by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw | 1990 | 1,044,401 words
This page describes The Story of Subhadda, the Wandering Ascetic 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 the Buddha Declared the Seven Factors of Non-Decline for Rulers. 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).
At that time Subhadda, a wandering ascetic, was staying at Kusināra. He had heard the news: “Tonight, in the last watch of the night, the Parinibbāna of the Samaṇa Gotama will take place.” Then it occurred to Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, thus: “I have already heard wandering ascetics, teachers, and teachers of teachers, declare that the Homageworthy, Perfectly Self-Enlightened Tathāgatas arise in the world only once in a very long time. Tonight, in the last watch of the night, the Parinibbāna of the Tathāgata Samaṇa Gotama will take place. A certain problem, an uncertainty, has arisen in my mind, and I am fully confident that the Samaṇa Gotama will be able to teach the Doctrine to me so that this uncertainty is cleared.”
Subhadda’s Previous Existence
(Before we discuss the previous existence of Subhadda, the wondering ascetic,) it is useful to know that there are three Subhaddas connected with the life story of Buddha Gotama. There is Subhadda, son of Upaka and Cāpā. And there is Subhadda the bhikkhu, who entered the order of bhikkhus after being a householder, who after the decease of the Buddha, was one of the company of bhikkhus that accompanied the Venerable Mahā Kassapa from Pāvā to Kusināra, who had the affront to declare that since the Buddha was no more, bhikkhus were free to conduct themselves as they pleased. The Subhadda, in our story here, is a wondering ascetic, not a naked ascetic, who came of a well known rich brahmin family, who was the last person that was enlightened in the Teaching of Buddha Gotama.
The reason for Subhadda’s idea to meet the Buddha at the eleventh hour may be due to his past merit which had the potential which entitled him to gain enlightenment only at such a late moment.
The peculiar nature of Subhadda’s past merit will be discussed now. In one of their previous existences, there were two cultivator brothers who were both charitable. But the elder brother had a desire to give in charity at every stage of the cultivation of paddy which had nine different stages. Thus, when the paddy plants were being sown, he set aside some of the seeds for giving away in charity, which he cooked and made a ‘seed-rice offering’ of them; when the paddy crop began to turn into rice, he consulted with his younger brother to extract the milky juice of the formative rice and give away in charity. The idea was not acceptable by the younger brother who said: “Brother, why do you wish to spoil the young rice?”
Thereupon, the elder brother, to be able to carry out his desire, divided the field equally with the younger brother and extracted the milky juice of the forming rice from his portion of the field, boiled it with ghee and clear top oil from sesame, and give away in charity as ‘The earliest-stage rice offering.’ When the rice took solid grain shape, he pounded it and prepared ‘soft rice-flakes offering’. When it was time for harvesting, he made ‘harvestingtime rice offering’. When bundles of rice plants were made, he selected the earliest bound plants into ‘bundle-time rice offering’. When the bundles of rice plants were piled up on the threshing ground, he made the rice from the earliest-piled bundles into ‘bundled-heap rice offering’. When the threshing of the bundles began, he selected the first bundles to be threshed, took the rice and made an offering of ‘threshing-time rice offering’. After the rice grains were collected from the threshing floor and heaped up, he selected the earliest samples of the heap and made a ‘paddy-heap rice offering’. When the rice grains were put into the granary, he took the earliest samples and made a ‘granary-time rice offering’. In that manner, he made rice offerings of rice for every cultivating season.
As for the younger brother, he made his rice offering only after the harvested rice was garnered.
In their last existences, the elder brother was reborn as Koṇḍañña in the time of Buddha Gotama. When the Buddha viewed the world: “Who would deserve the privilege of hearing the first sermon?” He saw Kondañña who in his previous existence had made nine various offerings of rice for every cultivating season. Therefore, Koṇḍañña (one of the five ascetics) deserved to have the privilege of hearing the first sermon entitled Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. Thus Koṇḍañña, who was the first human disciple to realize the Dhamma, was called Añānasi Koṇḍañña——‘Koṇḍañña who has understood,’ who became a stream winner along with eighty crores of Brahmans at the end of the first Sermon.
When the time to reap the fruit of his previous merit arrived at last, Subhadda remembered the Buddha. He lost no time to go to the Sal grove.
