The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw | 1990 | 1,044,401 words

This page describes The Story of Richman’s Son, Uggasena, the Acrobat contained within the book called the Great Chronicle of Buddhas (maha-buddha-vamsa), a large compilation of stories revolving around the Buddhas and Buddhist disciples. This page is part of the series known as founding of Vesali. This great chronicle of Buddhas was compiled by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw who had a thorough understanding of the thousands and thousands of Buddhist teachings (suttas).

Part 5 - The Story of Richman’s Son, Uggasena, the Acrobat

In the time of Buddha, a theatrical troupe of five hundred entertainers used to stage shows to entertain the King of Rājagaha for seven days annually or bi-annually, for which they received enormous amount of rewards in gold and silver. The prize awarded by the enthusiastic general public in their honour, at intervals of performances, was inestimable. The citizens sat upon rows and rows of four-legged bedsteads of their own, arranging them behind and above one another, each row getting higher and higher than the one in front.

Their show usually started with the appearance on the stage of a young actress, the daughter of the troupe’s leading acrobat. She displayed her skill in acrobatics in various styles on a string of bamboos at a certain height from the ground; she moved from end to end gently and steadily, as she danced and sang with a pleasant voice.

Uggasena, Son of A Richman

Amongst the audience was a youth named Uggasena, the son of a rich man. He was enjoying the show together with a friend. He gazed attentively at the impressive performer displaying her acrobatic skill in different postures and styles, softly bending, raising, stretching her delicate hands and feet. He went back home driven mad with intense attachment and affection for the youthful actress. On arrival at home, he threw himself down on bed, saying: “I will live only if I can get her or else I will die on this bed,” and sentimentally went on hunger strike.

His parents asked him: “Dear son, what ails you?” “O dear mother and father,... I will live only if I win the hands of the acrobatic actress whom I have seen performing in the precincts of the royal palace; if not, I will die on this bed-stead,” was his frank, blunt reply. His parents consoled him by saying: “Dear son, don't get so sentimental. We will find a fair lady suitable for you from amongst our own clansmen of wealthy status.” But Uggasena was not moved by the pleadings of his parents but reiterated his wish as before without any change and kept on lying on his bed.

Uggasena’s father made several attempts to persuade his son to change his mind, talking to him privately with soothing words, but to no avail. Finally the parents sent for his friend and asked him to negotiate with the head acrobat, the father of the girl, on their behalves, saying: “Friend, please take his sum of one thousand and give it to the father of the young actress with a request to accept it and to give his daughter in marriage to my son, Uggasena.”

The head acrobat’s reply to the messenger’s request was: “I am not prepared to accept the money in exchange for my daughter. If the rich man’s Uggasena cannot live unless he wins the hands of my daughter, he will have to come along with us. I will give away my daughter only on this condition that he follows us wherever we go.”

Uggasena followed The Actress

When his parents conveyed the news to him, Uggasena said: “O mother and father, in that case I will go along with them,” and so saying he left for head acrobat’s place in spite of repeated requests of his parents and relatives not to do so. The head acrobat was as good as his words, he gave away his daughter and they all wandered about towns and villages staging shows and acrobatic performances,

A son was born of the union of Uggasena and the actress. The mother used to coax and cuddle the child by singing a lullaby:

Son of a watchman of the carts... I wish you would sleep.

Son of a wicked man, the custodian of prize money... I wish you would sleep.

Son of an ignoramus... I wish you would sleep.

She sang this in a mocking, ridiculing manner.

This lullaby reflected on the life being led by Uggasena. Whenever the entertainment troupe rested during the course of wanderings, he was charged with the responsibility for securing food for the oxen and feeding them, and for the security of the camp. He was also responsible for safe custody of the proceeds from the performances.

