Upali was born in a family of the Sudra caste so he was destined to be a slave. In ancient India, outcasts led a dog’s life. An outcasts must kneel aside if he happened to see the Brahmin or Ksatriya on the road. He must not peep at them, otherwise his eyes would be dug out. If he argued with the Brahmin or ksatriya, his tongue would be cut off.
Outcasts was not allowed to receive education and hence when Upali grew up, his parents asked him to learn the skill of hair cutting to support himself. Upali was attentive and obedient hence he mastered all types of cutting in a short period. Then his parents asked someone to help arrange Upali to the palace and Upali became the barber of the princes.
Princes such as Prince Bhaddiya and Prince Aniruddha had their hair cut by Upali. They liked Upali as he handled their hair with extra care.
When Upali was twenty years old, Buddha returned to His hometown, Kapilavatthu. That was three years after the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Upali was recommended to do the haircut for Buddha. He was overwhelmed by the unexpected favor but hesitated to accept the honor as he knew the Buddha was the Great Enlightened One and He possessed thirty-two Marks of the Saint. So he asked for his mother’s advice.
His mother comforted him and said that the Buddha was benevolent and He would not despise outcaste. But Upali was still afraid of going despite his mother’s assurance. His mother could not do anything but accompanied him to do the haircut for the Buddha.
The next day, Upali, in the company of his mother, did the haircut for Buddha. After a while, his mother knelt before Buddha and asked, “Lord Buddha, what do you think of his skill?”
“He bows too low, “replied the Buddha.
Upali straightened his back when he heard this. It was said that he attained the first stage of meditation.
After a while, his mother knelt down and asked,”Lord Buddha, what do you think now?”
“His body seems to be too straight,” replied the Buddha.
When Upali heard this, he concentrated his attention and it was said that he attained the second stage of meditation then.
After a while, his mother asked the Buddha again, “Lord Buddha, what do you think of his skill now?”
“He breathes in too fast,” replied Buddha.
When Upali heard this, he concentrated his mind on breathe-in and breathe-out. It was said that he attained the third stage of meditation then.
His mother asked Buddha again, “What do you think now?”
“He breathes out too fast.” replied the Buddha.
Now, Upali was mindful of breathing in and out and he did not know what he was holding a razor. It was said that he attained the fourth stage of meditation.
On the instance, the Buddha asked the Brethren to prop up Upali so that he would not fall down.
We could learn from here that Upali was very attentive in his work. He was strict with himself and could listen to people’s criticisms with an open mind. Hence he was pre-eminent among those who knew the disciplinary rules by heart.
When Buddha returned to His hometown, many princes decided to enter the Order after listening to his preaching. For instance, Prince Bhaddiya, Prince Ananda, Prince Aniruddha and the other four princes. They brought Upali along so that he could give the tonsure to them. Upali shed tears while giving the tonsure to Prince Bhaddiya. Aniruddha was displeased and said, “You ought to be pleased to see us entering the Order. Why do you cry?”
Upali replied, “Prince Aniruddha, pardon me for being impolite. Prince Bhaddiya is very kind to me and I just simply could not bear leaving him.”
Aniruddha felt pity for him and said to the other princes,”Dear brothers, Upali has been serving us for years, he is very diligent and honest. We must help him. Here is a woolen blanket, throw all your jewelry on it as we do not need them anymore.”
All the princes agreed to do so and they save all their jewelry to Upali. They asked Upali to return to Kapilavatthu and they went to see Buddha.
At first, Upali wanted to return to Kapilavatthu, but on second though, he knew the imperial family would kill him, as he did not inform them of the princes’ decision to renounce the world. Moreover, he thought,”Even noble princes are willing to forgo the worldly pleasures, a humble person like me should not remain in world life. I too must enter the Order.”
Hence he hung all the jewelry and clothes on a tree and set forth to the direction where Buddha dwelled.
But he stopped when he thought of his lowly background. He sat on the roadside and wept. Suddenly, he heard someone asking him,”Why are you so sad?”
Upali raised his eyes and saw Sariputra. He wiped his eyes and knelt before Sariputra, “Venerable sir, you are the chief disciple of Lord Buddha. I heard your name when you accompanied Buddha to the palace, may I ask you, can an outcaste like me enter the Order?”
“What is your name?” asked Sariputra.
“My name is Upali.”
