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 Last Debt Paid

We now come to the year of the Master's Parinibbana. The Blessed One had spent the rainy season at Beluva village,[1] near Vesali, and when the Retreat was over he left that place and, going by the way he had come, returned by stages to Savatthi and arrived at the Jeta Grove Monastery.

There the Elder Sariputta, the Marshal of the Law, paid homage to the Blessed One and went to his day quarters. When his own disciples had saluted him and left, he swept the place and spread his leather mat. Then, having rinsed his feet, he sat down cross-legged and entered into the state of the Fruition Attainment of Arahatship.

At the time predetermined by him, he arose from the meditation, and this thought occurred to him:

"Do the Enlightened Ones have their final passing away first, or the Chief Disciples?"

And he saw that it is the Chief Disciples who pass away first. Thereupon he considered his own life-force, and saw that its residue would sustain him only for another week.

He then considered:

"Where shall I have my final passing away?"

And he thought:

"Rahula finally passed away among the deities of the Thirty-three, and the Elder Kondañña the Knower at the Chaddanta Lake.[2] Where, then, will be my place?"

While thinking this over repeatedly he remembered his mother, and the thought came to him: "Although she is the mother of seven Arahats[3] she has no faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Has she the supportive conditions in her to acquire that faith or has she not?"

Investigating the matter he discerned that she had the supportive conditions for the Path-intuition (abhisamaya) of Stream-entry. Then he asked himself: "Though whose instruction can she win to the penetration of truth?"

And he saw that not through anyone else's but only through his own instruction in the Dhamma, could it come about. And following upon that came the thought:

"If I now remain indifferent, people will say: 'Sariputta has been a helper to so many others; on the day, for instance, when he preached the Discourse to the Deities of Tranquil Mind a large number of devas attained Arahatship, and still more of them penetrated to the first three Paths; and on other occasions there were many who attained to Stream-entry, and there thousands of families who were reborn in heavenly worlds after the Elder had inspired them with joyous confidence in the Triple Gem. Yet despite this he cannot remove the wrong views of his own mother? Thus people may speak of me. Therefore I shall free my mother from her wrong views, and shall have my final passing away in the very chamber where I was born."

Having made that decision, he thought:

"This very day I shall ask the Master's permission and then leave for Nalaka."

And, calling the elder Cunda, who was his attendant, he said:

"Friend Cunda, please ask our group of five hundred bhikkhus to take their bowls and robes, for I wish to go to Nalaka."

And the elder Cunda did as he was bidden.

The bhikkhus put their lodgings in order, took their bowls and robes, and presented themselves before the Elder Sariputta. He, for his own part, had tidied up his living quarters and swept the place where he used to spend the day. Then, standing at the gate, he looked back at the place, thinking:

"This is my last sight of it. There will be no more coming back."

Then, together with the five hundred bhikkhus he went to the Blessed One, saluted him and spoke: "May, O Lord, the Blessed One permit, may the Exalted One consent: the time of my final passing away has come, I have relinquished the life-force.

Lord of the World, O greatest Sage!
From life I soon shall be released.
Going and coming no more shall be;
This is the last time that I worship thee. Short is the life that now remains to me;
But seven days from now, and I shall lay
This body down, throwing the burden off. Grant it, O Master! Give permission, Lord!
At last for me Nibbana's time has come,
Relinquished have I now the will to live."

Now, says the text, if the enlightened One were to have replied, "You may have your final passing away," hostile sectarians would say that he was speaking in praise of death; and if he had replied, "Do not have your final passing away," they would say that he extolled the continuation of the round of existence.

Therefore the Blessed One did not speak in either way, but asked:

"Where will your final passing away take place?"

The Venerable Sariputta replied:

"In the Magadha country, in the village called Nalaka, there in the chamber of my birth shall I finally pass away."

Then the Blessed One said:

"Do, Sariputta, what you think timely. But now your elder and younger brethren in the Sangha will no longer have the chance to see a bhikkhu like you. Give them once more a discourse on Dhamma."

