The Life of Sariputta

by Nyanaponika Thera | 1994 | 26,620 words

Compiled and translated from the Pali texts by Nyanaponika Thera The Wheel Publication No. 90/92 ISBN 955-24-0015-5 Copyright © 1987 Buddhist Publication Society For free distribution only. You may print copies of this work for your personal use. You may re-format and redistribute this work for use on computers and computer networks, provided th...

Part I - From Birth To The Attainment Of Arahatship

The story begins at two brahmanical villages in India, called Upatissa and Kolita, which lay not far from the city Rajagaha. Before our Buddha had appeared in the world a brahman lady named Sari, living in Upatissa village,[1] conceived; and also, on the same day at Kolita village, did another brahman lady whose name was Moggalli. The two families were closely connected, having been friends with one another for seven generations. From the first day of their pregnancy the families gave due care to the mothers-to-be, and after ten months both women gave birth to boys, on the same day. On the name-giving day the child of the brahman lady Sari received the name Upatissa, as he was a son of the foremost family of that village; and for the same reason Moggalli's son was named Kolita.

When the boys grew up they were educated, and acquired mastery of all the sciences. Each of them had a following of five hundred brahman youths, and when they went to the river or park for sport and recreation, Upatissa used to go with five hundred palanquins, and Kolita with five hundred carriages.

Now at Rajagaha there was an annual event called the Hilltop Festival. Seats were arranged for both youths and they sat together to witness the celebrations. When there was occasion for laughter, they laughed; when the spectacles were exciting, they became excited; and they paid their fees for the extra shows. In this manner they enjoyed the festival for a second day; but on the third day their understanding was awakened and they could no longer laugh or get excited, nor did they feel inclined to pay for extra shows as they had done on the first days. Each of them had the same thought: "What is there to look at here? Before these people have reached a hundred years they will all have come to death. What we ought to do is to seek for a teaching of deliverance."

It was with such thoughts in mind that they took their seats at the festival. Then Kolita said to Upatissa: "How is this, my dear Upatissa? You are not as happy and joyous as you were on the other days. You seem now to be in a discontented mood, What is on your mind?"

"My dear Kolita, to look at these things here is of no benefit at all. it is utterly worthless! I ought to seek a teaching of deliverance for myself. That, my Kolita, is what I was thinking, seated here. But you, Kolita, seem to be discontented, too."

And Kolita replied: "Just as you have said, I also feel." When he knew that his friend had the same inclinations, Upatissa said: "That was a good thought of ours. But for those who seek a teaching of deliverance there is only one thing to do: to leave home and become ascetics. But under whom shall we live the ascetic life?"

At that time, there lived at Rajagaha an ascetic of the sect of the Wanderers (paribbajaka), called Sañjaya, who had a great following of pupils. Deciding to get ordination under him, Upatissa and Kolita went there, each with his own following of five hundred Brahman youths and all of them received ordination from Sañjaya. And from the time of their ordination under him, Sañjaya's reputation and support increased abundantly.

Within a short time the two friends had learned Sañjaya's entire doctrine and they asked him: "Master, does your doctrine go so far only, or is there something beyond?"

Sañjaya replied: "So far only it goes. You know all."

Hearing this, they thought to themselves: "If that is the case, it is useless to continue the Holy Life under him. We have gone forth from home to seek a teaching of deliverance. Under him we cannot find it. But India is vast; if we wander through villages, towns and cities we shall certainly find a master who can show us the teaching of deliverance." And after that, whenever they heard that there were wise ascetics or brahmans at this or that place, they went and discussed with them. But there was none who was able to answer their questions, while they were able to reply to those who questioned them.

Having thus traveled through the whole of India they turned back, and arriving at their old place they agreed between them that he who should attain to the Deathless State first, should inform the other. It was a pact of brotherhood, born of the deep friendship between the two young men.

Some time after they had made that agreement, the Blessed One, the Buddha, came to Rajagaha. It was when he had delivered the Fire Sermon at Gaya Peak that he remembered his promise, given before his Enlightenment to King Bimbisara, that he would come to Rajagaha again when he had attained his goal. So in stages the Blessed One journeyed from Gaya to Rajagaha, and having received from King Bimbisara the Bamboo Grove Monastery (Veluvana) he resided there.

Among the sixty-one Arahats (Saints) whom the Master had sent forth to proclaim to the world the virtues of the Triple Gem, there was the Elder Assaji, who belonged to the group of five ascetics, the Buddha's erstwhile companions before his Enlightenment, and afterwards his first disciples. The Elder Assaji had returned to Rajagaha from his wanderings, and when one morning he was going for alms in the city he was seen by Upatissa, who was on his way to the Paribbajaka ascetic's monastery. Struck by Assaji's dignified and serene appearance, Upatissa thought: "Never before have I seen such a monk. He must be one of those who are Arahats, or on the way to Arahatship. Should I not approach him and ask, 'Under whom have you been ordained? Who is your teacher and whose teaching do you profess?'"

