30 September 2011


SĀRIPUTTA WAS ONE OF THE TWO chief disciples of Gotama the Buddha. He was born a Brahmin and wandered with his companion Moggallāna in search of the deathless. A chance meeting with Assajī lead to his breakthrough insight and becoming a Buddhist. He was held in extremely high esteem by all who knew him, including the Buddha.

Later however Sāriputta was identified with a brand of formalistic Buddhism, and several texts were composed in which he is portrayed as stiff and rather stupid. Of course Buddhists have always portrayed their enemies this way in texts, but it is particularly infelicitous that such a great figure should become the butt of jokes for the purpose of sectarian pissing contests. One of the things that turned me off Mahāyāna Buddhism was precisely the derogatory attitude towards, and denigration of, Sāriputta. So I offer this translation of the Susīma Sutta where Sāriputta gets his due.

Susīma Sutta
SN ii.29 S i.63

Connected with Sāvatthī. Then indeed Ānanda approached the Blessed One, saluted him and sat to one side. The Blessed One asked him “are you pleased with Sāriputta?”

Could Sāriputta not be pleasing to anyone who is not stupid, wicked, confused or mentally deranged? The Elder Sāriputta is wise, Sir. He has great wisdom, precise wisdom, joyful wisdom, swift wisdom, piercing wisdom. Sāriputta is contented, satisfied, [enjoys] seclusion, living alone, energetically resolute, a speaker [of truth], gently spoken, he exhorts, he censures evil. Could Sāriputta not be pleasing to him who is not stupid, wicked, confused or mentally deranged?

Quite right Ānanda, I agree with everything you’ve said.

Once these virtues of the Elder Sāriputta were spoken Susīma the deva [1], surrounded by a great retinue of devas, approached the Blessed One, saluted him, stood to one side and said:

It is just as you say Blessed One, just so Excellence. I totally agree with you.

Whichever company of devas I approached, I hear this very same full report [in praise of Sāriputta].

Then indeed the deva-company of the deva Susīma, at the telling of the qualities of Sāriputta were pleased and delighted.

Just like a beautiful, excellent, perfectly symmetrical crystal of beryl, artfully arranged on a saffron cloth, shining, glittering, and scintillating

Just like a nugget of gold from the Jambu River, skilfully refined in the furnace by clever goldsmith from a family of smiths, artfully arranged on a saffron cloth, shining, glittering, and scintillating.

Just as in the morning star appears in the sky towards dawn on an cloud free autumnal evening shining, glittering, and scintillating.

Just as the autumnal sun, rising above the morning mists into a cloud free sky, dispels the darkness of the heavens, shining, glittering, and scintillating.

Then indeed Susīma the deva spoke these verses with reference to the Elder Sāriputta in the presence of the Blessed One:
Known as wise,
Sāriputta is loving;
Content, humble, restrained,
a sage conveyed by the teachers praise
Then indeed the Blessed One replied in verse to Susīma the deva regarding Sāriputta:
Known as wise,
Sāriputta is loving;
Content, humble, restrained,
biding his time well restrained and developed.

  1. Thanks to Sabio Lentz for pointing out a confusion in my translation. Susīma is a devaputta, and I had left the term untranslated at first. A devaputta is a human being who has been reborn in the devaloka i.e. the realms of devas. The word literally means "son of a deva" - just as Sāriputta is the "son of (his mother) Sārī". They often seem to retain a sense of connection to the manussaloka or realm of human beings. There is no obvious single English word that conveys this concept that is unique to India. PED suggests "angel" but this is so wrong as to be laughable. Still unable to choose a better translation I've opted to use 'deva' which should be more straight-forward, and at least does not introduce foreign ideas into the discourse.

Image: a Sri Lankan monk from Scribner's magazine. 1891. I imagine Sāriputta would have looked a bit like this.
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