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...

If Sariputta was notable for his lasting sense of gratitude, he was no less so for his capacity for friendship. With Maha Moggallana, the friend and companion of his youth, he maintained a close intimacy, and many were the conversations they held on the Dhamma. One of these, which is of special interest as throwing light on the process of Venerable Sariputta's attainment, is recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya, Catukka-nipata, No. 167. It relates that once the Venerable Maha Moggallana went to see the Elder and said to him:

"There are four ways of progress, brother Sariputta:

difficult progress, with sluggish direct-knowledge;
difficult progress, with swift direct-knowledge;
easy progress, with sluggish direct-knowledge;
easy progress, with swift direct-knowledge.


"By which of these four ways of progress, brother, was your mind freed from the cankers without remnants of clinging?"

To which the Venerable Sariputta replied:

"By that of those four ways of progress, brother, which is easy and has swift direct-knowledge."


The explanation of this passage is that if the suppression of the defilements preparatory to absorption or insight takes place without great difficulty, progress is called "easy" (sukha-patipada); in the reverse case it is "difficult" or "painful" (dukkha-patipada). If, after the suppression of the defilements, the manifestation of the Path, the goal of insight, is quickly effected, the direct-knowledge (connected with the Path) is called "swift" (khippabhiñña); in the reverse case it is "sluggish" (dandabhiñña). In this discourse the Venerable Sariputta's statement refers to his attainment of Arahantship. His attainment of the first three Paths, however, was, according to the commentary to the above text, connected with "easy progress and sluggish direct-knowledge."

In such ways as this did the two friends exchange information about their experience and understanding of the Dhamma. They were also frequently associated in attending to affairs of the Sangha. One such occasion was when they combined in winning back certain monks who had been led astray by Devadatta. There is an interesting passage[1] in this connection which shows that the Venerable Sariputta's generous praise of Devadatta's achievements before the latter brought about a schism in the Sangha was the cause of a slight embarrassment. It relates that when the Buddha asked Sariputta to proclaim in Rajagaha that Devadatta's deeds and words should no longer be regarded as connected with the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, the Venerable Sariputta said:

"Formerly I spoke at Rajagaha in praise of Devadatta's magical powers?"

"Yes, Lord,"

the elder replied.

"So you will now speak truthfully also, Sariputta, when you make this proclamation about Devadatta."

So, after receiving the formal approval of the Sangha, the Venerable Sariputta, together with many monks, went to Rajagaha and made the declaration about Devadatta.

When Devadatta had formally split the Sangha by declaring that he would conduct Sangha-acts separately, he went to Vultures' Peak with five hundred young monks who through ignorance had become his followers. To win them back, the Buddha sent Sariputta and Maha Moggallana to the Vultures' Peak, and while Devadatta was resting, the two Chief Disciples preached to the monks, who attained to Stream-entry and went back to the Master.[2]

Another time when the Venerable Sariputta and the Venerable Maha Moggallana worked together to restore order in the Sangha was when a group of monks led by Assaji (not the Elder Assaji referred to earlier) and Punnabbassu, living at Kitagiri, were misbehaving. In spite of repeated admonitions, these monks would not mend their ways, so the two Chief Disciples were sent to pronounce the penalty of pabbajaniya-kamma (excommunication) on those who would not submit to the discipline.[3]

Venerable Sariputta's devotion to his friend was fully reciprocated; we are told of two occasions when Sariputta was ill, and Maha Moggallana attended to him and brought him medicine.

Yet there was nothing exclusive about the Venerable Sariputta's friendships, for according to the commentary to the Maha-Gosinga Sutta there was also a bond of mutual affection between him and the Elder Ananda. On the part of Sariputta it was because he thought: "He is attending on the Master -- a duty which should have been performed by me"; and Ananda's affection was due to the fact that Sariputta had been declared by the Buddha as his foremost disciple. When Ananda gave Novice Ordination to young pupils he used to take them to Sariputta to obtain Higher ordination under him. The Venerable Sariputta did the same in regard to Ananda, and in that way they had five hundred pupils in common.

Whenever the Venerable Ananda received choice robes or other requisites he would offer them to Sariputta, and in the same way, Sariputta passed on to Ananda any special offerings that were made to him. Once Ananda received from a certain brahman a very valuable robe, and with the Master's permission he kept it for ten days awaiting Sariputta's return. The sub-commentary says that later teachers commented on this:

"There may be those who say: 'We can well understand that Ananda, who had not yet attained to Arahatship, felt such affection. But how is it in the case of Sariputta, who was a canker-free Arahat?" To this we answer: 'Sariputta's affection was not one of worldly attachment, but a love for Ananda's virtues (guna-bhatti).'"

The Buddha once asked the Venerable Ananda:

"Do you, too, approve of Sariputta?"

