The Amitabha Sutra - The Leading Disciples
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Among them were his leading disciples,
such figures as the Elders Shariputra,
Mahakatyayana, and Mahakausthila,
Revata, Suddhipanthaka, Nanda, Ananda,
Rahula, Gavampati, Pindola-bharadvaja,
Kalodayin, Mahakapphina, Vakula, and
Aniruddha . . . [and others such as these],
all great disciples.
Next in the sutra, we learn of the leading arhats in the assembly who stayed by Sakyamuni Buddha’s side. Each of them had a special ability that was well known. Learning more about who these arhats were and what they accomplished, or sometimes failed at, in their various lifetimes is in itself a teaching. Some arhats represented cause and effect, while others symbolized various aspects of cultivation including humility, patience, open-mindedness, filial piety, compassion, perseverance.
The first arhat named was the Elder Sariputra.
To be considered an elder in the Buddhist community, one had to be virtuous and learned, have a good reputation, and have been a monastic for a long time. The first two arhat elders named in the sutra, Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana, were the Buddha’s chief students.
Among the arhat students, Sariputra was the foremost in wisdom. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence. While we can use intelligence in both good and bad ways, with wisdom, we will naturally know what is good and what is bad.
As readers of a sutra, our confidence in its principles and methods can increase as we learn which highly respected arhats, bodhisattvas, and others were present in a particular assembly. For example, just as Sariputra was the foremost of the arhats in wisdom, Manjusri was the foremost among the bodhisattvas in wisdom. So, among the arhats and the bodhisattvas, those who were foremost in wisdom were named first in their respective sections of the sutra. This order of the names carries a very profound meaning: to choose and practice this sutra—this Dharma door—a practitioner must have wisdom.
Sariputra was also known for his patience and self control. We read in the sutras that one time in Sravasti, a group of men were speaking in praise of Sariputra. A man passing by overheard them say that Sariputra had great patience and was always calm, never angry. The passer-by interjected that this must be because no one had ever irritated the arhat!
Determined to test this, the man went off in search of Sariputra. Finding him on his alms round, the man came up behind Sariputra and struck him. Sariputra calmly continued walking without even looking back. It was as if nothing had happened. Feeling ashamed, the man caught up with Sariputra and begged for his pardon. When mildly asked the reason, the man admitted that he had intentionally struck Sariputra to test his patience.
Sariputra forgave the man, who then invited Sariputra to his home to eat. When they came out of the house afterward, they found that a crowd had gathered. Having heard of the incident, people wanted to punish the man. Sariputra asked the crowd who had been struck. Himself ? Or those in the crowd? They answered that it was Sariputra. Sariputra replied that he had already forgiven the man. And with that, he dispersed the crowd.
The second arhat named in the sutra was Mahamaudgalyayana, who was the foremost in extraordinary powers.
A Sanskrit word, Maha means “great.” We learn in the Ullambana Sutra how Mahamaudgalyayana, wishing to repay the kindness of his parents for giving him life, used his powers to learn where his deceased mother had been reborn. Finding that she was reborn as a hungry ghost, he brought her food. But when she tried to place it in her mouth, the food turned into burning coals. In anguish, Mahamaudgalyayana went to the Buddha and asked him how to help his mother. The Buddha told Mahamaudgalyayana that his mother’s rebirth as a hungry ghost was due to her past karmas. He then taught Mahamaudgalyayana how she and other parents, living and deceased, could be helped. The teaching put into practice, Mahamaudgalyayana’s tears and grief faded away when he saw his mother released from her rebirth as a hungry ghost.
In another sutra, we read of a time when the Buddha, accompanied by Mahamaudgalyayana and other monastics, visited a kingdom to teach. The citizens ignored the Buddha, but bowed and made offerings to Mahamaudgalyayana! When the other monastics declared that it was not right, the Buddha calmly explained that in a past lifetime, he and Mahamaudgalyayana had lived close to one another. When bothered by bees, the future Buddha wanted to smoke them out from their nest. The future Mahamaudgalyayana not only declined to assist in this but also spoke of the suffering of the bees. He vowed to help them when he attained awakening.
