The man who spit on Buddha’s face

Here’s a long story. Brace yourselves:

The Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came and spat in his face. He wiped it off, and he asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?” The man was a little puzzled because he himself never expected that when you spit on somebody’s face, he will ask, “What next?” He had no such experience in his past. He had insulted people and they had become angry and they had reacted. Or if they were cowards and weaklings, they had smiled, trying to bribe the man. But Buddha was like neither, he was not angry nor in any way offended, nor in any way cowardly. But just matter-of-factly he said, “What next?” There was no reaction on his part.

But Buddha’s disciples became angry, and they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for it, otherwise everybody will start doing things like this!”

Buddha said, “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is new, a stranger. He must have heard from people something about me, that this man is an atheist, a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track, a revolutionary, a corrupter. And he may have formed some idea, a notion of me. He has not spit on me, he has spit on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me because he does not know me at all, so how can he spit on me?

“If you think on it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man must have something else to say because this is a way of saying something. Spitting is a way of saying something. There are moments when you feel that language is impotent: in deep love, in intense anger, in hate, in prayer. There are intense moments when language is impotent. Then you have to do something. When you are angry, intensely angry, you hit the person, you spit on him, you are saying something. I can understand him. He must have something more to say, that’s why I’m asking, “What next?”

The man was even more puzzled! And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and still you react.”

Puzzled, confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. When you see a Buddha, it is difficult, impossible to sleep anymore the way you used to sleep before. Again and again he was haunted by the experience. He could not explain it to himself, what had happened. He was trembling all over, sweating and soaking the sheets. He had never come across such a man; the Buddha had shattered his whole mind and his whole pattern, his whole past.

The next morning he went back. He threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next? This, too, is a way of saying something that cannot be said in language. When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said ordinarily, for which all words are too narrow; it cannot be contained in them.” Buddha said, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here, he is saying something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”

The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”

Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man to whom you did it. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.

“And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”

This is from a “Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other” (pp. 60–62) by Osho, the guru formerly known as the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, who loved collecting white Rolls Royces, and who ran a commune in Oregon that launched the first biological warfare attack on US soil (they were trying to influence an election).

Osho wasn’t above making up stories about the Buddha. Now generally this is unobjectionable, as long as the general points being made by the storyteller are in line with the scriptures. After all, Buddhism started off as essentially an oral tradition, and oral teaching is still an important component in the transmission of the Dharma (as a lived reality, not just as a collection of teachings). It would be ridiculous to say that no teacher could ever put words into the mouth of the Buddha in passing along the teachings in this way. Anyone who’s taught has dramatized a sutta or two. I know I have. And in telling a story dramatically we end up inventing dialog. But I think the words we put into the Buddha’s mouth should at least not conflict with his teachings, and should preferably be paraphrases.

Unfortunately Osho had none of these scruples. The teaching given here is one that the Buddha would call “nihilistic” — that is, the belief is that the person who acts is not the same person who experiences the consequences of his or her actions, because of the action of change.

The Buddha was in fact once asked this very question by a Brahmin priest:

The brahmin: Is the one who acts the same one who experiences [the results of the act]?

The Buddha: ‘The one who acts is the same one who experiences,’ is one extreme.

The brahmin: Then, Master Gotama, is the one who acts someone other than the one who experiences?

The Buddha: ‘The one who acts is someone other than the one who experiences,’ is the second extreme. Avoiding both of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by means of the middle.

So the teaching that Osho puts into the mouth of the Buddha is one he’d explicitly rejected.

The message of non-resentment and non-reactivity is certainly true to the Buddha’s teachings, although not on the basis that “The man you spit upon is no longer here.”

Verses three and four of the Dhammapada read:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

The Buddha taught mudita (appreciation) as a way to counteract resentment:

It’s impossible, there is no way that — when appreciation has been developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken as an awareness-release — resentment would still keep overpowering the mind. That possibility doesn’t exist, for this is the escape from resentment: appreciation as an awareness-release.

