The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

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

This page describes The Story of Bhikkhu-elder Mahasiva 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 how the Āṭānāṭiya Paritta came to be Taught. 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).

In Sri Lanka, there once lived a bhikkhu-elder named Mahāsīva who had eighteen groups or sets of bhikkhus learning at his feet. Thirty thousand of his pupils had attained arahatship under his tutorship. One of the thirty thousand arahats thought to himself: “Infinite qualities in terms of morality, etc. have I acquired. How about the qualities attained by my teacher Mahāsīva?” And he knew that his teacher was still a worldling. He reflected thus: “Alas, our teacher Mahāsīva has been the support of others, but is not the support of himself. I will now admonish our teacher.” So thinking, he travelled by jhāna in the air, descended near the bhikkhu-elder’s monastery, and went near Mahāsīva, who was sitting at a secluded place. He made obeisance to the teacher and sat at a suitable place.

The teacher said to this pupil: “O! observer of the ascetic practice of eating from one bowl only: what calls you here?” (This is a term of endearment used by bhikkhu-elders of past to bhikkhus who practise Insight-meditation.)

The pupil: “Venerable Sir, I come to learn from you a discourse of appreciation (anumodanā) for use at an offering ceremony.”

“Not possible, friend.”

“May I learn it at the place where you usually stop and consider the direction you should make for the day’s alms-gathering?”

“Other bhikkhus will be putting their question to me there.”

“May I learn it on the alms round?”

“There too, other bhikkhus will be putting their questions.”

“May I learn it where the venerable one robes himself fully (with the upper robe), or rearranging the robes for going to the village, or where the alms bowl is made ready for alms-gathering, or at the place of taking the gruel meal at the rest-house after the almsround?”

“At those places, bhikkhu-elders will be asking questions to clear up their doubts concerning Commentarial literature.”

“May I ask on your return from the alms-round?”

“Then also other bhikkhus will be asking questions.”

“May I ask on the way from the village to the monastery?”

“Then also other bhikkhus will be asking question.”

“May I ask after your meal at the monastery?... or at the place of seclusion when the venerable one washes his feet?... or at the time the venerable one washes his face?”

“At those times, also other bhikkhus usually ask questions, friend. From that time till the next day’s dawn, there are bhikkhus coming to me endlessly without a moment’s break, friend.”

“May I then ask at the time the venerable one is cleaning his teeth and washing his face?”

“(Impossible friend,) other bhikkhus will be asking their questions.”

“May I ask when the venerable one enters the monastery and sits there?”

“Then also, there will be other bhikkhus asking questions.”

“Venerable Sir, as a matter of fact, there should be a moment to spare when the venerable one sits in meditation in the monastery after having washed his face, during the moments of shifting the sitting posture for three or four times. From what the venerable says, would there be no time to die too? Venerable Sir, you are like the leaning board providing others support, but not being one’s own support. My real purpose in coming to you is not to learn a discourse from you.” So saying, he disappeared.

The Bhikkhu-elder Mahāsīva retires into The Forest

Venerable Mahāsīva then saw the real purpose of that bhikkhu's visit. “This bhikkhu does not want to learn the Teaching. He came here to admonish me. But this is not the time for me to go out into seclusion in the forest. I must wait till morning,” he said to himself. He made ready to leave with bowl and robes which he kept handy. He taught the whole day and the first and middle watches of the night. When, in the third watch of the night, one of the pupils was leaving, he slipped out together with him (letting everyone think he was one of the pupils.)

Other pupils awaiting for the next class thought that the teacher was out to answer the call of nature. The student bhikkhu who went out together also took the teacher for a costudent.

Mahāsīva was confident that arahatta-phala should not take more than a few days to attain. He would come back from the forest seclusion after attaining arahatship. So he did not bid farewell to his pupils when he left the monastery on a thirteenth of Visakha for a cave known as Gāmanta pabbhāra (i.e. a cave in the vicinity of a village). By the full moon day, he had not attained arahatta-phala. “I have thought I could attain arahatta-phala in a few days,” he thought, “but the vassa period has arrived. I will spend the vassa here and will accomplish my task at the end of the vassa, on the Pavāraṇā day.” So, regarding three months as though it were three days, he went into ardent practice. But at the end of the three months he was still unable to attain arahatship. Mahāsīva reflected: “I had come here hoping to attain arahatta-phala in three days, but three months have passed without my attaining it. My fellow-bhikkhus have joined the Sangha congregation of arahats now.” He felt miserable and tears streamed down his face.

