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...

Two stanzas in the Theragatha (995, 996) relate, in words ascribed to the Venerable Sariputta himself, the way in which he attained Arahatship. There he tells us:

"It was to another that the Blessed One was teaching the Dhamma; to the Dhamma-preaching I listened intently for my own good. And not in vain, for freed from all defilements, I gained release."

In the next two verses (996-7) the Elder declares that he felt no inclination to develop the five supernormal powers (abhiñña). However, the Iddhividha-Katha of the Patisambhida Magga credits him with possessing the intensive degree of meditative concentration called "the power of intervention by concentration" (samadhi-vipphara-iddhi), which is capable of intervening in certain normal physiological processes or other natural events. This is illustrated by the anecdote in the Visuddhimagga, Ch. XII, which records that once when the Venerable Sariputta was living with the Elder Maha Moggallana at Kapotakandara, he was sitting meditating in the open with his hair freshly shaved when he was given a malicious blow on the head by a mischievous spirit. The blow was a very severe one, but at the time it was given "the Elder was absorbed in meditative attainment; consequently he suffered no harm." The source of this story is the Udana (IV.4) which continues the account as follows:

The Venerable Maha Moggallana saw the incident and approached the Venerable Sariputta to ask how he fared. He asked him: "Brother, are you comfortable? Are you doing well? Does nothing trouble you?" "I am comfortable, brother Moggallana," said the Venerable Sariputta. "I am doing well, brother Moggallana. Only my head troubles me a little." Whereupon the Venerable Maha Moggallana said: "O wonderful is it, brother Sariputta! O marvelous is it, brother Sariputta! How great is the psychic power, and how great is the might of the Venerable Sariputta! For just now, brother Sariputta, a certain demon gave you a blow on the head. And a mighty blow it was! With such a blow one might fell an elephant seven or seven and a half cubits high, or one might split a mountain peak. But the Venerable Sariputta says only this, 'I am comfortable, brother Moggallana. I am doing well, brother Moggallana. Only my head troubles me a little.'" Then the Venerable Sariputta replied: "O wonderful is it, brother Moggallana! O marvelous is it, brother Moggallana! How great is the psychic power and how great is the might of the Venerable Moggallana, that he should see any demon at all! As for me, I have not seen so much as a mud-sprite!"

The Anupada Sutta (Majjh. III) contains a description of Sariputta's attainments given by the Buddha himself. In it the Blessed One declares that the Venerable Sariputta had mastered the nine meditative attainments, that is the four fine-material and four immaterial jhanas and the cessation of perception and feeling. And in the Sariputta Samyutta[1] the Venerable Elder mentions the fact himself, in speaking to Ananda, adding that in all the stages he was free of any self-reference: "I had no such thoughts as 'I am entering the jhana; I have entered it; I am rising from it.'" And on another occasion he describes to Ananda how he attained to such developed concentration of mind that with regard to the earth element he was without earth perception of them. Yet it seems that he was without perception of them. Yet it seems that he was not entirely without perception of another kind, his only perception being that "Nibbana is ceasing of coming-to-be" (bhava-nirodha).[2]

This detached attitude to the jhanic attainments may have been due to the meditative "abiding in voidness" (suññata-vihara) which the Venerable Sariputta cultivated. We read in the Pindapata-parisuddhi Sutta (Majjh. 151) that the Buddha once remarked on the Venerable Sariputta's radiant features and asked him by which state of mind this radiance had been caused.[3] The Venerable Sariputta replied that he frequently practiced the abiding in voidness, upon which the Buddha said that this was the abode of great men, and proceeded to describe it in detail. The Udana records that on three occasions the Master saw the Venerable Sariputta seated in meditation outside the monastery and uttered verses (udana) in praise of a firm and calm mind.

We may perhaps imagine the Venerable Sariputta seated in meditation in a bower such as that mentioned in the Devadaha Sutta (Khandha Samyutta, No.2), where it is said "Once the Blessed One lived in the Sakya country, at Devadaha, a market town of the Sakyas... At that time the Venerable Sariputta was seated, not far from the Blessed One, under an Elagala bush." The Commentary to the text tells us: "At Devadaha there was a bower under an Elagala bush. This bush grows where there is a constant supply of flowing water. People had made a bower with four posts over which they let the bush grow, forming a roof. Under it they made a seat by placing bricks there and strewing it with sand. It was a cool place for the daytime, with a fresh breeze blowing from the water." It may well have been in some such rustic shelter as this that the Buddha saw Sariputta deep in meditation, on those occasions when he extolled his disciple's tranquillity and detachment.

Concerning his attainment to analytical knowledge (patisambhida-ñana), the Venerable Sariputta speaks of it in the Anguttara Nikaya (Fours, No. 172), where he says:

"It was half a month after my ordination, friends that I realized, in all their parts and details, the analytical knowledge of meaning, the analytical knowledge of the Dhamma, the analytical knowledge of language, the analytical knowledge of perspicuity. These I expound in many ways, teach them and make them known, establish and reveal them, explain and clarify them. If anyone has any doubt or uncertainty, he may ask me and I shall explain (the matter). Present is the Master who is well acquainted with our attainments."

From all of this it is evident that the Venerable Sariputta was a master of all the stages of attainment up to and including the highest insight-knowledge. What could be more aptly said of him than this, in the Buddha's own words:

"If one could ever say rightly of one that he has come to mastery and perfection in noble virtue, in noble concentration, in noble wisdom and noble liberation, it is of Sariputta that one could thus rightly declare. "If one could ever say rightly of one that he is the Blessed One's true son, born of his speech, born of the Dhamma, formed of the Dhamma, heir to the Dhamma, not heir to worldly benefit, it is Sariputta that one could thus rightly declare. "After me, O monks, Sariputta rightly turns the supreme Wheel of Dhamma, even as I have turned it."

Majjh. 111, Anupada Sutta

Footnotes and references:


Samyutta Nikaya, vol. III: Khandha vagga.


Ang., Tens, No. 7.


The Buddhas, although they are able to divine such matters themselves, ask questions for the instruction and illumination of others.

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