He also taught the practice of lovingkindness as a way of avoiding resentment, using a rather extreme example:

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

Ultimately, though, it’s non-clinging to any idea of the self (including the idea that the self does not exist) that leads to the kind of equanimous mind is which resentment doesn’t have to be dealt with because it simply doesn’t arise. This teaching is from the Alagaddupama Sutta, in which the Buddha says that grasping the Buddha’s teaching wrongly is like grabbing a snake by the tail: you’re going to end up bitten:

Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress. And if others insult, abuse, taunt, bother, and harass the Tathagata for that, he feels no hatred, no resentment, no dissatisfaction of heart because of that.

11 thoughts on “The man who spit on Buddha’s face”

    1. Thanks, Harris. That’s a sutta I know very well and I’m surprised I didn’t mention it in the context of this post! (Here’s an English translation.) However, apart from the fact that there’s someone who insults the Buddha, and the Buddha rather masterfully not only refuses to accept the insult but turns that refusal into a teaching, I don’t really see much similarity to Osho’s story. I’ll edit the article, though, and include a reference to the Akkosa Sutta.

  1. Thank you for your website. The subtlety you have explained is very easy to miss. I am far from an expert on Buddhism so I always wonder how accurate the translation are. This example clarifies for me how Buddha was about experience and not reason/logic.

  2. why is the buddha never get angry or have hatred against the man who spits on his face? if someone did that to me or do the thing that not my way I will get angry or dislike her, in the end, I am suffering I knew the cause and effect of being evil feeling but sometimes I cannot stop having this feeling bcoz it hurt my feeling. what do I do to overcome this matter and be like a buddha? I wanna be kind and have loving-kindness towards all sentients beings. may I have your response or solve my problem. kindly advice

    1. The Buddha had had key insights into the fact that there was no “him” to be insulted, so if someone were to have spat in his face he might have been aware of this in terms of physical sensations arising and passing away. On another level he might have been aware that the other person was causing themselves suffering through their hatred. But he wouldn’t have thought “My dignity has been injured! How dare this person insult me!” Cultivating lovingkindness and compassion definitely helps as a way of making it easier for that insight to arise, but it’s probably not enough in itself.

  3. I don’t know how Osho’s story is “nihilistic” in any way. When in his (Osho’s) story, Buddha refers to both himself and the angry man as not “being there anymore” he refers to both the man’s own notion/prejudice of the Buddha and the man’s anger. These two things, those being the man’s anger and his notion, are not only considered an unskillful emotion and a skandha/defilement of the mind respectively, but they’re also known to be non-permanent, to be always changing, which goes hand in hand with Buddha’s teachings on “impermanence”. So I don’t think nor see how Osho’s story is being “nihilistic” or that it goes against Buddha’s teachings in any way. I think it should be noted that while Osho did fall from grace (hell, I do not even consider myself a “fan” of his or any guru for the matter), the man’s past is irrelevant to the study or debunking of his writings.

    1. Hi, Dante. I tend to think that if someone (like Osho) has a track record of deception, then that is worth taking into account when looking at their teachings. That’s especially the case when they’ve built up a deceptive and manipulative organization on the basis of those very teachings. Of course you can’t just say “nothing this person has ever said has value because they’ve been dishonest at times.” Some of what they say may be true or useful. But in this case I think it’s pretty clear that Osho was distorting the Buddha’s teachings.

      You just have to ask, does this attitude of “no need for forgiveness — you’re not the same person you were when you insulted me” represent how the Buddha actually behaved? Assuming that the scriptures are to be trusted, he did not behave in this way at all. When people insulted him or even misrepresented him (something he regarded as “slander”), he’d expect them to confess and to show remorse. He’d want them to be aware of the consequences of their actions. Otherwise he’d have nothing to do with them.

      The person who spat on the Buddha yesterday may not be exactly the same as the person the Buddha meets today, but unless they’ve done a considerable amount of spiritual work on themselves, they still contain the same saṃskāras, which will likely re-express themselves in the same or similar ways. That spiritual work begins with the self-awareness and remorse that the Buddha encouraged people to experience, and might have to continue for many years.

