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Once, when the Buddha was staying with 1, 250 of his bhikshus at Shr‚vasti in the orchard of the generous patron Jeta, he began a teaching by saying, "Bhikshus, if only people understood the true merit and reward of charity, then  at the first, or even the last, bite of any meal they would not keep any for themselves ever again!"

And he uttered the following verses:

"If only men of every kind
Acted in accord with Buddha's words,
And kept back somewhat from their food for charity,
Then the result would be a great reward.
But whether at the first mouthful
Or at the last mouthful
If charity be not uppermost in the mind,
Then a man should not eat at all!"

The Tale of Silverglow

Once, innumerable ages (kalpas) ago, in the royal city of Padma, there lived a woman who had everything she could ever want, so now and then she went visiting to see what she could do for others. 

This lady had all the distinguishing characteristics of loveliness, and her complexion was so dazzling that she received the name, Silverglow. 

One day, she entered a certain residence, only to find within a woman who had just been delivered of her first-born child.  This baby was also very fair to look upon, and of a surpassingly beautiful colour.  But then, she saw the new mother seize the child as if about to devour it. 

Silverglow cried out, "Sister! What are you doing"? 

The young mother replied, "I am so famished! I have no life left in me! I have nothing to eat! If I want to stay alive, I will have to eat my own baby!" 

Then Silverglow said, "Sister! Wait a minute, this is impossible! Sister, isn't there anything at all in this house for you to eat?" 

And the mother replied, "Sister, once I had a whole pantry full of food which I only doled out in little bits. [I guess,] now that's why I have not one single crumb left to eat." 

Then Silverglow said, "Sister, wait. I will run to my house and bring you back some food."  But the young mother replied, "Oh, Sister! I can feel my backbone through my ribs, and I am having continuous heart palpitations.  My sight is failing and the world seems all dark.  I am sure that before you reach your home I shall be dead." 

Then Silverglow thought to herself, "If I take the child and go, then this poor
woman will perish; if I do not take it, then when I leave she will certainly devour it.  How will I ever manage to save these two lives?" So then she asked, "Sister, is there a knife in the house I can use?" 

The young mother said that there was, and she managed to get the knife and hand it over.  Then Silverglow, taking firm hold of the knife, cut off her own two breasts and gave them to the starving woman to eat.

When she had finished eating them, Silverglow asked, "Sister, are you OK, now?" "Yes," she replied, "I am." Then Silverglow continued, "Sister, now that the child is redeemed by my own flesh, it is mine to take and keep for my own.  I will take it home with me and nourish it as it requires." 

So saying these words, with blood flowing down her body and dripping along the ground, she left and finally arrived at her own house. 

Her friends and relations, horrified to see her in that condition, all gathered around and asked, "Who did this to you?" 

Silverglow replied, "I did it myself." Then they wanted to know the reason, and she replied, "I have made up my mind always to cultivate a heart full of compassion, and never to give it up, for by that commitment I intend to achieve Highest Perfection." 

Then her relatives expressed the thought, "When you give your own body for charity you surely regret it, and so such a sacrifice does not lead to the Perfection of Generosity, at all." 

And so they inquired further, "When you mutilated yourself this way, did you do it with a feeling of satisfaction, or with regret?" 

But Silverglow replied, "When I had determined to cut off my breasts, there was no feeling of regret in my mind; my mind did not waver for one instant."  To prove it, she said, "Now, in virtue of the sincerity of my vow, let my breasts be restored." 

And amazingly, her breasts were restored just as they had been before she left home that day. 

Now, when that happened,  all the yakshas (nature spirits) in Padma Town raised a great cry, and said, "The Lady Silverglow has just cut off her own breasts!"  And the lokapalas (local gods) hearing that, also took up the chant, repeating it in the air. The Devas (higher gods) hearing the cry, echoed it to the highest realms, until the news spread even to the realm of Brahma. 

At that moment, it occurred to S‚kra (Indra,) the Divine Ruler, "This is truly an unprecedented event, that out of pity for living beings a woman should cut off her own breasts.  I think I will go and find out about it from her own lips."   So he immediately transformed himself into a brahmin, and with a golden lota (small pitcher) and begging bowl, and carrying a golden staff, he went to the royal city of Padma. 

When he arrived, he gradually approached Silverglow's house, and taking the traditional beggar's position at her gate, he called out for alms in the usual way.  Silverglow immediately took a dish, and filling it with food, out she went. 

When she was in front of him, the br‚hmin spoke to her, saying, "Madam, please stop a moment; I don't need any food."  To which she replied, "Why not?" 

Then the br‚hmin confessed, "I am Lord S‚kra, and since I have some doubts about your conduct, I have come to ask you about it, so please respond." 

