In a small town named Kolita, near Rājagaha, capital of the kingdom of Magadha, a child was born who was destined to become the second chief disciple of the Buddha.1 The boy’s parents named him Kolita, after the town. The family belonged to the Moggallāna clan, one of the most illustrious brahmin clans of the period, which claimed direct descent from the ancient Vedic seer Mudgala. The town was inhabited entirely by brahmins, and in its religious attitudes and social customs it was extremely conservative.
Kolita’s father was born of the most prominent family, from which the town’s mayor was usually appointed. Being a member of such a high caste and of the town’s most respected family, his father was almost a petty king. Thus Kolita was raised in an environment of wealth and honour, and his favourable circumstances shielded him from direct contact with the sorrows of life. He was educated entirely in the brahmanic tradition, which upheld the belief in the reality of an afterlife and in the law of kamma and its fruits. These beliefs permeated the everyday life of the brahmins and determined the form and content of their rituals, which governed all aspects of their lives. Kolita’s family lived on very friendly terms with another brahmin family from a neighbouring village.
On the very day of Kolita’s birth, a son was born to this other family, whom they named Upatissa. When the children grew up they became fast friends and before long were inseparable. Whatever they did, they did together, whether it was play or study, pleasure or work. Always the two boys were seen together, and their undisturbed friendship was to last until the end of their lives. In their temperaments the two were quite different. Upatissa was more adventuresome, daring, and enterprising, while Kolita’s tendency was to preserve, to cultivate, and to enrich what he had gained.
Their places within their families were also different: Kolita was the only child, but Upatissa had three brothers and three sisters. Yet, despite the differences in their characters, they never quarrelled or came into conflict but always dwelt on amicable terms, maintaining a steadfast loyalty and self-sacrificing devotion. To both youths, their friendship meant so much and filled their daily life to such an extent that they displayed little interest in the opposite sex. Nevertheless, like other young men of their background—wealthy and high ranking brahmins—the two friends were enamoured with the intoxications of youth, health, and life. Each was the leader of a group of friends with whom he engaged in play and sport.
When they went to the river, Kolita’s companions came on horseback and those of Upatissa were carried in palanquins. Each year Rājagaha hosted a grand public celebration called the Hilltop Festival, which featured popular shows and amusements. The two friends looked forward to this event with keen anticipation and reserved seats from which they could comfortably watch the entertainment, a mixture of folk comedies and old legends. On the first day of the festival they were fully engrossed in the entertainment. When there was something to laugh at, they joined in the laughter; and when there was something exciting, they became excited. They enjoyed the show so much that they returned on the second day and closely followed all the performances. Inexplicably, however, far from satisfying them, the entertainment left them with a deep feeling of discontent.
Nevertheless, they made reservations for the third day too, as a new program had been announced in glowing terms. That night strange thoughts haunted their hearts and disturbed their sleep. As Kolita tossed and turned in his bed, he kept on asking himself: “What is the use to us of this frivolity? Is there anything here really worth seeing? What benefit comes from a life devoted to enjoyment and pleasure seeking? After a few years, these glamorous actors will all be old and feeble; they will leave the stage of life and continue their migrations through existence, driven on by craving, and we too will also have to move on. These actors cannot even help themselves to solve the problem of existence. How then can they help us? Instead of wasting our time with these festivities we should seek a path to deliverance!”
Upatissa, too, had spent a restless night, disturbed by quite similar thoughts. He reflected how the ancient myths and legends dramatized in those performances presupposed the reality of rebirth; but the jokes and frolics overlaying those ideas in the plays insinuated that one need be concerned with this present life alone. Was this not an artificial suppression of truth by pretence and vain illusions?
The next morning, when they took their seats, Kolita said to his friend: “What is the matter with you? You are not your usual merry self. Is something troubling you?” His friend replied: “Last night, while I lay in bed, I kept on asking myself, ‘What is the use to us of all these pleasures of eye and ear? They are absolutely worthless! Shouldn’t we rather seek to find release from the devastating law of impermanence, to liberate ourselves from the fleeting illusions of life, which lure us on yet leave us empty?’ That is what has been weighing on my mind. But you, too, dear Kolita, seem morose today.” Kolita replied: “I have been thinking exactly the same thoughts. Why should we stay here any longer, in this unholy vanity show? We should seek the way to deliverance!”
When Upatissa heard that his friend had the very same wish, he happily exclaimed: “That was a good thought that came to us both, independent of each other. We have wasted our time long enough with worthless frivolities. But if we earnestly seek a teaching of deliverance, we shall have to give up home and possessions and go forth as homeless wanderers, free of worldly and sensual bonds, rising above them like birds on the wing.” So the two friends decided to undertake the life of ascetics— homeless mendicants who then wandered along the roads of India, as they still do now, in search of a spiritual teacher, a guru who could guide them to the liberating knowledge of enlightenment.
When they told their followers about their decision, these young men were so deeply impressed that most decided to join their friends in their spiritual quest. So all of them said farewell to their families, took off the sacred brahmanic thread, cut off their hair and beards, and put on the pale saffron garments of religious wanderers. Discarding all distinguishing marks and privileges of their caste, they entered the classless society of ascetics.
WANDERING AND SPIRITUAL SEARCH
At about the same time that Prince Siddhattha, the future Buddha, married—and thus for the time at least stepped more deeply into worldly life—the two friends Kolita and Upatissa left behind their homes and embarked upon the difficult quest for inner peace and salvation. Together with their retinues, they began a period of training under a spiritual teacher, just as the Bodhisatta did later. At that time, northern India teemed with spiritual teachers and philosophers whose views ranged from the demonic to the superdivine. Some taught amoralism, others fatalism, still others materialism. Both friends realized the hollowness of such teachings early enough and thus felt no attraction towards them. In Rājagaha, however, there was one teacher who appealed to them.
His name was Sañjaya, who, according to tradition, was identical with Sañjaya Belaṭṭhaputta, mentioned in the Pāli Canon as one of six non-Buddhist teachers. Under him the group of friends were ordained, which added considerably to Sañjaya’s reputation. The texts do not give us detailed information about Sañjaya’s teachings, but from a number of brief indications we can roughly reconstruct the substance of his doctrine. Unlike other ascetic teachers who made definite dogmatic statements about specific topics, Sañjaya maintained a rigorous scepticism in regard to the deep existential problems with which the thinkers of the period wrestled.
He formulated this scepticism around the chief questions debated by his philosophical contemporaries: Is there another world beyond the visible order? After the death of this material body, does one appear in the world beyond by way of a purely mental birth process as a spontaneously arisen being? Will the good and bad actions one has performed in this present existence bear good and bad fruits in the next life? What, finally, is the destiny of a Tathāgata or Perfect One after death? How are we to conceive and describe his post-mortem condition? Whenever such questions were raised by the Indian thinkers of this period, four alternative types of answers were thought possible: affirmation, negation, partial affirmation and partial negation, and neither affirmation nor negation. Sañjaya, however, taught that with regard to the questions mentioned, none of those four positions was acceptable as a solution; they all contained unresolvable contradictions or antinomies, and therefore, he held, one should refrain from any judgment about these problems.
Here it may be noted that, of the four sets of antinomies which often occur in the Pāli scriptures (e.g., at MN 63 and MN 72), only the fourth set is identical with Sañjaya’s problems, namely, the one concerning the after-death state of a Perfect One. While other ascetic teachers always advocated one of the four logical alternatives as a solution to these problems—yes, no, yes and no, neither yes nor no—Sañjaya did not commit himself to any of them. He especially did not commit himself dogmatically to the unprovable assertion (made, for instance, by popular natural science) that there is no world beyond, no mind-made (astral) body, no law of kamma, and no survival after death. In that attitude, he clearly differed from the materialists of his time. He taught rather that, in view of the unresolvable nature of these problems, one should keep to a stance of detachment and impartiality, not tolerating the slightest bias toward approval or disapproval of any of these theories and their consequences.
From this we can see that he was a confirmed agnostic who tried to develop a consistent scepticism built upon a recognition of the dialectic tensions inherent in speculative thought. In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, the king of Magadha, Ajātasattu, reported to the Buddha the following talk he had with the ascetic Sañjaya. Although this account may reflect the way the Buddhists understood Sañjaya rather than his own way of formulating his doctrine, it offers us a glimpse into his philosophical stance: One day I went to Sañjaya of the Belaṭṭha clan and I asked him: “Can you, sir, declare to me an immediate fruit, visible in this very world, of the life of a recluse?” Being thus asked, Sañjaya said: “If you ask me whether there is another world—well, if I thought there were, I would say so. But I don’t say so. And I don’t think it is thus or thus. And I don’t think it is otherwise. And I don’t deny it. And I don’t say there neither is nor is not another world. And if you ask me whether there are beings reborn spontaneously; or whether there is any fruit, any result, of good or bad actions; or whether a Tathāgata exists or not after death—to each and all of these questions do I give the same reply.”
Thus, Lord, when asked about the immediate fruit and advantage in the life of a recluse, Sañjaya of the Belaṭṭha clan showed his manner of prevarication. Kolita and Upatissa initially must have felt that Sañjaya’s philosophy was something more than mere evasion. Not having met a better teacher, they were probably attracted to him because of his apparent freedom from dogmatism and his dialectical skills. After a short time, however, they clearly realized that Sañjaya could not offer them what they were really searching for: a cure for the illness of universal suffering. Besides, we may suppose that by reason of their mental formations from past existences they must have intuitively felt that there actually was another world, that there were mind-born beings (e.g., deities), and that there was moral recompense of actions. In this respect their understanding went beyond that of their sceptical teacher.
