Monday, December 28, 2009

The Killing of Maha Moggallana

Crossroads by Martin Liebermann (c) (Zeitspuren/

One who does harm with weapons to those who are harmless and should therefore not be harmed will soon come to one or more of these ten consequences (Verse 137):

One will be subject to severe pain, impoverishment, injury to the body (i.e., loss of limbs), serious illness (e.g., leprosy), lunacy, misfortunes following the wrath of a ruler, wrongful and serious accusations, loss of relatives, destruction of wealth, or the loss of home by fire or lightning. After the dissolution of the body, the foolish perpetrator will be reborn in the plane of continuous suffering (niraya) (Vv. 138-140).

The Story of Elder Maha Moggallana (Dhammapada Story, Maha Moggallanatthera Vatthu)
While residing at Jetavana monastery, the Buddha uttered Verses 137-140 of this book with reference to Ven. Maha Moggallana.

Once, the Nigantha [Jain] ascetics planned to have the great chief disciple assassinated. They thought that by doing away with him, the fame and fortune of the Buddha would be diminished. So [it is said] they hired some men to kill Maha Moggallana, age 84, who was then staying at Kalasila near Rajagaha.

The assassins surrounded his quarters. But Maha Moggallana, with his supernormal power [of bodily mastery], escaped through a keyhole and then through the roof. The would-be killers could not get hold of the elder for two months. When the assassins again surrounded him on the third month, Maha Moggallana, recollecting that he had yet to exhaust the woeful karma for an unwholesome deeds done by him during one of his past births, did not exercise his supernormal power.

He was caught. The assassins beat him until his bones were pulverized and left his body for dead in a bush. But the great elder, through his jhanic power, revived himself and went to see the Buddha at Jetavana. When he informed the Buddha that he would soon realize parinirvana (the final passing of an enlightened being) at Kalasila, the Buddha told him to go only after expounding the Dharma to the congregation of monastics, as that would be the last time they would see him. So Maha Moggallana expounded the Dharma and left after paying obeisance seven times to his beloved teacher the Buddha.

The news of Maha Moggallana's passing at the hands of assassins spread like wildfire. King Ajatasattu ordered his men to investigate and apprehend the culprits. The assassins were caught and burned to death.

The monastics felt great sorrow over the death and could not understand why such an exalted personage as a chief disciple of the Buddha should die at the hands of assassins.

The Buddha explained, "Monastics! Considering that Moggallana had lived a noble life in this birth, he should not have met with such a death. But in one of his past births, he had done a great wrong to his own parents, who were both blind: In the beginning, he was a very dutiful son. But after his marriage, his wife began to make trouble and suggested that he should get rid of his parents.

"He took his blind parents in a cart into a forest. And there he killed them by beating them and making them believe that it was some thief who was beating them. For that evil deed he suffered in niraya for a long time. And in this birth, his last, he has died at the hands of assassins. Indeed, by doing wrong to those who should not be wronged, one is sure to suffer for it." Then the Buddha spoke in verse (Dhp. Vv. 137-140).

The Death of Maha Moggallana in detail
Hellmuth Hecker (information gathered from various canonical sources)

The Buddha, surrounded by many of his disciples, passed away peacefully during a series of meditative absorptions, which he entered with perfect mastery. Sariputra's death in his parental home, likewise with his disciples in attendance, was similarly serene, though...he had been ill before his end. Ananda died at the age of 120, before which he entered with meditative skill the fire element so that his body vanished in a blaze, as he did not wish to burden anyone by his funeral.

Considering the serene death of the Buddha and these two disciples, one would have expected that, in the case of Maha Moggallana too, the final dissolution of the body at death would take place in external circumstances of a similarly peaceful nature. But in Moggallana's case it was very different, though the gruesome nature of his death did not shake his firm and serene mind.

