One morning when the Buddha went out to beg, he encountered a young man who was dripping wet and who was bowing to the directions and worshipping and scattering grain.
Although the Buddha was enlightened, he was still just as curious as he had been when he was Prince Siddhartha, and he hurried to ask the young man why he was doing this. The young man explained that he was fulfilling his father’s last wish and carrying out exorcistic worship to avoid any bad forces harming the family.
The Buddha praised his filiality, but told him that his procedure was flawed.
“Although your father told you to honor the directions, what he meant was to bow to the east in honor of those who are kind to you, and especially your parents; to bow to the south to honor your teachers; to the west to honor your wife and children; to the north to honor all your relatives and friends; and upwards to the heavens to honor all of the religious teachers. And when you worship downwards, it is to do honor to all the animals.
And then he taught the young man five principles for living, which became known as the “Five Precepts” (pañca-śīla):
The Buddha told the young man to work hard and make money, but not to be greedy or extravagant with it. The money should be divided into four parts:
The young man listened to all of this, and he honored the Buddha and asked to become his follower. And then he began to worship in the six directions in a way that the Buddha had taught him.
While the Buddha was living near the town of Rajagaha, he learned that another visiting teacher named Sanjaya (Sañjaya) dwelt in the region, who had a couple of hundred followers with him. He was a dissenter from the teachings of the Brahmins, and it was rumored that he did not believe in logic. Among his followers were Shariputra (Śāriputra) and his childhood friend Mahamaud-galyayana (Mahāmaud-galyāyana), who is better known today by his Chinese name Mùlián 目连 Both Shariputra and Mùlián were able and accomplished young men of excellent families. Each of them, perceiving the vanity of the world, had set out to reach true understanding. First they had joined Sanjaya, but soon they grew dissatisfied with Sanjaya’s teaching about avoiding suffering and sought something more profound. The two had left their master Sanjaya and went separate ways, promising that whichever of them first found the true path to understanding would hasten to inform the other.
One morning Shariputra was walking along the road towards the town of Rajagaha and chanced to pass Ashvajit, one of the Buddha’s followers, one of the earliest who had left their families and traveled as mendicants with the Buddha. (V. chapter 13.) Ashvajit was out walking with his begging bowl. He looked so serene and so dignified that Shariputra was instantly attracted to him. It was obvious that he was the student of a very great master.
Shariputra followed him, and when he caught up with him asked him who the master was who had led him to leave his family to study the way to avoid suffering. He hoped that perhaps this was the teacher that he and his friend Mùlián were seeking. The man who had left his family told him that his master was the Buddha, but that he said he had not been a follower of the Buddha for very long and couldn’t give many details.
However he described in broad terms the teaching of the Buddha about how to avoid life and death. Shariputra was very excited, and as soon as he finished talking with the man who had left his family, he hurried to tell Mùlián.
Shariputra was radiant when he found Mùlián, and Mùlián could immediately see that something wonderful had happened. Shariputra told him about his encounter with the bhikshus, and the way to escape life and death. In the end the two went to see the Buddha and asked his permission to leave their families and join him. In the end, they too became arhats. Indeed, because they were so very competent, they became the Buddha’s most important assistants, for none had a deeper understanding than Shariputra, and none had greater supernatural powers than Mùlián, and there are many tales about the wonders that he worked.
While the Buddha was living at Rajagaha, at the full moon on the 15th day of the 3rd month, there was suddenly a meeting of all his followers at the Bamboo Forest Retreat, and it was attended by 1,250 arhats and bhikshus and lay followers. Those who were spreading the doctrine came back to report about their work. All the disciples were delighted to see each other and learn how well it had gone.
The Buddha took advantage of the occasion to teach them how to avoid evil and do good and how to put their minds at rest. These instructions are preserved in the norms of monastic discipline, and the event is commemorated as the “Festival of Reverencing the Dharma.”
What we remember today about this convention is that all these disciples, all of whom had left their families to seek salvation and spread the word about how to avoid suffering, all of them attended, but they had not made any prior arrangement to do so. It just happened.