The sandal sutta: a Buddhist fanfic

So I have heard. At one time the Lord Buddha, the ascetic Gotama, the Blessed One, was traveling near Benares, along the road between Ghandara and Nalanda, with a large sangha of around five hundred mendicants. Word passed through all these cities of the Lord Buddha's arrival.

The wanderer Rakhito who was traveling along the same road had managed to save up fifteen silver pãdas from begging. The soles of his feet swollen and tender from walking under the hot sun, he visited the nearby brahmin shoemaker Yasso.

Rakhito presented Yasso with his every last coin and kindly requested a pair of simple thongs, believing the cost of leather, string, and workmanship did not exceed fifteen pãdas.

But Yasso the shoemaker in turn demanded twenty five pãdas, believing that the cost of leather, string, and workmanship could not be less than twenty five pãdas. This angered Rakhito who felt that he was already being generous with his initial offer of fifteen pãdas.

Actually, Rakhito was right, and the shoes would ordinarily cost only ten pãdas, for the brahmin Yasso greatly overvalued the quality of his own workmanship. Such were the people of Benares.

But anyway, so they both went back and forth arguing with each other. Rakhito argued that fifteen pãdas was too much. The brahmin Yasso thought twenty five pãdas was plenty generous already.

The Lord Buddha then passed the two, the wanderer Rakhito and the brahmin shoemaker Yasso, and overheard the argument. He made a line towards them with his five hundred mendicants trailing like ducklings. As he got closer, the two began to talk more slowly, and quietly, until their mouths were just hanging open and making no sound at all.

By then, the Lord Buddha was standing just paces away.

"Lord Buddha," said the wanderer Rakhito and the brahmin Yasso, together.

The Lord Buddha turned his back to them. ”Mendicants," said the Lord Buddha to the crowd, “let us learn about our two subjects, a wanderer and a brahmin, who are arguing about the fair price of a pair of thongs."

Rakhito and Yasso exchanged a glance.

"Tell us, subjects, of your claims,” said the Buddha.

So Rakhito told his side of the story, followed by Yasso who told his side.

The ascetic Gotama appeared to consider for a moment. He had already mastered macroeconomics, microeconomics, behavioral economics, and economics not yet discovered; mathematics, both known, unknown, finite, and infinite; the natural sciences alchemy, chemistry, nuclear and particle physics; and as a hobby, he was rumored to do watercolor painting.

Yasso held the thongs hidden and secure behind his back, lest the wanderer try to grab them and make a break for it. Beside him Rakhito was fidgeting with his fifteen pãdas, the coins making gentle clinking noises.

The Lord spoke. "There are some ascetics and brahmins who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, compute the value of goods and services in the market economy. That is to say, goods of large value, medium value, low value, or even very small value."

Having heard of the Buddha’s great wisdom, Rakhito and Yasso were hanging on his every word.

"That is, experts have considered items of value of one pãda, two pãdas, three pãdas, four, five, six, ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, millions of pãdas!" exclaimed the Lord Buddha.

"They remember: in Benares, a pair of shoes is worth thus. In Ghandara, a single slipper is worth thus. That a fisherman at the river will sell a fresh fish for thus. And so on they recollect these goods and services, of many kinds, with all their features, details, and prices."

All of this seemed pretty true to Rakhito and Yasso, and they continued listening.

"Now, to get to the point, these ascetics and brahmins say: a pair of decent sandals in Benares is worth no more than fifteen pãdas. For although the leather and string are fair in Benares, the workmanship there is not as good as in neighboring towns..." the Buddha was making eye contact with Yasso.

The wanderer Rakhito, elated, pivoted on his heel with his finger pointed at the brahmin Yasso, his mouth open. The brahmin Yasso was already with a red face, both with anger and shame, for he had felt insulted and belittled by the wise Buddha's words.

"I told y--" started Rakhito, when the Lord Buddha started speaking again.

"But there are other ascetics and brahmins!" shouted the Lord Buddha, "Other ascetics and brahmins, who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, calculate the value to be at least twenty five pãdas!"

