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The Buddha and His Disciples
»» Famous Lay Disciples

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1. It is often mistakenly thought that it is the job of monks and nuns to practise and teach the Dhamma, while it is the job of lay men and women to practise the Five Precepts and support the monks and nuns by providing them with their needs. This is an incorrect and dangerous belief, and in countries where it is widely accepted it has helped lead to a corruption of the Dhamma. The Buddha’s goal was to develop a community of disciples, ordained and lay, men and women, who were well-educated in the Dhamma, who practised it fully, and who taught it to and learned it from each other.1 While the Buddha praised Anāthapindika for his great generosity, he reserved his highest praise for Citta of Macchikàsanda and Hatthaka of Alavi because they were both skilful in and diligent at giving something infinitely more precious than material things – the Dhamma.2

2. Citta was the model Buddhist layman whose learning and behaviour the Buddha urged others to emulate. On one occasion, the Buddha said to the monks:

“Should a devoted mother wish to encourage her beloved only son in a proper way she should say to him: ‘Try to become like the disciple Citta and the disciple Hatthaka of Alavi.’”3

Citta was a rich merchant and landowner in the town of Macchikàsanda, not far from Savatthi. He seems to have heard the Dhamma for the first time from the monk Mahanama, after which he offered to the Sangha a park he owned and in it built a spacious monastery. After that, any monks or nuns coming to Macchikàsanda were always assured of a warm welcome and adequate support. The Buddha considered Citta to be the most learned and lucid of all the lay Dhamma teachers. After accepting the Dhamma, he explained it to the other citizens of the town, converting five hundred of them, and on one occasion took all of the new converts to Savatthi to see the Buddha. The discourses in the Tipitaka preached to and by Citta indicate his profound grasp of the most subtle aspects of the Dhamma and indeed later he became a Non-Returner.

3. Once a group of monks were sitting In a pavilion in the monastery that Citta had built discussing Dhamma. Some were saying that it is the sense objects that fetter the mind while others suggested that it is the sense organs that cause the problems. Citta arrived at the monastery, and when he saw the monks he asked what they were discussing, and they told him. Citta said,

“Sirs, these two things, sense objects and sense organs, are different. I will use a simile so that you can understand what I mean. Suppose a black ox and a white ox were tied together with a yoke or rope. Now would it be right to say that the black ox was the fetter of the white ox or that the white ox was the fetter of the black ox?”

“Certainly not,” answered the monks. “The black ox is not the fetter of the white ox nor is the white ox the fetter of the black ox. They are both fettered by the yoke or rope.”

Citta agreed and then said: “Well, sirs, in the same way, the eye is not the fetter of visual objects nor are visual objects the fetter of the eye. But rather, the desire that arises from the meeting of the two, that is the fetter. And it is the same with the other sense organs and their objects.”

The monks were delighted by Citta’s lucidity in explaining and answering the question.4

4. On another occasion, the monk Kamabhu, perplexed by one of the Buddha’s sayings, asked Citta if he could explain what it meant. The saying was:

Pure-limbed, white-canopied, one-wheeled,
The chariot rolls on.
Look at he who is coming,
He is a faultless stream-cutter, he is boundless.

Citta explained the verse with great originality and insight. He said: “‘Pure-limbed’ means virtue, ‘whitecanopied’ means freedom, ‘onewheeled’ means mindfulness, ‘rolls on’ means coming and going. ‘Chariot’ means the body, ‘he who is coming’ means the enlightened one, ‘stream’ means craving, ‘faultless’, ‘stream-cutter’ and ‘boundless’ all mean one who has destroyed the defilements.” Citta’s ability to give a spiritual interpretation to what appeared to be merely a beautiful verse surprised and delighted Kamabhu.5

5. But Citta was not just able to teach the Dhamma, he was also able to demonstrate its superiority over other doctrines. Once Nigantha Nataputta, the founder of Jainism and one of the most well-known religious teachers of the time, arrived in Macchikàsanda with a large number of his disciples. Citta went to meet Nataputta who, knowing he was a disciple of the Buddha, asked him,

“Do you believe, as the Buddha teaches, that it is possible to attain a meditative state where all thought stops?”