But then he thought: "It is not the proper time now for putting questions to this monk, as he is going for alms through the streets. I had better follow behind him, after the manner of supplicants." And he did so.

Then, when the Elder had gathered his almsfood, and Upatissa saw him going to another place intending to sit down and take his meal, he prepared for him his own ascetic's seat that he carried with him, and offered it to the Elder. The Elder Assaji took his meal, after which Upatissa served him with water from his own water-container, and in that way performed towards Assaji the duties of a pupil to a teacher.

After they had exchanged the usual courteous greetings. Upatissa said: "Serene are your features, friend. Pure and bright is your complexion. Under whom, friend, have you gone forth as an ascetic? Who is your teacher and whose doctrine do you profess?"

Assaji replied: "There is, O friend, the Great Recluse, the scion of the Sakyas, who has gone forth from the Sakya clan. Under that Blessed One I have gone forth. That Blessed One is my teacher and it is his Dhamma that I profess."

"What does the venerable one's master teach, what does he proclaim?"

Questioned thus, the Elder Assaji thought to himself: "These wandering ascetics are opposed to the Buddha's dispensation. I shall show him how profound this dispensation is". So he said: "I am but new to the training, friend. It is not long since I went forth from home, and I came but recently to this teaching and discipline. I cannot explain the Dhamma in detail to you."

The wanderer replied: "I am called Upatissa, friend. Please tell me according to your ability, be it much or little. It will be my task to penetrate its meaning by way of a hundred or a thousand methods." And he added:

"Be it little or much that you can tell,
the meaning only, please proclaim to me!
To know the meaning is my sole desire;
Of no avail to me are many words."

In response, the Elder Assaji uttered this stanza:

"Of all those things that from a cause arise,
Tathagata the cause thereof has told;
And how they cease to be, that too he tells,
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse."[2]

Upon hearing the first two lines, Upatissa became established in the Path of Stream-entry, and to the ending of the last two lines he already listened as a Stream-winner.

When he become a Stream-winner, and before he had achieved the higher attainments, he thought: "Here will the means of deliverance be found!" and he said to the Elder: "Do not enlarge upon this exposition of the Dhamma, venerable sir. This will suffice. But where does our Master live?"

"In the Bamboo Grove Monastery, wanderer."

"Then please go on ahead, venerable sir. I have a friend with whom I agreed that he who should reach the Deathless State first, should tell the other. I shall inform him, and together we shall follow on the road you went and shall come into the Master's presence."

Upatissa then prostrated himself at the Elder's feet, saluted him and, taking the Elder's leave, went back to the park of the Wandering Ascetics.

Kolita saw him approaching and thought: "Today my friend's appearance is quite changed. Surely, he must have found the Deathless State!"

And when he asked him about it, Upatissa replied: "Yes, friend, the Deathless State has been found!" and he recited to him the stanza he had heard. At the end of the verse, Kolita was established in the Fruition of Stream-entry and he asked: "Where, my dear, does the Master live?"

"I learned from our teacher, the Elder Assaji, that he lives at the Bamboo Grove Monastery."

"Then let us go, Upatissa, and see the Master,"

said Kolita.

But Sariputta was one who always respected his teacher, and therefore he said to his friend: "First, my dear, we shall go to our teacher, the Wanderer Sañjaya, and tell him that we have found the Deathless. If he can grasp it, he will penetrate to the Truth. And even if he does not he may, out of confidence in us, come with us to see the Master; and hearing the Buddha's teaching, he will attain to the penetration of the Path and Fruition."

So both of them went to Sañjaya and said: "Oh, our teacher! What are you doing? A Buddha has appeared in the world! Well proclaimed is his Teaching and in right conduct lives his community of monks. Let us go and see the Master of the Ten Powers!"

"What are you saying, my dear?" Sañjaya exclaimed. And refusing to go with them he spoke to them of the gain and fame they would enjoy if they would share his, the teacher's, place.

But they said: "Oh, we should not mind always remaining in the state of pupils! But you, O teacher, you must know whether to go or not!"

Then Sañjaya thought:

"If they know so much, they will not listen to what I say."

And realizing that, he replied:

"You may go, then, but I cannot."

"Why not, O teacher?"

"I am a teacher of many. If I were to revert to the state of a disciple, it would be as if a huge water tank were to change into a small pitcher. I cannot live the life of a pupil now."

"Do not think like that, O teacher!" they urged.

"Let it be, my dear. You may go, but I cannot."

"Oh teacher! When a Buddha has appeared in the world, people flock to him in large crowds and pay homage to him, carrying incense and flowers. We too shall go there. And then what will happen to you?"

