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Pali Canon - Mahaparinibbana Suttanta Verses 16 and 17

by Sangharakshita

Mahaparinibbana Sutta - Verses 16 and 17 (Rhys Davids translation)

Seminar held at Padmaloka 5/2/83 Present: Venerable Sangharakshita, Prassanasiddhi,
Buddhapalita, Gunapala, Devaraja, Silaratna, Yashopala.
S: Anyway, let's start. I'm in two minds as to how to proceed in the case of this sutta. I think it
might be a good idea to read the whole thing through first. It is very short. It's sections 16 and
17, that's all. So we can get an idea of the episode as a whole and then maybe we can go
through it again bit by bit, OK? So, who's a good reader, or maybe two people, one reading
section 16 and one reading section 17 Who's got a good loud voice?
TEXT IS READ
S: So, what do you make of that? What are the questions that arise out of that, do you think?
Have we come across that passage before?
Gunapala: I think it's been discussed before.
S: According to the footnote it occurs in two other places in the Pali Canon, so that means
you have three times as great a chance of encountering it as passages that occur only once.
You might of course have heard it read out on Parinirvana Day. The whole sutta was read out.
Part of this passage does occur, section 16 only, in "Some Sayings of the Buddha" - some of
you might have encountered it there. But it's interesting that there only the first of these two
sections occur and sometimes therefore this passage is known as the Buddha's rebuke to
Sariputta. But if you have only section 16 without section 17 a quite misleading impression is
created because Sariputta comes back as it were and justifies himself at least to some extent.
Sariputta in a way has the last word in this little episode, not the Buddha. Whereas if you only
quote section 16 it appears that the Buddha has the last word and that last word is simply a
rebuke to Sariputta. That does not do justice to the text.
Devaraja: Sariputta became enlightened...
S: Yes.
[2]
Devaraja: ...so at this point, at the Buddha's death, he would have been enlightened.
S. He died before the Buddha.
Devaraja: Oh, I see, so this story is before the actual...
S: Yes, it would be some time before, even some years before. The episode does occur in the
course of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta but that sutta relates not very connectedly, but with
some degree of connection, the (...) events of the last few months of the Buddha's life. But
there are sort of flashbacks it would seem, older material is incorporated. I will say something
about that in my talk tonight. So the fact that you have this episode here does not mean that,
or is not to be understood to mean that Sariputta was right there up to the time of the
Buddha's Parinibbana. There are accounts of his death and Moggallana's death some time
before that. The episode itself seems to have no connection with the Mahaparinibbana at all.
That's evident from the fact that the same episode occurs word for word in another sutta in the
Digha Nikaya, as well as in the Samyutta Nikaya, in these two other places, so there's no
necessary connection with the Mahaparinibbana Sutta or with the Parinibbana itself. Why do
you think it was then - let's take this as a point of departure - why Woodward, the translator of
"Some Sayings of the Buddha" just ended with section 16? Why didn't he go on to include
section 17 as well? Why did he just end on that note of rebuke to Sariputta without, as it
were, giving Sariputta a chance to come back? Sariputta's come-back was, so to speak,
suppressed. So why do you think Woodward might have done that? Why do you think he
would have attached greater importance, so to speak, to just that section 16?
Gunapala: It seems a bit unfair, he's putting across an image...
S: What does section 16 say? What is the basic point there?
Yashopala: The Buddha is saying; "what are you making such a fuss for", really.
[3]
S: If Sariputta is wrong to any extent, in what way is he wrong? What is the Buddha taking
him to account for?
Devaraja: Well, for saying that there's been nobody else who's achieved...
S: He is really going beyond the limit, actually, isn't he? And the Buddha makes that very
clear.
Prassannasiddhi: He's eulogizing to the point of actually not being truthful in a sense.
S: Not even not being truthful. He's not even in a position where he can speak the truth or
otherwise. He simply doesn't know.
Gunapala: He's way out of his depth.
S: So what is the sort of, I mean leaving aside the case of Sariputta, what is the sort of general
attitude that the Buddha is getting at?
Silaratna: An emotional outburst without reasoning backing it up.
S: Yes... that's on, as it were, a relatively lower level. It's not even just reason versus emotion
