Disciples of the Buddha

Disciples of the Buddha

The Disciples of the Buddha form a diverse category of human, non-human, and divine figures.

This article will restrict its discussion to those presented by the Indian Buddhist tradition as personal disciples of the historical Buddha. Even so, the discussion will be selective.

Traditionally, discipleship is classified in 2 categories:

(1) specialists, who relinquish most of their social privileges and duties and become full-time practitioners of the Buddha’s teachings, who observe a number of regulatory rules (Vinaya), and who are usually described as monks and nuns (Bhikṣu and Bhikṣunī); and

(2) people who express faith in the Buddha, offer material support, and receive simplified teachings that emphasize generosity, and who are described as laymen and laywomen (upāsaka and upāsikā).

These 2 categories of discipleship were open only to human beings (there is a special question in the monastic ordination intended to exclude disguised serpent deities).

Nevertheless, the interaction of the Buddha with divinities is a prominent feature of his biography and an important factor in the development of the community of disciples.

Key disciples of all kinds also appear as co-protagonists in stories of former lives of the Buddha (Jātaka), thus extending their relationship into previous lives and the distant past.

The Buddha is depicted recruiting followers from all classes of society: Brahmins, Kṣatriyas (warrior class), and members of the lower classes, including untouchables.

He eventually admitted women as personal disciples, and he freely interacted with and taught divine beings, including Śakra (Indra) (see “The Questions of Sakka”).

The Buddha also interacted with practitioners of other religious traditions, in some cases acquiring them as disciples, in others failing to convert them to his following.

The Buddha is also depicted in some accounts of the period after his Enlightenment as visiting the Heavens of Buddhist cosmology and teaching there, most famously to his mother (indicating the significance of the child-mother relationship in Buddhist culture).

In most of the countries of South and Southeast Asia there are also local traditions that the Buddha magically visited, often leaving an indelible footprint as evidence of his presence,

and thus initiating the transmission of Buddhism in each region through a tradition beginning with personal discipleship.

Throughout history and into the modern period, many monastic traditions regard themselves as the continuing manifestation of a lineage that springs from one of the personal disciples of the Buddha.

Our knowledge of the Buddha’s disciples is primarily derived from scriptural sources,

and the growth of the initial body of disciples is documented in the first part of an important Vinaya text of the Theravāda tradition called the Mahāvagga. This text includes a fascinating account of the first of the Buddha’s personal disciples.

In the early weeks of his post-Enlightened life, the Buddha is portrayed passing the time seated beneath various trees in the vicinity of Bodh Gayā and gradually interacting with other beings, interactions through which his following is initiated and grows.

Curiously, these interactions are not always positive or fruitful, and the text indicates that the creation of a community of disciples was not a foregone conclusion.

Significantly, the Buddha is first approached by what is described as an arrogant Brahmin:

They exchange greetings and in response to a question the Buddha explains the nature of true spiritual excellence.

No outcome to the encounter is recorded, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous relationship that existed between the Buddhist community and the highest-ranking class in Brahmin society.

The second encounter occurs during a great storm, when the king of the serpent deities, Mucalinda, reverentially winds his body around the Buddha to protect him:

When the storm is over the serpent takes the form of a young man and worships the Buddha, but the Buddha does not teach him.

The third encounter involves 2 passing merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika, who offer the Buddha food. The Buddha accepts this offering, and the merchants take refuge in him and are thus recognized as his first disciples:

Significantly, they receive no teaching from him and continue with their trade.

It is clear from both textual and archaeological sources that the early Buddhist community benefited enormously from recruitment among the merchant class and was spread geographically along the major trade routes of ancient India and beyond.

At this point in the account the Buddha undergoes a crisis of indecision:

Reflecting on the difficulty with which he himself had achieved Bodhi (awakening), he thinks that it would be impossible to teach other people to do the same.

He is, however, importuned by a deity called Sahampati, who convinces him through argument that some people “with little dust in their eyes” would be capable of responding to the advice the Buddha could offer, and thus the Buddha decides to teach.

He begins a process of reflection on who might be suited to become a disciple:

He considers previous teachers, who turn out to be dead, and finally fixes on his fellow ascetics with whom he had lived immediately before his Enlightenment.

He sets out for Benares, where they still reside, and en route meets with an Ājīvaka practitioner called Upaka, who recognizes a spiritual quality in the Buddha, but given the opportunity to follow him merely says “Maybe!” and walks on.

The Buddha acquires full-time disciples only after residing for some time with his 5 former fellow ascetics:

1. Ājñātakauṇḍinya (Pāli, Aññātakoṇḍañña),
2. Vāṣpa (Vappa),
3. Bhadrika (Bhaddiya),
4. Mahānāman (Mahānāma), and
5. Aśvajit (Assaji)

- are eventually won over by the Buddha’s presence and by his verbal teachings and, in the order just given, become his first 5 ordained disciples.

This development is followed by a quick expansion that begins with the conversion of a local playboy called Yaśa (Yasa), who becomes a monk.

Soon Yaśa’s parents become lay followers, suggesting a pattern of family discipleship that was doubtless followed in other families where a child entered the order.

Subsequently, 54 friends and associates of Yaśa became Bhikṣus.

