The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

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

This page describes Upasena Vangantaputta 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

In the past, the Venerable Upasena Vaṅgantaputta was born into a worthy family in the city of Haṃsavati during the time of Buddha Padumuttara. When he came of age, he went to the Buddha’s monastery, like all the great future Venerables, to listen to the Buddha’s sermon. There, he witnessed a bhikkhu being declared by the Buddha as the foremost (etadagga) among those who gained the esteem of a wide following. The worthy man emulated that bhikkhu and made his aspiration to that honour in some future existence. The Buddha saw that the aspiration of the man would be fulfilled and made the prognostication as in the cases of other similar aspirants. Then He returned to the monastery.

(b) Ascetic Life adopted in His Final Existence

That worthy man, after leading a life filled with good deeds, passed away into the fortunate destinations. At the time of Buddha Gotama, he was born into a brahmin family in the brahmin village of Nālaka, in the country of Magadha. His mother was Rūpanārī, the wife of a brahmin rich man. He was named Upasena in his boyhood. He grew up and learned the three Vedas, but, after hearing the Dhamma from the Buddha, he was deeply devoted to the Buddha and became His disciple.

Venerable Upasena, who had one vassa in bhikkhuhood, had a desire to increase the number of bhikkhus. He admitted a man into the state of a novice and then raised him to full bhikkhuhood. The Venerable Upasena, at the end of the vassa, after attending the usual congregation of bhikkhus, went to see the Buddha together with his own close disciple who was then of one vassa as a bhikkhu and, himself, as preceptor to that bhikkhu, of two vassas as a bhikkhu, thinking that the Buddha would be pleased with him for his well intended act (of admitting a new comer into the Order).

As the Venerable Upasena was sitting in a suitable place before the Buddha, the Buddha said to him: “Bhikkhu, how many vassas have you spent as bhikkhu?” “Two vassas, Venerable Sir,” Upasena replied. “How many vassas have that bhikkhu who accompanies you?” “One vassa, Venerable Sir." “How are you two related?” “He is my close disciple, Venerable Sir.” “You vain man, you are bent on gaining the four requisites very quickly.” The Buddha then denounced the Venerable Upasena on many grounds.

Then the Buddha pronounced a rule thus:

Bhikkhus, let no bhikkhu, who has not completed ten vassas in the Order, admit a person into bhikkhuhood. He who infringes this role incurs a minor breach of the Discipline.

Bhikkhus, I allow a bhikkhu with ten vassas or more to act as preceptor to a new bhikkhu in the admission of that person into bhikkhuhood.”

These two Vinaya rules came about concerning the Venerable Upasena. (Ref: Vinaya Mahāvagga)

Upasena, on being reprimanded by the Buddha, thought of receiving praise from the Buddha on account of following. “I will make the words of praise, with reference to this very question of following, come out of this same mouth of the Bhagava, which is splendored like the full moon,” he encouraged himself. On that same day, he went into seclusion, meditated with diligence, cultivated Insight and in a few days attained arahattaphala.

Pupils exhorted

Upasena was a bhikkhu with a celebrated family background. With his reputation throughout the land as an able expounder of the Doctrine; he earned the confidence and good will of many boys of worthy families who were his blood relations or friends. These young boys became novices under his guidance. But he made an understanding with them at the outset: “Boys, I am a vowed dweller of the forest. If you can live in the forest like me, you may become novices,” and he told them the elements of the thirteen kinds of austere practice. Only those boys who could take up the austere practice were admitted as novices by him, but only to such an extent as their tender ages could take. When the Venerable Upasena himself had completed ten vassas as a bhikkhu he mastered the Vinaya and admitted the novices into full bhikkhuhood, acting as their preceptor. The number of those bhikkhus under his preceptorship grew into as many as five hundred.

During those days, the Buddha was residing at the Jetavana monastery in Sāvatthi. At one time, the Buddha said to the bhikkhus: “Bhikkhus, I wish to remain alone for half a month,” and was staying in seclusion. Then the Sangha made a mutual agreement among themselves that any bhikkhu who went near the Buddha alone would be liable to making a formal confession of his guilt for doing so.

