Narada Maha Thera

A moonstone carved at the entrance to an ancient Buddhist shrine. Sri Lanka

In the remote past a pious and energetic Brahmin, named Sarada, who had the ability to attain Arahantship in that very birth, made a great flower offering to the Buddha and His disciples, and aspired to become a chief disciple of a future Buddha.

The lofty aspiration he made in that distant past was not in vain, for he realized his noble aim in the time of the Buddha Gotama.

Not far from Rajagaha, in the village Upatissa also known as Nalaka, this distinguished personage was born as the son of Vanganta, a rich and influential Brahmin. His mother was Sari, a charming Brahmin lady. His parents named him Upatissa, for theirs was the leading family in the village. Sublequently he received the more familiar name Sariputta, the son of Sari. He had three brothers, Upasena, Cunda and Revata and three sisters, Cala, Upacala, and Sisupacala, who all emulated their worthy eldest brother and attained Arahantship.

Though nurtured in Brahmanism, his broad outlook on life and matured wisdom compelled him to renounce his ancestral religion for the more tolerant and rational teachings of the Buddha Gotama. His father apparently remained and died a staunch supporter of the Brahmin faith. His mother, on the contrary, was converted to Buddhism at the moment of Arhanth Sariputta's death.

Young Upatissa was brought up in the lap of luxury and was accomplished in all arts and sciences of his day. He found a very intimate friend in Kolita, with whom, so the story goes, he was closely associated from an infinite past.

These two companions who were alike convinced of the fleeting nature of material pleasures, decided to renounce the wordly life and lead an ascetic life under some recognized teacher.

The young seekers went to many a famous ascetic, but disappointment greeted them everywhere. Ultimately they returned to their own village and made an agreement between themselves, that whosoever should first discover the truth should teach the other.

It was at this time that the Buddha dispatched his first sixty disciples to proclaim the Sublime Dhamma to the world. The Buddha Himself proceeded towards Uruvela, and the venerable Assaji, who was one of the first five disciples, went in the direction of Rajagaha.

The good Kamma of the seekers now intervened, as if it were watching with sympathetic eyes their spiritual progress. For Upatissa whilst wandering in the city of Rajagaha, casually met a dignified person whose venerable appearance and saintly deportment at once arrested his attention. His eyes were fixed a yard’s distance from him; his serene face betokened a deep peace within. With body well composed, robed neatly arranged, this venerable figure passed, with measured steps, from door to door, collecting the morsels of food which the charitable placed in his bowl. “Never before have I seen”, thought Upatissa to himself, an ascetic like this. Surely hi must be one of those who have attained Arahantship or now who is practicing the path leading to Arahantship. How if I were to approach him and question ‘For whose sake, sir have you retired from the world? Who is your teacher? Whose doctrine do you profess’.

The Arahant Assaji having begged what little he needed, was seeking a suitable place to take his modest meal. Upatissa seeing this gladly availed himself of the opportunity to offer his own stool and water from his own pot. Fulfilling thus the preliminary duties of a pupil, he exchanged friendly greetings with him and reverently inquired.

“Calm and serene, venerable sir, are your organs of sense; clean and clear is the hue of your skin. For whose sake, venerable sir, did you retire from the world? And who is your teacher? And whose doctrine do you profess?”

The unassuming Arahant Assaji modestly replied, “I am still a novice in the Order, brother, and I am not able to expound the Dhamma to you at length.”

“I am Upatissa, venerable sir. Say much or little according to your ability, and it is left to me to understand it in a hundred thousand ways.”

“Say little or much”, Upatissa continued. “Tell me just the substance. The substance only I require. A mere jumble of words is of no avail.”

The Venerable Assaji uttered a four-line stanza, skillfully summing up the profound philosophu of the Teacher in the scientific truth of the law of cause and effect.

Ye dhamma hetuppabhava - tesam hetum Thathagato aha
Tesan ca yo nirodho –
evam vadi mahasamano

“Of all things that proceed from a cause,
Of these the cause the Thathagata hath told,

And also how they cease to be,
This too the mighty monk hath told”.

Upatissa was sufficiently enlightened to comprehend such a lofty teaching, though so succinctly expressed. He was only in need of a slight indication to discover the truth. So well did the venerable Assaji guide him on the upward path that, immediately after hearing the first two lines, he attained the Sotapatti, the first stage of Sainthood.

The new convert Upatissa must have been destitute of the words to thank, to his heart’s content, his revered teacher for introducing him to the sublime teaching of the Buddha. He expressed hid deep indebtedness for his brilliant exposition of the Truth, and getting from him the necessary particulars with regard to the teacher, took his leave.

His devotion to his teacher was such that since he heard the Dhamma from venerable Assaji, how would turn towards direction in which his teacher used to reside and salute him with clasped hands, and would turn his head in that direction when he lay down to sleep.