      There is change, but there is also continuity. Waving the word “impermanence” over someone like a magic wand doesn’t make saṃskāras disappear.

      The Buddha used the term eternalism when people overstated the importance of continuity by claiming that there was no change in a person over time. He used the term nihilism when people overstated the importance of change by claiming that the person who acted was not the same as the one who experienced the consequences of those actions. That’s why I describe Osho’s stance as being nihilistic.

      1. I’m curious and I feel the need to ask, but do you have some examples you could share about Buddha’s own stance on “remorse”??
        I personally agree about being aware of the consequences of one’s own actions and how they may impact us or others, however, I view feelings like “remorse” or similar (such as guilt or regret) as unskillful and I do not consider them necessary to realize about one’s own mistakes. Realization is one thing. Remorse, guilt or regret comes later.

        1. Hi, Dante.

          That’s a great question. As it happens, Buddhism considers remorse as a skillful quality. It isn’t pleasant, but it’s the felt experience we have when we realize we’ve deviated from skillful actions and have caused harm. Since it helps us to stay ethical, it’s seen as skillful. Learning this (about 40 years ago now) was an interesting surprise!

          Hiri and ottappa are the two main emotions that are discussed in Buddhism. They’re translated in various ways, but hiri is usually “shame” or “remorse.” I understand it as how we feel when we’ve done something unskillful. Modern psychology would call it “guilt” rather than “shame” because guilt is to do with having done something wrong, while shame is understood as feelings of personal unworthiness, which would indeed be unskillful. Buddhist translators don’t necessarily stick to the modern psychological definitions, though.

          Ottappa seems to be more a healthy fear of the consequences of acting unskillfully. It’s translated variously: fear of blame, concern, prudence. It wouldn’t be healthy to have this all the time, but it is healthy if it’s our response to having intended to do something unskillful.

          Hiri and ottappa are called “bright guardians of the world,” and “spiritual treasures.”

          One sutta that springs to mind regarding shame is one where the Buddha is talking to his son about ethics, in a discussion that starts off about the importance of having shame when we’ve lied.

          Bhikkhu Bodhi has an article about these two terms, here.

  4. Also, forgot to mention, that which you call “nihilism” is not nihilism. Nihilism is the rejection of religious values or teachings due to existence being meaningless. Overstating the importance of change by claiming that the person who acted was not the same as the one who experienced the consequences of those actions is, therefore, not nihilism. Besides, it is a term Buddha wouldn’t have used since it wasn’t coined 2000+ years ago. It is, however, definitely an extreme and, thus, not the middle path. Still waiting for my former question on regards to whether or not you could share instances where Buddha spoke of the concept of “remorse” (I’m genuinely asking for this, don’t want to give the wrong idea, so I clarify).
    Kind regards,
    Dante.

    1. Hi, Dante.

      I did reply to your earlier question about the concept of remorse. If you check the time stamps you’ll see it was published a couple of hours before you posted this question. I can understand you being eager to get a response, but please bear in mind that I sometimes don’t check to see if comments have been posted her for days at a time. And even when I do I can’t always reply immediately.

      You’re right of course that the Buddha didn’t use the term “nihilism,” since he didn’t speak English. The term he used was ucchedavāda (from a root meaning “to cut”). This is the idea that the self terminates at death and, by extension, that the self terminates, and a new self begins, with every moment of change. It was a philosophy he denied.

      The opposite philosophy, eternalism, which he also denied, was referred to by the term sassatavāda (from a root meaning “eternal”) where the self is eternal, and therefore is a kind of soul. The Buddha saw these as extremes, and denied that the terms “existing” and “non-existing” were applicable to the reality we live in.

      In the Kacchānagotta Sutta, he said, “Kaccāna, this world mostly relies on the dual notions of existence and non-existence. But when you truly see the origin of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of non-existence regarding the world. And when you truly see the cessation of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of existence regarding the world.”

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