He approached the Venerable Ānanda and said:
“O Venerable Ānanda, I have heard from elderly wandering ascetics, who are teachers, teachers of teachers, that the Homage-worthy, Perfectly Self-Enlightened Tathāgatas arise in the world only once in a very long time. Tonight, in the last watch of the night, the Parinibbāna of the Samaṇa Gotama will take place, A certain problem, an uncertainty has arisen in my mind, and I am fully confident that the Samana Gotama will be able to teach the Doctrine to me so that this uncertainty is cleared. O Ānanda, pray let me have the chance of seeing the Samaṇa Gotama!”
Thereupon, the Venerable Ānanda reflected thus: “These ascetics, who believe in doctrine other than the Bhagava’s Teaching, cling to their own views only. If the Bhagavā were to explain to this Subhadda at much length to make him forsake his own view, it would only strain the bodily and vocal energies of the Bhagavā, and Subhadda is not likely to renounce his own view. As it is, the Bhagavā is already weary.” So he said: “Friend Subhadda, this is out of the question. The Bhagavā is weary. Do not pester (trouble) him.”
On that reply, Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, bethought himself: “Venerable Ānanda is withholding his assent. But one must be patient to get what one wants.” And so he said for the second time: “O Ānanda,....” the Venerable Ānanda refused again. For the third time Subhadda made his appeal as before. And for the third time Venerable Ānanda refused again.
The Buddha overheard the conversation between Subhadda and Ānanda. Since He had made this exhausting journey to Kusināra for the sake of Subhadda, He called to Venerable Ānanda: “Ānanda, it is not fitting to stop him. Do not prevent Subhadda from seeing Me. Ānanda, let Subhadda have the opportunity to see the Tathāgata. Whatever Subhadda shall ask of Me, he will ask for his information, and not for harassing Me. When I answer what he asks, he will readily understand My answer.”
Then Ānanda said: “Go, friend Subhadda, the Bhagavā has given you permission.”
Then Subhadda approached the Buddha and offered courteous greetings to Him. After exchanging memorable words of felicitation with Him, Subhadda sat in a suitable place.
Then he addressed the Buddha thus:
“O Revered Gotama, there are samaṇas and brāhmanas who have large following, who have adherent sects, who are leaders of their sects, who are renowned, who are proponents of their own doctrines, and who are held in esteem by many people, such as, (i) Pūraṇa Kassapa, (ii) Makkhali Gosāla, (iii) Ajita Kesakambala, (iv) Pakudha Kaccāyana, (v) Sañcaya, son of Belaṭṭha, and (vi) Migaṇṭha, son of Nāṭaputta. Do all of them understand what they maintain as the truth? Or do all of them have no understanding of what they maintain as the truth? Or do some of them understand the truth and some of them do not?"
(Subhadda’s question essentially is about Buddhahood. He asked: “Revered Sir, do Pūraṇa Kassapa and five other religious leaders, who admit themselves to be all-knowing Buddhas, and who are held in high esteem by many people, are really the All-knowing Buddhas? Or are none of them Buddhas? Or are some of them Buddhas while others are not? For if they are really Buddhas the doctrines they preach must lead to liberation from the round of existences. Are all of their doctrines conducive to liberation? Or are none of their doctrines conducive to liberation? Or are some of their doctrines conducive to liberation while others are not?”)
Now, the Buddha’s intention in going to Kusināra was to discourse on the Doctrine to the Malla princes in the first watch of the night, to discourse on the Doctrine to Subhadda in the middle watch of the night, to give admonition to the bhikkhu Sangha in the third watch of the night, and then to realize Parinibbāna at the approach of dawn. In that tight schedule, it would be of no benefit to Subhadda to explain to him about whether the doctrines of the six religious leaders were conducive to liberation or not, and there would be no time for such a discussion. Therefore the Buddha chose to teach Subhadda the Middle Way as contained in the Ariya Path of Eight Constituents which could lead him to liberation.
Accordingly He said:
“Subhadda, do not ask that. Leave aside that question: whether all of those (six religious leaders) know all the truth, whether none of them know all the truth, or whether some of them know all the truth while others do not.
“Subhadda, I shall expound to you the Good Doctrine leading to Nibbāna. Listen and pay careful attention. I shall speak in full.”
“Very well, Revered Sir,” assented Sabhadda, the wandering ascetic.
