A Comedy of Errors

 4:4 (34) Moonlit (Juñha Sutta)

Thus has it been made known. Once the Blessed One was staying near Rājagaha, at the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels’ Feeding Sanctuary. At about that time the Venerable Sāriputta and Venerable Mahāmoggallāna were staying in the Pidgeon’s Grotto. Upon one moonlit night, the Venerable Sāriputta with his head newly shaven, was sitting in the open air while undergoing a certain profound concentration.

It was during this junction that two yakkhas who were close friends were traveling from north to south on some undetermined business. As they passed by the contemplating Sāriputta, one of them nudged his fellow companion saying, “It suddenly occurs to me to give this contemplative a fierce blow on the head.” Yet, the fellow yakkha quickly responded, “Hold-on there, friend. Don’t you realize who this is? He is a mighty recluse with outstanding powers and majesty!”

Then a second and yet a third time that yakkha stated his unsound intentions as his fellow companion urged him not to interfere with this exceptional arhat. But ignoring the dire warnings proceeded to strike with full force upon the crown of Venerable Sāriputta! Such a deadly blow might have knocked over an elephant seven or eight cubits tall, or split a great rocky crag, but upon delivering the blow the imprudent yakkha became bewildered and shrieked out in agony, “I’m on fire—I’m burning!” And with that the yakkha descended into a great hell.

The Venerable Mahāmoggallāna witnessed all that was occurring with the supernal-vision of his divine-eye—great and pure and thus surpassing any human trait, as he urgently approached the sitting Venerable Sāriputta and fervently inquired, “My dear friend! Are you OK? How are you faring after that awful blow? Are you in great pain?”

“I’m alright my dear Mahāmoggallāna. I’m holding up surprisingly well, although I do have a slight headache.”

“How astonishing, dear friend! That awful blow you received from that yakkha could have felled a great elephant or shattered the cleft of a mountain-peak! How amazing that you just feel a slight headache—it is indeed a marvel to behold!”

“It is really wonderful and marvelous, my dear Mahāmoggallāna, how with your own supernal might and majesty you actually witnessed that yakkha delivering his blow—why I didn’t discern even a mud-sprite being in the area!”

Now the Blessed One, with his divine-clairaudient ear far surpassing that of humans, distinctly heard the conversation taking place between the two Arahants. Upon realizing the great significance of the moment, uttered the following inspiring verse:

One whose mind stands steady as a mountain,
Resilient and not perturbed,
Impervious to all paltry things that give birth to attachment,
Remains unprovoked by events leading to anger.
With such a mind bearing such Noble Cultivation,
Where can suffering and stress find root?

Venerable Sāriputta and Venerable Mahāmoggallāna: two of the most prominent arahants and disciples of the Buddha. As friends they were inseparable. Mahāmaudgalyāyana attained arhatship seven days after his ordination, while Śāriputra reached the goal one week later. The Buddha declared Śāriputra and Mahāmaudgalyāyana his chief disciples the day they were ordained, noting that they had both strenuously exerted themselves in countless previous lives for this distinction; they appear often as the bodhisattva’s companions in the JĀTAKAs. Śāriputra was chief among the Buddha’s disciples in wisdom, while Mahāmaudgalyāyana was chief in mastery of supranormal powers. He could create doppelgängers of himself and transform himself into any shape he desired. He could perform intercelestial travel as easily as a person bends his arm, and the tradition is replete with the tales of his travels, such as flying to the Himālayas to find a medicinal plant to cure the ailing Śāriputra.

Even so, Mahāmaudgalyāyana’s supranormal powers, unsurpassed in the world, were insufficient to overcome the law of cause and effect and the power of his own former deeds, as the famous tale of his death demonstrates. A group of naked JAINA ascetics resented the fact that the people of the kingdom of MAGADHA had shifted their allegiance and patronage from them to the Buddha and his followers, and they blamed Mahāmaudgalyāyana, who had reported that, during his celestial and infernal travels, he had observed deceased followers of the Buddha in the heavens and the followers of other teachers in the hells. They hired a group of bandits to assassinate the monk. When he discerned that they were approaching, the eighty-four-year-old monk made his body very tiny and escaped through the keyhole. He eluded them in different ways for six days, hoping to spare them from committing a deed of immediate retribution (ĀNANTARYAKARMAN) by killing an arhat. On the seventh day, Mahāmaudgalyāyana temporarily lost his supranormal powers, the residual karmic effect of having beaten his blind parents to death in a distant previous lifetime, a crime for which he had previously been reborn in hell. The bandits ultimately beat him mercilessly, until his bones had been smashed to the size of grains of rice. Left for dead, Mahāmaudgalyāyana regained his powers and soared into the air and into the presence of the Buddha, where he paid his final respects and passed into NIRVĀṆA at the Buddha’s feet.

(Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 37809-37819). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

undergoing a certain profound concentration: The divine abiding (brahmavihára) of equanimity, according to Comy. Some teachers say the attainment of the cessation of feeling and perception (nirodhasamápatti), others the attainment of fruition (phalasamápatti), for only these three are capable of protecting the body. (Ireland)

a fierce blow on the head: (Masefield)

descended into a great hell: (Masefield)

didn’t discern even a mud-sprite being in the area: Paísupisácakaí: a small ghost or demon haunting swamps and dunghills (Comy.). Comy. explains that Sáriputta, who had reached the height of attainments and modesty, said this in the sense that he did not see them because, at that time, he had not adverted to them, as the word “now” (etarahi) suggests. (Ireland)

A little Comedy of Errors of sorts as the Yakkhas’ assault on Sāriputta backfires on him. Masefield’s commentary has proven to be indispensable in many of these accounts, with this present one indicating that the creature held a grudge against the elder from a former lifetime. Of course his intended death-blow fell on an impervious skull, as the full attainment of that marvelous contemplative-inducement of Sāriputta was powerful enough to ward off any such attack, regardless of its size and strength. Such were the deeply profound siddhis-arsenal of both Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna. The Pali texts are loaded with such anecdotes, although within the Mahayana the power of these Arhats are downplayed, particularly when Sāriputta is cast a fool in the Vimalakīrti Sutra—being transformed into a woman to prove an injunction concerning the idiocy of holding fast to dualistic-forms.

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