Sunday, August 10, 2008


"Sariputta," Burmese antique gilded laquer figurine (

Śāriputra (Pāli, "Sāriputta"; Chinese "Sheli Fu") was, like the female chief disciple of the Buddha, designated "foremost in wisdom." He became an Arhat (fully enlightened) renowned for his wisdom and explaining the Dharma.

He is depicted in the Theravada tradition as one of the most important disciples of the Buddha. Śāriputra 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, Maha Moggallana (Sanskrit "Mahamaudgalyayana"), a Black disciple who was also a wandering ascetic. They both renounced the world on the same day and became disciples of the sceptic Sañjaya Belatthiputta before converting to Buddhism. (Read the story of their conversion).

After hearing of the Dharma from a monk named Assaji, Śāriputra sought out the Buddha and became an adherent to his teachings. The two male chief disciples are often depicted together with the Buddha, and several sutras regard interactions between Śāriputra and Moggallana (who became renowned among the early Buddhists for his mastery of supernatural powers and was designated by the Buddha as "foremost in psychic ability"). Their relics were lost and not recovered until 1851.

Sariputra, Indonesian wall depiction (ariaristides)

In one somewhat comical scene involving the two friends, a mischievous yakkha decides that it will attempt to irritate Śāriputra by striking him on the head. Moggallana sees this occurring with his "divine eye" (a clairvoyant faculty often attributed to powerful Buddhist monks, as well as other South and Southeast Asian ascetics). He unsuccessfully attempts to warn Śāriputra.

However, due to his own great spiritual mastery, Śāriputra perceives the terrible blow that the yakkha delivers as merely a light breeze. Moggallana approaches and expresses his amazement that Śāriputra barely noticed the terrible blow. Śāriputra replies in kind, amazed at the fact that Moggallana 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 most famous of the Buddha's disciples), the Buddha's cousin and personal attendant, who made Buddhism possible by memorizing every discourse and reciting them after the Buddha's nirvana). The Buddha gave a eulogy, noting his chief disciple for his compassion, patience and humility.

Sariputra drawing, Mexico (

Śāriputra often preached with the Buddha's express approval. Thus, he was eventually awarded the title of "Marshal of the Dharma" (Pāli, Dhammasenāpati) for his propagation of Buddhism. Furthermore, he is regarded the founder of the Abhidharma tradition (the higher or abstract-metaphysical teaching).

While depictions of Śāriputra in the Pali Canon are uniformly positive -- showing Śāriputra as a wise and able Arhat, second only to the Buddha -- his depiction in Mahayana ("great vehicle") Buddhist sources has often been much less flattering.

Mahayana "Sheli Fu" (

In the Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, Śāriputra is depicted as the voice of the less sophisticated Hinayana or sravaka (ascetic) tradition. He is unable to readily grasp the Mahayana doctrines presented by Vimalakirti and others. And he is rebuked or defeated in debate by a number of interlocutors, including a female deity (deva) who frustrates Śāriputra's Hinayana ("lesser vehicle") assumptions regarding gender and form.

A dialogue between Śāriputra and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara inspired the Heart Sutra, a brief but essential text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition as practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan.

The central figure on these Tibetan thangkas is the historical Gautama Buddha (a.k.a., Shakyamuni), seated center. He is samyak-sambuddha, "enlightened and enlightening." He has an ornate nimbus of animals, and Dharmachakra, topping them, which represent paramitas ("perfections"). Flanking Shakyamuni are his two chief disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana (

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