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...

The Turner Of The Wheel

The discourses of Sariputta and the books attributed to him form a comprehensive body of teaching that for scope and variety of exposition can stand beside that of the Master himself. Sariputta understood in a unique way how to organize and present the rich material of the Dhamma lucidly, in a manner that was intellectually stimulating and also an inspiration to practical effort. We find this exemplified in two classic discourses of the Majjhima Nikaya, the Samma-ditthi Sutta (No. 9) and the Greater Sutta on the Elephant Footprint Simile (No. 28).

The Greater Discourse on the Elephant Footprint Simile[1] is a masterpiece of methodical treatment. It begins with the statement that the Four Noble Truths comprise everything that is salutary, then singles out the Truth of Suffering as being identifiable with the five aggregates of personality. From these, the aggregate of corporeality is chosen for detailed investigation; it is shown to consist of the four great elements, each of which is said to be internal and external. The bodily parts and functions belonging to the internal element are stated in detail, and it is said of both the internal and external elements that they neither belong to a self, nor constitute a self. This insight leads to disgust and detachment regarding the elements.

The discourse then goes on to show the impermanence of the mighty external elements when they are involved in great upheavals of nature, and against that background it is stressed that this tiny body, the product of craving, can never be regarded as "I" or "mine" or considered in the sense of "I am." And when a monk who has this firm and deeply rooted insight meets with abuse, blame and hostility on the part of others, he is able to analyze the situation soberly and so remain master of it. He recognizes that the painful feeling that has arisen in him is produced by ear-contact, which is in itself no more than a conditioned phenomenon; and of all the constituent parts of the situation he knows that they are impermanent. This he discerns with reference to contact, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness. At this point of the discourse we see that the other four aggregates, the mental components of personality, are introduced in an organic context, together with the already mentioned factor of contact. The discourse then continues: "Then his mind, just by taking only the elements as its object, becomes elated, gladdened, firm and intent; and even if he is beaten and injured he will think: 'This body is of such a nature that is liable to such injuries.'" Thereupon he recollects the Master's Simile of the Saw and will resolve to follow the Buddha's injunction to suffer all injuries in patience, whatever may happen to him.

But, the sermon continues, if when thus remembering the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha the monk's equanimity does not endure, he will be stirred by a sense of urgency and feel ashamed that, in spite of that recollection of the Triple Gem, he could not remain constant. On the other hand, if his endurance persists he will experience happiness. "Even to this extent, much has been achieved by that monk," says the sutta.

Here all the four elements are treated identically. The concluding section starts by comparing the body and its constituent parts with a house, which is made up of its various components. After that follows an exposition of the conditioned arising of the sixfold perceptual consciousness. In mentioning the five sense-organs and sense-objects as the basic conditions for the arising of five-sense consciousness, derived corporeality is here introduced by means of a prominent part of it, thus completing the treatment of the corporeal aggregate. With the state of consciousness having thus arisen, all five aggregates are given, and in that way their conjunction can be understood, as well as their dependent origination. And in this connection Sariputta quotes the Master: "He who understands dependent origination understands the Dhamma; and he who understands the Dhamma understands dependent origination." Desire, inclination and attachment in regard to the five aggregates is the origin of suffering. Removal of that desire, inclination and attachment is the cessation of suffering. And of the monk who has understood this it is said: "Even to this extent, much has been achieved by that monk," Thus the exposition is rounded off with the Four Noble Truths. This discourse is indeed like an intricate and beautifully constructed piece of music ending on a solemn and majestic chord.

Another model exposition of the Venerable Sariputta's is the Samma-ditthi Sutta.[2] This is a masterpiece of teaching, which also provides a framework for further elaboration, such as given in the extensive commentary to it. The Commentary says: "In the Buddha Word as collected in the five great Nikayas there is no discourse other than the Discourse on Right Understanding, wherein the Four Noble Truths are stated thirty-two times, and thirty-two times the state of Arahatship." The same discourse also gives us an original exposition of dependent origination, with slight, but very instructive, variations. Each factor of dependent origination is used, as are also the additional sections, to illustrate the right understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the comprehension of which is thus greatly enhanced, broadened and deepened. This discourse has been widely used for instructional purposes throughout the centuries down to the present day.

