The Life of Sariputra

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The Life of SariputraSariputra (also spelled Sariputta or Shariputra) was one of the foremost disciples of the historical Buddha. According to the Theravada tradition, Sariputra realized enlightenment and became an arhat while still a young man. It was said he was second only to the Buddha in his ability to teach. He is credited with mastering and codifying the Buddha's Abhidharma teachings, which became the third "basket" of the Tripitika.

Sariputra's Early Life

According to Buddhist tradition, Sariputra was born into a Brahmin family, possibly near Nalanda, in the modern-day Indian state of Bahir. He originally was given the name Upatissa. He was born on the same day as another important disciple, Mahamaudgayalyana (Sanskrit), or Maha Moggalana (Pali), and the two were friends from their youths.

As young men, Sariputra and Mahamaudgayalyana vowed to realize enlightenment and became wandering ascetics together. One day they met one of the Buddha's first disciples, Asvajit (Assaji in Pali). Sariputra was struck by Asvajit's serenity, and he asked for teaching. Asvajit said,

"Of all those things that from a cause arise,
Tathagata the cause thereof has told;
And how they cease to be, that too he tells,
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse."

At these words, Sariputra had the first insight into enlightenment, and he and Mahamaudgayalyana sought out the Buddha for more teaching.

Disciple of the Buddha

According to Pali texts, just two weeks after becoming a monk of the Buddha, Sariputra was given the task of fanning the Buddha as he gave a sermon. As Sariputra listened closely to the Buddhas words, he realized great enlightenment and became an arhat. By then Mahamaudgayalyana had realized enlightenment also.

Sariputra and Mahamaudgayalyana were friends for the rest of their lives, sharing their experiences and insight. Sariputra made other friends in the sangha, in particular, Ananda, the Buddha's long-time attendant.

Sariputra had a generous spirit and never passed up an opportunity to help another realize enlightenment. If this meant frankness, pointing out faults, he did not hesitate to do so. However, his intentions were selfless, and he did not criticize others in other to build himself up.

He also tirelessly helped other monks and even cleaned up after them. He visited the sick and looked after the youngest and oldest among the sangha.

Some of Sariputra's sermons are recorded in the Sutta-pitika of the Pali Tipitika. For example, in the Maha-hatthipadopama Sutta (The Great Elephant Footprint Simile; Majjhima Nikaya 28), Sariputra spoke of Dependent Origination and the ephemeral nature of phenomena and the self. When the truth of this is realized, he said, there is nothing that can cause one distress.

"Now if other people insult, malign, exasperate, & harass a monk [who has discerned this], he discerns that 'A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact.' And he sees that contact is inconstant, feeling is inconstant, perception is inconstant, consciousness is inconstant. His mind, with the [earth] property as its object/support, leaps up, grows confident, steadfast, & released."

Abhidharma, or Basket of Special Teachings

The Abhidharma (or Abhidhamma) Pitaka is the third basket of the Tripitaka, which means "three baskets." The Abhidharma is an analysis of psychological, physical, and spiritual phenomena.

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha preached the Abhidharma in a god realm. When he returned to the human world, the Buddha explained the essence of the Abhidharma to Sariputra, who mastered and codified it into its final form. However, scholars, today believe the Abhidharma was written in the 3rd century BCE, two centuries after the Buddha and his disciples had passed into Parinirvana.

Sariputra's Last Task

When Sariputra knew he would die soon, he left the sangha and went home to his birthplace, to his mother. He thanked her for all she had done for him. Her son's presence gave the mother opening insight and put her on the path to enlightenment. Sariputra died in the room in which he was born. His great friend Mahamaudgayalyana, traveling elsewhere, also died within a short time. Not long after, the Buddha also died.

Sariputra in the Mahayana Sutras

The Mahayana Sutras are scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. Most were written between 100 BCE and 500 CE, although some could have been written later than that. The authors are unknown. Sariputra, as a literary character, makes an appearance in several of them.

Sariputra represents the "Hinayana" tradition in many of these sutras. In the Heart Sutra, for example, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva explains sunyata to Sariputra. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Sariputra finds himself switching bodies with a goddess. The goddess was making a point that gender doesn't matter in Nirvana.

In the Lotus Sutra, however, the Buddha predicts that someday Sariputra would become a Buddha.

By Barbara O'Brien