Now the Buddha and Mahamaudgalyayana were together again. They found themselves in a kingdom where the queen bee of the former hive was the king, the drones were ministers, and the workers citizens. Having no affinity with the Buddha, these people ignored him. But due to their affinity with Mahamaudgalyayana, they revered the arhat and were happy to learn from him.
The next arhat named in the sutra was Mahakasyapa, who was foremost in ascetic practice. Kasyapa came from a very wealthy family, so his becoming an ascetic was noteworthy. Why would he give up everything and adopt such a rigorous method of practice? After all, ascetics lead lives of austere selfdiscipline, forgoing physical comfort and material enjoyment, and relinquishing personal viewpoints. Learning how Mahakasyapa lived, we conclude that his life was one of suffering. What we cannot imagine is that he was filled with joy, the joy that he found in his meditation. We may think that our life is happy or at least more comfortable than his was, but what Mahakasyapa saw was ordinary people, with all their desires, emotions, and expectations, living in a world of self-inflicted suffering. By renouncing craving and attachments, Mahakasyapa found that his mind became more tranquil and unobstructed, able to realize what ordinary people could not. We learn of an example of this when the Buddha once silently held up a flower in an assembly. While others merely looked on, Mahakasyapa alone smiled. The Buddha explained that he had just conveyed the Dharma door of unspoken direct transmission to Mahakasyapa. We also learn in the sutras that Mahakasyapa’s body radiated a golden light. What was the cause of this light? In a previous lifetime, Mahakasyapa was a goldsmith. A girl brought a statue of a Buddha to him and requested that he cover it with gold leaf. He happily did so but declined the girl’s offer of payment. Thus, they both accumulated the merits from adorning the image of a Buddha with gold. Their karmic reward for many lifetimes was that each of them had a good physical appearance that radiated golden light. The next arhat, Mahakatyayana, was foremost in debate. Due to his understanding and great eloquence, he skillfully expounded the teachings. The arhat named after him, Mahakausthila was foremost in question-and-answer discourse. A prominent figure who was rather self-confident, Kausthila liked to debate. When he debated his sister, he won every time. But after she became pregnant with the child who would later become the arhat Sariputra, Kausthila began losing debates to her, one after another. He decided that since his sister had previously always lost, it must be the unborn baby who was causing her to win. Kausthila, feeling that it would look bad if he were to lose a debate to his sister’s child in the future, went in search of teachers to learn from. Years later, he returned and heard that Sariputra had become a student of the Buddha. Convinced that this was a mistake, Kausthila went to the Buddha with the goal of winning a debate with him and getting Sariputra to return home. Instead, not only was Kausthila won over by the Buddha’s answers, he became the Buddha’s student as well! The arhat Revata was “foremost in remaining free of error and confusion.” The Amitabha Sutra talks about “single-mindedly and without confusion” and of “minds being unified and not chaotic.” Revata represented this clear, calm state of mind. He genuinely fulfilled the three refuges. He was awakened, not deluded; held correct views, not deviated ones; and maintained a pure mind, not a corrupted one. The arhat Suddhipanthaka was named next. In his earlier days with the sangha, Suddhipanthaka was the slowest of the Buddha’s students. His memory was so poor that he could not even remember a fourline verse that the arhats tried to teach him. His older brother, also a monastic, told Suddhipanthaka that he was too “stupid” to learn from the Buddha and that he should leave the sangha. Encountering the greatly distressed Suddhipanthaka, the Buddha asked him what had happened. When Suddhipanthaka replied that his brother had told him to leave, the Buddha gave Suddhipanthaka a broom and told him to sweep the grounds every day and to focus on the words “sweep clean” while he swept. Following the Buddha’s instructions, Suddhipanthaka swept the grounds and kept repeating “sweep clean, sweep clean.” Soon, not only was his mind swept clean, it was free of the affliction of views and thoughts. Thus, he attained the level of arhat. When the other arhats wondered how he accomplished this, the Buddha explained that Suddhipanthaka had been a highly accomplished Dharma master in a previous lifetime. But fearing that others would surpass him if he taught wholeheartedly, he always held back when teaching. This holding back resulted in his slow-wittedness in his current lifetime. Some of us may feel that we have limited abilities and a poor memory, and consequently cannot learn Buddhism. Suddhipanthaka set an example for us. Comparing ourselves to