Hence one day the two friends approached Sañjaya and asked him whether he had still other teachings more advanced than those they had already learned from him. To this he replied: “That is all. You know my entire teaching.” Hearing this, they decided to leave and to continue their search elsewhere. After all, they had not left their families for the sake of endless and futile agnostic arguments but to find a path to final deliverance from suffering. Thus, for a second time, they took up the life of wanderers in search of truth. They walked across India for many years, from north to south, from east to west.
They endured the dust of the road and the tormenting heat, the rain and the wind, spurred on by thoughts that moved deep within the Indian soul: “I am a victim of birth, aging and death, of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. I am a victim of suffering, a prey of suffering. Surely, an end to this whole mass of suffering can be discovered!” (MN 29). In their travels they met many ascetics and brahmins who were reputed to be exceptionally wise. With them they had religious discussions on God and the world, on heaven and hell, on the meaning of life and the way to salvation. But with their keen and critical minds trained by Sañjaya’s scepticism, they very soon realized the emptiness of all those assertions and the learned ignorance of these philosophers. None of these teachers could answer their probing questions, while the two friends themselves were quite able to reply when questioned.
The records do not tell us who their other teachers were, but it would be surprising if the two truth-seekers had not met such mystics and sages as, for instance, Bāvari, a seer of great meditative power, or Ā¿āra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, the two teachers of formless infinity under whom the Bodhisatta had studied. From their life story, however, one thing is clear: until they encountered the Buddha the two had failed to find even the tracks of a path to the worldtranscending experience of liberation. What may have been the reason? Spiritual seekers at the time of the Buddha pursued either of two aims: to gain inner peace and serenity by deep meditation (samādhi) or to acquire a clear view of the ultimate meaning of existence. Those who sought to understand the nature of existence generally proceeded through speculative flights of the intellect and tended to spurn the path of meditative absorption. In contrast, those who had achieved inner peace through the meditative path for the most part remained content with their attainment, believing this to be the final goal.
Lacking the guidance of a Buddha, they did not even suspect that this meditative peace, so tranquil and sublime, was still mundane and thus merely a force of kammic construction within the cycle of repeated birth and death. Their meditative attainments would bring them a blissful rebirth in one of the supersensual Brahma-worlds, where the life span is inconceivably longer than in the sensual world; but eventually such kammic force would be depleted, followed by a rebirth elsewhere, leaving the meditators in the same saṃsāric imprisonment as before. In their former lives as meditating hermits, this must have happened often to the Bodhisatta as well as to Kolita and Upatissa. This is one aspect of existential misery, of prisonlike ignorance: either, like the mystics, one settles down at the gate, regarding it as one’s true home of peace and bliss; or, like the speculative thinkers, one bypasses it quickly and becomes lost within the labyrinths of the intellect.
Though the two friends had no recollection of jhānic experiences from previous lives, they obviously had an intuitive feeling that meditative bliss and its rewards were not the final goal but only a temporary relief within the continuing cycle of suffering. Hence their foremost quest was for clarity about the concatenation of existence, for understanding how things hang together in the complex web of saṃsāra. In ages devoid of a Buddha’s appearance, their search would have been as futile as the recurring attainment, enjoyment, and loss of samādhi. It may have been an undefinable inner urge within them that did not allow them to rest until they had found the Enlightened One who, like them, had gone forth in search of liberation during the last years of their own quest.
If even the Bodhisatta, the future Buddha, could discover how to integrate meditative absorption with penetrating insight only when he reached a critical impasse in his own spiritual search, it was not to be expected that the two friends on their own could find the subtle key to mind’s emancipation, for they had neither the wide meditative experience nor the far-reaching independent mental range of a Buddha. In retrospect, the friends’ wandering in search of truth was just a running in circles, which would end only when their uncompromising integrity and insatiable thirst for truth finally led them to the feet of the Enlightened One.
FINDING THE DHAMMA
Without knowing anything of the Buddha, the two friends gave up their life of wandering and returned to their home country of Magadha. Both were about forty years of age. Despite their many disappointments they still had not given up hope. Having made a pact that the one who found a genuine path to the Deathless first would quickly inform the other, they set out on their search separately, thereby doubling their chances of meeting a competent spiritual guide. It was shortly before this happened that the Buddha had set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma at Benares, and after his first rains retreat he sent out his first batch of disciples, sixty arahants, to proclaim the Dhamma for the well-being and happiness of the world.
The Buddha himself had gone to Rājagaha, where the king of Magadha soon became his follower and donated to him the Bamboo Grove Monastery. He was living at that monastery when Kolita and Upatissa returned to Rājagaha, where they were offered accommodations at Sañjaya’s place. One day Upatissa had gone to the town while Kolita had stayed at their dwelling. When Kolita saw his friend returning in the afternoon, he was struck with awe at the change in his friend’s manner. Never before had he seen him so beatific; his entire being seemed to have been transformed, and his face shone with a sublime radiance.
Eagerly Kolita asked him: “Your features are so serene, dear friend, and your complexion is so bright and clear. Have you found the way to the Deathless?” Upatissa then replied: “It is so, dear friend, the Deathless has been found.” He then reported what had happened. In town, he had seen a monk whose behaviour impressed him so deeply that he was immediately convinced he was an arahant, or at least one well advanced on the path to arahantship. He approached him and started a conversation. The monk, whose name was Assaji, replied that he was a disciple of the ascetic Gotama of the Sakyan clan, whom he referred to as “the Enlightened One.”
When Upatissa begged him to explain his teacher’s doctrine, Assaji modestly said that he was only a beginner and could not explain it in detail, but he could briefly tell him the gist of the teaching. When Upatissa assured him that he would be satisfied with that, Assaji recited a short stanza that summed up the main points—a stanza that in the centuries and millennia to follow was to become famous wherever the Buddha’s Teaching spread: Of those things that arise from a cause, The Tathāgata has told the cause, And also what their cessation is: This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse. When Assaji spoke this stanza, right on the spot there arose in Upatissa the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “All that has the nature of arising has the nature of cessation.” And the very same thing happened to Kolita when Upatissa repeated the stanza to him. Such sudden experiences of enlightenment may fascinate us and baffle us, particularly when they are triggered by sayings that to us seem so opaque and enigmatic. But the power of the Dhamma to ignite realization of ultimate truth is proportional to the receptivity and earnestness of the disciple. For those who have long trained themselves in the disciplines of contemplation and renunciation, who have reflected deeply upon the impermanent and the Deathless, and who are ready to relinquish everything for the sake of final deliverance, even a concise four-line stanza can reveal more truth than volumes of systematic exposition.
The two friends Upatissa and Kolita were amply endowed with these qualifications. Single-minded in their quest for final freedom, they had learned to investigate things solely in terms of the conditioned and the unconditioned, and their faculties were ripe to the bursting point. All they lacked was the key to direct insight. Assaji’s stanza was that key. Having swiftly cut through the subtle screens of ignorance that covered their mental eyes, in a flash it bestowed on them the first vision of the Deathless. They had penetrated the Four Noble Truths and seen the Uncreated, Nibbāna, beyond the transience of phenomenal existence where death ever reigns. They now stood securely in the stream of the Dhamma (sotāpatti), assured that the goal was within their grasp.
After Kolita had listened to that potent stanza, he asked at once where the Great Ascetic, the Tathāgata, was staying. Hearing that he was staying not far away at the Bamboo Grove Monastery, he wished to go there immediately, but Upatissa asked him to wait, saying, “Let us first go to Sañjaya and tell him that we have found the Deathless. If he can understand, he is sure to make progress toward the truth. But if he cannot comprehend at once, he may perhaps have confidence enough to join us when we go to see the Master. Then, on listening to the Buddha himself, he will certainly understand.”
Thus the friends went to their former Master and said: “Listen, teacher, listen! A Fully Enlightened One has appeared in the world.
Well proclaimed is his teaching, and his monks live the fully purified life. Come with us to see him!” Sañjaya, however, declined their invitation, but instead offered to share with them the leadership of his community. “If you will accept my offer,” he said, “you will enjoy abundant gain and fame and you will be held in the highest respect.” But the two friends would not swerve from their course and firmly replied, “We would not mind remaining pupils for life, but you should make up your mind now, as our own decision is final.” Sañjaya, however, torn by indecision, lamented: “I cannot go! For so many years I have been a teacher and have had a large following of disciples. If I were to become a pupil again, it would be as if a mighty lake were to change into a pitcher!” Thus conflicting motives contended within his heart: on one side, his longing for truth, on the other the desire to preserve his superior status. But the latter prevailed, and he stayed behind.
At that time, Sañjaya had about five hundred disciples. When they learned that the two friends had decided to follow the Buddha, spontaneously all of them wanted to join. But when they noticed that Sañjaya would not go, half of them wavered and returned to their teacher. Sañjaya, seeing that he had lost so many of his disciples, was so stricken by grief and despair that, as the texts tell us, “hot blood spurted from his mouth.”