Now in accordance with the agreement, he returned to his companion Kolita to inform him of the joyful tidings. Kolita, who too was as enlightened as his friend,  reached the same state of Sainthood after hearing the stanzas. Overwhelmed with the joy at the successful conclusion of their search after peace, they prepared to meet their illustrious Teacher, the Buddha.

In compliance with their request, the Buddha admitted both of them into Order by the mere utterance of the words, Etha bhikkhave! Come, O bhikkhus.

A fortnight later the venerable Sariputta attained Arahantship, and week earlier the venerable Kolita (Moggallana). The Buddha thereupon gathered round Him all his disciples and conferred upon them the exalted positions of the first and second disciples in the Sangha.

A Few Incidents Connected with His Life

The Dhammapada, Jataka, Theragatha and other commentaries relate some interesting episodes connected with his life that tend to reveal his exemplary character.

Boundless patience was one of his sterling virtues, and to such an extent did he practice, he never gave vent to anger even under greatest provocations. The Buddha Himself remarked that his patience was like the great earth that meekly endures everything.

One day as the venerable thera was going along the road, an impertinent Brahmin stepped behind him and struck with his fist a tremendous blow in his back.

“What was that?” said he, and without even turning round to see his assailant he proceeded as if nothing had happened.

Remorse overtook the Brahmin for his rash act. He prostrated himself before his feet and implored his pardon.

“What do you mean?” questioned the thera.

“I wanted to try your patience and struck you, lord.”

“Very well, I pardon you.”

He not merely pardoned him but also received alms at this repenting poor brother’s house. Seeing some bystanders gathered together to give Brahmin his deserts he dismissed them, saying that no wrong was done to them and that he had pardoned him.

The Dhammapada commentary relates another story to show how he pardoned a slandering bhikkhu.

A certain bhikkhu who conceived a grudge against him for some reason or other, approached the Teacher and made a serious complaint against him.

“Lord, the venerable Sariputta, doubtless thinking to himself ‘I am the chief disciple’ struck me a blow that almost split my ear. Having done so, without even so much as begging my pardon, he set out on his alms round.”

The Teacher, though perfectly aware of what had happened, summoned the venerable Sariputta to his presence and questioned him about the incident. The good thera instead of declaring his innocence, humbly recited his virtues comparing himself to an outcast who humbly begs in the street. Remorse stung the bhikkhu who had unjustly slandered him. Straightaway he prostrated himself before the feet of the Blessed One, admitting that he was guilty of slander. The Teacher advised him to forgive the erring bhikkhu. Without hesitating for a moment he promptly pardoned him, saying, “Lord, I freely pardon this venerable brother. Let him also pardon me if I have in anyway given offence to him.”

The bhikkhus applauded him saying, “Behold, brethren, the surpassing goodness of the venerable Sariputta. He cherishes neither anger nor hatred against this lying slandering bhikkhu. Instead he kneels before him, extends his hand in an attitude of reverence and seeks his pardon.”

Another pretty incident is recorded in the Samyutta Nikaya commentary to illustrate his eagerness to accept advice from others and his promptitude in rectifying his errors. He it appears, let the edge of his robe trail. A seven-year old novice observing the trailing robe drew his attention to it. Instantly he went aside and adjusting his robe remarked,

“Whosoever whether ordained on that very day or only seven years old were to advise me, I ouuld accept that advice with clasped hands on my forehead.”

He was extremely punctilious too in the observance of the Vinaya rules.

The Visuddhimagga cites an interesting incident to show that for fear of violating the rules of Right Livelihood, he would not accept a certain kind of food recommended as a cure for a sickness with which he was continually afflicted. One day it seems that the venerable Sariputta was suffering from a severe stomachache, and the venerable Moggallana who was the staying with him asked what remedy his mother used to give when he was at home. He said, honey with milk porridge. This, a certain deva heard, and through the medium of a layman caused the necessary food to be given when the venerable Moggallana went on his begging round. The venerable Sariputta discovered that he had obtained the food through the intervention of a deity. He refused it as it was obtained by vocal intimation, which was contrary to the laws of Right Livelihood.  Ordering venerable Moggallana to throw it away he said,

“My bowels may protrude and get out, yet ne’er For life itself would I violate livelihood.”

Humor is a characteristic of great men, and the venerable Sariputta was not an exception. In the Jataka commentary it appears that a certain avaricious bhikkhu approached him and desired to know how he could get gain, dress and the like.

“Brother,” he replied, there are four qualities, which make a man successful in getting gains. He must get rid of modesty from his heart and giving up the state of a bhikkhu should appear to be mad even when he is not. He must speak slander; he must behave like a slanderer; he must use unkind words everywhere.”

The Rathavinita Sutta gives an interesting dialogue that took place between the venerable Sariputta and venerable Punna, which tends to illustrate his modesty and unassuming behavior.

