Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The February Full Moon in Buddhist History

Translated by Wisdom Quarterly (Sri Lanka Guardian, Feb. 17, 2011)
Vulture's Peak, Rajgir, which has never had vultures just rocks reminiscent of them.

The moonth's full moon lunar observance day (called the Navam Pura Pasalosvaka Poya Day by Sri Lankan Buddhists) is associated with two very significant incidents in Buddhist history.

The Sangha (Order of Monastics) congregated officially for the first time to convene the First Buddhist Council on this day, and the Buddha's two chief male disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, were appointed. (When he appointed the two chief female disciples, Khema and Uppalavanna, is not clear).

The first Buddhist Council was held three months after the passing into final nirvana of the Buddha. It was chaired by one of the senior most monks of the Order, the brahmin Mahakassapa.

A large number of monastics participated in the council. Mahakassapa kept a vacant seat for Ananda, who was not yet fully enlightened. He strained to realize the liberating truth and upon relaxing, before his head could hit the pillow, he awakened to the utmost becoming an arhat on the eve of the council. He participated and played a key role in the council, reciting the sutra portion.

  • The discourse collection contains more than 10,000 sutras (teachings) attributed to the Buddha. They begin with Ananda saying "Thus have I heard" to indicate that he heard and learned them directly from the Buddha.

The astounding memory he exhibited was the result of more than 20 years as a monk rehearsing in the oral tradition and verifying his memory as the Buddha's attendant. Ananda, one of the Ten Great Disciples, whose brother was the infamous Devadatta (the Buddhist "Judas"), was a cousin of the Buddha. Moreover, they had been affiliated over many lives (as recorded in the Jataka Tales).

The commentaries tell how this First Council collected together the monastic disciplinary code (Vinaya) and the Dharma in five collections. (The Abhidharma, "higher teaching," a systematic treatment of the Buddha's teachings that assumed a prominent position in Buddhism later, although legend has it that it was composed by the Buddha in a space world for the benefit of his deceased mother and other devas in the Realm of the Thirty-three).

Related to the English word suture, sutra literally means a thread or single strand. This thread contains prosaic texts or "jewels" strung together on a theme. The discourses are ascribed to Ananda, who we suppose retained them in memory through the traditional Indian recitation method (which systematizes sutras into a streamlined form using stereotype texts and shorthand references that are unpacked in the customary Indian commentarial tradition).

Ananda chanted them at the council; he was, however, not the only one in possession of them. Many bands of monastics had been assigned sections to commit to memory, practice, and recite for others.

The Buddha's India, the "Middle Country" in the Rose Apple Land (Jambudvipa), mostly in the mahajanapada of Magadha.

The First Council was held in Rajagaha, the royal city ringed by seven hills on the Gangetic plains, near the modern town of Rajgir, in the Patna District, in the Indian state of Bihar. It was at that time the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha, one of the most prosperous and bustling cities in ancient India.

Vulture's Peak is one of the seven hills as is the famous Isigili. A large monastery, the famous Bamboo Grove, the ruins of which are still intact, is found just outside the city gates.

According to late commentarial accounts, King Ajatasatta (the son of the enlightened King Bimbisara, a devoted supporter of the Buddha) sponsored the First Council. Tradition holds that the council was held in a hall erected by Ajatasatta outside Saptaparni (also Sattaparnaguha and Sattapanniguha) in Rajgir.

Mahakassapa presided over the First Council. Following Ananda, Upali, yet another of the Ten Great Disciples, recited the disciplinary rules and likely also their origin stories. Upali was known as foremost in observing the precepts, having joined the Order at the same time as Anuruddha, Ananda, and Devadatta.

The brahmin seekers Upatissa (who had recently become a stream-enterer) and Kolita, who came to be called Sariputra and Moggallana, with their retinue.

The other important incident that is commemorated on this lunar observance day is the appointment of the brahmin friends Sariputta and Moggallana as chief disciples.

He announced that they were his chief disciples when he first spotted them approaching from a distance, which upset and puzzled monks of long standing who were closer to him.

As he explained, his designations were not his doing. In a sense, those foremost in various abilities or predilections (and there were at least 80) appointed themselves long ago in past lives. Their wish to be designated, their merit, and the sure prediction they received led to their finding their way to a buddha to realize their goal.

It was simply the working out of very meritorious karma and interacting with the Bodhisatta as a cohort over various lives. (Why we meet people, why we jibe, why we act out in certain ways -- all of this is rooted in past habits that became traits that became "destinies" of sorts, or so we learn from sutras and Jataka Tales).

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