The statue of Buddha that we see in any Buddhist temple today is normally accompanied by the statues of His two great disciples. The one standing at the left side of Buddha’s statue is Maha Mogallan while the one at the right side is Ananda. However this was not the situation when Buddha began propagating Dharma. Not long after Buddha attained enlightenment, Sariputra and Mogallana entered the Sangha and became His attendants. Mogallana always stood on Buddha’s left while Sariputra stood on His right.
After becoming Buddha’s disciples, Sariputra attained liberation from bondage and reincarnation within two weeks while Mogallana did it in seven days and was already an Arhat with supernatural powers.
Mogallana was very optimistic and brave and he always took up the cudgels for justice. In addition, he was pre-eminent above all Buddha’s disciples in terms of supernatural powers as he always utilized his powers during Dharma propagation. Though Buddha disallowed His disciples to reveal their divine power and delude others, He always praised Mogallana for his supernatural powers.
Mogallana's Past Life - Vow to Attain Supernatural Powers
If we want to know how Mogallana achieved his supernatural powers, we have to trace back to his past life.
He was actually a fisherman in his previous life. Later he realised that earning his livelihood by catching fish was a karma of great suffering. He also felt that one must cultivate merits for a better future life; therefore, he decided to change his line. Then one day, he met a Pratyeka-buddha and was impressed with his dignified manner. With reverence, he invited the Pratyeka-buddha to his house to receive offerings. As the Pratyeka-buddha was not good in preaching, he could only use his divine powers to save the world. After his meal, he jumped into the air and moved freely in all directions. Mogallana was so impressed that he vowed to attain supernatural powers in his next life.
Where there’s a will there’s a way. Hence, Mogallana finally achieved pre-eminence in supernatural powers during his next life when he was Buddha’s disciple.
Mogallana's Supernatural Powers - Communication with the Buddha
Mogallana had the divine powers to hear any sounds, whether near or far, and to see things through obstructions. He could also travel to any place he liked in an instant. Many a time he used his miraculous powers to help Buddha in His propagation of Dharma.
Once, the people of Sravasti gave a banquet to make offering to the monks and nuns of many religions. Mogallana was the first guest to arrive at the banquet which was held at a big square opposite a river.
Soon, many heretics also came for the offerings and they hoped to get the best seat first. Unexpectedly, the river suddenly rose and they had difficulty on crossing it. Just then, Mogallana saw Buddha and His disciples approaching from far. He therefore transformed into a bridge decorated with gems across the river and awaited Buddha’s arrival.
Upon seeing the bridge, the heretics were delighted and they rushed across the bridge. However, before they could reach the other side of the river, the bridge collapsed suddenly. As a result, they fell into the river, all yelling for help.
The bridge reappeared across the river when Buddha arrived. Walking across the bridge with His disciples, Buddha saw the heretics struggling in the river. The compassionate Buddha immediately saved the heretics through His supernatural power and then allowed them to follow Him. Once they reached the other side of the river, safe and sound, the bridge vanished in the air.
This incident had led the heretics to the conclusion that they could not stand comparison with the Buddha and His disciples.
Once Mogallana and Sariputra were assigned to lead the Sangha and to propagate the Dharma at Karanda-venuvana in Rajagrha. Both of them stayed in the same meditation room.
Once night, all was quiet and there was only a lamp glimmering in the meditation room. In the depth of night, Sariputra broke the silence and asked Mogallana:” Venerable Mogallana, pardon my asking a blunt question, but have you been meditating on one pointedness tonight?”
“Why did you ask this?” Mogallana asked softy in reply.
“Because I have not heard you breathe for quite some time,” explained Sariputra.
“Venerable Sariputra, I have gone to seek Buddha’s instruction on a question on the meditation practice. During the silence just now, I was actually talking to the Buddha.”
“How could it be? Lord Buddha is now in Jetavana in the north and we are staying at Karandu-venuvana in the south. The two places are a long way away from each other. How could you possibly talk to the Buddha?”
“Venerable Sariputra, the Buddha has divine vision and hearing which both of us have also attained. That is why we can always communicate with each other no matter where we are.”
As a matter of fact, Sariputra had known this already, but he always maintained his modesty. After hearing Mogallana’s words, he was very pleased and said in admiration, “Venerable Mogallana, it’s the highest honour that I can learn with you under the same teacher because your supernatural powers and virtues are so great.”
Mogallana replied smilingly, “Venerable Sariputra, I, too, feel greatly honoured for being able to associate with a wise and virtuous venerable like you.”
Sariputra and Mogallana respected and admired each other and their friendship had never faded.
Not Harmed by Mara
Once, while Mogallana was taking a stroll, a Mara entered his stomach through divine power. Mogallana felt a pain in the stomach on which a lump as big as a bowl could be seen. He quickly went back and meditated in his room. Knowing that it was a Mara opposing him, he said, ” Mara, come out quick! You should not harass the Buddha and His disciples.”
