This article was originally published in Feng Shui Times on 25 October 2001.
A long time ago there was a rich man who lived in Varasani in ancient India. He was wealthy but miserly. So tight with his gold that he refused to spend a single cent to see a doctor when he was very ill. After his death, he was reborn as a poisonous snake and guarded all the gold he had amassed during his lifetime, which he had buried in a secret underground chamber.
After 5000 years, the snake died and was reborn as the same species of snake as before. He watched over the gold for another 5000 before finally realizing that in order for his to be reborn in another realm, he had to give away his gold for charity. Thus he approached an old man on the road. The elderly man was at first afraid and tried to escape but the snake assured that it would not harm him, for it would only add to its bad karma.
The snake led the old man to a rundown house and asked him to dig into the earth. The old man dug out a pot of gold and handed it to the abbot of a monastery, as instructed by the snake. He also took the snake to the temple so that it could pay homage to the Buddha. The snake then told the abbot that there were other pots of gold buried in various places. After the pots of gold were recovered and used for propagating the Dharma, the snake died and entered Trayastrinisa Heaven. In his next life, he was reborn into a noble family in ancient India and was named Sariputra.
Life of Sariputra
As mentioned earlier, Sariputra was born into a noble Brahman family in Magadha (southern India). He was a very bright and intelligent child, being able to fathom and memorize all the books he had read. During a banquet, he impressed a king so much that the king awarded a village to eight-year-old Sariputra.
At the age of 20, Sariputra left his home in search of the Truth of Life. He studied under a scholar and became best friends with Mogallana (known also as Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit). Both were extremely smart and knowledgeable and after a while, they left their teacher for they felt that there was nothing more he could teach them.
One day while walking on the street, Sariputra met Assaji. Assaji was one of Gautama Buddha’s first 5 disciples. Sariputra, who was very much impressed by Assaji’s calm and dignified demeanor approached the venerable and respectfully inquired his name and the name of his teacher.
Assaji told Sariputra his name and that of his teacher, Gautama Buddha. He also describe a little of the Buddha’s Teaching, which filled Sariputra with delight. He went home excitedly and told Mogallana the incident. Mogallana was so happy to know that they have found a worthy teacher at last that he shed tears of joy. The following day they gathered all their students (about 200 of them) and went to the Venuvana (bamboo) grove, where they became Buddha’s disciples.
Cultivation of Past Lives
There is a famous incident written in Buddhist scriptures about one of Sariputra’s previous lives. This happened during the early stages when Sariputra first vowed to become a Bodhisattva.
One day, a deva (Buddhism equivalent to an angel) came down to earth to test the young Sariputra’s determination to achieve Bodhisattvahood. He turned himself into a young man and cried when he saw Sariputra walking towards him. Sariputra asked him what happened and the man told him that his mother was suffering from a terminal disease. The doctor said that she could only be saved with a concoction of some herbs mixed with the eyeball of a monk. “Of course the herbs are easy to get but to obtain a monk’s eyeball? That’s impossible!” he lamented.
Sariputra, feeling extremely sorry for the young man decided to offer his eyeball to him in order to save his mother. On the spot, with much pain and difficulty, he dug out his left eyeball and gave it to the man. However the young man exclaimed that only the right eyeball could be used for the medicine. Sariputra was shocked to hear this, but only blamed himself for not asking the young man before digging out his eyeball. Without hesitating he dug out his right eyeball and handed it to the man.
The young man took the eyeball and smelled it. Ungratefully he threw the eyeball to the ground and scolded Sariputra, “This eyeball smells horrible! How can you expect me to use it as medicine for my mother?” With that he used his feet to squish the eyeball into a pitiful mess and walked away.
Sariputra thought, “It is not easy to save all beings and be a bodhisattva. I better concentrate on self-cultivation than saving others.”
Then several devas appeared in front of Sariputra and told him, “Don’t be discouraged. That was an arrangement by us to test your determination to become a bodhisattva. You should go forth and continue your efforts.”
By this, Sariputra’s will and compassion to save others returned. Thus for the next few kalpas he never stopped his spiritual practices. He finally achieved enlightenment in the lifetime that he met Gautama Buddha.
The 10 Great Disciples of Gautama Buddha
1. Mahakasyapa (first in asceticism)
2. Ananda (the first to hear the words of the Buddha)
3. Sariputra (first in wisdom)
4. Subhuti (first to express his feeling of impermanence)
5. Purna (the first to explain the guides to good laws)
6. Mogallana (first in possessing supernatural powers)
7. Katyayana (first in teaching the Dharma)
8. Aniruddha (first in attentiveness)
9. Upali (the first to take the precepts)
10. Rahula (first in esoteric practices and desire for instruction of the Dharma)
Sariputra is noted for his quickness and intelligence. His wisdom surpassed many and he was also good at observing and preaching the Dharma. It is said that he was fortunate to be trusted enough by the Buddha to lead a large number of disciples. When Rahula, the Buddha’s son joined the Order of Sangha, he was entrusted to Sariputra.
Sariputra is featured many times in certain sutras. Perhaps the most famous sutra in which Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva answered Sariputra’s question is the Heart Sutra, explaining that form and emptiness are the one and very same thing.
When the Buddha entered Nirvana at the age of 80, Sariputra is represented standing on His right hand side and Mogallana on His left. In kalpas to come, Sariputra will be reborn as Padmaprabha Buddha, meaning the Flower-Light Buddha.