Sariputra was born in a village in Magadha at southern India. His father was a noted Brahmin scholar. When his mother conceived him, she had extraordinary wisdom, which was believed to be influenced by the baby in her womb. Even her younger brother, also a noted scholar, was defeated in every discussion with her. Knowing that his sister conceived a baby who would become a man of great wisdom, he left home to search for more knowledge so as not to be outdone by his nephew in future.
At the age of eight, Sariputra was able to understand all the books he read. Once, a wealthy man held a banquet to entertain the king, the princes, ministers and scholars. The eight-year-old Sariputra was also one of the invited guests. He impressed everyone at the banquet with his eloquent speech and great wisdom. The king was so pleased that he awarded a village to Sariputra.
The young Sariputra was a handsome scholar who enjoyed great reputation in the academic field. When he was twenty years old, he left his home and began to search for Truth. He actually became a disciple of a Brahmin scholar, and Mogallana was his best classmate. Both of them later decided to leave their teacher as they felt that he could not satisfy their quest for knowledge. They then set up a study group and recruited students on their own. Sariputra and Mogallana shared a common ambition of a search for the Truth. However, they both thought their wisdom was peerless and no one could qualify to be their teacher.
Encounter with Assaji
One day, while walking on the street, Sariputra chanced to see Venerable Assaji, one of Buddha's first five disciples. Venerable Assaji had attained Arahatship after several years of practices. His impressive and dignified manner attracted the attention of Sariputra, who then approached him and inquired his name, who his teacher was and what his teacher taught.
Venerable Assaji replied, "My name is Assaji and my teacher is Sakyamuni Buddha. He always teaches us that 'all things arise and fall according to causes and conditions', and he also says that 'all things are impermanent and will finally extinguish'."
The happy Sariputra returned home and told Mogallana about his encounter that day. Mogallana was moved to tears, for at last they had found a true teacher. The next day, together with their two hundred students, they went to Venuvana (Bamboo-grove) and became the Buddha's disciples.
Debate With The Heretics
Buddha trusted Sariputra very much after the latter became His disciple. Once, Buddha assigned Sariputra to propagate Dharma in the northern part of the country and at the same time, to supervise the construction of Jetavana Vihara. Jetavana was actually a park belonged to Prince Jeta. Anathapindika, a wealthy elder, brought it from the prince and gave it to the Buddha for the use by the Sangha.
Buddhism then was not popular in the north and heretical groups could be found everywhere. The heretics were jealous of the development of the Buddha Dharma when the construction of Jetavana began. They asked Anathapindika not to build the monastery for the Buddha and even talked him to betray Buddha. Being a devoted follower of the Buddha Dharma, Anathapindika simply ignored the heretics. With the hope to defeating the Buddha Dharma, the heretics decided to hold an open polemic with Sariputra. Sariputra gladly accepted their challenge as he considered it a very good opportunity to propagate the Buddha's Teachings.
During the polemic, Sariputra alone debated with a panel of heretics. In the end, the well-read Sariputra, who was also an expert in heretical books and records, defeated the heretics. As a result, many people, including some of the heretics, were converted to Buddhism.
One day, a deva disguised himself as a young man to test Sariputra's determination to practise the Right Way. He cried sadly when he saw Sariputra walking towards him. Sariputra approached him and asked what had happened. "My mother is suffering from an incurable disease and the physician said that in order to cure her disease, an eyeball of a monk is needed to decoct medicinal herbs. But where can I find a monk's eyeball?" replied the young man who was still crying sadly.
Sariputra thought since he himself was a monk, why not offer one of his eyeballs to the young man? Besides, he would still be able to see with the other eye. Therefore, despite the pain, Sariputra dug out his left eyeball and gave it to the young man. However, the young man exclaimed: " Oh no! The physician said that only the right eyeball can cure my mother."
Sariputra was very shocked to hear that, but he only blamed himself for not asking the young man before digging out his eyeball. Determined to help the young man, Sariputra bravely dug out his right eyeball. Without thanking Sariputra, the young man took the eyeball and smelled it. Then he threw it on the ground and scolded Sariputra: "Your eyeball is very smelly! How can it be used to decoct medicinal herbs for my mother? "After that, he even trampled on the eyeball.