Another of the Venerable Sariputta's discourses is the Sama-citta Sutta[3] which was listened to by the "devas of tranquil mind." It is concerned with the first three stages of sanctitude, the Stream-winner, the Once-returner and the Non-returner. Its purpose is to clarify the question of their residuum of rebirths, in the five-sense world or in the fine-material and non-material worlds, which depends upon their mode of practice and on the fetters of existence still remaining. It is a very short discourse, but had a singular impact on the huge assembly of devas who, according to tradition, assembled to hear it. It is said that a very large number of them attained Arahatship, and innumerable were those who reached Stream-entry. This discourse of the Venerable Sariputta is, in fact, counted among the few which had unusually far-reaching results among beings of the higher worlds; and although it is a very brief text rather cryptic without the commentarial explanation, it had a high reputation in succeeding centuries. It is the sermon that was preached by the Arahat Mahinda on the evening of his arrival in Ceylon, and the Mahavamsa (XIV, 34ff), Ceylon's famous chronicle, relates that on this occasion, also, numerous devas listened and achieved penetration of the Dhamma.

The high regard in which the discourse is held, and the strong impact ascribed to it, may be attributed to the fact that it helps those on the Path to define their position as to the kind of rebirths still to be expected by them. Devas on higher levels of development are sometimes inclined to regard their heavenly status as final, and do not expect to be reborn in the five-sense world, as may sometimes be the case. The Great Elder's discourse gave them a criterion by which to judge their position. For worldlings still outside the Paths, as well, it must have offered valuable orientation for the direction of their efforts.

The Sangiti Sutta ("The Recital") and Dasuttara Sutta ("Up to Ten"), two more of the Venerable Sariputta's sermons, are the last two texts of the Digha Nikaya, the Collection of Long Discourses. Both these texts are compilations of doctrinal terms, in which a large number of topics are classified as falling into groups of from one to ten members. The reason for bringing the compilation only up to ten may have been that there are only very few groups of doctrinal terms extending beyond ten members, and these could be supposed to be well known and easily remembered. The Sangiti Sutta was preached in the presence of the Buddha, and at its conclusion received his express approval.

While in the Sangiti Sutta the doctrinal terms are arranged solely in numerical groups of one to ten, in the Dasuttara Sutta each of these ten groups has tenfold subdivision which serves to bring out the practical significance of these groups, for example:

"One thing(1) is of great importance, (2) should be developed, (3) should be fully known, (4) should be abandoned, (5) implies decline, (6) implies progress, (7) is hard to penetrate, (8) should be made to arise, (9) should be directly known, (10) should be realized. What is the one thing of great importance? Heedfulness in salutary things..."

These texts must have been compiled at a fairly late period of the Buddha's and the Venerable Sariputta's life, when there was already in existence a large body of doctrine and carefully transmitted discourses which required organizing for ready use, and also anthologies of salient features of the Dhamma became a useful aid in a comprehensive study of the Teaching. The Sangiti Sutta was delivered at the time of Nigantha Nataputta's death, on the date of which, however, scholars differ. It was, in fact, this event that occasioned the preaching of the sutta, for it speaks of the dissensions, schisms and doctrinal disagreements that arose among the Jains immediately after the death of their Master, Nigantha Nataputta, otherwise Mahavira. This was taken as a warning example by the Venerable Sariputta, who in his discourse stresses that this text "should be recited by all in concord and without dissension, so that the Holy Life should last long for the welfare and happiness of gods and men." The commentators say that the Sangiti Sutta is meant to convey the "flavor of concord" (samaggi-rasa) in the Teaching, which is strengthened by doctrinal proficiency (desana-kusalata).

The practical purpose of the Dasuttara Sutta is indicated in the Venerable Sariputta's introductory verses:

"The Dasuttara (Discourse) I shall proclaim -- a teaching for the attainment of Nibbana and the ending of suffering, the release from all bondage." Dasuttaram pavakkhami dhammam nibbanappattiya dukkhas' antakiriyaya sabbaganthapamocanam.