And the Buddha gave this discourse:
“Subhadda, in whatever righteous Teaching, the Ariya Path of Eight Constituents is not found, therein there is not found a samaṇa of the first stage, a sotāpannabhikkhu, nor a samaṇa of the second stage, a sakadāgāmī-bhikkhu nor a samaṇa of the third stage, anāgāmī, nor a samaṇa of the fourth stage, an arahat.
“Subhadda, in whatever righteous Teaching the Ariya Path of Eight Constituents is found, therein there is found a samaṇa of the first stage (a sotāpanna), a samaṇa of the second stage (a sakadāgāmī), a samaṇa of the third stage (an anāgāmin), and a samaṇa of the fourth stage (an arahat).
“Subhadda, in this righteous Teaching of Mine, there is the Ariya Path of Eight Constituents. In this Teaching alone is found samaṇa of the first stage (a sotāpanna), a samaṇa of the second stage (a sakadāgāmin), a samaṇa of the third stage (an anāgāmin), and a samaṇa of the fourth stage (an arahat).
“All other creeds are devoid of the twelve categories of bhikkhus who comprehend the truth, namely, the four ariyas who have attained magga; the four ariyas who have attained phala;and the four Trainees who are cultivating Insight to attain the four stages of Path-knowledge.
“Subhadda, if these twelve bhikkhus (practise and) pass on the Teaching rightly, the world will not be void of arahats.
“Subhadda, at the age of twenty-nine, I renounced the world and became an ascetic to seek the all-knowing truth (Enlightenment as a Buddha). It is over fifty years now, since I became an ascetic. Outside of this Teaching of Mine, there is no one who cultivates Insight which is the prelude to ariya-magga, there is also no samaṇa of the first stage (sotāpanna); there is also no samaṇa of the second stage (sakadāgāmī);there is also no samaṇa of the third stage (anāgāmī); there is also no samaṇa of the fourth stage (arahat).
“All other creeds are devoid of the twelve categories of bhikkhus (mentioned above) who comprehend the truth. Subhadda, if these twelve bhikkhus (practise and) pass on the Teaching rightly, the world will not be void of arahats.”
Subhadda became A Bhikkhu and attained Arahatship
When this was said by the Buddha, Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, said:
“Venerable sir! Excellent (is the Dhamma)! Venerable Sir! Excellent (is the Dhamma)! It is, Venerable Sir, as if that which has been turned over has been turned up, or as if that which has been hidden is revealed, or as if a lost traveller is told the way, or as if a lamp is lit and held up in a dark place so that those with eyes may see visible objects, even so has the Bhagavā shown the Dhamma to me in various ways. Venerable Sir, I, Subhadda, take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dhamma, I take refuge in the Sangha. Venerable Sir, may I be initiated into the Order in the presence of the Bhagavā; may I receive full admission into the Order.”
When Subhadda made this appeal, the Buddha said:
“Subhadda, if a person, who has been a believer in another faith, wishes to receive initiation and admission into this Order as a bhikkhu, he has to live under probation for four months, and if at the end of the four months, the bhikkhus are satisfied with him, he will be initiated and admitted into the Order. But in this matter, I recognize the difference in individuals (whether a person needs to go on probation or not).”
“Venerable Sir, if a person, having been a believer in another faith and wishing to receive initiation and admission into the Order as a bhikkhu, has to live under probation for four months, and if at the end of the four months the bhikkhus are satisfied and grant him initiation and grant him admission, I'm prepared to live under probation (even) for four years. And at the end of four years, if the bhikkhus are satisfied with me, let them grant me initiation into the Order and raise me to the status of a bhikkhu.”
Then the Buddha said to the Venerable Ānanda: “Well, then, Ānanda, let Subhadda be initiated into the Order.”
“Very well, Venerable Sir,” Ānanda replied.
Then Subhadda said to Venerable Ānanda: “Friend Ānanda, how fortunate you all are, what a boon you all have, that you all have been personally conferred by the Bhagavā the status of close discipleship.”
[Here the actual words used by Subhadda were, ‘that you all have been sprinkled by (or anointed by) the sprinkling of close discipleship.’ This idea of being dubbed a close disciple by the head of the religious Order was, in the religious system of the wandering ascetics, a great honour and privilege.]
Then the Venerable Ānanda took Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, to an appropriate place where he was wetted at the head with water out of a water container, and taught the method of reflecting on the loathsomeness of the body, particularly the group of five parts or aspects of the body with him as the fifth. With the shaving of the head and the face, robing with bhikkhus robes, and administering of the Triple Gem, performed in succession, the initiation was effected. After that Subhadda was brought before the Buddha.