THE STRUGGLE FOR REALIZATION OF THE TEACHING
Now the two friends, at the head of 250 fellow ascetics, approached the Bamboo Grove. There the Buddha was teaching the Dhamma to his monks, and when he saw the two friends approaching, he announced: “Here, monks, they are coming, the two friends, Kolita and Upatissa. They will be my chief disciples, a blessed pair!” Having arrived, the whole company respectfully saluted the Buddha, raised their joined palms to the forehead, and bowed at his feet. Then the two friends spoke: “May we be permitted, Lord, to obtain under the Blessed One the going forth and the full admission?” Then the Blessed One responded: “Come, monks, well proclaimed is the Dhamma. Live now the holy life for making an end of suffering!” These brief words served to bestow ordination on the two friends and their following.
From that point on the texts refer to Upatissa by the name Sāriputta, “the son of Sāri,” after the name of his mother, and to Kolita as Mahāmoggallāna, “Moggallāna the Great,” to distinguish him from others of the same brahmanic clan, such as Gaṇaka Moggallāna and Gopaka Moggallāna. After all of them had obtained ordination, the Buddha addressed the 250 disciples and explained to them the Teaching in such a way that before long they attained to the first stage of emancipation, stream-entry, and in due course all became arahants except Sāriputta and Moggallāna.
These two went into solitude, in separate places, to continue their striving for the highest goal. Sāriputta remained in the vicinity of Rājagaha and went to meditate in a cave called the Boar’s Den. From there he walked to the city for his alms, which often gave him the opportunity to listen to the Buddha’s discourses. What he heard from the Master he independently worked over in his own mind and he methodically penetrated to clear understanding of the fundamental nature of phenomena. He needed fourteen days to reach arahantship, the utter destruction of all cankers (āsavakkhaya).
Moggallāna, however, for reasons not specified in the texts, resorted to a forest near the village of Kallavālaputta in Magadha. With great zeal, he meditated there while sitting or walking up and down, but despite his determination he was often overcome by sleepiness. Though he struggled to keep his body erect and his head upright, he kept on drooping and nodding. There were times when he could keep his eyes open only by sheer force of will. The tropical heat, the strain of his long years of a wandering life, and the inner tensions he had gone through all bore down on him at once, and thus, at the very end of his quest, his body reacted by fatigue.
But the Awakened One, with a great teacher’s solicitude for his disciples, did not lose sight of him. With his supernormal vision he perceived the difficulties of the new monk, and by psychic power he appeared before him. When Moggallāna saw the Master standing before him, a good part of his fatigue had already vanished. Now the Awakened One asked him: “Are you nodding, Moggallāna, are you nodding?” “Yes, Lord.” “Well then, Moggallāna, at whatever thought drowsiness descends upon you, you should not give attention to that thought or dwell on it. Then, by doing so, it is possible that your drowsiness will vanish. But if, by doing so, drowsiness does not vanish, then you should reflect upon the Teaching as you have heard it and learned it, you should ponder over it and examine it closely in your mind.
Then, by doing so, it is possible that your drowsiness will vanish. But if, by doing so, drowsiness does not vanish, then you should repeat in full detail the Teaching as you have heard it and learned it…you should pull both ear-lobes and rub your limbs with your hands…you should get up from your seat and, after washing your eyes with water, you should look around in all directions and upwards to the stars and constellations…you should give attention to the perception of light, to the perception of day: as by day so by night, as by night so by day; thus, with your mind clear and unclouded, you should cultivate a mind that is full of brightness…with your senses turned inward and your mind not straying outward, you should walk up and down, being aware of going to and fro.
Then, by doing so, it is possible that your drowsiness will vanish. But if, by doing so, drowsiness does not vanish, you may, mindfully and clearly aware, lie down lion-like on your right side, placing foot on foot, keeping in mind the thought of rising; and on awakening, you should quickly get up, thinking, ‘I must not indulge in the comfort of resting and reclining, in the pleasure of sleep.’ “Thus, Moggallāna, should you train yourself.”
Here the Buddha gives Moggallāna a graded sequence of advice on how to overcome drowsiness. The first and best device is not to pay attention to the thought causing or preceding the state of drowsiness. This, however, is the most difficult method. If one does not succeed with it, one may summon some energizing thoughts or one may reflect upon the excellence of the Teaching, or recite parts of it by heart. If these mental remedies do not help, one should turn to bodily activity such as, for instance, pulling one’s ears, shaking the body, activating the circulation by rubbing one’s limbs, refreshing one’s eyes with cold water, and, at night, looking at the grandeur of the starry sky. This may make one forget one’s petty drowsiness. If these measures are of no avail, then one may try to arouse an inner vision of light, suffusing the entire mind with luminosity. With this self-radiant mind, one will then be able to leave behind, like a Brahmā deity, the whole realm of days and nights as perceived by the senses.
This line of advice suggests that Moggallāna had experienced such states before, so that the Buddha could refer to them as something known to Moggallāna. This “perception of light” (ālokasaññā) is mentioned in the texts as one of four ways of developing samādhi and as leading to “knowledge and vision” (ñāṇadassana) (DN 33).
If this method, too, does not help, one should walk up and down mindfully, and thus, by resorting to bodily movement, try to get rid of fatigue. If, however, none of these seven devices proves helpful, one may just lie down and rest for a short while. But as soon as one feels refreshed, one should quickly get up, without allowing drowsiness to return. The Buddha’s instruction on that occasion, however, did not stop here, but continued as follows: Further, Moggallāna, you should train yourself in this way. You should think, “When calling at families (on the alms round), I shall not be given to pride.” Thus should you train yourself. For in families it may happen that people are busy with work and may not notice that a monk has come.
Then a monk (if given to pride) may think, “Who, I wonder, has estranged me from this family? These people seem to be displeased with me.” Thus, by not receiving an offering from them, he is perturbed; being perturbed he becomes excited; being excited he loses self-control; and if he is uncontrolled, his mind will be far from finding concentration. Further, Moggallāna, you should train yourself in this way: “I shall not speak contentious talk.” Thus should you train yourself. If there is contentious talk, there is sure to be much wordiness; with much wordiness, there will be excitement; one who is excited will lose self-control; and if he is uncontrolled, his mind will be far from finding concentration. Here the Buddha points out two kinds of behaviour that lead to excitement and restlessness. I
In the first case, the monk is proud of his status and counts on respect from the laity, but if the laypeople pay more attention to their own business than to him, he becomes perturbed and falls away from concentration. In the other case, he takes intellectual delight in discussions, becomes aroused by differences of opinion, and finds pleasure in defeating others in debate. By all this, his mental energy is diverted into futile and unprofitable channels. If one cannot keep one’s senses under control, or easily allows one’s mind to become excited or diverted, one grows slack and careless in the practice and thus cannot find the unification of mind and inner peace to be obtained in meditation.
After the Buddha had given him these instructions on the overcoming of drowsiness and the avoidance of excitement, Moggallāna asked the following question:“In what way, Lord, can it be briefly explained how a monk becomes liberated by the elimination of craving; how he becomes one who has reached the final end, the final security from bondage, the final holy life, the final consummation, and is foremost among devas and humans?”
“Here, Moggallāna, a monk has learned this: ‘Nothing is fit to be clung to!’ When a monk has learnt that nothing is fit to be clung to, he directly knows everything; by directly knowing everything, he fully comprehends everything; when he fully comprehends everything, whatever feeling he experiences, be it pleasant, painful, or neutral, he abides contemplating impermanence in these feelings, contemplating dispassion, contemplating cessation, contemplating relinquishment. When thus abiding, he does not cling to anything in the world; without clinging he is not agitated; and without agitation he personally attains the complete extinction of defilements. He knows: ‘Rebirth has ceased, the holy life has been lived, the task has been done, there is no more of this or that state.’”
After Moggallāna had received all these personal instructions of the Master (as recorded in AN 7:58), he resumed his training with great ardour, fighting vigorously against the inner hindrances of the mind. During his many years of ascetic life he already had, to a great extent, suppressed sensual desire and ill will, the first and the second of the five hindrances. Now, with the help given by the Buddha, he fought against sloth-and-torpor and restlessness-and-worry, the third and fourth hindrances. By overcoming these hindrances he was able to attain meditative states transcending the world of material form, which prepared the way for the penetrative knowledge of reality. He first attained and enjoyed the overwhelming bliss of the first jhāna, a state of profound absorption and concentration. Yet, gradually, some worldly thoughts arose and claimed his attention, dragging him down to the level of sensory consciousness.
The Buddha came to his aid, this time, however, not with detailed instructions as before, but with a brief indication that helped him to break through the impasse. The Exalted One warned him that he should not light-heartedly believe himself to be secure in the attainment of the first jhāna, but should strive to master it and bring it fully under his control. When Moggallāna followed this advice he became proficient in the first jhāna and could no longer be disturbed by mundane thoughts. Having thus gained a firm footing in the first jhāna, he next gained the second jhāna, which is called “the noble silence” (SN 21:1) because within this absorption all discursive thought is silenced. Thus, in stages, he advanced to the fourth jhāna.