It seems likely that these two suttas served as a kind of index to selected teachings. They may have been useful also to those monks who did not memorize a great many texts; to them they may have been helpful in presenting numerous aspects of the Teaching in a form that was easily memorized and assimilated. Both of these discourses admirably illustrate the Venerable Sariputta's concern with the preservation of the Dhamma, and his systematic way of ensuring that it was transmitted intact in all its details. It was for that purpose that he provided "study aids" such as these and other discourses, together with works like the Niddesa.


A summary of other discourses given by the Venerable Sariputta is included at the end of this book. We shall now turn to a consideration of larger canonical works attributed to him.

The first is the Niddesa, which belongs to the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka. it is the only work of an exclusively commentarial character included in the Pali Tipitaka. Of its two parts, the Maha Niddesa is a commentary to the Atthaka-vagga of the Sutta Nipata, while the Cula Niddesa comments on the Parayana-vagga and the Khaggavisana Sutta, likewise of the Sutta Nipata.

The Atthaka-vagga and the Parayana-vagga are the last two books of the Sutta Nipata, and doubtlessly belong to the oldest parts not only of that work but of the entire Sutta Pitaka. They were highly appreciated even in the earlier days of the Sangha, and of the Buddhist laity as well, as is testified by the fact that the Udana records a recital of the Atthaka-vagga by Sona Thera and the Anguttara Nikaya a recital of the Parayana-vagga by the female lay disciple, Nandamata. On at least five occasions the Buddha himself has given explanations of verses contained in these two parts of the Sutta Nipata. Apart from the high esteem in which they were evidently held, the fact that these two verse collections contain numerous archaic words and terse aphoristic sayings makes it understandable that in very early days a commentary on them was composed which was later included in the canonical scriptures. The traditional attribution of it to the Venerable Sariputta must be regarded as highly plausible.[4] It is quite in character with the great Elder's concern with the methodical instruction of bhikkhus that the Niddesa contains not only word explanations, clarifications of the context and supporting quotations from the Buddha Word, but also material obviously meant for linguistic instruction, such as the addition of many synonyms of the word explained. On this subject, Prof. E.J. Thomas writes as follows:[5]

The most characteristic feature of the Niddesa... consists of a list of synonyms of the words commented on. Such lists are not used to explain the meaning of a word in a particular context. They are repeated in the same form wherever the word occurs and were evidently intended to be learned in the same way as the modern kosha (dictionary)... Much of this is also found in the Abhidhamma books, but in the Niddesa it is used as general matter applied to passages for which it was not immediately intended... This shows a system for learning the vocabulary of the Canon, and for explaining archaic forms, but no further grammatical teaching occurs apart from the description of certain terms as particles... in the Niddesa we thus have direct evidence of a general system of instruction applied to a definite work, consisting of interpretation, doctrinal teaching and the verbal expositions of the beginnings of grammar. The Abhidhamma books and related works like the Patisambhida Magga give other traces of its existence. It appears to be this system which is expressly referred to in the Niddesa (1, 234) and other places as the four kinds of analysis (patisambhida); the analysis of meanings (attha), of conditions (dhamma), of grammatical analysis (nirutti), and clearness of insight (patibhana). The Nirutti of the Niddesa is of the kind that we should expect to exist when Pali was a living language. All the grammatical analysis that was required was a knowledge of those words in the Scriptures that had become obsolete, and the explanation of unusual grammatical forms by means of current expressions... We can see from its different forms and readings that it underwent changes and received additions, and in the case of a work used continually for instruction this would be inevitable.

The Venerable Sariputta states that he attained to the four kinds of analytical knowledge (patisambhida) two weeks after his ordination, that is, on attaining Arahatship.[6] This fact, and the extensive application of nirutti-patisambhida, "grammatical analysis," in the Niddesa, make it quite probable that he was actually the author of both the Niddesa and the Patisambhida Magga.

