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...

It is the neighborhood of Jetavana, where the Buddha is residing. Some men are in a group, talking about the noble qualities of the Elder Sariputta. "Such great patience has our noble Elder," they are saying, "that even when people abuse him and strike him, he feels no trace of anger."

"Who is this that never gets angry?"

The question is from a brahman, a holder of false views. And when they tell him,

"It is our Elder, Sariputta,"

he retorts:

"It must be that nobody has ever provoked him."
"That is not so brahman,"

they reply.

"Well, then, I will provoke him to anger."
"Provoke him to anger if you can!"
"Leave it to me,"

says the brahman.

"I know just what to do to him."

The Venerable Sariputta enters the city on his round for alms. Approaching him from behind, the brahman strikes him in a tremendous blow on the back. "What was that?" says the Venerable Sariputta; and without so much as turning to look, he continues on his way.

The fire of remorse leaps up in every part of the brahman's body. Prostrating himself at the Elder's feet he begs for pardon.

"For what?"

asks the Elder, mildly.

"To test your patience I struck you,"

the penitent brahman replies.

"Very well, I pardon you."

"Reverend sir,"

the brahman says,

"if you are willing to pardon me, hereafter please take your food only at my house."

With these words he takes the Elder's almsbowl, which the Elder willingly yields, and leading him to his house serves him with food.

But those who saw the assault are enraged. They gather at the brahman's house, armed with sticks and stones, to kill him. When the Venerable Sariputta emerges, accompanied by the brahman carrying his bowl, they cry: "Reverend sir, order this brahman to turn back!"

"Why, lay disciples?"

asks the Elder. They answer:

"The man struck you. We are going to give him what he deserves!"

"But what do you mean? Was it you, or me, he struck?"

"It was you, reverend sir."
"Well, if it was me he struck, he has begged my pardon. Go your ways."

And so, dismissing the people and permitting the brahman to return, the great Elder calmly makes his way to the monastery.

This incident, recorded in the Dhammapada Commentary, was the occasion of the Buddha's uttering the verses 389 and 390 of the Dhammapada, which are among those that give the Buddha's definition of what constitutes a brahman, that is to say, rectitude of conduct rather than birth or rank.

Let none strike a brahman;
Let no brahman return a blow.
Shame on him that strikes a brahman!
More shame on the brahman who returns the blow!
Not small is the gain to a brahman
Who restrains his mind from what is dear;
As fast as the will to injure wanes
So fast indeed does suffering decline.

Dhammapada, vv 389, 390

The Venerable Sariputta's humility was as great as his patience. He was willing to receive correction from anyone, not only with submission but with gratitude. It is told in the Commentary to the Devaputta Samyutta, Susima Sutta, that once, through a momentary negligence, a corner of the Elder's under-robe was hanging down, and a seven-year-old novice, seeing this, pointed it out to him. The Venerable Sariputta stepped aside at once and arranged the garment in the proper equally-circular way. Then he stood before the novice with folded hands, saying: "Now it is correct, teacher!"[1]

There is a reference to this incident in the Questions of Milinda, where these verses are ascribed to the Venerable Sariputta:

"One who this very day, at the age of seven, has gone forth --
If he should me, I accept it with (bended) head.
At sight of him, I give him ardent zeal and regard.
With respect may I again and again set him in the teacher's place!"

On one occasion the Buddha mildly reproved Sariputta for not having carried his teaching far enough. When the brahman Dhanañjani was on his deathbed he was visited by the Venerable Sariputta. The Elder, reflecting that brahmans are bent on the Brahma-world (or "union with Brahma") taught the dying man the way to it through the Brahma-viharas. As a result, it is said, the brahman was in fact reborn there.

When the Venerable Sariputta returned from the visit, the Master asked him: "Why, Sariputta, while there was more to do, did you set the brahman Dhanañjani's thoughts on the inferior Brahma-world, and then rising from your seat, leave him?" The Venerable Sariputta replied: "I thought: 'These brahmans are bent on the Brahma-world. Should I not show the brahman Dhanañjani the way to the communion with Brahma?"