Then the Buddha caused Sāmaṇera Subhadda to be admitted into the Order as a fullfledged bhikkhu and then taught him the appropriate method of meditation. Bhikkhu Subhadda sought seclusion in the Sal grove, went into meditation in the walking posture alone, i.e. walking up and down. With intent mindfulness, and striving arduously, he became an arahat during that very night, as he was endowed with the four Discriminations. Then he went to the Buddha and sat there in worshipping posture.
The Venerable Subhadda became one of the arahats, and he was the last one to become an arahat in the presence of the Buddha.
(Herein, “the last to become an arahat in the presence of the Buddha” may mean any one of the following: (i) one who was initiated into the Order during the time of the Buddha, who was admitted into the Order as a bhikkhu after the Buddha’s decease and who learnt Insight meditation, and attained arahatta-phala; (ii) One who was initiated and admitted into the Order as a bhikkhu during the time of the Buddha who learnt Insight-meditation after the Buddha’s decease and attained arahatta-phala; (iii) One who was initiated and admitted into the Order as a bhikkhus who learnt Insight-meditation, and attained arahatta-phala after the Buddha’s decease. The Venerable Subhadda was one who was initiated and admitted into the Order, who learnt Insight-meditation and attained arahatta-phala during the time of the Buddha. Thus he was the chief of those who became an arahat in the presence of the Buddha.)
The Story of Subhadda, The Wandering Ascetic, according to The Commentary on The Dhammapada
What is related above about Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, is according to the Mahāvagga Pāli (Dīghanikaya) and the Commentary thereon. The story of Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, as described in the Commentary on the Dhammapada is also briefly related below:
While the Buddha was lying on the couch, the death-bed, in the Sal grove, Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, thought to himself: “I have referred my three questions to wandering ascetics but have not done so to the Samaṇa Gotama because He is young. Now, the Samaṇa Gotama is about to pass away. If I do not ask my questions to Him, I shall have cause to regret later for failure to do so.” Musing thus, he went to the Sal grove where the Buddha was staying and requested the Venerable Ānanda to gain an audience with the Buddha. The Venerable Ānanda refused as related above. However, the Buddha said to Venerable Ānanda: “Ānanda, do not prevent him. Let him put his question to Me.”
Subhadda was accordingly admitted into the Buddha’s private quarters which was screened off from outside. He sat at the foot of the Buddha’s couch and addressed Him thus:
“How is it, Revered Gotama,
i) Is it possible for a track to be present in the sky?
ii) Is it possible for Samaṇas who can quell the defilements to be present outside of the Teaching of Buddha Gotama?
iii) Is it possible for any conditioned thing to remain permanent?
The Buddha answered the above three questions in the negative in the following stanzas:
(2) Ākāseva padaiṇ natthi samaṇo nathi bāhire
saṅkhāra sassatā natthi natthi buddhānamiñjitarṃ
Subhadda, in the sky, there is no track. Even so, outside the Buddha’s Teaching, there is no bhikkhu (of the twelve categories) who can quell the defilements. All sentient beings, be they devas, humans or Brahmās, take delight in the three factors that tend to prolong saṃsāra, namely, craving, conceit and wrong view. All the Buddhas are free from these factors, (having overcome them at the time of Enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree)
Subhadda, in the sky there is no track. Even so, outside the Buddha’s Teaching, there is no bhikkhu (of the twelve categories) who can quell the defilements. There is no conditioned thing, (i.e. the five aggregates) that remains permanent. All the Buddhas are unperturbed (either by craving, conceit, or wrong view). At the end of the discourse Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, attained anāgāmī-magga. And the audience that were present also benefited from the discourse.
This is the story of Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, as told in the Commentary on the Dhammapada.
In this matter the two stories may be recompiled in this way:
Subhadda, the wandering ascetic, posed his question as contained in the Mahāvagga Pāli, and after having listened to the Buddha’s answer to it, he further asked the three questions as mentioned in the Dhammapada. After hearing the answers thereto, he became an anāgāmin. Then he became a Buddha’s disciple, was admitted into the Order of Bhikkhus, devoted himself to the Threefold Training, and became an arahat before the Buddha realized Parinibbāna.