What is a Great Disciple? (Part 6)

Great Disciples

From among the noble disciples practicing under any given Buddha, a select number are picked by that Buddha as preeminent in a particular field.  These are the great disciples.  For example, each Buddha appoints two as chief disciples (Pali: aggasāvaka).  During the Buddha Gotama’s time, these posts were filled by Sāriputta (the foremost in wisdom) and Mahāmoggallāna (the foremost in exercise of psychic powers).  Other posts include guardianship of the Dhamma and the foremost in doctrinal exposition (assigned to Ānanda and Mahākaccāna respectively during the Buddha Gotama’s time).

But it is important to see that these posts are not given to noble disciples by choice.  The Buddha who assigns these posts is confirming the fruition of an early aspiration made by that noble disciple in the deep recesses of their past.

Each great disciple attains such a position following a similar pattern.  During the time of some Buddha in the past, a follower of that Buddha witnesses him proclaim some disciple as preeminent in a particular field.[1] Instead of striving for arahantship in their own lifetime, this follower “forms an aspiration (Pali: patthanā, abhinīhāra) to attain, under a future Buddha, the same post of preeminence.”[2]


[1] I here refer to the Buddha of some past time with ‘him’ because as far as I know there is no instance of a female Buddha recorded in the Theravādan tradition.

[2] Great Disciples, p. XXIV.

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2 thoughts on “What is a Great Disciple? (Part 6)”

  1. I do struggle with this “past life” thing that is so common in Buddha’s teaching, the overt statements that past-life actions determine or shape present life situations. I’d love to know the mechanism of that, given *anicca* and *anatta* – more hard training, I suppose….

    1. Yes – it is also something I struggle with too. Although, I must admit that I struggle a lot less with it now than I did before. That is, with the idea of past lives insofar as I can make sense of it in Buddhist terms. What does still trouble me is what you mention – the past-life actions determining or shaping present life situations. At least, in some of the texts it gets talked about in a way that can be used to justify all sorts of negative actions on people as well as negative feelings about oneself.

      Although – that my present life actions affect, shape, and determine my situation tomorrow and beyond is clear – clearly enough to be almost painful and almost liberating. Working on this might be enough for now!

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