him, we will realize that our abilities are not nearly as limited as his were. So if he was able to succeed, surely we can as well! At the other extreme, those considering how profound Sariputra’s wisdom was will likely conclude that their wisdom does not come close to his. And yet, as wise as he was, Sariputra mindfully chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha. Isn’t it only logical for us to follow his example and also chant the buddha-name? The arhat Nanda, the Buddha’s younger half-brother, was foremost in comportment. Not only handsome, Nanda also had an excellent demeanor and a pleasing voice. After Nanda was the arhat Ananda. One of the Buddha’s cousins, Ananda was foremost in remembering the Buddha’s teachings. Ananda was also his personal attendant. Contrary to the slow Suddhipanthaka, Ananda needed to hear the Buddha’s teaching only once to remember and repeat it. He did so at the first council of five hundred great arhats, held shortly after the Buddha’s parinirvana. What Ananda recited had to be acknowledged by everyone as having been said by the Buddha. Thus approved, the teachings were recited and later written down. This method of repeating the teachers’ lectures is how the Buddha’s teachings have been passed down till today. Dharma masters continue to give their teachers’ lectures, just as Ananda did. This ensures that the lecturer will not make mistakes because the teachings will have been transmitted, through generations of monastics, from teacher to student. We can see an example of the gravity of saying something incorrect in the following account of a Dharma master who gave a wrong answer. The master had been asked, “Is an accomplished practitioner still governed by the law of cause and effect?” To this he answered incorrectly, “No, an accomplished practitioner is not governed by the law of cause and effect.” This wrong answer misled the questioner and resulted in the Dharma master’s negative karmic consequence of being reborn as a fox for 500 lifetimes. The fox, however, was diligent in its cultivation and succeeded in acquiring extraordinary powers, even the ability to appear as a human. Although it knew the karmic cause of why it was a fox, it could do nothing to change this karmic result. After encountering Master Baizhang, an awakened Zen Master, the fox in the form of an elderly man came to listen to Master Baizhang’s lectures every day. Others at the lectures became familiar with the man, but only Master Baizhang knew that he was actually a fox. One day, the fox told Master Baizhang its story and requested his help. Master Baizhang instructed it to return the next day and ask the same question. The following day, the fox came back and asked, “Is an accomplished practitioner still governed by the law of cause and effect?” Master Baizhang replied, “An accomplished practitioner is not ignorant of the law of cause and effect.” The master’s answer, “an accomplished practitioner is not ignorant of the law of cause and effect,” means the practitioner still has karmic retributions and is clear about these without any confusion. With the answer thus changed from “not governed by” to “not ignorant of,” the fox was able to end his lifetimes of being reborn as a fox. He died the next day. Master Baizhang, knowing the fox was now dead, retold its story and took some people to the mountain to bury the fox. If a lecturer says something wrong and this results in misleading people, the retribution is severe. Therefore, Dharma lecturers give their teachers’ lectures without interjecting personal opinions, a tradition passed down from Ananda till today. The arhat Rahula was foremost in never calling attention to his cultivation. The Buddha’s son, Rahula became a novice monk when he was very young. While it looked as though he was playing every day, the Buddha knew that his young son was practicing self-discipline, meditative concentration, and wisdom. Rahula is an excellent example of the Buddhist principle that substance is far more important than formality. The arhat Gavampati, whose name means “ruminating ox,” was foremost in receiving offerings from heavenly beings. The Buddha explained that in a past lifetime when Gavampati was a novice monk, he saw an old monk chanting a sutra. Due to his advanced age and the loss of many of his teeth, the old monk chanted very unclearly. The novice laughed, “When you chant a sutra, you look like an ox eating!” The old monk warned him to quickly repent. He explained, “I have attained arhatship. Because of your words, you will fall into the hells.” Terrified, the novice monk immediately repented, but he still suffered the karmic retribution of being reborn as an ox for several hundred lifetimes. Although Gavampati was now an arhat, he still had the habit of moving his mouth like an ox eating. If people laughed at him when he went on alms round, they would plant the same negative causes he had planted. Thus, out of compassion for those who would make offerings to Gavampati, the Buddha told him not to go on