The Maha Niddesa contains also the commentary on the Sariputta Sutta (also called the "Therapañha Sutta") which forms the last text of the Atthaka-vagga. The first part of this text, with verses in praise of the Master and questions put to him, is ascribed to Sariputta. The Maha Niddesa explains the opening stanza as referring to the Buddha's return from Tavatimsa heaven after he had preached the Abhidhamma there. Apart from that it contains only his questions, the essential part of the text being the Buddha's replies.

The Patisambhida Magga has the appearance of a manual of higher Buddhist studies, and its range is as broad as that of the mind of its reputed author. At the beginning it presents treatises on 72 types of knowledge (ñana) and on the types of wrong speculative views (ditthi), both of which show the methodical and penetrative mind of the Venerable Sariputta. In the Treatise on Knowledge, as well as in other chapters of the work, there are found a large number of doctrinal terms appearing for the first time and only in the Patisambhida Magga. It also contains elaborations of terms and teachings that are mentioned only briefly in other and older parts of the Sutta Pitaka. In addition to this, it contains material on meditation of great practical value, as for example on mindfulness of breathing,[7] metta-bhavana, and numerous insight-exercises. There is also, to give variety to the subject matter, a passage of hymnic character and great beauty, on the Great Compassion of the Tathagata. Mahanama Thera of Ceylon, who wrote the Saddhammappakasini, the commentary to the work, confidently ascribes it to the Venerable Sariputta, and in the introductory stanzas gives eloquent praise of the great Elder. In the Patisambhida Magga itself, Sariputta is mentioned twice, once as being one who possesses samadhi-vipphara-iddhi (in the Iddhividha-katha) and again in the Maha-pañña-katha, Solasa-pañña-niddesa, where it is said: "Those whose wisdom is equal to that of Sariputta, they partake to some extent of the Buddha-knowledge."

We come now to one of the most important contributions made by the Venerable Sariputta to Buddhist teaching. According to tradition (e.g., in the Atthasalini), the Buddha preached the Abhidhamma in the Tavatimsa heaven to his mother, Queen Maya, who had been reborn as deva in that world. He did this for three months, and when returning daily to earth for his meals, he gave to the Venerable Sariputta the "method" (naya) of that portion of Abhidhamma he had preached. The Atthasalini says; "Thus the giving of the method was to the Chief Disciple, who was endowed with analytical knowledge, as though the Buddha stood on the edge of the shore and pointed out the ocean with his open hand. To the Elder the doctrine taught by the Blessed One in hundreds and thousands of methods became very clear." Thereafter, the Elder passed on what he had learned to his five hundred disciples.

Further it is said: "The textual order of the Abhidhamma originated with Sariputta; the numerical series in the Great Book (Patthana) was also determined by him. In this way the Elder, without spoiling the unique doctrine, laid down the numerical series in order to make it easy to learn, remember, study and teach the Law."

The Atthasalini, the Commentary to the Dhamma-sangani also ascribes to Sariputta the following contributions to the canonical Abhidhamma:

(a) The 42 couplets (dyads; duka) of the Suttanta Matika, which follows the Abhidhamma Matika, both of which preface the seven Abhidhamma books. The 42 Suttanta couplets are explained in the Dhammasangani and this likewise has probably to be ascribed to the Elder. (b) The fourth and last part of the Dhammasangani, the Atthuddhara-kanda, the "Synopsis". (c) The arrangement for the recitation of the Abhidhamma (vacanamagga). (d) The Numerical Section (gañanacara) of the Patthana.

In the Anupada Sutta[8] the Buddha himself speaks of the Venerable Sariputta's analysis of meditative consciousness into its chief mental concomitants, which the Elder undertook from his own experience, after rising from each of the meditative attainments in succession. This analysis may well be either a precursor or an abridgment of the detailed analysis of jhana-consciousness given in the Dhammasangani.

Concerning the Venerable Sariputta's mastery of the Dhamma, and its exposition, the Buddha had this to say:

"The Essence of Dhamma (dhammadhatu) has been so well penetrated by Sariputta, O monks, that if I were to question him therein for one day in different words and phrases, Sariputta would reply likewise for one day in various words and phrases. And if I were to question him for one night, or a day and a night, or for two days and nights, even up to seven days and nights, Sariputta would expound the matter for the same period of time, in various words and phrases."