That reminded Sariputra of a barber entering the fourth stage of meditation while doing the haircut for Buddha. This man must be the barber. So Sariputra said to Upali, “Anyone can become Buddha’s disciple if he observes the precepts. Come with me, Buddha will definitely be glad to have you ordained.”
Upali followed Sariputra to see Buddha. Buddha gave the tonsure to him and said, “You have a good nature and you will be able to propagate my teachings in the future. Prince Bhaddiya and the other princes have requested to be ordained before you. But I want them to practice meditation for seven days till they forget their noble status, I will then give tonsure to them.”
Seven days later, Buddha called the seven princes out to meet the Brethren. The princes were surprised to see Upali and did not know how to address him.
Buddha said to all of them: “I ordained Upali before all of you, hence all of you must pay obeisance to him.”
All the seven princes paid obeisance to Upali. Upali was deeply moved by the kindness of Buddha and he made a respectful obeisance to Him.
Upali attained enlightenment on the same year that he was ordained. He became the chief disciple of the Buddha and everyone was shocked by his attainment. Hence Buddha told the Brethren the story of Upali’s past life:
Once, there were two good friends who were poor but kind and always gave alms. One of them was reborn as a king and the other reborn in a noted Brahmin family. The Brahmin married a lovely lady and loved her deeply. Due to some misunderstanding, his wife quarreled with him and did not want to talk to him for quite a long time. One day, his wife asked him to buy some flowers to decorate their house. He was overjoyed to gain back his wife so he sang love-songs on his way home.
At that time, the king was admiring the view in the palace and he heard the singing of the happy Brahmin. The king sent for the Brahmin and both of them, became good friends.
The king trusted the Brahmin greatly and the Brahmin became an influential person in the country. He became so famous that the people of that country regarded him as king. But the Brahmin was not contented, he thought of assassinating the king and seizing the throne. But he finally realized his mistakes and repented before the king. Though he was forgiven, he decided to renounce the world. Not long after he renounced the world, he attained miraculous power.
At that time, there was a barber in the palace. When he heard about the story of the Brahmin from the king, he too vowed to renounce the world and became the disciple of the Brahmin, who was now a saint. The barber too attained miraculous power.
Both the Brahmin and the barber had attained the state of sainthood, hence one day, when the king paid a visit to the Brahmin, after paying obeisance to the Brahmin, he too made an obeisance to the barber.
When Buddha finished this story, he identified the Birth, ” In those days, the Brahmin was me and Upali was the barber.”
This story has a profound implication: the craving for power will blind man. Buddha too had this craving in His past life.
Upali observed every rule set by Buddha and he was preeminent among those who knew the disciplinary rules by heart.
But those who were careless in the observance of the rules saw Upali as a thorn in their flesh. They even deliberately made things difficult for him.
Once, while Upali was expounding the Teachings of the Buddha in a certain place, the Brethren shut their door against him.
Once, Upali even got a scolding from a nun. She scolded him by saying, “You are a troublemaker, you always ask the Buddha what we should do and what we should not do. You are making things difficult for us.”
Upali ignored her scolding. But the Buddha was very concerned for him. Whenever the Buddha saw the Brethren who were back from preaching, He would ask them, “Have you seen Upali?”
“Yes, I have.”
“How did people treat him?”
“Buddha, some did not show respect for him and did not give him enough offerings. Some Brethren did not want to see him and some nuns even scolded him.”
“Why?” Buddha was surprised to hear that.
“Because they felt restrained with him.”
The Buddha was displeased to hear that and He gathered all the Brethren and told them about the value of precepts. The Buddha said that one who observed the training rules was like a bright lamp. Those with pure mind would like the brightness whereas those with evil mind preferred darkness.
Then, the Buddha sent for those Brethren and nuns who disrespected Upali. When they arrived, Buddha asked them, “I heard that you shut your door against Upali and even scolded him. Is it true?”
They dare not lie and admitted their misdeeds.
Buddha excoriated them by saying, “How ignorant you are. Besides the observer of precepts, who else deserved to be respected? Precept is the foundation of Truth, showing no respect for the Brethren who observe the precepts means you have the intention to violating the Truth.”
Upali often discussed the precepts of the Brethren with the Buddha, as is shown in the Sutras. I am going to extract some to show you:
In Kapilavatthu, there was a written rule for the Sakya clan, saying that girls of the clan are not allowed to marry to the other clan, otherwise, she would be severely punished.
