Self Doubt and the Buddha, Guttila Jataka


By Rafe Martin©

The Buddha Loses Faith In Himself: The Master Musician, Jataka No. 243 (Synopsis: The Buddha as an aging master musician doubts his ability to win a musical competition. The king of the gods steps in to help him, revealing that kindness can be of greater benefit than great artistry.)

Once the Bodhisattva was born into a musician’s family. When grown, he was so talented and skilled he was known as “Guttila, the Master Musician.” In time Guttila’s parents became blind with age but given his fame, he had no trouble providing for them.

One day merchants from his home city of Benares, had business in a small town a few days journey away. A banquet was held in their honor and a local musician, a talented young man named Musila, was hired to entertain them. Musila began playing but the men talked and ate as if he wasn’t there. Musila thought, “My music must be too complex for them. I’ll try something simpler.” And he began playing again. But again, the merchants continued chatting and eating as if oblivious of his presence.

“They may be from the big city but they clearly know nothing about music,” angrily thought Musila. “Instead of showing them my best work, I’ll have to use something really simple.”

Then he began to play a simple, catchy tune. But even so, there was still no response. Exasperated, Musila stopped, put down his instrument and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, do you not like my music?”

“What?!” they exclaimed. “You were playing? We thought you were just tuning up.”

“Sirs, are you entirely ignorant of the musical arts?” exclaimed Musila, upset that his talent had been so disregarded.

“Oh, no,” they reassured him. “It’s just that we have heard the divine music of Master Guttila who lives in our city and, well, compared to his playing, . . .” They stopped and shrugged their shoulders in embarrassment.

“Gentlemen!” exclaimed Musila. “Take me with you when you return to Benares! I must study with your famed Guttila!”

So when the merchants left town, Musila went with them. When they arrived in Benares Musila went at once to the house of Master Guttila. Entering, he saw the master musician’s beautiful lute hanging on the wall. Taking it down, he played a few notes, stunned by the rich tones. However, Guttila’s old blind parents quickly came rushing in, crying, “Shoo shoo! The rats must be gnawing the strings of our son’s lute again! Shoo, you rats!”

Musila replaced the instrument and greeted the old people. “I have come from afar,” he said, “to apprentice myself to your famed son, the master musician, Guttila.”

“Our son will soon return,” said the parents. “You may wait.” They brought food and drink for the guest, then left him. When Guttila returned Musila bowed, then explained his desire to, as he put it “Learn at the feet of the Master.”

Guttila was a man of knowledge. From years of paying close attention to music he had developed an ability to observe everything with a still mind. Watching Musila talk and listening to the timbre of his voice he sensed that, while this was a man of skill and talent, he was also one who was easily given to self-centeredness. “No,” thought Guttila. “The secrets of my art should not be shared with him.”

Then as tactfully as possible Guttila said, “My son,” (for Guttila was past middle age and Musila still young), my particular art is not for you. We each have our ways. Trust yours.”

Guttila’s blind old parents had come in by then and were standing there when he said this. When Musila heard these words, he threw himself on the ground before the old people, clasped their feet, and begged, “Please please please ask the Master to teach me! Music is my all!” The parents, musicians themselves, moved by the young man’s pleas, begged the bodhisattva to change his mind. Then, despite his misgivings, Guttila, the Buddha in a former life, accepted Musila as his apprentice. Once the decision was made he taught openly and fully, in time imparting to the younger man all the hard-won secrets of his art.

Then Musila thought, “So, now I, too, am a master. Benares is the chief city of all India. Its king is great and my teacher, old. I will stay in Benares and seek service with the king.” He headed to the palace. Gaining an audience with the king, he explained his desire to become the court musician.

“Lovely,” said the king. “You must be very good to have completed your training with our noted Master Guttila. I accept you as court musician and will pay you half of what he gets.”

Musila said, “Sire, I know all he knows. Not a note or chord less. He is not greater, nor I lesser. Why half?”

The king smiled. Then he said, “Master Guttila has many years of experience to draw on. Plus, his is a unique talent.”

“Sire, if I may say so, I am not only as knowledgeable, but every bit as good,” said Musila. “Plus, he is old and his powers fading, while I am young and my skills still on the rise.”

“There may be merit in what you say,” mused the king. “But how shall this be proved?”