"What?" blurted Rakhito. "You just said I was right."

Yasso, pivoting with his finger out towards Rakhito, began to say, "I told y--"

"And yet there are still other ascetics and brahmins!" said the ascetic Gotama, his energy rising, “Other ascetics and brahmins, who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, calculate the value to be both greater than fifteen pãdas, and less than twenty five pãdas!"

At this moment, the wanderer Rakhito and the brahmin Yasso stood frozen in thought.

Not out of fear, anger, or hate, but out of compassion, wisdom, and understanding. They knew, at once, together, why the Lord Buddha was so praised; they knew how he had mastered all of the sciences; because of this, they knew that he understood.

The sentence echoed in their minds. "Both greater than fifteen pãdas, and less than twenty five pãdas." The ascetic Gotama, it appeared, was asking them to reach a reasonable compromise, to find the middle ground. Both the wanderer and the shoemaker felt their blood pressures drop a little bit. The Lord Buddha had shown himself to be a practical man.

A brightness crept into the faces of the wanderer and the brahmin shoemaker. But they jumped as the Buddha began speaking yet again, and yet louder.

"And yet there are still other ascetics and brahmins!" The Lord Buddha continued, frantic, “Other ascetics and brahmins, who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort and right focus, calculate the value of a Benares sandal to be both greater than twenty five pãdas, and less than fifteen pãdas!"

There was a short pause for reflection on what the Blessed One had said.

"Um," said Yasso, looking at Rakhito now, confused.

"Wait, hold on," said Rakhito.

Rakhito spoke. "How can a sandal both be worth less than fifteen pãdas and worth more than twenty five pãdas at the same time?"

The Lord Buddha gave Rakhito a knowing look, but Rakhito didn't understand it.

Yasso spoke up, his face bewildered, the thongs now loosely dangling in his hand by his side. "Lord Buddha, your holiness, it seems as if you started off by naming the reasonable possibilities, but your last point does not make sense. If the sandals are worth greater than twenty five pãdas, then Rakhito could not afford them. If they are worth less, then he could. The two possibilities cannot be realized at the same time. It seems contradictory, abstract... and we are trying to settle an eminently practical problem."

The Lord Buddha gave Yasso a glance, or was it a smile? Yasso could not tell. And he said to Yasso:

"The ascetics and brahmins, who claim such -- of the claims they make, it is none of these. It is not fifteen pãdas, nor is it not not fifteen pãdas. It is not worth less, nor is it worth more. It is not neither worth more nor worth less..." and so the Buddha continued like this for some time.

There was a long pause while the crowd considered everything the Buddha had just said. Then Rakhito broke the silence.

"Lord Buddha, on reflection, you seem to have just given us every logically possible answer, plus one answer that, depending on how you interpret it, is either a philosophical statement about the subjectiveness of value, or just plain contradictory."

The Lord Buddha didn't reply. He stood there like a statue, unwavering.

“Hello?" said Rakhito, waving his hand at around shoulder height.

The Buddha did not reply. But slowly, the mendicants began to encircle him, and then started to grovel at his feet.

Confused and disappointed, the wanderer Rakhito wandered away, away from the Buddha, away from Yasso, away from the groveling mendicants, and shoeless at that.

He entered into Benares and followed a pillar of smoke. He knew that where there was smoke there was usually food.

The puffs of smoke grew and grew in size until he reached an old inn with a chimney. It smelled of lentils. He figured he'd spend his fifteen pãdas on a good meal at least, and perhaps lodging to rest his tired feet.

While washing his feet and preparing to enter, Rakhito observed that a rather curious and winsome stranger was seated outside. He wore an exquisite pair of sandals which stood apart from the rest of the man's simple clothing.

Rakhito had a thought. He wondered if this man had stolen the sandals. Perhaps reporting the incident to the police would get him into the good graces of a sandalmaker. He spoke to the brahmin thus:

"Brahmin," inquired the wanderer, "but where did you get those rare and desirable sandals? They seem rather dear compared to the rest of your simple attire."