Silverglow replied, saying, "Great br‚hmin, only ask as you think best, and I will answer you truly." 

Then the br‚hmin said, "Madam, is it true that as an act of charity you cut off your breasts to give someone?" She admitted it was true.  Then the br‚hmin said, "What led you to do that?"  

And Silverglow answered, "My great compassion, and my aim to accomplish the Perfection of Wisdom." 

Then the br‚hmin responded, "This is a very difficult matter, this so-called Perfection, for if only a tinge of regret contaminates the deed, then it can never lead to the accomplishment of that which is the Paramita of Charity.  So tell me then, when you performed the act, did your heart feel happy or not, and when you first felt the pain of the wound, didn't you want to change your mind?"

Silverglow replied, "Kausika! I swear that I never faltered a single moment in my purpose of fulfilling my aspiration which is to save the world, nor did I falter at the moment of the cutting of my breasts.  And as proof that I felt not a single particle of regret, let me be changed from a woman to a man!" 

So Silverglow, having sworn this oath, instantly became a man whose heart was filled with unutterable joy and boundless delight. 

In this changed form, he wandered from place to place until finally he came to a certain tree, and when he sat down under it, he fell asleep. 

At that particular time, the king of Padma died, and as he was childless, there was great distress in the country.  So the great ministers went from tree to tree, from village to village, from town to town, from capital to capital, everywhere seeking the one with the royal marks that would indicate the next king. And while they were searching, they discussed:  "How shall we ever obtain a proper king to reign over us?" 

Now, at this time, one of the powerful ministers was almost overcome by the hot weather, and he decided to take a dip in the waters of a tank that was all covered with flowers.  While he was refreshing himself, he noticed a handsome man asleep beneath a tree.  The man was incredibly beauty, and possessed all the necessary characteristics of Royalty.  He also noticed that, though the sun was rapidly setting, the shadow of the tree still remained to protect him. 

Then the great minister immediately woke him, and took him to R‚jagriha,
the capital city.  There, after performing the customary tonsure, he dressed him in regal garments and put the jeweled crown on his head.  Then he  said, "Now that you are King, please act like one and govern us."  To which the man replied, "I am sorry, but I am unable to act as your king." 

The minister insisted, imploring, "But you must."  But he replied, "If indeed you take me to reign over you, then you, on your part, must all adopt the ten virtuous  precepts."   When they had all agreed, he undertook to govern them as a Dharma King, and they called him once again, "Silverglow."

At that time, people used to live for  70,000 nahutas, so that when at long last -- after having reigned for hundreds and thousands of years -- it came time for the king to die, Silverglow recited these words:

"All things that exist are transitory,
They must of necessity perish and disappear,
Though joined together, there must be separation,
Where there is life, there must be death,
All depends on conduct,
Whether good, or whether bad,
All things born,
Are unstable and inconstant."

After that king's death, he returned again to be reborn in the same kingdom, the royal capital of which was Padma.  This time, he was a nobleman's child, very beautiful and fair.  At age eight, along with 500 other children he was sent off to school.  He asked some older boys who had just graduated the reason why they went to school, and when they responded that it was to learn the alphabet, he said, "What's the use of learning letters? Only one thing is necessary, and that is to aim for the unequalled condition known as Anuttara Sam'yak Sambodhi.

"What is the meaning of that condition?" they asked, to which he replied, "You must aspire to the accomplishment of the Six Paramitas. And what are the six? They are the paramita of charity (d‚na), of moral conduct (öÓla), of patience (ksh‚nti), of perseverance (virya), of contemplation (jŮ‚na), and of wisdom (prajŮa)." 

They all agreed to this aspiration.  At that, the new boy wanted to perform some small act of charity, "... whether for a human (biped) or an animal (quadruped)."

Off he went, alone, to the burial grounds, and taking out his small knife, he cut himself till the blood ran and smearing himself all over with it, he lay down in the dust of the cemetery, calling, "Come from near and far, all you two-footed and four-footed creatures.  Come and eat the flesh from my body." 

Among the birds that frequented that place, there was one whose name was Grasper ("having a hand.")  He landed on the hermit's forehead and began to peck at his right eye but then, he let it go again. 

The young hermit asked, "Why did you stop?" The bird replied, "Of all parts of a man's body I think the eye is the greatest delicacy."  [He was saving it for last , perhaps.]

Then the hermit said, "Though you pecked at my right eye a thousand times, you did not accept it; still, I feel no resentment towards you." 

At that, the bird pecked out both his eyes, and then all the rest of the flock came down upon him, there in the cemetery, and they devoured the hermit bit by bit  until nothing was left but the bleached bones.

