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...

Among the bhikkhus Sariputta was outstanding as one who helped others. We find a reference to this in the Devadaha Sutta.[1] Some visiting monks, about to return to their own places, took formal leave of the Buddha. He then advised them to see the Venerable Sariputta and take leave of him also, telling them: "Sariputta, O bhikkhus, is wise, and a helper of his fellow monks."

The Commentary, in explanation of these words, says: "Sariputta was a helper in two ways: by giving material help (amisanuggaha) and the help of the Dhamma (dhammanuggaha)."

The Elder, it is said, did not go on almsround in the early morning hours as the other bhikkhus did. Instead, when they had all gone he walked around the entire monastery grounds, and wherever he saw an unswept place, he swept it; wherever refuse had not been removed, he threw it away; where furniture such as beds, chairs, etc., or earthenware had not been properly arranged, he put them in order. He did that lest other, non-Buddhist ascetics, visiting the monastery, might see some disorderliness and speak in contempt of the bhikkhus.

Then he used to go to the hall for the sick, and having spoken consoling words to the patients he would ask them about their needs. To procure their requirements he took with him young novices, and went in search of medicine either by way of the customary almsround or to some appropriate place. When the medicine was obtained he would give it to the novices, saying: "Caring for the sick has been praised by the Master! Go now, good people, and be heedful!" After sending them back to the monastery sick room he would go on the alms-round or take his meal at a supporter's house. This was his habit when staying for some time at a monastery.

But when going on a journey on foot with the Blessed One, he did not go with the very first of the monks, shod with sandals and umbrella in hand, as one who thinks: "I am the Chief Disciple." But letting the young novices take his bowl and robes sending them with the others, he himself would first attend to those who were old, very young, or unwell, making them apply oil to any sores they might have on their bodies. Then, either later on the same day or on the next day, he would leave together with them.

Once, when for that reason the Elder Sariputta had arrived particularly late at the place where the others were resting, he did not get proper quarters for the night, and seated himself under a tent made from robes. The Master saw this, and next day he caused the monks to assemble and told them the story of the elephant, the monkey and the partridge who, after deciding which was the eldest of them, lived together showing respect for the seniormost.[2] He then laid down the rule that "lodgings should be allocated according to seniority."[3]

In this way the Venerable Sariputta was a helper by giving material help.

Sometimes he would give material help and the help of the Dhamma together, as when he visited Samitigutta, who suffered from leprosy, in the infirmary. The Theragatha Commentary tells us that he said to Samitigutta: "Friend, so long as the aggregates (khandha) continue, all feeling is just suffering. Only when the aggregates are no more is there no more suffering." Having thus given him the contemplation of feelings as subject of meditation, Sariputta went away. Samitigutta, following the Elder's instruction, developed insight and realised the six supernormal powers (chalabhiñña) as an Arahat.[4]

Again, when Anathapindika was lying on his deathbed, Sariputta visited him, accompanied by Ananda. Sariputta preached to the dying man on non-attachment, and Anathapindika was greatly moved by the profound discourse.[5]

Another sickbed sermon given by the Elder to Anathapindika is preserved in the Sotapatti-Samyutta (Vagga 3, Sutta 6). In this discourse, Anathapindika is reminded that those things which lead to rebirth in states of woe are no longer in him, but that he possesses the four basic qualities of Stream-entry (sotapattiyanga) and the eight path factors: in considering this, his pains would subside. As the result, his pains did subside.

Once the Elder Channa was lying ill and in great pain. The Venerable Sariputta paid him a visit, in company with the Elder Maha Cunda. Seeing the sick monk's agonies, Sariputta at once offered to go in search of medicines and suitable food for him. But Channa told them he had decided to take his life, and after they had left he did so. Afterwards the Buddha explained that the Elder Channa's act was without demerit and blameless, since he had attained Arahatship while dying. This story is found in the Channovada Sutta (Majjh. 144).

It is said that whenever Sariputta gave advice, he showed infinite patience; he would admonish and instruct up to a hundred or a thousand times, until his pupil was established in the Fruition of Stream-entry. Only then did he discharge him and give his advice to others. Very great was the number of those who, after receiving his instruction and following it faithfully, attained to Arahatship. In the Sacca-vibhanga Sutta (Majjh. 141) the Buddha says: "Sariputta is like a mother who brings forth, while Moggallana is like a nurse of that which has been brought forth. Sariputta trains to the Fruit of Stream-entry, and Moggallana trains to the highest goal."

Explaining this passage, the Commentary says: "When Sariputta accepted pupils for training, whether they were ordained by him or by others, he favored them with his material and spiritual help, looked after them in sickness, gave them a subject of meditation and at last, when he knew that they had become Stream-winners and had risen above the dangers of the lower worlds, he dismissed them in the confident knowledge that 'Now they can, by their own manly strength, produce the higher stages of Saintship.' Having thus become free from concern about their future, he instructed new groups of pupils. But Maha Moggallana, when training pupils in the same way, did not give up concern for them until they had attained Arahatship. This was because he felt, as was said by the Master: 'As even a little excrement is of evil smell, I do not praise even the shortest spell of existence, be it no longer than a snap of the fingers.'"

But although the Majjhima Commentary says that Sariputta used to lead his regular pupils only up to Stream-entry, in individual cases he helped monks to attain the higher stages. The Udana Commentary, for example, says that "at that time bhikkhus in higher training (sekha) often used to approach the Venerable Sariputta for a subject of meditation that could help them to attain the three higher Paths." It was after taking instruction from Sariputta that the Elder Lakuntika Bhaddiya ("The Dwarf") attained Arahatship,[6] having been a Stream-winner at the time. There is also the case of the Venerable Anuruddha, referred to on p. 27.

It was in this manner that the Venerable Sariputta gave the help of the Dhamma. He was a great leader of men and an outstanding spiritual adviser. To the latter task he brought not only a keen and perceptive understanding of the human mind, but also a warm, human interest in others which must have been a great encouragement to those under his spiritual guidance. We have already seen how ready he was to give generous praise where it was due; he was also keen at all times to meet noble monks, particularly those whom the Master had commended. One such was the Elder Punna Mantaniputta; when Sariputta learned that he had come on a visit he went to meet him. Without telling him who he was, he listened to Punna's great discourse, the Stage Coach simile (Majjh. No. 24), and when it was ended gave it high praise.

Administering to the physical as well as the spiritual needs of the monks under his charge, restraining them with kindly admonitions and encouraging them with the praise their efforts deserved, guiding them on the path showing in all he did that vital sympathetic interest which draws forth the best from a pupil, Sariputta combined the qualities of a perfect teacher with those of a perfect friend. He was ready to help in every way, in small things as in great. Filled with the virtue of the Holy Life himself, he was quick to see virtue in others, expert in developing it in those in whom it was latent, and among the first to extol it where it was in full flower. His was no cold, aloof perfection, but the richest intermingling of spiritual exaltation with the qualities that are finest and most endearing in a human being.

Footnotes and references:


Khanda Samyutta, No. 2.


Tittita Jataka (No. 37).


Vinaya (Cula-Vagga, Senasana-khandhaka).


Theragatha v. 81 and Commentary.


Majjh. 143.


Udana VII, 1.

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