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Sariputta and Moggallana – The Buddha’s Chief Disciples
My commentary on the narrative is italicised.
Shortly before Siddartha Gotama, the future Buddha’s birth, Upatissa and Kolita were born on the same day in neighboring towns. Their parents were highly respected. As such, according to custom, their names are in reference to the towns they were born in. They would become two of the most accomplished and important members of the original Sangha becoming known as Venerable Sariputta and Venerable Moggallana.
They both possessed great intellect and thirst for knowledge and excelled at intellectual and recreational pursuits. Both developed large followings and enjoyed the trappings of wealth, position, and power.
As they entered early adulthood they became uneasy with what they were seeing around them. Much like Siddhartha Gotama a few years later, they became confused and apprehensive noticing the competitiveness and aggressiveness of those around them. They were beginning to become disappointed in the fleeting nature of life and of sensory indulgences. They both questioned what they were observing. If life was so fleeting, so uncertain, would not their time be better spent gaining an understanding of human life rather than continued indulgence in temporary and ultimately unsatisfactory experiences? They hoped to learn something of truly useful value that they could then bring to the world.
They both left their homes and entered into the life of homelessness, the life of wandering ascetics. Again, much like Siddharth Gotama’s experience wandering around Northern India. They likely encountered some of the same spiritual teachers as young Siddartha. They too found no useful understanding. They returned to the region of their birth, Rajagaha.
They agreed that whichever of them found the understanding they were seeking, they would inform the other. By this time, Siddhartha Gotama had developed profound Right View, ending ignorance within him. Siddartha had accomplished the task of awakening. He was now a Buddha.
Siddhartha had promised King Bimbisara that, upon his awakening, he would return to Rajagaha and teach him what he had discovered. The Buddha spent the few months after his awakening in Uruvela, (now Bodh Gaya) teaching locally while waiting for the rainy season to end.
When the rainy season ended, the Buddha left to fulfill his promise to the King. Upon Siddartha’s return, he instructed the King in the Dhamma. King Bimbisara, grateful to the young Buddha, established the Bamboo Grove Monastery for the Buddha and his growing followers. One of these followers was Assaji. Assaji was one of the five ascetics that wandered with Siddhartha prior to his awakening. Asaji was on his alms round one day when Upatissa noticed him on the road, impressed by Assaji’s calm presence.
Upatissa, not wanting to interrupt Assaji on his alms round, waited for Assaji to relax and have his meal. Then, Upatissa asked Assaji who his teacher was. Assaji told him of the Buddha, a Rightly Self-Awakened One. Upatissa asked what this teacher proclaimed.
Assaji told Upatissa that he has only been a disciple of the Tathagata for a short while but will explain his teachings as succinctly as he could: “All things arise from a cause, the cause is ignorance, and the path developing cessation (of ignorance) is an Eightfold Path. This is my teacher’s doctrine.”
Upon hearing these words Upatissa’s mind began to clear, and he realized that here were the means for his own understanding. He asked Asaji where he could find this great teacher. Assaji told him he was nearby in the Bamboo Grove Monastery.
Upatissa, thinking of his friend Kolita, told Assaji to go ahead. He would find his friend, and they would both see him soon.
Upon finding Kolita, he told him of his discovery. By his appearance, Kolita could sense that his friend had discovered something remarkable. Upatissa described what he had found, and they agreed to find the Buddha. Out of respect to one of their teachers, they decided to first go to the wanderer Sanjaya.
Coming upon Sanjaya, they told him that an awakened one, a Buddha, had appeared in the world. They said to him that his doctrine is well-received by many and that he had a large group of monks following his path. They hoped that Sanjaya would realize their sincerity and join them in traveling to the Buddha.
Sanjaya declined and offered Upatissa and Kolita senior positions in his sangha if they would stay and teach as one of his disciples. Upatissa and Kolita both declined and asked Sanjaya directly to come with them. Sanjaya told them they may go, but he could not.
They asked Sanjaya why he could not join them. Sanjaya told them: “I have a large following, teaching many. I cannot now become a student of another.”
Upatissa and Kolita pleaded with Sanjaya: “A Buddha has appeared in the world! Large crowds flock to him. We are going as well. What will become of you?”