Nidana Samyutta, No. 32

And on another occasion the Master employed this simile:

"If he is endowed with five qualities, O monks, the eldest son of a World-ruling Monarch righteously turns the Wheel of sovereignty that had been turned by his father. And that Wheel of Sovereignty cannot be overturned by any hostile human being. What are the five qualities? The eldest son of a World-ruling Monarch knows what is beneficial, knows the Law, knows the right measure, knows the right time and knows the society (with which he has to deal, parisa). Similarly, O monks, is Sariputta endowed with five qualities and rightly turns the supreme Wheel of Dhamma, even as I have turned it. And this Wheel cannot be overturned by ascetics, or priests, by deities or Brahma, nor by anyone else in the world. What are those five qualities? Sariputta, O monks, knows what is beneficial, knows the Teaching, knows the right measure, knows the right time and knows the assembly (he is to address)."

Anguttara Nikaya, V. 132

Other Theras were not behind in their appreciation. The Elder Vangisa, in his encomium in the Theragatha (vv. 1231-3) praises Sariputta who "teaches in brief and also speaks in detail," while in the same compilation other great Elders, Maha Kassapa (vv. 1082-5) and Maha Moggallana (vv. 1158; 1176-7; 1182) also give their meed of praise. And the Venerable Maha Moggallana, at the end of Sariputta's Discourse on Guiltlessness,[9] uttered these words of tribute to his friend's sermon: "To (virtuous and earnest) monks who have heard the exposition of the Venerable Sariputta it will be like food and drink to their ears and mind. How well does he lift up his fellow-monks from what is unwholesome, and confirm them in what is good!"

The relationship in which the two Chief Disciples stood to one another in the matter of teaching was explained by the Buddha when he said:

"Associate, O monks with Sariputta and Moggallana, and keep company with them! They are wise bhikkhus and helpers of their fellow-monks. Sariputta is like a mother who brings forth, and Moggallana is like a nurse to what has been brought forth. Sariputta trains (his pupils) in the Fruition of Stream-entry, and Moggallana trains them for the highest goal. "Sariputta is able to expound the Four Noble Truths in detail, to teach them and make them intelligible, to proclaim, reveal and explain them, and make them clear."

Majjh. 141, Sacca-vibhanga Sutta

And in the Anguttara Nikaya (11, 131);

"A monk of faith, O bhikkhus, should cherish this right aspiration: 'Oh, may I become such as Sariputta and Moggallana!' For Sariputta and Moggallana are the model and standard for my bhikkhu-disciples."

That the Venerable Sariputta's great reputation as a teacher of the Dhamma long survived him, to become a tradition among later Buddhists, is shown by the concluding passages of the Milinda-pañha, written some three hundred years later. There, King Milinda compares Nagasena Thera to the Venerable Sariputta, saying: "In this Buddha's Dispensation there is none other like yourself for answering questions, except the Elder Sariputta, the Marshal of the Law."

That grand reputation still lives today, upheld by the cherished teachings of the Great Disciple, preserved and enshrined in some of the oldest books of Buddhism alongside the words of his Master.

Footnotes and references:


See Wheel No. 101.


See Right Understanding, Discourse and Commentary, translated by Soma Thera (Lake House Bookshop, Colombo).


Anguttara Nikaya (PTS), Vol I, 63 (Twos, No. IV, 5).


The Commentary to the Theragatha, by Bhadantacariya Dhammapala, quotes from the Niddesa and attributes it to Sariputta (Dhammasenapati).


See "Buddhist Education in Pali and Sanskrit Schools," by E.J. Thomas in Buddhistic Studies, ed. by B.C. Law (Calcutta, 1931), pp. 223ff.


A. II, 160; see p. 15.


Translated in Mindfulness of Breathing by Ñanamoli Thera, Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, 1964).


Majjh. No. 111.


Majjh. No. 5.

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