The great Elder then gave a discourse, displaying all his descending to mundane truth, rising again, and again descending, he expounded the Dhamma directly and in symbols. And when he had ended his discourse he paid homage at the feet of the Master. embracing his legs, he said:

"So that I might worship these feet I have fulfilled the Perfections throughout an aeon and a hundred thousand kalpas. My heart's wish has found fulfillment. From now on there will be no more contact or meeting; severed now is that intimate connection. The City of Nibbana, the unaging, undying, peaceful, blissful, heat-assuaging and secure, which has been entered by many hundreds of thousands of Buddhas -- I too shall enter it now."

"If any deed or word of mine did not please you, O Lord, may the Blessed One forgive me! It is now time for me to go."

Now once before, the Buddha had answered this, when he said:

"There is nothing, be it in deeds or words, wherein I should have to reproach you, Sariputta. For you are learned, Sariputta, of great wisdom, of broad and bright, quick, keen and penetrative wisdom."[4]

So now he made answer in the same way:

"I forgive you, Sariputta,"

he said.

"But there was not a single word or deed of yours that was displeasing to me. Do now, Sariputta, what you think timely."

From this we see that on those few occasions when the Master seemed to reproach his Chief Disciple, it was not that he was displeased with him in any way, but rather that he was pointing out another approach to a situation, another way of viewing a problem.

Immediately after the master had given his permission and the Venerable Sariputta had risen from paying homage at his feet, the Great Earth cried out, and with a single huge tremor shook to its watery boundaries. It was as though the Great Earth wished to say: "Though I bear these girdling mountain ranges with Mount Meru, the encircling mountain walls (cakkavala) and the Himavant, I cannot sustain on this day so vast an accumulation of virtue!" And mighty thunder split the heavens, a vast cloud appeared and heavy rain poured down.

Then the Blessed One thought:

"I shall now permit the Marshal of the Law to depart."

and he rose from the seat of the Law, went to his Perfumed Cell and there stood on the Jewel Slab. Three times the Venerable Sariputta circumambulated the cell, keeping it to his right, and paid reverence at four places. And this thought was in his mind:

"an aeon and a hundred thousand kalpas ago it was, when I fell down at the feet of the Buddha Anomadassi and made the aspiration to see you. This aspiration has been realized, and I have seen you. At the first meeting it was my first sight of you; now it is my last, and there will be none in the future."

And with raised hands joined in salutation he departed, going backwards until the Blessed One was out of sight. And yet again the Great Earth, unable to bear it, trembled to its watery boundaries.

The Blessed One then addressed the bhikkhus who surrounded him.

"Go, bhikkhus,"

he said.

"Accompany your elder brother."

At these words, all the four assemblies of devotees at once went out of the Jeta Grove, leaving the Blessed One there alone. The citizens of Savatthi also, having heard the news, went out of the city in an unending stream carrying incense and flowers in their hands; and with their hair wet (the sign of mourning), they followed the Elder lamenting and weeping.

The Venerable Sariputta then admonished the crowd, saying:

"This is a road that none can avoid,"

and asked them to return. And to the monks who had accompanied him, he said:

"You may turn back now! Do not neglect the Master!"

Thus he made them go back, and with only his own group of disciples, he continued on his way. Yet still some of the people followed him, lamenting.

"Formerly our Venerable went on journeys and returned. But this is a journey without return!"

To them the Elder said:

"Be heedful, friends! Of such nature, indeed, are all things that are formed and conditioned!"

And he made them turn back.

During his journey the Venerable Sariputta spent one night wherever he stopped, and thus for one week he favored many people with a last sight of him. Reaching Nalaka village in the evening, he stopped near a banyan tree at the village gate. It happened that at the time a nephew of the elder, Uparevata by name, had gone outside the village and there he saw the Venerable Sariputta. He approached the elder, saluted him, and remained standing.

The Elder asked him:

"Is your grand-aunt at home?"
"Yes, venerable sir,"

he replied.

"Then go and announce our coming,"

said the Elder.

