Upali was born in a family of the lowest caste so he was destined to be a slave. In ancient India, outcasts were not allowed to receive education. Hence when Upali grew up, his parents asked him to learn the skill of cutting hair to support himself. Upali became the barber of the princes in the palace.
When Upali was twenty years old, Buddha returned to His hometown, Kapilavatthu. Upali was recommended to do the haircut for 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 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 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 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 breathing-in and breathing-out. It was said that he attained the third stage of meditation then.
His mother asked the Buddha again, “What do you think now?”
“He breathes out too fast.” replied the Buddha.
Now, Upali was mindful of breathing in and out. It was said that he attained the fourth stage of meditation. 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. Prince Aniruddha said to the other princes, “Dear brothers, Upali has been serving us for years, he is very diligent and honest. Here is a woolen blanket, throw all your jewelry on it as we do not need them anymore and we can give them to Upali.”
All the princes agreed to do so and they gave all their jewelry to Upali. They asked Upali to return to the palace and they went to see the Buddha.
At first, Upali wanted to return to the palace, but he thought, “Even noble princes are willing to forego the worldly pleasures, a humble person like me should not remain in worldly life. I too must enter the Order.”
Hence he hung all the jewellery and clothes on a tree and set forth to find the Buddha, but he stopped when he thought of his low 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, may I ask you, can an outcast like me enter the Order?”
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 the Buddha. The Buddha said, “You have a good nature and you will be able to propagate my teachings in the future. The princes have also requested to be ordained, but I want them to practice meditation for seven days till they forget their noble status.”
Seven days later, the Buddha called the seven princes out. The princes were surprised to see the ordained Upali.
Buddha said to all of them,”I ordained Upali before all of you, hence all of you must pay respect to him.”
All the seven princes prostrated before Upali. Upali was deeply moved by the kindness of the Buddha and he made a respectful prostration to Him.
Upali observed every rule set by the Buddha and he was pre-eminent among those who knew the disciplinary rules by heart. However, those who were careless in observed the rules saw Upali as a thorn in their flesh. They even made things difficult for him.
The Buddha was very concerned and scolded him. He gathered the people and told them the value of precepts. Buddha said that one who observed the precepts was like a bright lamp. Those with pure mind would like the brightness whereas those with evil mind preferred darkness.”The Buddha told them that they should have respect for people, such as Upali, who observed the precepts well.
Upali was noted for his strict observance of the rules and disciplines. Whenever the monks or nuns had any doubt of the rules and disciples, they would consult Upali.
When 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. Lord Buddha had imparted the Fourteen Rules to you and you are pre-eminent 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 in the Buddhist community.