The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

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

This page describes Vangisa Mahathera 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 forty-one Arahat-Mahatheras and their Respective Etadagga titles. 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).

(a) Aspiration expressed in The Past

The future Vaṅgīsa was born into a wealthy family in the city of Haṃsāvatī, during the time of Buddha Padumuttara. Like all other future Great Disciples, he went to the Buddha’s monastery and in the course of listening to a sermon, he witnessed a bhikkhu being named by the Buddha as the foremost among those bhikkhus who were endowed with quick wit. The son, the future Vaṅgīsa, emulated that bhikkhu and after making a great offering to the Buddha, he expressed his aspiration to Him: “May I, for this good deed, become the foremost bhikkhu among those endowed with quick wit, at some time in the future.” The Buddha saw that the aspiration of the donor would be fulfilled and therefore, made the prognostication before returning to the monastery.

(b) Ascetic Life adopted in His Final Existence

After a life of good deeds, the man passed away and was either reborn as a deva or a human being. At the time of Buddha Gotama, he was reborn in a brahmin family in Sāvatthi, by the name of Vaṅgīsa. When he came of age, he learnt the three Vedas. He served the teacher to the latter’s satisfaction so that he also received a secret formula or chant called Chavasīsa manta, by intoning which he could tell the destination of a departed one by gentle rapping the skull of that dead person.

The Brahmins knew well how to capitalize Vaṅgīa’s art. So they put him in an enclosed carriage, and would encamp at the gate to a town or village, and when a crowd had formed, they advertised Vaṅgīsa’s greatness saying: “He, who sees Vaṅgīsa, comes upon wealth and fame and goes to the heavens at death.” Many people were taken in by such propaganda and they would go to the visiting Brahmins: “O sirs, what is Master Vaṅgīsa’s special knowledge?” Then the Brahmins would say” “O men, you do not know that there is no wise one equal to Master Vaṅgīsa because he can tell you the destination of a departed person. Just by rapping the skull of a dead person with his finger nails, he will tell you in what clan or in what realm he is reborn.” And Vaṅgīsa was actually able to make good the claim of his men. He called upon the spirit of the dead person, make it possess someone near him, and tell from that person’s mouth where the subject was, i.e. where dead person was reborn. For this miraculous feat, he reaped big sums of fees from his clients.

Vaṅgīsa’s Time for Liberation

After a tour of the land covering cities, towns and villages, Vaṅgīsa’s men carried him to the city of Sāvatthi. Vaṅgīsa stopped near the Jetavana monastery and thought: “Samaṇa Gotama is reputed to be wise. It would not be to my advantage just touring the Jambudīpa. I might as well go and see someone who is said to be wise.” So he sent his men away saying: “You go ahead. I do not want company when visiting the Buddha. So let me go alone.” “But sir,” the attendants of Vaṅgīsa protested, “by using His trickery, Samaṇa Gotama has a way of winning over people who go to see Him.” But, Vaṅgīsa paid no attention to those words. Going before the Buddha, and after saying courteous words of greeting, he sat at a suitable place.

The Buddha asked Vaṅgīsa, the youth: “Vaṅgīsa, are you skilled in some art?” “Reverend Gotama,” said Vaṅgīsa, “I know a certain manta called Chavasīsa manta.” “What use do you make of that Chavasīsa manta?” “Venerable Gotama, chanting that manta, I rap with my finger-nails the skull of a dead person who had died more than three years ago and I can tell in which existence he is now reborn.”

Thereupon, the Buddha, by his powers, procured four human skulls: (1) one belonged to somebody in the niraya realm; (2) one belonged to somebody in the human realm; (3) one belonged to somebody in the deva realm; (4) one belonged to an arahat. Vaṅgīsa, rapping the first skull, said: “Reverend Gotama, the person, whose skull it once was, is now reborn in the niraya realm.” “Good, good, Vaṅgīsa,” said the Buddha, “you see rightly. Where is the person now whose skull it once was?” asked the Buddha, pointing to the second skull. “Reverend Gotama, that person is now reborn in the human realm." The Buddha made another test about the third skull, and Vaṅgīsa said: “Reverend Gotama, that person is now reborn in the deva realm.” All three revelations were correct.

When, however, the Buddha pointed out to the fourth skull and tested Vaṅgīsa’s skill, the brahmin youth was in a quandary. Although he repeatedly rapped the skull and reflected on it, he could make neither head nor tail of the present existence of the person whose skull it was.

The Buddha asked: “Vaṅgīsa, are you at your wit’s end? “Wait on, Reverend Gotama,” said Vaṅgīsa, “Let me try again.” He made further clumsy attempts, with more recitals of his famous manta and more vain rappings on the skull. He found that the matter was clearly beyond his capability. Beads of sweat flowed down from he forehead. Looking a complete fool, the great Vangisa remained silent.

“Do you find it tiring, Vaṅgīsa?” asked the Buddha. “Verily, Reverend Gotama, I find it most tiring. I cannot say the designation of the person whose skull it was. If Your Reverence knows it, kindly tell me.” “Vaṅgīsa,” said the Buddha, “I know this being, and much more, too.”