From there he proceeded still further in the scale of concentration to the four formless or immaterial absorptions (arūpajjhāna) and the cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayita-nirodha). Then he gained the “signless concentration of mind,” which is free from all that “marks” or signifies conditioned existence (SN 40:2–9).8 But this attainment, too, was not final. For even here he developed a subtle attachment to his refined experience—an attachment which is still a delusive “sign” or “mark” superimposed on a high spiritual attainment of greatest purity. But aided by the Master’s instructions, he broke through these last, most subtle fetters and attained to the final fruit, perfect liberation of mind and liberation by wisdom in all their fullness and depth.
The Venerable Mahāmoggallāna had become an arahant. Like Sāriputta, Moggallāna was an arahant of the type called “liberated in both ways” (ubhatobhāgavimutta). Although all arahants are identical in their perfect liberation from ignorance and suffering, they are distinguished into two types on the basis of their proficiency in concentration. Those who can attain the eight deliverances (aṭṭha vimokkhā), which include the four formless attainments and the attainment of cessation, are called “liberated in both ways”—liberated from the material body by means of the formless absorptions, and from all defilements by the path of arahantship. Those who lack this mastery over the eight deliverances but have destroyed all defilements through wisdom are called “liberated by wisdom” (paññāvimutta).
Even more, Moggallāna had not only mastered the successive planes of meditative concentration but had also explored the “roads of psychic power” (iddhipāda), and thus had achieved facility in the modes of supernormal knowledge (abhiññā). In his own words, he was one of whom it could be declared, “Supported by the Master the disciple attained to greatness of the superknowledges.” This entire development took place within a single week. These were, indeed, seven days of tremendous internal transformation, packed with dramatic ordeals, struggles, and triumphs. The intensity and depth of Moggallāna’s determination during this short period must have been staggering. A person like him, endowed with such an active mind and such a wide range of natural gifts, would have had to make a truly valiant effort to cut through all the fetters binding him to this world of vast potentialities.
For such an immensity of inner experience to have been compressed into one short week, the dimensions of space and time must have virtually contracted and dissolved. It is reported that on the occasion of his own Enlightenment the Buddha had recollected ninetyone aeons in the first watch of the night. Moggallāna too, in perfecting his superknowledges, would have called up before his mind’s eye many past aeons of world contraction and expansion. Here notions of the measurable duration of time fail entirely.
For an ordinary person, immured in the prison of the senses, one week is no more that seven days, but for one who has pierced the veil of manifest phenomena and reached the subliminal depths of reality, infinities can burst through the very boundaries of finitude. Moggallāna later said that he attained arahantship by quick penetration (khippābhiññā), that is, in one week, but his progress was difficult (dukkha-paṭipadā), requiring the helpful assistance of the Master. Sāriputta, too, attained arahantship by quick penetration, in two weeks, but his progress was smooth (sukha-paṭipadā).
Moggallāna had advanced to the goal more speedily than Sāriputta because the Buddha directed and inspired him personally and intensively, and also because he had a lesser range to comprehend. Sāriputta was superior to him in regard to the independence of his progress and also in the detailed scope of his knowledge.
THE MOST EXCELLENT PAIR OF DISCIPLES
For a Fully Enlightened One his two chief disciples and his personal attendant are as necessary as the ministers of war, of the interior, and of finance are to a king. The Buddha himself used this comparison with a state’s administration. He spoke of Ānanda, who could remember all the discourses, as the treasurer of the Dhamma (the minister of finance), of Sāriputta as its marshal or general-in-command, and of Moggallāna as “the child’s nurse” (the minister of the interior). Of these four (including the Buddha), two groups of two had certain things in common: both the Buddha and Ānanda belonged to the warrior caste (khattiya), Sāriputta and Moggallāna to the brahmin caste. This affinity showed itself also in their lives. Ānanda was always with the Buddha; from the time when he was appointed his attendant, he followed him like a shadow. Similarly, Moggallāna was almost inseparable from Sāriputta and nearly always dwelt together with him.
Whenever the Buddha, in advancing years, felt physically tired, these three disciples were the only ones whom he asked to expound the Dhamma on his behalf. This happened, for instance, at Kapilavatthu when Moggallāna gave a long discourse on sense control as the remedy against being submerged in the flood of the six senses.12 After Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna had attained arahantship, the Buddha announced to the Order that they would now be his chief disciples. Some of the monks were surprised and began to grumble, asking why the Master did not treat with such distinction those ordained first, the “men of the first hour,” as for instance, the first five disciples, or Yasa, or the three Kassapas. Why did he overlook them and give prominence to those who had entered the Order last and were of junior standing? To this, the Awakened One replied that each reaps according to his merit.
For aeons Sāriputta and Moggallāna had been progressing towards this state by gradually cultivating the necessary faculties. Others, however, had developed along different lines. Although both chief disciples were of another caste and from another region than the Buddha’s, their special position within the Noble Order was an outcome of the law of kamma. In many ways the Buddha had spoken in praise of this noble pair of disciples: If a devout lay woman should admonish her only son whom she dearly loves, she would rightly do so by saying: “My dear son, you should be like Citta the householder or Hatthaka of Ālavi!”— because these two are models and exemplars for my lay devotees. (And she should further say:) “But if, my dear, you go forth from home into the homeless life of a monk, you should be like Sāriputta and Moggallāna!”—because they are models and exemplars for my bhikkhu disciples. O monks, seek and cultivate the company of Sāriputta and Moggallāna! They are wise and are helpful to their fellows in the holy life. Sāriputta is like a mother, and Moggallāna is like a nurse. Sāriputta trains the monks for the fruit of stream-entry, and Moggallāna for the supreme goal. The characterization of the two in the last text may be interpreted as follows: Sāriputta, like a mother, gives birth to the path of emancipation in his pupils, urging them to cut through the first, most basic fetters and thus attain to stream-entry. In this way he “converts” his pupils by vigorously diverting them from the futility of the round of existence and guiding them into the zone of safety.
At this point Moggallāna takes over and leads the pupils further along the upwards path, supporting them in their struggle for arahantship in the same way that he himself had been helped by the Master. Thus he is like a wet-nurse, nourishing the pupils’ strength and sustaining their growth.
Both these aspects are found perfectly united in a Fully Awakened One, but in Sāriputta and Moggallāna they were separate qualifications. Though both were “liberated in both ways,” for Sāriputta the major emphasis was on wisdom, and for Moggallāna on the meditative “liberation of the mind” (cetovimutti). For this reason Sāriputta guided disciples to the intuitive understanding of liberating truth, the breakthrough to the Dhamma (dhammābhisamaya), the vision of things in their real undistorted nature.
With Moggallāna, who knew well the subtle and tortuous labyrinths of the mind, the stress was on harnessing the forces of concentration toward the removal of all remaining defilements and fetters. This fact found perfect expression when these two spiritual sons of the Buddha had to look after Rāhula, the Buddha’s own son. Like every newly ordained monk, Rāhula had two teachers, one in knowledge and one in conduct. Sāriputta was appointed as his teacher in knowledge, and Moggallāna as his teacher in conduct and spiritual practice.
Once Sāriputta said to his friend that, compared with Moggallāna in regard to supernormal powers, he was like a small splinter of rock set against the mighty Himalayas. Moggallāna, however, replied that, compared with Sāriputta in regard to the power of wisdom, he was like a tiny grain of salt set against a big salt barrel (SN 21:3). About the differing range of wisdom, the Buddha said that there are questions that only he could conceive and answer, but not Sāriputta; there are other questions that only Sāriputta could clarify, but not Moggallāna; and there are those questions that only Moggallāna could solve, but not the other disciples (J 483). Thus the two chief disciples were like a bridge between the supreme qualities of the Buddha and the capacities of the other disciples.
When Devadatta voiced his claim to lead the Order, the Buddha said that he would not entrust anybody with the leadership of the Sangha, not even his two chief disciples, let alone Devadatta (Vin II 188). Between the extremes of discipleship—with Sāriputta and Moggallāna at one end of the scale and Devadatta, the most depraved of the disciples, at the other—there is a long and varied line of disciples with different degrees of accomplishments and virtues. It is characteristic that the only slander uttered against the chief disciples came from a follower of Devadatta.
The monk Kokālika, wishing to malign them, told the Buddha that the two had evil intentions, which, in fact, was the case with Devadatta. The Buddha, however, replied: “Don’t say so, Kokālika, don’t speak like that! Let your heart have glad confidence in Sāriputta and Moggallāna! They are virtuous monks.”
But Kokālika, in spite of this emphatic admonition, persisted in his slander. According to the old texts, Devadatta and Kokālika were reborn in a state of utter suffering, in the deepest hell, while Sāriputta and Moggallāna won the highest bliss, Nibbāna.
In the Pāli Canon there are many reports about the common activities of the two chief disciples as they assisted the Master in looking after the community of monks. Both worked tirelessly for the advancement and benefit of the Order, and their activities aimed at maintaining its inner concord, stability, and discipline deserve special mention. At the request of the Buddha they brought about the banishment of a clique of monks known as “the group of six” (chabbhaggiya), after their six leaders, whose reckless and scandalous behaviour was threatening to tarnish the entire image of the Buddha’s Dispensation in the eyes of the wider populace of the Ganges Valley.