Uggasena realized that by singing mocking lullabies, the actress was making insinuations and ridiculing him. He asked the actress: “Are you singing to despise me?” She replied: “Yes, it was intended for you.” Uggasena retorted: “Then I will have to abandon you and go back to my parents.” The actress was unmoved by this threat and she replied: “I don't care at all whether you go away or come back,” and went on repeating the lullaby again and again (knowing that it was irritating to Uggasena). (The actress was puffed up with pride of her beauty and her fine art of dancing which enabled her to earn her living easily.)

Uggasena became An Acrobatic Artist

Uggasena thought over how the actress became so conceited and finally realised: “Her pride is rooted in her prowess as an acrobatic artist.” He made up his mind to learn the skill in acrobatic feats. Approaching his father-in-law, the acrobatic master, he sought and received permission from him to be trained in the art of gymnastics until he became an expert in it. He then went from place to place staging shows in villages and marketing towns and finally he came back again to the city of Rājagaha. There, he had it announced widely throughout the city that “seven days from now, Uggasena, the son of the rich man, will stage a performance, demonstrating the amazing feats of acrobatics and somersaults.”

The citizens vied with one another in setting up bedstead seats with longer legs to get better view of the performances and they assembled round the stage on the appointed day. Finally, Uggasena appeared and he climbed up a pole of sixty cubits high and made up of many lengths of bamboo affixed to one another firmly. He stood on top of the pole poised to stage a performance.

Uggasena appeared on The Mental Vision of The Buddha

On the day fixed for the staging of performance by Uggasena, the Buddha surveyed the world of beings before dawn and perceived by means of Omniscience, the vision of Uggasena caught His supernormal mental screen, like a fish trapped in a net, and He reflected on what would come to pass.

He saw in His mind’s eye:

When the morning comes, Uggasena will stand on top of the pole of sixty cubits high to stage a performance and the citizens will appear to witness it. At that assemblage of people, I will expound the Dhamma made up of four verses. As a result of hearing this discourse of Mine, eighty-four thousand sentient beings will gain emancipation through realization of the Four Noble Truths. Uggasena will attain arahatship.

As the time for alms-round arrived, the Buddha went into the city in the company of His bhikkhus as usual. Just before the Buddha’s entry into the city, Uggasena had signalled to the audience by pointing his index finger towards them that he was about to begin the show; that brought thunderous applause from the crowd. Uggasena who was then standing on top of the pole took a leap up into the air and somersaulted seven times in the air before he came down and stood on the pole.

The Buddha, who had now arrived in the city, caused the audience, by His super normal power, to pay exclusive attention to Him, thus diverting their interest which was directed to Uggasena a moment ago. Watching the mood of the audience from atop the pole, Uggasena noticed their attention which was fixed on him suddenly changed towards the Buddha. He felt down-hearted that the audience had lost interest in him. He thought to himself: “I can stage this acrobatic show only once a year, yet, as soon as the Buddha has come into the city, the audience is no longer interested in me, instead, they give their attention only to Him. All my efforts to demonstrate my skill in the acrobatic feats are in vain, and fruitless.”

The Buddha knew what was in the mind of Uggasena and asked the Venerable Moggallāna: “Dear son Moggallāna, go ye to the son of the rich man and tell him that he is wanted to go on with the performance of acrobatics.”

Venerable Moggallāna went as instructed by the Buddha and standing at the base of the pole gave encouragement to Uggasena by the following verse:

Igha passa naṭaputta
Uggasena mahābbala
karohi rañgaṃ parisāya
hāsayassu mahājanaṃ

O gymnastic artist of great strength, Uggasena, I urge you to resume your display of skill in somersault with ease of mind. Look at the crowd that has gathered. Let the mass of people enjoy your amazing entertainment and praise your skill with uproarious cheers.

On hearing the words of Venerable Moggallāna, Uggasena felt greatly delighted and encouraged;he thought that the Buddha was desirous of seeing his skill.

He replied while still standing on top of the pole by the following verse:

Igha passa Mahānna
Moggallāna mahiddhika
karomi rañgaṃ parisaya
hasayami mahājanam

Venerable Moggallāna of great wisdom and of the highest degree of supernormal power! Please watch, I will entertain the crowd that has gathered by displaying my skill with ease of mind. I will perform such an amazing feat that the audience will give enthusiastic cheers and praise uproariously.