"The brahman Dhanañjani has died, Sariputta", said the Buddha, "and he has been reborn in the Brahma-world."

This story, which is found in the Dhanañjani Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (97), is interesting as an illustration of the undesirability of rebirth in an inferior Brahma-world for one who is capable of bringing rebirth entirely to an end. For while the Buddha himself sometimes showed only the way to Brahma, as for example in the Tevijja Sutta, it seems probable that in the case of Dhanañjani the Master saw that he was fit to receive a higher teaching, while the Venerable Sariputta, lacking the capacity of knowing others' hearts (lokiya-abhiñña), was not able to discern that fact. The result is that Dhanañjani will spend an incalculable period in the Brahma-world and will have to take human birth again before he can achieve the goal.

The Venerable Sariputta received another gentle reproof when, having asked the Buddha why it was that the Sasana of some of the Buddhas of the past did not last very long, and the Buddha had replied that it was because those Enlightened Ones did not preach very much Dhamma, did not lay down regulations for the disciples, nor institute the recital of the Patimokkha, Sariputta said that it was now time for the Blessed One to promulgate the regulations and to recite the Patimokkha, so that the Holy Life might last for a long period. The Buddha said: "Let it be, Sariputta! the Tathagata himself will know the time for it. The Master will not lay down regulations for the disciples nor recite the Patimokkha until signs of corruption have appeared in the Sangha."[2]

The disciple's concern that the Sasana should endure as long as possible is characteristic of Sariputta; equally characteristic was it of the Buddha that he did not wish to lay down regulations until such time as it was absolutely necessary to do so. He went on to explain that at that time the least-advanced member of the Sangha was a Sotapanna (perhaps a fact of which the Venerable Sariputta was not aware), and therefore it was not yet necessary to lay down the rules of the bhikkhu life.

The Catuma Sutta[3] records another occasion when the great Elder was admonished by the Master. A large number of monks, newly ordained, as the Commentary tell us, by the Venerable Sariputta and Maha Moggallana, had come with the latter to pay their respects to the Buddha for the first time. On arrival they were allotted quarters and started chatting with the resident monks of Catuma. Hearing the noise, the Buddha summoned the resident monks to question them about it, and was told that the commotion was caused by the new arrivals. The text does not say the visiting monks were present at the time, but they must have been, for the Buddha addressed them with the words: "Go away, monks I dismiss you. You should not stay with me."

The newly ordained monks left, but some persons intervened in their behalf and they were allowed to return.

The Buddha then said to the Venerable Sariputta: "What did you think, Sariputta, when I dismissed that group of monks?"

The Venerable Sariputta replied: "I thought: 'The Blessed One wishes to remain unconcerned and to abide in the state of happiness here-and-now; so we too shall remain unconcerned and abide in the state of happiness here-and-now."

"Hold, Sariputta! Do not allow such a thought ever to arise in you again!"

the Buddha said.

Then turning to Maha Moggallana, he put the same question.

"When the Blessed One dismissed those monks,"

replied Maha Moggallana,

"I thought: 'The Blessed One wishes to remain unconcerned and to abide in the state of happiness here-and-now. Then I and the Venerable Sariputta should now look after the community of monks.'"

"Well spoken, Moggallana, well spoken!"

said the Master.

"It is either myself or Sariputta or Moggallana who should look after the community of monks."

The Sutta account is lacking in certain details which would place the story in the proper light necessary for an understanding of all its implications, but it is possible that since the monks who had been dismissed were pupils of Sariputta and Maha Moggallana, the Elder wished to show his displeasure with them and to indicate by his aloofness that they had behaved badly.

Once, when the Buddha was residing at Jetavana, the Venerable Sariputta was the victim of a false accusation. It so happened that at the end of the rains the Elder took leave of the Master and departed with his own retinue of monks on a journey. A large number of monks also took leave of Sariputta, and in dismissing them he addressed those who were known by their personal and family names, by those names. Among them there was a monk who was not known by his personal and family name, but a strong desire arose in him that the Chief Disciple should address him by those names in taking his departure.