The Tiger and Her Cubs

Now he was immediately reborn once again, in that royal city of Padma, as the beautiful, graceful child of a br‚hmin.  At 20 years of age, his parents said, "M‚nava, now it is time for you to get a home of your own." 

However, the young man replied, "Why should I have a house of my own? I have no desire to raise a family for my only wish is to be allowed to go into  the mountains to be a recluse."  His parents gave their consent, and he went off to found a hermitage in the forest.

One day, he came upon two aged br‚hmin rishis, and he asked what they were doing there.  They answered, "M‚nava, we dwell here in order to benefit living creatures through the practice of various austerities." 

He said, "I also have that same desire to benefit all living creatures and have come here to dwell and practice all kinds of painful austerities." Then he went on to various other outdoor places including caves.  As a result of his dedicated practice, he acquired the accomplishment of seeing-at-a-distance and with this ability, he one day looked about his environment and not far off he saw a tigress who was just about to give birth. 

Then he had the thought, "In no time, the tigress will have her young and then she will surely die of hunger unless, in her famished state, she decides to eat her cubs." With this knowledge, he decided to go and speak to the two br‚hmins, and he asked, "Which of you will share his body to feed the tigress?" 

They replied, "Neither one of us is ready to sacrifice himself for a tigress." 

Well, after a week had passed, the tigress gave birth and picking up her cubs, she carried them in her mouth to the den, and then out she came. 

The young man happened to see that, and went again to the two brahmins and said, "Great Rishis, the tigress has had her cubs. If you truly mean to benefit all living beings, and are doing difficult practices for this reason, then now is your opportunity.  Why not offer your flesh to the mother tiger?" 

At that, the two immediately went to the tiger's lair but they had the thought, "Who could actually endure the pain of this kind of practise of generosity? Who would be able to actually can cut off the flesh of his own dear body in order to feed a starving tiger?" 

The tiger-mother caught scent of them and began to track them at a distance, and catching sight of her they were so filled with fear that they rose into the air and flew away.

M‚nava was able to see them and he said, "Is that how you two observe your dedication and your vows?"  And he made this vow: "I now give my body to feed this tiger, and I pray that in consequence of this sacrifice may I obtain the unsurpassed perfect condition of being." 

And so saying, he took a knife, and cut flesh from his body, and gave it in charity to the mother tiger !"

The Buddha concluded by saying, "Have no doubt, Bhikshus -- and it is out of compassion for you that I say, look no further but accept my words -- for I was the one born in Padma as Silverglow who cut off her breasts to rescue that child, who was no other than Rahula.  And it was I who gave my body in the charnel ground  to feed the birds.  It was I who cut off my flesh to feed that hungry tiger while you were the br‚hmins, and it was because of my self-denial and compassion for the suffering of others that I have now attained the Perfection of Being."

At that [encouragement,] the Bhikshus were filled with great joy and they gave a loud cheer.


Sivi: It actually means gleaming, as in cloth-of-silver.  Beal calls the heroine, "Silver-white Woman," explaining that the Chinese expression is an interpretation of äivi, and supposed that this "SŻtra" is actually a Northern form of the äivi J‚taka.  He added that the root for "white" in Chinese is derived from "to shine."

Kausika:  The name of a brahmin who is one of the great Vedic sages. 

these words:  The same that the Buddha pronounced before his Parinirvana.

Anuttara Sam'yak Sambodhi: Perfection of Wisdom or a more literal translation of this  Sanskrit phrase is The Unexcelled Engagement in All-pervasive Realization.

The äivi J‚taka is pictured in Cave XVI. at Ajant‚, and in another version is possibly represented in Cave IX.  Both frescoes conform more to the Sinhalese (Lankan) version of the story than to the Chinese, according to the editor of The Antiquary, who also thought that the Chinese version might reveal something more concerning other Ajanta paintings.

About this version

This story of a silvery bodhisattva comes from a Chinese Mahayana text called Ngan-shi  Nu or Ngan-shih-niu.  It appeared in English as the Sivi Sutra, in vol. IX of The Indian Antiquary: A Journal of Oriental Research in Archaeology, History, Literature, Languages, Philosophy, Religion, Folklore, &c., edited by Jas. Burgess (Bombay:  Education Society's Press, 1880.)  It is a translation by Rev. S. Beal, of the first " sutra" in the 2nd volume of a Chinese edition of the Tripitaka.   This version derives from text scanned and edited by Christopher M. Weimer (April 2002) for the Sacred Texts web site. 

Could Silverglow be the inspiration for an entirely opposite view of generosity as portrayed in The White-haired Girl, a Chinese ballet made famous during Maoist times about a fierce, selfless revolutionary soldier? 


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