Sanjaya replied: “What do you think? Are there more fools or wise people in the world?”
“Fools are many. The wise are few.”
Sanjaya replied: “That being so, the wise will go to the recluse Gotama, the fools will come to me, a fool (like them).”
What Sanjaya understands here is that a large number of followers does not determine the usefulness and effectiveness of any particular “Dharma.” Sanjaya is content to merely have followers, no matter how foolish they are, he is, or his teachings prove to be. Sanjaya knows that fools who wish to continue foolish Dharmas will continue to follow him. Those seeking wisdom and understanding will find a Dhamma and teacher grounded in the wisdom of an authentic Dhamma. It is an authentic Dhamma that determines the usefulness of the Dhamma, not the number of followers of any “lineage” may claim.
Upatissa and Kolita took their leave. A short while later there was a split among Sanjaya’s pupils with about half of his 500 followers also leaving to find the Awakened One.
When the two wanderers arrived at the Bamboo Grove Monastery, they found the Buddha teaching the Dhamma to a large group.
The Buddha noticed their arrival and addressed those gathered: “These two wanderers, Upatissa and Kolita will one day be my two chief disciples.”
Upatissa and Kolita approached the Buddha, bowed, and sat to one side. They requested the “Going Forth” – entry into the Sangha and training in the Dhamma.
The Buddha accepted them immediately and reinforced the effectiveness and purpose of the Dhamma: “Join us, Bhikkhus, live the pure life to end suffering.”
Avoiding dramatic ritualistic magical or mystical initiations or empowerments, the Buddha “ordained” Upatissa and Kolita. Their sincere desire and presence established their commitment to the Buddha, his Dhamma, and the Sangha. This is an acknowledgment of Right Intention – holding the intention to recognize and abandon craving for, and clinging to, wrong views rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths.
Upon ordination, Upatissa is given the name Sariputta, and Kolita is given the name Moggallana.
Moggallana left for a nearby town and developed wisdom, virtue, and concentration, the three elements of the Eightfold Path. In short order he attained the goal, his mind cleared.
Sariputta stayed with the Buddha. A few weeks later the Buddha was giving a discourse to Sariputta’s nephew, Dighanakha. The Buddha was expounding on the impermanence of feelings and thoughts – the arising and passing away. Sariputta listened with mindfulness rooted concentration. Upon hearing the Buddha’s words to his nephew, Sariputta’s mind cleared, and he attained arahantship.
In most narratives, there is a rather lengthy explanation of encounters between these actors throughout their past lives. An overemphasis on past lives was common during the Buddha’s time and continues today. The authority for most, but not all, references that overemphasize the importance of past lives is found in the Jataka Fables. (AKA Jataka Tales) The Jataka Fables are stories of past lives of the Buddha and other significant actors who were contemporaries of the historical Buddha. The Jataka Fables are included in the fifth book of the Sutta Pitaka of Pali Canon known as the Khuddaka Nikaya.
Most scholars agree that this fifth book was a convenient repository for material that, due to the subject matter, was deemed inappropriate for inclusion in the other four collections of suttas. In the case of the Jataka Fables, these tales were likely included to provide relevance to common beliefs of the time. When seen in the context of Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths, the fables can be useful in dramatizing the wisdom, virtue, and concentration necessary to fully develop the Eightfold Path. They often lead to confusion and further distraction when favorable past lives are seen as pre-requisite for awakening in this present life. This contradicts Dependent Origination, Four Noble Truths, and a skillful understanding of The Marks Of existence.
The Buddha did describe past lives much in the same manner as he describes Karma. The Buddha used the common word karma (Pali: Kamma) to show the proper understanding of a common word and concept by using the word in an uncommon manner. He used this strategy throughout his teaching career to show the significant difference between what he taught and what others believed and presented as doctrine. He did the same thing when mentioning past lives.
The Buddha would also discount the importance of knowledge of past lives and emphasize the Eightfold Path that united mind and body with what is occurring in our lives as our lives unfold. A careful and skillful understanding of the Buddha’s Dhamma shows the importance to develop profound concentration supporting the refined mindfulness necessary to hold in mind all factors of the Eightfold Path, and to establish profound Right View with what is occurring.