He passed away two weeks after his friend Sariputra, on the new moon day of the month Kattika (October/November). The Great Demise of the Buddha took place in the full-moon night of the month Vesakha (May), six months after the death of his two chief male disciples. The Buddha was in his 80th year when he passed away, while both Sariputra and Maha Moggallana died at 84. These were the circumstances of Moggallana's death.

After the death of Nathaputta [Mahavira, the founder of Jainism], the leader of the ascetic Order of the Jains [Note 10], there arose among the Jains bitter contentions about his teaching, and consequently there was a loss of devoted adherents and of support. The Jains had also learned what Moggallana reported from his celestial travels: that virtuous devotees of the Buddha were seen to have a heavenly rebirth, while followers of other sects lacking moral conduct, had fallen into miserable, subhuman states of existence. This, too, contributed to the decline in the reputation of other sects, including the Jains.

Particularly the very lowest type of Jains in Magadha were so enraged about that loss of public esteem and support that they wanted to get rid of Maha Moggallana. Without investigating the causes in themselves, they projected blame externally and concentrated their envy and hate on Maha Moggallana. Hesitating to commit murder themselves, they conceived another plan. Even in those days there were professional criminals ready to kill for a fee. There are always unscrupulous men willing to do anything for money. So some wrong-minded Jains hired such a gang and ordered them to kill Maha Moggallana.

At that time, Maha Moggallana lived alone in a forest hut at Kalasila. After his encounter with Mara [MN 50] he knew that the end of his days was near. Having enjoyed the bliss of liberation, he now felt the body to be just an obstruction and burden. Hence he had no desire to make use of his faculties and keep the body alive for the rest of the [kappa, the life expectancy, which was then 120]. Yet, when he saw the assassins approaching, he just absented himself by using his supernormal powers. The gangsters arrived at an empty hut, and though they searched everywhere, they could not find him.

They left disappointed but returned on the following day. On six consecutive days Maha Moggallana escaped from them in the same way. His motivation was not the protection of his own body, but saving them from the fearsome karmic consequences of such a murderous deed, necessarily leading to rebirth in the dismalest of hells. He wanted to spare them such a fate by giving them time to reconsider and abstain from their crime.

But their greed for the promised money was so great that they persisted and returned even on the seventh day. Their persistence was "rewarded," for on that seventh day Maha Moggallana suddenly lost the magic control over his body. A heinous deed committed in days long past (by causing the death of his own parents) had not yet been expiated, and the ripening of that old karma confronted him now, just as others are suddenly confronted by a grave illness.

Maha Moggallana realized that he was now unable to escape. The assassins entered, knocked him down, smashed all his limbs, and left him lying in his blood. Being keen on quickly getting their reward and also somewhat ill as ease about their dastardly deed, they left at once, without a further look.

But Mah Moggallana's great physical and mental strength was such that his vital energies had not yet succumbed. He regained consciousness and was able to drag himself to the Buddha. There, in the Buddha's the source of the deepest peace, Maha Moggallana breathed his last (Jat. 522E). The inner peace in which he dwelt since he attained to sainthood never left him. It did not leave him even in the last seven days of his life, which had been so turbulent. But the threat of doom was only external.

This is the way of those who are finally "healed" and holy and are in control of the mind. Whatever karma of the past had been able to produce a result in his present life, nevertheless, it could affect only his body, but no longer "him," because "he" no longer identified himself with anything existing only impermanently. This last episode of Maha Moggallana's life, however, showed that the law of moral causality (karma) has even greater power than the supernormal feats of this master of magic. Only a Buddha can control the karmic consequences acting upon his body to such an extent that nothing might cause his premature death.

Sariputra and Maha Moggallana were such wonderful disciples that the Buddha said the assembly of monastis appeared empty to him after their death. It was marvelous, he said, that such an excellent pair of disciples existed. But it was marvelous, too, that, in spite of their excellence, there was no grief, no lamentation on the part of the Buddha, when the two had passed away [Note 11].

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