Just then many devas appeared in the sky. They said to Sariputra: "Don't be dejected. What has just happened is merely our arrangement to test your determination to practise the way of a bodhisattva. You should bravely progress and continue your practice."
Upon hearing that, Sariputra resumed his compassion to save others. For the next sixty aeons, he never stopped his spiritual practice. During the lifetime when he met Buddha, he not only achieved enlightenment but also attained divine vision.
One day, Rahula followed Sariputra to beg for food and returned to the monastery with a sulky look. When Buddha asked him why he was unhappy, the young Rahula replied resentfully, "Buddha! When we are out to beg for food, the devotees always give food to the elder monks and to the younger monks like us, they usually offer food with no nutritious value. But everyone needs food to maintain his health. And our elders never take care of us when they receive the good food."
The Buddha knew very well that nutritious food was necessary to maintain health, and a healthy body was very important to monks for if they were weak, they would not be able to concentrate on their meditation practice. However, the Buddha lectured Rahula for being too concerned about food when he should pay attention to his meditation practice.
Sariputra quickly threw up the food taken on that day and said: "Lord Buddha, ever since I became you disciple, I have always been following the rules of begging set by you and never dare to accept any "unclean" food."
Buddha then explained: "Sariputra, I know you have been observing the rules of conduct, but one cannot just mind his own business in the Sangha. Rules should be fair to everyone and the benefits should be equally distributed. It is the responsibility of the elders to take good care of the younger monks, even when begging for food."
Once, the Buddha and His disciples returned to the monastery after a public discourse. However, the group of six corrupt monks arrived at the Jetavana Grove before the others and occupied the best seats and beds, and even Sariputra's room.
When Buddha realized what had happened the next morning, He called the monks together and said: "Bhikkhus, you should respect the Elders in the Dharma, then you will be praised by others in this life and be born in the upper realms in future lives. Bhikkhus, there is no class or hierarchy in the Dharma, but you should respect, serve and make offerings to the Elders. Therefore, the elders should be giving first choice regarding seats and beds, as well as food and drink." Everyone understood why Buddha said that, and Sariputra was grateful to the Buddha.
Sariputra was never tired of travelling far to teach even when he was nearly eighty years old. One day, shortly after he left the monastery, a monk said to the Buddha: "Lord Buddha, Sariputra did not really go out to preach. He actually decided to go travelling because he had insulted me and was feeling rather sorry for it."
Buddha immediately called Sariputra back to clarify the matter. In front of everybody, Sariputra answered with great respect:" Lord Buddha! Ever since I became you disciple, I have never lied or argued with others on personal gains or losses. Everyday, I repent and meditate. My mind is as clear as the water and never have I harboured thoughts of resentment. How will I despise anyone?"
Everyone was deeply moved by Sariputra's words. The Buddha then lectured the monk who slandered Sariputra and asked him to repent to Sariputra. Feeling rather ashamed, that monk knelt before Sariputra. Sariputra kindly patted that monk's head and said:" Bhikkhu! To err is human. But it is a virtue to correct an error when one becomes aware of it. I accept your repentance." It is thus obvious that the large-minded Sariputra never haggled with opponents and foes.
Not Harmed By Mara
When Sariputra entered the stage of Vajrasamadhi (the last stage of Bodhisattva) at Grdhrakuta (a mountain near Rajagrha), Mara saw him. Thinking that monks were weak and vulnerable, the Mara gave Sariputra a punch on the head. Sariputra, however, felt as if a leaf had fallen on his head. When he opened his eyes, he saw a Mara, whose body was covered with blood, falling into the hell.
As a matter of fact, Vajrasamadhi is characterized by indestructive power. That was why when Sariputra was in state of Vajrasamadhi, the powerful Mara could not harm him. Instead, due to the evil intention against Sariputra, the Mara had to sink into degradation and suffer forever. As Sariputra always wandered in the states of Samadhi and Vajrasamadhi, he could not be harmed at all by external disasters.