So saying, he threw himself up and made fourteen complete rounds of somersault in the air before coming down on his feet on top of the bamboo pole.

Exhortation by The Buddha

At that moment, the Buddha exhorted Uggasena by these words: “Dear son Uggasena, a wise man should abandon attachment to the five aggregates which had arisen before, to the five aggregates which will arise in the future and to those which are presently arising. Not clinging to the five aggregates, he should strive for the release from the suffering of birth, the suffering of ageing, the suffering of death." The Buddha went on expounding the Dhamma by means of the following verse:

Muñgca pure muñca pacchato
majjhe muñgca bhvassa paragu
sabbatta vimuttamānaso
na punaṃ jātijaraṃ upehisi

Dear son Uggasena, give up, abandon the craving for the fivefold aggregates of mind and matter of the past,.... of the future.... of the present. Once you have completely forsaken the attachment to these aggregates of the past, the future and the present, you will have transcended the round of suffering of the three realms, namely, the sensual world, (kāma-bhava), the world of form (rūpa-bhava) and the formless world (arūpa-bhava) and reached perfection and become an authority in matters pertaining to special wisdom (abhiññā), full comprehension (pariññā), abandonment (pahāna), mental development (bhāvanā) and realisation (sacchikariyā); you will live fully emancipated from all forms of the conditioned and pass beyond the stages of birth, ageing, ailing and death.

At the conclusion of the discourse, eighty-four thousand sentient beings became emancipated through realization of the Four Noble Truths. The rich man’s son, Uggasena, attained arahatship complete with analytical wisdom (paṭisambhida-ñāṇa) while still standing on top of the bamboo pole. He came down from it and went towards the Buddha, paying homage with full reverence. He then requested for permission to receive ordination. The Buddha stretched out His hand and pronounced ‘Ehi bhikkhu’ to let him become a fullfledged bhikkhu. The form of an acrobatic artist disappeared instantaneously and Uggasena assumed the form of a mahāthera of sixty years’ standing (aged eighty) fully equipped with the eight requisites of a bhikkhu.

Bhikkhus asked Uggasena whether He was afraid or not

Fellow bhikkhus asked Uggasena: “Did you not feel afraid when you came down from the top of the bamboo pole sixty cubits high?” Thereupon, Uggasena replied: “Friends, I had not the slightest fright.” The bhikkhus went to the Buddha and reported: “Most Exalted Buddha, Uggasena has claimed to be an arahat by telling lies that ‘he did not feel the slightest fright when he was coming down from the top of the pole.’ ”

The Buddha gave them a brief explanation in support of Uggasena: “Dear bhikkhus, all the bhikkhus, like my son Uggasena, through eradication of āsavas by cutting off the ten fetters (saṃyojana[1]) are free from fright.”

The Buddha continued to expound the following verse which is included in the Brāhmana vagga of Dhammapada.

Sabbasaṃyojanam chetvā
Yo ve naparitassati
saṅgātigaṃ visaṃyuttaṃ
tamataṃ brumi brāhmanaṃ

Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who has attained arahatship through eradication of āsavas has indeed cut off the ten long fetters by the sword of arahattamagga;he cannot therefore be moved or startled by fright which has its origin in greed (lobha). I praise and proclaim such an arahat who has overcome seven kinds of clinging (sanga), namely, sensuous passion, ill-will, conceit, wrong view, moral defilement, physical, verbal and mental misdeeds, and who has nothing more to do with four yogas (kāma, bhava, dhitthi and avijjā) as a truly noble, pure person, Brāhmana, who has done away with all kinds of evil.

A large multitude of people attained sotāpatti-magga, etc., at the conclusion of the discourse.