Then he pondered: “Perhaps I have been indulgent: I have alternated the four bodily postures (i.e. lying, sitting, standing, walking) in my meditating work. I will now renounce the lying posture and will not wash my feet until I attain arahatta-phala.” So he kept away his cot at a corner and resumed meditation. Another vassa passed by, and no arahatship was at hand. Each vassa ended not with enlightenment but with tears——tears of noble desire unfulfilled. In this way, twenty-nine years marked by twenty-nine assemblies of the arahats (at the end of each vassa) went by.

Young boys from the village noticed the ruptures that had developed on both the feet of Mahāsīva and they tried their best to patch them up with thorns. Then they joked among themselves: “Oh, how I envy those ruptured feet.”

A Celestial Maiden comes to The Rescue

On the full moon day, in the month of the Thadingyut, on the thirtieth year of his ardent practice, Mahāsīva sat leaning against the board and took stock of the situation. “I have been at it for thirty years, and arahatta-phala is still beyond my reach. Clearly, arahatship is not for me in this life. How I miss the opportunity of attending the congregation of arahats together with my fellow bhikkhus.” An unpleasant sensation (domanassa-vedanā) overwhelmed him. Tears came rolling down his face.

At the time, a celestial maiden stood before him sobbing. The bhikkhu elder asked: “Who is there weeping?”

“I am a deva maiden, Venerable Sir.”

“Why do you weep like this?”

“Venerable Sir, I think weeping is the way to attainment of magga-phala and I am weeping (following your example) in the hope of attaining one magga-phala or two magga-phalas.”

At this, the old bhikkhu's pride was rudely shaken. He said to himself: “Now, Mahāsīva, you have made yourself the laughing-stock of a young deva maiden. Does it become you?” A strong feeling of religious emotional awakening, Saṃvega, overtook him. He redoubled his right endeavour and (soon) attained arahatta-phala along with the four Discriminative Knowledges (Paṭisambbhidā-ñāṇa).

Now that he felt relaxed mentally, he thought of stretching himself awhile. He cleaned up his cot, filled his water pots, and sat at the head of the walk way, reminding himself the need to wash his feet that he had neglected for these thirty years.

Sakka appears and washes Mahāsīva’s Feet

Mahāsīva’s pupils remembered their teacher on the thirtieth year of his departure and saw (by their special powers) that he had attained arahatship. Knowing what had crossed in the teacher’s mind, they said: “It is ridiculous to let our teacher trouble himself to wash his own feet while his pupils like ourselves are living.” Thinking thus, all the thirty thousand arahat-pupils travelled in the direction of the cave where Mahāsīva was sitting, all of them vying with one another to get the opportunity of washing their teacher’s feet.

Mahāsīva however insisted that he must do the job, which he had neglected for thirty years himself. At that juncture, Sakka thought to himself: “The bhikkhu-elder is insisting on washing his feet himself, refusing them to be washed by his thirty thousand arahat pupils. It is absurd that my revered one should bother to wash his own feet while a lay supporter like myself is living. I will go there and do the job.” He took his Queen Suja with him and appeared at the scene. Putting his Queen in front, he announced to the thirty thousand arahat-bhikkhus: “Make way, Venerable. Sirs, a woman is coming.” He then made obeisance to Mahāsīva and sat squatting before him, and said: “Venerable Sir, let me wash your feet.”

“O Sakka of the Kosiya clan, I have left my feet unwashed for thirty full years. Human body smells by nature. The smell is so pungent that even for a deva staying a hundred yojanas away from a human body, its smell is as obnoxious as carrion tied around his neck. So leave the washing to me.”

Sakka replied: “Venerable Sir, as for us the natural smell of the human body is obscured by the fragrance of your morality, which rises beyond the Sense Sphere Deva realms (Kamāvācara) and reach the topmost realm of the Brahmās. Venerable Sir, there is no fragrance that surpasses the fragrance of morality. Your morality has compelled us to render personal service to you.” Then Sakka took firm hold of the bhikkhu-elder’s ankle with his left hand and washed his soles with his right hand till they glowed like the soft soles of a child. After doing this personal service to the bhikkhu-elder, Sakka made obeisance to him and returned to his celestial abode.

This is the story of the Bhikkhu-elder Mahāsīva

Epilogue: In this way, a yogi, who finds himself unable to attain arahatship, feels (as in the case of Mahāsīva): “Ah, how I miss the opportunity of holding congregation with fellow-bhikkhus who are arahats”. He becomes despondent suffering domānassa-vedanā.

[extracted from previous page, On the Practice of Meditation]

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