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Part IV: Chapters 18-22

Dramatis Personae for Part IV


Chapter 18: Followers

Meanwhile under a nearby banyan tree sat a man of the Brahman (Brāhman) caste. Knowing that “brahman” was not just the name of a caste but also meant that person was pure and good, he asked the Buddha by what exercises one might become a really true brahman.

The Buddha answered, “A true brahman forgoes evil and arrogance, disciplines himself, remains calm, studies deeply, practices scripture, and is unlike ordinary people.” And the brahman walked away thinking, “This renunciant of the Shakya tribe has seen into my heart! This is truly a great shramana (śrāmaṇa)!” (Shramanas were renunciants of many different sects which opposed the domination of religion by the Brahmans with their “self-serving” texts and rituals. Most belonged to non-Brahman casts.)

Several days later, two merchants came upon the Buddha sitting beneath a pepper tree and were so struck by his radiant appearance that they gave him all their goods and asked to be his disciples. Their names were Trapusha (Trapuṣa) and Bhallika, and they thus became his first lay followers.

The Buddha knew that most people would not understand the truths he had come to appreciate, but he was compassionate, and knew he had to share his realization with all who could appreciate it and receive its benefit.

Whom should he save first? He decided to seek his old teacher the sage Arada Kalama, but he learned that Arada Kalama had died.

So he went to seek the sage Udraka Ramaputra, another of his old teachers. But he too had died.

Then he thought of the five men practicing austerities at Uruvilva village, the ones who had originally come to call him back to his father’s palace. But when he got there, he learned that they were now dwelling in the Deer Park near the town of Sarnath . So he left Uruvilva and headed for Sarnath and the Deer Park to find them.

But when he found them they were full of suspicion and not at all glad to see him.

“Look, it is the holy man Siddhartha who has come back. He is the one who gave up austerities and gave in to greed. Let us have nothing to do with him.”

But when the Buddha drew near, he did not look like the man they had known before. There was a radiance and peace about him that caused them to forget their annoyance and rush to make him comfortable. When he preached to them about what he had discovered in his Great Awakening, however, they found it hard to believe and were full of questions. Above all they could not imagine how this could be the true doctrine if it had not required severe austerities.

But he preached to them about the turning of the wheel of the law of cause and effect and of karma and reincarnation. It was his first formal sermon and is preserved for us today as the “Scripture of the Turning of the Wheel of the Law” (Dharma-cakra-pravartana sūtra).

Ajnata-kaundinya very quickly understood and his suspicions dropped away, and he asked to become a disciple. And he became the Buddha’s first bhikshu (bhikṣu), which is the term we use for a follower who leaves his family to devote himself to the Buddhist way of finding enlightenment and ending suffering. Almost immediately the other four became bhikshus too.

The Buddha dwelt at the Deer Park with the five bhikshus. Two bhikshus would go out with begging bowls while the other three would remain and the Buddha would teach them. And then those three would go out and beg while the first two would stay and hear the teaching.

These five bhikshus were very close to the Buddha, and they became the first group of arhats (the highest grade of pre-enlightenment disciples), and what he taught them became the “Scripture of Non-Self” (Anātmalakṣaṇa sūtra).

While the Buddha was staying at the Deer Park, he was visited by a young man named Yashas (Yaśas). Some say that his mother was none other than the lady Sujata, the elegant lady who had brought gruel to the Buddha when he was meditating beneath the fig tree. (V. chapter 17.) But he was, in any case, the son of a very wealthy man from Sarnath. Yashas’ father’s palace was full of luxuries and beautiful girls, but Yashas had wearied of all this. He had heard of the Buddha and come to see if he could leave the family.

No sooner had Yashas set out, than his father went in search of him, just as the Buddha’s father had done. Yashas’ father found him and the Buddha together and announced that he had come to save him from this terrible fate and to bring him home again. He was very angry.

Once the Buddha explained the principles he had discovered, however, Yashas’ father’s views changed completely. What could possibly be more important than the way to avoid suffering? So Yashas’ father allowed him to leave the family and join the Buddha. Indeed, the old man resolved to become a follower himself, although living at home, the kind of person who today is called a home-dwelling follower garhapati (gṛhapati), and invited the Buddha and Yashas to come to his house the following day to receive his offerings.

Soon four of Yashas’ best friends also decided to leave the family and become bhikshus, and they brought another fifty high-caste young men, who joined with no urging from the Buddha. These were to be some of the earliest arhats, although when we honor them today we often honor the most prominent eighteen of their number. Another section of this web site discusses them. (Link)


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