Sariputra

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Sariputra (Sanskrit) or Sariputta (Pāli) was one of two principal disciples of the Buddha. He became an Arhat renowned for his wisdom and is depicted in the Theravada tradition as one of the most important disciples of the Buddha.

Sariputra came from a Brahmin family and had already embarked on life as a spiritual ascetic when he encountered the teachings of the Buddha. Śāriputra had a close friend Mahamaudgalyayana (Pāli: Mahāmoggallāna), another wandering ascetic. They both renounced the world on the same day and became disciples of the sceptic Sanjaya Belatthiputta before converting to Buddhism.

After hearing of the Buddha's teachings from a monk named Assaji (Sanskrit: Asvajit), Sariputra sought out the Buddha and became an adherent to his teachings. These two are often depicted together with the Buddha, and several sutras regard interactions between Sariputra and Mahāmaudgalyāyana (who became renowned among the early Buddhists for his mastery of supernatural powers).

Enlarge picture
The stupa of Sariputta at Nalanda - where he was born and died.


In one somewhat comical scene involving the two friends, a mischievous yaksa (Pāli: yakkha) decides that it will attempt to irritate Sariputra by striking him on the head. Mahamaudgalyayana sees this occurring with his 'divine eye' (a clairvoyant-like faculty often attributed to powerful Buddhist monks, as well as other South Asian ascetics), and unsuccessfully attempts to warn Sariputra. However, due to his great spiritual mastery, Sariputra perceives the terrible blow that the yakkha delivers as only a light breeze. Mahamaudgalyayana approaches and expresses his amazement that Sariputra barely noticed the terrible blow; Sariputra replies in kind, amazed at the fact that Mahamaudgalyayana was able to perceive the invisible creature that dealt the blow.

Śāriputra was older than the Buddha and died shortly before him, an event that apparently caused great distress to Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and personal attendant. The Buddha gave a eulogy. He was noted for his compassion, patience and humility.

Sariputra often preached with the Buddha's approval and was awarded the title of 'General of the Dharma' (Pāli: Dhammasenāpati) for his propagation of the faith and is regarded as the founder of the Abhidharma tradition. Sariputra was one of the most highly praised disciples and in the Anupada Sutta, the Buddha declared him to be a true spiritual son and His chief assistant in "turning the Wheel of the Dhamma":

If one could ever say rightly of one that he is the Blessed One’s true son, born of His speech, born of the Dhamma, formed of the Dhamma, heir to the Dhamma (not heir to worldly benefit), it is of Sariputta that one could thus rightly declare.


After me, O monks, Sariputta rightly turns the Supreme Wheel of the Dhamma even as I have turned it."

Sariputta in Mahayana

While depictions of Sariputra in the Pali Canon are uniformly positive, showing Sariputra as a wise and powerful arhat, second only to the Buddha, his depiction in Mahayana sources has often been much less flattering. In the Vimalakirtinirdesa-sutra and the Lotus Sutra, Sariputra is depicted as the voice of the Hinayana or sravaka tradition, which is presented in those Mahayana sutras as a 'less sophisticated' teaching. In these sutras, Sariputta is unable to readily grasp the Mahayana doctrines presented by Vimalakirti and others, and is rebuked or defeated in debate by a number of interlocutors, including a female deity (deva) who frustrates Sariputra's 'Hinayana' assumptions regarding gender and form.

A dialogue between Śāriputra and Avalokitesvara is the context of the Heart Sutra, a brief but essential text in the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition as practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan.

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