or emotion versus reason, though it may be in some cases, but it's, as it were, faith altogether
outstripping the justifications for faith. It's not really faith any more. So, leaving aside the
case of the Buddha and Sariputta, does not one find this sort of thing happening in different
pseudo-spiritual movements? What I at least call pseudo-spiritual movements and cults, even
today in an even more exaggerated sort of way, doesn't one find this? Can you think of any
examples?
Prassannasiddhi: Christianity; "happy is he who believes even though he does not [4] see"
S: I was thinking actually of living examples. I was thinking of people like Guru Maharaj.
Now what is it that makes people so concerned to declare, to insist, to try to convince you that
Guru Maharaj is the greatest or that Rajneesh is the greatest? Why is this? Isn't this the
bottom to what the Buddha is getting at? Sariputta is really trying to say that the Buddha is
the greatest that is, that ever was and that ever will be, which is an impossible statement. How
could he possibly make that? No doubt it's very good that Sariputta should have tremendous
faith in the Buddha, but in a sense he's not expressing his faith rightly. He's putting his faith
into a sort of pseudo-statement which cannot possibly be backed up because he hasn't got the
knowledge to do that. So what is it that makes people just go over the top in that sort of way?
We're coming back again maybe to the devotee of Guru Maharaj or Rajneesh or some
particular Tibetan lama or whoever. What is it that makes people want to say or to assert or to
insist that they're the greatest? Why can they not be content with saying, for instance; "he's a
highly developed person, at least he's more developed than I am and I feel I can learn from
him", which is a comparatively modest statement but which could be backed up with facts. If
you actually feel that someone is more spiritually developed than you, wiser than you, more
enlightened than you and that you are in the receiving role in comparison with him, well that
is quite understandable, as I say quite... to be backed up by facts or capable of being backed
up by facts, but to say that someone is the greatest, that they are Jesus Christ and Muhammad
and the Buddha all rolled into one and just living down the road and running that particular
centre... well, why?
Gunapala: ...things that could be connected. I mean, the fact that you know the greatest person
in the world could be one of them.
S: It's a means of indirectly promoting yourself.
[5]
Gunapala: Yeah, knowing the greatest person that ever was, ever will be...
S: Perhaps you're very close to him, perhaps...
Gunapala: ...you're his friend...
S: ...his chief disciple...
Gunapala: It makes you feel really important; you're in contact with the greatest man that ever
will be.
Yashopala: So, if he's the greatest, he's a bit like, I suppose a bit like God, he's absolute. So
you can't really aspire towards being him in the way that you might aspire towards being a
Buddha.
S: Yes, in a way it's a bit of a cop-out. You sort of sink on to your knees and that's that; you
just gaze in adoration. You don't really think in terms of being like that person, at best you
think in terms of serving that person, doing whatever that person tells you to do. So really the
question of authority comes in; you're looking for an absolute authority or a figure who
embodies absolute authority, so that you can blindly submit to that. You can just give up all
sense of responsibility. No doubt nowadays, I was going to say in the middle, but it's getting
towards the end of the twentieth century, people may feel the burden of responsibility very
very greatly, the world being such a difficult place and there being so many apparently
insoluble problems, they just want to hand over responsibility for their lives to somebody and
to whom better than to God or the equivalent of God.
Gunapala: Sariputta did make his point clear. He took quite a few steps back and then did
explain where he was coming from.
S: Yes, well we'll go back to that in a minute He did modify his position. He [6] did have
some sort of position which was more genuine underneath his, as it were, not so genuine, his
slightly false position as expressed in his original utterance.
Gunapala: We're comparing that to some of these other groups...
S: I'm not really comparing, because after all the Buddha was enlightened and one can't feel
the same way about people like, you know, Guru Maharaj and Bhagwan Rajneesh. In the case
of the Buddha there's something to exaggerate. In their case the degree of exaggeration is very
much greater in as much ...

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