Monday, January 20, 2014

The Buddha's chief disciple was black

Dhr. Seven (ed.), Wisdom Quarterly; Hellmuth Hecker, Maha-Moggallana, The Wheel Publication No. 263/264 (Buddhist Publication Society), German original Wissen und Wandel (magazine, XXII, 9/10), Bradford Griffith and Robert Bussewitz (transcribers) DharmaNet
The Buddha and his black chief male disciple, diverse representations (Wisdom Quarterly)
The Buddha may have had as many as 80,000 monastic human disciples (savakas, "hearers") during his 45 years of teaching with countless more devas who were able to attain liberating insight. But he only singled out four "chief disciples," two monks (Great Moggallāna and Sariputra) and two nuns (Uppalavanna and Khema). Great Moggallana had very dark black skin described as being the "color of a rain cloud." He was not African, of course, but Dravidian, from a wealthy and privileged Brahmin family in ancient north India. He may have been Indo-Ariyan nevertheless with very dark skin, usually depicted as blue as is customary in India. It is explained in Sri Lankan commentaries as being due to the residual effects of weighty past karma. But whatever the case, he was joyfully welcomed by the Buddha, ordained, and immediately singled out as a chief disciple. His special ability was helping bring new monks to full enlightenment after the Buddha attracted them to the Dharma and Sariputra aided them to stream entry (the first stage of enlightenment). Presumably, Upalavanna and Khema helped the Buddha in the same way with nuns. Great Moggallana was also singled out as "foremost in psychic powers." There are many stories of his putting them to good use, which is interesting because the Buddha -- who also possessed great supernormal abilities -- saw danger in them and normally discouraged their display.
3. Finding the Teaching
Without knowing anything of the Buddha, Great Moggallana (born as Kolita) and Sariputra (born as Upatissa) gave up their life as wandering ascetics and, after many years, returned to their home country of Magadha. This happened not long after the Buddha had delivered his first sutra setting in motion the Wheel of the Dharma at Benares (Varanasi, India).
But the two friends still had not given up hope, and they decided now to search separately, for doubling their chances. They agreed among themselves that if one first learned about a convincing path to liberation (the deathless, nirvana), he would quickly inform the other.
Black Ven. Sivali (109060883@N02/flickr)
At that time, when both were about 40 years old, the Buddha had sent out the first batch of enlightened missionary disciples, 61 in number, to proclaim the Teaching (Dharma) for the well-being and happiness of humans and devas. The Buddha himself had gone to Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha, where the great king of Magadha soon became his follower and donated the Bamboo Grove Monastery (Jetavana). At that monastery the Buddha was residing when Kolita and Upatissa returned to Rajagaha, staying at their teacher Sanjaya's place.

One day Upatissa went to town while Kolita stayed back at their dwelling. Kolita saw his friend returning. Never had he seen him like that: his entire being seemed to be transformed, his appearance was buoyant and radiant. Eagerly Kolita asked him:

"Your features are serene, dear friend, and your complexion is bright and clear. Did it happen that you have found the road to enlightenement, the path to liberation from all suffering?"
Upatissa replied: "It is so, dear friend, the path to the deathless has been found!" He then reported how it happened....
Of things arisen from conditions
the Wayfarer the condition told
and what is their cessation,
that, too, the Great Ascetic proclaimed.
When Upatissa heard this stanza, the vision of Truth (the "Dharma-eye") arose in him on the spot, and the very same happened to Kolita when he listened to the stanza retold by his friend. He, too, realized: Whatever arises is bound to pass away.

The realization that was evoked by this stanza, may be called a truly mystical event. For us, these four lines do not contain an explanation explicit enough for a full understanding. The deeper and wider meaning of the stanza reveals itself only to those who have trained themselves [and can discern the Four Noble Truths in it] for a long time in wisdom and renunciation and have reflected long upon the impermanent and thed eathless, the conditioned and the unconditioned.....
After Kolita listened to that powerful stanza, he asked at once where the Great Ascetic, the Perfected One, the Buddha was staying. Hearing that he was dwelling nearby at the Bamboo Grove Monastery, he wished to go there immediately....

4. The Struggle for Realization
The Buddha teaching monastic disciples, bas relief, Songkla, Thailand, rooftop pyramid
Now the two friends, at the head of the 250 fellow ascetics, approached the Bamboo Grove. There the Buddha was just teaching Dharma to his disciples. And when he saw the two friends approaching, the Enlightened One said: "Here, disciples, they are coming, the two friends Kolita and Upatissa. They will be my chief (male) disciples, a blessed pair!"

Having arrived, all respectfully saluted the Buddha, raising their folded palms to the forehead and bowing at the feet of the meditation Master. Then the two friends spoke: "May we be permitted, O venerable sir, to obtain under the Blessed One the going-forth and the full admission?"

Then the Blessed One responded: "Come, monks! Well proclaimed is the Teaching. Live now the life of purity for making an end of suffering!" These brief words served to bestow ordination on the two friends and their following.
From then on Upatissa was called Sariputta ("the son of Sari," his mother) and Kolita was called Maha-Moggallana ("the Great One of the Moggallana clan") to distinguish him from other Buddhist monks from that same clan.
After all of them had obtained ordination, the Buddha addressed the 250 disciples and explained to them the Teaching in such a way that before long they attained to the first stage of enlightenment, stream-entry, and in due course became fully enlightened. Sariputra and Great Moggallana, however, went into solitude, but this time separate from each other.
Sariputta remained in the vicinity of Rajagaha and went to meditate in a cave called "Bear's Den." From there he walked to the city for his alms, which afforded him the opportunity to listen often to the Buddha's discourses. What he had heard he independently worked over on his own and methodically penetrated to a clear understanding of the mind and its laws. He needed 14 days to reach full enlightenment, the utter destruction of all defilement (asavas).
Great Moggallana, however, for reasons not known to us, chose as his abode the forests near the village of Kallavalaputta in Magadha. With great zeal, he meditated there while sitting or walking up and down. But in these efforts, he was often overcome by sleepiness. Though he did not wish to fall asleep, he was unable to keep his body erect and his head upright. There were times when he had to keep his eyes open even by force of will.

The tropical heat, the strain of long years of a wandering life, and the inner tensions he had gone through perhaps explain how now, at the end of his quest, his body reacted with fatigue.
But the Awakened One, with a great teacher's care for his disciples, did not lose sight of him. With his supernormal vision he perceived the difficulties of the new monk, and by magic power he appeared before him. When Moggallana saw the Buddha standing before him, a good part of his fatigue had already vanished. Now the Awakened One asked him:

"Are you nodding, Moggallana, are you nodding?"
"Yes, venerable sir."

1. "Well then, Moggallana, at whatever thought drowsiness befalls you, to that thought you should not give attention and not dwell on that thought. Then, by doing so, it is possible that your drowsiness will vanish. (The Buddha gave many more step-by-step instructions for staying awake). More 

"Nay, not for this that you may slumber long,
Comes the night, in starry garlands wreathed.
For vigils by the wise this night is here." 
Theragatha, Verse 193 (trans. by C.A.F. Rhys Davids)

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