During the time that Buddha was dwelling in Sravasti teaching to numerous sentient beings, within the kingdom there lived an important merchant who owned many pieces of precious bodily adornments, including valuable necklaces and all kinds of fine gems. One day, he decided to offer all of these precious jewels to King Prasenajit. The king was very delighted about this, and sent out one of his men to ask all his wives to come out, declaring he would award these exquisite ornaments to the most beautiful one among them.
After the news was announced, the wives at once dressed themselves up as best as they could, and in order came to present themselves in front of the king, with the hope that they would be the one to receive these treasured items. The king saw that Queen Mallika was the only one absent among them, and so asked his attendant as to her whereabouts. His attendant replied, “Today the lady is observing the eight prohibitive and fasting precepts1, which keep her from decorating herself with any makeup and ornaments, so she decided to stay in her room.” The king was very unhappy, and sent his attendant to ask her to come out. When Queen Mallika finally appeared, wearing her simple apparel devoid of any adornments, as well as not having applied any cosmetics, her entire body nevertheless managed to radiate out a dazzling light, and looked even more dignified and majestic than usual.
The king was very surprised, and asked Queen Mallika, “What is it that makes you look so much different than everyone else here?” She answered, “Because throughout continuous kalpas I've cultivated such a small amount of merit, so in this lifetime my accumulated negative karma causes me to attach to my desires. Besides, life is brief and temporary. If we don't work hard in our cultivation, it will be very easy for us to fall into the three evil paths. Therefore, I now every month receive and uphold the eight precepts, abandon my strong greed and desires, and follow the teachings of the Buddha. With these practices, I hope I can receive the benefits of the Dharma.”
The king became very happy and decided to bestow Queen Mallika with the precious ornaments. However, she responded, “Today I am upholding the eight precepts, and it would therefore not be suitable to wear these jewelries. Please give it to somebody else.” The king said, “My intention is to award these precious items to the most beautiful woman here, and among them you are the most beautiful and dignified. Moreover, by following the eight precepts of the Buddha, your state of mind is holy and pure, which makes people love and respect you. If you do not accept this gift, what could I possibly do?” She answered, “Please come with me Your Highness, and we will go and offer these ornaments to the Buddha.”
So King Prasenajit and Queen Mallika brought along the top ministers and went to the temple where the Buddha was staying. After prostrating in front of the Buddha, the king, holding the jewels in his hands, spoke to the Buddha. “Queen Mallika, due to her upholding of the eight precepts, does not possess the mind of desire, and therefore graciously declined this precious gift which I offered to her. We've therefore specially come here to offer this treasure to you, and I hope that you will mercifully accept it.” The king also asked, “Receiving and upholding the eight precepts and believing in the Dharma, is there any merit in this?” The Buddha mercifully accepted the ornament, and for all those present uttered a verse, the meaning of which is as follows:
“Even the wonderful aromas of the world's most fragrant sandalwood or lotus flower would still be much weaker than the aroma sent out from one who practices the eight precepts. If one's actions can stay in accord with the precepts and can maintain good moral conduct, that person will be bound to distance him/herself from all his/her faults and errors, therefore freeing oneself from all vexations as well as from birth and death.”
The Buddha told King Prasenajit, “The merits obtained from upholding these precepts are vast and long-lasting, and will result in practitioners attaining good reputation and receiving high respect from their peers. Even if you took all the treasures of the entire world and gave them as offerings, all of the merit that you receive would not be as great as what Queen Mallika attains in a single day of maintaining the precepts. Upholding the eight precepts can help free oneself from vexations, thereby attaining nirvana. These kinds of merits cannot be compared to worldly merits.” After the Buddha finished speaking, everyone was greatly pleased and with resolution followed the Buddha's instructions, and embraced the Dharma.
1. The Eight Prohibitive and Fasting Precepts: Also called the Eight Precepts. It was established by the Buddha for the laity to temporarily experience the monastic life. The preceptee shall leave his/her family for one day and one night, and live with the Sangha to learn the monastic way of life, and refrain from killing, stealing, sexual conducts, telling lies, taking intoxicants, wearing garlands, jewelry, and perfume, dancing, singing, playing music, sitting or lying on grand, luxurious seats or beds, and taking food after midday.
Compositions that are elegantly written but with shallow meaning will not have the power to stir people's emotions. Similarly, people with an attractive exterior but lacking an elevated soul will be unable to earn people's respect. Therefore, people with wisdom will not solely in order to please other people dress themselves up to look pretty, but instead will constantly pay attention to improving one's cultivation.
When upholding the eight precepts, because one's desires and attachments to valuable objects will lessen, this person’s merit will grow. Also, by concentrating his mind on cultivating the spiritual life, one can then expand one’s wisdom. Therefore, upholding the precepts is a method of cultivation that increases both our merit and wisdom.