"And if she asks why I have come, tell her that I shall stay in the village for one day, and ask her to prepare my birth chamber and provide lodgings for five hundred bhikkhus."

Uparevata went to his grand-aunt and said: "Grandaunt, my uncle has come."

"Where is he now?"

she asked.

"At the village gate."

"Is he alone, or has someone else come with him?"

"He has come with five hundred bhikkhus."

And when she asked him,

"Why has he come?"

He gave her the message the elder had entrusted to him. Then she thought:

"Why does he ask me to provide lodgings for so many? After becoming a monk in his youth, does he want to be a layman again in his old age?"

But she arranged the birth chamber for the Elder and lodgings for the bhikkhus, had torches lit and then sent for the Elder.

The Venerable Sariputta then, accompanied by the bhikkhus, went up to the terrace of the house and entered his birth chamber. After seating himself, he asked the bhikkhus to go to their quarters. They had hardly left, when a grave illness, dysentery, fell upon the Elder, and he felt severe pains. When one pail was brought in, another was carried out. The brahman lady thought:

"The news of my son is not good,"

and she stood leaning by the door of her own room.

And then it happened, the text tells us, that the Four Great Divine Kings asked themselves:

"Where may he now be dwelling, the Marshal of the Law?"

And they perceived that he was at Nalaka, in his birth chamber, lying on the bed of his Final Passing Away.

"Let us go for a last sight of him,"

they said.

When they reached the birth chamber, they saluted the Elder and remained standing.

"Who are you?"

asked the Elder.

"We are the Great Divine Kings, venerable sir."

"Why have you come?"

"We want to attend on you during your illness."

"Let it be!"

said the Venerable Sariputta.

"There is an attendant here. You may go."

When they had left, there came in the same manner Sakka the king of the gods, and after him, Maha Brahma, and all of them the elder dismissed in the same way.

The brahman lady, seeing the coming and going of these deities, asked herself:

"Who could they have been, who came and paid homage to my son, and then left?"

And she went to the door of the elder's room and asked the Venerable Cunda for news about the Elder's condition. Cunda conveyed the inquiry to the Elder, telling him:

"The Great Upasika (lay devotee) has come."

The Venerable Sariputta asked her:

"Why have you come at this unusual hour?"

"To see you, dear,"

she replied.

"Tell me, who were those who came first?"

"The Four Great Divine Kings, upasika."

"Are you, then, greater than they?"

she asked.

"They are like temple attendants,"

said the Elder.

"Ever since our Master took rebirth they have stood guard over him with swords in hand."

"After they had left, who was it that came then, dear?"

"It was Sakka the king of the gods."

"Are you then, greater than the king of gods, dear?"

"He is like a novice who carries a bhikkhu's belongings,"

answered Sariputta.

"When our Master returned from the heaven of the Thirty-three (Tavatimsa), Sakka took his bowl and robe and descended to earth together with him."

"And when Sakka had gone, who was it that came after him, filling the room with his radiance?"

"Upasika, that was your own Lord and Master, the Great Brahma."

"Then are you greater, my son, even than my Lord, the Great Brahma?"

"Yes, Upasika. On the day when our Master was born, it is said that four Great Brahmas received the Great Being in a golden net."

Upon hearing this, the brahman lady thought:

"If my son's power is such as this, what must be the majestic power of my son's Master and Lord?"

And while she was thinking this, suddenly the fivefold rapture arose in her, suffusing her entire body.

The Elder thought:

"Rapture and joy have arisen in my mother. Now is the time to preach the Dhamma to her."

And he said:

"What was it you were thinking about, upasika?"

"I was thinking,"

she replied,

"if my son has such virtue, what must be the virtue of his Master?"

The Venerable Sariputta answered:

"At the moment of my Master's birth, at his Great Renunciation (of worldly life), on his attaining Enlightenment and at his first turning of the Dhamma Wheel -- on all these occasions the ten thousand world-system quaked and shook. None is there who equals him in virtue, in concentration, in wisdom, in deliverance, and in the knowledge and vision of deliverance."

