighty with the ten Powers of the Tathagata, the Well-Farer, he whose senses were turned inwards, the Knower of the Worlds, the Teacher of gods and humans, he who had achieved nirodha, who had learned the karmic nature of every single being from their past lives, sat and looked at the great wheel-turning emperor and said nothing.
“Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor, “then tell me this: I have learned the path to enlightenment is through the cessation of desire; however isn’t the act of cessation of desire to attain enlightenment a desirous act in itself?”
After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, then tell me this: I have studied the four Noble Truths and according to samudaya; desire, or the thirst for further existence, is the cause of suffering. If this is true why have not all the ascetics achieved enlightenment? They have conquered sensation and perception, and live without desire yet they have not attained Nirvana.”
After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, then tell me this: I have learned of anatman; how there is no self, simply the five skandhas that lead to desire and the illusion of atman. If there is no stable, permanent self what is it in people that desires enlightenment?”
After this question from Ilamkili the Lord shifted in his position, but gave no response. “Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor, “then tell me this: I have observed different sanghas and sects, and have learned that there are differences in each. For instance why do the Vajrayana say spiritual attainment can be gained in one lifetime? Or what about the Sanvastivadin, who say everything exists? Why do the Theravada have 311 rules for nuns while the Mahasanghika have over 500 rules for nuns? Why do these all walk different paths toward the cessation of suffering? Which is the correct one?”
After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, I will ask then: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who is the Teacher of gods and humans, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me, can you tell me how to resolve these questions that hinder me so that I can gain spiritual attainment? Shall I give up my entire kingdom and take up the begger’s bowl and monk’s robes? If so, which sect shall I follow to achieve enlightenment?”
At these words his thousand sons and many attendants let out piteous moans of anguish; for Ilamkili had calmed the chaos of heaven with his Dharmic rule and had expanded his kingdom and power with his many generous acts, and none of his attendants wanted to see him leave. However, the Blessed One gave the same response to this question as all the previous; he sat and looked at Ilamkili and said nothing
“Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor with great reluctance, for he did not want to leave his prosperous kingdom; nor his people who loved him, and who he loved in return. “I will ask a second time: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me. Shall I give up my kingdom? Will that begin the path to true enlightenment?”
After no response the great wheel-turning emperor, with even greater reluctance than before, said “Very well. I will clearly ask: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me. How can I achieve enlightenment? Tell me what I must do to attain Nirvana.”
At these words the Lord spoke, for Ilamkili had finally revealed to himself the truth of his desire. The Blessed One looked at the righteous wheel-turning monarch and at a glance saw all of the emperor’s past lives and deeds, and saw that the emperor had more lives ahead of him to atone for his past actions. “Great cakravartin, powerful wheel-turning emperor listen to me,” said the Buddha. “You have more to learn; you ask why ascetics have not attained Nirvana since they have conquered desire, and I tell you this: it is true, ascetics have conquered their desire in the physical world, however they have not walked the Middle Way, which is distant from their own extreme. They have not realized the four Noble Truths fully. They have not realized they suffer because they desire; which is due to ignorance.
“It is true; the want to cease desire is desirous itself. However you have more to learn; there are different levels of desire and the desire of cessation is the highest there is. It is the raft, it is the path to eliminating Grasping, the way to halt Becoming.
“It is true, there is no such thing as self; only sunyata, emptiness. However you have more to learn; it is the karmic law of the universe that pushes individuals towards enlightenment. You have not truly seen pratitya-samutpada, that nothing has essential being, everything is only in existance in relation to everything else. Everything is conditioned by previous lives; it is the necessity of atoning for one’s past actions and attaining balance that brings one up from hell to heaven, and the understanding of the nature of Karma and the four Noble Truths that push them outside of the wheel of life to Nirvana.
“It is true; there are many different sects with their own understanding of the path to cessation. However you have much to learn; for each walks their own path, and has their own road from their past lives to their future lives. No matter the number of rules for nuns, nor the time of spiritual attainment; no matter how one views the world there is birth, there is ageing, and there is dying. There is no way such that if you ask a monk how to live according to the Dharma and atone for past lives every single one will say ‘This is the one and only way’ – there is no universal practice. But no matter who you ask the four Noble Truths are the same; no matter how many rules govern a life there is suffering, and there is its cessation. No monk will tell you of one path all can travel, however any monk will tell you the four Noble Truths are the beacon lighting all paths, no matter how different the direction of the paths are.
“Great cakravartin, powerful wheel-turning emperor listen to me,” said the Buddha. “It is true, you have more to learn. Your power exceeds the earth, you can stop the sun and bring forth rain, however you cannot attain enlightenment in this life. Your great and noble deeds from this life and your previous ones have given you your immense powers; however before this life, before your previous life of a generous merchant, before your previous previous life as an ascetic, stretching back innumerable lifetimes ago, a misdeed haunts you. Far back, centuries ago, before your great city was even built as a servant you maliciously slaughtered your master and ran away. It is this deed as a slave so long ago that shackles you today, great emperor. Ilamkili, in this life you are like a unmattavidyadhara, a mad scientist, wanting to concoct a powerful potion but you want to skip the steps in between of mixing lesser elements to create the final product. You desire enlightenment and Nirvana, but you cling hard to the five skandhas and the idea of self. You block yourself from achieving Bodhi; your body is solid in this life from your belief in its permanence. You do not remember your previous lives but your merit, your punya, has made you very powerful. However it is not for the purpose of making you a Buddha, it is for the purpose of atoning for your previous life. You have seen the four Noble Truths, but have not developed them through practice nor fully realized them in a manner so that you cannot learn more about them. You have yet to escape bhavacakra, the wheel of life; your great cycle, your mahakalpa, is close but has not yet completed a full revolution. You, great wheel-turning righteous monarch, have turned the Wheel of Dharma once, but not thrice. It is not your time for cessation, to ascend to Nirupadisesa-Nirvana – you are needed to be a Dharmic king and calm chaos in the heavens and do good for your people.”
Thus spoke the Lord, and Ilamkili rejoiced, and returned to his kingdom where he performed many great deeds until the time of his death.
Note – this was written in 2004.