In the great throng of monks, however, the Venerable Sariputta did not give him this distinction, and the monk was aggrieved. "He does not greet me as he does the other monks," he thought, and conceived a grudge against Sariputta. At the same time it chanced that the hem of the Elder's robe brushed against him, and this added to his grievance. He approached the Buddha and complained; "Lord, the Venerable Sariputta, doubtless thinking to himself, 'I am the Chief Disciple', struck me a blow that almost damaged my ear. And having done that without so much as begging my pardon, he set out on his journey."

The Buddha summoned Sariputta into his presence. Meanwhile, the Venerable Maha Moggallana and the Venerable Ananda, knowing that a calumny was about to be exposed, summoned all the monks, convoking an assembly. "Approach, venerable sirs!" they called. "When the Venerable Sariputta is face to face with the Master, he will roar the roar of a lion!"[4]

And so it came about. When the Master questioned the great Elder, instead of denying the charge he said: "O Lord, one who is not firmly established in the contemplation of the body with regard to his body, such a one may be able to hurt a fellow monk and leave without apologizing." Then followed the Venerable Sariputta's lion's roar. He compared his freedom from anger and hatred with the patience of the earth which receives all things, clean and unclean; his tranquillity of mind to a bull with severed horns, to a lowly Candala youth, to water, fire and wind, and to the removal of impurity; he compared the oppression he felt from his own body to the oppression of snakes and corpses, and the maintenance of his body to that of fatty excrescences. In nine similes he described his own virtues, and nine times the great earth responded to the words of truth. The entire assembly was moved by the majestic force of his utterance.

As the Elder proclaimed his virtues, remorse filled the monk who had unjustly traduced him. Immediately, he fell at the feet of the Blessed One, admitting his slander and confessing his fault. Thereupon the Buddha said:

"Sariputta, pardon this deluded man, lest his head should split into seven pieces."

Sariputta's reply was:

"Venerable sir, I freely pardon this venerable monk."

And, with joined palms, he added,

"May this venerable monk also pardon me if I have in any way offended him."

In this way they were reconciled. The other monks were filled with admiration, saying:

"See, brethren, the surpassing goodness of the Elder! He cherishes neither anger nor hatred against this lying, slanderous monk! Instead, he crouches before him, stretches his hands in reverence, and asks his pardon."

The Buddha's comment was:

"Bhikkhus, it is impossible for Sariputta and his like to cherish anger or hatred. Sariputta's mind is like the great earth, firm like a gate post, like a pool of still water."

Unresentful like the earth, firm like a gate post,
With mind like a clear pool, such is the virtuous man
For whom the round of births exists no more.[5]

Another incident of this nature, in the early Sangha, did not end so happily, for the calumniator refused to admit his fault. He was a monk named Kokalika, who approached the Buddha with a slander against the two Chief Disciples;

"Sariputta and Moggallana have bad intentions, O Lord!"

he said.

"They are in the grip of evil ambition."

The Master replied:

"Do not say so, Kokalika! Do not say so! Have friendly and trustful thoughts towards Sariputta and Moggallana! They are of good behavior, and lovable!"

But the misguided Kokalika paid no heed to the Buddha's words. He persisted with his false accusation, and soon after that his whole body became covered with boils, which continued to grow until eventually he died of his illness.

This incident was well-known. It is recorded in the following places in the Sutta-pitaka: Brahma Samyutta No. 10; Sutta Nipata, Mahavagga No. 10; Anguttara Nikaya V. 170, and Takkariya Jataka (No. 481). A comparison of these two incidents reveals the importance of penitence. Neither the Venerable Sariputta nor Maha Moggallana bore the monk Kokalika any ill-will for his malice, and his apologies, had he offered them, would have made no difference to the attitude of the two Chief Disciples. But they would have benefited the erring monk himself, averting the consequences of his bad kamma. Evil rebounds upon those who direct it towards the innocent, and so Kokalika was judged and punished by himself, through his own deeds.

Footnotes and references:


A slightly different version of this is found in the Commentary to the Theragatha where it deals with Sariputta's verses.


Parajika Pali, Introductory chapter.


39. Majjh. No. 67.


A "lion's roar" (siha-nada) is a weighty and emphatic utterance, made with assurance.


Dhammapada, v. 95.

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