How Sumana-Setthi Was Converted To Buddhism By A Toothbrush And A Prostitute

A little-known peripheral figure in the Buddha’s life story, Sumana-Setthi’s (สุมนะเศรษฐี) conversion is one of many great folktales in ancient Buddhist texts. This one is found in the non-canonical Dhammapadatthakatha, the commentary on the Dhammapada book of the Pali Canon. My version here is abridged and, I think, improved from the original.

Once he became a Buddhist, Sumana was an ardent supporter of the Buddha. And because of the vast sums he donated to the sangha, he’s one of the nine setthi (“rich person”) from the Buddha’s lifetime who compose the nine-faced wealth-building Phra Setthi Nawakot image, often errantly called the Nine-Faced Buddha or the Billionaire Buddha.

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Sumana-Setthi was a very wealthy man, and an unbeliever. One day when the king declared a holiday, Sumana asked one of his servants, Punna, whether he wanted to take the week off. “Holidays are for the rich,” he replied, and went to work so he could feed his family. That same morning Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, stopped by the field that Punna was plowing and Punna gave him some water and prepared a toothstick. Continuing down the road, Sariputta passed Punna’s wife* who was delivering breakfast to her husband. Excited for the opportunity to give alms to the revered elder, she insisted that he take all of the rice, not just half.

Punna’s wife1She is not named in the texts. returned home to cook another meal for Punna. Arriving at his field very late she worried that her angry husband would strike her with the handle of his whip. But Punna was a virtuous man and a devotee of the Buddha; and when he heard the reason for her delay he was thrilled that she had also supported the elder Sariputta that morning.

historic painting from India of man plowing field with two oxen

After his meal, Punna rested his head on his wife’s lap and took a quick nap. When he awoke, he saw that the half-acre of soil he had plowed that morning had turned to gold. Punna went right away to tell the king about the miracle that followed helping Sariputta. The king sent thousands of carts to haul the gold to his palace, but when his men picked up pieces in his name, it turned back into dirt. So the king told them to declare that the gold was the property of Punna. Doing so, they were able to gather it all and put it in a huge pile, over 35 meters tall, in the palace’s courtyard.

Punna was now the richest man in the city. The king honored him as a treasurer and built him a home. For the housewarming, Punna gave vast alms to the Buddha and his company of monks. Sumana wanted his son2 Also unnamed. to marry Punna’s daughter, Uttara, but Punna refused to wed her to a family of non-Buddhists. Other wealthy and influential people, however, advised Punna that angering Sumana could create problems for him in the future, so he relented and gave his daughter away.

Though she begged, Uttara’s husband forbade her from giving alms to monks or listening to dharma talks. After two and a half months Uttara had not been able to make any merit and was depressed. When she told her father that her life was no better than being in prison, he was panged with guilt. Punna sent Uttara 15,000 coins and told her to hire a high-class prostitute named Sirima to serve as her husband’s mistress for two weeks, freeing herself up to do good deeds. Sirima was so beautiful that he agreed to the arrangement and Uttara used her time to feed fancy food to the Buddha and many monks at her home every day and then listened to him preach.

On the final day of Uttara’s respite, her husband saw her running the kitchen, wet from perspiration and dirty from soot. What an utter fool, he thought, eschewing luxury and comfort to care for a bunch of simple monks, and he laughed aloud. Sirima, having spent two weeks in such splendor, had forgotten her rightful place and forged a jealous hatred of Uttara when she heard the laugh. She ran into the kitchen and threw a spoonful of boiling ghee on Uttara’s head. But Uttara felt nothing but compassion for Sirima – it was, after all, thanks to her that she had earned two weeks of freedom to make merit – and due to her profound righteousness the ghee did not burn her.

Sirima quickly regretted her folly and fell at Uttara’s feet, begging forgiveness. Uttara said that if the Buddha could forgive her, then she could too. Sirima was also a heretic, but agreed to meet him the next morning. After listening to the two women explain what had happened the day before, the Buddha praised Uttara for properly overcoming anger with kindness. And upon hearing the Buddha preach briefly on this subject, Sirima became a believer and was forgiven. Uttara’s husband and Sumana had also been listening and they too were converted by the Buddha’s wise words. All three lived out their days following dharma and giving alms.

photo from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

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