"They were a gift from the innkeeper," replied the stranger without the slightest hint of offense, "I'm actually not that into shoes, I just accepted them to be polite. I'll be getting rid of them as soon as I leave this inn."

The cool, steady tone of this man's voice slammed into Rakhito with the force of a thousand rickshaws.

Then he realized.

He whisphered, "You — you must be the ascetic Gotama!"

"I am," replied the real, true, and veritable ascetic Gotama.

"I was just arguing... but I thought you, there was another..." Rakhito rambled confusedly.

"I'm not that into crowds either," replied the real Lord Buddha. "That's a disciple of mine who you met. He's not who they say, but he sells it well, no one's really the wiser. He's been doing it for years. Likes the attention," the Buddha spoke, softly.

"His wisdom was inscrutable, your holiness."

"Yes," replied the true Buddha. "That was the thing. I tried to get him to understand the teachings so that he could explain them to others on my behalf. Meanwhile I could take some time off. In the end, the teachings are impersonal, it doesn't matter who gives them. There have been many other like me before me, and there will be many more after."

The true ascetic Gotama continued. "None of what I teach is all that complicated, but the questions that I got asked were just the same confused ones, over and over again. Such as, 'How does the self continue on in rebirth if there is no self to continue on in the first place?'" The Blessed One appeared to chew on this thought for a moment, and then elaborated.

"I tried to explain that there was no such thing as 'rebirth', but such a belief ran through the blood of society, like the parable of the two fish wherein one asks 'how's the water today?' and the other replies, 'what's water?' People simply cannot imagine life without that assumption. It's foundational to their working model of the world, and yet they do not realize that it is assumed without evidence. Because all their beliefs are invisibly tangled up in the belief in rebirth, if you knock out that belief, you'd have to change everything else. The mind rarely accepts a change so radical, at least not without lots of training in the sciences."

"What are 'the sciences'?" asked Rakhito, but the Buddha just sighed.

"I then tried a different approach, trying to meet them in the middle. I said 'this is my last rebirth, after this I will not be reborn again.' I thought perhaps this might get the point across, that once you realize the no-self, you cannot be reborn again, because there's no self to be reborn! But that led to yet another kind of confusion. First, it appeared to validate the principle of rebirth. But also it added a new wrinkle into the process." The Buddha's face was calm, but betrayed an echo of desperation.

"Because how the cycle of rebirth supposed to end? How should the conditions of my mind cause the universe to change how it works? Again, this just led to more confusion, as some now believe that I will not be reborn because of events which occurred in my meditation practice -- not that I was never destined to be reborn in the first place!"

Rakhito stood there uninterested, his feet swollen and in pain. He was keen to come inside the inn and have a drink of water and some dal.

"So, anyway, I got my accomplice there to just list off all the logical possibilities for every single question he was asked, and even some supra-logical ones, if I may call them that, and then to simply say that all these possibilities were wrong. Do this enough and people will eventually stop asking questions -- questions I don't care to answer. And in the end you don't have to understand anything really, you just have to have the feeling that you understood, and for most people that's enough."

Rakhito spoke. "Lord Buddha, that does not interest me. I am not interested in the self or the not-self, logic or non-logic. I am an old wanderer, tired and weary. What interests me is the argument with the brahmin shoemaker Yasso, so that I may go back and buy some sandals, bearing the wisdom of the true, authentic, and veritable Blessed One. If he will allow it, I would like to recount to him my story."

He gave Rakhito a nod, and Rakhito told him the story, with all of its details. The Buddha listened with a finger on his lower lip and his eyes nowhere in particular.

After Rakhito was done, the Buddha appeared to think for a moment. He then reached down towards his feet.

"So, it's just sandals you want?" he said, undoing the leather straps around his ankles.

"I... I could never... accept a gift from the ascetic Go-- Go--" the words failed to escape Rakhito's mouth.

"Shoes, even sandals, aren't that good for your feet," said Gotama. "Better to just work on strengthening your insoles. Shoes should pretty much be worn in dangerous environments only.”

And with those words, then and there, Rakhito was enlightened.

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