The venerable Sariputta once heard the Buddha extolling the virtues of venerable Punna, the son of Mantani. Since then he was seeking an opportunity to meet this venerable thera and hold a religious discourse with him. One day he met the thera in a forest and respectfully questioned him as to his object in living the Holy Life. Not knowing who this inquisitive brother was, he explained at length the object of living the holy life.

The discourse being over the venerable Sariputta exclaimed

“Wonderful, brother! Marvellous, brother! Happy those fellow bhikkhus to whom it is vouched to look upon the venerable Punna and to dwell in his company. And we also are favoured, highly favoured in that it has been granted to us to behold the venerable Punna and to sit in his company.” Thereupon the venerable Punna desired to know the name of this kind-hearted and humble friend.

“Upatissa, friend, is my name. And I am known among my fellow disciples as Sariputta. Mixed with feelings of delight and admiration he said,

 “Conversing with the venerable disciple, who as they say is like the Teacher Himself, we knew not, ‘This is the venerable Sariputta. Happy, supremely happy indeed are those fellow bhikkhus to whom it is vouchsafed to look upon the venerable Sariputta, and to dwell in his company. And we also are favoured, highlky favoured in that it has been granted to us to behold the venerable Sariputta and sit by his side.

His gratefulness also knew no bounds.

On one occasion a certain old Brahmin named Radha came to the Buddha seeking ordination. The Buddha questioned the bhikkhus whether they could remember any good the Brahmin had done. Promptly the venerable Sariputta answered that he could recollect well that the Brahmin had once offered him some food when he went on his begging tour.

The Buddha praised him for his over-flowing gratitude and ordered him to admit the good Brahmin into the Order.

“Do you also Ananda, approve of our Sariuptta?” questioned the Buddha in the Susima Suttanta of the Majjhima Nikaya.

“Nay, but who, lord, that is not childish, or corrupt, or stupid, or of perverted mind would not approve of the venerable Sariputta.”

“Wise, Lord, is the venerable Sariputta, comprehensive and manifold is his wisdom; joyous and swift is his wisdom; sharp and fastidious is his wisdom; of no desires is he, lord and contented is the venerable Sariputta. Loving seclusion and detachment is he. Of rampant energy is the venerable Sariputta. A preacher (insistent), accepting advice, a critic (codaka), one who denounces evis (papgarani), is the venerable Sariputta.

“It is even so, Ananda! It is even so!” said the Blessed One. “All that you have said I repeat and confirm.”

Whilst the venerable Ananda was reciting his phrases Susima Devaputta approached the Buddha and said, “It is even so, exalted One! All that has been said I repeat and confirm. I, too, lord, to whatever company I go, I hear just these words on every hand.”

His delight was so great that he burst forth into a paean of joy,

“Wise is he! So we reckon, one and all,

Our Sariputta gentle, meek, and mild,

Of no desires, self-mastered and a seer

Who hath the Master’s praises rightly earned.”

His Parinibbana

During the very year the Buddha was to pass away, one day as the venerable Sariputta rose from his solitary meditation, the following thought occurred to him, Do Buddhas attain Parinibbana first or the chief disciples?

With his divine sight he found out that disciples pass away before the Buddha. Thereupon he looked forward for his age limit and realized that his life’s span extended only for seven days more. Then he recalled the fact that the venerable Rahula attained to Parinibbana in the Tavatimsa heaven and venerable Kondanna near the Chaddanta Lake. He therefore reflected within himself where he should attain Parinibbana. His thoughts gravitated towards his mother, and finally decided to visit her and pass away in the very place where he was born.

Accordingly he took leave of the Buddha and proceeded to his native village. The unconverted mother reluctantly welcomed him and his disciples. Just before his death the venerable Sariputta spoke on the virtues of the Buddha to his aged mother. Hearing which, she attained Sotapatti, the first stage of Sainthood.

Having rendered this single and the last service to his mother, he summoned all his disciples to his presence.

His time was drawing near. His death was close at hand. His life’s span was limited only to a few moments.

It was early morning. The sun had not yet risen in the eastern sky. Birds, beasts, and men were taking their repose in deep silence, when far away from his beloved teacher, the venerable Sariputta, the dear son of the beautiful lady Sari, the unrivalled General of the Dhamma, the first chief disciple of the Buddha, deeply venerated by his lay-followers, greatly admired by his brothers in the Holy Order, highly praised by the Master, passed away on the full moon day of the month of Kattika (November) into that everlasting Peace of Nibbana with the final exhortation,

“Sampadetha’ppamadena – esa me anusasani

“Press on with earnestness and win the goal
This the exhortation I give to you”.

The Commentary states that after his Parinibbana, the Buddha held the white-colored relics of the venerable Sariputta in His hand and extolled his virtues in five hundred verses.