“No,” answered Citta, “The Buddha teaches this but I do not believe it.”

Surprised and pleased that Citta seemed to be saying that he doubted some of the Buddha’s teaching, Nataputta looked around at all his disciples saying as he did,

“See what a straightforward and clever person Citta is. Anyone who could believe in a meditative state where all thought stops might just as well believe that the mind can be caught in a net or that the Ganges can be stopped f lowing by using the hand.”

When he had finished, Citta asked: “What is better, venerable sir, to know or to believe?”

“Knowledge is far better than belief,” replied Nataputta.

“Well, I can attain that meditative state where all thought ceases. So why should I believe what the Buddha says is true. I know it is true.”

Annoyed at being caught out, Nataputta again looked around at his disciples and said: “See what a cunning, deceitful and crooked person this Citta is.”

Remaining calm and unruffled by this outburst, Citta said: “If your first statement is true then your second one must be false, and if your second statement is true then your first one must be false,” and having said that he got up and left, leaving Nataputta struggling for a reply.6

6. Later in life, Citta became ill and it was obvious to his family that he did not have long to live. As he lay on his deathbed, devas gathered around him telling him to set his mind on being reborn into a position of wealth and power. Knowing that he was a Non-Returner, destined to be reborn into one of the high heaven realms, he said to the devas, “That is impermanent and will have to be left behind in the end.” Not being able to see the devas, Citta’s family and friends thought he was delirious. Citta told them he was talking to devas and then, after urging those gathered around to take refuge in the Three Jewels, he peacefully passed away.7

7. Another eminent lay disciple was Hatthaka of Alavi, a son of the ruler of Alavi. Hatthaka first met the Buddha as he was walking one winter evening. Surprised to see this lone ascetic in just one thin robe and sleeping on the hard ground, Hatthaka asked the Buddha, “Are you happy?”

The Buddha replied, “Yes, I am happy.”

“But sir,” Hatthaka asked, “the ground is hard and the wind is cold, how can you be happy?”

The Buddha asked: “Despite living in a cosy, well-thatched house, with a comfortable bed and two wives to look after him, is it possible that due to greed, anger, fear or ambition that a man might feel unhappy?”

“Yes,” answered Hatthaka, “that is quite possible.”

“Well,” said the Buddha, “I have got rid of all greed, anger, fear and ambition, so whether I sleep here or in a cosy house, I am always happy, always very happy.8

8. Hatthaka was famous not so much for his generosity or his knowledge of Dhamma, but for his ability to attract people to the Dhamma. Once he brought five hundred people, all obviously keen to practise the Dhamma, to see the Buddha who asked him:

“How do you manage to interest so many people in the Dhamma?”

Hatthaka answered: “Lord, I do it by using the four bases of sympathy, which you yourself taught me. When I know that someone can be attracted by generosity, I am generous. When I know that they can be attracted by kind words, I speak to them with kindness. When I know that they can be attracted by doing them a good turn, I do them a good turn, and when I know they can be attracted by treating them equally, I treat them with equality.”

Obviously, when people attended talks on Dhamma organised by Hatthaka, they always received a warm personal welcome that made them feel liked and respected, and so they would come again, gradually getting interested in the Dhamma. The Buddha praised Hatthaka for his skill.

“Well done, Hatthaka, well done, this is the way to attract people.”

After Hatthaka had left, the Buddha said to the monks: “Consider it true that Hatthaka of Alavi is possessed of these eight marvellous and wonderful qualities. He has faith, virtue, conscientiousness and fear of blame, he is learned, generous, wise and modest.”9

9. Modesty, in particular, was evident in Hatthaka’s character. While some take great pride in their wealth or are motivated by selfaggrandisement to convert others to the Dhamma, Hatthaka was always quiet and unassuming. He did all he could to interest people in the Dhamma purely out of concern for them, not to make a name for himself. On another occasion, when the monks told Hatthaka that the Buddha had praised his many good qualities, he said,

“I hope there were no lay people present when the Lord did this.”