When Buddha announced that He would be entering Parinirvana after three months, everyone was very sad, Sariputra could not bear to see Buddha enter into the final Nirvana and he thought: "In the past, the chief disciples of all Buddhas entered Nirvana before their masters did. As a chief disciple of the Buddha, I should also enter Nirvana before Buddha."So he asked the Buddha's permission to enter Nirvana first. After some explanation, he finally got the Buddha's consent and they prepared to return to his hometown to enter Nirvana.
Before Sariputra left, Buddha gathered all disciples to say farewell to him. Sariputra said to Buddha: "Lord Buddha! For the past forty years, I have been guided by your compassionate teachings, therefore I am able to understand the Truth and to attain enlightenment. No word can describe my happiness and gratitude. I am glad that I have been able to learn the Buddha Dharma which leads me to attain liberation from all sufferings and enter Nirvana. Before I leave, Buddha, please accept my reverence." Sariputra prostrated himself in front of the Buddha. The atmosphere then was filled with solemnity and silence.
Buddha said: "Sariputra! I predict one day you will become a Buddha by the name of Pamaprabha. You will come to this world again to save all living beings and achieve the highest state of Buddhahood."
Sariputra said to those who were sending him off, "The appearance of the Buddha in this world is as rare as the blooming of Udumbara tree which happens once in thousands and millions of years. Our human body is hard to come by. So is the Buddha Dharma. But in this present life, we not only become monks but also personally listen to Buddha's teachings, which is very rare indeed. I hope all of you practise Dharma diligently so to achieve Nirvana."
Knowing that this was Sariputra's last discourse, everyone was very sad and asked, "Venerable sir, you are the chief disciple of the Buddha and elder of all the monks. The propagation and development of the Buddha Dharma in future still needs you. Why would you want to enter Nirvana so soon?"
Sariputra replied, "Don't be sad. Has the Buddha not always told us this is an impermanent world? Death is a fact of life. I hope you can continue on in your Dharma practice, until you are free from all sufferings. I also hope you strive to spread the Dharma and work for the well being of the people. In future, as long as beings wished to be free of suffering and attain the final happiness of Nirvana, they will come forward to prolong the wisdom-life of the Buddhas."
Everybody was very touched by what Sariputra had said. After bidding farewell, Sariputra, together with Kunti (his devoted disciple), began his journey home. Seeing him off, the monks shed tears of sorrow as they knew they would never be able to see Sariputra again.
When Sariputra reached his home, his mother was so glad that tears started to roll down her face, simply because her son had not been home for a long time. However, his mother and family were very shocked to learn that Sariputra had returned home for the purpose of entering Nirvana. So Sariputra said, "Don't worry. This is different from the normal death. I accept and practise the teachings of my master, Buddha and have already attained liberation. As a matter of fact, nobody in this world can escape death. I an indeed fortunate to be able to enter the state of Nirvana with a clear mind. You ought to be happy for me."
The news that Sariputra had returned to enter Nirvana quickly spread through the village. Though it was in the middle of the night, villagers who had taken refuge in the Buddha before, and even King Ajatasatru from Rajagrha and his ministers, had gathered at Sariputra's house, all wishing to pay their respect to the Venerable and listen to his last teachings. They waited quietly outside Sariputra's room until the next morning when Kunti informed them that Sariputra wanted to see them. They then happily gathered in Sariputra's room.
Sariputra said to the crowd, "For the past forty years, I have been following the teachings of my master, Lord Buddha, and have either preached at various places or learned the Dharma under the Buddha's guidance. I feel very much indebted to my great teacher, Lord Buddha. Though I feel ashamed for not being able to fully comprehend. His profound teachings, I do understand Buddha's compassion towards all living beings. I practise His teachings diligently and have also attained enlightenment. I hope you can understand that it is a rare opportunity to meet the Buddha. Therefore, you should learn and practise His teachings accordingly. Sariputra went into deep meditation and then entered the bliss of Nirvana.
Then Buddha took the relics of Sariputra from Kunti and said to all monks, "Bhikkhus! This is Sariputra whose wisdom is profound and great. He realised the Truth and practised Dharma accordingly. He also strived to propagate the Dharma for the sake of the people. He had already attained liberation from all sufferings. Just look, Bhikkhus! This is the relics of a Buddha's son!" With great respect, all the monks prostrated themselves before the relics of Sariputra.
see also: Sāriputta