Then the Buddha uttered the following two verses, (rendered in prose):

Cutiṃ yo vedi sattānaṃ, upapattiñ ca sabbaso;
Asattaṃ Sugataṃ Buddhaṃ, tam ahaṃ brūmi Brāhmaṇaṃ

“(Vaṅgīsa) he who knows clearly the death and rebirth of beings in all respects, who is free from attachment, who has walked the Right Path and realized Nibbāna, who knows the Four Ariya Truths, him I call a Brāhmana.”

——Dhamapada, v.419——

Yassa gatiṃ na jānanti, Devā gandhabba mānusā;
Khīṇāsavaṃ Arahantaṃ, tam ahaṃ brūmi Brāhmaṇaṃ

“(Vaṅgīsa) he whose destination, the devas of the celestial abodes or the musician-devas of the terrestrial abodes, or men know, who has destroyed the four kinds of moral intoxicants, and is an arahat, him I call a Brāhmana.”

——Ibid v.420——

(Note:, The Buddha said these verses, which are from the Dhammapada, to let the bhikkhus know that the Venerable Vaṅgīsa was an arahat. In the present situation, they were uttered for the benefit of Vaṅgīsa that the fourth skull belonged to an arahat whose destination after death is not found in any of the five kinds of destination.)

Then Vaṅgīsa, the youth, said to the Buddha: “O Reverend Gotama, there is no loss to him who exchanges a manta for a manta. I will give you my chavasīsa manta in exchange for your Buddha-manta which you have first uttered.” The Buddha replied: “Vangisa, we Buddhas do not make any exchange of mantas. We give it free, out of good will, to those who want it.” “Very well, Reverend Gotama,” said Vaṅgīsa, “may the Reverend Gotama give the manta to me,” and he made an unmistakable gesture of reverence to the Buddha, with his two palms together which resembled a young tortoise.

Then the Buddha said: “Vaṅgīsa, is there, in your Brahmanic custom, a period of probation as a comprehensive way of fulfilling an obligation by someone who asks for and receives a favour?” “There is, Reverend Gotama.” “Vaṅgīsa, do you think there is no probationary period for one who wishes to learn a manta in our Teaching?” It was in the Brahmanic tradition not to be satisfied in learning mantas. Vangisa felt he must get the Buddha-manta at any cost. So he said: “O Reverend Gotama, I will abide by your rules.” “Vaṅgīsa, when we teach the Buddha-manta we do so only to one who takes on the appearance like that of ourselves.”

Vaṅgīsa had set his mind on learning the Buddha-manta after fulfilling the condition required by the Buddha, so he said to his followers: “Now, do not take it amiss about my becoming a bhikkhu. I must learn the Buddha-manta. Having learnt it, I will become the greatest master in this Jambudīpa, and that will be a good thing for you too.” After consoling his associates thus, Vaṅgīsa became a bhikkhu for the purpose of learning the Buddha-manta.

(Note: The preceptor who sponsored Vaṅgīsa in the formal ceremony of admission was the Venerable Nigrodhakappa, an arahat, who happened to be near the Buddha at that time. The Buddha said to the Venerable Nigrodhakappa: “Nigrodhakappa, Vaṅgīsa wishes to become a bhikkhu. See to his admission into the Order.” Nigrodhakappa taught the meditation practice on the five aspects of the loathsome body to Vangisa and led him into bhikkhuhood.)

——Sutta Nipāta Commentary——

Then the Buddha said to the Venerable Vaṅgīsa: “Vaṅgīsa, now observe the probationer’s practice as a learner of the manta,” and taught him how to reflect on the thirty-two parts of the body. Vangisa, being a man of keen intellect uttering the thirty-two parts and meditating on the arising and dissolution of (physical phenomena comprising) the thirtytwo parts, gained insight into physical phenomena and attained arahatship.

After Vaṅgīsa had attained arahatship, his brahmin friends visited him to find out how he was progressing. They said to him: “Vaṅgīsa, how now? Have you learnt the manta from Samaṇa Gotama?” “Ah, yes, I have,” replied Venerable Vaṅgīsa. “Then let us go,” they said. “You go yourselves. I have no more business to be in your company.” On hearing this plain answer, the Brahmins said: “We had forewarned you that Samaṇa Gotama had a way of winning over his visitors by trickery. Now you have fallen under the spell of Samana Gotama, What business is there for us with you?” Vituperating, their erstwhile friend thus, they returned by the way they had come.

(The Venerable Vaṅgīsa was a most prominent bhikkhu-disciple of the Buddha. For his wonderful verses, refer to Vaṅgīsa Saṃyutta, Sagāthāvagga Saṃyutta.)

(c) Etadagga Title achieved

Venerable Vaṅgīsa was a born poet. Whenever he went before the Buddha, he always uttered verses in praise of the Buddha, comparing Him in poetic similes to the moon, the sun, the sky, the great ocean, the noble tusker, the lion, etc. These verses which he sang extempore at the moment of casting his eyes on the Buddha, ran into thousands.

Therefore, in an occasion when the Buddha mentioned the names of outstanding (etadagga) bhikkhus to the congregation, He declared:

Etadaggaṃ bhikkhave mama sāvakānaṃ bhikkhūnam paṭibhānavantānaṃ yadidaṃ Vaṅgīsa.”

Bhikkhus, among my bhikkhu-disciples endowed with quick wit, Bhikkhu Vaṅgīsa is the foremost (etadagga).”

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