Maudgalyayana translates as ‘descendant of a family of bean gatherers’. He was originally named after a tree, Kolita, for he was born after his parents prayed to this tree. He and his fellow cultivator, Shariputra, made an agreement that whoever gained liberation first had to tell the other one. They practiced vigorously together, and each had a hundred disciples. They both took refuge with the Buddha and joined the assembly that always followed him. The Venerable One attended upon his mother with great filial piety. He knew that since his mother, during her life, had slandered the Triple Jewel, killed living beings, and eaten fish eggs, she must have fallen into the hells after death. He used his spiritual powers to contemplate his mother’s condition and saw that she was suffering in the path of hungry ghosts. He filled a bowl with food to offer to his mother, but the food turned into flames and she could not eat it. The Venerable One tearfully begged the Buddha to take pity on his mother and rescue her from the sea of suffering. The Buddha instructed him to establish Ullambana offerings to the Sangha of the ten directions, so that, based on this merit and virtue, his mother could be liberated and reborn in the heavens. The Venerable One was able to expand and contract his body to subdue a venemous dragon. He also placed 500 members of the Shakya clan in his bowl and sent them to the Brahma Heaven. He was foremost in spiritual powers. Like Shariputra, he entered nirvana before the Buddha did.
Today we are remembering the Venerable Maudgalyayana, and we can add the word “Maha” to his name, so it becomes Venerable Mahamaudgalyayana, or Great Maudgalyayana. Maudgalyayana is not Chinese; rather it is Sanskrit, and it translates as ‘clan of bean gatherers’. That was his surname. He had another name, Kolita, which was the name of a tree, because his parents had prayed to the tree spirit and then he had been born.
Among the great Arhats, Maudgalyayana was foremost in spiritual powers. He displayed all manner of spiritual powers and was among the disciples who always followed the Buddha. He and Shariputra were fellow disciples. Previously, they had both followed a non-Buddhist religion. When Shariputra saw the Bhikshu’s Asvajit’s dignified deportment and adorned appearance, he respectfully asked him who his teacher was. Bhikshu Asvajit replied: I study with Shakyamuni Buddha. Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were already leaders of their religion, and each had over a hundred disciples studying their heterodox teachings from them. Now, however, they all took refuge with the Buddha, became the Buddha’s disciples and studied the Buddhaharma from the Buddha. As they cultivated, he and Shariputra made a deal with each other, saying, “No matter which one of us becomes liberated first, that person must tell the other one and not just look after himself.” This showed that they were truly fellow cultivators and companions in the Path, as well as genuine friends. After taking refuge with the Buddha, they were among the disciples who always followed the Buddha around and studied the Buddhadharma. Shariputra was foremost in wisdom, whereas Maudgalyayana excelled in spiritual powers. Ordinary Arhats’ spiritual powers could not compare with his. That’s why he was a very important Arhat among the Hearers. He studied with exceptional vigor. He and Shariputra cultivated together, mutually encouraging and helping each other. They would learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses and urge each other to improve. For that reason, they were both able to advance rapidly and develop their skills in cultivation.
Maudgalyayana was extremely filial to his mother. After his mother died, he figured that she had fallen into the hells, because when she was alive, she did not believe in the Triple Jewel, but rather caused trouble and was very critical of Buddhism. She mixed up right and wrong, black and white, crooked and straight, yin and yang, and made mistakes in cause and effect. His mother was also fond of killing and eating fish eggs. Although the fish eggs had not developed into fish, they were future fish and had life to them. She ate all these fish eggs before they had developed into fish, and so her karmic offenses were very heavy and could have led to illnesses such as cancer. Even if she didn’t suffer when she was alive, she would suffer after death.
Maudgalyayana cultivated very vigorously hoping to find out how his mother was after she died. One day, after he had just attained the six kinds of spiritual powers (the power of the heavenly ear, the power of the heavenly eye, the power of knowing others’ thoughts, the power of knowing past lives, the power of freedom from outflows, and the power of the complete spirit), he used his spiritual powers and observed that his mother had fallen into the path of hungry ghosts and extremely famished everyday but had nothing to eat.
To be continued