The Vinaya Piṭaka records many instances when the Buddha had to promulgate rules of discipline on account of their misconduct. One major upheaval they brought about is reported in the Kīṭāgiri Sutta (MN 70), when they flaunted the Buddha’s regulations regarding the proper times for meals. Finally they behaved in such a frenzied way that the Buddha sent Sāriputta and Moggallāna, at the head of a group of virtuous monks, to banish these six from their seat of residence, which was near Kīṭāgiri. Thereafter most of them left the Order (Vin II 12–14). The most noteworthy mission the two great disciples performed together was to induce the newly ordained monks led astray by Devadatta to return to the Buddha’s fold and to the right conduct of the monk’s life.
At that time, when Sāriputta gave his exhortation to those misguided monks, he spoke about the power of thought reading, while Moggallāna spoke on psychic powers (Vin II 199–200). On another occasion, when a junior monk came to the Buddha and complained that the Venerable Sāriputta had treated him rudely, Moggallāna and Ānanda called together all the monks, so that, for their instruction and edification, they could hear Sāriputta’s dignified reply to those accusations (AN 6:11).
The two chief disciples often lived together in the same cell of the monastery, and they held many dialogues for the benefit of their fellow monks. An example of this is the Anaṅgaṇa Sutta (Discourse on No Blemishes; MN 5), Sāriputta’s great sermon on the removal of “evil wishes,” which was inspired by questions from Moggallāna. At the end of the sermon Moggallāna applauded Sāriputta’s eloquence, comparing his discourse to a garland of flowers which one might place on one’s head as an ornament. On another occasion, when a group of leading disciples had gathered in the Gosiṅga sāla-tree forest on a full-moon night, Sāriputta asked them each in turn to describe what they considered to be the ideal monk, “one who could illuminate this forest” (MN 32).
Moggallāna replied: Here, friend Sāriputta, two monks engage in a talk on the higher Dhamma (abhidhamma), and they question each other, and each being questioned by the other answers without foundering, and their talk rolls on in accordance with the Dhamma. That kind of monk could illuminate this Gosiṅga sāla-tree forest. Later the Buddha confirmed that Moggallāna was indeed a very capable speaker on the Dhamma, as is evident from his discourses in the canon. Talks on the Dhamma gain in range and depth when they issue from an experience that transcends the realm of the senses. The more one has widened one’s consciousness by deep meditation and personal insight into truth, the more convincing one’s words will be, and when one can speak from the heights of wisdom, one’s understanding will be contagious.
The Buddha often extolled his chief disciples for their personal qualities as much as for their contributions to his mission. One particularly striking instance is recorded in the Udāna. When the two were seated near the Master, immersed in deep concentration based on contemplation of the body, first the Buddha spoke an “inspired utterance” (udāna) in praise of Sāriputta:18 Just as a mountain made of solid rock Stands firm and unshakable, Even so, when delusion is destroyed, A bhikkhu, like a mountain, is not perturbed. Then he applauded Moggallāna: With mindfulness of the body established, Controlled over contact’s sixfold base, A bhikkhu who is always concentrated Can know Nibbāna for himself. It happened only once that the Buddha preferred Moggallāna’s attitude in a certain matter to that of Sāriputta.
After he had dismissed from his presence a band of noisy, unmannerly monks, just recently ordained, the Master later asked his two chief disciples what they had thought when he sent those monks away. Sāriputta said he thought that the Master wanted to enjoy a blissful abiding in meditation and that they, the chief disciples, were to do the same. But the Buddha reproached him, saying that he should never again entertain such thoughts. Then he turned to Moggallāna with the same question. Moggallāna replied that he, too, had thought the Master wanted to enjoy the bliss of meditation; but if so, then the responsibility for looking after the community of monks would have devolved on Sāriputta and himself. The Buddha praised him and said that if both his chief disciples took care of the community, it would be as good as if he himself looked after the monks (MN 67).
MOGGALLĀNA’S PSYCHIC POWERS
In the eyes of its early Western interpreters, many of whom saw in Buddhism a rational alternative to Christian dogmatism, Buddhism was essentially a pragmatic code of psychological ethics free from the traditional trappings of religion. In their understanding the suprarational side of Buddhism was dispensable, and the wonders and marvels so conspicuous in the canon and commentaries, when not overlooked, were explained away as later interpolations. But while it is true that early Buddhism does not ascribe the same significance to supernatural events as does Christianity, to insist on expunging the miraculous altogether from Buddhism is to tailor the Dhamma to fit external standards rather than to accept it on its own terms.
The Pāli suttas, as a matter of course, frequently ascribe supernormal powers to the Buddha and his arahant disciples, and there is little ground apart from personal prejudice for supposing such passages to be interpolations. Although the Buddha compares the miracle of psychic powers unfavourably with “the miracle of instruction,” he does so not to detract from their reality but only to highlight their limited value. Nevertheless, when the suttas are considered in their totality, the clear conclusion emerges that the acquisition of paranormal powers was regarded as a positive good which serves to enhance the stature and completeness of the spiritually accomplished person. The suttas frequently mention a set of six paranormal faculties— called the six super knowledges (chalabhiññā)-which were possessed by many arahants.
The sixth of these, the knowledge of the destruction of the cankers (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa), is the supramundane realization that all defilements have been eradicated and can never arise again; this knowledge is shared by all arahants, being their guarantee of final deliverance. The other five kinds of superknowledge, however, are all mundane. They include the knowledge of the modes of psychic power (iddhividha-ñāṇa), the knowledge of the divine ear-element (dibbasotadhātu-ñāṇa), the knowledge encompassing the minds of others (cetopariya-ñāṇa), the knowledge of recollection of past lives (pubbenivāsānussati-ñāṇa), and the divine eye, or the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings (dibbacakkhu, cutūpāta-ñāṇa). These faculties may be found outside the Buddha’s Dispensation, among mystics and yogis who have mastered meditative absorption, and their attainment does not certify that their possessor has reached a state of true sanctity. They are neither requirements for nor indications of liberation.
In the Buddhist texts even Devadatta, the most evil of the monks, had acquired such powers early in his spiritual career and lost them only when he tried to use them against the Buddha. The Buddha was well aware of the dangers of being sidetracked by a fascination with psychic powers. For those whose minds were still fired by personal ambition, they could be a frightful pitfall, serving to enhance the delusion of separate selfhood and the drive for domination. But for those who had seen through the unreality of “I” and “mine” and whose hearts were rich in compassion, such powers could be valuable tools in the service of the Dispensation.
Hence the Buddha includes the five mundane super knowledges among “the fruits of recluseship” in which his system of mental training culminates (DN 2), and he also counts them among the benefits that come from the observance of the precepts (MN 6). He declares that he himself had totally mastered the bases of psychic power, by reason of which, if he had so wished, he could have lived on until the end of the aeon (DN 2; SN 51:10). For the first generation of monks after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna the five super knowledges were also given high regard, being included among “the ten qualities that inspire confidence” which the orphaned Sangha, deprived of its Master, used as its criteria for choosing its spiritual guides (MN 108). While the sixth super knowledge, the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements, is the fruit of insight, the five mundane super knowledges result from concentration. In the suttas the Buddha usually introduces them only after he has explained the four jhānas.
The jhānas are the prerequisite for the superknowledges because they transform the tone and clarity of consciousness in ways that open up the channels through which such knowledges become accessible. In its undeveloped condition the mind is soiled by defiled thoughts and moods, which cloud its intrinsic luminosity, drain its potency, and make it rigid and unworkable. But by systematic training in the practice of the four jhānas the mind is cleansed and purified. When it becomes “bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, malleable, wieldy, steady, and imperturbable” (DN 2), it can then function as a mighty instrument capable of uncovering domains of knowledge normally concealed from us by impenetrable screens.
Those who have gained access to those hidden dimensions, like the Buddha and Moggallāna, will realize a vast extension of their experience in space and time. Their horizons will grow universal and immeasurable, transcending all boundaries and limitations. The Buddha particularly stresses a set of practices called “the four roads to power” (iddhipādā, or “bases of success”) as the means to winning the superknowledges. They are often described in the texts by a set formula that runs as follows: Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to desire and volitional forces of striving. He develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to energy and volitional forces of striving. He develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to mind and volitional forces of striving. He develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to investigation and volitional forces of striving. Here four separate mental factors are singled out as the main agents for developing concentration: desire, energy, mind, and investigation (chanda, viriya, citta, vīmaṃsā).
To ensure that the jhāna attained will not merely engender a state of calm but will also serve as a repository of energy, each has to be accompanied by “volitional forces of striving” (padhānasaṅkhāra). These forces build up immense psychic energy which can then be tapped, by a suitable determination, to exercise the supernormal powers. To appreciate the traditional account of the psychic faculties we must grasp the fact that the material world perceived through the senses—which today’s physicists declare to be a manifestation of energy—is only a small portion of experiential reality. Beyond the domain of solid, sensible objects exist other vibrational levels which we can scarcely even conceive, let alone understand. Inklings of this wider reality occasionally trickle through the filters that sustain our rational, coherent picture of the world, appearing to us as psychic phenomena or as “wonders” and “miracles.” Because disruptions to the regular patterns of the natural order are so rare, we are inclined to regard these familiar patterns as laws, absolutely binding and inviolable. We then insist on ignoring whatever transcends our limited sense faculties, even when the evidence for these other forces is clear and compelling. But the universe as experienced by the wise is much vaster than that known by the common person.
