It is said that whenever Sariputra gave advice, he showed infinite patience. He would admonish and instruct a hundred or even a thousand times, until his pupil was established in the fruition of stream-entry. Only then did he discharge him and give his advice to others. Very great was the number of those who, after receiving his instruction and following it faithfully, attained enlightenment.
In the discourse "The Exposition of the Truths" (MN 141) the Buddha says: "Sariputra is like a mother who brings forth, while Moggallana is like a nurse of that which has been brought forth. Sariputra trains to the fruit of stream-entry, and Moggallana trains to the highest goal."
Explaining this passage, the commentary says: "When Sariputra accepted pupils for training, whether they were ordained by him or by others, he favored them with his material and spiritual help, looked after them in sickness, gave them a subject of meditation, and at last, when he knew that they had become stream-winners and had risen above the dangers of [possible rebirth in] the lower worlds, he dismissed them in the confident knowledge that 'Now they can, by their own energy and effort [viriya], produce the higher stages of sainthood.' Having thus become free from concern about their future, he instructed new groups of pupils. But Maha Moggallana, when training pupils in the same way, did not give up concern for them until they had attained full enlightenment. This was because he felt, as was said by the Buddha: 'As even a little excrement is of a foul smell, I do not praise even the shortest spell of rebirth, be it no longer than a snap of the fingers.'"
Although the commentary to the Middle Length Discourse says that Sariputra used to lead his regular pupils only up to stream-entry, in individual cases he helped monks attain the higher stages of enlightenment. The commentary to the Verses of Uplift (Udana), for example, says that "at that time monks in higher training (sekha) often used to approach the Venerable Sariputra for a subject of meditation that could help them to attain the three higher Paths." It was after taking instruction from Sariputra that the Ven. Lakuntika Bhaddiya ("the Dwarf") attained full enlightenment (Udana VII.1) having been a stream-winner at the time. There is also the case of the Ven. Anuruddha, whom he his final breakthrough to enlightenment, as recorded in the Numerical Discourses (Tika-Nipata No. 128).
It was in this manner that Sariputra gave the help of the Dharma. He was a great leader of men and an outstanding spiritual adviser. To the latter task he brought not only a keen and perceptive understanding of the human mind, but also a warm, human interest in others, which must have been a great encouragement to those under his spiritual guidance. He was able to give generous praise where it was due. He was also keen at all times to meet noble monastics, particularly those whom the Buddha had commended.
One such monk was the Ven. Punna Mantaniputta. When Sariputra learned that he had arrived on a visit, he went to meet him. Without telling him who he was, he listened to Punna's great discourse, the Stage Coach Simile (MN 24). And when it was ended, he gave it high praise.
Ministering to the physical as well as spiritual needs of the monks under his charge, restraining them with kindly admonitions and encouraging them with the praise their efforts deserved, guiding them on the path, and showing in all he did that vital sympathetic interest which draws forth the best from a pupil, Sariputra combined the qualities of a perfect teacher with those of a perfect friend.
He was ready to help in every way, in small things as in great. Filled with the virtue of the supreme life (brahmacharya) himself, he was quick to see virtue in others. He was expert in developing it in those in whom it was latent, and among the first to extol it where it was in full flower. His was no cold, aloof perfection, but the richest intermingling of spiritual exaltation with the qualities that are finest and most endearing in a human being.
Two stanzas in the Psalms of the Elders (Theragatha 995, 996) relate, in words ascribed to Sariputra himself, the way in which he attained enlightenment. There he tells us: "It was to another that the Blessed One was teaching the Dharma. To the Dharma-preaching I listened intently for my own good. And not in vain, for freed from all defilements, I gained release."
In the next two verses (996, 997) Sariputra declares that he felt no inclination to develop the five supernormal powers (abhiñña). However, elsewhere in the texts (Iddhividha-Katha, Patisambhida Magga) credits him with possessing the intensive degree of meditative concentration called "the power of intervention by concentration" (samadhi-vipphara-iddhi), which is capable of intervening in certain normal physiological processes or other natural events.
This is illustrated by the anecdote in the Path of Purification (Chp. XII), which records that once when Sariputra was living with Maha Moggallana at Kapotakandara, he was sitting meditating in the open with his hair freshly shaved when he was given a malicious blow on the head by a mischievous spirit. The blow was a very severe one, but at the time it was given "the Elder was absorbed in meditative attainment; consequently he suffered no harm." The source of this story is the Verses of Uplift (Udana, IV.4) which continues the account as follows:
Maha Moggallana saw the incident [with his psychic faculties] and approached Sariputra to ask how he fared. He asked him: "Brother, are you comfortable? Are you doing well? Does nothing trouble you?"
"I am comfortable, brother Moggallana," said the Venerable Sariputra. "I am doing well, brother Moggallana. Only my head troubles me a little."
Whereupon Maha Moggallana said: "O wonderful is it, brother Sariputra! O marvelous is it, brother Sariputra! How great is the psychic power and how great is the might of the Venerable Sariputra! For just now, brother Sariputra, a certain demon gave you a blow on the head. And a mighty blow it was! With such a blow one might fell an elephant seven or seven and a half cubits high, or one might split a mountain peak. But the Venerable Sariputra says only this, 'I am comfortable, brother Moggallana. I am doing well, brother Moggallana. Only my head troubles me a little.'"
Then the Venerable Sariputra replied: "O wonderful is it, brother Moggallana! O marvelous is it, brother Moggallana! How great is the psychic power and how great is the might of the Venerable Moggallana, that he should see any demon at all! As for me, I have not seen so much as a mud-sprite!"