The Venerable Upasena, accompanied by his disciples, went to the Jetavana monastery to pay homage to the Buddha, and after making obeisance to the Buddha, they sat in a suitable place. Then the Buddha, intending to start a conversation, asked a young bhikkhu who was a close disciple of the Venerable Upasena: “Bhikkhu, do you like wearing dirt-rag robes?” The young bhikkhu made a preliminary statement: “I do not like it, Venerable Sir,” but went on to explain that although he did not personally like it, out of his high regard for his Preceptor, he observed the austere practice of wearing dirt-rag robes.

The Buddha praised Upasena for that, and also said many words in praise of Upasena on various other counts. (This is only a brief account of Upasena’s earning the Buddha’s approbation. For details refer to the Vinaya, Pārājikakaṇḍa Pāli; 2 Kosiya vagga, 5 Nisīdāna Santata Sikkhāpada. It may be noted that in that text, the Buddha is recorded as to have said: “I wish to go into seclusion for three months” whereas the Commentary on the Aṅguttara Nikāya says the Buddha wished to have “half a month of seclusion.” We would recommend the “three months” version of the text as authoritative.)

(c) Etadagga Title achieved

In one occasion, sitting in the congregation to declared outstanding bhikkhus, the Buddha declared:

Etadaggaṃ bhikkhave mama sāvakānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ samantapāsādikānaṃ yadidaṃ Upaseno Vaṅgantaputto.”

Bhikkhus, among my bhikkhu-disciples who win the high esteem of their following, Bhikkhu Upasena Vaṅgantaputta is the foremost (etadagga).”

Upasena’s Tragic Demise

At one time the Venerables Sāriputta and Upasena were dwelling near Rājagaha at the Sappasoṇḍika Cave (Cave resembling a snake’s hood) in the ebony forest. At that time, a poisonous snake fell onto the body of the Venerable Upasena.

(Here, the Venerable Upasena was stitching a great robe near the entrance of the cave where a light breeze was blowing. At that moment, one of the two poisonoussnakes that were mating on the roof of the cave fell down onto his shoulder. It was a highly poisonous snake whose venom was so potent that mere contact with it was lethal. So the body of Venerable Upasena burnt like a wick in a lamp, spreading its heat all over the body. He knew that his body would be burnt away in no time but he made a wish that his body should remain intact inside the cave, and thereby prolonging the decay.)

Then the Venerable Upasena called the bhikkhus, saying: “Friends, come! Put this body of mine on the cot and carry it outside before this body disintegrates here like a ball of chaff.”

Thereupon Venerable Sāriputta said to Venerable Upasena: “We do not see any change in the body and any change in the faculties of the Venerable Upasena. Yet the Venerable Upasena said: “Friend, come! Put this body of mine on the cot and carry it outside before this body disintegrates like a ball of chaff.” (This was said by the Venerable Sāriputta because there was no change in the bodily gesture and the facial expression of the Venerable Upasena, as is usual with ordinary people at the hour of death.)

Then the Venerable Upasena said:

“Friend Sāriputta, as a matter of fact, only in one who views through wrong view and craving, such as: ‘I am the eye, the eye is mine’;‘I am the ear, the ear is mine’; ‘I am the nose, the nose is mine’; ‘I am the tongue, the tongue is mine’; ‘I am the body the body is mine’; ‘I am the mind, the mind is mine’, changes in the body and changes in the faculties occur.

“Friend Sāriputta, I do not have any view either through wrong view or through craving, such as: ‘I am the eye, the eye is mine; ‘I am the mind, the mind is mine.’ Friend Sāriputta, how should there be any change in the body or any change in the faculties in me who hold no such views?” The Venerable Sāriputta said:

“It is indeed so, friend Upasena. Since you, friend Upasena, have long ago removed the wrong view of ‘my self’, the craving to ‘mine’, and the conceit ‘I’, it is not possible for such views to arise, either through wrong view or through craving, such as: ‘I am the eye, the eye is mine’...; ‘I am the mind, the mine is mine’.

Then the bhikkhus put the body of the Venerable Upasena on a cot and carried it outside. There and then Venerable Upasena’s body disintegrated like a ball of chaff and he passed away realizing the exhaustion of rebirth.

(This account is also on record in Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta, Upasena-asivisa Sutta and the Commentary thereon.)

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