The wise can perceive dimensions of reality that others do not even suspect exist, and their insight into the underlying relations between mind and matter gives them a control over phenomena that defies the limits set by our consensual understanding of the world. The Venerable Mahāmoggallāna was the bhikkhu who had been most assiduous in developing and cultivating the four roads to power, and thus the Buddha named him the foremost disciple among those who possessed the psychic powers (AN 1:14). There were, of course, other prominent disciples who were highly skilled in psychic power, but they were usually proficient in only one or two areas. Thus, for instance, the monk Anuruddha and the nun Sakulā possessed the supernormal vision of the divine eye; the monk Sobhita and the nun Bhaddā Kapilānī could recollect their previous lives far back into the past; the monk Sāgala was skilled in the exercise of the fire element; Cū¿a Panthaka excelled in the ability to manifest himself in multiple bodies; and Pilindavaccha was foremost in communicating with heavenly beings. Mahāmoggallāna, however, had a comprehensive master over the psychic faculties that no other disciple shared, not even the nun Uppalavaṇṇā, who was foremost among the bhikkhunīs in the exercise of the psychic powers. We shall now turn to what the Buddhist canonical texts relate about Moggallāna’s supernormal faculties. We will not follow the familiar sequence of the five superknowledges, but instead will single out the particular faculties demonstrated by Moggallāna in incidents and anecdotes related in the suttas.
PENETRATION OF OTHERS’ MINDS (THOUGHT READING)
Once on an Uposatha day, the Buddha sat silently in front of the assembly of monks.19 At each watch of the night Ānanda requested him to recite the code of monastic discipline, the Pātimokkha, but the Buddha remained silent. Finally, when dawn came, he only said: “This assembly is impure.” Thereupon Moggallāna surveyed with his mind the entire assembly and saw one monk sitting there who was “immoral, wicked, of impure and suspect behaviour,…rotten within, lustful and corrupt.” He went up to him and told him to leave three times. When the monk did not move even after the third request, Moggallāna took him by the arm, led him out of the hall, and bolted the door. Then he begged the Exalted One to recite the Pātimokkha, as the assembly was now pure again.
Once the Master was dwelling together with a community of five hundred monks, all of whom were arahants. When Moggallāna joined them, he searched their minds with his own mind and saw that they were arahants, released and free from all defilements. Then the Venerable Vaṅgisa, the foremost poet in the Sangha, realizing what had taken place, rose from his seat, and in the Buddha’s presence praised Moggallāna in verse: While the sage is seated on the mountain slope, Gone beyond to the far shore of suffering, His disciples sit in attendance on him, Triple-knowledge men who have left Death behind. Moggallāna, great in spiritual power, Encompassed their minds with his own, And searching (he came to see) their minds: Fully released, without acquisitions!20 A third report tells us that once, while the Venerable Anuruddha was meditating in solitude, he considered how the noble path that leads to the extinction of suffering can be perfected by means of the four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). Then Moggallāna, penetrating Anuruddha’s mind by his own, appeared before him through supernormal power and requested him to describe in detail this method of practice (SN 52:1–2).
THE DIVINE EAR (CLAIRAUDIENCE)
One evening when Sāriputta went to see Moggallāna he found that his features had such a strikingly serene expression that he felt moved to ask Moggallāna whether he had dwelt in one of the peaceful abodes of mind. Moggallāna replied that he had dwelt only in a coarse abode, but that he had been engaged in a talk on the Dhamma. On being asked with whom he had such a talk, Moggallāna replied that it had been with the Exalted One. Sāriputta remarked that the Master was now dwelling very far away, in Sāvatthī, while they themselves were in Rājagaha. Had Moggallāna gone to the Buddha by way of supernormal power, or had the Buddha come to him? Moggallāna replied that neither had been the case; rather, they had directed toward each other their divine eye and divine ear, which enabled them to engage in a Dhamma talk on the mental faculty of energy.
Then Sāriputta exclaimed that Moggallāna, being endowed with powers so great, might be able to live through an entire aeon, like the Buddha, if he so wished (SN 21:3). With the divine ear Moggallāna could also hear the voices of nonhuman beings, deities, spirits, etc., and receive messages from them. So, for instance, a spirit had warned him against Devadatta, who harboured evil intentions toward the Buddha and was plotting against him (Vin II 185).
THE DIVINE EYE (CLAIRVOYANCE)
As mentioned above, Moggallāna, with his divine eye, was able to perceive the Buddha over a long distance. The texts describe other occasions when the Elder made use of this faculty. Once, while Sāriputta was sitting in meditation, a malicious demon (yakkha) pounded him on the head. Moggallāna saw this and asked his friend how he was feeling. Sāriputta, who had not seen the demon, said that he was feeling generally well, but was troubled by a slight touch of headache. Then Moggallāna praised his strength of concentration, but Sāriputta said that Moggallāna had been able to see that demon while he himself could not (Ud 4:4).
Once Moggallāna saw with the divine eye how King Pasenadi had been defeated in battle by the Licchavis and how afterwards he had gathered his troops again and vanquished them. When Moggallāna reported this, some monks accused him of falsely boasting about his supernormal faculties, which is a disciplinary offence making a monk subject to expulsion from the Order. The Buddha, however, explained that Moggallāna had reported only what he had seen and what had actually happened (Vin III 108–9).
Above all, Moggallāna used his divine eye to observe the operation of the law of kamma and its fruits. Again and again he saw how human beings, through their evil actions that harmed their fellow beings, were reborn among the petas, miserable ghosts, and had to undergo much suffering, while others, who practiced charity and virtue, rose upwards to the heavenly abodes. He often reported such cases to exemplify the law of kamma. These reports are collected in two books of the Pāli Canon, one dealing with the ghost realm (the Petavatthu, fifty-one reports) and one with the heavenly abodes (the Vimānavatthu, eighty-five). From this it can be readily understood why Moggallāna was famous as one who knew the worlds beyond as well as the workings of kamma. The reports are too numerous to discuss here, but at least one of his visions, recorded in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, should be mentioned.21
Once Moggallāna lived on Vulture’s Peak, near Rājagaha, together with the monk Lakkhaṇa, one of the thousand brahmin ascetics who had been converted together with Uruvela Kassapa. One morning, when they had descended from the peak to go on alms round in the town, Moggallāna smiled when they reached a certain place on the road. When his companion asked him the reason, Moggallāna said that this was not the right time to explain; he would explain later in the presence of the Master. When they later met the Buddha, Lakkhaṇa repeated his question, and Moggallāna now said that at that spot he had seen many miserable ghosts flying through the air, chased around by predators and tormented by various kinds of afflictions.
The Buddha confirmed this as absolutely true and added that he himself spoke only reluctantly about such matters because people with skeptical minds would not believe it. Then the Buddha, out of his universal knowledge, explained what propensities and behaviour had brought those ghosts to their present pitiable position.
TRAVEL BY MIND-MADE BODY (ASTRAL TRAVEL)
“Just as a person might bend his stretched arm or stretch his bent arm,” so quickly could Moggallāna depart bodily from the human world and reappear in a celestial realm. Repeatedly he made use of this capacity to instruct other beings and to look after the affairs of the Order. Thus he taught the devas in the realm of the Thirty-three the factors of streamentry, and tested Sakka, their king, to determine whether he had understood the teaching about the extinction of craving (MN 37).
When the Buddha was preaching the Abhidhamma for three months in one of the heavenly worlds, Moggallāna appeared in that heaven, informed him of happenings in the Order, and asked for instructions (J 483). He visited not only the gods of the sense sphere, but also those of the Brahma world. Thus he appeared before a Brahmā deity who believed that there were no ascetics capable of entering his realm, and through questioning and supernormal feats Moggallāna shook that deity’s self-assurance (SN 6:5). On another occasion he appeared in front of a Brahmā named Tissa—who formerly had been a monk and had died recently—and gave him instructions about stream-entry and the realization of final deliverance (AN 4:34, 7:53)
TELEKINESIS (SUPERNORMAL LOCOMOTION)
Moggallāna also had mastery over what appears to be solid matter. Once the monks staying at a monastery were negligent, busying themselves too much with material trifles. Learning of this, the Buddha asked Moggallāna to use a feat of supernormal power in order to shake them out of their complacency and inspire them to return to serious striving. In response, Moggallāna pushed the building with his big toe, so that the entire monastery, called the Mansion of Migāra’s Mother, shook and trembled as if there was an earthquake. The monks were so deeply stirred by this event that they shook off their worldly interests and again became receptive to the Buddha’s instructions. The Buddha explained to them that the source of Moggallāna’s great supernormal prowess was the development of the four roads to power (SN 51:14; J 299).
Once Moggallāna visited Sakka in his heavenly realm and saw that he was living rather lightheartedly. Captivated by heavenly sense pleasures, he had become forgetful of the Dhamma. To dispel his vanity Moggallāna used his toe to shake Sakka’s celestial palace, the Banner of Victory, in which Sakka took much pride. This had a shock effect on Sakka too, and he now recalled the teaching on the extinction of craving, which the Buddha had briefly taught him not long ago. It was the same teaching that the Buddha had given to Moggallāna as a spur to attaining arahantship (MN 37).