And he then explained to her in detail the words of homage:

"Such indeed is that Blessed One..." (Iti pi so Bhagava...).

And thus he gave her an exposition of the Dhamma, basing it on the virtues of the Buddha.

When the Dhamma talk given by her beloved son had come to an end, the brahman lady was firmly established in the Fruition of Stream-entry, and she said:

"Oh, my dear Upatissa, why did you act like that? Why, during all these years, did you not bestow on me this ambrosia (the knowledge of the Deathless)?"

The Elder thought:

"Now I have given my mother, the brahman lady Rupa-Sari, the nursing-fee for bringing me up. This should suffice."

and he dismissed her with the words:

"You may go now, upasika."

When she was gone, he asked:

"What is the time now, Cunda?"

"Venerable sir, it is early dawn."

And the Elder said:

"Let the community of bhikkhus assemble."

When the bhikkhus had assembled, he said to Cunda:

"Lift me up to a sitting position, Cunda."

And Cunda did so.

Then the Elder spoke to the bhikkhus, saying:

"For forty-four years I have lived and traveled with you, my brethren. If any deed or word of mine was unpleasant to you, forgive me, brethren."

And they replied:

"Venerable sir, not the least displeasure has ever come from you to us, who followed you inseparably like your shadow. But may you, venerable sir, grant forgiveness to us!"

After that the Elder gathered his large robe around him, covered his face and lay down on his right side. Then, just as the Master was to do at his Maha Parinibbana, he entered into the nine successive attainments of meditation, in forward and reverse order, and beginning again with the first absorption he led his meditation up to the fourth absorption. And at the moment after he had entered it, just as the crest of the rising sun appeared over the horizon, he utterly passed away into the Nibbana-element which is without any remnant of clinging.

And it was the full-moon day of the month Kattika, which by the solar calendar is between October and November.

The brahman lady in her room thought:

"How is my son? he does not say anything."

She rose, and going into the Elder's room she massaged his legs. Then, seeing that he had passed away, she fell at his feet, loudly lamenting;

"O my dear son! Before this, we did not know of your virtue. Because of that, we did not gain the good fortune to have seated in this house, and to feed, many a hundred bhikkhus! We did not gain the good fortune to have built many monasteries!"

And she lamented thus up to sunrise.

As soon as the sun was up, she sent for goldsmiths and had the treasure room opened and had the pots full of gold weighed on a large scale. Then she gave the gold to the goldsmiths with the order to prepare funeral ornaments. Columns and arches were erected, and in the center of the village the upasika had a pavilion of heart-wood built. In the middle of the pavilion a large, gabled structure was raised, surrounded by a parapet wall of golden arches and columns. Then they began the sacred ceremony, in which men and deities mingled.

After the great assembly of people had celebrated the sacred rites for a full week, they made a pyre with many kinds of fragrant woods. They placed the body of the Venerable Sariputta on the pyre and kindled the wood with bundles of Usira roots. Throughout the night of the cremation the concourse listened to sermons on the Dhamma. After that the flames of the pyre were extinguished by the Elder Anuruddha with scented water. The Elder Cunda gathered together the relics and placed them in a filter cloth.

Then the Elder Cunda thought:

"I cannot tarry here any longer. I must tell the Fully Enlightened One of the final passing away of my elder brother, the Venerable Sariputta, the Marshal of the Law."

So he took the filter cloth with the relics, and the Venerable Sariputta's almsbowl and robes, and went to Savatthi, spending only one night at each stage of the journey.

These are the events released in the Commentary to the Cunda Sutta of the Satipatthana Samyutta, with additions from the parallel version in the Commentary to the Maha-parinibbana Sutta. The narrative is taken up in the Cunda Sutta which follows.

Footnotes and references:


See Maha-parinibbana Sutta, Ch. II (Last Days of the Buddha, Wheel No. 67/69, p. 26). It was during his stay at Beluva that the Master fell gravely ill.


In the Himalayas.


Sariputta himslef and his younger brothers and sisters.


Vangisa Samy., No. 7.

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