The monks assured him that there were none and later when they told this to the Buddha, he said,

“Well done, well done. That man is genuinely modest. He does not like his good qualities to be known by others. Modesty is another of Hatthaka’s good qualities.”10

When Hatthaka died he was reborn as a deva, and one night he came to visit the Buddha. The Buddha asked him if he had any regrets and he replied,

“I died regretting only that I never saw enough of the Buddha, heard enough Dhamma or was able to serve the Dhamma enough.”11

10. At the Buddha’s time, women had little role in society except as wives or mothers. But when the Sangha of nuns was established, women immediately had an avenue for spiritual development and the opportunity to prove themselves as religious adepts and teachers – roles that they took to with great success. The Buddha praised the nun Khema for her great wisdom, Patacara for her expertise in monastic discipline and Dhammadinna for her energy and skill in teaching the Dhamma.12 And it was not just nuns who became model disciples, laywomen did also. One of the most important of the Buddha’s laywomen disciples was Samavati, whose story is a long and interesting one.

11. Once a man and his wife lived in a particular village in Vamsa with their uncommonly beautiful daughter named Samavati. The family was a happy one but one summer an epidemic broke out in the village killing many people and forcing the others to flee. Samavati and her parents together with many others went to Kosambi, the capital of Vamsa, hoping to find relief. The city was full of refugees and concerned citizens had set up facilities to provide food for them. When the food was distributed each noon, pushing and scuffling would break out as desperate refugees would try to grasp as much as they could in the fear that by tomorrow there would be none. When Samavati first came for food, she asked for enough for three people, soon she was asking for enough for two and eventually only enough for one. Mitta, the man who distributed the food at the place where Samavati went, noticed this and one day said to her sarcastically: “So, you have finally worked out how much your stomach can hold, have you?” “No,” explained Samavati, “at first, I had to get enough for myself and my parents. Then my father died, so I only needed enough for two. Then my mother died, so now I only need enough for myself.” When Mitta heard this, he felt very ashamed of his sarcasm and apologised to Samavati. She told Mitta about how she had fallen on hard times and moved by sympathy, Mitta asked Samavati if he could adopt her as his daughter – an offer that she gratefully accepted.

12. Now that her position had improved, Samavati set about helping to improve the lot of the refugees. She brought order and discipline to the food distribution and soon, instead of noisy, pushing crowds, orderly queues were formed, ensuring that everyone got their fair share and no one went without.

One day, Ghosita, a wealthy merchant who had been appointed royal treasurer, was touring the city and he noticed how efficiently the food distribution programme was going and he inquired from Mitta who was responsible for it. Ghosita was introduced to Samavati and as soon as he saw her, he was struck by her beauty and also by the patience with which she carried out her work. He asked Mitta if he could adopt Samavati. Mitta reluctantly agreed, knowing that Samavati would now be heir to a vast fortune. So it was that within a few months, Samavati had gone from destitution to wealth and status.

But soon she was to rise even higher. Now that she moved in high circles, it was not long before she came to the notice of King Udena of Kosambi. The king already had two wives, Vasuladatta and Magandiya, both of whom, although physically beautiful, had rather unattractive characters and Udena was lonely and unhappy. As soon as he saw Samavati, he fell in love with her and resolved to have her as his wife. He informed Ghosita of his wish, a demand that filled Ghosita with sadness, as he deeply loved her and had come to look upon her as his real daughter. But although King Udena had a reputation of f lying into a rage when he could not get what he wanted, Ghosita decided to refuse the king’s request. The king was furious. He dismissed Ghosita from his post, expelled him from Kosambi and confiscated all his wealth. Samavati was deeply saddened by this, and to save her foster father she went to Udena and offered to become his wife, after which the king stopped his persecution of Ghosita. Samavati was patient and accepting by nature and so she soon settled into her new life in the royal palace and learned to put up with Udena’s occasional outbursts of temper, and he in turn loved her deeply.