What these metaphorical tales do show is the importance of wholehearted and diligent development of the Eightfold Path in order to awaken in this present life. Awakening does not occur, nor is there any skillful insight gained, by over-emphasizing the establishment of a self in countless eons extending to the past or future. The Buddha teaches that awakening occurs with a mind united with its body in the present moment, free of ignorance of Four Truths. An overemphasis on past lives can prove to be extremely discouraging and be distracting to a mind rooted in wrong views, a creating a conditioned state of mind nearly impossible to overcome.
Avoiding overemphasizing past lives while being mindful of what is occurring in this present lifetime forms the foundation for awakening in this present lifetime. The Satipatthana  and Anapanasati  Suttas are skillful examples of this, as well as the Nagara Sutta,  where the Buddha describes his own awakening. Note the absence in these suttas of the Buddha placing any significance on past lives – and the singular importance of a Dhamma practice well-focused on the Eightfold Path.
The narrative continues with examples of both Sariputta’s and Moggallana’s significant contributions to the original Sangha. The Buddha would often talk about the importance of a Buddha having two arahants beside him increasing significantly the exposition and effectiveness of his Dhamma in entirely practical ways.
Both Sariputta and Moggallana were able to be examples to novices as well as established monks and nuns. They assisted in the administration of the Sangha as well as teaching when the Buddha was absent from the Sangha. They achieved greatness not because of what they were able to acquire – they lived simple and austere lives.
Sariputta and Moggallana continue to provide inspiration towards developing authentic and meaningful lives leading to awakening for all aspirants. The example of their determination to awaken, and their complete willingness to recognize Three Marks Of Existence  and abandon wrong views rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths. 
The following sutta is much like the Nagara Sutta in that Sariputta describes the mental qualities he developed that formed the foundation for his achieving arahantship
Upatissa Sutta: About Upatissa
Samyutta Nikaya 21.2
A monk well-established in the Heartwood of the Dhamma, Venerable Sariputta, addressed those gathered:
“Friends, as I withdrew from seclusion, I had these thoughts: ‘Knowing impermanence, when change occurs in the world, would sorrow, regret, pain, distress, and despair arise within me?’ Then I had these thoughts: ‘Knowing impermanence, when change occurs in the world, sorrow, regret, pain, distress, and despair would not arise within me!’
Venerable. Ananda was present and said to Venerable Sariputta, “Sariputta my friend, what if there were change in our Teacher, in the Tathagata, would sorrow, regret, pain, distress, and despa then arise within you?” (Change meaning if the Buddha passed on)
Sariputta replied: “Even if there were change in our Teacher, in the Tathagata, sorrow, regret, pain, distress, and despair would not arise within me. My mind would remain at peace. (From understanding impermanence and having released all self-referential views rooted in ignorance) I would then think ‘If our Teacher, if the Tathagata, were to remain in the world it would be for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of all beings.’
I would then think ‘a being of great purpose, of great accomplishment, of great prowess, has disappeared!’
Venerable Ananda, himself understanding the Three Marks of Existence, declared: “Venerable Sariputta’s I-making and mine-making and obsessions with conceit have long been uprooted. Even if change occurs to our Teacher, to the Tathagata, no sorrow, regret, pain, distress, or despair would arise within him.”
End Of Sutta
Kolita Sutta: Mahā Moggallāna
The Buddha was in Sāvatthī at Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Venerable Mahā Moggallāna was sitting nearby, established in mindfulness, well-concentrated, his mind united with his body.
The Buddha recognized the profound concentration supporting the refined mindfulness of Moggallana and declared:
With mindfulness immersed and well-established in the body,
restrained with regard to the six-sense base, well-concentrated,
this one can know unbinding for themselves. (unbinding from clinging to wrong views)
End Of Sutta
These concise teachingsdescribes the skillful insight developed through the Eightfold Path into Dukkha arising from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.
As Kondanna declared upon hearing the very first discourse of the Buddha; “All conditioned things that arise, are subject to cessation,” Sariputta and Ananda, having developed the Buddha’s Dhamma, are released from clinging to all wrong views, views ignorant of Four Noble Truths. Released from views ignorant of reality, their minds remain at peace no matter what occurs. From this profound understanding, they no longer cling to any temporary condition in the world, including the physical presence of their teacher.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.