And Ananda replied:

"Who, O Lord, would not approve of Sariputta, unless he were childish, corrupt, stupid or of perverted mind! Learned, O Lord, is the Venerable Sariputta; of great wisdom, O Lord, is the Venerable Sariputta; of broad, bright, quick, keen and penetrative wisdom is the Venerable Sariputta; of few wants and contented, inclined to seclusion, not fond of company, energetic, eloquent, willing to listen, an exhorter who censures what is evil."[4]

In the Theragatha (v. 1034f) we find the Venerable Ananda describing his emotion at the time of Sariputta's death. "When the Noble Friend (Sariputta) had gone," he declares, "the world was plunged in darkness for me." But he adds that after the companion had left him behind, and also the Master had passed away, there was no other friend like mindfulness directed on the body. Ananda's sorrow on learning of the Venerable Sariputta's death is also described very movingly in the Cunda Sutta.[5]

Sariputta was a true friend in the fullest sense of the word. He well understood how to bring out the best in others, and in doing so did not hesitate sometimes to speak straightforwardly and critically, like the ideal friend described by the Buddha, who points out his friend's faults. It was in this way that he helped the venerable Anuruddha in his final break-through to Arahatship, as recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya (Tika-Nipata No. 128):

Once the Venerable Anuruddha went to see the Venerable Sariputta. When they had exchanged courteous greetings he sat down and said to the Venerable Sariputta:

"Friend Sariputta, with the divine eye that is purified, transcending human ken, I can see the thousandfold world-system. Firm is my energy, unremitting; my mindfulness is alert and unconfused; the body is tranquil and unperturbed; my mind is concentrated and one-pointed. And yet my mind is not freed from cankers, not freed from clinging."

"Friend Anuruddha,"

said the Venerable Sariputta,

"that you think thus of your divine eye, this is conceit in you. That you think thus of your firm energy, your alert mindfulness, your unperturbed body and your concentrated mind, this is restlessness in you. That you think of your mind not being freed from the cankers, this is worrying[6] in you. It will be good, indeed, if the Venerable Anuruddha, abandoning these three states of mind and paying no attention to them, will direct the mind to the Deathless Element."

And the Venerable Anuruddha later on gave up these three states of mind, paid no attention to them and directed his mind to the Deathless Element. And the Venerable Anuruddha, living then alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, with determined mind, before long reached in this very life, understanding and experiencing it by himself, that highest goal of the Holy Life, for the sake of which noble sons go forth entirely from home into homelessness. And he knew: "Exhausted is rebirth, lived is the holy life, the work is done, nothing further remains after this." Thus the Venerable Anuruddha became one of the Arahats.

Sariputta must have been stimulating company, and sought after by many. What attracted men of quite different temperament to him and his conversation can be well understood from the incident described in the Maha-Gosinga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya No. 32). One evening the Elders Maha Moggallana, Maha Kassapa, Anuruddha, Revata and Ananda went to Sariputta to listen to the Dhamma. The Venerable Sariputta welcomed them, saying: "Delightful is this Gosinga Forest of Sala trees; there is moonlight tonight, all the Sala trees are in full bloom, and it seems that heavenly perfume drifts around. What kind of monk, do you think, Ananda, will lend more luster to this Gosinga Sala Forest?"

The same question was put to the others as well, and each answered according to his individual nature. Finally, Sariputta gave his own answer, which was as follows:

"There is a monk who has control over his mind, who is under the control of his mind.[7] In whatever (mental) abiding or attainment he wishes to dwell in the forenoon, he can dwell in it at that time. In whatever (mental) abiding or attainment he wishes to dwell at noon, he can dwell in it at that time. In whatever (mental) abiding or attainment he wishes to dwell in the evening, he can dwell in it at that time. It is as though a king's or royal minister's cloth chest were full of many-colored garments; so that whatever pair of garments he wishes to wear in the morning, or at noon, or in the evening, he can wear it at will at those times. Similarly it is with a monk who has control over his mind, who is not under the control of his mind; in whatever (mental) abiding or attainment he wishes to dwell in the morning, or at noon, or in the evening, he can do so at will at those times. Such a monk, friend Moggallana, may lend luster to this Gosinga Sala Forest."

They then went to the Buddha, who approved of all their answers and added his own.

We see from this episode that Sariputta, with all his powerful intellect and his status in the Sangha, was far from being a domineering type who tried to impose his views on others. How well did he understand how to stimulate self-expression in his companions in a natural and charming way, conveying to them the pensive mood evoked by the enchanting scenery! His own sensitive nature responded to it, and drew a similar response from his friends.

There are many such conversations recorded between Sariputta and other monks, not only the Venerables Maha Moggallana, Ananda and Anuruddha, but also Maha Kotthita, Upavana, Samiddhi, Savittha, Bhumija and many more. It seems that the Buddha himself liked to talk to Sariputta, for he often did so, and many of his discourses were addressed to his "Marshal of the Law," to use the title he gave him.

Once, Sariputta repeated some words the Master had spoken to Ananda on another occasion.

"This is the whole of the Life of Purity (brahmacariya); namely, noble friendship, noble companionship, noble association."[8]

There could be no better exemplification of that teaching than the life of the Chief Disciple himself.

Footnotes and references:


Culavagga, Sanghabhedaka-khandaka, Sanghabhedaka-katha.


Culavagga, Sanghabhedaka-khandaka, Sanghabhedaka-katha.


Culavagga, Kammakkhandaka, Pabbajaniyakamma; Parajika Pali, Sanghadisesa-kanda, Kuladusaka-sikkhapada.


Devaputta-Samy., Susima Sutta.


See p. 80.


Conceit (mana) and restlessness (uddhacca) are two of the three fetters (samyojana) which are destroyed only at the stage of Arahatship. Worry (or scruples: kukkucca), however, is removed already at the stage of Non-returner (anagami).


Is not subject to the vagaries of the mind.


Magga Samyutta, No. 2.

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