Among the disciples of any particular Buddha (here, ‘Buddha’ is referring to a fully awakened being, such as Buddha Gotama in our time, Buddha Dīpankara in another), some are singled out to serve particularly important roles.
Two are designated as chief disciples and share with the Buddha responsibilities regarding administration of the Sangha and instructions for the nuns and monks. Another is designated as a personal attendant and looks after the Buddha’s needs while serving as intermediary between the Buddha and the general public.
The path to great discipleship does not begin during the lifespan of a nun or monk that is appointed to such a noble post, but stretches back into the time periods of the previous Buddhas, slowly winding its ways through countless rounds of birth and death.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi relates, this path follows a pattern:
During the Dispensation of a past Buddha a certain supporter of his sees him designate one of his disciples as preeminent in a particular field. Rather than strive for immediate attainment of the supramundane path under that Buddha, the devotee forms an aspiration (patthanā, abhinīhāra) to attain, under a future Buddha, the same post of preeminence as that to which the great disciple was assigned…After forming the aspiration and receiving the prediction [from the Buddha that the aspiration will be fulfilled], the aspirant to great discipleship must devote successive lives to the accumulation of the merits and knowledge necessary for its fulfillment.
It takes great aspiration, one that lasts lifetimes, one that can sustain practice through countless births and deaths to eventually produce a great disciple.
What is your aspiration when it comes to practice? Why are you doing this? What drives you?
These questions might seem out of place. Desires get a bad rap – aren’t we supposed to break free of them?
But practice is action, it is something we do, and we don’t do without something moving us to act.
When we sit, walk, stand, or lie down, we can do so with the desire to get it over with, on one extreme, or with the desire to wake innumerable beings, on the other extreme.
One will last a few minutes. The other can sustain great practice. Both are something to awaken to and illuminate with Buddha-light!
May we awaken to our aspirations, our desires, and our vows, great and small, for the benefit of all beings!
(Note: Bhikkhu Bodhi’s quote and his discussion of the path to great discipleship can be found in Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, pp. XXI – XXV.)