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Personalities of the Buddhist Suttas

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Assaji Thera

DPPN: The fifth of the Pañca-vaggiya monks. When the Buddha preached the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he was the last in whom dawned the eye of Truth, and the Buddha had to discourse to him and to Mahānāma while their three colleagues went for alms.[1] He became an arahant, together with the others, at the preaching of the Anatta-lakkhaṇa Sutta.[2] He was responsible for the conversion of Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Sāriputta, in the course of his wanderings in search of Eternal Truth, saw Assaji begging for alms in Rājagaha, and being pleased with his demeanour, followed him till he had finished his round. Finding a suitable opportunity, Sāriputta asked Assaji about his teacher and the doctrines he followed. Assaji was at first reluctant to preach to him, because, as he said, he was but young in the Order. But Sāriputta urged him to say what he knew, and the stanza which Assaji uttered then, has, ever since, been famous, as representing the keynote of the Buddha's teaching:|| ||

"Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā tesaṃ hetuṃ Tathāgato āha||
tesañ ca yo nirodho, evaṃ vādī Mahāsamaṇo."|| ||

[225] Sariputta immediately understood and hurried to give the glad tidings to Moggallāna that he had succeeded in his quest.[3]

Sāriputta held Assaji in the highest veneration, and we are told that from the day of this first meeting, in whatever quarter he heard that Assaji was staying, in that direction he would extend his clasped hands in an attitude of reverent supplication, and in that direction he would turn his head when he lay down to sleep.[4]

One day when Assaji was going about in Vesāli for alms, the Nigaṇṭha Saccaka, who was wandering about in search of disputants to conquer, saw him, and questioned him regarding the Buddha's teaching because he was a well-known disciple (ñātaññatara-sāvaka). Assaji gave him a summary of the doctrine contained in the Anatta-lakkhaṇa Sutta.. Feeling sure that he could refute these views attributed to the Buddha, Saccaka went with a large concourse of Licchavis to the Buddha and questioned him. This was the occasion for the preaching of the Cüla-Saccaka Sutta.[5] The Commentary[6] tells us that Assaji decided on this method of exposition because he did not wish to leave Saccaka any loophole for contentious questioning. The Saṃyutta Nikāya[7] records a visit paid by the Buddha to Assaji as he lay grievously sick in Kassa-pārāma near Rājagaha. He tells the Buddha that he cannot enter into jhāna because of his difficulty in breathing and that he cannot win balance of mind. The Buddha encourages him and asks him to dwell on thoughts of impermanence and non-self.

 


[1] Vin. i. 13. He became a sotāpanna on the fourth day of the quarter (AA. i. 84).

[2] Vin. i. 14; J. i. 82.

[3] Vin.i. 39 ff.; the incident is related in the DhA. (i.75 ff.) with slight variations as to detail.

[4] DhA. iv. 150-1.

[5] M. i. 227 ff.

[6] MA. i. 452.

[7] S. iii. 124 ff.

 


 

There is some problem here with the identification of the Assaji of SN 3.22.88 with the Assaji who renounced the world with Gotama and who was the first teacher of Sāriputta. That Assaji would almost certainly have been called there 'Assaji Thera', where instead he is called 'āyasmā Assaji, 'Elder'. Either this is the mistake or there is a far more serious error in that 'Assaji Thera' was supposed to have attained arahantship during the second discourse (Pañca Suttam) and this Assaji still has doubts and must be instructed concerning inconstance, pain and not self.

 


"Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā||
tesaṃ hetuṃ Tathāgato āha||
tesañ ca yo nirodho,||
evaṃ vādī Mahāsamaṇo."||
Assaji's explanation of Gotama's teaching to Sāriputta

What things as become by forces driven
The Tathagata says: 'Such are the driving forces
and such their end.'
Thus teaches the Great Shaman.
— Olds translation



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