Uggasena’s Past Deeds

One day, bhikkhus were assembled again in the Main Hall to discuss the mode of Uggasena’s attainment to arahatship: “Friends, one wonders, in the first place, how a person such as the Venerable Uggasena, who was predestined to attain arahatship, got entangled through an actress with the troupe of acrobatic performers, following them wherever they wandered; and in the second place, what was the cause of the powerful sufficing condition for attainment of arahatship.” The Buddha went to the Main Hall and asked: “Bhikkhus, what is the subject of your discussion?” When explained what the subject of their discussion was, He explained them briefly thus: “Bhikkhus, Uggasena himself had been the cause of these two events; the one that entailed his engagement with the dancing troupe and the other that resulted in his attainment to arahatship.” He then went on to relate the full account as below:

“Long, long ago, when a stupa was built to enshrine the relics of Buddha Kassapa, men and women of Bārāṇasī went in large numbers to the stupa site to contribute necessary labour, carrying plenty of food in their carts. On the way they met a mahāthera entering the city for his round of alms-food.

At that time, one woman noticed the mahāthera and told her husband: ‘My dear lord, the Thera is still on his round of receiving food, please go and bring his bowl so that we may offer some thing to him. We have brought along in the cart plenty of food.’ The man went and fetched the bowl from the bhikkhu and after filling it with hard and soft food to its brim, they returned it to the mahāthera and both the husband and wife declared their wish: ‘Revered Mahāthera, for this deed of merit, may both of us be blessed with a share of the Supramundane knowledge which you have realized.’

The recipient of their gift food was not an ordinary bhikkhu, he happened to be an arahat devoid of taint of defilements (āsavas). He foresaw, by means of his anāgata-ñāṇa, knowledge of the future, that their wishes would be fulfilled and so he smiled happily. The woman caught a glimpse of it and she muttered: ‘My dear lord, the Venerable who received our offering might be an actor.’ The husband also agreed, saying. ‘Yes, he might be an actor.’ They then departed from that place. This then was the deed the husband and wife had done in the past.

The couple lived to the end of their life span in that existence and were reborn in the realm of the devas. After enjoying the life of devas, the wife was born as the daughter of the leading acrobatic performer in her present (last) existence. The husband was born as the son of a rich man in the last stage of his existence, by the name of Uggasena. Although born as a son of a rich man, he had to accompany the dancing troupe in their wanderings, for the demeritorious deed of giving a wrong word of agreement: ‘Yes, he might be an actor’ to his wife in a past existence. But for the good deed of offering food to an arahat, in pure piety and devotional faith, he attained arahatship.”

The Young Actress also attained Arahatship

When Uggasena attained arahatship and became an ehi-bhikkhu, his wife, the young actress, thought to herself, awakened by the meritorious deed of the past: “Whatever level of intelligence possessed by my husband, my level of intelligence should also be the same as his.” Reasoning in this way she approached the bhikkhunīs and received ordination from them. Then devoting herself to the practice of dhamma, in due course she also attained arahatship, having eradicated all the āsavas.

End of the account of Uggasena’s past deeds.

Footnotes and references:


Samyojanas: bonds or fetters binding all beings to the wheel of existence. When they are completely broken or eliminated, emancipation results. The ten fetters are: (i) Sakkāya-diṭṭhi: belief in atta or soul, the view that the body and mind is 'myself' (ii) Vicikiccha: doubt or wavering concerning the Buddha’s Enlightenment, His Teaching and His Order. (iii) Sīlabbataparāmāsa: the belief that there are paths other then the ariya Path of eight constituents that can liberate one from dukkha. (iv) Kāma-rāga: sensual desire, sensuous passion. (v) Patigha: ill-will. (vi) Rūpa-rāga: craving for existence in the Fine-material (Brahmā) realm (vii) Arūparāga: craving for existence in the Formless (Brahmā) realm. (viii) Māna: pride, awareness of superiority or inferiority. (ix) Uddhacca: restlessness, agitation, mental unrest. (x) Avijja: ignorance, lack of real or correct knowledge as to the nature of existence, as to the Four Noble Truths. It is the main root of dukkha and of rebirth.

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