“That is easy, Sire. Hold a competition between Master Guttila and myself. Then everyone will see who is best.”

“Ah, Musila, it is not wise to compete with one’s teacher. Such actions only lead to bad feeling.”

“Master Guttila is a dedicated professional, as am I,” said Musila. “Our only interest is music. How could bad feelings intrude when great music will be played?”

“You are right!” exclaimed the king, striking his thigh in delight. “In this contest we shall hear wonderful music!”

A messenger was sent to Master Guttila announcing the king’s wish to see him and his student, Musila, compete, a week from that day. A drummer was sent around the city as well. Beating on his drum, he announced that a musical contest between Master Guttila and his former student Musila was to take place, and the whole city was invited.

Guttila, the Buddha-to-One-Day-Be, began to worry. “My strength is not what it was,” he thought, “while Musila is in his prime. If I beat him there’s no great credit to me and no great shame to him. It’s expected, after all. I’m his teacher and my reputation is great. But if I should lose . . . Oh, that would be shameful. I could not bear it. I will hide in the forest to escape this dilemma.”

So off he went into the deep woods. But in the night the dread of the forest of its darkness and its wild beasts came upon him. The snapping of twigs, the padding of animal feet, the groaning of trees, the whispering of leaves, made his heart pound and hair stand on end so that he hardly slept.

After a sleepless night, when the sun rose, he set off back to the safety of the city. Yet once there, the thought of losing the competition and being shamed rose in his mind again. To escape he set out again, back to the forest. Where terror again gripped him. In this way, for six days, back and forth he went, driven from the city by shame and from the forest by fear. The grass died under his feet as he wore a path through the woods. His mind was in a fever – “What to do what to do what to do?”

Shakra, King of the Gods, felt his throne grow hot. He meditated and found the source: “Guttila, whose divine music has brought joy even to us gods, has lost faith in himself. I must help.”

The god descended into the forest. The old musician looked up, saw a radiant being hovering over the trees, and was overcome with terror and awe.

“Who are you?” he stammered.

“I am Shakra, King of the Gods,” said the god, descending to earth. “Have no fear. I have come to help you. Your music has pleased even us gods. But why are you so worried?”

“I’m afraid I’ll be bested in competition with my former pupil,” answered Guttila. “I am getting old. My skill is fading while he is in his prime. The shame of this possible loss gives me no peace.”

“Don’t worry,” said Shakra. “Your talent is the greater. Plus I will help you. Do as I say, and you will win. As you play on your seven-stringed instrument, break one string and play on the remaining six. Your music will be as great as before. Musila must also try this trick if he is to beat you. But when he breaks a string, his music will not be good. Then you break the sixth and the fifth strings and play on. Your music will be glorious! His will be awful. Finally, break the last strings and from the broken ends will pour music to delight humans and gods. Your student will be overcome, and you will be honored. Here are three dice. When the sound of your music fills the city, toss one into the air. Three hundred goddesses will appear and dance to your music. Toss the second and three hundred more will appear in the courtyard. Toss the last and another three hundred will dance before people.” Shakra laughed. “I will come, too. I would not miss it! Cheer up, Master Musician. Your fame will not fade but only increase. The gods are with you.” Then the god, Shakra rose back up into the air and vanished in a blaze of light. Stunned by what he’d seen and heard, Guttila made his way out the forest back to the city, his confidence fully restored.

The next day he went to the palace. A crowd was seated in the newly built stands. The courtyard and palace grounds, too, were filled. The two musicians were seated on a beautiful carpet before the king’s throne. Each tuned up and began to play. The crowd murmured. Then they roared – with delight. The music was fantastic, the most beautiful music they had ever heard. As Guttila played on, he saw Shakra, King of the Gods descend from the skies. Only Guttila could see him. Shakra signaled for Guttila to break the first string.

Snap! The crowd was dismayed. But still his music poured out, even richer than before. Guttila snapped the next string and – impossibly – the music became even better! Musila’s eyes opened wide. He stared in disbelief. Now he, too, would have to break strings or he would lose. Snap! His music faltered. Snap. It grew weak. Then it became worse. The crowd booed. Musila hung his head. Guttila snapped another string and played on alone.

“Magnificent!” exclaimed the king.

Guttila tossed a single die. Three hundred goddesses descended from the skies and danced. Another die and, another. Nine hundred heavenly maidens danced in the earthly courtyard. Musila dropped his instrument and ran away. People laughed and jeered. “Match his master? The man must be mad, so full is he of himself!”