At that time, there was a young woman whose husband had just passed away. A young woman like her was naturally the focus of many young men’s attention. This young widow showed interest in someone but her brother-in-law was interested in her. When she turned down his proposal, he was very angry and vowed to put her to death.
Once, he put a drug in the wine he gave her. The young widow drank it and was drunk. Her brother-in-law beats her and later reported to the government, saying, ” She is my wife but she had intimacy with a man from other clan.”
The young widow knew she would be executed so she escaped. She came to Sravasti and became a nun.
When the government knew that this young widow was in Sravasti, they wrote a letter to the king of Sravasti requesting him to have the woman arrested and sent to Kapilavatthu.
The king, after receiving this letter, asked his ministers whether it was true that the young widow came to Sravasti.
The ministers replied, “This young widow had escaped to our country but she is now a nun. You had set up a rule that anyone who offended the Brethren and nuns would be severely punished. She is a nun now and no one dares to offend her. So what should we do?”
After careful consideration, the king wrote a letter to the government of Kapilavatthu saying that the young widow has become a nun and according to their rule, nuns could be exempted from punishment.
The government of Kapilavatthu was indignant. When Upali came to know about it, he asked Buddha, “Lord Buddha, can we ordain one who had violated the law?”
“Before the government acquits her, we should not ordain her,” replied Buddha.
But the Buddha knowing the young widow has innocent of the crime, did not release her, but at the same time saying that the Sangha cannot be used as a refuge for people to escape justice.
Once, Upali asked the Buddha, “Lord Buddha, what is the proper way of looking after the elders when they are sick?”
Buddha replied,”If the elder falls ill, you must transfer him to a big room. His disciples must attend to him day and night. They must help him tidy the room, arrange flowers and burn incense. If other Brethren come to visit the patient, the disciples must serve them food and drinks. If the patient is unable to answer the visitors, the disciples must answer them on his behalf. The Brethren must take the opportunity to expound the teachings of Buddha when they pay a visit to the patient. They must help the patient do everything and provide him food, drinks and medicine. If the devotees visit the elder, the elder must expound the teachings of Buddha. If they make offerings to him, he must bless them and receive it. If the patient wants to relieve nature, the visitors must leave the room. There must be a person to stand by the doorway to receive the visitors.
“Lord Buddha, what is the proper way of looking after the health of the younger Sangha?” Upali asked the Buddha.
“If the younger falls ill, he must not lie on a unsuitable place. His room must be kept clean. His elders and disciples must visit him. It he does not have elders and disciples, the Brethren who live with him must ask someone to visit him. The number of visitors must not exceed three. The visitors must attend to the patient if he wants food and medicine. If the patient does not have food and medicine, the Brethren must supply him. If the Brethren do not have these, they must sell the patient’s robes and bowls to exchange for food and medicine. If the patient is unwilling to sell his things, they must inform the elder. The elder must enlighten him and try to straighten him. If he is willing to sell his things but unable to find a buyer, the Brethren must go begging to help him. If they could not beg anything they must pick the good food from their daily diet to supply the patient. If they are unable to get good food from their daily diet, they must go begging and provide him the good food they beg.”
Besides asking the proper way of inquiring the health of the Brethren, Upali even asked Buddha about the proper way of handling things left behind by the deceased Brethren. Upali showed every concern for the sick Brethren.
Upali was noted for his strict observance of rules and disciplines. Whenever the monks or nuns had any doubt of the rules and disciples, they would consult Upali.
When the Buddha entered Nirvana, Upali was in his seventies. In the First Great Council, he was selected to summarize the Rules of the Order. He humbly declined the offer but Venerable Maha Kassapa insisted that he must participate in the Council. He said to Upali, “Venerable Upali, please do not decline our offer. The Buddha had imparted the Fourteen Rules to you and you are preeminent among those who know the disciplinary rules by heart. Please recite the Rules of the Order now.”
Upali accepted the offer. When he recited the Rules of the Order, he was able to say out when, where, to whom and why the rules were set. His good memory was greatly admired by all the participants.
Upali was an outcaste, but he enjoyed high prestige in the community of monks. He success was a stimulus to people in distress. His success symbolized the glory of equality that shines forever.