Mara thought, “This is strange! the Buddha does not even know what I look like. How could Mogallana possibly know?”
Then Mogallana said again, “Mara! I know you are now wondering how Mogallana got to know what you look like when Buddha does not even know it.”
Mara was very shocked to hear that. He quickly transformed into saliva and escaped. From then on, he never dared to challenge Mogallana again.
Mara could not harm Mogallana and could not shake his determination to practise the Way.
Helping a Woman
Once, when Mogallana was passing by a park, he met a very attractive woman in her thirties. This woman was actually waiting for him there. When he walked near her, she smiled at him and tried to talk with him.
Mogallana stopped to take a look. He immediately knew her intention; therefore, he said sternly, “Poor woman! Your body is already filthy and now, instigated by the heretics, you go against your conscience for the sake of some money and come to me with evil intention!”
The woman was very shocked to hear that. Mogallana continued, “I knew your intention the moment I saw you. You are befuddled by your own beauty which fosters the opportunities for you to commit sins. And your sins have already led you to sink deeper and deeper!”
Feeling rather ashamed, the woman said, “Venerable sir, I have known beforehand that you are preeminent in supernatural powers among all Buddha’s disciples. I actually intended to use my charm to defeat your divine power. But now, I know I am a sinful person. Though I want to be good, I am afraid I am beyond remedy. As I have a horrible past, there will be a day of dreadful retribution for my evil deeds.” The woman cried sadly after saying that.
She later told Mogallana of her past. She was married at the age of sixteen and had a daughter. Before long, her father passed away and her mother later had an intimate relationship with her husband. She was so furious that she left the family and remarried another man. Her second husband later had a mistress who happened to be her own daughter. When she discovered that, she felt so ashamed. She left home again and became a prostitute leading a sinful life. She would do anything as long as she was paid to do so.
After hearing what she said, Mogallana did not despise her. Instead, he saw the true, the good and the beautiful side of this woman. He said kindly to her, “You certainly have a horrific past. But there’s no need to be sad and disappointed. No matter how sinful you are, as long as you follow the teachings of the Dharma and repent your past evil deeds, you will be saved. Come, let me bring you to the Buddha.” It is thus obvious that Mogallana possessed not only great supernatural powers but also the skills to convert others to the Buddha Dharma.
Testing How Far the Buddha's Voice could Reach
One day, when Mogallana was in the meditation room, he could actually hear the voice of the Buddha who was teaching in the hall. He was very surprised because the Buddha was quite far from him. To find out how far the Buddha’s voice could reach, he decided to go to Buddhaksetra, or land of a Buddha.
Through his divine feet, he came to a Buddhaksetra and saw Lokesvararaja Buddha preaching there. The delighted Mogallana sat down and listened to the preaching.
Surprisingly, he could hear the preaching of the Buddha on the earth and that of the Lokesvararaja Buddha at the same time.
Mogallana’s presence was later discovered by one of the bodhisattvas. Knowing that he was the great disciple of the Buddha on the earth, Lokesvararaja Buddha asked him, “Venerable, you are here to find out how far the voice of the Buddha can reach. Am I right?”
“Yes!” answered Mogallana.
“Venerable, you should not have this intention. The power of all Buddhas is quite beyond the mortals and the preaching of all Buddhas is everywhere in the immaterial universe. The state that the living beings reach can be far or near. One must not have discrimination and try to find out how far the Buddha’s voice can reach.”
Mogallana felt quite ashamed after hearing that. From then on, he never dared do the same again.
Mogallana frequented not only Buddhaksetra but also the hell to observe living beings receiving the retribution for their good or bad deeds.
Saving His Mother
One day, while looking at the realm of hungry ghosts with his vision, Mogallana saw his mother suffering there. He was very sad. So, with the help of his miraculous power, the filial Mogallana provided a bowl of rice for his mother. However, when the rice reached his mother’s hands, it turned into charcoal and could not be eaten. Upon seeing that, Mogallana could not help but cried sadly. Though he could tell what caused the ghosts to receive their retribution, he could not explain his mother’s suffering. So he immediately went to ask the Buddha.
Buddha said compassionately, “Mogallana, your mother had in her previous life, slandered the Buddha and the Sangha. Moreover, she did not believe in retribution and had been greedy and hot-tempered. That is why she is receiving such a retribution. The reason why you do not know your mother’s karma is that your miraculous power has been hindered by the love between mother and son!”
“Lord Buddha, is there any way to help my mother get out of the realm of hungry ghosts?” Mogallana asked earnestly.
“Mogallana, you cannot save you mother on your own because her bad karma is very serious. The only way is to rely on the miraculous powers of the holy monks to help her free from the suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts.