Guttila broke the remaining strings and played on, bringing the music of heaven down to earth with his stringless lute. The king shook his head in wonder. The crowd applauded wildly. At last, when Guttila ceased, the king spoke. “The winner,” he declared, “is Guttila!”

The crowd roared its approval. Carrying many gifts, Guttila went home totally satisfied. Shakra, King of the Gods, was waiting. “A great performance! Didn’t I say? Didn’t I tell you? Now you shall tour my heavens. You shall see how high your music ascends.”

Shakra’s chariot, drawn by a thousand horses descended and Guttila, holding his instrument, stepped in. Shakra, too, entered. Then they went up to the stars.

In Shakra’s heaven, heavenly maidens gathered and asked Guttila to play for them. Guttila said, “My lord, Shakra, and you heavenly maidens, artists love nothing better than to share their art. But they also require payment.”

Shakra asked, “What payment do you require?”

“Only this,” said Guttila. “After I have finished, I ask that the heavenly maidens tell me how they arrived in this heaven. What brought them to this lofty state?”

“Agreed,” said Shakra.

Guttila tuned his lute and began to play. He played for seven days. Not once in all that time did he experience weariness, or make a single error.  For seven days his human music surpassed the music of heaven.

On the seventh day he ceased, set down his lute, and asked the daughters of the gods to tell their tales. And each told a remarkably similar story. By treating others with kindness and generosity, by ceasing to cling to self-centered thoughts and actions, by remaining steadfast in virtue and charity, by not wallowing in anger, by sharing a meal with one in need, by giving a coin, or fruit, a flower to a beggar or to a wandering monk they found themselves at life’s end, reborn in heaven.

“So that is the way of it,” thought Guttila, looking around at the magnificence that surrounded him, the joy that flowed through every tree, building, and being. “Ladies, I thank you. When I return to earth I will not forget your stories. And I will tell others.”

And so Guttila returned to earth, one of the few humans who, while living, to have ascended to heaven. He now knew that talented and skillful as he was, selfless deeds were the surest road to the heights. After that, he ended every concert by encouraging his listeners to follow the example of the goddesses and to do good deeds.

“I ascended to heavenly states in my art,” said Guttila. “But the daughters of the gods revealed that generous deeds are the way to get there in truth.”

Many took this to heart. In this way, Guttila, master musician, the Buddha in a former life, helped open a path that brought benefit to many beings.

Commentary: A Great Artist Loses Faith in Himself in the Guttila Jataka

“When it comes to goodness, one need not avoid competing with one’s teacher.” Confucius

It’s not a good idea to compete with one’s teachers except as regards goodness – as the 3,000 year-old Confucian Analects attest. Zen tradition, too, holds that one must excel one’s teacher if one is to fulfill teaching responsibilities. But this has nothing to do with competitiveness.

Alas. These days we mostly live in a world of Musilas. Our culture seems to demand that we be out for ourselves, marketing and branding at every turn. In our competitive world, self-promotion is the name of the game. Yet as with all self-centered thoughts and deeds, such an approach can easily become a stumbling block on the road to happiness.

Take this old jataka as a case in point. In it, egotistic desire for profit and fame rise up against generosity and kindness and good teaching is repaid with self-centeredness. Aging, anxiety, and self-doubt play their parts. The twist is, that it’s set in a previous world age, its protagonist is the Buddha himself, and the tale reveals the anxious self-doubt he himself faced long ago!

Additionally, there is an aspect to the story that remains troubling — its seeming lack of fairness. The master musician, Guttila, the Buddha in a past life, has a god on his side! Who’s going to stand a chance against that combination? The upstart Musila is out for himself, it’s true, but is that so surprising? “The poison of the honeybee is the artist’s jealousy,” wrote William Blake back in 18th century England. It’s still part of the territory. Every artist knows that his or her income depends not only on the quality of the work but on its reputation. And there are those whose talent lies in knowing more of how to “game” the system and promote themselves, than in a genuine dedication to the art. You can break your heart looking into the injustice of the arts. Van Gogh never sold a painting. Herman Melville never received a single positive word on his masterwork, Moby Dick. William Blake, considered a madman by all but a handful of younger artists and poets, died in obscurity and poverty. Even the world of children’s book publishing, which I once knew something about and which used to be noted for its particular blend of graciousness, creativity, and caring has turned into a “bunny eat bunny world.” While this sounds funny, it’s not a joke. It’s rough out there.