13. One of Samavati’s servants was Khujjuttara, so called because she had a hunch back. Like the other women of the royal household, Samavati was confined to the palace. So when she wanted f lowers to wear in her hair, she had to send her servant to get them. Each day, she would give eight pieces of money to Khujjuttara, who would spend four on the f lowers and keep the rest for herself. One day, as Khujjuttara was on her usual errand, she saw a group of people sitting, listening to the Buddha and out of curiosity, stopped to listen to what was being said. The Buddha noticed this woman at the back of the crowd and although she was ugly in appearance, he could tell that she had a good potential to understand the Dhamma. He changed the gist of his talk to a subject that he knew she could respond to and by the end of the talk she had become a Stream-Winner. Although she didn’t know what had happened to her, she now felt remorseful about stealing Samavati’s money and on her return, she bowed before the queen and confessed her wrong doing. She also told her about the Buddha and his teaching. Samavati was fascinated, both by the dramatic change in Khujjuttara and by what she heard about the Buddha’s teaching, and after forgiving Khujjuttara she urged her to go and find out more about the Dhamma. So each day, Khujjuttara would go and listen to the Buddha and faithfully repeat everything she heard to Samavati, who eventually took the Three Refuges and later influenced all the other women in the royal household to do the same.

One day when he was in a particularly good mood and pleased with Samavati, King Udena offered to give her anything she desired. For a long time she had wanted to hear the Dhamma from the Buddha himself, so straight away she asked that the Buddha be invited to the palace, and the king gave orders for the invitation to be sent. The Buddha declined the invitation but instructed Ananda to go in his place. Ananda gave a talk to the assembled nobles and by the time he had finished, Samavati had become a Stream-Winner. With Samavati’s encouragement, many members of the royal household then became enthusiastic Buddhists, although the headstrong and volatile Udena expressed little interest in any religion, especially one that required a curbing of anger. But gradually, through Samavati’s patient and gentle persuasion even he began to meditate, albeit reluctantly at first, eventually becoming more good-tempered.

14. Meanwhile, one of King Udena’s other wives, Magandiya, became increasingly jealous of Samavati. She never missed the opportunity to make sarcastic comments, both to Samavati’s face and behind her back, to ridicule her religion and belittle her genuine effort to practise it, and to depreciate her in the eyes of the king. Despite this, Samavati refused to retaliate and continued to be as polite and good natured to Magandiya as she was to everyone else, which only served to make Magandiya even more hostile. Next, she tried to turn the king against Samavati by making it look as if Samavati was plotting against him, but this was not successful either. Finally she decided to have Samavati killed.

With the help of her relatives, Magandiya planned to have the women’s quarters in the palace set on fire. So filled with hatred was she, that she was quite prepared to risk the lives of the other women who likewise lived there, just to kill her rival. The arsonists did their job and Samavati, together with nearly five hundred other people, was killed in the fire. King Udena was devastated by Samavati’s death and went into a long period of mourning.

When he began to think about how the tragedy could have happened, it gradually became clear that it was not an accident. He suspected Magandiya, but as he knew that he could never pressure her into confessing, he decided to use other means. One day, in the presence of Magandiya, the king said to one of his ministers:

“I’ve always suspected that Samavati was plotting against me. Now that she is gone, I can sleep in peace. Whoever got rid of her did me a great favour and if I knew who it was, I would give them a reward.”

Always ready to win the king’s favour, Magandiya immediately came forward and told the king that she, with the help of her relatives, had burned down the women’s quarters. Udena faked delight and told her to call her relations together so that they could be rewarded. Later, when Magandiya led her conspirators into the presence of the king, she could immediately see by the expression on his face that she had been tricked into making a terrible mistake. In an uncontrollable fury, Udena ordered Magandiya and the others to be arrested and then taken outside and burned alive. People were horrified by the king’s actions but most believed that Magandiya had got what she had deserved.13

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