At this point the Buddha requires that his full-time disciples, now numbered at 60, wander at will around the region and share his teachings:

The result of this is an expansion of the monastic community that stretches the Buddha’s capacity to function as personal teacher for every recruit.

Soon the Buddha allows existing disciples to ordain new recruits, and thus the circle of personal discipleship of the Buddha was understood to have been limited by geographical distance.

There is no indication of how long it took to go from zero disciples to the formation of a self- sustaining community, though it must have taken many months or even years.

Although the community expanded outside the immediate control of the Buddha, he nevertheless continued to acquire personal disciples throughout his life, and the records describe the Buddha’s personal interactions with numerous individuals:

Foremost among these are:

1. Ānanda,
2. Śāriputra (Sāriputta), and
3. Mahā-Maudgalyāyana (Moggallāna).

Ānanda was a cousin of the Buddha and became his close companion or attendant for around 30 years:

Ānanda’s familiarity with the Buddha’s life meant that at the First Buddhist council after the Buddha’s death, Ānanda was asked to recite all the discourses that he had ever heard the Buddha give.

Thus, most Sūtras, or discourses, begin with the phrase “evaṁ mayā śruta" (Thus have I heard).

The monk Upāli, a former barber who shaved all the monk’s heads, performed a similar role for the Vinaya.

Ānanda did not become an Arhat during the Buddha’s life and is therefore occasionally portrayed as having behaved less than perfectly.

He is also depicted as the advocate of female ordination into the monastic order, a development that the Buddha apparently says will reduce the community’s duration,

and it is through Ānanda’s encouragement that the Buddha finally ordains his aunt and foster mother Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (Mahappajāpatī):

It was Mahāprajāpatī who raised Siddhārtha, the Buddha-to-be, after the early death of his mother, but she was not content with the role of lay disciple.

She therefore became the First Bhikṣunī, and was recognized by the Buddha as the female disciple of longest standing.

Other female disciples also achieved personal renown, including Dhammadinna, whom the Buddha described as foremost in preaching.

The Buddha’s most eminent disciples, however, were Śāriputra and Mahā Maudgalyāyana:

These 2 were childhood friends who left home to pursue the religious life, at first together, but eventually separating on the agreement that the first to find the true way would seek out the other:

After meeting Assaji and being converted by him, Śāriputra found Mahā Maudgalyāyana and together they were ordained by the Buddha, who appointed them his chief disciples.

Mahā Maudgalyāyana was renowned for his meditative attainments,
Śāriputra for his wisdom and analytical abilities.

The Buddha also identified those possessed of greatest meditative attainments and wisdom among his nuns, Kṣemā (Khemā) and Utpalavarṇā (Uppalavaṇṇā), and his laywomen, Kubjottarā (Khujjuttarā) and Uttarā (Uttarā).

Among his male lay followers he identified the foremost in generosity as Anāthapiṇḍada (Anāthapiṇḍika) and the chief of dharma teachers as Citra (Citta).

Many other disciples are singled out by the Buddha for other forms of personal excellence,

and moving samples of poetry composed by these and other of his disciples, both male and female, are recorded in 2 Pāli texts called the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā.

The monk Mahākāśyapa (Mahākassapa) was recognized as the foremost practitioner of asceticism; he later took control of funeral arrangements immediately after the Buddha’s death.

Other important disciples include Upagupta, who was especially revered among the Buddhists of Southeast Asia and became the focus of cult and ritual there, and Anāthapiṇḍada (Anāthapiṇḍika), whose name means “feeder of the destitute.”

Anāthapiṇḍada, a banker and perhaps the most famous lay disciple, bought for the Buddha at fabulous expense the famous Jetavana (Jeta’s Grove) at Śrāvastī, where he had a monastery built.

Texts tell of Anāthapiṇḍada’s deathbed grief when he realized that the Buddha had reserved his higher teaching exclusively for his monastic followers.

Also important was the turncoat monk and disciple, Devadatta, first cousin of the Buddha, who is remembered for his conspiracies to murder the Buddha and split the Saṅgha. These are regarded as the most heinous crimes a monk can commit in relation to the Saṅgha.

Devadatta also attempted unsuccessfully to introduce extra requirements into the Vinaya, including vegetarianism and 4 of the permitted asceticisms, which included wearing only rag robes and eating only begged food.

Bizarrely, the Chinese pilgrim Faxian reported in the early 5th century C.E.

that in the Buddhist homeland Devadatta still had a significant following who worshiped not Śākyamuni but the 3 Buddhas previous to him.

Also important were the Buddha’s royal disciples:

- Prasenajit (Pasenadi), king of Kośala, who is credited with commissioning the first Buddha image;

- Bimbisāra, king of Māgadha;

- and Bimbisāra’s son Ajātaśatru (Ajātasattu), who after initially conspiring with Devadatta, became a devout disciple of the Buddha.

in later layers of Buddhist canonical literature a number of these disciples continue to appear as protagonists.

Of particular importance is the promotion to chief interlocutor in the Prajñā Pāramitā literature of Subhūti, a monk and disciple noted in the Āgamas and nikāyas as chief of those who dwell in the forest and, presumably thereby, also the one most worthy of offerings.

Other Mahāyāna sūtras and Vajrayāna tantras present a host of new and presumably fictive disciples.