alms round with the others. Heavenly beings, because they knew that Gavampati was a great arhat, respected him. They would never ridicule him. And so, the Buddha told Gavampati to go to the heavens to receive offerings. The arhat Pindola-Bharadvaja was foremost for being a field of good fortune. Just as a well-planted field will yield crops, a field of good fortune will yield good karmic results to those who make offerings to deserving beings. One day, Pindola-Bharadvaja exhibited his extraordinary powers by ascending into the air to retrieve a sandalwood alms bowl that had been placed atop a high pole. As a result, the Buddha rebuked him for his exhibitionism and told him to remain in this world to enable people to gain good fortune by making offerings to him. And so, Pindola-Bharadvaja is still in this world serving as a field of good fortune. The arhat Kalodayin was foremost in propagating the teachings. Kalodayin possessed both wisdom and the knowledge of the methods most suitable for the circumstances and capabilities of those he helped. He was thus able to assist countless people to advance on the path to enlightenment. The arhat Mahakapphina was foremost in knowledge of the stars. When he was a layperson, he decided that he wanted to become a monastic student of the Buddha. On his way to visit the Buddha, he stayed overnight at a potter’s home, where he shared a room with a monk. That night the monk taught him about the Dharma. Due to this teaching, Mahakapphina attained the level of arhat. The monk was actually a manifestation of the Buddha who, upon perceiving Mahakapphina’s sincerity in becoming a monk, taught him the Dharma. The arhat Vakula was foremost in longevity. His long life was the result of his having made offerings to a gravely ill monk in a past lifetime, as well as having kept the precept of no killing for many lifetimes. In keeping this precept, Vakula had another outcome, a very rare one of having numerous rebirths as a human being. Health and longevity are karmic results from giving. Other outcomes are wealth and wisdom. The giving of wealth, material and non-material, will result in wealth. The giving of teachings will result in wisdom, and the giving of fearlessness will result in health and longevity. To be foremost in longevity among all the accomplished arhats at the assembly, Vakula must have extensively practiced the giving of fearlessness. Understanding the importance of good karmic outcomes, the Buddha encouraged the cultivation of both good fortune and wisdom. We can see the importance of cultivating both in the saying “Cultivating wisdom but not good fortune will result in an arhat not receiving any offerings. Cultivating good fortune but not wisdom will result in a royal elephant wearing precious jewels.” The first part describes a person who nurtured wisdom, but not good fortune. He attained arhatship, but because he had not cultivated good fortune, no one made offerings to him when he went on alms round. The second part describes a person who nurtured good fortune, but not wisdom. Having good fortune, he was reborn as a royal elephant, who when ridden by the king, wore many precious jewels. The arhat Aniruddha was foremost in the heavenly eye. While still a relatively new student of the Buddha, Aniruddha, who was another of the Buddha’s cousins, was admonished by him for sleeping too much. Aniruddha then applied himself so diligently that he did not sleep at all and thus became blind. As a result of this, the Buddha taught him a meditation that enabled him to attain the heavenly eye. Aniruddha was thus able to see a thousandfold world system. Additionally, a long, long time ago, during one of Aniruddha’s past lives, there was a famine. Seeing an alms-seeker and realizing that no one was offering him any food, Aniruddha offered his own to the man. The man was actually a pratyekabuddha. As a result of his offering, Aniruddha received the karmic reward of being free from poverty for ninety-one kalpas. By learning about these members of the Buddha’s sangha, it is clear that they represented the cultural and intellectual elite of that time. They were respected for their wisdom and practice, as well as for their ability to clearly explain the profound teachings of the Buddha. Their presence in this Amitabha assembly, listening to the teaching on the Pure Land, demonstrates to people how invaluable this beautiful and utterly profound Pure Land Dharma door is. If one can believe, learn, and practice this Dharma door, the results will be beyond imagination. Sixteen arhats are named in the sutra—from the wise Sariputra to the slow Suddhipanthaka; from the young Rahula to the oldest arhat, Vakula; from the confident debater Mahakausthila to the ascetic Mahakasyapa. They all “rejoiced and faithfully accepted” this Pure Land sutra, which shows that all people—intelligent or dull, young or old, outgoing or contemplative— can accept and practice this teaching.
— Chapter 4, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
Photo credit link