To which Sañjaya replied: "What do you think, my pupils: are there more fools in this world, or more wise people?"

"Fools there are many, O teacher, and the wise are few."

"If that is so, my friends, then the wise ones will go to the wise recluse Gotama, and the fools will come to me, the fool. You may go now, but I shall not."

So the two friends left, saying: "You will come to understand your mistake, O teacher!" And after they had gone there was a split among Sañjaya's pupils, and his monastery became almost empty. Seeing his place empty, Sañjaya vomited hot blood. Five hundred of his disciples had left along with Upatissa and Kolita, out of whom two hundred and fifty returned to Sañjaya. With the remaining two hundred and fifty, and their own following, the two friends arrived at the Bamboo Grove Monastery.

There the Master, seated among the fourfold assembly[3] was preaching the Dhamma, and when the Blessed One saw the two coming he addressed the monks: "These two friends, Upatissa and Kolita, who are now coming, will be two excellent disciples to me, a blessed pair."

Having approached, the friends saluted the Blessed One reverentially and sat down at one side. When they were seated they spoke to the Blessed One, saying: "May we obtain, O Lord, the ordination of the Going Forth under the Blessed One, may we obtain the Higher Ordination!"

And the Blessed One said: "Come, O bhikkhus! Well proclaimed is the Dhamma. Now live the Life of Purity, to make an end of suffering!" This alone served as the ordination of these venerable ones.

Then the master continued his sermon, taking the individual temperaments[4] of the listeners into consideration; and with the exception of the two chief disciples all of them attained to Arahatship. But the two chief disciples had not yet completed the task of attaining to the three higher paths of sanctity. The reason for this was the greatness of the "knowledge pertaining to the perfection of a disciple" (savakaparami-ñana), which they had still to reach.

Upatissa received the name of Sariputta on becoming a disciple of the Buddha, while Kolita became known as Maha Moggallana.

Now the Venerable Maha Moggallana went to live at a village in Magadha called Kallavala, on which he depended for almsfood. On the seventh day after his ordination when he was doing the recluse's work (of meditation), fatigue and torpor fell upon him. But spurred on by the Master,[5] he dispelled his fatigue, and while listening to the Master expounding to him the meditation subject of the elements (dhatu-kammatthana), he completed the task of winning to the three higher paths and reached the acme of a disciple's perfections (savaka-parami).

But the Venerable Sariputta continued to stay near the Master, at a cave called the Boar's Shelter (Sukarakhata-lena), depending on Rajagaha for his almsfood. Half a month after his ordination the Blessed One gave a discourse on the comprehension of feelings[6] to the Venerable Sariputta's nephew, the wandering ascetic Dighanakha. The Venerable Sariputta was standing behind the Master, fanning him. While following with his thoughts the progress of the discourse, as though sharing the food prepared for another, the Venerable Sariputta on that occasion reached the acme of "knowledge pertaining to a disciple's perfection and attained to Arahatship together with the fourfold analytical knowledge (patisambhida-ñana)."[7] And his nephew, at the end of the sermon, was established in the Fruition of Stream-entry.[8]

Now it may be asked: Did not the Venerable Sariputta possess great wisdom; and if so, why did he attain to the disciple's perfections later than the Venerable Maha Moggallana? The answer is, because of the greatness of the preparations necessary for it. When poor people want to go anywhere they take to the road at once; but in the case of kings, larger preparations are required, as for instance to get ready the elephants and chariots, and so on. Thus it was in this case.

On that same day, when the evening shadows had lengthened, the Master caused his disciples to assemble and bestowed upon the two Elders the rank of Chief Disciples. At this, some monks were displeased and said among themselves: "The Master should have given the rank of Chief Disciples to those who were ordained first, that is, the Group of Five disciples. If not to them, then either to the group of two hundred and fifty bhikkhus headed by Yasa, or to the thirty of the Auspicious Group (Bhaddavaggiya), or else to the three Kassapa brothers. But passing over all these Great Elders, he has given it to those whose ordination was the very last of all."

The Master inquired about the subject of their talk. When he was told, he said: "I do not show preference, but give to each what he has aspired to. When, for instance, Kondañña-the Knower in a previous life gave almsfood nine times during a single harvest, he did not aspire to Chief Discipleship; his aspiration was to be the very first to penetrate to the highest state, Arahatship. And so it came about. But when Sariputta and Maha Moggallana many aeons ago, at the time of the Buddha Anomadassi, were born as the brahman youth Sarada and landowner Sirivaddhaka, they made the aspiration for Chief Discipleship. This, O bhikkhus, was the aspiration for these my sons at that time. Hence I have given them just what they aspired to, and did not do it out of preference."

