Incidentally there is a story illustrative of the importance the Buddha attached to the practice of the Dhamma. One day, the Buddha came out of the Jetavana monastery with the bhikkhus to go on tour. King Kosala, the merchant Anathapindika and other lay disciples requested the Buddha not to go on tour, but it was in vain. The merchant was unhappy because he would not be able to hear the Buddhas teaching or to make offerings to the Lord and the bhikkhus. His slave girl, Punna by name, said that she would ask the Buddha to come back. The merchant promised to free her from bondage if she could make the Buddha return to the monastery.
Then Punna followed the Buddha quickly and implored the Lord to come back. The Buddha asked her what she could do for him. She replied that she had nothing to offer, but that she would take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and observe the five precepts if the Lord spent the lent in Savatthi city. Saying, “Sadhu - well said”, the Buddha blessed her and returned to Jetavana monastery.
The news spread and the merchant set Punna free and adopted her as his daughter. She was now free to do what she liked, free to shape her own destiny. For this reason and by virtue of her parami (kammic potential) in her previous lives, she joined the holy order. She practised vipassana and when she developed insight into the impermanence of nama rupa, the Buddha exhorted her thus: “My daughter, just as the moon is full and complete on the fifteenth day, so also you should practise vipassana to the end. When your vipassana insight is complete, you will attain the end of suffering.”
After hearing this exhortation, Punna theri attained the last stage on the holy path and became an Arahat. The Buddha had of course foreseen Punnas destiny and it was his concern for her spiritual welfare that prompted him to cancel the projected tour and turn back in response to her appeal. This is an example of the high regard for the practice of dhamma that Gotama Buddha had in common with other Buddhas.
So the prince observed the ten precepts and dwelt at the residence of the Buddha. He spent his time near Sumana thera, the special attendant and watched him serve the needs of the Buddha in a very intimate manner. Shortly before the end of the lent, he returned home, donated lavishly to the Sangha and, in his prayer to the Buddha, he affirmed his desire to become an intimate attendant of a future Buddha. The Buddha blessed him and the prince developed paramis tor innumerable lifetimes. The jatakas refer to many lives which he devoted to perfecting himself in collaboration with bodhisatta Gotama. Sometimes the bodhisatta was king and he was the kings minister or the bodhisatta was a human being and he happened to be a deva or Sakka. But their positions were often reversed. In some jatakas they were brothers.
Thus they developed paramis close together through their long samsaric journey and in his last existence Ananda was the nephew of king Suddhodana. After spending the first lent near Benares, the Buddha went to Rajagaha and from there he proceeded to Kapilavatthu at the invitation of his father. When he left his native place, Ananda and some Sakyan princes followed the Buddha and joined the holy order.
The parami (perfections) which Ananda had acquired through many lifetimes made it possible for him to understand easily Paticcasamuppada that has baffled so many people. Moreover, Ananda had received instructions from teachers. He had not only lived with his teachers but also learned and inquired about the meanings of the doctrine and memorized them. This kind of learning helped him to understand Paticcasamuppada. In fact, he attained the first stage of the holy path after having heard the sermon of the noted preacher, Punna thera. Ananda paid a high tribute to Punna for his illuminating discourse. The substance of the discourse is as follows.
“Self conceit arises from attachment to the body, feeling, memory, kamma formations (sankhara) and consciousness. It cannot arise without the five khandhas any more than the reflection of a mans face can appear in the absence of a mirror. The body, feeling, etc., are not permanent. Since they are not permanent, you should contemplate and realize that none of the five khandhas, whether in the past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, good or bad, distant or near is yours, is you or is your ego.”
“The well informed disciple of the Buddha who thus contemplates and realizes truth is disillusioned with the five khandhas. He becomes detached and free. He knows that his mind is free, that he has done what is to be done, that he has nothing else to do for his freedom.”
This was what Punna preached to Ananda. As sotapanna, Ananda realized the cause and effect relationships of Paticcasamuppada. He had this insight when he practised vipassana. He knew that illusion, attachment, obsession, effort, rebirth, consciousness, etc., form the links in the chain of causation. Here, illusion or ignorance is avijja, attachment is tanha, obsession is upadana, effort is kamma. So when it is said that kamma leads to rebirth, we should understand that rebirth is also conditioned by upadana, etc. So the past involves avijja, tanha, upadana and kamma as causes. The yogi who realizes this through contemplation of nama rupa is free from all doubts which we cannot remove merely through learning and reflection.
As the best informed disciple of the Buddha, Ananda also gained recognition of the Teacher in matters of knowledge. He usually accompanied the Buddha on preaching tour and memorized all the discourses. He could repeat a discourse verbatim after he had once heard it. As for the Buddhas talks given in his absence, he learnt from others and memorized them. The dhammas which he had thus learnt by heart are said to number eighty four thousand.
Ananda was well known for his retentive memory and the commentary on Mahavedalla sutta says that he could memorize hundreds of gathas in a short space of time. What with his wide knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha and his chief disciples, it is no wonder that the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada did not present much difficulty to him. Even today, given a thorough knowledge of the Pitaka, a man may understand the cause and effect relationship in the doctrine.