Guttila, the Buddha in a former life, as an artist world ages ago, struggled with this painful truth. And he lost both peace of mind and faith in himself because of his own quite ordinary desire to be recognized and respected. The Bodhisattva is human. He’s not immune to the stresses of ordinary life, and he is not playing at it. He’s in the mix, right down in the mud flailing around with the rest of us.

When the Buddha was the Banyan Deer he knew the terror of the hunt down to his bones. He wasn’t pretending. He wasn’t saying, “Hey, I’m really the Buddha wearing an animal mask, putting on this act to point out the Way for others.” No. He’s exactly what he appears to be – an animal in danger. Which is why he can risk his life to save others. He knows the terror they face because he faces it himself. In each jataka he is what he appears to be – a musician, a poor man, a king, a horse, a dog, a god. Yet at the same time he is the Buddha-To-Be and on the Path – though he doesn’t know that. He just knows he’s determined to do his best. That’s it.

Christians may be reminded of Christ’s incarnation and suffering. Though that too was a kind of drama, like the Buddha he wasn’t playing at it. The cosmic mystery is that what we like to call “divinity” suffers the anguish of ordinary, time-bound, malice-ridden life. When the Buddha-to-Be left home and set out from the palace into the mountains seeking enlightenment, he wasn’t playing a role. He was shocked, struck to the core by impermanence, and it hurt. Yet in this jataka, a god, in fact, king of all the gods descends from the highest heavens, stands at the troubled Bodhisattva’s side, and rigs the contest in his favor. What is that about?

Who can explain genius? A god descends and it’s all she wrote. It can’t be explained, and, man, is it unfair! Why should one person be talented and another, not? In the movie, Amadeus, the pious, hard-working, competent musician Salieri, tries so hard to better Mozart. He prays and works so hard, pushing himself to the limits of his talent. Yet he can’t begin to surpass the divine Mozart, who blows him out of the water without even breaking into a sweat. Which drives Salieri crazy. He’s right. It is unfair. It makes little sense and can’t be explained.

There are many kinds of genius and they’re all inexplicable. In an interview on the National Public Radio show, “Fresh Air,” Leonard Cohen told Terry Gross, the interviewer and host, how he once sat with Bob Dylan in the sixties, in Paris after a Dylan concert. Dylan asked, “How long did it take you to write ‘Hallelujah?’ It’s a good song.” Cohen answered “Two years.” Then he added to the interviewer. “I lied. It took me at least four.” Then he said he asked Dylan, “How long did it take you to write the song, ‘I and I?’ Dylan answered, “Fifteen minutes.” Two kinds of genius, one works and works at it, writes ninety verses over a period of years and, in the end, selects the ten that fit perfectly. Another opens a door in his brain and an entire song walks in, the writer having no idea where it came from or even how he did it. Then again, how do we form thoughts and images in our minds? Maybe we’re all geniuses and just don’t know it.

This jataka of the two musicians has a familiarly classic ring to it. It’s reminiscent of old Westerns, in which the aging sheriff faces off against a young gunslinger out to make a name for himself. Or we might think of Darth Vader taking up his light saber against his old master, Obi-Wan. Only in this version of the archetype it’s not the hero’s wife, or sidekick, or the town drunk, or even his own wizardly powers that save him. Instead, a god descends and after that it’s “all she wrote.”

But here’s the point – even though Guttila one far in-the-future day, will become the supremely realized, supremely confident Buddha, in this life he can’t avoid suffering, anguish, and loss of faith in himself. The Buddha loses faith in himself? Doubts his own abilities? Loses confidence? Needs a god’s protection? Is afraid of losing face and income? Doesn’t that sound suspiciously ordinary, like the people we see and know and meet everyday? Indeed, very much like ourselves? Shouldn’t the Future Buddha be beyond all that, free of egotism’s gnawing self-doubt, the other side of its potential for surging pride? But no, as this jataka shows, he’s not. Instead, he’s just like us.