Once there was a famine in the area where the Buddha and his community of monks were residing, and the monks could not obtain sufficient alms-food. On that occasion Moggallāna asked the Buddha whether he might overturn the ground so that the nourishing substance underneath would be accessible and could be eaten. But the Buddha prohibited him, as this would cause the destruction of a large number of living beings. Then Moggallāna offered to use his psychic power to open a road to the Uttarakuru country so that the monks could go there for alms. This, too, the Buddha prohibited. But all survived the famine unharmed, even without such supernormal devices (Vin III 7). This was the only occasion when the Buddha disapproved of Moggallāna’s suggestions.
Moggallāna’s supernormal power expressed itself too in his ability to bring things from far distances by magical locomotion. Thus, for instance, he brought lotus stalks from the Himalayas when Sāriputta was ill and needed them for medicine (Vin I 214–15; 2:140). He also fetched a shoot of the Bodhi tree for Anāthapiṇḍika to be planted at the Jetavana Monastery (J 78). However, when his fellow-monk Piṇḍola asked him to prove the superiority of the Buddha’s Sangha over the sectarians by magically bringing down a precious bowl that had been hung up in town so high that nobody could take it down, Moggallāna refused, saying that Piṇḍola himself possessed sufficient powers to do it. But when Piṇḍola actually performed that feat, the Buddha rebuked him: a monk should not display supernormal powers merely to impress the laity (Vin II 110–12).
THE POWER OF TRANSFORMATION
Although we have confined the preceding discussion to incidents mentioned in the Pāli Canon, this account would be deficient if we did not mention what the commentaries regard as Moggallāna’s most formidable display of psychic power, his triumph over the divine serpent, the royal nāga Nandopananda. This incident is recorded in the Visuddhimagga (XII, 106–16). On one occasion, when the Buddha together with five hundred monks visited the heaven of the Thirtythree, they passed just above the abode of Nandopananda. This infuriated the royal nāga, who sought to take revenge by surrounding Mount Sineru with his coils and spreading his hood so that the entire world was enveloped in darkness. Several eminent monks offered to subdue the nāga, but the Buddha, aware of his ferocity, would not permit them.
It was only to Moggallāna, the last to volunteer, that he granted permission. Moggallāna then transformed himself into a huge royal nāga and engaged Nandopananda in a terrible battle of flame and smoke. Drawing upon one power after another, appearing in a variety of shapes and sizes, he shattered his rival's defenses. In the last phase of the battle he assumed the form of a supaṇṇa, the celestial eagle, arch-enemy of the nāga. At this point Nandopananda capitulated, and the elder, assuming once again the form of a monk, brought him to the Buddha in triumph and elicited from him an apology.
MOGGALLĀNA’S PREVIOUS LIVES
About his recollection of his own former existences, Moggallāna spoke only once, in the Māratajjaniya Sutta (MN 50). With that text we shall deal later. In the Jātakas, the stories about the Buddha’s former existences, it is reported that the Bodhisatta and Moggallāna had lived together quite often. In no less than thirty-one lives the two had met, and in thirty of them Moggallāna and Sāriputta had lived together; the bond that had connected these three was already strong in previous lives. Although these thirty-one lives are but an infinitesimal fraction of the infinity of lives through which every being in saṃsāra has passed, they enable us to draw some substantive conclusions concerning Moggallāna’s life and personality.
The first thing we find from the Jātakas is his close relationship to the Bodhisatta. Moggallāna and Sāriputta were often the Bodhisatta’s brothers (J 488, 509, 542, 543), his friends (326), or his ministers (401). Sometimes they were his disciples as ascetics (423, 522), or even his teachers (539). Sometimes Sāriputta is the son and Moggallāna the general of the royal Bodhisatta (525).
When the Buddha was Sakka, king of the gods, they were the moon-god and the sun-god respectively (450). The second point worth noting is the relationship of Sāriputta to Moggallāna. When, in the Jātakas, both are seen to traverse all the heights and depths of saṃsāra, they sometimes play quite inferior parts in relation to the main figures of the respective stories. There appears a certain lawfulness in the stories insofar as the difference between them (e.g., in status) is usually greater when their level of rebirth is lower, and smaller when their rebirth is on a higher level.
When reborn as animals, they rarely were equals (only as swans, in J 160, 187, 215, 476), and Sāriputta was most often born in a higher species of animals. Thus they were snake and rat (73), bird and tortoise (206, 486), lion and tiger (272, 361, 438), monkey and elephant (37), monkey and jackal (316), man and jackal (490). When born as human beings in worldly careers, Sāriputta was always in a higher position than Moggallāna: as a royal prince and royal minister (525), royal minister and son of a slave (544), charioteer of the royal Bodhisatta and charioteer of king Ānanda (151).
Once Moggallāna was the moon-god and Sāriputta the wise ascetic Nārada (535). But when both were ascetics or deities, they were generally of equal status. Once it happened that Sāriputta was only the moon-god and Moggallāna the superior sun-god (450); once Sāriputta was the king of the nāgas and Moggallāna the king of their foes, the supaṇṇas (545). The only time when Moggallāna appears in the Jātakas without Sāriputta is a life in which he holds the office of Sakka, king of the gods. At that time, as Sakka, he also appeared on earth to a miser in order to urge on him the virtue of giving and thus to lead him to a better rebirth (78).
But another time when Sāriputta and Moggallāna lived on earth they were stingy merchants who had buried much money. After death, they were reborn close to their buried treasure, but as a snake and a rat (73). There is also a story in which Moggallāna was reborn as a jackal. Seeing a dead elephant, he was so greedy for its flesh that he crept through an intestinal aperture right into the elephant’s belly, ate as much as he could, but was then unable to get out again, suffering mortal fear—an impressive symbol of the perils of sensual enjoyment (490). Finally, in the famous Jātaka about the law of the Kuru people (276), Moggallāna is a keeper of grain stores and Sāriputta a merchant. Both were very careful in observing the law of non-stealing.
Like many other arahant disciples of the Buddha, the Venerable Moggallāna has left us, in the Theragāthā, a testament in verse in which he celebrates his triumphs over the vicissitudes of life. His chapter, containing sixty-three verses (1146–1208), is the second longest in the collection. The overriding theme of these verses is his equipoise in the face of saṃsāra’s temptations and upheavals. The suffering of worldly affairs no longer touched him, as he dwelt in a peace that transcended all the pain and restlessness of becoming. His verses begin with four stanzas (1146–49), apparently addressed to himself, extolling the life of a forest hermit devoted to the struggle against the forces of mortality: Living in the forest, subsisting on alms-food, Delighting in the scraps that come into our bowl, Let us tear apart the army of Death Firmly concentrated within ourselves.
Living in the forest, subsisting on alms-food, Delighting in the scraps that come into our bowl, Let us shatter the army of Death As an elephant does a hut of reeds.
The next two verses differ only in replacing “subsisting on alms-food” with “persevering.” The next eight verses (1150–57) are spoken to a prostitute who tried to seduce him. Although their tone, and their depreciation of the body, may strike the contemporary reader as abrasive, it must be remembered that the Buddha himself was emphatic about the need to contemplate the wretchedness of physical existence, not from a morbid loathing of life but as an antidote to sensual lust, the most powerful bond tying beings to the sense sphere.
The next two verses were spoken with reference to the death of the Venerable Sāriputta. Whereas Ānanda, who was not yet an arahant, was stricken with fear and terror, Moggallāna reflected on the impermanence of all conditioned things and thereby remained calm (1158–59). In two piquant verses (1167–68) Moggallāna’s extols his prowess in meditation: Flashes of lightning fall upon the cleft Of the mountains Vebhāra and Paṇḍava, But gone within the cleft he meditates— The son of the peerless Stable One. Tranquil, still, the sage resorts To remote places for his lodging; A true heir of the supreme Buddha, He is venerated even by Brahmā.
The following verses (1169–73) are addressed to a superstitious brahmin of wrong views who had abused the Venerable Mahākassapa when the latter was walking on alms round. Moggallāna warns him against the dangers of such conduct and urges him to respect the holy ones. He then praises Sāriputta (1176–77). The commentary says that the next four verses (1178–81) are Sāriputta’s own praise of Moggallāna. After Moggallāna reciprocates with a verse in praise of Sāriputta, he then reviews his attainments and rejoices in his consummation of the goal of his monk’s life (1182–86): In but a moment I can create A hundred thousand koṭis of bodies; I am skilled in transformations, I am the master of psychic powers.
A master of concentration and knowledge, Moggallāna, gone to perfection, A sage in the Dispensation of the Detached One, With concentrated faculties has cut off his bonds As an elephant bursts a rotten creeper.
The Teacher has been served by me, The Buddha’s Teaching has been done. The heavy burden has been dropped, The conduit to becoming has been uprooted. That goal has been attained by me For the sake of which I have gone forth From the home life into homelessness— The destruction of all the fetters.
The last verses (1187–1208) are identical with those concluding his encounter with Māra, recorded in MN 50, to which we shall now turn.
THE LAST DAYS OF MOGGALLĀNA
Half a year before the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, on the full-moon day of the month Kattika (October/November), death separated the two chief disciples for the last time. It was on this day that Sāriputta passed away in his birth chamber in his parental home—surrounded by his many pupils, but far away from Moggallāna. Even though during life the two had been almost inseparable, their deaths, like their attainment of arahantship, occurred at different places. Soon after the passing away of Sāriputta, Moggallāna had a bizarre encounter with Māra, the Evil One, the Tempter and Lord of Death, which may well have been a premonition of his own imminent demise.