This account of the beginning of the Venerable Sariputta's career is taken from the Commentary to the Anguttara Nikaya, Etad-agga section, with some passages from the parallel version in the Dhammapada Commentary. From it some of the principal traits of the Venerable Sariputta's character are already discernible. His capacity for deep and constant friendship showed itself while he was still a worldling, a youth nurtured in luxury and pleasure, and it persisted after he had abandoned the household life. On receiving his first insight into the Dhamma, and before proceeding any further, his first thought was for his friend Kolita and the vow they had sworn together. His penetrating intellect is revealed in the promptness with which he grasped the essence of the Buddha's teaching from a few simple words. And, most rare of all, he combined that intellectual power with a modesty and sweetness of nature that expressed itself in gratitude and reverence for anyone, even the misguided Sañjaya, who had taught him things of value. It was no wonder, therefore, that throughout his life he continued to show respect for the Venerable Assaji, from whom he had gained his introduction to the Buddha's Teaching. We are told in the Commentary to the Nava Sutta (Sutta-Nipata), and also in the Commentary to v. 392 of the Dhammapada, that whenever the Venerable Sariputta lived in the same monastery as the Elder Assaji, he always went to pay obeisance to him immediately after having done so to the Blessed One. This he did out of reverence, thinking: "This venerable one was my first teacher. It was through him that I came to know the Buddha's Dispensation." And when the Elder Assaji lived in another monastery, the Venerable Sariputta used to face the direction in which the Elder Assaji was living, and to pay homage to him by touching the ground at five places (with the head, hands and feet), and saluting with joined palms.

But this led to misunderstanding, for when other monks saw it they said: "After becoming a Chief Disciple, Sariputta still worships the heavenly quarters! Even today he cannot give up his brahmanical views!" Hearing these remarks, the Blessed One said: "It is not so, bhikkhus. Sariputta does not worship the heavenly quarters. He salutes him through whom he came to know the Dhamma. It is him he salutes, worships and reveres as his teacher. Sariputta is one who gives devout respect to his teacher." It was then that the Master preached to the monks assembled there the Nava Sutta,[9] which starts with the words:

"As gods their homage pay to Indra,
So should a man give reverence to him
From whom he learned the Dhamma."

Another example of the Venerable Sariputta's gratitude is given in the story of Radha Thera. The Commentary to verse 76 of the Dhammapada relates that there was living at Savatthi a poor brahman who stayed in the monastery. There he performed little services such as weeding, sweeping, and the like and the monks supported him with food. They did not, however, want to ordain him. One day the Blessed One, in his mental survey of the world, saw that this brahman was mature for Arahatship. he inquired about him from the assembled monks, and asked whether any one of them remembered to have received some help from the poor brahman. The Venerable Sariputta said that he remembered that once, when he was going for alms in Rajagaha, this poor brahman had given him a ladle full of almsfood that he had begged for himself. The Master asked Sariputta to ordain the man, and he was given the name Radha. The Venerable Sariputta then advised him time and again as to what things should be done, and always Radha received his admonitions gladly, without resentment. And so, living according to the Elder's advice, he attained Arahatship in a short time.

This time the bhikkhus remarked on Sariputta's sense of gratitude and said that he who himself willingly accepts advice obtains pupils who do the same. Commenting on this, the Buddha said that not only then, but also formerly Sariputta had showed gratitude and remembered any good deed done to him. And in that connection the Master told the Alinacitta Jataka, the story of a grateful elephant.[10]

Footnotes and references:


According to the Cunda Sutta (Satipatthana Samyutta) and its Commentary, the name of his birthplace was Nalaka, or Nalagama, which may be an alternative name. It was probably quite close to the more famous Nalanda. Sariputta's father was a brhamin named Vaganta. (Comy. to Dhammapada, v. 75).


"Ye dhamma hetuppabhava tesam hetum tathagato aha, tesañca yo nirodho evamvadi mahasamano 'ti." This gatha was later to become one of the best-known and most widely-disseminated stanzas of Buddhism, standing for all time as a reminder of Sariputta's first contact with the Dhamma and also as a worthy memorial to Assaji, his great Arahat teacher. Spoken at a time when the principle of causality was not accorded the prominence it enjoys today in philosophical thought, its impact on the minds of the early Buddhists must have been revolutionary.


That is, monks, nuns, and male and female lay followers.


Carita-vasena. This refers to the types of character (carita) as explained in The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga, Ch. III).


This is a reference to the Discourse in the Anguttara Nikaya, Sevens, No. 58 (P.T.S. IV.85).


Dighanakha Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya No. 74.


The fact of his attainment to analytical knowledge, which has here been added to the commentarial text, was mentioned by the Venerable Sariputta himself in Anguttara Nikaya, Fours, No. 172.


The Venerable Sariputta refers to his way of attaining Arahatship in verses 995-96 in the Theragatha.


Sutta Nipata, vv. 316ff. (Also called "Dhamma Sutta.")


Jataka No. 156.

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