“The fifteenth of the seventh lunar month every year is the last day of summer retreat for all monks and many of them will have attained enlightenment by then. If one makes elaborate offerings to all holy monks on this day, he can rely on their united efforts to release his parents and relatives from the woeful states. If his parents are alive, they will live a longer and happier life.”
The delighted Mogallana carried out Buddha’s instructions and made offerings to all monks on the last day of summer retreat. True enough, his mother was immediately freed from her suffering. He was very grateful to Buddha and praised the beneficence of the Triple Gem. He also urged people to make offerings to Buddha and Sangha on the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month to repay the kindness of their parents. And this is the origin of the Ullambana Festival.
Mogallana was noted not only for his great supernatural powers but also for his filial piety!
Reciting a Gatha
Once, when the disciples gathered and discussed what they had gained from learning the Buddha Dharma, Mogallana recited a gatha, or metrical hymn, which was as follows:
Avoid evil, do good,
Purify the mind,
This is the teachings of all Buddhas.
This simple gatha helps beginners to grasp the objective of Buddhism. Like Venerable Mogallana, it is always on our mind.
The Limitations of Supernatural Powers
Mogallana always thought that nothing was impossible with his supernatural power. However, little did he realise that supernatural power could not help one escape the law of cause and effect. Neither did he know that it could not defeat karma and free one from the cycle of life and death.
Once, the Buddha’s homeland Kapilavastu was invaded by King Vidudabha of Kosala. Being a patriot, the Buddha had succeeded in blocking the enemy for three times. But King Vidudabha did not want to give up. Knowing that this was due to the karma of Sakya clan. The Buddha had no choice but to let it be.
Mogallana was deeply agitated when heard that Kapilavastu was surrounded by enemy troops. Though the Buddha told him this was the karma of Sakya clan, he insisted on saving the clan people with his miraculous power.
He flew into Kapilavastu which was already encircled by enemy troops ring upon ring. He selected the five hundred outstanding Sakyas and put them in a bowl. When he had safely flown out of the country, he opened the bowl and found that the five hundred people in it had already turned into a flood of blood!
Mogallana then realised one could not violate the law of cause and effect taught by the Buddha. Even supernatural power could not outmatch karmic effect.
Mogallana was still enthusiastic in propagating the Buddha Dharma even when he was getting older. And that invited the jealousy of the heretics. They could not harm the Buddha but they awaited a chance to assassinate Mogallana.
Once, while Mogallana was on a mission of propagating the Dharma, the heretics saw him passing by the foot of a hill. They pushed some heavy rocks down the hill and Mogallana was crushed to death!
King Ajatasatru was every furious when he knew that Mogallana was assassinated by the heretics. He then ordered the arrest of the murderers and as a result, a few thousand heretics were thrown into the fire pot!
The death of Mogallana caused much sorrow to the other monks. They wondered why Mogallana did not use his great supernatural powers to resist the heretics, or at least to avoid their plot. So they went to consult the Buddha.
Being aware of the future happenings on earth. Buddha was not as emotional as His disciples. Instead, He said calmly to them, “Mogallana could have resisted the heretics with his supernatural power. However, when Kaplivastu was once being attacked by King Vidudabha, Mogallana had tried his supernatural power to save the people there but did not succeed. He then realised that supernatural power could not outmatch karma and that one had to face his karmic effect. Moreover, when he was a fisherman in his previous life, he had killed many lives. Anyway, don’t be sad. The Truth will not vanish though Mogallana has passed away.”
“But, Lord Buddha, we still feel that his death is really a tragic one!” said the bhikkhus.
“Bhikkhus ! Death is nothing to those who have attained enlightenment. Birth and death are facts of life and we should not be afraid of death. The more important thing is whether we have the confidence in facing death. Mogallana had died with a clear mind and entered Nirvana. Furthermore, he sacrificed his life for the Dharma. Therefore, his death is commendable indeed!”
The disciples who were still very sad asked the Buddha again, “Lord Buddha! We know that we should have the spirit of sacrificing our life for the Truth. However, Mogallana had sacrificed himself too soon. We really need him to lead us in the Dharma. Lord Buddha! Why did you not tell him to take precaution against the heretics?”
The Buddha comforted them in an encouraging tone, “Bhikkhus, Mogallana could have actually protected himself with his miraculous power. But he knew that no one could escape the karmic result due to cause and effect. Since he killed many lives in his previous life, he had to go through this karmic effect. In addition, he had vowed to devote his life to the Truth. As his wish had come true, he gladly entered Nirvana. If all my disciples can have the spirit of Mogallana who sacrificed himself for the Dharma, it will benefit all sentient being. Bhikkhus! You should all follow the example of Mogallana!”
The bhikkhus were deeply touched by the words of the Buddha. They saw that in future more and more people would practise the Buddha’s Dharma if they followed in the footsteps of Venerable Maha Mogallana and the Buddha’s Sasana would spread for the benefit of all sentient beings.