Zen teachers and Buddhist tradition tell us that those who have attained enlightenment are no different from us. The only difference is that they kept at it, lifetime after lifetime, not turning away from the sustained exertion of ongoing practice, even with self-doubt, shortcomings, frailties, and anxieties riding their shoulders. In the process they discovered that while we all have issues that need to be addressed and not ignored, our shortcomings need not be obstacles but can become steppingstones along a path of wisdom. If we persist. “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” says our wise old man of the West, William Blake. Or, coming at it from a Zen view:

You may think, “The Way of the Buddha patriarchs distinguishes individuals and capacities. We are not up to it.” . . . Who among the ancients was not a body born of a mother and father? Who did not have feelings of love and affection, or thoughts of fame and fortune? However once they practiced [Zen], they practiced thoroughly [thereby achieving enlightenment].

Keizan Jokin, teisho, transmission case # 3, Denkoroku (Record of Transmitting the Light), Francis Dojun Cook, trans, p.45.)

And, so, the Bodhisattva continues on, not just through a lifetime but through eons and kalpas, dealing with the issues that arise, letting body and mind fall away into the Unborn over and over, opening up every little nook and cranny of human character and mind. Going all the way.

In this jataka the Bodhisattva finds that goodness, compassion, and living wisely are surer paths to higher states than the transportation provided by his own heavenly talent. This can be a difficult realization. How much work does it take to rise to the level of a Dylan, a Cohen, a Mozart, or Rembrandt? And why not make that effort? Heavenly states, mental and bodily healing, as well as insights into social, political, environmental, and metaphysical realities are realized through the arts, entered, embodied, and brought down to earth benefiting us all. Is there anyone who doesn’t owe a debt of insight or encouragement to a song, a painting, a symphony, a play, a movie, a novel, or a story?

And yet and yet . . . such ravishments and transports, good, beneficial, freeing and helpful as they may be don’t guarantee a steady path in life, even for their creators. Many terrific artists have had self-destructive lives. Absorbed in the world of their craft, in issues of success, income, and adulation one can lose sight of the larger world of sun, moon, stars, ants, bugs, cracks in the sidewalk, blossoms on trees, friends and relations. It is a paradox. Some artists become real through the very illusion of their craft. In such moments they are there – full and whole – and can take us with them – into the present, and into the ageless presence of our own potential. And then they step off the stage and that wonderful insight is gone.

The Buddha in this past-life tale wasn’t perfect. He got caught up in his career and in the potential terror of seeing success stripped from him. Perhaps he worried, “What will I be if I’m no longer a famous musician? Will such a life be worth living?” Clearly, in that long ago time, he had a long way yet to go to be an unencumbered human being, let alone a great bodhisattva! He’s kind to his parents, supporting them in their blind old age. He has deep skills, expressed in and arising out of his art. Yet, his center of gravity still pretty much revolves around his career. Then, through difficulty, he comes to see how he’s stuck and becomes open to going further. His art alone is no longer enough.

Of course being an artist doesn’t discount healthy and generous living. Blake, Bach, Louis Armstrong, Rembrandt were all sterling personalities and great artists. Think, too, of the great Zen poets and haiku masters, calligraphers and painters who practiced Zen along with or as the foundation of their art. They found a balance, their art expressing their practice of realization, their practice nourished by the selfless joy they found in their art.

Still the talent for being human resides with each of us, just as we are. It is our nature – if we actualize it. Like all skills, it will need to be worked on, that is, practiced. Being born human gives us the opportunity to practice the art of being authentic human beings. It is a lifelong Path and one can always—always—go farther. And, at the same time, it is the very ordinary Way we walk everyday. As this jataka takes dramatic pains to show.

The great violinist, Paganini, was once imprisoned for debt. In prison he continued to play. In time his old strings frayed and broke. He persevered, learning to play on fewer and fewer strings. In the end, he was playing on only one. When he was freed from prison and began performing before audiences again, he electrified the house at the end of his first public performance by purposefully snapping all but one string and playing on with great feeling and depth. The audience was astonished, then overwhelmed. It was as if a god had entered the hall.

To turn to Zen – how will you play your life’s unique music on a lute, not simply with one string, but with no strings at all?

“When your bow is broken and your last arrow spent, then shoot, shoot with your whole heart,” is how an old Zen verse puts it. Giving our all, bringing attention to each breath, each koan point, each life situation, each error, each problem and anxiety, our music gets better and better. Svaha! Hooray! Bravo! Great show! Just great!