One night, while the elder was walking back and forth for exercise, Māra slipped into his body and entered his bowels. Moggallāna sat down and attended to his abdomen, which suddenly felt as heavy as a bag of beans. He then discovered the Evil One lodged within his own belly. Calmly he told Māra to get out. Māra was astonished that he had been detected so soon, and in his delusion thought that even the Buddha would not have recognized him so quickly. But Moggallāna read his thoughts and again ordered him to depart. Māra now escaped through Moggallāna’s mouth and stood at the door of the hut. Moggallāna told him that he knew him not only on that day but had also known him in the past, for their kammic connection was old and deep.
The following is the gist of what he said: The first of the five Buddhas appearing in our “fortunate aeon” (bhaddakappa) was Kakusandha, whose chief disciples were the arahants Vidhura and Sañjīva. At that time, Moggallāna was Māra, by name Māra Dūsi. For Māra too, like Mahā-brahmā and Sakka, is not a permanent being but a cosmic post or office—chief of demons, lord of the lower world— which is filled by different individuals migrating through the round of existence. At that time Māra Dūsi had a sister named Kālī, whose son was to become the Māra of our age. Hence Moggallāna’s own nephew then was now standing in front of him in his hut as the present Māra.
When, in that past age, Moggallāna was Māra, he had taken possession of a boy and made him throw a potsherd at the head of the Buddha Kakusandha’s chief disciple, the arahant Vidhura. The wound was a severe one, which caused blood to flow. When the Buddha Kakusandha turned around and saw this, he said: “Indeed, Māra knows no moderation here” —for even in diabolical actions there might be moderation—and under the Perfect One’s glance Māra Dūsi’s body dissolved and reappeared in the deepest hell. Just a moment earlier he had been the overlord of all the hellish worlds, and now he himself was one of hell’s victims. For many thousands of years Moggallāna had to suffer in hell as the kammic result of attacking an arahant. He was condemned to spend ten thousand years alone in the Great Hell, having a human body and the head of a fish, just like the beings in Pieter Breughel’s pictures of the hells. Whenever two lances of his torturers crossed in his heart, he would know that a thousand years of his torment had passed.
This encounter with Māra once more brought to Moggallāna’s mind the terrors of saṃsāra from which he was now forever free. Soon afterwards Moggallāna felt that the time of his last existence was running out. Being an arahant he saw no reason to extend his life span to the end of the aeon by an act of will,23 and he calmly allowed impermanence to take its lawful course.
Surrounded by many of his monks, the Buddha passed away peacefully during a meditative absorption which he entered with perfect mastery. Sāriputta’s death in his parental home, likewise with fellow monks in attendance, was similarly serene. Ānanda died at the age of 120; as he did not wish to burden anyone by his funeral, he entered meditative concentration on the fire element so that his body vanished in a blaze. Considering the serene death of the Master and of these two disciples, one would have expected that Mahāmoggallāna, too, would have undergone the final dissolution of the body under peaceful circumstances.
But Moggallāna’s end was very different, though the gruesome nature of his death did not shake his firm and serene mind. Moggallāna passed away a fortnight after his friend Sāriputta, on the new-moon day of the month Kattika (October/November), in the autumn. The “great decease” of the Buddha took place on the fullmoon night of the month Vesākha (May), half a year after the death of his two chief disciples. The Buddha was in his eightieth year when he passed away, while both Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna died at the age of eighty-four. The circumstances of Moggallāna’s death are related in two sources, the Dhammapada Commentary (to vv. 137–40) and the Jātaka Commentary (to J 523). Although these two sources share a common core, they differ in details, which no doubt stem from embellishments in the course of oral transmission. The account here will be based on the Dhammapada Commentary, with the differences in the Jātaka Commentary noted parenthetically.
Because the Buddha was so skilful as a teacher, leading countless people to the gates of deliverance, the populace of Magadha for the most part had transferred its allegiance from the various rival ascetic orders to the Enlightened One and his Sangha. A group of naked ascetics, resentful over this loss of prestige, pinned the prime responsibility for their hard times on the Venerable Mahāmoggallāna. They believed that Moggallāna had won over their own adherents to the Buddha’s Dhamma with his reports of his celestial travels, in which he related how he had seen the virtuous devotees of the Buddha enjoying rebirth in heaven and the followers of other sects, lacking moral conduct, suffering in miserable subhuman states of existence. These ascetics were so enraged about their loss of popularity that they wanted to eliminate Moggallāna.
Without accepting responsibility for their own misfortune, they projected the blame externally and concentrated their envy and hate on the great disciple. While the ascetics were hesitant to kill Moggallāna by their own hand, they had no scruples about employing others to carry out their nefarious deed. Having procured a thousand gold coins from their followers, they approached a band of brigands and offered them the money in exchange for the great disciple’s life. At that time Moggallāna was living alone in a forest hut at the Black Rock, on the slope of Mount Isigili outside Rājagaha. After his encounter with Māra he knew that the end of his days was near. Having enjoyed the bliss of liberation, he now felt the body to be an obstruction and burden and had no desire to use his psychic faculties to keep it alive for the rest of the aeon. Yet, when he saw the brigands approach, he knew they were coming to kill him, and he used his supernormal powers to slip through the keyhole.
The gangsters arrived at an empty hut, and though they searched everywhere, they could not find him. They returned the following day too, but this time the elder soared up into the air and escaped through the roof. The next month too the bandits came, but again they could not catch the elder. (In the Jātaka version the bandits return on six consecutive days and catch him only on the seventh day.) Moggallāna’s motivation in escaping was not fear of death. The reason he used his psychic powers to elude the gangsters was not to protect his body but to spare the would-be assassins the frightful kammic consequences of such a murderous deed, necessarily leading to rebirth in the hells. He wanted to spare them such a fate by giving them time to reconsider and abstain from their crime. But their greed for the promised money was so great that they persisted and returned again the following month (or on the seventh day in the Jātaka account).
This time their persistence was “rewarded,” for at that moment Moggallāna suddenly lost his psychic mastery over the body. The reason for this sudden change in fate lay in a terrible deed he had committed in the distant past. Many aeons ago, in a previous birth, Moggallāna had brought about the death of his parents (in the Jātaka version, however, he relents at the last moment and spares them). That heinous kamma had brought him to a rebirth in hell for countless years, but it had not yet fully matured. A residue remained, and now, when he was in mortal danger, that residue suddenly ripened and confronted him with its fruit. Moggallāna realized that he had no choice but to submit to destiny. The brigands entered, knocked him down, and “pounded his bones until they were as small as grains of rice.”
Then, thinking that he was dead, they threw his body behind a clump of bushes and fled, keen on collecting their reward. But Moggallāna’s physical and mental strength was formidable and he had not yet capitulated to death. He regained consciousness and, by the power of meditation, he soared through the air and came into the presence of the Master. There he announced that he would attain final Nibbāna. The Buddha asked him to give a final sermon to the community of monks, which he did, with an additional display of wonders and marvels. Then he paid homage to the Blessed One, returned to the Black Rock, and passed into the Nibbāna element without residue. (The Jātaka account more realistically omits the final sermon and has Moggallāna expire right at the Buddha’s feet.) In this last turbulent phase of his life, the kamma of the past that had ripened so suddenly could affect only his body but could not shake his mind, for he no longer identified himself with his empirical personality.
For him the five aggregates that others identified as “Moggallāna” were as foreign as an inanimate body: They penetrate the subtle truth As the tip of a hair with an arrow Who see the five aggregates as alien And do not regard them as self. Those who see conditioned things As alien and not as self Have pierced right through the subtle truth As the tip of a hair with an arrow. (Th 1160–61) This last episode of Moggallāna’s life, however, did show that the law of moral causality has even greater potency than the supernormal feats of a master of psychic power.
Only a Buddha can control the kammic consequences acting upon his body to such an extent that nothing might cause his premature death. Speaking about his chief disciples shortly after their deaths, the Buddha declared: Those who in the past have been Holy Ones, Fully Enlightened Ones, those Blessed Ones, too, had such excellent pairs of disciples as I had in Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Those who in the future will be Holy Ones, Fully Enlightened Ones, those Blessed Ones, too, will have such excellent pairs of disciples as I had in Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Marvellous it is, most wonderful it is, bhikkhus, concerning those disciples, that they will act in accordance with the Master’s teaching, will act in accordance with his advice; that they will be dear to the four assemblies, will be loved, respected, and honoured by them.
Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna were such wonderful disciples, the Buddha said, that the assembly of monks appeared empty to him after their death. It was marvellous that such an excellent pair of disciples existed, but it was marvellous, too, that, in spite of their excellence, when the two had passed away there was no grief, no lamentation on the part of the Master.25 Therefore, the Buddha continued, inspired by the greatness of the two chief disciples, let dedicated followers of the Dhamma strive to be their own island of refuge, with the Dhamma as their island of refuge, not looking for any other refuge. Let them rely entirely on the powerful help of the four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). Those who, with keen desire, thus train themselves along the Noble Eightfold Path will certainly pass beyond all the realms of darkness which abound in saṃsāra. So the Master assures us.
References: 1. The Great Disciples of The Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker 2. https://suttacentral.net/